When I was a kid, I wanted to be white.
When I was growing up and strangers asked about my nationality, I’d smile and say, “I’m American. I was born in Hollywood,” as though the hospital’s Sunset Boulevard location — three miles from the famous sign — made me an honorary white person.
White was what I longed to be.
My looks are unique, so I understand people’s curiosity. Mom is from the Philippines; Dad was born in Roswell and grew up in East Los Angeles. He’s Mexican-American, and served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He wears his “Veteran” baseball cap in public to ward off racist remarks. My mom stays out of the sun to protect her creamy complexion. “You’re so dark,” she tells me if I’ve spent too much time hiking.
Growing up, my favorite TV shows featured nobody who looked like me. I wished I could be Marcia on The Brady Bunch or “Half-Pint” on Little House on The Prairie. I admired them the way I admired the blonde, blue-eyed girls in class who were tall, athletic and got all the boys. My younger sister and I took piano lessons like many white kids, but I wondered about activities like Girl Scouts. It wasn’t on my parents’ radar. Or maybe it was too expensive.
My parents aren’t to blame for this lost opportunity to feel pride in my ethnic identity. They wanted the best for me and Hazel. Back in the 1970s, immigrants and first-generation Americans thought assimilation was best.
And boy, did I assimilate. Over the years, I loved The Mickey Mouse Club, sang in the choir, played flute in marching band, wrote articles for the school newspaper, and sold chocolate bars to fund a high school trip to Washington, D.C.
I felt white. I wanted my outside to match my inside.
My home life wasn’t particularly ethnic. Our meals were mostly mainstream fare — spaghetti, hamburgers, tacos, pizza — but my mother sometimes made delicious Filipino dishes such as chicken adobe (marinated in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, and spices), pancit (rice noodles with vegetables), and lumpia (small egg rolls).
Ties to our cultural heritage were limited. We saw my mom’s side of the family at Christmas, but never thought to ask aunts and uncles about family stories or life in the Philippines.
I could have grown up fluent in Tagalog and Spanish. Instead, I studied conversational Spanish at our high school near the Port of L.A. while my sister signed up for French. Hazel learned a bit of our dad’s native tongue, though, from boyfriends and restaurant co-workers who affectionately dubbed her “Quesito” because they couldn’t pronounce her name.
Little Cheese. We thought this was hilarious.
Other experiences were not so funny. A boy in elementary school pulled the corners of his eyes back and taunted me with“ching-chong, ching-chong.” A Latino high school friend called me a “banana.” Asian on the outside, white on the inside. I was confused and offended. On one hand, he was right. On the other, his comment implied I was trying to be white. What did he expect me to do, dress in traditional garb? Fake a Filipino accent? I was just being me: I was born here, loved pop culture, and talked like everyone else.
Years later, my white (now ex-)husband praised me for not going all ¡Viva la raza! about my heritage: “You don’t make a big deal of it.” Like him, I was going to achieve success due to hard work, not affirmative action, which was so prominent in the news.
In 2002, we moved from California to a “very white” Colorado city. I didn’t give it much thought then, but after 14 years here, an observation sometimes hits me: I’m the only non-white person in this book club. I’m the only Latina/Filipina/“Other” in my work group.
I’m okay with that, though. My friends and co-workers don’t care about the shape of my eyes or the color of my skin. I’m simply “Katherine.”
Last year, I attended a multicultural community retreat and met people of all backgrounds who take pride in their diversity. I talk openly about these issues with friends. Now, in my 40s, I’d tell my 16-year-old self she doesn’t need to look like Marcia Brady to feel confident. I’d tell her to hang in there. That one day, she’s going to walk past a man, hear him tell his buddy, “She’s beautiful,” and she’s going to believe it.
Then I’d flash her a million-dollar, Hollywood smile.
Katherine Valdez usually isn’t this serious (she specializes in writing about embarrassing encounters with famous authors) but recent events have compelled her to think deep thoughts. Read her coverage of author events and book festivals at www.KatValdezWriter.wordpress.com and follow her @KatValdezWriter .