I am mixed race and I hate when people ask me ‘What are you?’

“What are you?”

I have been asked this question so many times by so many strangers.

They want to figure out where I come from. 

But those three words have made me feel like I didn’t belong.

How can one short question be so alienating?

Sometimes being mixed is to feel like you’re never whole. Always half one thing and half another.

Woman with long dark hair faces front. Stares with blank expression. She is wearing a red top underneath a jean jacket.
Born in Canada, Sidney Phommarath never felt a strong connection to her Lao side. She is trying to change that. (Sidney Phommarath)

As a child, my grandparents tried to speak to me in Lao. I always refused. While driving with my grandpa one time, he started hitting his leg and calling himself stupid. He had a misunderstanding with someone in English. 

He looked back at me in the backseat and asked, “Do you think Bpoo is stupid?”

“No, you’re not stupid Bpoo,” I told him. 

Even though I was a kid, I understood his embarrassment and shame. That memory has stuck with me. 

When I was five, my dad told me he didn’t have a bathtub growing up. I laughed in his face. Who doesn’t have a bathtub in their house, I wondered. He was hurt. 

“It’s not funny, I’m being serious. I didn’t have many things when I was your age,” he told me.

It was my turn to feel ashamed.

A young girl, about age five stares into camera in this vintage photo. She has bangs and sits on a rattan-backed kitchen chair. She has large, dark eyes.
From a very young age, Sidney Phommarath didn’t want to learn Lao. As an adult, she is trying to become more connected with the language and culture of Laos. (Sidney Phommarath )

These experiences with my granddad and my dad made an impact. After that day with my dad, he started sharing more of his childhood memories with us, and I started to appreciate how much more I had. Yet, my young mind still associated being Lao with rejecting language, shame and frustration, and having less. 

My childhood was so very different. 

I had a Canadian childhood. I spoke English at home, went to church on Sundays, wore the same clothes as everyone else — and yet, I never felt like I blended in. 

It made me special and a target all at once.– Sidney Phommarath 

But once I hit middle school I was made awfully aware of how different I was. I felt both invisible and the centre of attention. Being Asian was my super power because I was different. It made me special and a target all at once. 

Despite my questions and confusion about who I really was, I always felt connected to the Lao side of my family. 

Lao people know what it’s like to be unknown.

We get asked the same questions over and again. Our answers are loaded in our DNA. 

“Where’s Laos?” 

“It’s between Thailand and Vietnam.”

“What’s it like?”

“It’s like being Thai but different.”

‘I don’t know’

For me, it’s the inevitable followup questions and my own honest answers that wound me. 

“No, I can’t speak the language. No, I’ve never been there. Do I want to go? I don’t know.”

Today I feel incomplete. I am constantly reminded of my shortcomings. 

I can’t speak Lao. I don’t eat the food. I don’t understand the culture. 

I have known for a long time that I need to go to Laos. It has been my dream to live there and learn how to speak Lao. 

As I got older, this dream became more complicated. 

I was scared that if I went, no one would see me as Lao. I would be another tourist.

I couldn’t face the heartbreak of not being accepted as Lao, either.– Sidney Phommarath

I couldn’t stand the idea of being mistaken for white in a land where I so desperately wanted to belong. 

I knew that I wouldn’t look the same or speak the same. They would all see right through me, and I’d feel the same displacement and shame I felt growing up. 

After a childhood of not feeling Canadian enough, I couldn’t face the heartbreak of not being accepted as Lao, either.  

Maybe I can belong to multiple places at once.

And the only way to do that is to face my fears and figure out where I belong.