When I was two years old, I held my arm up to my mother’s and asked, “Is our blood the same color?”
Growing up in a predominantly white part of a predominantly white place, I couldn’t work out why it was so easy to see the resemblance between my friends and their parents, but somehow so difficult to see how I was related to my own mother.
Doctors ask an almost identical question during annual check-ups: “Are you blood relatives?”
It’s no surprise this obsession with blood and belonging was sewn into me from a young age. It’s also no shock that the seed would grow into an un-rooted, yet otherwise sturdy, flourishing tree. This was the source of my identity issues: my roots could never grow deep and tangled into any one place.
I grew up in Wisconsin, where my mother was born and raised. Her family’s background is mainly German and Scandinavian; holiday traditions are a mix of pseudo-Christian celebration and family gatherings with my blonde-haired, blue-eyed aunts and uncles. My father was born and raised on a farm in rural Thailand. He grew up planting and harvesting rice with his seven brothers and sisters and moved to the States with my mother after they got married in 1985. He brought with him Buddhist principles, Thai recipes, and a culture almost completely different from the western individualist society I grew up in.
Being of two cultures, as special and unique as it might be, was pretty confusing for me as a child. Was I American? Was I Thai? When was I American and when was I Thai? At home I lived a life that involved aspects of both cultures. This combination of the two would become a culture in itself that I now see as the only one my family could ever really embrace; it was the only way we could find belonging.
My mother and father not only crossed oceans to start a family but also cultural norms and boundaries. Breaking these boundaries and creating a cross-cultural life together is really what set me up to be a Child Of The World, doomed to forever search out belonging between two countries, two cultures, and two homes.
But it was only after learning that my family’s unique culture wasn’t so congruent to the lives all my friends and classmates were living that I really started obsessing over cultural identity as a way of understanding myself and finding a sense of belonging. Instead of listening to popular music on the radio like my friends, I listened to things like AfroCelt and Mediaeval Babes ’ “Misteltoe and Wine” and Putumayo Brazilian acoustic compilations. Instead of having spaghetti for dinner, I had green curry with Thai eggplant and bamboo shoots one night and pizza the next. Although traveling back and forth from Thailand to Wisconsin, almost every year, allowed me to fully immerse myself in both cultures, it made me feel a bit like Jekyll and Hyde to directly juxtapose my Thai self and my American self.
This immersion was as much a blessing as it was a curse. I, unlike many bi-cultural and bi-racial people, had the rare opportunity to explore both identities directly within the context of each culture. However, this immersion also increased my already complicated self-view and made it harder to find a sense of belonging anywhere. At school in Wisconsin, the drastic cultural difference between my life and the lives of my peers was made even more apparent by the blatant contrast between my skin color and theirs. Although I had strong friendships, I was always conscious of the fact that I had to hide a part of myself from them—the part they could never understand, not by fault of theirs, but simply because they were white. When my family and I visited Thailand, my conversational speech and cultural fluency were often overlooked because I didn’t possess the thick black hair the rest of my dad’s family had, rather brown waves that tinged reddish in the sun. I could participate in inside jokes in both countries, but I never felt like I deserved to be in on the punch line. I blamed my blood for this.
For the first eighteen years of my life, I looked to blood for the answer, this internal struggle, this inability to fit into a category, this quandary of impossible belonging. If blood was to blame—if my genes were the problem—then most certainly the answer had to lie within my very veins. I wished it were as simple as separating the parts that were Thai from the parts that were American; I craved a simple definition for my complex identity.
Eventually, I came to realize that I could live with both of these personalities present at once, though doing so often proves difficult. In the same way that people switch mindsets when speaking different languages, I have to switch mindsets when alternating between being fluently American and being fluently Thai—something I believe I have yet to actually achieve. But to do this successfully—to embrace both sides without creating more internal confusion—I have to stop blaming my blood.
In my final year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I joined the university’s Mixed Race Student Union, a newly-formed club that aims to provide students of mixed ethnicity backgrounds with a safe space to discuss racial issues, gain insight into other mixed-race lives, and ultimately get to know some of the only other people on the planet who could understand what being mixed means. Through befriending my fellow mixed students and sharing with them a sense of understanding and camaraderie, I have found a sense of belonging not related to place or country, but within myself.
I have found that to belong is not to define; to know myself is not to categorize. I have found that no matter what parts make up the mix, everybody’s blood is the same color. I have found that my own identity is not determined by blood, but in my ability to find a way to belong—not within the world, but within myself.
SIRI PAIRIN is a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism. A dual citizen of Thailand and the United States, Pairin has grown up with a strong appreciation for global and cultural awareness. She strives to utilize her own mosaicked cultural view and world travel experience to challenge racial stereotypes, promote tolerance in ethnic diversity, and produce writing that speaks with a more holistic perspective of the world.