|Photo credit: Hiroto Hata (Mili)|
I learned early on that I wasn't seen in the same way as everyone else. My friends and I had been playing a careless game of Block 123 with a street lamp as our target post when a passing neighbourhood kid pointed at me. 'Eurgh,' she sneered. 'Why are your arms brown? You look dirty.' It wasn't said with malice, exactly; we lived in a small, racially homogeneous village and she was genuinely oblivious – both to why my skin looked that way and how her words might make me feel. And, having never been confronted with the brownness of my skin before, I didn't know how to respond. Although it had nettled me, I simply pretended not to care.
Funnily enough, years later, when I'd finally get the chance to travel to the Philippines, my mum's native country, with my family, one of the first things many people would comment on was the whiteness of my skin – and how beautiful they found it.* This was often preceded by widespread gawping and followed by surprise that we were related to our mum (in the same way that people have expressed surprise that I'm related to my dad, who is white, in England). 'Give me your white,' a hairdresser in Manila once half-joked, smoothing the same arms the neighbourhood kid had pointed and sneered at a few years earlier.
Two very different reactions. Nevertheless, the message was the same: You don't belong.
I know I'm not alone in feeling this way. According to the Office for National Statistics, mixed-race people are the fastest rising ethnic minority group in the UK. We're predicted to be the largest minority group by 2020. Almost a tenth of relationships cross racial boundaries. Nevertheless, many attitudes remain stubbornly unchanged, especially with the recent surge in sensationalist anti-immigration headlines and post-Brexit racial tensions – and I still have to tick 'other' under 'ethnic origin' on forms.
Being not quite white and not quite Asian is something that, for the most part, is so second nature to me that I don't really notice it. I'm mostly comfortable in my racial fluidity and don't feel the need to define myself as one thing over another (nor, to their credit, do those closest to me). Until, that is, someone makes an 'off-colour' remark to me. These are often softer in nature than direct racism – 'microaggressions' coming from a place of misguided curiosity and assumption.
'Ni hao!' (China is, apparently, Asia.) 'Do you speak Korean?' 'Is [random Asian holiday destination] where you're from originally?' 'You're not from around here, are you?' 'Where are you really from?' (or some variant on this; sometimes this is asked in a more roundabout way, involving incremental steps up in directness and aggressiveness until they receive the sought-after response: 'Where are you from?' 'Where are your family from, though?' 'No, I mean where are they from originally?') Nowadays, I try to fend off such probing questions about my racial origin with a curt response – the name of my hometown in North-east England.
Sometimes, it seems easier to shut up and play along. I've had a neighbour 'helpfully' offer to take my picture outside a cherry blossom tree in my home town (where I spent the bulk of the first 18 years of my life), commenting 'That's right – you love cherry blossoms in Japan, don't you?' After a lifetime of such well-meaning assumptions, setting people right can feel like too much effort.
On a more sinister occasion, the headmaster of my former secondary school once asked to speak to my brothers and me privately. 'Do you speak Filipino?' he asked, in an affected casual tone. I later found out that the school had been rated as unsatisfactory by OFSTED (an education standards body) for diversity. As some of the sole mixed-race pupils in the school (and the community), he had been hoping to use us as eye-catching, colourful props to boost the school's profile.
While these questions and incidents are generally innocent enough, the problem is that I'm routinely made to feel the need to explain or justify myself, placing myself in a neat little box to be categorised for the comfort of others. Implicit in this is the suggestion that I'm different – other.
And, while my appearance is ethnically ambiguous and I am sometimes mistaken for a non-English person, I grew up in the UK, speak only English to a native level and have a penchant for Yorkshire tea. During Filipino family get-togethers, I often struggle to keep up with the conversation. 'What's so funny?' I have to ask whenever there's a ripple of laughter around the kitchen table. As a result, sometimes it feels as though the answers I give to questions about my racial identity aren't... enough, somehow.
For the longest time I hated my name. 'Why isn't your name more interesting, Sarah?' I've been asked, half-jokingly, on more than one occasion. While I'm sure I am far from alone in having rejected my birth-given name as a child, I'm confident now that this had something to do with my desire to meet the expectations others had of me. People expect exoticism from me. Instead, I'm much more like them than some are prepared for. A disappointment.
Despite it all, I love being a part of two cultures. I love feeling accepted by my family in the Philippines whenever I go despite only having been able to afford to go twice. I love the finely tuned sense of British awkwardness and sarcasm. I love having a broad palate, access to the British countryside and a sunburn-resistant complexion, like a lesser superhero. Because, like everyone else, I'm a complete, dynamic person, despite how many people try to compress me into a more convenient format. I, too, am England. And Philippines. In fact, on some level, I secretly quite like being 'unplaceable'. It makes things more interesting, don't you think?
*Fairer-skinned actors and models populate the films, TV shows, magazines and skin-whitening soap adverts in the Philippines, despite the fact that they're hardly representative of the average Filipino. They're presented as wealthier, more sophisticated and more attractive as a rule. For a nation that is so proud of their culture and heritage, the Western-centric beauty ideals can be alarming.