I played a lot of solitaire growing up. I was an only child and a nerd and thus on my own a lot of the time. When I wasn’t, I was asked to mind my manners and keep quiet around the adults. For most of my adolescence, I used a weathered pack of dark blue playing cards for those solitaire games. On the back, embossed in gold, was the logo of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters: a pair of horses’ heads above a wagon wheel. Shuffling the deck, I felt . . . alone. I was on the outside, wishing to be on the inside--where everyone else seemed to be.
The Teamsters union was where my mother worked in 1971, toward the end of the height of American labor organizing. She had immigrated to America from Rangoon, Burma,1 in 1965, escaping a military dictatorship. From her initial landing pad in Washington, D.C., she went on to attend Swarthmore College, and became passionate about leftist politics.
After college, she found a job at the Teamsters union, a group supporting blue-collar workers’ rights. That led to an interview for a job at the Alliance for Labor Action. The man who interviewed her there was my father, and from the moment they met, she couldn’t stand him. Perhaps that should have been a warning, but instead it became their meet-cute: They hated each other! And then they got married.
My father’s ancestry began on the other side of the world. He was the fourth child of a mail carrier in rural Iowa, the son of an Irish American mother and a father who claimed roots in Luxembourg. My dad showed an early interest in politics and, like my mother, came to Washington to work on liberal causes. He had longish hair, worked on George McGovern’s presidential campaign, and knew the counterculture writer Hunter S. Thompson. My mother’s and father’s faraway histories intersected on a bridge of early 1970s bohemianism. Only a few generations back, their families had been separated by oceans and mountain ranges and steppes. But in Washington, their shared values were enough to draw them close.
They were married in 1975 and several years later had their only child--me, a daughter born of an unlikely set of Burmese-Luxembourgian-Irish bloodlines. Of this heritage I knew little. Our Burmese story was relayed to me by my mother and grandmother, only occasionally, and almost always over some homemade, traditional dish. A pot of chicken curry would summon some certain memory, which would then spiral into another memory, or into a snippet of family history. But only a snippet. Burma was kept at a distance from our American lives.
On my European side, my great-grandfather (my father’s grandfather) left the Old World sometime during the late nineteenth century. I didn’t know much about his departure and why he’d made it, or even much about the place where he began: Luxembourg, the sixth smallest country in the world, in a town called Esch. These details weren’t much discussed, which gave them an air of mystery.
My father’s mother and her family were from Ireland, but as far as American family histories went, Ireland didn’t interest me much. The best parts of being Irish, according to what I knew, had become as familiar as St. Patrick’s Day. The cliché was that Irish daughters were redheaded and pale, and the sons would drink and get in fistfights. I was definitely not in either of those categories. So Luxembourg was the ancestral origin I most frequently cited, but that was a little like being from the dark side of the moon, or an island in the center of an ocean. It was like being from somewhere almost no one had heard of.
As a child I didn’t think much about these family histories. It didn’t cross my mind that I was, in some way, the outcome of all of them combined. And no one told me much about our origins anyway. I was mostly taught that my ancestors, whoever they were--the people in my family tree, by the random genetic alignments in the universe--should in no way affect my destiny. Anyway, wasn’t that the whole point of America? Dynasties were for the Old World. Tradition was something held aloft by queens and kings, and bloodlines were for horses and pharaohs.
Here, in the United States, we could be whoever we wanted to be instead. This country, as we had been taught, was about moving forward, not backward. This sentiment has always been engrained in our culture--from the colonists seizing native land, to the politicians of every political stripe: “Go west, young man!” And by “Go west,” they really meant “Look ahead--don’t worry about all that stuff you’re leaving behind.”
Here’s what I knew about my father and his side of the family: At Christmastime, they enjoyed drinking a sludgy and highly alcoholic concoction known as a Tom and Jerry. There were nuns who’d rapped his knuckles in middle school. In his hometown, every family had lots of siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles--quite different from my only-child household. These were my main cultural reference points for “Irish Catholic.” They were stories casually told in passing, reminders of my father’s storybook beginning before he came to the East Coast.
Elsewhere in our house, Asia was present but not entirely accounted for. When my mother went to bed each night, she knelt in prayer toward a small gold statue of the Buddha as she recited her prayers, softly and quickly. She’d touch my knee as we drove past cemeteries, and whenever I mentioned death, she would mutter in Burmese under her breath. She made me spit on my fingernails every time I trimmed them. Practically speaking, this is what it meant to be half-Burmese: a series of traditions and almost magical-seeming practices I didn’t really understand but accepted nonetheless.
Every April is the annual Burmese New Year’s water festival of Thingyan. On the streets of Rangoon, men and women and children throw water at one another in celebration of the new year--and to cool off in the middle of the excruciatingly hot dry season. Meanwhile, the immigrant community in and around Silver Spring, Maryland--right outside my home in Washington, D.C.--would traditionally gather in someone’s backyard to celebrate. To me, sloshing water around on 54-degree early spring weekends was practically torture. Neighborhood boys, usually aged ten to twelve, had a field day--but they were more excited to taunt me than to celebrate the new year. Armed with plastic buckets brimming with cold water from the garden hose, the boys would unceremoniously hurl water at me. I hated it, and would have much preferred to celebrate the New Year--everybody else’s new year in December--with the Times Square ball and a glittery, feathered tiara. Each April, as I beelined back to the circle of adults giggling and clucking at my soaked clothing, I felt annoyed and angry that I had to suffer through these stupid humiliations.
I thought of myself as generically American, both in cultural preference (Chips Ahoy!, cartoons) and appearance (T-shirts and sneakers), but occasionally, I was reminded that how I saw myself wasn’t necessarily how everyone else saw me. As on the day when I sat at the counter of the American City Diner and the white line cook turned to ask me, while my father was in the bathroom, if I was adopted. I brushed it off, as if this were something I was asked all the time. It most certainly wasn’t. Instead of showing my surprise, I laughed to relieve him of how embarrassed he must have been to ask such an awkward question, and responded, “Oh no, my mother’s just Asian!”
But he wasn’t embarrassed for having asked me that at all. Moments like this were reminders that, to some people, I was not generically American.
I had invested fully in the story my parents told me. I considered most everyone--no matter their race, culture, or religion--American, just like me, never minding that we didn’t look alike or come from the same places. We were here! And yet the feeling was not always mutual: In the eyes of certain folks, who were universally certain white folks, I was not American; I was something else. If my “we” included them, theirs did not include me.
Even then, as a twelve-year-old in the diner drinking a vanilla shake, I recognized the power of this exclusiveness. I deferred to it, respectful. I offered a grinning explanation as to why I didn’t look the way some line cook thought the daughter of an average white American should look. In fact, my reply verged on being an apology. The cook’s certainty about what was generically American and what was not generically American seemed to be deeply entwined with something--blood or DNA or place--that was far more definitive than the casual connections I’d forged in my life thus far. I envied his sense of ownership over who was (or must be) a Typical American--his belief regarding who belonged--even if it made me feel fairly terrible to have an identity I’d casually assumed and embodied suddenly . . . denied.
How could I feel like I belonged? How could I define my identity? Perhaps, I eventually realized, the answer was not in trying to fit myself into the world of generically white Americana, where I would never be at home. But nor was it in joining the suburban Burmese exile community in Silver Spring, which seemed just as distant and had a significant language barrier to boot.
After all, neither my maternal nor paternal backgrounds had held much sway over my sense of self. Luxembourg and Burma were about as familiar to me as Narnia and the North Pole. But when I considered my heritage as a single thing, rather than an either-or proposition in which I had to choose between Rangoon and Esch, these two poles--Burmese and Irish-Luxembourgian--taken together offered something entirely, definitively new. And this category of Mixed Race Heritage, this was a place I could belong!
I wouldn’t be bound by outdated ideas about identity, some hokey old-timer’s notion of what “regular” America looked like. That was the past! My own, new tribe would be as rigorously inclusive as that line cook was exclusive.
My thinking about this brave new identity crystalized on November 18, 1993, when the cover of Time magazine heralded “The New Face of America,” which kind of (if you squinted) looked like me.1
“Take a good look at this woman,” the headline dared the reader. “She was created by a computer from a mix of several races. What you see is a remarkable preview of . . . the new face of america.”
Inside was a story that promised to explain “how immigrants are shaping the world’s first multicultural society.”
I was a sophomore in high school and the cover was a revelation: I was the new face of America? Somehow I was an early example, sent from the future to show the people of America what they would all look like a few generations down the road. Just as Time promised, these parents of mine--one immigrant plus the child of some immigrants--had unknowingly created the futureface. I felt comforted by the idea that, according to this article, I belonged in the world the future promised us: one of cultural and racial inclusion.
When I was in high school, I found a box filled with my mother’s old clothes from the seventies. There was a tiny bright green T-shirt emblazoned with orange iron-on letters that spelled out rangoon ramona. It was something my father had made for my mother, based on a nickname that had been retired several anniversaries ago, but here was the perfect shirt for me, futureface. “Rangoon” was the capital of Burma, far away on the other side of the world. “Ramona” was the Old World. The old European world, that is. It dawned on me that I felt lucky. To be Burmese without the Irish-German half was to be Asian. To be a descendant of Irish Germans was to be white. Oh, but to be both! To be both was to be the space between them, the whole world that their stories traversed. It was to be the future.
And so here I was, in my mother’s rangoon ramona T-shirt, defending not one particular culture but swimming around in the new thing created from the mixture of two. It seemed almost greedy.
On a trip to Hawaii right before college, a local called me a “hapa.” What exactly was a hapa? I asked. “It means you’re mixed!” he said to me, and the revelation was like having lived your whole life thinking you were a pigeon only to find out you were a toucan. Tropical, ambiguous, interesting. Hapa.
Shortly after college, on a visit to New York, a man in a coffee shop came up and asked me, “What’s your blood?” I responded, “O negative,” because he deserved a ridiculous answer for an absurd question. The idea that I could name my “blood” was a small-minded concept. Instead, I had started celebrating multiculturalism--just as America had.
Since America’s inception by European colonists, the country’s culture had been strictly white and male-oriented. Recent leaps toward diversity have been a refreshing, much-needed change from the patriarchy. The shift began with the 1960s cultural studies programs born of protest, starting with the establishment of African American studies. Even white Judeo-Christian scholars started to question whether mainstream culture best represented our dynamic and increasingly diverse society: Didn’t women and brown folks play pivotal roles in the building of our democracy, our economy, our history? If there was a common American story, how could it be told without them with any accuracy whatsoever?
By the 1970s, scholars and activists and authors were questioning this incomplete, uniformly white history. In 1980, historian and activist Howard Zinn released his alternative chronicle of our national development, called A People’s History of the United States. This history acknowledged the labor of slaves, the work of women, the struggles of the native people. The book was about the developments and contributions that happened at the grassroots level, that were sidelined and marginalized--but were no less pivotal. Zinn’s text could be taught in classrooms as an alternative to the dusty, one-sided histories of yore, and American liberals were now taking their turn at reframing a story that had been told since the beginning of time.
Burma is now officially known as Myanmar. This dates back to 1989, when a military takeover--installing a government known as the military junta--changed the name of the country. The military junta was carrying out violence and human rights violations across the country; it’s thought that they changed the country’s name to distract from this negative attention. My family--and all the Burmese exiles I have known--continued to call the country Burma, as an act of defiance--a refusal to acknowledge an illegitimate junta. At any rate, throughout this book I refer to the country and its people as Burma and Burmese. Though the name Burma unfortunately also has negative connotations (it stems from the era of British colonialism), it remains the way in which my family has identified itself and separated itself from a regime that has persecuted and killed its own citizens--and continues to.
Copyright © 2020 by Alex Wagner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.