Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Medium and reposted with permission.
Growing up in Brooklyn, I had a lot of friends from different backgrounds — many that were white, a few that were Asian, but none that were both, like me. I felt like I was the only one in the overlap of a Venn diagram, part of both circles but still different.
Mostly, it felt like holding two passports. On Saturdays, I went to the Chinatown YMCA to learn to haltingly talk with my mom in her native Mandarin, and on Sundays, I went to Garfield Temple to learn enough Hebrew for my Bat Mitzvah. I’ve never been fluent in either. I loved the diversity and abundance (in all things, but especially the food) in the marriage between my far-flung parents and their very vivid cultures. By the time I arrived at Stuyvesant High School, I found myself moving between the nearly half white and half Asian student body — not feeling like I fully belonged to either but also privileged enough to not think too much about it.
It’s an understatement to say — a lot has happened since.
For more than the last year, we’ve been living through what feels like compounding earthquakes: a pandemic followed by a recession followed by a rupture in the fault lines of racial and social injustice. Like so many other people, I’ve thought and learned about many new things this past year, including my own identity. For the most part, I pass as white. I look like my dad’s mom Selma, and people who knew her find the resemblance uncanny. Which is why I understand people’s confusion when they see my mom and I together. When I was a kid, they would ask her if she was my nanny. These days, they ask me if I’m her caretaker. I always wished I looked more like her, because then our connection would be obvious. My identity would be obvious.
Being Asian is central to who I am because it is who my mom is. She moved to America when she was 22, leaving Taipei, Taiwan for Ann Arbor, Michigan. After getting a graduate degree in Urban Planning, she went to work for the New York City Department of Transportation as an engineer, designing the city’s traffic lights. I love thinking about how she helped choreograph the crowds and cars crisscrossing the streets.
As with so many other ethnic and racial communities, our country has a long and painful history with Asian Americans. They have been imprisoned in internment camps, excluded by immigration quotas, and attacked by their fellow citizens. Asian American Heritage Month takes place in May to honor the Chinese laborers who laid the tracks for the transcontinental railroad that was finished in May 1869. Like my mom, they worked hard so that America could get to work, empowering us to stop and go across the country with iron and steam.
To be entirely honest, I’ve never really found my voice on issues of identity and race. I wasn’t comfortable speaking up on behalf of the Asian community because as someone who was only “half” I didn’t feel qualified. But where does permission come from anyway? It doesn’t come from our genetics (our racial percentages and ancestral fractions) or whether we look like our mothers or our grandmothers. I have permission to say what is true for me: I am not half, I am whole. I identify with my mom and my dad, and instead of being half of each, I am fully both.
When I had my Bat Mitzvah, I became a fully-fledged member of the Jewish community and took on the responsibilities that came with it. This meant that I could officially be “counted” for prayer services and communal responsibilities, with the burdens and the blessings that entails. Now I wholeheartedly count myself as Asian too. I was the only white and Asian kid I knew growing up, but these days so many of my friends and family have kids that are like me. I hope they know they are not half, but fully both.
About the Author: Naomi Gleit (Facebook, Instagram) is Vice President of Product and Social Impact at Facebook. She leads the team building products and tools that work across our family of apps, helping people do good on and off Facebook. Naomi also oversees the growth of Facebook’s core app, and manages the product management organization and team working to keep people safe on Facebook.