We’ve focused a lot on the products of these relationships, but what about the families that produce these people?
What do they look like?
And what specific conflicts do they face?
Bridging these cultural gaps starts at home but can have much larger implications.
This week, the story of a woman whose life was nearly destroyed by these cultural crosscurrents.
But first, I have a conversation with Amy Choi, one of the creators of the Mashup Americans, a website and podcast about navigating hyphenated life in America.
She’s not mixed, but she’s dedicated her life to telling the stories of mixed-race and mixed-culture people and families.
I talked to Amy about what it means to be a mash-up and what happens to culture as it passes down through generations in the hands of these Mashup Americans.
AMY: I am first generation Korean American. I’m the first person in my family to be born in the U.S. I’m married to a first-generation Colombian-Mexican American, I have mixed-race kids, and no single identity had ever really felt like wholly mine.
ALEX: You use that word “mash-up,” that’s kind of the trademark of the entire project of the Mashup Americans. Can you define what a mash-up is?
AMY: We really see mash-ups as the new definition of modern Americans.
ALEX: They are rooted in one culture and also forging a new future in another. So in America, that may be any non-mainstream American in a way, but we see mash-ups as really leading from the margins. We see people who are code switching, people who are navigating different identities with total fluidity and who are able to kind of culturally, ideologically flow from one space to another really beautifully. So we would say, I would guess in knowing you, Alex, that you live in a multicultural city, you are mixed-race yourself, your friends probably run the gamut from immigrants to people who have been here multiple generations, to on the weekends you guys are going out to, like, Ethiopian restaurants and the people at the table next to you are of every different race, religion, identity, sexual identity, and that experience is what we consider to be the mash-up experience.
ALEX: I don’t know about your family, but I know about my family, and a lot of the Korean people I know tend to be kind of wary of people of other races. Especially if they’re not white.
AMY: Mmhmm, you can say it. Raaacist. People are so racist.
ALEX: How did your family react?
AMY: You know — they were actually very cool. And I say that not because my parents are particularly cool or open minded about anything. I think there are a couple of things there. One is my sister is married to a second-generation Italian guy who for all intents and purposes is a white dude from Pittsburgh. So she’s older than me, that had already happened, that ship had sailed.
ALEX: And what about on his family’s side?
AMY: His parents were incredibly open. They were very accepting. I think the challenging thing with any — and this is not unique to my relationship — I think the challenging thing about any mixed relationship or any mixed marriage, particularly when you get past the actual connection is that you don’t know what’s racist until you know. Like you don’t know what you don’t know. So my in-laws were incredibly loving and incredibly generous to me, but they didn’t know that some of their attitudes were prejudicial. Or that some of the things that they said about how great Asians were at something were actually a little bit racist or hurtful to me.
ALEX: Yeah, like, what do you do when you’re at a family dinner and you’ve just met your significant other’s parents for the first time and they say something like that to you — like what are you supposed to say?
AMY: I think in those scenarios, especially when they can be so hurtful, self-preservation is the most important thing you can do. And then after that, it’s kind of up to you how much you want to interact with that person, how much you value that interaction, how much your partner, who has the primary relationship with whoever that asshole is, values that relationship and prioritizes it, possibly above yours. You know?
ALEX: How many kids do you have now?
AMY: I have two. Alejandro is 3½, and Seraphina is 1. They’re the best.
ALEX: You had a really cute name for what your kids are. I’ve heard you say it before; it’s like a lot of words mixed together.
AMY: Korean, Colombian, Mexican, American — the Karbubexicans? Also known as the future of America, I like to say. A couple future presidents right there.
ALEX: Do they speak Korean and/or Spanish?
AMY: Well the 1-year-old doesn’t really speak yet. But the 3½-year-old, he speaks pretty fluent Spanish. He’s pretty much bilingual, and then he basically has words in Korean.
So my in-laws speak to him in Spanish, my husband and I when he was younger spoke to him, and we had more mental capacity before we had the second one, we spoke to him mostly in Spanish, a mix of Spanish and English in the house, and then his nanny speaks to him exclusively in Spanish.
So my Korean — and this is something that’s always been something I’ve felt guilty about that I’ve struggled with is — my Spanish is one thousand times better than my Korean. So I grew up in a house where my parents spoke to me in Korean, I responded in English. Which is essentially the relationship that I have with my parents today. So I really know Korean words and the kind of words that my kid knows in Korean are things like “boh boh” or “banguh,” like he says “cheot ka rak” instead of chopsticks. But he’s not going to get language from me. So we’re kind of like a 2.5-language house.
ALEX: Is there a part of you that worries that your kid will just not be Korean?
AMY: Mmhmm. I’m nodding vigorously. Yes. Yes, and it’s definitely something that I concern myself with a lot.
There’s a part that, yeah, really is very scared about the sense that if they no longer look Asian, then will they be Korean? If they no longer speak Korean language or if they don’t love kimchi, are they gonna be Korean? If they don’t feel some sort of tie to Korea or have relatives that speak to them in Korean, are they ever gonna be Korean? And the answer to me is yes. Because they will be able to take whatever Korean is and make it into their own. Something that kind of softens that mourning a little bit is maybe they may be less Korean, but what are they making that they are? That loss doesn’t come just as a loss, it also comes as an act of creation for whatever they choose to be, or whatever they want to be.
But the other thing was a fear that they were going to be less mine, period.
Our kids speak Spanish; they don’t speak any Korean. And what did that mean? What was I actually afraid of with that happening? That, like, would it mean that my kids were less mine because they were more — they identified more Latin than not? And I think ultimately was like no.
But you know, it’s like, it was kind of a letting-go process that was part of parenting for me, was like letting go of the idea that I govern their identity, or that I, by virtue of who I am and the culture that I grew up with, was going to completely inform theirs.
ALEX: Which I think is pretty universal to, like, any parenting experience. I say as a person who has zero children. You have to at one point let go of these expectations and these beliefs that your kids are an extension of yourself. Because they kind of are, but also they’re individuals, they’re their own humans and they always were and they always will be. And so that change happens in you, not in them.
AMY: One thousand percent. You sound like my therapist. I think that idea, you’re absolutely right, it’s kind of a parenting universal, it’s a family universal, but that rings especially true for people who are struggling with, what do I pass onto my kids? And that feels very important when you feel like your own identity is somehow under threat. Or if you feel like you’re being subsumed by a culture that doesn’t quite feel like yours. Then what does it mean if yours is getting lost and you can’t give that to your kids? I think coming to terms with that or having — or regaining the sense that we’re all making a new culture at the same time is very healing and also very powerful when you think that about your kids. It’s like okay, just because your kids aren’t carbon copies of you doesn’t mean that they’re any less yours.
NARRATION: So next up is a story about a woman torn between two worlds, who went on a journey to find which one was hers.
What she ended up finding was the common tie we all have as humans, the thing that falls away when you’re able to see the person, and not the politics of their identity.
Sulome Anderson is an Arab American journalist who grew up between the U.S. and Lebanon.
SULOME: Lebanese have this way of making pilgrimages, diaspora Lebanese, they have to bring the family back to Lebanon and tell them why Lebanon is the best country in the world, So I’ve been doing this since I was a very small child.
NARRATION: Sulome grew up in a pretty dysfunctional family situation.
SULOME: I should start from the beginning. My mother got pregnant with me while my father was still married. And you know, it was kind of a surprise pregnancy, my mom didn’t think she could have a kid, and they had only been dating for a short while, and he was married. So it was kind of a scandal.
NARRATION: Sulome spent most of her childhood with just her mother in the U.S., and occasionally her mother’s family, who she would visit in Lebanon.
SULOME: I mean, for me, it was always a place of warmth and comfort. And Lebanon can be a really spectacular place, especially as a child. There’s so much different variety of landscapes and activities and things, and you know there’s the exotic — it wasn’t quite exotic but it wasn’t quite comfortable. My association with it all through my childhood was very positive.
It wasn’t until I became older that I understood the role it has played in how damaged my life became.
NARRATION: Here’s the thing:
Sulome’s father was an American — but not just any American.
He was Terry Anderson, an Associated Press reporter who until recently was the longest-held captive in American history.
On March 16, 1985, Anderson was kidnapped by Hezbollah Shiite militants.
Sulome’s mother was Madeleine Bassil, a Lebanese journalist who met Anderson while she was working for NBC.
Bassil was pregnant with Sulome when Anderson was kidnapped.
SULOME: During lulls in the war, my mother would bring me back to visit my family, and I just remember her always telling me, because I had blonde hair, and she would always say, “Don’t speak English, just speak Arabic.” Because she was afraid. And she said, “Never tell anyone who your father is.”
NARRATION: Her father was held captive for six years and nine months.
He was finally released in 1991, when Sulome was 6 years old.
When the news spotlight finally dimmed, the Andersons began the hard work of becoming a family.
Terry dealt with PTSD, and Sulome, a small child, didn’t know what to make of this surly, moody man who was meant to be her father.
The family moved around the country for a few years before settling in Athens, Ohio, where she felt totally alien and conspicuous.
SULOME: And then you know after 9/11, 9/11 happened when I was like a junior in high school. And after that, being Arab was — nobody wanted to talk about being Arab, and I was — because I don’t look Arab, I was exposed to a lot of nastiness and bigotry and racism that I would just hear because they didn’t think I was Arab, so they would say things like sand n-word, towelhead, whatever racist slurs, camel-jockeys — all sorts of things. And I would get really upset and be like “No, I’m part Arab, like you can’t say that around me.” And they’d be like, “Yeah, but you’re not really.”
NARRATION: It wasn’t just derogatory statements about Arabs that Sulome was hearing. Especially after 9/11, she started hearing more and more discrimination toward Muslims, too.
SULOME: So my mother’s father was Christian, my mother’s mother was Muslim. But then all my Christian aunts married Muslim men. So all my cousins are Muslim, and a lot of them moved here right now, so I have a lot of Muslim family in the states at the moment.
It was just all part of our family, and I feel very lucky about that. But at the same time, people are always like, “Well, why do you care so much? You’re not Muslim.” And I’m like, “Well nooo, but people I care about are Muslim.” And it’s hard for people to understand, you know, you don’t wear hijab, you’re not, your mother’s Christian, like why do you care? And for me, it’s just — I couldn’t not care.
NARRATION: Sulome lived like this for years, getting into fights, getting kicked out of schools and doing drugs.
She moved to New York after graduating high school.
SULOME: And then I realized that this is the place where everybody goes that doesn’t fit in.
At that point in my life, I was really not in a good place. I was on a lot of drugs and struggling with a lot of psychological issues, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was just kind of drifting. But I felt like I had an anchor. Like throughout the whole thing, the one thing sort of anchoring me to any sort of purpose was the news.
NARRATION: For the first time in her life, she considered what people always told her to do: journalism.
She’d been searching for a thing that would make her her, but it turned out it was what people could see in her all along.
In a lot of ways, it’s what saved her.
And it came from her parents — both of them.
She never had to choose a side.
SULOME: I’ll never forget it, I woke up one day and I was like, “Well, I guess this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
NARRATION: After graduating from Columbia, she moved to Lebanon to start work.
SULOME: Looking back, I am absolutely sure that I did it on some level because I wanted to excel at a profession my father excelled at, in the place that he excelled at.
NARRATION: But first, she didn’t tell anyone who her father was.
Her story wasn’t the one she wanted to dwell on.
SULOME: I think the best part of it for me is talking to people. I talk to everyone. I’m the kind of person who talks to anybody who crosses my path, and I want to know all about their lives and what common ground I hold with this person, who maybe on the outside looks nothing like me and would seem to have nothing in common with me, but when I get in a conversation with them, there are things that we can share. And I’ve always been good at that, and that’s my favorite part, is just talking to people and getting them to open up to me, getting them to trust me, getting them to share parts of their lives with me that I don’t think that they would do with most people or most strangers, anyway.
NARRATION: Sulome began covering what she knew: terrorism.
And then who she was started to matter.
SULOME: I had a fixer who has introduced me to a lot of Hezbollah people. And I spent more and more time around them. As I spent time around them, they became more comfortable with me, they would say things to me like, “Oh, your father was kept in that building right there.”
NARRATION: It would be the ultimate story for her to tell, if she could just get them in the same room, and talking.
It happened completely by chance.
She had been interviewing him for another story.
Without Sulome knowing, he found out that she was Terry Anderson’s daughter.
He kept that to himself at first.
It was awhile before she found out that he was the man who had guarded her father while he was in captivity.
SULOME: We had spent a great deal of time together. And we pretty much got along. We weren’t like the best of friends, but as a source and a journalist, we got along. I thought he was a nice man, he’s Hezbollah so he’s not super accessible, but he seemed to have some sort of code or honor or conscience I guess.
NARRATION: Sulome wrote that when she asked him about her father, he said, quote: “If Terry Anderson comes to me today, to my house, I will embrace him and say I’m sorry for what happened to him — but I don’t regret what I did. I did it to help my people.”
SULOME: I had a really hard time when I found out what had happened, and that he had been the person who had guarded my father. I had a really, really hard time making that fit with my idea of who he was just from spending time with him.
NARRATION: Sulome did the thing you wouldn’t expect.
She challenged herself to see the human being inside this man, who in some ways is responsible for so much pain and turmoil in her life.
SULOME: That’s our problem with terrorists, is we really don’t think of them as human beings. When a white person shoots up a school or does some sort of mass violence, and kills people, there’s a lot of talk and dialogue about his mental state and his family life and where this sort of maladjusted behavior came from. Which is totally correct, you should — that is how you learn how to stop that kind of thing.
But when it comes to terrorism, we don’t have any of that. None of that dialogue exists.
If I could just do anything, if my job is worth anything, if my life is worth anything — honestly I feel this way — it’s to make people think about each other with a little more empathy.
It’s easy to be like “Oh, those Muslims, they’re just different from us” or “Those black people, they’re different from us.” But the fact of the matter is if you actually thought about it for five seconds and realized, and put yourself in that place, because the only thing that separates us is an accident of birth.
NARRATION: Sulome wrote a book about her experiences called “The Hostage’s Daughter.”
It was published in 2016.
The week before her book published, Sulome married her husband, Jeremy, at a family friend’s house in the New Jersey Palisades just outside New York City.
Guests ate baba ganoush and hummus on pita as a New Orleans brass band played pop songs. Everyone cried as she danced with her dad at the reception. But when it came time for Jeremy to dance the mother-son dance, it was Sulome’s mother he held.
Because Jeremy’s mother wasn’t at the wedding.
None of his family was.
Jeremy grew up in an orthodox Jewish family. He married at 20 and had a son.
And in 2013, he left it all.
SULOME: I think a year and a half before we met, he had decided to leave his wife and the community and just start completely from square one. Most people go through life just listening to whatever everyone tells them and accepting it as reality. And there are certain people, and they’re rare, but there are certain people who refuse to accept what the people around them tell them. And he was one of those people. The more he learned, the more he found out about himself, he knew that what the people around him were telling him did not jibe with his idea of himself and what the world should be.
NARRATION: So he left.
Sulome has never met her in-laws because they refuse to meet her.
SULOME: But I mean they don’t hate me because they don’t know me. They can’t possibly hate me. But they hate the idea of me — and in many ways, I am everything that they would hate. Not only am I not Jewish, I’m also Arab, I’m also pretty political and open about my criticism of the Israeli government. And it makes sense that they would dislike me, but at the same time I just want to be like, “Listen, just put me in a room with them.” Let me sit down and talk to them and I’m sure we could find something to relate to each other with.
NARRATION: Sulome managed to get in a room with the man who kidnapped her father.
She sat face-to-face with the man responsible for so much of the pain in her life — and she saw his humanity.
The one bridge she hasn’t been able to build yet is right here at home.
Learn more about the other episodes here:
- Race is more than just black and white. This new podcast explores some of that middle ground.
- Why it can be hard to date as a multiracial person
- The long history and legacy of passing in America
- The debate over who counts as ‘American’ is nothing new. Just ask this woman who was put in an internment camp when she was 10.
- ‘That’s my story’: Heidi Durrow on why stories about multiracial identity just aren’t niche offerings
- How Ruth Ozeki renamed herself