By Taylor Murray
“Hello,” Teja Arboleda greeted his audience warmly as he walked on stage. “Konnichiwa,” he bowed deeply at the waist and continued his greeting with an almost imperceptible grin, “Ni Hao.” His tone switched to a thick, German accent, “Hallo!”
Laughter rippled through the audience. Teja chuckled with us. “People usually ask me ‘what are you?’” he began, “Not ‘who are you?’ or ‘where are you from?’ but ‘what are you?’”
Teja is a multiethnic, multicultural, and multiracial American. His keynote address at Families in Global Transition (FIGT) 2015 was inspirational and touching as he shared his life journey. From childhood, through adolescence, and into adulthood, Teja described the defining moments of his life that shaped him and impassioned him to bring awareness to race and cultural diversity.
Teja’s presentation was light-hearted and humorous as he re-enacted stories of cultural differences and travel experiences with loud, unabashed accents. It was emotionally stirring as he recounted his long-lasting search for identity and belonging. It was thought-provoking and aggrieving as he spoke about the racial discrimination that marred his childhood and complicated his upbringing. We empathized with Teja’s struggles and resonated with his doubts and fears. But in the end, when the question ‘what are you?’ resurfaced once again, we were able see how both the good and the ugly of Teja’s story had uniquely equipped him to answer this simple question.
A Little Bit of History
Teja’s father’s father was Filipino- Chinese. At the age of 15, he became the head of the household. He spoke four languages and supported his family as a rice farmer. ‘Finding out’ about America one year later, he moved there with hopes of a better life. He met Teja’s grandmother, who was an African-American/ Native American. They fell in love and were soon married.
“The act of love between two people of different race resulted in violence,” Teja sadly explained. They were taunted, pressed to separate, and experienced severe racial discrimination despite their obvious affection for one another.
Teja’s mother’s father was German-Danish. His grandmother was German. When World War One raged, Teja’s family joined separate sides. “I had grandfathers all over the world literally killing each other,” he said. This realization brought Teja to question his identity as a teenager and young adult. “Who am I?” he asked himself. “What am I? And why am I here?” He felt rootless and ashamed. Many people call Teja Hispanic, Black, or Asian. These assumptions of heritage are always coupled with the conclusion that “it must be interesting to be of mixed race”. But Teja had been born into a legacy of racial discrimination, heartache, and poverty.
Author of 15 books and co-author of 12, Teja’s father was exceedingly accomplished. But despite these successes, Teja’s father could never find a job because of his ethnicity. Teja remembers that his father, burning with anger, never smiled. “If you look into someone’s face,” Teja said, “you can tell there’s a little bit of history.”
Culture and Crayons
Teja was born in Brooklyn, New York. Six months later, Teja’s father realized he could no longer afford to raise his children. He sent his two sons to Germany, where they lived with their grandparents for the next two-and-a-half years. Teja’s first language was German.
When Teja and his brother moved back to America, their transition was painfully difficult. They soon discovered American children didn’t want to play with them because they dressed and acted German. Loneliness and insecurity settled in Teja’s heart, while restless confusion and unanswered questions seeped into his mind.
“The color of your skin has no bearing on your culture,” Teja reflected. He talked about the time, years later, when he discovered Crayola was marketing ‘multicultural’ crayons. “I called Crayola and said I could help,” he laughed. “But the problem is… there is no such thing as a multicultural crayon!”
When Teja turned six, the racial discrimination in America grew worse. Fearing for their safety, Teja’s father moved his family to Japan. Teja traded traditional German clothes for a Japanese yukata. But despite his attempts at cultural assimilation, Teja’s world saw him as a gaijin, or ‘foreigner’.
Soon, Teja began attending an international school. As Japan became more ‘Americanized’, his studies were primarily focused on the United States. By the time he had turned eight, Teja wanted to be an American. He believed that it was better to be “blonde, blue-eyed, and white”. One day after school, Teja drew a picture of himself with white skin. “I believed that I would be a better person if I wasn’t who I was,” he said.
My Own Country. Where Would That Be?
As years passed, Teja’s search to discover his true identity and heritage grew desperate. The unanswered questions that had accumulated in Teja’s mind over time weighed heavily. Yearning to belong, he decided to become a Japanese citizen. Now, he wanted to be Asian. But Teja’s Japanese friends disagreed. They told him to go back to ‘where he came from’ and to return to his own country.
“My own country,” Teja laughed ironically. “Where would that be?” The world had yet to offer the acceptance that Teja longed for. When he turned 16, Teja’s parents approached him with terrible news. They had decided to divorce, and he must choose whether he wanted to stay in Japan with his father or go to America with his mother.
“This was the hardest decision I have ever made,” Teja recalled. He felt pulled between worlds, and his heart longed to settle in both places. Finally, he decided to stay in Japan. It was a country he loved, and a decade away from his birthplace had changed his perspective. America now appeared distant and foreign.
Teja stayed in Japan for the remainder of his high-school years. He graduated and, leaving his Asian home, decided to move back to America for college. But despite his determination to grow deeper roots and ‘fit in’, Teja continued to struggle. He left America soon after his college graduation. Restless and unsettled, Teja traveled the world in pursuit of a place to call ‘home’.
Eventually, Teja returned to Boston. His search had proven unsuccessful and instead of finding a place of security and belonging, Teja was homeless. “I spent four months sleeping on benches and stealing what I could.” A heaviness deepened Teja’s voice he as described this time in his life. “I was angry.”
“Finally,” Teja continued, “I figured out how to make a phone call to ask for help.” Teja’s future slowly brightened as he began to find enough work to support himself. It was then he began to realize how difficult it was for people to accept others. This awareness grew, penetrating his spirit, as Teja truly settled for the first time in over a decade.
Months later, as Teja walked down the steps of his home one afternoon, his soul searching was finally answered. There, at the bottom of his steps, was a large package addressed to Teja from his father. Inside were all of the things his father wanted Teja to remember from his previous life. A diary, written for Teja by his father, was one of these keepsakes. Discoveries about culture, race, and identity leapt from these pages. “Once you add a word [about race],” Teja learned, “it quickly becomes a barrier or a conduit.”
As life continued, Teja found that the dreaded question still resurfaced. ‘What are you?’ people would ask and he would ask himself.
“Having this experience of being of mixed race,” he said, “living in Japan and visiting all of these different countries… it all comes down to speaking the truth. And when everything else is taken away, what is truth?”
Teja’s two ending words resounded throughout his captive audience with confidence, ringing of roots dug deep and identity rediscovered.
For more information visit www.tejaarboleda.com
In the Shadow of Race: Growing Up As A Multiethnic, Multicultural, and Multiracial American, Teja Arboleda, Routledge, 1998
Edited by Dounia Bertuccelli. With thanks to the sponsorship of Summertime Publishing and the Parfitt Pascoe Writing Residency.