In twelfth grade, to kick off our final year of high school, we went to Prospect Park in Brooklyn to discuss our roles as the leaders of the school. During this day, we discussed the main ways people identify themselves; for instances, some people may label themselves by ethnicity, sexual orientation, or race.
Since I was young, I have dealt with constant questions about my race. Being perennially tan meant that within the first five minutes of meeting me, I was asked about my race. “What are you?” was the most often terribly phrased question I endured, as though the difference in my skin color relegated me to non-human. I learned to ignore it, ranging my replies from “I’m human” to attempting an actual explanation of my race. These explanations often ended with me summing simply “uh I’m eastern European, First Nations, and Japanese”, which lead to stares and more questions. “What is a First Nations person?” or “are you really Japanese?” were the most frequently asked questions.
By my senior year, when we had the talk about identifiers, I realized I didn’t identify myself with any of them. I was confused and conflicted about so many of those identifiers; my economic status made me conscious of how I behaved so as not to seem spoiled, my religion was non-existent, and I couldn’t identify my ethnicity let alone my race.
So it was that in the United States, I was identified by my race. People often assumed I was Hispanic, Italian, Mexican. I could never exist as a separate entity from my brown skin; it followed me everywhere. When I arrived in Ecuador, I noticed a difference. Within five minutes of our sitting down for lunch, my Quito host family asked me what religion I was. I stumbled through an explanation in broken Spanish about being both Jewish and Christian but identifying more with Eastern religions, specifically Buddhism.
My Cuenca host family was no different. The third question they asked me was if I was Catholic. Again, I found myself struggling to explain that my dad was Jewish, my mother Christian, but that we weren’t practicing. They nodded and smiled and said they accepted me no matter my lack of dogma. I was somewhat relieved that their way of identifying me was philosophical, realizing here I was not identified by the color of my skin, rather what I believed and thought.
My realization was only enforced by the gringas at the foundation at which I work. I was asked once how I learned English so well and I had to explain politely that I was from the US. I felt the old embarrassment about my race coming back and the feeling was only worsened by a conversation with another woman. She addressed me in Spanish and I replied in English and she smiled and said “oh good, you can practice your English this way.” I was stunned into silence. For the Ecuadorians, my skin color helped me blend in but my lighter hair earned me double takes. I appreciated however, that they judged me on something more profound than how tan I was.
A few weeks after my arrival, my host family asked if I was comfortable with their praying in front of me. I of course said yes, as aside from my grandfather’s Buddhist chants, I hadn’t had any praying experience. It was interesting to watch as their lips formed a communal slew of words asking God for forgiveness and such. They would pray perhaps once a week or so and I always sat with my hands in my lap, eyes downcast, appreciating their prayers rather than participating. One Sunday, my host father asked me again about my religion. I explained I did not identify as anything. This started a half an hour discussion of whether I believed in God, what I thought happened after death, and his trying to prove to me that to a certain extent I did believe, citing my use of “oh my god” as a subconscious confession of faith. I laughed through all of this, even accepting an invitation to church.
As they bowed their heads, hands coupled together in preparation for prayer, I couldn’t help but be jealous. Their devotion astounded and evaded me. Although I had always scoffed at religion, claiming that prayer could not simply will things to happen and that action was necessary, I somehow found myself wanting what they had, faith in something larger than all of us and a hope that through doing good we will be rewarded.