Counterfeit: Learning to Cherish My Biracial Identity

October 9, 2020 / Kyra Burke

Words have followed me my entire  life—the pencil marks brimming the journals sprawled across my fourth-grade lap, the grumbling cadences of my grandfather’s voice as he spoke to my mother in Vietnamese, and the labyrinthine poetry scrawled on the canvases of my arms. Even now, writing this narrative in the dappled daylight from my bedroom window, I reflect on the journey that words have taken me on—thoughts reverberating between the obstacles it has thrust before me and the doorways that have blossomed beneath my feet.

The earliest words I remember were those from my mother.

Her crystalline voice resonated through my ears as she recollected fragments of her past in the Vietnam War. She and her six family members had escaped by boat, leaving their belongings behind to perish in the wake of bomb blasts. Rather than harboring the bloodied wounds of her childhood, my mother embraced her new life in the United States by attending an American university and marrying an American man. It was in this asymmetrically Asian-American household that my life began to take shape. 

I recall the time she took me to the Tet festival when I was seven. Fingers intertwined firmly with hers, I observed my surroundings with an aura of youthful curiosity for the vibrancy that encompassed me. I stared, mesmerized, as fluorescent lion dancers pranced tauntingly through cloudbursts of fuschia and yellow confetti. Staccato drum beats mixed with snippets of Vietnamese conversations filled the air, and as my mom led me through the bustling crowds I caught a gust of savory Banh bao. We were stopped abruptly when a swarm of laughing children billowed past, wielding red paper envelopes in their hands like trophies. I felt a pang of jealousy jolt through me. I wanted their happiness; I wanted to understand. My mom, sympathetic, turned to hand me my own envelope, but its flimsy material struck me as cheap. I traced the artificial gold embroidery with my thumb, smoothed over words I didn’t recognize and slipped my fingers into the fold only to retrieve a false symbol of security: money. The festival became an unintelligible blur behind me as I gazed blankly at the envelope in my hand, its tacky gold decor scintillating deceitfully in the sunlight. In spite of the wonderment and joy encompassing me, I starkly remember feeling out of place—a counterfeit. I was the lion dancer parading tauntingly towards me, outwardly authentic until stripped of its paper mache to reveal a hollow shell underneath. The language spoken around me was not mine, the words engraved on the paper envelopes were not mine, and this culture was not mine. From that point forward, I desperately strived to understand the conversations between my mother and grandfather; I ached to pinpoint a single word that could register with meaning in my mind. When I asked why my mother never taught me Vietnamese, she would respond simply, “there was no need.”

There were times when silence spoke louder than words.

I remember the time my father and I stargazed at the George Observatory. My father—breath streaming ribbon-like from his lips in billowing cones, head tilted back towards the frostbitten sky. We soundlessly dipped our fingertips into the night, watching the stars constellate on our palms like gemstones, pupils boring endlessly into the universe. Chicago-born and raised in a fragmented Italian-German household, he had replaced the missing shards of his childhood by wholeheartedly embracing my mother’s Vietnamese family. Despite this, the language was lost during my youth, and this loss echoed torturously within me at every family reunion, temple visit, and cultural festival. And yet, with my father I felt the echoes subdue, shrink hastily away as if ashamed to feel at peace with my American side. My father had taught me that words weren’t everything—the silence of observation was precious, too, and the realm beyond our reach was extraordinary and unimaginable. The Startalk podcasts, Morgan Freeman documentaries, and stacks of books on astrophysics occupied his pastime and filled his voice with the calculated cadences of a man who lived and breathed space. His undying fascination for the universe touched deep within me, and as my eyes traced the swirling galaxies above us, I let my cultural anxieties drift weightlessly into the void, becoming one with the stars. At this time in my life, I was comfortable with the silence.

Years later, the words returned.

But they felt like starlight—warm, luminous, omnipresent.

Thoughts freed of yearnings and frustrations, I examined my mixed background through a new window of maturity. The words that had haunted me when I was young no longer stirred a desperation to understand their meaning. With eyes clear of emotion, it became increasingly lucid that these words weren’t counterfeit copies of my mother or father. They were uniquely my own.

For the first time, I realized I didn’t need to claim the words of my mother or the silence of my father. It didn’t matter. What mattered was the preservation of my parents’ stories. I grasped the tender words of my mother’s past and her overflowing gratitude for the chance to start anew. I cradled my father’s silent admiration for the universe and his philosophical, open-minded approach to life.  In my hands were my two halves, not extensions of myself, but rather, the soil and nutrients to help me blossom into the woman I am today. Their disparate cultures allowed me the rare chance to view life through two lenses, and I relaxed into a state of profound appreciation for the knowledge they passed on to me.

Reflecting on these sentiments, I no longer scorned my biracial background—I cherished it.

Although words spoken and written on a day-to-day basis are evanescent, the stories of my parents are forever. My mother taught me how to honor the past and my father taught me how to look towards the future. It is my decision to dictate the present and express my words in a manner that will leave an impression on the world. I see myself reflected in the faces of other biracial individuals and I want to offer them encouragement to build upon the rich foundation their parents laid for them. With this in mind, they are empowered to shape their lives to fit their own aspirations, propelled by the knowledge of their parents.

Today, I reach towards the future with bright eyes and outstretched palms, newfound words on the tip of my tongue, prepared to conquer the world. ■

By: Kyra Burke

Graphics By: Izellah Wang
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