When Brook Soso first appeared on my computer screen during an episode of Orange is the New Black, I smiled to myself. Actually, I beamed. Although she was annoyingly naive and chirpy, I was immediately enamored with her because she was the closest I’d ever felt to being represented on TV, or, in this case, Netflix.
Brook is half Japanese and half white (Scottish, to be exact). It didn’t matter that my other half, the non-Japanese half, came from a different part of the world; it was just a thrill and a comfort to see a vaguely familiar, not-quite-fully-Japanese face looking back at me.
There was no Brook Soso when I was growing up. If I wanted to see someone who looked like me, I would have to look at pictures of my siblings. I took pride in this feeling of being and looking different as a child. Having others guess my ethnicity (and correcting them if they guessed incorrectly) became a sort of hobby. Telling them exactly who I was and where I came from made me feel special. I was special because I was different. I was different because I was biracial.
I am Japanese on my father’s side and Italian-Argentinean on my mother’s. I don’t particularly resemble either of them, nor do I particularly identify with one of their cultures more strongly than the other. I am not fluent in either Spanish or Japanese. I can’t tell you anything about Japan that I didn’t learn from a textbook, and all I know about Argentine culture is that Argentineans drink a lot of yerba mate (and that they’re proud—very proud of being Argentinean).
The truth is, I can’t really speak to the experience of growing up in a Japanese-Argentinean-American household because I was not raised by my biological parents. I was adopted at birth by my black mother and my (not coincidentally) Argentinean father and have lived with them, 3,000 miles away from my birth family, ever since. That does not mean, however, that I’m any more qualified to speak about growing up in an African-American and Argentine household, because I have never truly felt like their cultures were mine to live and own. I grew up surrounded by black art, Spanish-language music, a distinctly Italian-influenced Spanish accent, soul, jazz, hip hop, rap, the trials and tribulations of caring for black hair, and the sound of yerba mate being sipped through a bombilla. But these pieces of culture simply existed for me; I did not absorb them, practice them, or take pride in them. They were a part of my everyday existence, but they never felt like pieces of me.
As proud as I was to proclaim my difference, my uniqueness, my me-ness, I could never really claim to be a part of the cultures that enveloped and developed me, shaping me while leaving no visible marks. My sense of identity was as ambiguous as my face. My pride in my identity was slowly eroded by the realization that I knew so little about who and where I came from and had never stepped foot on Argentine or Japanese soil. By the time I’d graduated high school, my childish pride had transformed into confusion. My identity suddenly lacked a context, even though I’d thought that I knew my story so well.
As exciting as it was to recognize the possibility of representation in pop culture in the form of Brook Soso, I still have not been unable to decipher the confusion about my identity that has followed me throughout my youth. I have existed in a cultural limbo, occupying the undefined spaces between each of the cultures that have molded me into something unlike any one of them. In this limbo, I have felt a sense of loss and sadness. I have felt frustration when forced to check the box marked “Other” on identification forms, because there is no culture or belonging in Otherness. I have felt cut off from my roots. Yet, in this limbo, in this loss, I feel freedom. I feel empowered to resist definition by boxes and other people. I am able to create my own identity—something shapeless and beautiful and not quite Japanese or Argentinean or anything else. I am cut off from my roots, but I have been grafted onto another tree, producing something that is as different as it is special.
Judges selected seven winners from more than 100 entries in the 2015 Sam and Jackie Wong-Alhambra Source Scholarship. Alhambra high school seniors and recent graduates were asked to write about their heritage and how it had come to shape them. The winners each received a $500 scholarship award, along with the opportunity to have their essays published in Alhambra Source. Cristina Tangreti, one of the winners, recently graduated from UC Irvine with a BA in Comparative Literature. Tangreti wrote to us recently to say that animals are her passion, and that she plans on traveling this fall with peta2 (PETA's youth division) to inform college students about animal rights issues. "Down the road I'd like to find a career that allows me to combine two of my greatest passions: writing and animal rights advocacy," said Tangreti.