By Yvonne Lim Wilson
At age 15, Maya said she had been having an ongoing identity crisis within the past few years. She was tired of having to explain who she was given her mixed background. Her mother is Jewish and her father’s family is originally from Northern India, but he was raised in Malaysia.
“My identity overall has been complicated,” said Maya, a student at Westwood High School. “I never saw myself as Asian until participating in this exhibition. Being a part of this exhibition, it meant so much.”
Maya and other children and teens participated in “Where I Belong,” an exhibit exploring mixed-race Asian American Pacific Islander perceptions of identity, co-curated by the Asian American Resource Center and photojournalist Lizzie Chen. The exhibit opened January 13 with a discussion led by Chen and Maya.
Whether playing Legos in their bedroom or reading a book on the living room couch, Chen met her subjects in their homes or at a park of their choice, places where they would feel comfortable sharing glimpses into their everyday lives. All photographs utilized natural light.
“Mixed race is a growing population, tripling since the 1980s,” Chen said.
Overall, Chen said the children and teens appeared confident in their cultural background and well-grounded. However, some moments of conflict could open up questions of identity.
Chen talked about one teen, Tatianna, who felt torn in having to decide which box to check when applying for her driver’s license. In the end, she said she checked the box for “black” since that is how most people see her.
“At first her mother [who is South Asian] felt hurt but was then proud of her,” Chen said.
A common theme that came up in conversation was the importance of connecting various cultures through food.
“It’s a common bond we all share,” Chen said.
When asked what advice she may have to other children of mixed race, Maya advised being true to yourself. Though Maya does not speak any Indian languages or practice an Indian religion, she said she has come to realize that she cannot let others define her.
“I can say I’m just as Indian as you are. I have much of a right to the culture as you do,” she said. ”I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t have to explain who I am.”
While dealing with racial and cultural identity issues can be challenging for some, Maya observed that others have not felt as many deep conflicts with their mixed-race backgrounds, adding that they generally find other creative means of expression.
“You have to have a strong sense of self. Be the best you can be and don’t let other people get you down,” she said. “Just take the best parts of it and what’s important to you.”
Lizzie Chen received Masters in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. As a first generation Taiwanese American, she is interested in capturing the stories of marginalized communities through photojournalism, such as the immigrant community. The exhibit is on view at the AARC through June 29. Learn more at www.austintexas.gov/aarc and www.lizziechen.com.
Photos: Portrait of Maya by Lizzie Chen; Maya with her parents at the “Where I Belong” opening reception; Lizzie Chen with the author’s children, who are also featured in “Where I Belong.”