My background, my identity, will always follow me. I am Mexican, I am Black, I am from Hong Kong. I am comfortable, assured, and confident in that now, but it hasn’t always been that way. Connecting to the parts of me so removed has been difficult. For a long time, I never felt Black but I never felt Mexican either: stuck in the middle, in Hong Kong speaking Mandarin without answers or people “like” me. The best way for me to explain my identity journey is to tell it backwards.
I am six and my skin is too light yet too dark, my hair is twisted into four tight braids, and no one understands what it means.
“How can you be American and have dark skin?”
“If you’re African-American, isn’t that just half American and half African?”
“Are you sure you’re not from India?”
On storytelling day, parents who look like stretched out, grown up versions of my classmates file in two by two.
The slightly darker, grown up version of myself walks into the room, hand in hand with my dad. Whispers fill the air and fingers begin to point.
“Who’s Shayla’s mom with?”
“He’s not her dad, is he? His skin is white, he can’t be.”
“Maybe she’s adopted.”
I cower inside and ignore their questions until a teacher intervenes and the attention shifts. Six-year-old-me feels out of place, but seventeen-year-old-me knows what to say. It’s okay. You don’t look exactly like them, but you carry what is in them. The richness of their cultures, the struggles they’ve overcome and the unique traits you’ll acquire. Your differences are an advantage, one day you’ll see.
“Excuse me, does it matter what color we fill in the hands?” I am in fourth grade, standing in front of my teacher holding a cutout of a headless girl, wearing a Chinese New Year cheongsam. I know ahead of time that a picture of every student will be glued to the body of the little cutouts, and want to make sure that if I color the hands brown rather than the peach color everyone else is using, I am correct.
“Well just think about it Shayla,” my teacher says. “That’s wrong. Most people wearing these kinds of outfits don’t have that color skin.”
Dejected, I retreat to my chair and borrow a peach marker from the girl next to me. Keep your brown marker. Your color is never wrong.
Next week, the cutouts are glued outside the classroom, our heads tagged onto the tops. My figurine stands out, the only dark face with peach-colored hands. Your picture stands out, but to your left and right are the pictures of all your friends. Looking different has never stopped you from getting along with all kinds of people. Be proud of that.
I am seventeen and well versed in my cultures and the cultures of many others. I feel a pit in my stomach when I see tension in the world, and racial slurs thrown around the hallways send shivers down my spine.
But I don’t cower anymore. I remember my identity and the people before me, and proudly form the legacy I want to leave behind. No matter where I go, I will always carry my cultural identity, as well as traits that transcend race. When I play my saxophone and when I run, I reflect on who I am and who I want to become. Whether I am with a Chinese store clerk or a Yemeni refugee, an American teacher or a Japanese friend, I represent these same qualities and am not ashamed. I plan to go out into the world and bring people together, navigating across cultures just as I have done all my life.