Kali Fajardo-Anstine


The Mixed Girls’ Guide to What Are You?

oPacific Islander

You will hear this question 9,652 times in your life. No more. No less. While you are certain your mother was asked on several occasions what exactly your ethnic background was before you could talk or even walk, you will not remember this question being part of your life until you turn nine years old. It is around this time that your grandfather, Manuel Renillo, a miniature man with a felt fedora and tiny eyes behind large glasses, will die. You liked your grandfather a great deal. He smelled of dust and sugar cane and before he died he allowed you to play with the enormous fishing nets he cast in the Pacific Ocean all those years prior to his arrival in the United States.

You will remember him as a quiet man with an extremely heavy Filipino accent. Actually, when you attempt to recall this accent, you sometimes question whether or not he spoke fluent English. Other times you wonder if he spoke some sort of hybrid version much like your convoluted DNA. You must stop yourself whenever this idea crosses your mind. This assumption is absolutely absurd. Of course your grandfather was fluent in English and your grandmother too—despite her natural inclination to spout out filthy profanities in Spanish. Do not believe for one minute that your grandmother and grandfather sat together watching old timey movies in their den—him yelling at her in Tagalogish and her cursing at him in Spanglish—happily for fifty years. Realize that communication is key to any relationship—especially cross-cultural, cross-the-Pacific ‘You eat tamales and I eat chicken adobo’ ones. Yes, you will assure yourself, he spoke English. No matter how strangely articulated that English was.  

At your grandfather’s funeral, people from both sides of the Pacific will pack the cathedral downtown, paying their last respects to this tiny man. At first, you may find it odd that you have never seen half these people before. Eventually, this fact will seem quite normal. Families fight and form rifts over things as minor as stolen inheritances or deciding whether or not to put the old man in a comfortable assisted living home—complete with a board game room and a hot (but not too hot) sauna. Cultural clashes, you will decide, seem to fit well into this realm of feuding. Your realization will be slow and involve many signs of the cross throughout the funeral mass. Ultimately, come to terms with the fact that petty grudges are part of any normal familial bond. Even if these grudges are completely asinine and brought about by racial prejudices by one side of the family to the other. Whatever you do, do not to stare at these brown men and women from California you are just now encountering. Instead, marvel at them—these people your grandmother calls Arrogant assholes and your mother refers to as Our Filipino side. 

Things at the funeral will get awfully strange awfully quickly. People will line up before the casket in a never ending trail of black clothing and tissues moistened with snot and tears. Jumping up and down, make yourself tall enough to see the casket for short bursts at a time.  During one of your jumps into the air, see that people are kissing the dead hands of your grandfather. You shiver. You jump higher to double check. You jump even higher a third time to triple check. In shock, you take it all in. 

Just when you think that only crazy people are willfully partaking in this disturbing action, your mother yanks your arm, pushing your tiny butt toward the casket. Open your mouth wide in horror, clap a pale hand over your lips, and look up into your mother’s dark eyes with revulsion. One thing is certain—you are definitely not kissing any hands, especially the cold-dead-pumped-full-of-formaldehyde-hands of your now dead grandfather. Immediately form a cunning plan. Know that this plan may involve getting your butt beat if the others catch on; however, this is a risk you are willing to take.

After the line trickles down and you’ve walked the red carpeted stairs to your Lolo’s silver casket, you will lean over slowly and feel air between his dead hands and your tiny lips. While keeping your eyes shut to avoid the sight of death in your face¸ pucker your pink lips into the air, kissing an inch above the hands. Smooth, you think, very smooth. But this is before you feel a tug on your black baby doll dress. Now you’ve done it.

Squeeze your eyes shut until your cheeks hurt with anticipation. Whichever adult saw you disrespect your grandfather like this is not going to be pleased. Not a bit. Your punishment is sure to be thorough. You wait for it, but it does not come. Just when you expect a hair grab or worse, turn to see that the person pulling on your dress is not an authority figure to you. This woman with the back of your collar in her hand is one of them—the Filipinos. Say hi and scoot down off the red carpeted steps. The smell of rose perfume will roll over you in waves. This lady looks as nice as she smells. Gladly walk over to an empty pew with her.

“Do you know who I am,” she will ask. Nod, want to explain that she is one of those people, the arrogant assholes or the Filipino side, but catch it before it comes out. “You know,” she will say, “I am your Auntie Marta, your Lolo’s sister.” Nod again, thinking this is crazy talk, but notice how she calls your grandfather Lolo—something you thought only you did. Try as hard as you can to imagine your grandfather having family other than you, your grandmother, and your mother, but this thought blows your mind. It will continue blowing your mind for twenty seconds until you realize that this other family is highly probable.  You have watched enough soap operas with your grandmother to understand that people are known to have secret lives, hidden children, and even evil twins. And, heck, half these people are total strangers to you. Decide someone must have been keeping secrets. Slowly swivel your head to your grandfather’s casket. Try imagining your Lolo as a little boy in a jungle land, falling asleep to the sounds of a million buzzing crickets and the roaring whir of the ocean. Look back at your Auntie Marta. She is smiling, her dark eyes behind large silver glasses.

“Your name is Lucia, right?” she asks, handing you a piece of butterscotch candy from her purse.

“Yes, but everyone calls me Lucy.”

“Oh, I see Lucy. You know, you have pinay eyes. Very pretty Filipina eyes.”

Do not respond to this. Honestly, you have no idea how to. You get the feeling that this lady will just keep talking if you remain silent. You are correct. Within ten seconds she is right back to asking you questions. In fact, she asks you the question.

“Lucy, do you know what you are?”

There will be silence, then church whispers behind your black hair, and a cold chill from the open cathedral doors snaking up your neck. Kick your white-tights-covered legs at the brown kneelers in front of you. 

“Um, I don’t know.”

“You are a Filipina,” she will answer for you.

In ten minutes your mother will snatch you back from Auntie Marta. You will never see her again—not at Christmas, not at your grandmother’s funeral, not even at your own wedding. Still, from the moment your Auntie Marta asked you this question, nothing will be the same. You are a Filipina, someone once told you. Remember this forever. 


Two years later in fifth grade you will take a standardized test to measure your abilities with mathematics, writing, reading, and filling in bubbles with a pencil.  For some reason, the instructions call for you to fill in your ethnicity or racial background. Read through the options very carefully while flicking your pencil eraser toward your mouth. The choices are as follows: White (not Hispanic), American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American (not Hispanic), Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and last but not least Hispanic. Scratch your head. Though you do not cheat on spelling tests or anything like that, desperately look to your classmates’ papers for answers.  Take a mental note of what ethnicity bubbles they have filled in. Think this will somehow clue you in on your own ethnicity. Autumn Estrada, the big-mouthed girl next to you whom you always assumed was some sort of Latina, has definitely filled in ‘White (not Hispanic).’ Eric Roberts, a short black boy with green eyes, has bubbled in ‘Hispanic.’ Scrunch your eyebrows together and mouth to yourself What the heck. Raise your hand.

Your teacher, Mrs. Shook, approaches your desk in her high-waisted navy blue slacks and kitty cat sweater. Her graying blond hair is twisted into a bun with pink chopsticks. She will smell of apple spice and fruit roll-ups.

“I’m not sure which bubbles to bubble,” you tell her.

“Pick only one, sweetie,” she says and her pointy index finger, topped off with its aquamarine-colored fake nail, will graze one bubble—the Hispanic bubble. Feel accomplished. This is, after all, the bubble you were originally leaning toward. Think to yourself, I knew it! I knew it! Let out a sigh of relief until your pencil lead snaps in half. Raise your hand again. Ask permission to sharpen it. While walking to the pencil sharpener know with 100% certainty that you are now in the Hispanic bubble, even if you have only colored in half of it. Life seems simple in this bubble. You cannot wait to go home and tell your mother and father what you have discovered.

On the walk back to your desk, take note of the posters plastered across the walls of your classroom. In between ones that read Enthusiasm Inspires Greatness and Bully Free Zone notice the one which reads—Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?  Sit down, take your test, eat animal crackers for snack after you have finished. From this day on, always bubble-in the Hispanic bubble.


In middle school, you will meet a lot of new people. Some of these people are exciting. Others are not. However, most of these people are just like you—they want to fit it, have their parents drop them off at the mall for two hours on Fridays, and get at least fifteen dollars in allowance each week. What they spend their money on is usually dictated by the different cliques that have spontaneously formed in your lunch room. It is in this lunch room—below a large ticking clock surrounded by flags of many nations—that your fellow middle schoolers will chat endlessly about boy bands and the latest fashion trends sold at either Hot Topic or Abercrombie and Fitch. Some groups of students are larger than others. One table, which you desperately want to sit at, is home to a clique of thirteen or more girls. These girls are popular. They sing in choir, do gymnastics every Wednesday, and their mothers pick them up in black SUVs with tinted windows each day at three o’clock near the flagpole.  

About halfway through your seventh grade year, you are in home economics class decorating Christmas cakes with Stacy Donaldson, a small freckled-faced girl with oily red hair and many, many zits. Stacy may have good intentions, but she is clumsy, unpopular, and smells like cigarettes though you have never seen her with a cigarette. As you add pink frosting to the edges of the cake, you ask Stacy to hand over your water bottle. She does as she is asked, but not very well. As she attempts to pass the water bottle, she slips, flinging the nearly full container into the air. Both of you watch as it soars above you. In slow motion, it eclipses a hovering fluorescent light, drops back down again, and lands directly on Britney Clipka’s Christmas cake. Yes, The Britney Clipka, head of the popular table of thirteen or more girls. The middle of her cake collapses like a punctured blow-up jump castle. Watch her face turn red with rage. Notice how she pulls her blond hair back with both hands, something you imagine her mother doing when she grounds Britney Clipka for back talk.

“Look what you idiots did to my cake!” She will yell at you.

“I’m really sor—“

“Shut up! Just Shut Up!” She will continue to scream.

Move your eyes to Stacy’s face and shake your head nice and slow. Let her know that though you are upset with her for dropping the water bottle on Britney Clipka’s cake, she is still your semester partner in home economics class and your allegiance lies with her.  Stacy will take this as her cue to apologize.

“You can have our cake. We will trade,” she will say.

“Excuse me, but I don’t want your cake. That’s the last cake on earth I want.”

Continue to watch Britney flip out over wasted flour and eggs. Watch Stacy’s zit-filled face turn pink in more places than just her pestering pimples. Have no idea how this dire situation will be mediated until you hear a voice behind you. It is a voice you have heard before, a loud voice, a powerful voice, the voice of Dominique Martinez who sits at the Mexican table, one over from the popular table.

“Back up, White bitch,” she says, pushing Britney with one swift motion.

“Stay out of this, Dominique. No one asked for your opinion.”

“I don’t give a fuck, Britney. You are always whining your bitch-ass whine. Leave Lucy and Stacy alone and go back to your prissy cake.”

The four of you will stand in silence, waiting for someone to make the first move. Dominique’s eyes will be squinty and her lips will be pushed out. Notice how Stacy seems like she is going to cry, but she will not when something extraordinary happens. Slowly, Britney will turn around, walk over to her deflated cake, remove the frosting-covered water bottle, and continue decorating. She won’t say a word to any of you after this. Dominique will then speak up. “Don’t let that bitch give you a hard time.”

“Thanks, it’s not like we did it on purpose,” you say.

“I know, for real.  Anyway, what are you? You look sort of Mexican.”

Think about this for a moment. Remember your grandmother telling you that she is Spanish—something your mother claimed she said only because she was embarrassed to be Mexican. Think of your father, a tall, pale, Polish-American from the Midwest. Hear your mother’s voice telling people that she is a proud Chicana. Then hear that distant voice of your Auntie Marta calling you a Filipina.

“Yeah,” you say, “I am Mexican.”

“I knew it! I could tell from your last name alone—Renillo is so Mexican. Hey, do you want to sit at our table at lunch today? You can come too, Stacy.”

Stacy will nod her head furiously up and down. You then will also nod your head, forgetting to correct Dominique for saying your last name is Renillo. This is actually one of your middle names. Your last name is Sobieski. Pay no attention to this. Think that from this day forward you will sit at a popular table, though it is not the table you originally hoped for. Understand in this moment that you will never sit at the Britney Clipka table, but you will always be welcomed in the Dominque Martinez section. This is the lunchroom table for you.

oEastern European

You save and save. Your godmother has a second cousin in Madrid with two girls your age. In order to visit them for a summer all you need is three thousand dollars (one to get you over there and back, two to spend once you arrive) and a passport with a horrendously washed-out photo. Work cleaning houses with your Auntie Elsa in the afternoons after your Tuesday/Thursday classes to make extra money. Stash this money in a savings account at First Bank and do not touch it until you reach your goal amount. It’s easy work and only mildly strange when one of the men you clean for lounges on his plush leather couch while you sweep up day-old pizza crumbs from the oak hardwood around his fat callused feet. But it’s worth it. Europe is calling your name. It is saying, Lucia Christina Renillo Sobieski, come to the fatherland of two, if not three, of your nationalities! You must heed this call.

One morning before your first class of the day, you will stop off at the bank to make a deposit—a twenty-five dollar check which your Polish grandmother mailed from Minnesota for your twentieth birthday. After depositing your not-so-lofty lump sum into your savings account, the teller hands you a white receipt with your account balance on it—a balance you have been working toward for a year. Feel like crying tears of pure joy, but in place of those desired tears run home and search Expedia.com. España no longer rests solely in your dreams of jamón, discos, and Pablo Picasso. It is now a date marked with a huge red outline of something which resembles a very trim and muscular bull, your personal mascot of all things Spanish.

Upon first landing in Madrid, you will notice the landscape is similar to that of your home in the Southwest. This is key to the conquering of one portion of your people. Remember a high school history teacher who once told you that the U.S. failure in Vietnam can be attributed to a lack of climate appropriate uniforms. At the time, you found this statement ludicrous and believed the U.S. failure in Vietnam probably had as much to do with wool coats as it did venereal diseases. However, the parched and dusty hills surrounding Aeropuerto de Madrid-Barajas are as welcoming to you as the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in your home state. It all makes sense. Assimilation into this culture is as easy as putting on a fleece jacket that you already own. This is the weather of Hernán Cortés, Malintzin Tenepal, and Wile E. Coyote. This is the weather of your life.

Your godmother’s cousins are well-to-do, something you didn’t think anyone in your family (no matter how distantly related) could accomplish. They have a modest flat, a huge glass dining room table, and a little dog named Juanito that pisses out a pool of urine the size and shape of Texas in the corner of the kitchen each night. Do not be startled. This urine will dry and cake over in the night. Come morning it will surely be taken care of when, much to your discomfort and the universe’s constant jesting, a Polish cleaning lady named Krystyna visits. Tell yourself that the term cleaning lady conjures up images of bad backs and grey hairs. Notice, however, that much like you, this cleaning lady is young, vibrant, and not too shabby in the looks department either. At once, see yourself as having a powerful connection to her.

Do not act unnatural about being the cleaned instead of the cleaner. You will treat her in the same manner you wished to be treated while cleaning up the filth of others. Meaning, stay out of her way and discreetly walk about the flat in every room but the room she is tidying. Learn quickly not to offer help.  She will not take it. She speaks Polish, you speak English, and neither of you can communicate past Disculpame, el perro méo en suelo otra vez in Spanish.

One day, you walk in on her wiping crystal bowls with a white dishtowel in the dining room. She will ignore you. You will consider ignoring her, but, ultimately, you end up sitting at the end of the glass dining room table. Her blond hair will be pulled back in a ponytail. Her legs will look fit in her black stretchy workout pants. Do not be shocked that she works out or that she has enough money for a gym membership. Smile, say hello, do anything but watch her clean in silence. She will smile back and this is when you feel it—this unmistakable urge to tell her that you are the same, that your people are her people, that you two are cut from a similar Eastern European cloth. This is when you will tell her in your best blended versions of English, Spanish, and some Polish curse words you have picked up from your grandmother that you are also Polish. Tell her how your grandmother immigrated to the United States in the 1950s, tell her how you eat kiełbasa whenever you visit St. Paul, and ask her how she really feels about the stereotype of your people being too stupid to screw in light bulbs.

Feel silly when, despite your attempts to connect on a cultural level (no matter how basic and flawed it may have been), Krystyna does not laugh, smile, or seem to care at all. She will look at you, continue wiping down the crystal bowls, and say hmmm, the international sound of I do not care.  And, to be frank, she does not care. It means nothing to her where your family members originated from. All she knows is that you are an American, and she is not. You will remember Krystyna as the most memorable person in the entire country of España. 



You are on your lunch break. You are tired, mildly irritated with the long line at the bank, and worried about whether or not you left your curling iron on at home. An attractive blond man in shirtsleeves and black slacks standing behind you in line at the First Bank will study your ass and hips for five minutes. His eyes then will venture up to the fish-eyed security mirror where he will spot your face—oblong with a bluish hue over your already strangely pale skin. Your eyes will throw him off. He will think that they seem slanted or exotic. Do not be frightened by this word exotic. Remember it is not reserved for topless dancers or rare parrots found in the Amazon. This word applies to you now. You are exotic. You, like the Moluccan Cockatoo, are a rare find. Accept this.  

As the line slowly moves a foot and a half forward, make the grave mistake of dropping your bank slips to the floor. His arms will drop to your papers like thousand pound weights are attached to their sides. You also will drop to the floor to gather your things, as to not seem in need of his assistance. On his way up from the grey-patch carpet, his head will bump yours. He will laugh wildly. You will also let out a laugh in-between rubbing your black hair and moving your eyeballs in wide circles inside their sockets. What an idiot, you will think.

Now here it comes. Do not act offended or taken aback. After he says hello, smiles, and sticks his smooth well-moisturized hand out to yours, you see that look in his eye. You will know this look anywhere and you tell yourself that it is that same look he got when studying for the SATs back in high school. Notice as his blue eyes move back and forth from your somewhat thick lips, the somewhat flat bridge of your nose, and your somewhat exotic eyes for several seconds. This one is a guesser.

“You’re not, uh, Hawaiian are you?”

Do not laugh at him. Do not tell him that the closest thing you are to Hawaiian are the Dole pineapple chunks you ate for breakfast. In your past, there were times when you felt gracious at these moments. You would correct people at this point, telling them No, I am actually not Hawaiian. Then you would search their features and think of your own—wonder what it is they see in you that they do not see in themselves. Maybe your high cheek bones, maybe your dark hair, maybe your thick lips, maybe your black eyes. Whatever it is, it is the difference between you and them. While thinking this over, the attractive blond will grow impatient. Decide that he is truly not that attractive.

“You’re part Thai, aren’t you? You know, you sort of look like my sister’s friend back in high school. Really exotic features like you. She was Thai.” 

Smile out of reaction but retract that smile instantly after you see that the teller before you has closed his window for lunch. Now only one teller is open. You will look down at your bare wrist. Though you do not wear a wrist watch, this action will seem appropriate at this time. It can be estimated that this man will stand behind you in line guessing your ethnicity for at least another ten minutes. This is almost unbearable for you to imagine. So far, he has not moved away from the coastal areas. Alaska is most likely next.

You know you must answer him or he will never shut up. You look him dead in the eye, “I’m part—“

“Native Alaskan? I knew it!”

Just as he interrupts you, close your eyes, and when you open them, refocus on the newspaper in his hands. It is the New York Times and everything about it seems ordinary except for one tiny insignificant headline: On Ethnicity, Check Outside The Box. Apparently, you read below the caption, the U.S. census is now allowing multiethnic responses to be given. 

“Did you read that article?” you ask, pointing to the paper.

“Oh, no,” he says looking down. “Not yet.”

Study his face for a moment, but not for too long. He, like your Auntie Marta, will take silence as a cue to continue speaking. Because you do not want that to happen, you speak. “Guess this means it’s no longer one girl, one box.”

Laugh like a crazy person at your own joke. Tip your head back, smack your hands across your thighs, and let out a hugely exaggerated sigh. When you have exhaled fully, laugh again, and again, and again. The attractive blond man in shirtsleeves and black slacks will not ask you anything after this point. In fact, he will leave. He will gather his bank slips, fold his paper over, and head out into the sunlight. The joke’s almost over, you think to yourself, but not quite.


Kali Fajardo-Anstine was born and raised in Denver, Colorado. She currently is an MFA candidate at San Diego State University where she is at work on a collection of short stories. She says her writing is greatly influenced by her activist mother, reflective father, and six ornery siblings.