A story for a Moth evening (that I didn't perform...)
The unintentional disguise I don is the mask of racial ambiguity.
Particularly if you don't hear my name, pronounced with the proper Japanese inflection (Noriko Nakada desu. Hajimemashite) then the chances of correctly identifying my half-Japanese ancestry diminish drastically.
See me walk down the street here in LA and you might assume I'm Latina; speak to me in Espanol. Or maybe you'll read my name, assume my identity, then meet me in person and struggle to reconcile the name and the face.
But it isn't only strangers who ask, "What are you?" Growing up multiracial I struggled with my own identity issues. Born and raised in small-town, Oregon, the only half-Japanese family in town, we were accepted as one of their own, just another rural, middle-class white family. The closer we were to the Kah Nee Tah reservation the more likely people were to assume we were Native American but for the most part people ignored our foreign look, name and culture.
I couldn't shed my subtle Asian features even though I shortened my name to Nori, spelled like seaweed (Nodi) but pronounced Nori, like Lori but with an N. I pretended I was like everyone else even though my "exotic" look set me apart.
In the summer we'd drive to Los Angeles to visit family. We'd go to Disneyland or eat sushi with Dad's side and around my full Japanese cousins with their shiny, black, straight hair woven into thick braids I hated my fine brown hair and honey-colored eyes. With Mom's side of the family we'd drive from the valley to Zuma Beach and in that world of sand and sea, blonde hair and blue eyes I couldn't believe I was related to them at all.
A few years after moving away from that small town I traveled to Hawaii for the first time. You know how every year there is one Halloween costume everyone wears, the year everyone is a pirate, or a princess, a vampire or a witch. In Hawaii, my disguise was just like everyone else's. Instead of my identity setting me apart, being Hapa meant I belonged.
"Howzit?" a local asked as I browsed through ukeles and plastic leis. "You playing one tourist today?"
I looked at the woman behind the display of puka shell necklaces and paused. If I kept quiet I could stay in costume, just a local girl stopping by the gift shop. Open my mouth, release my mainland accent without a hint of pidgin and my real identity would be revealed.
"Oh, I just visiting," I said trying to mimic the rhythm of the locals.
"Ha! I thought you one local," the woman said with a smile. "Shua look like one."
After years spent wishing I could shed my disguise, in Hawaii I saw another possibility. If I'd lived in the islands since small kid time I could fit in here, fo' shua, no act, local style, brah. I suddenly saw how banana I was, yellow on the outside, but white inside the peel.
It's taken years, a few more trips to Hawaii, countless questions, explanations, and looks I've learned to ignore in order for me to figure it out: I'm not Latina or Native American or Alaskan Eskimo. I'm not white, not Japanese, and not Hapa from Hawaii.
I don't fit neatly into one of those boxes used to make sense of a complicated world.
The disguise isn't about me. It's about how you perceive me because this is no disguise. This is me and I have no choice but to keep the world guessing.