When you’re ethnically ambiguous, looking like your mom becomes way more significant


As long as I can remember, people have told me I’m the spitting image of my mother. No one would mistake us for twins, but the resemblance is uncanny. When I meet people who know her, they know immediately that I’m her daughter. My father jokes that I’m the product of parthenogenesis.

I love looking like my mother, but it’s not just because I admire her. I’m half-Asian, and my beautiful, Chinese mother is my tie to my heritage. When I’m with her, no one questions that I’m part Chinese. I resemble her and by the transitive property, I also look Chinese. The parts of me that reflect her—the almond shaped eyes, olive skin, silky hair—are more noticeable than the aspects of my appearance that are more Caucasian. My background all makes sense when I’m standing next to her. I make sense.

But when I’m not with my mother, my ethnicity is a guessing game. Most people think I’m Latina or Persian or Hawaiian—you name it. Acquaintances are quick to blurt out, “You don’t look Chinese at all. I never would have guessed, not in a million years.” (I told you what I am so you wouldn’t have to guess.) It’s even worse when people tell me what half-Asians “usually look like” and then proceed to list racial stereotypes. The real kicker was when a dude on OKStupid had the gall to ask, “You say you’re half-Chinese, but are you really?”

He hadn’t even met me, but he felt the need to imply I was lying.

This is a common problem for multiethnic people. We don’t fit society’s preconceptions of race and end up throwing small-minded people for a loop. It’s rare for multiethnic people to precisely reflect their background. (I dare you to identify Tiger Woods’ half-dozen nationalities without Wikipedia.) But when you look ethnically ambiguous, it’s even harder. Your heritage is a subject for debate. Guessing what you are is a party game.

My mother is proof of my cultural identity, and when I’m not with her, I’m an outsider even to other Asians. When I was in college, I spent one summer in Beijing and another in Shanghai. Used to having my ethnicity questioned by Americans, I had hoped that Chinese people would be more accepting. After all, China has over 1.3 billion people of diverse appearances. Instead, I was repeatedly told I didn’t look a single bit Asian and people balked when I said my mother was from Toisan, a city in southern China. Even in my mother country I didn’t pass muster.

My mother is proof of my cultural identity, and when I’m not with her, I’m an outsider even to other Asians.

I mostly laughed it off. After years of having my ethnicity doubted, humor is my coping mechanism. But I reached my breaking point in Shanghai when I desperately needed to find new work shoes after mine had broken. I’ve inherited my Italian father’s wide feet (thanks, Dad), so finding shoes that fit is a bit annoying. In China, however, it took days to find a single pair that didn’t torture me. At the first store I went to, a Chinese saleswoman, who was shocked that I was a size 9, said that not only did they not carry it, but also that she could not think of a single store in the city that would. In Shanghai, the shopping capital of mainland China, with a population of over 23 million, there was a good chance I was going to have to go barefoot. My feet aren’t dainty, but they’re hardly gargantuan. I eventually found a pair of black, strappy sandals that I purchased without looking at the price tag. My boss called them inappropriate for the office and I had to explain in broken Mandarin that these were the only shoes in this city I could fit.

When my mother visited China in 1981, she didn’t quite fit the mold either. Her family immigrated to New York City when she was a child. Tourism to China was not yet the booming business it is today, and as an Asian American, she didn’t feel entirely welcome. But when she visited her small village in Toisan, her parents’ former neighbors recognized her almost immediately. My mother wasn’t even born there, and her family had left nearly 20 years ago, but she so closely resembled my grandmother there was no question of who the parents could be. Her relatives and the entire village came out to see her. If I went there, who knows what they would think of this waiguoren, or foreigner.

The half of me that is Chinese has never felt Chinese enough. My wrists are too big for my mother’s jade bracelets. Even if I lost 40 pounds, my hips would be too wide for her wedding dress. As for the shoes, the gorgeous designer shoes from her days as an attorney, just forget about it. I’m no Carrie Bradshaw, but I still wish I could fit into her lacquer red heels or those teal pumps made of Italian leather as soft as butter. She no longer wears them and I would have to cut off a toe or two to fit them, so over the years, she has given them away. These differences between my mother and I, however slight, illustrate how I don’t fit in in my otherness.

When you look ethnically ambiguous, your heritage is a subject for debate. Guessing “what” you are is a party game.

When I leaf through our family photo albums, I’m struck by how I used to look more Asian. Next to my mother, there’s little Hayley riding a pony or playing on a beach in Maui. She’s a cute Chinese kid. As I grew up, my appearance changed, and by the age of 23, I barely resemble the girl in those photos. The albums bring back happy memories, but they also remind me of how much my culture was once reflected in my face, and how much was lost when I grew up. To quote Mulan, “When will my reflection show who I am inside?”

My mother is my defense when people question who I am and where I come from. My proof. Without her, I am an outsider. I’m multiethnic. But I don’t belong to multiple cultures, I simply stand alone at the boundaries.

But despite the questions and jokes and disbelief, I know who I am. My mother has never let me forget it. Hell, the other day I accidentally called a restaurant by itsMandarin name (Da Wang) instead of its Cantonese name (Dai Wang) and she retorted, “What? You only speak Mandarin now?” Nothing, not even my full lips or curves or wavy hair, will change the fact that she’s my mom and I’m part Chinese. Our similarities are beyond skin deep.

Hayley Cuccinello is a journalist and native New Yorker. Her passions include the entertainment business, multiethnic issues, and peanut butter.

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