My name is Victoria Behrens – I’m 28 years old and live in San Francisco. However, if you check my driver’s license, my full name does a better job of describing who I am ethnically: Maria Victoria Palanca Behrens.
I was born in Manila and moved to California when I was five years old. My mother is of Chinese Filipina descent and my father is Venezuelan and Belgian. Coming from a country whose history is wrought with a colonial past, I find that my name is the most discerning quality of who I am ethnically. Maria is a common forename in Spanish culture, honoring the Virgin Mary in my parents’ Catholic upbringing. My middle name, Palanca, is my mother’s maiden name. It holds a strong family history in the Philippines, so much so that when we first moved to the states, my mother would warn my sister and I not to share it with other Filipinos we met for fear of our own personal safety. My last name is from my father, a strong German name that warrants a pause every time I share it with someone meeting me face-to-face for the first time.
The impact of my multi-cultural background never impacted my day to day until I transferred school districts to a high school where 60% of the students were Caucasian, 35% of Asian or East Indian descent, and only 5% of students identifying themselves outside of those two categories. Those four years were filled with the turmoil of figuring out which group I ‘belonged’ to. Even though at home my family values were very much tied to a strict Chinese upbringing, I never felt like I truly belonged with the Asian kids. On the other side of the coin, despite being raised by a Caucasian stepfather who took us camping and introduced us to American culture, I never felt at ease with the other 60% of student population either. But what I failed to see at that tender age, was that my community was an example of a growing pattern in the Bay Area where historically homogeneity was the norm until the influx of technology brought in a mix at a sudden and searing pace. A good example of this was the creation of separate PTA committees to accommodate parents whose preferred language was Chinese – neither committee had representatives at each other’s meetings.
Now as I look back, I realized the tipping point wasn’t a sudden resolution, but rather a gradual shift in my attitude towards the way I choose to interpret my interactions with others. I used to operate on stereotypes, claiming Asian upbringing when it was convenient, claiming Spanish roots at others – I mastered the art of being an ethnic chameleon. However, I’ve come to realize, there’s no need to wear a mask for the sake of becoming part of a group. What’s important is to celebrate who you are as a person, part of which is rooted in my ethnicity but more largely determined by my own cultural experience growing up in America. It wasn’t until I was able to identify my happiest moments as those I shared with friends and loved ones with similar experiences that I came to realize this: your ethnicity is an important factor of who you are on paper, but does not define who you are as a person.
I sometimes wonder if my own children will go through the same struggles I went through growing up. In some ways, I hope they do because I know that I am a stronger, more empathetic person because of it. I plan on celebrating the fact that my family will undoubtedly be a part of the overlapping segment in the venn diagram that makes up America’s ethnic makeup. For those who find themselves struggling with a lack of ethnic or racial identity, I urge you to take a moment and note the traditions and practices you enjoy the most. Create your own culture by sharing those experiences with like-minded individuals and celebrate the fact that you are able to be a part of a society where, as a people, we are becoming more accustomed to one another. You are not alone, my friend.