My experience in life as a mixed person mimics the pattern of a joke—fuzzy and ambiguous at first, and then completely different from what you are expecting it to be.
For example: Although you would not be able to tell, I come from a deep lineage of people who are steadfast. My stubbornness (though it may be stereotypical) stems from both sides of my family, white and Indian. One side of my family comes from a place that gained independence through protest. They marched, didn’t wear cotton, didn’t eat salt, and fasted until they gained freedom from colonial rule. The other side of my family could (if they wanted to*) walk into a Starbucks and sit for four hours without paying for anything, and then call the manager to complain about another customer. I get double the stubbornness, two for the price of one. I think some people believe mixed kids will end racism because we’ve secretly been bred as weapons for the oncoming war. First we’ll march, and then if that doesn’t work, we’ll call your manager—just joking, I wouldn’t pull a “Becky”.
Every day, I am learning more about my identity and myself through the telling of jokes. I used to think that I could only be one thing, take up space a certain way, fill up one box. I know—it’s a bit ironic for someone who is mixed to finally understand that identity can be fluid when it comes to self-identification.
I think I am awkward, sometimes because I am mixed, but mostly because I am just a young adult. I’m still trying to figure out how things work, like: How often do you need to wash pillows? Or how do you say that you aren’t interested in going to a peer’s house show without it seeming offensive?
The confused mixed kid narrative frustrates me, because I wish we could just embrace the awkward. It would make things much easier for a 24-year-old young adult who has anxiety. My awkwardness stems from inner fears—and I have many, just ask my:
random strangers on the bus,
Two fears that I can think of off the top of my head include: having to explain why you don’t call chai chai tea without sounding like a douchebag, and also ending up with a haircut that makes me look like Kate from John and Kate Plus Eight. Comedy protects me. At times I see it as a shield, which I can use in order to laugh at my many insecurities, and which gives me strength. Comedy provides me the space to voice these fears—whether they are about my insecurities as a mixed person or otherwise—so they can be heard and legitimized through connection with an audience.
Comedy has helped me to embrace the awkward ambiguity and to discover my own agency, both as an artist and as a mixed person.
In middle school, I remember reading about being multiracial in one of those pros and cons books. I remember reading one of the cons and laughing. It said: Mixed kids will always be unsure about their identity and where they fit in.
As a 13-year-old, I thought: That’s dumb, everyone is unsure of their identity and where they fit in.
Now, I am 24 and far away from middle school, thank God. 13-year-old me would be proud that my skin is slightly more clear, and also that turtlenecks are, in fact, cool—so it isn’t weird that I spent most of my youth looking like that picture of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. (You know which one I am talking about.) But that narrative of the unsure mixed kid, who is unable to advocate for their identity, and has a harder time connecting with their many cultures, still aggravates me—partly because this narrative, although unoriginal, is real for me. When it comes down to my “mixed kid experience”, it is not the whole story, though.
I am starting to realize that how I tell my story is ever-changing. It is not written in stone.
In comedy, a joke doesn’t stay the same forever. A joke is a living, breathing thing. Punch lines change based on a variety of factors. Sometimes the set-up that you tell—like the one about how your choices for future romantic partners were informed by your imaginary friend—ends up being a one-liner, and some nights it turns into a riff.
Metamorphosis. Change does not just happen internally, but affects the audience too. From what I have heard, a good joke leads you in one direction, but then drops you into a different place, totally unexpectedly.
For me, embracing the awkward means also interacting with my own personal and intergenerational baggage. In these instances, comedy has been a tool to grapple with these subjects—but it has certainly not been a welcome friend.
Comedy is like a fuckboy. Mostly pandering to a white, cis, male audience, comedy looks really hot. It is mysterious and glamorous from far away, but up close, is super inaccessible. You realize that there is a lot of stuff about it that is messed up, and you wish you didn’t get to know it in the first place.
Although I am angsty, I’m hopeful! Jokes are not stagnant, therefore comedy doesn’t have to be either. It can be malleable and alterable—especially when it comes to who is granted space in these rooms. There are a lot of people out there doing a lot of great work pushing for change. I’ve been really lucky to be a comic and improviser in rooms like the POC jam at HUGE, the Clapback Cabaret and Uproar. These are spaces that push me to continue to do this work, because they are led by awesome artists who advocate relentlessly for this work**. When given the space, comedy means I have agency. I get to decide how to tell my story. In doing so, it is my job to recognize my privilege as well. As someone who is:
has supportive parents,
in a healthy relationship,
…it is my job to be hyper-cognizant of how much space I take up. I tell jokes to embrace the awkward, but there is also a need for immediate change. My desire to embrace the awkward stems from the idea that fear of ambiguity leads to xenophobia. Fear of the unknown has the potential to lead to danger, violence, and oppression. If it’s hard for me to find space to tell my story, then it’s ten times harder for those who don’t have the privileges that I have. It is my job to take ownership of my own identities and sometimes move out of the way in order to listen—really, actively listen to the stories of others.
In the short time that I have done comedy, it has given me a platform to connect with the stories of my friends and other artists. By simply telling jokes, we are vulnerable in a way that is reciprocally personal and communal.
Right now, at this moment, I’ve come to an understanding and internalized sense of peace. My identity might not reflect what everybody else sees. And I’m okay with that. If everybody saw all the things that made me me, they would see a clusterfuck of nothing forming into everything, and this orb would be screaming at 101 miles per hour. My awkward identity is the closest I’ll ever get to an air of mystique. At least I have one secret that nobody knows! Too bad I really, really hate keeping secrets.
This is how I feel about my identity right now, and it will change in five seconds, and that opinion will also change in five seconds. And I think I feel good about that? But I’m going to leave it ambiguous—because fuck it.
*They never have!
**Thank you to Saymoukda Vongsay, May Lee-Yang, Naomi Ko, John Gebretatose, Xochi de la Luna and Devohn Bland. Go to their shows, watch their plays and TV shows, and read their books!
This piece was commissioned and developed as part of a series by guest editor Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay.