Words by Valerie Moloney
Last year a little mestiza from Murrieta, California ripped our collective hearts out of our chests with her poignant teenage cry, “Drivers License.” I don’t know if it’s age appropriate for a 46-year-old woman who hasn’t opened a high school locker since 1993 to like that song so much, but I did. Like, a lot. And let me tell you why: It was because I saw my own teenage self in Olivia Rodrigo, and my own teenage girls.
But it wasn’t just the heartbreak that resonated. She’s half Filipino and half white, like my daughters. In a world that for so long has singled out white as the standard for beauty, it is so freaking nice to see one of your own celebrated. You take what you can get, as it were, because tomorrow the “it” girl might be someone different.
My half-Irish, half-Filipino daughters grapple with the tug-of-war between their bicultural identities, an oft times conflicting struggle on top of the standard fare of teenage hormones, romance, academic pressure and, now, the overall COVID malaise. They do a hell of a lot better job of embracing both cultures rather than letting the outside world define them, but inevitably, ignorance creeps in and creates cracks in the foundation. A few weeks ago, Elle, my middle child, came home to share that a friend, who is white, said very deliberately, “Wait, there’s no bit of white in you?” How do you explain to a 15-year-old that sometimes the world is confused when they can’t place your ethnicity? That well-meaning comments have the capacity to offend simply because you might be the first mixed-race person they’ve encountered? I told Elle to shrug it off, that her friend probably wasn’t aware of how that came off.
But who is telling the other girl not to say that in the first place? Who’s accounting for my daughter’s feelings? Is the onus on her to have more empathy, or the other girl to be more of an informed ally?
Growing up in a predominantly white school system in conservative Virginia Beach, Virginia, there was no talk of empathy or allyship. I hid my brownness to fit in. I tried out for cheerleading. I never brought manok adobo or pinakbet to school—the chicken patties and pepperoni pizza would do. I certainly never volunteered that my mother mopped the floors and stocked the cooler with Miller Light at 7-Elevens—that we lived paycheck to paycheck.
Fast forward 30 years, and my daughters have it different. We live in a gentrifying neighborhood in Chicago, where Zestimates of $800k are threatening the authentic flavor of the neighborhood. The girls go to very diverse high schools; they’ve taken Mandarin, AP computer science, and music theory. Their generation is digital first, pronoun proud, and socially active. My daughters are more mindful of how their actions impact the world, from the clothes they buy (ThredUp and Village Thrift) to the types of straws from which they sip. They’re living through a global pandemic with no promise of a bigger home, better job or cleaner world.
They also live as bicultural teens, expected to uphold cultural identities that border on stereotypes. On the Asian side, it’s that obligation to soar academically, combined with the immigrant sensibility of not be too threatening to come off as aggressive or proud. On the Irish side, it’s to embrace the Tír na nÓg, or Land of the Youth, and to enjoy the little moments of life, whether that’s travel or a good movie. I promise you that their Irish grandparents have never given a shit about where they’ll land for college, which I imagine, can be a confusing, contradictory force.
But they, like me, like all of us, shape shift to fit cultural expectations. It’s become second nature to minimize our success according to who’s in the locker room, at the lunch table, in the boardroom. When people ask, “What are you?” the instinct might be to say, “Well, who’s asking?”
Will the half Irishness get me into Notre Dame? Will Jocelyn’s mom let me sleep over if I tell her I know how to make lumpia and dance tinikling?
You never know how people will receive you. Sometimes their uniqueness seems to curry favor—like the time they modeled for American Girl and Sears, no doubt for that coveted racially ambiguous, at times fetishized look, like the anchors on CNN. The adults in our lives seemed more impressed. Other times, it’s a casual suggestion that they’re not Filipino or Irish enough. What, you don’t know Tagalog? You don’t look Irish at all.
I don’t pretend to have any answers. Some days I feel like I’m trying to be a white person in brown skin rather than showing up as fully myself, the daughter of a Filipino immigrant who never went skiing in Tahoe, never rushed a sorority, and barely made it to Disney World.
I can’t always protect my daughters. I can’t always shield them from hurt. But if I can give my girls any advice, it would be to first allow themselves grace, so that they can then show the same love to the world. It is not always easy, you will always have to have the hard conversations, and the other parties might not be aware of your lived experiences. But how will they know if you don’t share?
Perhaps the joy in stumbling upon Olivia Rodrigo is knowing that her suffering, the ache she felt after a boyfriend’s betrayal, is race-agnostic. We all have hearts. We’re all human. And that’s our North Star.
Published on August 24, 2022
Words by Valerie Moloney
Chicagoan and Filipino-American Valerie Moloney has worn many hats in her 20+ years as a professional: beat reporter; digital manager; social strategist; restaurant critic; even obit writer. At her heart, she's an observer. When she's not pouring through analytics dashboards, she's on the hot yoga mat in puppy pose or figuring out what to feed her three kids for dinner.
Art by Ryan Quan
Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.