Depression became a normal part of my everyday vocabulary when I was twelve. I remember Newsweek did a cover story on Prozac back then. Upon reading the article, so many things began to make sense. At some point during elementary school, I suddenly became very shy. It came to such a state that simply greeting other kids was agonizing. Saying hello and good-bye to my neighbor’s daughter on the short walk to and from the school bus stop was painful. Before this time, my mother used to say I was outgoing and tiao pi, or mischievous. This made my grandfather remark that it was hard to believe I was a girl because I acted so much like my Uncle James, whom I adored, when he was young.
I don’t know what caused me to become so reticent and tongue-tied in public. This crippling shyness remained with me throughout elementary school, leaving me isolated and silent. It was not uncommon for me to go days without speaking more than a few words. Perhaps because little Asian girls were (and are still) expected to be shy, my silence was not considered a problem by anyone. I didn’t cause any “trouble.” And yet, a part of me knew that whatever it was that was holding me back wasn’t because I was Asian. I saw other Asian kids, including my sister, who had no problems talking and laughing in public, who weren’t afraid to go outside, who acted like normal people. This made me wonder what was wrong with me and why I couldn’t change. I developed suicidal ideation, although I didn’t know that was what it was called then. I became convinced that my life was hopeless.
Learning about depression made me realize that what I was experiencing had a name and that it was a condition that affected many people, not just me. There was help available through medication and counseling. This was further enforced in my mind when I went to college and had many friends and classmates who were diagnosed with depression and other mood disorders. They had received treatment at the campus health center. In fact, it was harder to know someone who wasn’t on anti-depressants than to know someone who was. Even though I was in a relatively safe environment that did not stigmatize mental illness, it was not until I had my own health insurance that I was able to get the treatment that I needed. When I first tried to broach this topic with my parents, they reacted with anger, disbelief, and ultimately, denial. To my parents, depression was not something that existed and anti-depressants were dangerous to take. I, too, harbored fears about going on medication that had so many side effects (really, if you look at the list of side effects, you wonder how in the world this is supposed to make you better). I was also concerned that the medication would “change” me, that I would be somehow cheating by not suffering enough. However, as one therapist pointed out, taking medication isn’t “cheating” or getting an “unfair advantage” — it just tries to help you be at the same level with others.
Although I have no wish to give to Big Pharma for the rest of my life, for now, I’ve come to accept that my new normal is to be on medication, possibly for a long time, and to see a therapist on a regular basis. Perhaps I’m fortunate that I’m one of the ones who have responded positively to medication, despite my lingering skepticism about the psychopharmacology industry. I probably would be worse off than I am now without treatment. Although they still ask when I can no longer take my medication and if I’ve tried going off of them, my parents have since come to understand that I am receiving treatment, even if they don’t entirely understand depression and still distrust medication. My former therapist was right though. Medication doesn’t bestow any kind of special advantage, nor did it turn me into a zombie or a former shell of myself, as I had feared. It only brings me as close to being “normal” as I can be. Perhaps in the end, that is all that I can expect of it.
Electronic Resources Librarian
Texas A&M University
APALA President, 2013-2014
NAAPIMHA (National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association): http://naapimha.org/
Friends Do Make a Difference Campaign: http://naapimha.org/friends-do-make-a-difference/
Raising Awareness About Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in the AAPI Community: http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2013/05/10/raising-awareness-about-mental-health-and-suicide-prevention-aapi-community
Suicidal Thoughts Among Asians, Native Hawai’ians or Other Pacific Islanders: http://www.samhsa.gov/data/2K13/Spotlight/Spot118-suicidal-thoughts.pdf
The It’s Ok Campaign: http://itsokcampaign.org/
Chai (Counselors Helping South Asians/Indians, Inc.): http://chaicounselors.wordpress.com/
Asian American Mental Health, Ramey Ko story (by a friend of mine): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VvvlLdHS1FA&feature=youtu.be
The month of May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. I will start off with that. What I want to say is that I follow the creed of financial expert and television personality, Ms. Suze Orman: “People first, then money, and then things.” I live by that order and almost always execute it in anyway I can. I don’t know if that’s normal. People don’t usually give up their time for others to an extreme, or do they? I volunteer in homeless and soup kitchen shelters because I want to. I help my friends or anyone in need of my “brain” or “time” because I want to. When people need my support, I am willing to sacrifice or “invest” my time on their behalf.
It’s kind of infectious, you see. I do my best to empower people around me because that’s what I seem to be good at. I love inspiring and motivating people to do their best because I believe in them, I see that they can do their best, and they deserve to be recognized for that. They, in turn, do the same for others.
However, this is ironic because I also see that I am unable to empower or inspire myself. I am constantly discontented and largely dissatisfied with myself. I see, all too clearly, how my life turned out differently from my own vision, which was largely borrowed from my parents. It seems that I have set an almost impossibly and invisibly high bamboo ceiling of expectations that no one can see or break, even myself. I don’t know, maybe it’s how I was raised: a defense or survival mechanism?
The drive to succeed and be “overly” or “super” ambitious is quite a common “gene” in Asians and Asian Americans. It is not a totally exaggerated stereotype in popular culture. There’s some truth to it. We were natured and nurtured to be workaholics of perfectionism, or at least in the eyes of our parents.
Like most Asian immigrant parents raising Asian American children, my parents expected my “academic and behavioral perfectionism” as forms of “normalcy” or “normality” or “normativity.” It is normal to get 100s in calculus exams, write perfect essays on literary epistemology of Victorian novels, and to greet and pay respects to your grandparents, even after the derision and irrelevant criticism you receive from them. On the contrary, it is not normal to refute your parents’ wishes, not normal to not go to Ivy League schools, not normal to not go to law or medical school, not normal to not be perfect.
Anything less than the ideal perfection is an insult to your family history and reputation. It questions your identity, the very essence of who we are. I learned to cope with that the best I could. The ever-present voices in my mind say: “You are not good enough. You will never be good enough. Now get back to work. Don’t waste any more time.” Those voices belonged to my parents, but I have now “embraced” them as my own. Maybe I like playing librarian because helping people allows me to escape from my own personal misery, self-loathing, and defeatist attitude?
From time to time, I think I did something right with my life at one point, though I did not fulfill my parents’ expectations. I didn’t go to Ivy League schools. I am not a doctor, lawyer, or investment banker. I am not making six figures now or having children at the moment. Those factors are not important to me, but somehow I feel I am missing something here. Maybe I feel like a “loser” because I’ve disrespected my parents and that makes me lack something–self-dignity, perhaps?
Is it normal to feel lost or strayed from your parents’ idealization of your life or am I simply living a normal life beyond the confines of my parents’ expectations? I don’t know and I don’t think I really want to know.
Amy Chua’s work, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, sparked a lot of anger and debate over the years. The infamous Tiger Mom. Yes, my parents were indeed Tiger Parents. I don’t need to say more about that.
If I have kids in the future, I’d drive them insane, too. I am not here to put the blame on my parents. They are who they are. They probably went through a similar hell with their parents, too, for all I know. I don’t pry, but I do theorize: is there a perpetual cycle of parental condescension from one generation to the next? Maybe or maybe not. It also doesn’t help that I think like an American, but embrace my Chinese cultural roots. I am an amphibian. I can switch my mind from Chinese to American to Chinese again, but I do not share the same mindset with my parents.
This reflective essay is not supposed to heal or relieve myself or anyone else’s emotional burdens from their childhood roots. It is to illustrate that we may or may not share similar life experiences. Our parallel memories and experiences define who we are and our relationships to our parents and to each other.
If this somehow made you question or at least made you concur with what I had written, then I’ve said what I needed to say. I’ve “contexualized” my “normal life” experience and perspective to best fit the reader’s needs and understandings of life, or at least the life that I have. It is and isn’t normal, depending on when you ask me.
So far, life as a librarian is quite a “normal” life because I like the work. I get to help people (anyone, really) in an extraordinarily (non-social, work-like) way: I empower and encourage them to read, research, and think differently about things beyond their own horizon.
Raymond (Ray) Pun is a writer, librarian, and thinker in New York. He has written essays for The Huffington Post, Colleges and Research Libraries News, World History Bulletin, Business and Finance Bulletin, and more.
Asian American Biography edited by Helen Zia and Susan B. Gall
Asian American Psychology: The Science of Lives in Context edited by Gordon C. Nagayama Hall and Sumie Okazaki.
Asian American Youth: Culture, Identity, and Ethnicity edited by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
The Asian American Movement by William Wei
Asian-American Pacific Heritage Month: History and Resources at The NYPL by Raymond Pun
It’s a Mad World.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “normal” as conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern. It seems that this definition of “normal” could easily be applied to librarianship in many different ways. We instruct, conduct reference interviews, create library policies, catalog items, create metadata standards, gather circulation stats, and develop collection assessment plans. For most of us, we feel like this maybe our normal, because we may answer the same reference questions, teach the same workshops, and take several iterations to complete a project until our world of information is normalized or until a new set of standards, policies, and plans emerges that requires implementation. As a result, our profession may appear to be normal or even seem neutral to people outside of our profession.
In “The Myth of the Neutral Professional,” Jensen (2005) states, “A claim to neutrality means simply that one isn’t taking a position on that distribution of power and its consequences, which is a passive acceptance of the existing distribution” (p. 30). Does this “myth of the neutral professional” apply to the field of librarianship? Unfortunately, I think so. We have accepted the norm with respect to library employment. In the blog Hiring Librarians, it has been noted that months to year-long job searches are common (Weak, 2012). It is not unheard of for recent LIS graduates to take paraprofessional positions, continue internships, volunteer, or work other jobs in different fields (Vincent, 2013). Traditional librarians will have to contend with the advent of digital libraries and possibly the full automation of technical services. I think it will be the norm that coding and technical skills will be part of the job description for librarians. INALJ (I Need a Library Job) blog advocates “walking the line between computer science and library science will afford you more opportunities, and better your chances of landing a position” (House, 2013). Again, I believe we have accepted this norm of library employment and job duties. Do new librarians and recent LIS graduates have a place in today’s world of librarianship?
In hiring practices, most entry-level reference library job posts require a combination of library experience and technical skills. A recent ACRL article published in November 2012, written by Detmering and Sproles, compiled a literature review on job advertisement analysis. Results show entry level positions were mostly in academic libraries. In the article, the authors cite Reser and Schuneman’s study of job ads from 1988. Reser and Schuneman found only 20 percent of positions were classified as entry level and there was a trend for librarians to acquire more specializations and to hire from outside the library field. Also, librarians needed to have practical experience and tech skills. More recently, about 49% of job ads stated project planning and implementation, 26.6% included supervision and managerial duties, and 54.7% required technologically focused responsibilities (Detmering and Sproles, 2012). These findings illustrate entry level job ads put an emphasis on tech skills and practical experience. As one job applicant said, “you can’t get a library position because you don’t have experience and you can’t get experience unless you have a librarian position” (Detmering and Sproles, 2012, p. 543).
My normal has echoed the very same thing, a circuitous, hopeful journey to being gainfully employed at an academic library. It has been over two years since UNC-Chapel Hill conferred my MSLS. I have submitted countless applications, attended over 20 library interviews, which most notably included a UC Santa Barbara Library Fellowship interview via Skype, a University of Maryland Data Research Librarian Fellow phone interview, and a University of Southern California GIS Fellow Skype interview. I have yet to find full-time library employment. Since graduating from library school, I have been underemployed as a temporary library assistant, worked in private industry, and volunteered in different libraries.
In October 2010, I accepted a temporary library assistant position at University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology and the position ended three months afterward. So, I decided to continue my journey to find full-time library employment in January 2011. During my employment search, I received several phone interviews. After several months, I received a rejection letter that stated, “we were greatly impressed with your background and qualifications, and we enjoyed talking with you to discuss the position. It was not at all easy to make a decision. Given the impressive strength of your resume and your accomplishments, we think it is very likely that you will be offered a challenging position elsewhere in the very near future.” The near future could not come soon enough.
In July 2011, I moved in with my grandmother in Los Angeles, California to save on food and rent. I continued my job search and settled for employment outside of librarianship. I accepted a data analyst position at LA Yellow Cab and started full-time employment. I began to hit the ground running with quickly learning new taxi cab terminology, taking on projects, and acquiring new technical skills. After six months, I decided to leave my position because I was not fulfilled and did not feel it was in alignment with my career interests. So, I started my library job search again and I felt I was not making any progress.
At the end of May 2012, I moved to Santa Barbara to take a break from my job search. It was a much needed break and I felt rejuvenated. I began to volunteer as a computer coach at Santa Barbara Public Library in August 2012. I was very fortunate to be part of a progressive volunteer program and acquired much needed practical customer service and instructional experience. Due to financial constraints, I moved back in with my grandmother in November 2012. Currently, I volunteer at East Los Angeles College Library, Pacifica Radio Archives, and work as a part-time tutor. I am very grateful for the continual support and practical training that I have received from my supervisors. Both volunteer opportunities have proven to be invaluable library experiences, which I hope will lead to full-time employment at an academic library.
I want to urge APALA members, library professionals, and hiring managers to not buy into the “myth of the neutral professional” and to defend our profession. As library schools continue to turn out new library graduates into an already saturated job market, I want to pose some questions. Do library schools need to curtail student admission? How can library schools better prepare librarians to enter the job market? What qualifications do new graduates really need to become employed? Do the job descriptions for an entry level academic library position realistically meet the skills and qualifications of new library graduates? There are post-MLS programs or library fellowships to further develop new librarians. Do we have enough of them? How successful are these programs? I believe these are important issues that we currently need to confront as a profession. I hope APALA members will seriously consider them as future topics of discussion, both verbal and written.
I also want to encourage my fellow job seekers to continue on their arduous journey to become professional librarians. l leave you with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh, from his article “Returning Home” reprinted in Your True Home (2011). It has provided me with much inspiration: “Your true home is the here and now. It is not limited by time, space, nationality or race. Your true home is not an abstract idea; it is something you can touch and live in every moment. With mindfulness and concentration, the energies of the Buddha, you can find your true home in the full relaxation of your mind and body in the present moment” (p. 1).
Graduate of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
School of Information and Library Science, 2010
Chu, M. (2009). Ageism in academic librarianship. Electronic Journal of Academic and Special Librarianship, 10(2). Retrieved March 19, 2013, from http://southernlibrarianship.icaap.org/content/v10n02/chu_m01.html
Detmering, R., & Sproles, C. (2012). Forget the desk job: Current roles and responsibilities in entry-level reference job advertisements. College & Research Libraries.
House, N. (2013, Mar.18). Skills in need: Why coding and technical skills can benefit our job hunt. INALJ. Retrieved from http://inalj.com/?p=12916
Jensen, R. (2005). The myth of the neutral professional. Progressive Librarian, 24, 28-34.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. (2011). Your true home: The everyday wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh. Boston: Shambala Publications.
Shaffer, C. (2011). Best practices for hiring academic librarians with faculty status and rank. The Southeastern Librarian, 59(3). Retrieved March 19, 2013, from http://digitalcommons.kennesaw.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1403&context=seln
Vincent, A. (2013, Mar. 6). Re: Making it work: Surviving as a librarian employed in another field [Web log comment]. In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Retrieved March 19, 2013, from http://www.inthelibrarywiththeleadpipe.org/2013/making-it-work/#comment-36092
Weak, E. (2012, Sept. 14). Further questions: How long did it take to get your first library job? Hiring Librarians. Retrieved from http://hiringlibrarians.com/2012/09/14/further-questions-how-long-did-it-take-to-get-your-first-library-job/.
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
~ Henry Ford
“Everyone has a purpose in life. Perhaps yours is watching television.”
~ David Letterman
My Personal Strategic Plan (2012 – 2017):
Mission (why I exist)
To live a fun, purposeful, and extraordinary life, and make a positive contribution to the world by inspiring others to do the same.
Vision (what I will be)
I will be the “me” that I have always aspired to be:
Guiding Principles (how I will get there)
Professional: I like to mix business with pleasure and I am very fortunate that I am able to develop my day job into something I really enjoy doing.
Well-Rounded: I have a lot of gaps in my knowledge, and I am a very curious person. Therefore, I want to be proactive in filling those gaps that I find interesting. I will learn:
Courageous: Fear has been the stumbling block in far too many instances in my life. I accept that it is natural to be afraid sometimes, but when fear stands in the way of achieving my goals, then I must find ways to overcome it. The best way to learn is to practice.
There are other things that are just scary to me, but I am determined to conquer that fear: skydiving; getting upside down and doing a handstand.
Compassionate: I accept that I am by nature a selfish person, and this is a selfish goal because it makes me feel good. But if I could benefit others in the process, then it’s definitely worth doing.
Over the years, many people, including many strangers, have told me that I have a good voice and I should use it. Hence, I will record an audio book for the blind. I will mentor someone. Anyone want to be my protégé?
It always makes me happy when people compliment me, and I always feel that I don’t do that for others enough. It takes courage and humility to pay sincere compliments, and I will pay more attention to everyday situations in order to do that more.
Artistic: I have the need to create, but more often than not, I lack the discipline. This must change.
I will publish a short story, write a book, a screenplay, and create a photo essay.
No Regrets: Regrets? They are the worst!
I am showing you my actual personal strategic plan. It is an open template for everyone. My hope is that it will inspire you to think about some of the things you would like accomplish in your life.
This is my normal, and perhaps it will be your normal too.
About Leo Lo
On Leo’s 40th birthday, he set out a 5-year plan to accomplish 45 things before he turns 45. This is his quest to become the person he has always wanted to be: a happy person. From traveling the globe, to conquering his fears, to living a healthy lifestyle, he seeks to live life with curiosity, compassion, and a sense of humor.
Leo is Assistant Professor/Research & Development Librarian at Kansas State University. He was selected by the American Library Association as an Emerging Leader in 2010. He has an M.F.A. in Screenwriting. His first feature screenplay, Rock Paper Scissors, placed as a Top 10 Finalists in the 2009 PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. He is a yogi and a foodie and is pursuing a PhD in Human Nutrition.
Personal Strategic Plan/Manifesto
The 9 Manifesto Principles: http://geoffmcdonald.com/the-manifesto-manifesto/
Creating a Personal Strategic Plan: http://unclutterer.com/2008/09/16/creating-a-personal-strategic-plan/
How to Make a Life List You’ll Actually Do: A Comprehensive Guide: http://www.raptitude.com/2009/09/how-to-make-a-life-list-youll-actually-do-a-comprehensive-guide/
The Holstee Manifesto: http://shop.holstee.com/pages/about#the-manifesto
Be Effective and Productive
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: https://www.stephencovey.com/7habits/7habits.php
Start with Why: http://www.startwithwhy.com
Structured Procrasination: http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/
When I was asked to write this article, I had no clue what to write about. My everyday life is just like everyone else’s. I go to work, eat, exercise, read, watch some television. The problem is “normal” simply exists. My normal is an unhealthy obsession with Hello Kitty and Doctor Who (separately, not together), but who doesn’t have at least one unhealthy obsession? I was about to say that these obsessions have nothing to do with my racial background–the subject of this essay–but maybe, in a way, they do. I’m mixed-race–Half White and Half Hawaiian-Filipino-Portuguese-with a smidge of Chinese. Maybe my love of Hello Kitty comes from my Asian-Pacific-Islander side and my love of Doctor Who comes from my mixed-European side. Whether my obsessions are racially based or not, you’re the weirdo for not sharing them. (Remember, this is about my normal, not yours.) But maybe I’m just like everyone else who loves disparate things in America. Either way, I grew up as a whole rather than two halves. Society, however, has made those two halves a much bigger deal than I ever could.
Growing up multi-racial was a non-issue for me as a child. In Torrance, California and its surrounding cities, the population, as well as most of my friends, was multi-racial. Within my family, racial differences came up between my two halves, but rarely was a big deal made about it. When on St. Patrick’s Day I was decked out in green and I pinched my grandmother because she didn’t have any green on, she let me know that pinching her wasn’t okay. Not because she was Tutu, but because she wasn’t Irish. Only I was. When my mom got a sunburn and I got a tan on the same afternoon, I noticed differences in our skin color. But everyone in our family had varying skin colors–the blessing and the curse of being a mixed-race family. Our differences, like “normal,” simply exist. Tan-ability or burn-ability is as normal as being tall or short.
My parents never encouraged or discouraged either race. I could dance hula if I wanted because few things are more Hawaiian than that. I could play the flute if I wanted because few things are more European than that. My dad’s side of the family could trace our ancestry back to the time of the Hawaiian kings, so we had a desire to live with cultural knowledge. My mom’s side of the family had been in America since the American Revolution, so we didn’t have any particularly European traditions that stood the test of time. For vacations, my family took long road trips because that’s what American families do, mixed-race or otherwise. In first grade, we drove from California to Maine and visited my mother’s family all along the way. My mom is a genealogist, so we met living and dead family members. We visited graves on family farms and met cousins so far removed I couldn’t tell you how we were related. But blood isn’t a race; it’s a bond. These predominantly white relatives brought us into their homes and told us stories of our mutual ancestors and their lives. My dad’s family is big, too. Since we were on the Continent, our cousins, uncles, and aunts came to visit us. We opened our doors and told each other stories of our mutual ancestors and their lives. Normal.
Being mixed-race in my family was easy as a young child. Fast forward a few years and racial differences started to become more apparent in my life, especially when I stepped out of my front door. As I grew older, people on the street would stop and ask me “What are you?” and I would answer with pride. Usually, my answer was never sufficient for them because they wanted to place me in their own category–mostly because I look racially ambiguous. Sometimes that included greetings in languages not my own. I lived in Southern California, so looking mixed race often meant “Hispanic or Latino” in many people’s minds. Sometimes it also meant invasive questions.
I learned that when you tell people what race you are, they expect certain things of you. Because I said I was Hawaiian, they assumed that I was born there. Because I didn’t have a working knowledge of the history of Native Hawaiians, I couldn’t explain to them how I was born and raised in Los Angeles and still maintain a Native Hawaiian identity. Blood is a hard thing to explain. Another expectation people have of Hawaiians is that they can dance hula. Or communicate with the land. Or have hair down to the waist. There is no hula or ancient Hawaiian proverb for: I’m from Torrance, so I can instinctually tell you where the 405 is.
Like any other normal teen, I took these expectations to heart. The question of my “Hawaiianness” came under the spotlight in high school, when I questioned and started to change my sense of “normal.” The first major thing that happened was my brother and cousins started to learn more about our Hawaiian side. They spent a week at the Kamehameha Schools Explorations Series camps for children from 5th to 6th grades. My dad and older cousins had gone as well, but due to some confusion and miscommunication, one cousin and I were unable to go the year we turned 11. Back then, they didn’t offer multiple years to attend like they do now. Back then, it was a one-shot, now-or-never situation. For me, it turned into never. Since I never went, I never knew what I missed. That is, until my brother and cousins came back with songs and skills I knew nothing about. I realized, as a teenager, that I knew next to nothing about what it meant to be Hawaiian. The situation became even more apparent to me when I met another Native Hawaiian in high school who would test me on what I didn’t know and then make fun of me. In my yearbook he wrote, “I hope you enjoy your poi with sugar.” Apparently, it was not the correct way to eat poi, even though that was the way my Hawaiian grandmother always prepared it for me. Being the tita I am (before I really knew what a tita was), I told this guy off and tried to pretend that it didn’t bother me. But it got me thinking that I was a fake. That I shouldn’t tell people I was Hawaiian because what about me, other than the blood that ran through my veins, was Hawaiian? Without the shared experience of Kamehameha Schools Exploration Series, I stopped being a normal Hawaiian, according to others. And the sad thing is–my lack of knowledge of Hawaiian culture made me a very normal American.
I wondered if “normal” was out of reach, if I was already too white-washed, too mainland, too pale to learn about this part of my culture. I was angry because I had always been confident. I had never had a problem with who I was. My whole existence was then called into question because of a few curious people and one mean kid at school. During my last two years of high school, after all of this questioning began, I started to explore Hawaiianness, what it meant to me and to others to have Hawaiian blood. I learned a hula from my grandmother (who chastised my skills at first, telling me I danced like a tourist) and taught it to my theater arts class. I tried to learn how to make a haku lei, but my grandmother’s patience and my stubbornness got in the way. During that first year of college I stuck to trying Hawaiian foods since that seemed easy enough. After being uncomfortable in my Hawaiianness, I tried to create a new sense of “normal,” taking comfort in the universal language of food.
It wasn’t until the summer of 2004, however, when I went to my first Hawaiian family reunion that everything changed for me. I got to see the land that my ancestors lived on, just like I got to see the lands of my ancestors on my mom’s side when I was a young child. I got to experience the weather and beaches that I had only seen in pictures. I got to see the hardship that many Hawaiians live with first hand. The traditions that they keep alive and those they’ve modified. I realized that I didn’t know who I was or what Hawaiianness meant until I learned where I came from. It wasn’t until I could breathe the air and taste the fruits of the land without the aftertaste of import that I understood what my “normal” was. Normal is a lived experience. I am Hawaiian but I am very much more. I feel comfortable on the Continent because I am steeped in this place’s tastes and smells, but Hawaii’s are familiar, too.
When I got back from Hawai’i, my school focuses shifted. I did more research on Hawaiians past and present. I learned about the politics that surround having Native, indigenous blood. And I learned that in many ways, many people would never see me as Hawaiian enough because of my mixed heritage. I belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution and was a Kau Inoa card holder. I am more than a Native Hawaiian. I saw both sides of the problems and solutions, and I decided that my focus would become Hawaiians on the Continent. The Hawaiians that left the islands, who shaped my future, the Hawaiians who are questioned about their “-nesses.” Hawaiian-ness, White-ness, whatever-ness are part of my life experience, too. While we are asked what we are too regularly for the question to not be accusatory, I learned that our experience is enough. Like any lesson about learning who you are and where you’re going, all you have to be is enough of yourself, enough for those who love you, enough to make your ancestors proud. All the different parts of me make one whole, and that whole wants to be the best possible representative of all the different parts. I am proud of my ancestors who sailed across the Atlantic and the Pacific into the great unknown and all I can hope is that I make them proud too.
Resources on being Mixed-Race and “Ness”
Resources on/for Continental Hawaiians
Hawai’i & Race
One of the joys of being mixed-race is that for a lot of people, my face is an open invite for them to approach and start playing the “what are you?” game. Doesn’t matter if I’m waiting for a bus, standing in line for a Daniel Craig movie, or just staring longingly at the Thai lime-and-chili cashews at Trader Joe’s. There’s something about my visage that’s irresistible when it comes to trying to tag me minority-wise. And it’s even better when I decide to fess up since I usually don’t fit the ethnicity they’ve selected for me: “No—you don’t look it.” Or my all-time favorite: “That’s not it—”
So after decades of being an ethnic Rorschach test to strangers, I began wondering: why not make my looks work for me? Heck, I’m ambiguous enough that I look like I was born in a kimono, flamingo dress, or burka. Why not hire myself out to folks who need that little touch of diversity? I’ve even worked up the ad:
Your cocktail parties looking a little too bland ethnically? Tired of friends and coworkers always implying you just aren’t diverse enough? Or do you just want a person-of-color friend without having to deal with the time and liberal guilt involved? Why not hire an ethnically ambiguous, white-collar professional? In other words: why not hire me! Yes, now you can hire your own minority professional for those situations when having a sea of Caucasians just won’t do. As a mixed-race librarian with a questionable ethnic appearance, I can meet most of your minority needs without looking too multiculti, thus avoiding the risk of scaring off administrators, neighbors or that cute person of color you keep bumping into at Starbucks. For a modest hourly rate, I am available for
- Standing behind you during those pesky press conferences when you address why your institution is woefully lacking in some issue that is of concern to minorities and the national media. Nodding in sympathy is extra.
- Publicity photo shoots in which I stare intently at any object representing your business or organization (computer screens, recycling bins, Nobel Prize winning professors, etc.).
- Showing up at the Q&A session for your presentation to ask a question that really is a pat on the back for your diversity efforts.
- Fund-raising events where I stand by your sushi or Mexican hors d’oeurves table and pronounce individual dishes with the appropriate accent whenever someone who counts is within hearing distance.
- Community or civic services where you need someone on your team who looks like the people you’re helping while television crews are recording your efforts.
But why limit yourself to professional events? Why not hire me for those social situations when having a minority BFF is an advantage? For the same nominal fee, I will
- Join your friends or family at the ethnic restaurant of choice and loudly announce it’s the only place in town that serves food just as authentic as “back home.” (NOTE: you pay for the meal, including all the alcohol I drink to get through the event.)
- Make you feel less of an interloper or provide cultural street cred by accompanying you to any desired ethnic event: Obon festivals, Cinco de Mayo parties, pow-wows—you name it.
- Attend dinner parties where I kill time while guests are waiting for you to thaw out Trader Joe’s mini-quiches by letting them play “what’s your ethnicity?” Guests are allowed enough questions before I announce my background and dinner served.
- Don the uniform of your choice while friends are chatting at your home. Impress your friends by having me wandering about in a housekeeper, gardener, or nail technician outfit.
I’m also available for those personal requests, ones where an “exotic” touch is needed for the attention you seek. For a one-time fee, I will provide a photo of me for an online dating profile. Warning: A significant surcharge will be assessed for Craigslist and OKCupid profiles.
DISCLAIMERS : Any event requiring me to lift more than twenty pounds or use a power tool is extra. No actual housework, gardening, or nail buffing provided. Eye rolling permitted whenever colleague, guest, or potential date scoffs at perceived lack of ethnicity. Chopstick in hair and/or non-descript Asian accent extra. No actual dating provided.
Linda Ueki Absher is a humanities reference librarian at Portland State University Library and has been known to use a fork in Chinese restaurants.