Chapter One: You’re Not White

Being a biracial kid can be hard. Especially when you have a name that screams “I’m white,” and a face that screams “I give manicures.”  No one ever knows what to do with me, and neither do I for that matter.  Deciding my race has always felt like a game of tug of war.  Are you more like Mommy or Daddy?  It’s the ultimate guilt trip.  Attempting to remain neutral, I tend to check “other” when filling out forms, if given the option.  However, even that feels strange, because what does “other” even mean?  Each of those boxes represents a face.  Granted, they’re stereotypes, but at least they’re given a face. When you think “other,” what face comes to mind? All I see is an alien.

The best is when people read my name, see my face and then give me a suspicious look as if I have stolen someone’s identity.  Happens more often than you’d think.  I handed the man at the liquor store my ID and his reply was, “Berlinski, huh? Your husband Polish?”

“Not married.”

“You don’t look Polish.”

“Well you didn’t strike me as an asshole, but here we are.”  Fine, I didn’t say this.  Instead, I smiled bitterly and said, “Well, I am.”

Since I figure I look more Asian than white, I feel my difference is broadcasted even louder when I’m with my white family.  One can only imagine what people think when they see me, probably, “One of these is not like the other.”  Like a game of racial duck, duck, goose that goes, blond, blond, blond, CHINKY!  From an outsider’s perspective I look adopted, and this was long before Madonna and Angelina Jolie popularized collecting foreign babies.

The only other plausible explanation for my presence is that I look like the daughter of my stepmom, Julie, the other brown person in the family.  Growing up, I too considered this a possibility since I looked much more like Julie than my mother.  Unlike me, my mother had dark skin, the color of milk chocolate.  Her cheekbones were higher, her nose pointier.  The only thing my mother and I shared were small Asian eyes.  Julie was much more fair-skinned and. like me, had a rounded nose.  Essentially, I convinced myself into believing that my mom paid Julie to give me up at birth.

Every child, at one point or another, examines his or her birth certificate hoping to find there’s been a grave mistake.  In actuality, they’re heir to a disgusting fortune. I remember sneaking into my mom’s files and examining my birth certificate.  To my disappointment, everything checked out.  Julie was not my mom nor was I destined to inherit a throne.

Biological or not, Julie is my mom.  She’s helped raise me since I was a year old. With both my parents working, my mom hired Julie, then an illegal immigrant from the Philippines, to be my nanny.  Sounds cliché, right?  The only thing more cliché would be if my father left my mother for my nanny, which did or did not happen depending on who you ask.  As a child, I spent so much time with Julie that I would affectionately refer to her as Mom—until my mom overheard me.  Then, it was just “Julie.”

Despite not being blood-related, people will often say that Julie and I look alike.  We’ll be out shopping, or I’ll show someone a family photo and get, “You take so much after your mom.”  If it’s someone I know, like a boyfriend’s aunt, I’ll gently say, “We’re not actually related.”  Suddenly, the air changes; I’ve shamed them somehow by pointing out their presumption.  They don’t say anything, but I know they’re quietly expecting an explanation.  Interestingly, when I explain my family situation, they forget they’re offended and attempt to comfort me. “It’s okay,” they’ll offer, “I have a friend with a crazy family like yours.” When it comes to strangers, I’ll just smile. It’s not worth the effort of explaining and even though Julie and I aren’t related, we Asians do kind of look the same.  Plus, my stepmom is beautiful and I’d much rather look like her than my father, who resembles Bill Murray.

Most people can’t tell what I am, since I don’t fit neatly into their understanding of race, though over the years the rise of biracial children has made this burden easier to bear.  I’ve been told I look Vietnamese, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Indian, and many others that never seemed to make sense to me.  But I take these observations as a compliment.

I’ve lost count how many times someone has asked, “So, where are you from?”  I know exactly what they’re getting at, nevertheless, I’ll reply, “I grew up bicoastal, in Jersey and California.”

“No, but where… you know, where?”

“Sacramento. It’s up north.”

“I mean, where are your parents from?”

I’ll smile coyly and say, “My mom is from California; my dad’s from Jersey.”

“But originally?”

“Yeah I get it… My mom is Filipino and my dad is Polish.”

Surprisingly, it’s never the Polish part that gets them; rather, it’s learning I’m Filipino. “That’s it! I could tell you were some type of Asian I just couldn’t figure out what.  Vietnamese maybe, but I wasn’t sure.”  Finally my olive skin, almond eyes and rounded nose all makes sense.

Playing Twenty Questions with random strangers is even worse abroad, where people’s understanding of American is that we’re all White and Blond. Once, while having a drink in Monaco, my girlfriends and I were approached by an older, overweight, and—judging by his brazen chest hair—overly confident man.  Predictably, the first thing he asked was,  “So, where are you from?”

“New York,” I answered.

“I used to live there. Jes, I know New Jork very well,” he said in a thick nondescript accent.

“Oh yeah, where?”

“All over. I know everywhere… Houston Street,” which he pronounced as if it were the city in Texas, so I knew he was full of it.  Every New Yorker can identify a tourist by the way they pronounce, or rather mispronounce, Houston Street.

“Uh huh,” I mocked.

“So where are jou from? Shour English is very gewd.”

“I’m from New York… originally.”

“I lived in New Jork. I detect an accent.”

Really, I thought? You want to get into this with me? Okay.

“My mom is Filipino and my dad is Polish, but I was born and raised in the States.”

The only thing he heard out of my mouth was: “Ah Jes, the Philippines! Very nice place. Shame, the women there are all so ughly.  Prostitutes.  But all the Filipino women outside of the Philippines, so beautiful!” he said with a wink.

Despite my heritage, I’ve never identified with Filipino culture.  It’s tough when you don’t eat the food or speak the language.  I’m pretty much whitewashed or a Twinkie: yellow on the outside, white on the inside.  This is partially my mom’s fault, for being Americanized herself.  Unlike my aunts and uncles, who grew up in the Philippines, my mom was raised in San Francisco during the Seventies.  She doesn’t have a thick accent, was never strict like other typical Filipino parents, nor did she force my siblings and I to go to Catholic mass.  We didn’t eat rice everyday or have a painting of The Last Supper hanging in our living room. We didn’t own a karaoke machine and we never watched TFC (The Filipino Channel).

Most of my understanding of Filipino culture comes from visiting my aunts’ house or going to her parties.  Every time felt like I was entering a distant land, where instead of typical American dessert they ate halo-halo, shaved ice with red beans, coconut, ube (a purple yam), and condensed milk. “Liars!” I thought. “This tastes nothing like a root beer float.”

The older I get, the more I realize that while I may not entirely identify with Filipino culture. I’m not white either. That definitely makes a minority, just not any one in particular.  Though I suppose, if you’re going to be a minority it’s better to have solidarity.  You don’t exactly see biracial babies marching on Washington these days demanding more rights.  At times I feel like I’m crying over spilled milk. Yeah, it sucks to be marginalized, but mixed people are hot. Not to mention that we have amazing genetics.  I hardly ever get sick and when I do, I’m still hot.

Choosing whether I am Polish or Filipino is a day-to-day, moment–by-moment decision. Over time I’ve come to recognize the patterns that influence how I identify myself.  Normally I don’t think about what I am until I have to explain it to other people.  If a person assumes I am Asian, I’ll make it a point to tell them I’m mixed, adding, “with Polish.”  However, should they make a comment about Filipinos, suddenly I become an ambassador.  Although I have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, my personal views somehow become the opinion of all Filipinos.  We do not support global warming.  We are accepting of gay culture. We have had several female presidents.

Deciding my race wouldn’t be an issue if it didn’t involve a hierarchy.  In terms of privilege, there is nothing higher or even equal to being white.  You’d think being half-white would give me some advantage over those who are fully ethnic, but it doesn’t seem to work that way.  In actuality, it reasserts my non-whiteness.  Whereas the “one-drop rule” automatically qualifies you as black, having one drop of minority disqualifies you from being white.  It’s not that I want to be white; I just find the criteria amusing.  The Polish aren’t exactly known as the master race.  We make great pierogies and kielbasa; but mostly I’d say the Polish are just another poor working class.  All the same, it’s a club I can’t be a member of, nor do I want to. There’s something gratifying about being biracial and a minority.

Having minority status gives you the ability to say things like, “Filipinos are the blacks of Asia.”  My mom said that once, and I stared at her.  Did she really just say that?  Then she added, “We can dance, sing, and play basketball!”

Everyone knows it’s not racist when a minority says it.  Conceivably, this is the same entitled feeling my white father must get when he declares, “I’m not prejudiced; I have a Filipino daughter and wife, for crying out loud!”

That’s the danger of polarizing the word “racist.”  It’s so taboo that no one thinks they are racist, and yet everyone has done or thought something racist at some time or another.  You do the math.

Most people don’t know when they’re being racist. The first time I went to Madrid, a man at a bar, a friend of a friend, pulled his eyes back and pointed at me, laughing. I’ve been told that in Spain, it’s not considered offensive, but rather a benign observation.  He was merely pointing out that my eyes are squinty.  In the U.S. it would be like twirling your finger to describe someone with curly hair.  People might look at you funny for stating the blatantly obvious, but it certainly wouldn’t offend them.

Now that I live in Spain, I’ve discovered that here it is completely fine to call someone a “chino” or “oriental.”  The concept of political correctness and racial discrimination is foreign to this culture.  Dollar stores are called Chinos; my favorite is my local Super Chino.  From a casual glance, it might appear that the Spanish are racists.  Standing there in the bar, watching a grown man slant his eyes at me, I would’ve agreed.  However, the lack of diversity here makes any person of difference not just an oddity, but also an exciting advent. Prejudices do exist, yet their actions generally come from ignorance, and as time goes by I try to remind myself of this. A few days later, the guy from the bar requested to be my friend on Facebook. He can’t be prejudiced; we’re friends!

Before moving to Spain, I had to obtain a letter of good conduct at a precinct in lower Manhattan. When my turn came, I walked up to the woman in charge of the letters, sitting in a rolly chair that appeared to conform to the exact intricacies of her body.  I imagined her sitting in this chair day after day for thirty years, taking slip after slip of paper, only to enter it mindlessly into the computer. Without turning around to look at me, she stuck up her hand and wiggled her fingers, motioning for my papers.

I stood behind her, watching her key in my information. Everything seemed routine until she got to the bottom of the form.  There, I noticed a piece of information that was not listed on my form—race—under which she checked “white.”  I could only assume it was my name as nothing about Alison Berlinski screams minority or mixed race.

I wondered if I should say something.

With her back still turned to me she asked, “Everything correct?”  Unsure what to do, I said, “Yeeaaah,” stretching out every sound out in an uneasy tone.

Finally, she turned around, took one look at me, and exclaimed, “You’re not white! What are you?”

Judging by her tone, she was not concerned about insulting me.  I, on the other hand, was shocked and slightly offended. I’m not sure what bothered me more—her assumption that I was white or her assumption that I wasn’t.

My initial reaction was to cry in horror, “What do you mean I’m not white? What will I tell my mother?”  But that was too dramatic.  My second option was to thank her, as if the information was like a piece of lettuce stuck between my teeth:  “Oh, you’re right! I’m not white! Thank you. Why didn’t anyone tell me sooner?”  Or I could’ve reprimanded her. “What are you talking about? Of course I’m white!” Then she’d feel confused and ashamed.  How dare she talk to a white woman this way?  She’d beg me not to get her fired.  Then I, the benevolent white woman, would spare her by accepting her pitiful apology.

Despite my better judgment, I decided not to fuck with her.  This was her job and she was only trying to clear up what she considered a mistake. I shook my head and said, “You can just put ‘Other,’” pretending we’d reached some sort of compromise.

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