The Beauty of Biracial Belonging

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By Maggie H. Johnson

The crackle of the fast food intercom was prominent as the woman asked to take our order. She had a heavy Asian accent, but spoke fluent English. I sat quietly in the back seat as my friend ordered a car-full of food for the rest of us. After a few moments, it became evident that my friend was struggling to understand the woman’s accent. As they struggled to communicate, the tension in his voice rose. With a huff, he drove away and angrily spouted off, “I wish they would put someone on there who can speak English!”

The car fell silent—no one said a word. I could feel the rage in my chest spreading to my face, and I thanked God it was dark enough outside so no one could see.

Hapa is a word that means part or mixed Asian, and that’s what I am. As the granddaughter of a first-generation Chinese-American man, I grew up immersed in Chinese culture. From red egg and ginger parties to licee paper to Cantonese nursery rhymes, my childhood was shaped by Asian traditions. That is, as long as I stayed with my family. Venturing out to the local Chinese community association left me feeling isolated and ignored.

I was bak gwai—a white devil—and I didn’t belong.

Because I look mostly Caucasian, it’s easier for me to exist in white spaces without much fuss. Then moments like the fast food drive-thru happen and I remember I don’t really belong there either. Being biracial is a delicate dance of answering to everyone, but belonging nowhere.

In the pursuit of belonging, I muted half of who I am. As I moved into adulthood, I stopped speaking Cantonese. I stopped practicing cultural traditions, and I even stopped calling my grandfather. Finding a place to belong was my priority, but it came at the expense of my identity. I avoided the tension of integrating my life, but it meant many of my friends and colleagues didn’t even know I was Asian-American.

It makes me wonder how Jesus felt. He was, after all, a man of mixed race. A quick peek at his genealogy in Matthew’s gospel shows that a mixture of Moabite, Canaanite, and Israelite blood flowed through his veins.

Perhaps the Savior also knows the sting of ethnic shame.

Perhaps he heard the whispers of other good Israelite boys as they played in the streets. Maybe he became familiar with side glances as people tried to figure out “what he was.” I’m sure he bristled when talk of Gentiles turned critical, knowing that he himself was part Gentile.

In her recent Netflix special, Brené Brown says, “The opposite of belonging is fitting in. Fitting in is acclimating.”

I’ve spent years perfecting the art of fitting in, all at the expense of true belonging. I covered up that which was unpleasing to the majority, replicating the very same patterns responsible for excluding my own family. But there was a major problem with my method: merely fitting in didn’t fill the void because true belonging can only be preceded by true acceptance. Acceptance can only be acquired when we become vulnerable enough to share our lives with others.

Vulnerability takes courage, which means the path to belonging is forged by the brave. I wanted to courageously tell my blended story, but I couldn’t expect anyone to accept me until I learned how to accept myself. I’ve had to come to terms with my privilege and my personhood, hoping the things that set me apart would somehow make space for my identity to flourish. Like most things in life, this is a process that is still unfolding in my ordinary, everyday life.

Being a Hapa used to be a fun fact—the secret trick up my sleeve for ice breakers and party games. In learning to honor my whole self, I no longer use half of who I am as leverage for public consumption. The further I move towards accepting myself, the more I’ve found friends who, like me, are navigating what it means to belong. Whether it’s the stay-at-home mama who needs community, or the pastor who is afraid to share their doubts, or the lonely widow who still wants to find a new companion, belonging is forged by the brave.

If I could go back to that fast food drive-thru, I would tell myself to be brave. I would speak up for myself and my sister on the intercom, because this is what I know now: belonging begets belonging.

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About Maggie:

Maggie is a working mama in the trenches of full-time ministry with her heartthrob of a husband. She loves coffee, carbs, and cardio—in that order. When she isn’t chasing down a squishy toddler or changing dirty diapers, you can find her discovering new ways to communicate timeless truths. She blogs at maggiehjohnson.com.

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