We Are America

Voices of the Nation's Future

← Back to all stories
Photo ofCianna De-syra Mao Joseph

Growing up I felt like there was no place where I could fit in. My mom is Khmer and my dad is Grenadian. I never really got to explore my dad's culture growing up because I was always with my mom and still to this day I have never really felt connected to my dad’s side. However, I grew up mainly telling people I was black. I knew I didn't “look” Asian and I'm not sure how to explain it, but I just felt like it was weird to say that I was Asian. I didn’t fit the stereotypes of an Asian person. I grew up in the city of Lowell which is very diverse and has a very large Cambodian population.

I remember one day in 6th grade, I was with my classmates at lunch. I mentioned that I was Asian, and a boy turned to look at me and said, “you’re not Asian. Stop lying. You’re just black.” Everyone else around the table started laughing. He was laughing too. I was infuriated. I wanted to jump across the table and tackle him because I couldn’t deal with another person telling me what I was and what I wasn’t. But I couldn’t fully process what he had said and so instead I laughed it off. 

Throughout middle school, kids kept telling me similar things over and over again, that I wasn’t Asian, that I was not Cambodian. There were times where I would stand up for myself and try to explain who I was, but my words would be thrown out the window again and again by classmates. They would say that I was a liar, that I was trying to pretend to be a different race, or that I was lying to myself. 

Many young people don’t often talk about their struggles with being biracial. Starting when I was around 13, my friends and I, who are biracial, would occasionally talk about how it's hard for people like us and how we struggle trying to fit into our community.

Eventually by 8th grade, all the comments took a toll on me. I stopped explaining myself to others. For some time I lost my own identity and I hated that I was mixed. All the judgment from other people got to me. I started to hate myself. I didn't want to be half Grenadian or half Khmer. I wanted to just be one identity. 

Living in Lowell and surrounded by so many Cambodians I felt afraid to be proud of being half Asian because strangers would so often tell me differently. I would go to a Khmer grocery store with my mom. One thing I am proud of is that I can understand and speak Khmer. People at the store, both customers and workers, were speaking Khmer and they were questioning why I was there at the store. It was very embarrassing. I wanted to stand up for myself, but I didn’t know how to speak up for myself. I just stood there. This happened to me countless times, I would hear someone talking about me and I would be too afraid to speak up.  I became very insecure. I didn’t feel like I had a sense of belonging.

But soon after entering 9th grade I realized that I wasn’t the only kid who was biracial. I saw so many different people, there were people who were all sorts of biracial and multiracial. It was a slow process for me to accept myself, but I did so as I made new friends from all different backgrounds. I realized I no longer really cared much about what other people thought of me because I was surrounded by students who may have shared the same experiences as me. 

Now, only having one more year left before I graduate high school, I’m glad to say that I have found myself and who I am as a person. Even though there are times where I do struggle I still find a way to get back on my feet and to let those past encounters not affect me anymore. I’m proud that I have two different cultures and heritages that are a part of me. 

© Cianna De-syra Mao Joseph. All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team through this website and we can put you in touch with the young person’s teacher.