Beautiful North Devon is where I was born and where I have spent most of my life. I am proud to call this place home now, but that wasn’t always the case; I spent many years when I was younger wanting to get out. Mum was born in the Philippines and Dad was born in England. I identify as British-Filipina, although for most of my life I would have told you I was British. My experience growing up as biracial Asian in a predominately white town was both positive and negative. I loved running around freely in the nearby woods and on beaches – camping, cycling, skateboarding and copying whatever my older brother did. Other than eating mum’s delicious Filipino food, and the occasional parties we had with the few Filipino families we knew, we didn’t do many Filipino things.
As a young girl, I knew of a few families who were POC or biracial, but not many children who went to my school came from these backgrounds. Since a young age, I sat with a feeling of being ‘different’. In primary school I remember the first moment I felt this – another child told me I was ugly because I’m Chinese. And innocent questions such as ‘why is your mum brown?’ as well as the overt racism I experienced when I grew older, reinforced this feeling of being different.
One poignant memory is of a friend’s dad saying I looked like ‘burnt toast.’ The interesting thing about this is that I was actually quite fair skinned as a child but nonetheless it was clear that many people saw me and my family as ‘other’. However subtle or strong words were, they contributed to my having an internalised belief that white was better. White privilege was all around me and I was in some ways cognisant of it. I rarely discussed these experiences with my family, probably so I could avoid the topic and avoid hurting myself or them. I really hope children today are able to have these conversations.
I began to believe that what made me different (my skin and features) were the things that made me ugly, or somehow not good enough. I wanted to be whiter, blonder, taller. Even when I imagined myself visually, I convinced myself I had lighter hair and lighter skin. As I reached my teens, my closest friends (who are still my closest friends today) were nothing but inclusive and wonderful. Yet we never had conversations about race. I’m so glad that I’m starting to see more people around me having healthy conversations on this topic.
This feeling of wanting ‘in’ with whiteness, in some ways extended into later life, mostly subconsciously, and affected how I experienced university and life beyond that. When I was 23 I moved to London – it was a breath of fresh air – to be in an area of England that was multicultural – the people, food and music – was something I’d longed for, but hadn’t known until I experienced it. It was only after this that I began taking an interest in my Filipino heritage, when I began to see it as part of me and my identity. Now I’m energised and animated when the topic comes up.
Although I identified with whiteness when I was young, on the other hand, sometimes, such as when I spoke to other South East Asians, I never felt Asian enough. I never really had much to say about my heritage and people were astounded that I hadn’t ever been to the Philippines or that I didn’t know any Tagalog (national language). I didn’t know much about the Philippines and this wasn’t due to lack of stories or willingness from my mum, but because I didn’t put any energy into learning more. Multiple times in my life I’ve felt a division in my identity. How should I identify? What world do I belong in? But each time I came back to the fact that I can choose how I identify myself and it’s not based on race. I feel a belonging with my family and friends and that’s what’s important. At the time of writing I still haven’t visited The Philippines but I’m planning to as soon as I can. The most interesting part of my story is that my partner is of Filipino heritage, which we didn’t realise until it came up in our first conversation. We also learned that we had very similar experiences growing up in rural UK. I hadn’t met many Filipinos in my life and yet here we are, it’s quite extraordinary!
I look back at my story with some sadness but mainly love towards the people who have held me in my life. This is my experience of the difficulties of having mixed heritage and I’m committed to learning and evolving on this journey, having healthy discussions about race particularly with other people who struggle and want support.
© Marisse Gaskell 2020