Live Through This

“What Are You?”

As a light-skinned biracial teenager growing up in Canada, I didn’t know how to answer that question.

Illustration by Kelly

Illustration by Kelly

As with any of my Poppy’s stories, I had to press him to learn the details behind his tattoos. They were easy to miss, a muddled s.d. on his left forearm and an even shakier s.p. on his right, in faded ink that barely stood out against his weathered skin.

“They are my initials” was his answer the first time I asked him about them, when I was about eight.

Oh, I thought. That seemed simple enough. But instead it brought on a whole new wave of questions. I knew my grandfather’s “real” name was Satya Pal (though almost everybody I knew, including my grandmother, called him “Peter”). But that didn’t explain how the D came in. I pressed further.

“Satya Dev was the name I was born with,” he said. “When I was a boy—eight or nine—a man with a business on the side of the road asked if I wanted to get my initials tattooed, and I thought, Why not? Not long after, my father changed my name to Satya Pal.” He went and got those letters tattooed as well.

With each explanation came more questions. How did his father change his name? Was there a ceremony? A ritual? Did he tell him why he changed it?

“No. He just started calling me Satya Pal one day.”

How did he know his father was even addressing him?

“When my father spoke to you, you knew. When he learned about my tattoos, he walloped me upside the head.”

My Poppy’s stories made the India he grew up in seem like a fairy tale, a place where a boy wandering the streets could get a tattoo from a stranger and where first names can change without a moment’s notice. I’ve always been obsessed with recording and archiving everything that happens to me (I have filled scores of diaries, scrapbooks, and blogs), and somewhere in the back of my mind I intended to collect and record all of Poppy’s stories too.

Then, early last month, he died, leaving so many stories unrecorded, so many questions still unanswered (How much time passed between the two tattoos? Was it the same man who did it both times?). I had all these half-stories, none of them written down, and now I’d never be able to fill in the blanks.

My mother—Poppy’s daughter—didn’t even know the story behind his tattoos until I asked him in front of her. Unlike me, he didn’t dwell in the past. He rarely kept photos or mementos, and he spoke about his life only when provoked. Most people who knew him knew only the most basic details of his life: He left India in his 20s to work in England as a marine engineer, and met my Nana in a small English town. They moved to Calcutta, where my mom and her brothers were born, then emigrated to Canada, where I was born and have lived my entire life, a few years later.

Compared with my Poppy’s childhood, mine was pretty dull. I grew up in a fairly multicultural neighborhood where having parents from a different place wasn’t that big a deal. Sundays we would go to my grandparents’ house and eat tandoori chicken and dal. There’d usually be an Indian movie playing on TV, but the only person watching would be my English grandmother. My mom took me to a Hindu temple once when I was very young, I suppose as a way to connect me to my culture. The priest gave us fruit blessed by the gods. I was trying to learn to juggle at the time, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to blow everybody’s minds. Instead, I just dropped my oranges in front of Ganesh. My mom was not impressed.

Physically, I don’t look very Indian. My skin is light, with yellowish undertones. I have dark, bushy hair and eyebrows, and muddled blue eyes. From middle school on, curious classmates would ask, “So, what are you?”—the question that every mixed-race person is all too familiar with. I had a hard time answering. To call myself “brown” felt like a farce. I was born and raised in Canada. My dad is white, and my mother is from India but has completely assimilated into Western culture. Claiming brownness felt like inserting myself into a culture that wasn’t my own—and this was long before I knew what the word appropriation meant. Calling myself “white” felt equally wrong, like dipping a paintbrush into a pot of white paint and streaking it over our family portrait until it erased my Poppy’s stories, my mom’s childhood, and the family members lost during the violent partition of India in 1947, creating a blank slate onto which could be projected a picture of quintessential Caucasian girlhood.

So I usually answered “What are you?” with the simple, safe, monosyllabic “Mixed.” It was noncommittal enough that I could acknowledge the privileges that came with having light skin without whitewashing my past.

As I got older, I started to read more about identity politics and became protective of—and sometimes defensive about—my Indian background. With a name like Fitzpatrick, I never had to explain to anybody that I had some Irish ancestors, despite the fact that the last one came three generations before me. It could be taken for granted that, as a light-skinned, English-speaking person living in Canada, I must have some European blood. But I felt like I had to almost prove my Indianness. “You don’t look Indian,” said one girl in my eighth grade social studies class when I was working on a family-tree project, as if I was trying to dupe the class. At other times it was treated like a novelty, a conversation starter at parties: “That’s so cool that you have something interesting in your history.”

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43 Comments

  • hitoopee June 13th, 2013 7:43 PM

    Wow, this is me. My Dad is fully Indian but raised in Britain, whilst my mother is half Greek and half British Canadian. I was raised and born in the U.A.E. I still don’t know what I am.

  • mdoodle13 June 13th, 2013 7:45 PM

    This the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read on Rookie.

  • Zoe with two dots June 13th, 2013 8:08 PM

    Thank you so much for this article, this was wonderful. I’m Australian, and Indian on my mother’s side, so parts of this resonated with me so much. I, too, look light-skinned, and I have blue eyes and brown hair, yet when people say I’m white I become fiercely protective of my Indian heritage.

    I went to India when I was 15, and it was an amazing experience, but at the same time, I felt very removed from the culture. I don’t speak Hindi, and all Indians read us as “white tourists” (though some of them picked up on my mother being 3/4 Indian). But at home, in Australia, I cringe at every anti-Indian joke and the stereotypes of Indians. I hate it when I see white girls wearing bindis just to look ‘cool’. But if I wore a bindi, as an attempt to feel connected to my culture, I may be read as one of those white girls too, because of my light skin.

    From one biracial to another, thanks for this wonderful article <3

  • llamalina June 13th, 2013 9:05 PM

    This is beautiful, so beautiful, God I loved this piece. I am not biracial but I relate to the struggle of trying to figure out which culture you belong to; I was born in another country but my family immigrated to America when I was 4. This was so amazing and relatable and I wish that I knew your grandpa, he sounds like an amazing person; I always wished that I had a grandpa like that, who could tell me stories and help me. I really, really loved this.

  • GlitterKitty June 13th, 2013 9:13 PM

    Oh my god this is me. I’m also half Indian and half white with a super white last name who lives in Canada and looks a lot more white than Indian. And I also feel very much a part of Canadian culture and do not feel connected to Indian culture at all (although my mom and grandparents all speak English as their first language and my grandpa is the only one who actually lived in India). Wow. This is amazing and I now feel like we’re kind of the same person. Would it be weird if I printed this out and stuck it on my bulletin board??

  • Akina June 13th, 2013 9:26 PM

    Life as a mixed person has taken a turn for the worst for me in the past year. I’ve been agonizing over what others perceive me as, and even what I perceive myself to be. As someone who is of mixed half Inuit/half Scottish ancestry, I find it extremely hard to answer that question “what are you?”. I feel like people won’t believe me, and I am ashamed of myself for it. I have brown hair and green eyes, so it’s identifying with my coloured background, and hurts so much sometimes that I try not to think about it. I hate looking in the mirror, because I feel like I don’t deserve to identify with anything.

    I feel like the only way I can make people truly believe me is if they see family photos or my grandfather, in hopes they will realize that I am in fact, mixed. It’s a constant battle with myself that has caused an ongoing identity crisis.
    If only I could reconcile my race with myself, I would truly be comfortable with who I am

    • AnoHana June 14th, 2013 3:15 AM

      You don’t owe anyone explanations about your heritage. If you feel really uncomfortable when someone asks you (which is actually really impolite, especially if you don’t know them that well), then just reply with “I don’t really want to discuss my heritage and family with you.” and smile. It’s none of their business poking around your family tree, and you don’t have to BE anything, just be you. <3 Don't feel ashamed for the different cultures in your family, embrace them and you might learn many new things!

      • luxxx June 14th, 2013 11:05 AM

        AnoHana – Thanks for pointing out that it is in fact rude to ask about someone’s heritage if you do not know them. I get asked frequently but have never been offended by it until just recently when men on the street felt the need to stop me and ask. It made me feel uncomfortable and it is none of their business. Although I am not of mixed race, I am perceived as such and I don’t mind it, it’s just being asked to constantly explain “where I come from.” It shouldn’t matter to other people and I don’t know why it does, but at least I can choose to respond (or not) however I feel like.

  • KatGirl June 13th, 2013 9:27 PM

    Does anyone else get really annoyed when they tell off people who are saying a stereotype and then are told that that place is just their “precious little country”? Ugh. So shitty.
    Anyway, this was a great article and so sweet. :) One of my favourite Rookie posts!

  • alienbabe June 13th, 2013 9:29 PM

    This article is really great.

    http://sweetandsourstyle.blogspot.com/

  • jackybella June 13th, 2013 9:38 PM

    I am also mixed race living in Australia, and although I live in a pretty multicultural area, are still confused as to my racial identity.

    This article gave a great insight into these issues, about wanting to identify with both, but not feeling qualified to do so. Thank you so much for writing this; it’s just what I needed to read right now!

  • Tara June 13th, 2013 10:26 PM

    gosh I love this and I relate to this-well I mean it comes into question whether middle eastern is ‘not caucasian’ as people say Iranians are ‘aryan’ which I don’t really understand but anyhow this was beautifully articulated and I loved it.

    I know what’s it’s like growing up with a culture different than your own. it’s always a bit weird when I go to Persian family dinners and can’t speak in Farsi because unlike much of my family my mother is British-Australian and Farsi is not spoken in our home. I know so very little Farsi. I am pale like my mother-I hardly look Iranian unless you count the shape of my eyes as such. my thick eyebrows come from both of my parents not from Iranian side.

    having two immigrant parents is strange because I am so American having been born here but I’ve grown up learning Anglo Saxon lingo from my mother (“breakie” is an abbreviation for breakfast, saying “wondrous” “repulsive” “lovely” etc came from my mother and her way of speaking). I only ever went to Australia three times and one was when I was a baby. I met my grandmother three times and she passed away at the end of high school. I’ve never been to Iran because of the political climate. I will have to wear a headscarf when there. I can’t imagine wearing traditional Persian clothing because I look so “white” etc so I’d feel like I was doing something wrong.

    I never knew what to put on the SATs etc for ethnicity so I usually put white since I am I suppose? but sometimes I put other. I was always confused why middle eastern was only sometimes on there.racial/cultural identity is confusing

    • AnoHana June 14th, 2013 3:11 AM

      The thing about “Aryan” heritage has less to do with the current concept of skin but more with the historical heritage, since certain peoples came from certain areas and were summed up with that term. Of course it’s pointless to cling to that concept nowadays, but you can basically think of it as similar to the term “indo-european”. Indo-european is simply a group of languages that developed in Europe (like all Romanic, Slavic and Germanic languages) which come originally from the area of todays’ India. :)

  • glioscarnach June 13th, 2013 10:30 PM

    To Anna and everyone in the comments going “oh my god this is me”, I’d recommend you guys look up third culture kids, because that’s pretty much the experience you’re describing.
    Basically a TCK is someone who’s spent some of their formative years “between cultures”, but never fully belonging in any of them. This could be because they moved between countries as a kid, or have biracial parents, any number of stuff like that.
    I hope it’s helpful to some of you to find a name for it anyway- it took my mum til her forties to figure out “what she was”.

    • AnoHana June 14th, 2013 3:08 AM

      That is exactly the situation I have always been in. Thank you for the comment, I am going to start using that term from now on when people think they know me better and tell me I’m Austrian because I grew up in Austria. :p

  • AwesomeFrances June 13th, 2013 10:48 PM

    Thanks for this article. I recognised myself in a lot of what you wrote.

    I’m biracial (my mum is Indonesian) and live in Australia. She moved here in 1978 and we’re all incredibly assimilated. I don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia and I don’t feel connected to Indonesian culture. This was driven home pretty strongly when I went to Indonesia last year for the first time since I was little. I had so little in common with her side of the family and we barely spoke.

    This article summed up a lot of the confusion that I feel. I’m not white, but I’m not Indonesian. I’m Australian, but I know – and everyone else knows – that I’m different.

    • AnoHana June 14th, 2013 3:06 AM

      You should definitely try to learn the language like Anna did. It will not only help you feel connected more to your family, but also is it always helpful to know many languages, for instance when you are applying for a job. c:

  • lenika June 14th, 2013 2:02 AM

    What an amazing article! I am a half-Pakistani half-American girl born and raised in Dubai (hello hitoopee, first comment up there, shout out to the UAE!) where it is especially important to have a ready answer for ‘where are you from?’ since it’s such a mixing pot of cultures and I’m clearly not local Arab. The part about trying to find a place within a culture you feel on the outside of through research and music and language is spot on for me. I try to connect in the only ways I know how to and I just end up further away, a researcher. After reading this I think I will try harder to find someone like your grandfather within my family and form a connection through that. Thank you for such a beautiful story!!

  • tepal June 14th, 2013 2:07 AM

    Thanks, Anna! You articulate your unique experience in a quickly relatable way. I use to love this question as a kid because it made me feel unique and it was always asked with genuine-ness. But after college, it became a difficult question. Not because I didn’t know how to answer, but because it was hard to understand many of the circumstances in which people were asking.
    Look forward to reading more of your writing!

  • AnoHana June 14th, 2013 3:04 AM

    Wonderful text, I can really understand your struggle with culture and heritage, I know that feel.
    I was born in Austria, and have spent my whole life here, but my parents immigrated from Bosnia and I just can’t consider myself Austrian. I may speak German fluently, and people will think of me as Carinthian because of my Slovenian name, but I never have been fully part of Austria. I love my home town, but I don’t feel the need to defend or praise Austria.
    But on the other hand, I have never lived in Bosnia longer than a few months. I don’t speak the language well enough, I never went to school there so I couldn’t write an complex text like I can in German or English. It makes me sad, and a few years ago I realised I would never belong to either countries.
    But then I asked myself: Why do I need to belong to a culture? If I’m interested in all kinds of countries and cultures, I don’t have to be “an Austrian” or “a Bosnian”. I’m just a girl who speaks 3 languages fluently and knows a lot of European countries.

    I hope anybody struggling with their own cultural identity can take some inspiration from that. You don’t have to belong to something if you don’t want to or if people don’t accept you. Just be unapologetically YOU.

  • Elizabete June 14th, 2013 4:19 AM

    A beautiful article.

    I am not biracial, but I think about my ancestry and identity often too. It sounds foolish, but I find it hard to identify as a Latvian even though I Love this country and all of my grandparents have been born here, I just don’t like identifying as anything. I would like to live in a multicultural country like Canada.
    Sometimes I feel connected to my Crimean tatar ancestors, but I feel ashamed then because the tatar ancestors I have are only two of my great-great-grandmothers. Then again I knew my great-grandparents quite well as they passed away just a few years ago, I am not close to my grandparents, but we talk about our ancestors often too and our family has suitcases(!) full with old photo albums. I also feel connected to that part of mine because of my looks that aren’t typical to Latvians – dark hair, nose with a bump and brown, oval shaped eyes.

  • eremiomania June 14th, 2013 5:01 AM

    Ah, the end is so nice. Your Poppy sounds like a really amazing man.

  • wallflower152 June 14th, 2013 10:34 AM

    I am half hispanic and half caucasian and I live in an area of south Texas where pretty much half the population is hispanic and the other half caucasian. People always just think I’m hispanic cuz of my last name but I wonder how things would be different if I had my mom’s last name. I identify with just being American, I mean both sides of my family have been here at least three or four generations. When someone asks I’m kinda caught off guard but while reading this article and the comments I came up with a good response for the “What are you?” question…ask them what they are! : )

  • Ilona June 14th, 2013 2:05 PM

    This article was amazing!
    I really identify with your not knowing who you really are. I’m part Hungarian / Romanian ( I still don’t know which part), Belgian and Scottish, but I grew up in England.
    A lot of my childhood was spent being with me feeling very aware of my Eastern European heritage, whilst being assimilated into British culture.
    My grandad would tell stories about how escaped from Hungary to Canada as a refugee with no money, and then to England, but I too never felt connected. I go back to Hungary and Romania every year, yet when i’m there, I never feel like a Romanian, yet when i’m in England I never feel English.
    Your Poppy sounds like a wonderful person.
    It’s so good hearing everyone else’s stories.

  • Me June 14th, 2013 3:10 PM

    That whole part about trying to identify with your culture through films and music really applies to my life right now. I’m half English, half Malaysian Chinese. I look fairly white with quite light skin and freckles, but recently I’ve found myself desperate to find some way to feel connected to my roots. The trouble being Malaysian Chinese is that there’s very few films set in Malaysia that are in a language I can understand and are any good, so the best I can do is watch YouTube channels.
    I have been trying to teach myself Cantonese although my mum is Hakka, but Cantonese is more widely spoken, and most of that side of my family can speak it, however it’s such a hard language to learn!

  • umi June 14th, 2013 3:50 PM

    i love this so much.i’m half polish,half african american and a couple months ago i had this strong urge to learn more about polish culture.my mom didnt teach us the language,just a few words.she didnt really teach us about anything.i always felt left out when my mom’s side of the family came to visit.i didnt feel particularly Polish,even though i’ve always identified as Polish(like,i always say i’m half Polish and have since i was little but i know very little about Poland/Polish people).i’ve been teaching myself Polish and watching Polish films and reading Polish magazines(i just look at them which is what i’ve been since age 7) learning Polish is…..so…..hard i feel super horrible that i didnt take it up earlier.ugh

    • AnoHana June 14th, 2013 5:42 PM

      Keep it up, it will get easier and also enable you to learn other languages more easily. :)

  • Sefe June 14th, 2013 3:50 PM

    This was a great article with a spot on title. I’m half Indian, as well as Swedish, German, and Austrian, and I can definitely relate to this. I just tell people “my dads a muggle, my moms a witch” or make them guess. On a more serious note though this really was wonderful. Thank you for sharing.

  • ZuchiniMuumuu June 14th, 2013 4:15 PM

    The thing with this article that really struck me is how different it is from me. I am half Indian (southern) and half Finnish and spent most of my childhood as a green card holder in California. I look VERY Indian- brown skin, big brown eyes, and thick dark hair. And unlike you, I’ve struggled with looking Indian yet not wanting to be perceived as Indian. My life has been interesting enough as it is, I don’t need my appearance to set me apart from others even more. I also grew up in a mostly white area and faced a lot of rejection based solely upon my skin color. It just feels great to find someone who relishes their cultural heritage instead of pushing it away.

  • Marguerite June 14th, 2013 4:29 PM

    This was amazing! Your story was beautiful and totally relatable. I feel the same way about my family’s religion. My father’s side of the family is Catholic, and my mom’s side is Anglican, but my parents are not active christians. I really want to know more about what it means to be Catholic, and I go to church with my grandparents when I visit them, but I don’t know that much, so I don’t feel like a real Catholic, as I am not part of the Catholic community at home.

  • xcelina June 14th, 2013 5:01 PM

    I’m extremely sensitive to this question as well!
    Although I am of one race, I can pass off as any race (which I claim, since I’ve been mistaken for dozens). I am even more offended when people ask me “are you really not mixed?”, as if my I have to “look like” a stereotype of a race. I love this article.

    • emeraldruby June 15th, 2013 4:20 AM

      I get that too. I’m Anglo Australian with British heritage, but a lot of people ask me if I’m part French or Italian or Greek, hoping that my background is more “exciting.” Like, people think that if you LOOK like you’re from another culture, then you MUST be from that culture.

  • ArmyOfRabbits June 14th, 2013 9:02 PM

    Wow, thanks for this article!

    I’m not exactly bi-racial , but I grew up with cultures clashed together in Northern California. I’m quite content of not having to identify myself with anything other than just an ingenue who loves food, music, and art from different places in the world.

    Weirdly enough, when I tell people about my background– they made it seem as if I should “act” or “appear” more as my parents’s homeland. But I just let them know that I don’t have an identity problem, and that in end I am happy as a human being. :)

  • jujumacaroni June 15th, 2013 3:05 AM

    Wow. This is the first entry I’ve read on rookiemag ever and its made more than a good impression.

    I’m Filipina. I dunno how to put this into words but.. way back when i was younger, kids my age loved to show off their ‘breed’. Some would be so proud to say that they had Chinese blood or Spanish blood, and you’d even be treated like royalty if you had American blood and spoke English all the time. I myself wanted to brag about having foreign blood that I really nagged about it to my dad. He said that we had Spanish blood, that my grandpa’s great grandpa was a Spanish priest or something like that. I tried telling my friends the next day but none of them seemed to be interested.

    I didn’t know how and when though, but I realized that it didn’t really matter.

    Maybe.. I get asked this question.. I would say.. that I’m alive. I’m alive, breathing and struggling, just like everyone else.

  • TinaBallerina June 15th, 2013 9:04 AM

    That was such a beautiful text! I guess I’m mixed white, if that’s a thing? I’m half Danish/half Norwegian, but most people tell med I look French. I actually don’t feel Norwegian even though I’ve lived here for 18 years. I dunno.

  • KaylaKaliope June 15th, 2013 10:32 AM

    While I’m not mixed race (I mean, I’m 3/4 Greek and 1/4 Irish and I identify solely as Greek), I totally relate with the sensitivity of people asking “What are you?” I’m very dark tan with dark brown, almost black, curls and dark brown, almost black, eyes and the typical bump in the Greek nose. But I have a typically “white” name, so people frequently ask my what my ethnicity is. And for some, they treat it like a guessing game. The guess Kayla’s ethnicity game. I’ve always found it rude for people to sit there and be like “You look Italian or Egyptian or Puerto Rican or half-black or Mediterranean” or whatever they feel like guessing. What is my background any of your business?

  • Anna F. June 15th, 2013 12:48 PM

    I am so touched by all the lovely comments. I will admit – I was a little nervous writing what has probably been my most personal Rookie piece to date, but the feedback has been wonderful.

    I also think it’s great that everybody is sharing their own stories in the comments. Even though there is a lot of powerful literature about mixed race identities out there, the funny thing about being mixed is that there are so many different combinations out there that each experience is so unique (compare the difference between me and my sister, even), that I think it’s really important we all talk about our stories.

    If anybody wants to talk further, you are more than welcome to email me at annaclaire.fitzpatrick@gmail.com. I love hearing from Rookie readers!

  • Naomi June 18th, 2013 6:20 PM

    this is so beautiful anna, i am so so glad you wrote it

  • Jamia July 3rd, 2013 12:09 PM

    Extremely beautiful just like you Anna! xx

  • RandomRabbit July 18th, 2013 12:10 AM

    Really liked this post -well written- and the comments as well. I’m American & our dad always said we were Heinz 57 because no one nationality more than another…Irish, Swedish, German. My brother has our paternal ancestry traced via Ancestry.com & the Irish goes back 30 plus generations. I am dark in skin tone, hair, and eye color. Growing up in OK people always thought I had to be Native & when I lived in Alaska tourists would ask to take my picture & I met my doppleganger while there; her mother was from India. Proud of my varied heritage & to be confused with the more exotic locals:)

  • kouburrington September 8th, 2013 1:13 AM

    I also relate to this post. I’m multi-racial (hispanic and thai), but appear white and have little ties to my ancestors’ culture. I feel very silly getting so upset about it when people refer to me as white or trivialize my admittedly very weak ties to my ethnic background. But my racial identity issues have a source of inner turmoil. I always dreaded doing those racial background projects and presenting them in front of the class. As if I was some kind of poser, trying to seem “exotic.” Sigh.

  • spudzine September 26th, 2013 11:28 PM

    I get really annoyed at the “what are you” question, because people expect you to answer them, and I find that in itself rude. And I’m mixed, so I’ve never felt like I’ve belonged to just one ethnic group, so I feel the need to explain to people every since ethnicity that I belong to, because I fear that I’d be lying to myself if I just said one thing. I don’t even have just one thing to say, even if someone did ask me and I’d have to give them just one answer.

    http://spudzine.tumblr.com/
    http://emotwins.tumblr.com/
    http://rockogirl.tumblr.com/

  • Aggy September 29th, 2013 1:44 AM

    I wish articles like this were available when I was younger and trying to deal with society always trying to place me racially. Well done. This was meaningful.

    I am of mixed race, and I dislike it when people ask me, ‘Where I’m really from.” As though the country I was born in, isn’t where I’m from, and that where I’m from is the country my parents are from (they’re both from different countries). It’s always been frustrating to answer, and I feel a lot of the time that people only really want to hear about the country to which I can attribute my complexion.