When I was growing up, I was convinced God had given me the wrong skin. Surely he had meant to make me more…American, like my friends. Less yellow, more white. Rounder eyes, less slanty. It would take years and a place thousands of miles from home to help me see myself through new eyes.

No Place Like Home
My childhood was spent in the suburbs of Maryland, with a life that looked typically American on the outside, but was most definitely Filipino on the inside.  At home, we ate the Filipino food of my father’s culture—fried lumpia, roast chicken spiked with salty patis and lemon, pork adobo in soy sauce and vinegar, all of it with rice. We even ate rice for breakfast with a garlicky sweet sausage called longanisa. My favorite desserts were Filipino—rich leche flan, sticky rice topped with a toasty layer of coconut milk, and halo-halo, a snowball-like blend of evaporated milk, fruit, and—improbably—beans. 

On weekends, we hosted parties where my mother was one of only a few white women. Our home reverberated with Tagalog, the national Filipino language, punctuated with bursts of laughter. Sometimes the women donned traditional gowns with intricate beading and butterfly sleeves. They would light candles and balance them on their heads and palms for the pandanggo dance. And when the lilting music of the tinikling began, I was mesmerized by the clicking and tapping of dried bamboo poles against the floor as pairs of bare feet skittered between them.

But when I walked out my front door on Monday mornings, I instantly became American. In the cafeteria of my mostly white middle school, instead of eggrolls, I ate ham sandwiches with rubbery American cheese and yellow mustard. I crunched apples instead of sucking on mango slices. Instead of itchy lace dresses, I wore jeans and t-shirts, doing my best to hide my Filipino side. I could never hide my almond eyes, however, and whispers of “Chink” followed me through school. 

I ricocheted between these two identities for my entire childhood, never fully at home in either one. But the summer before high school, my life changed in a moment. 

Losing My Place
On a hot July day, my father died of a sudden heart attack. He was 51 and had lived in the U.S. for just over 20 years. Friends gathered from all over for his funeral. After the tumult subsided, our home life changed drastically. My father had been the extrovert, president of the local Filipino associations, while my introverted mother had befriended the few American wives, none of whom spoke Tagalog. All at once, the boisterous parties came to an end. My father’s friends gradually fell away, and our home lost the sound of Tagalog.

In the ensuing months, more changes came. Some made things easier: gone was the tension of two religions in the home. We no longer had to attend a Protestant service and Catholic mass every Sunday. We ate less rice as my mom began to cook the German food of her childhood—sour beef, sauerkraut, and a pungent, vinegary potato salad that made our eyes water. Instead of Filipino food being the norm, it became a special event, often coinciding with visits from my dad’s family.

I had secretly longed to become more American, and now, irrevocably, my wish had been granted. But I was adrift, not fully anchored in either culture, and the loss of my father compounded matters. I couldn’t seem to settle into my own skin. During high school, I floated on the fringes of a few tight-knit groups of Asian girls and a vast sea of white students.

A Place in the Sun
Not until I was in college and spent a semester in Hawaii did I finally learn to meld the two disparate parts of my life. I went seeking sun and sand, but God had a more lasting work in mind, and Hawaii was the perfect backdrop for transformation.

The first time I ventured out on my own, I went to a local fast-food place called Zippy’s. It looked a lot like a Denny’s, so I had low expectations, figuring it would at least fit my budget. But in addition to the usual French fries and hamburgers, the menu had rice bowls, noodles, and sushi…my kind of food. Only at Zippy’s could you find a Hawaiian plate lunch with spam, fish, fried chicken, rice, chili, and macaroni salad.

Everywhere I looked I saw a blend of cultural influences, whether it was traditional hymns played on a ukulele in church or Portuguese sausage for sale next to the hot dogs in a local drugstore. When I was introduced to strangers, they often smiled and said, “A hapa girl.” A friend explained that hapa, to most islanders, meant “half” and was used for people of multiethnic descent (Hawaiian or Asian). To be called hapa felt like a term of endearment to me. “You’re one of us,” was its message. All around me, I saw people who looked like me but with none of the racial baggage; they were perfectly at home with their blend of cultures. They embraced what they loved from each one.

Finding My Place
Spending time with my hapa friends helped me appreciate what God had given me—a rich blend of Filipino, Chinese, Spanish, German, and Irish genes. I didn’t have to pledge allegiance to only one culture. As I learned to embrace my multi-ethnic heritage, I realized my father had done the same thing when he emigrated from the Philippines. He had kept beloved traditions and married them with new ones. He ate Maryland steamed crabs, but Filipino style—smothered in Old Bay and served with rice and sweetened vinegar on the side. He added juicy summer peaches to his halo-halo and served Filipino barbecue skewers with a side of Silver Queen corn. And most important, he married an American wife, combining their cultures and families to create something new. 

In Hawaii, surrounded by people of every color and culture, I finally learned to love the skin I’d been given. My worldview, once limited to “either…or,” was now more expansive: it was “both…and.” This freedom and new acceptance of my identity permeated my relationship with the Lord. Instead of fighting him, I was free to flourish in the skin he’d given me.

Since those tropical days, I’ve lived in three other, very different places—the West Coast, the East Coast, and the deep South. Each has had its own distinctives and delights (and yes, downsides), and in each place, God has given me spiritual lessons inextricably tied to the setting. But for this hapa girl, Hawaii will always be my sacred place, where setting became sanctuary, and where I first learned to embrace the design of a loving Creator. 

Photo credit: Ben White @benwhitephotography on Unsplash

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