This all felt too familiar. Twenty years and several dress sizes ago, I also donned a catsuit—as a regular go-go dancer for nightclubs in San Francisco. Friends thought I had confidence to dance in a cage once a week, but it was the opposite. After years of being called ugly and “half-breed” at school due to my mixed features, go-go dancing was a way for me to rebel and control how other people perceived me, just as Ann did when she transformed.
In what might sound like a bad 1980s comedy that aged poorly, my blonde, Midwestern father married my mother, a mail-order bride from the Philippines. The two families were culturally and politically opposed, and both of my parents struggled financially. For this reason, my paternal grandmother became my primary caretaker when I was 6, and I spent half of my childhood living in Kansas with her until she died when I was 14.
After my grandmother’s death, my dad’s side of the family didn’t stay in touch anymore. Like Ann’s. I’d moved to New York as an adult and hadn’t heard from them in over a decade. My very first Thanksgiving in the city, I went to a diner and, while poking at a gelatinous cranberry puck, wished someone would call me home. As if by fate, I received a random phone call from my elderly aunt on my dad’s side. She said she’d been reflecting on life and had heard from my mother that I moved to New York without knowing a single person there. She said she spent many days thinking about how the family hadn’t spoken to me in so long and felt sorry that I lived in the Big Apple on my own, and that she’d like me to come to a family reunion. Without saying the word racism, she apologized for “how the family had treated me.”
It wasn’t a perfect apology, but it meant a lot to me that someone nearly a century old could humbly acknowledge their mistakes. I packed for a trip to Kansas, curious about what it would be like to see the white side of my family again. Soon I was sitting in a cab from the airport, going to a chain hotel in Overland Park.
When I entered the hotel, my white relatives excitedly reached for my hand. I was taken aback when they started speaking to me slowly, with exaggeratedly open mouth motions as though they were speaking to a deaf foreigner.
“Would. You. Care. For. Some. Stir. Fry?” asked a long-lost cousin. I felt confused. I was born in America. I had never lived abroad or known any other language then English. This must have been how Ann felt when other students thought of her as American, when really, she was Japanese too.
“Oh, I don’t really like stir fry,” I said, laughing politely. “I remember from living at grandma’s that the best hamburgers and fries come from the Midwest. So I’d like a burger with all the fixin’s.” I’d hoped by cheekily adding in a bit of the local vernacular, they’d understand I was unremarkably American and not exotic at all.
We ended up going out to a typical bar and grill, which was just what I wanted. As we ate together, I batted away questions such as “Do you live in a neighborhood with other Filipino people?” and I felt disarmed, unsure how to respond.
I finally had my answer at the end of dinner when a cousin suddenly said with no warning, aloud, “I feel bad for biracial people, they shouldn’t be born. They’ll never know who they truly are or have a real identity, all because their parents decided to have one selfish night of passion.”
The entire table was quiet. I thought about how I’d lived on my own in New York with no help and little contact with my family, how I’d come out at a young age and survived it all without their support.