I grew up a mixed breed among Mexican immigrants in California, and for the first ten years of my life, I thought I was one of them. My mother, a practitioner of free-love, told me and our family, that my biological father was a Mexican man, and that was the only tidbit about his identity she knew. For ten years, trips to our local Mexican restaurant, and crispy bites of tortilla chips dunked in cool tomato salsa felt like a link to half of my heritage.
After I turned ten my face developed and each day I looked less like a half-Hispanic daughter, and more like a child of the Middle East. It was then that my mother and her brother (who raised me as his own daughter) said they thought my father was actually Persian.
It was the year that George Bush Sr. waged war against Iraq, and a time when I knew of no difference between North Africa, the Middle East, and India. In my immature perspective, people were either White, Black, Mexican, Chinese, or our enemy.
Hearing I was of Persian descent felt like an accusation, like: “You’re one of the bad guys.” It was sad how little I understood about the world around me. My older brother, Jason, had a friend from Punjab, India, and whenever he came around, I secretly studied him. He had a protruding nose, like mine, and wide, dark eyes, like my own. He was darker, and tall and thin, where I was short and stocky.
The frail definitions of difference were what I clung to, what I used as evidence against my family’s inference that I was more ethnic than I desired to be.
The sad truth was that even with words, even with half-remembered memories, my mother didn’t know for certain who my father really was, or what ethnic box I fit into on school forms.
For the next seven years of my life, I continued with the farce of Mexican heritage. I disguised my otherness as if it were a pimple and my story, concealer. Each year my claims became harder for friends, especially Mexican friends, to swallow. I had color, that was undeniable, but not their color, not their features, not their familia. I was not La Raza.
When I was fifteen, my mother died. With her life went the possibility of a possibility that she might remember who my biological father was.
In her absence, I stuck with the only truth I could tell, the dishonest kind.
Shortly before my eighteenth birthday that persona was tested, and ultimately gave way to something new. It was the year I finally learned about the beauty of difference, and accepted my own differences, too.
In my new apartment, I had neighbors from Iran, Bangladesh, and India. From each of their doorways I could smell the intoxicating aromas of curry, pulao, spices and sizzling meats. It was hard to turn my nose from something that smelled so wildly delicious.
My neighbors all thought I was from their respective countries. It had become a regular occurrence for someone from the Middle East, or South Asia to ask me if I was from their homeland. My large dark eyes, my prominent, rounded nose, and the creamy milked-down mocha color of my skin all suggested I had something in common with them. Soon enough, when I looked in the mirror I began to see what they saw, and let go of my apprehension of being, possibly, Persian. In fact, I fell in love with the idea.
I fell in love with new foods, tastes that were so different than the standard Eastern-European/American fare I’d been raised upon. For me, eating food from different cultures felt more like a discovery than a meal. Each bite led me closer to my own transformation.
It wasn’t an easy transition, however. I was still ashamed of the fact that I didn’t really know my ethnic identity. Instead of embracing uncertainty, I embraced another untruth, a fictional history of my heritage.
It started innocently enough. A stranger in a restaurant asked me about my ethnicity.
“Are you Greek? You look exactly like my friend from Greece,” she said.
“No, I’m Middle Eastern,” I replied. That answer felt safe, noncommittal, and mostly true.
“Oh, from what part of the Middle East?” she asked. I wasn’t prepared for her follow-up question, or for my lack of knowledge about the world beyond my own borders. I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind.
“Saudi Arabia,” I said. I blushed immediately after. The words, taken from a memory of a girl in high school who moved to our school from India, who told me that I reminded her of the Saudi girls she knew, became my own. Suddenly, her singular reference to my physical appearance became my life story.
It was my go-to answer, the secret phrase that would stop curious friends and strangers from decoding my identity. There was an inherent problem with my modus operandi, one that any well-seasoned liar will experience; before long, my lie became my truth. I started to believe the story I told.
My father, once a nameless, faceless void in my mind, became a fictitious representation of reality. He was tall, not too tall, dark haired, copper-skinned, and had a thick, coarse beard that encircled his plump, rosy lips. He was brave, and he was virtuous, and he was a figment of my imagination that somehow traversed the line into my reality.
His story was simple.
He had died when I was young.
Or, he wasn’t allowed to marry my mother because of cultural differences. Either story worked, either story seemed plausible enough to set my foot into the territory of knowers.
At eighteen, when I married my husband, a native of Mexico, it was nearly impossible to peel myself away from my story, but with him, I did. He knew that my identity was a myth, a story to explain myself based on the limited knowledge I had. Still, I continued my facade with others. My husband stood by my side while I shared the same lies over and over, knowing that the real truth was nothing but a question mark.
Lies like those are contagious. Before long, when friends and coworkers asked him what my ethnicity was, he shared my fictional story. I think, for a long time we both believed what we were saying.
Dinner parties were my chance to showcase my heritage. I learned to master curries from India, spice blends from Morocco, toasted rice from Afghanistan. It was an amalgamation of contradictions and conveniences that, carefully selected and reproduced, gave data to my claim. No one questioned, no one pierced the thin veneer of self I had established.
I lived like a mirage, and as time passed, it felt less and less real.
The hardest part to accept, is that we continued with this illusion for too long. I was in my thirties before I paused to ask myself one of the most important questions of my life,
“Why do I keep lying about myself?”
I realized that the circle of amigos I had accumulated were built upon an identity of dishonesty, and grandiose dinner parties. I’d lied for so long about who I was, I wasn’t sure I knew me.
My biggest fear was one I never confronted, one that sat quietly inside my psyche, only speaking in soft whispers when the potential for exposure was near.
“You’re a bastard, and people will look down on you when you tell them the truth – you don’t know who you are. You are a fraud.”
It was the truest truth, the reason for near three decades of acting, and it was the obstacle I needed to overcome if I was ever going to achieve anything close to authenticity.
In the mirror, to myself, I made a commitment to stop lying about who I was. I didn’t know. I may never know, either. But I no longer craved acceptance from society or a perfect place to fit. I was ok being an anomaly. I was ok being just me, question mark and all.
Just like I feared, when I told the truth, people looked at me differently, at least, for a moment.
“Where are you from, darlin’?” a cashier at a convenience store asked.
“California,” I replied. I knew where the question was headed, and I steeled myself.
“No, I mean, from, like, your ancestors,” she said.
“My mother was a mix of Eastern European, and I don’t know who my biological father was,” I said. I was cool, calm, and matter-of-fact on the outside. Unbeknownst to the lady, my heart was pounding in my chest and my palms dampened.
“Oh,” she replied. Her answer was slow, full of judgment, and possibly, remorse for even asking me to begin with. She didn’t hide her glance as she gave me a once-over, twice.
“I kind of like not knowing,” I said. “It means I don’t have to be bound by one idea of race, but can be a part of the entire human race.”
The woman stared at me blankly.
“Well, you have a nice day,” she said as she handed me my change. Apparently my admission was more than she’d wanted to know, and just awkward enough to end the uncomfortable series of questions I’d always dreaded.
I smiled at her, walked out the door, and knew, for the first time, that I had told the absolute honest-to-God truth about myself. I’ve never looked back since then.
These days, I still have fabulous, multi-ethnic dinner parties, but I don’t hide behind the food, or the facade, to gain acceptance. I’m also proud that I no longer box identities into superficial, generic categories. The world is a giant place, and every one in it has a story, and hopefully a dish, to share.
UPDATE: There has been an exciting development since this story posted, including the results of a DNA test, and how I finally learned the truth of my ethnic heritage. Read DNA and Dinner: How I Discovered Me to learn more.
Originally posted at Bryanne’s blog.