“WHAT ARE YOU?” – The Ancestral Traveler Within

I recently answered a question on the Soul Pancake blog that hit at the heart of a subject I ponder often. The question was, “What question do you hate the most?”

“What are you?” I’ve answered this question a lot throughout my life.

In part, my answer was: “What are you?” I both love and hate this question. It often depends on the tone and the context. I have an ethnically-mixed background, and I’ve answered this question a lot throughout my life…

As I answered the question, it struck me that my multiracial status is part of the reason I like to travel. Often I find myself chasing my tale around the world, gathering up bits of my ancestral past. It also struck me that my immigrant ancestors, too, were travelers. With that, I realized that my thoughts on the question “What are you?” might interest fellow wanderers, as we tend to be people who appreciate the unique and eclectic. So I’d like to share with you something else I’ve written on the subject, in a brief excerpt from my adventure memoir, They Only Eat Their Husbands: A Memoir of Alaskan Love, World Travel, and the Power of Running Away

Often I find myself chasing my tale around the world, gathering up bits of my ancestral past. (Top: Bucerias, Mexico. Bottom: Toishan, China)


Ever since I arrived in China, I’ve mourned my lost 18 inches of personal space. But it wasn’t until I reached this rural village, that the pressure of China’s overpopulation felt physically dangerous. Bodies continued pouring into the market, until I was wedged so tightly into a jostling line that the possibility of being trampled became quite real. It was frightening, but energizing. Being squashed in a crowd made me feel very Chinese – though the stares did not.

You’d think I’d be used to people staring at me; they’ve been doing it all my life. I both hate it and love it when people stare at my face and ask, “What are you?” Part of me wants to scream, “I’m an American!” or “I’m a human! What are you?” But another part of me loves being the melting pot personified, and watching their faces change as I share my story.

I’m not aware that any of my father’s Mexican ancestors came to the U.S. by wading or swimming across the Rio Grande, just as none of his Chinese ancestors ever worked on a railroad. My Chinese great-grandfather was a restaurant owner in El Paso, where Mexicans have lived since long before the borders were drawn. My great-grandmother was Mexican, but I believe she and her family simply walked across the bridge from Juarez to El Paso.

On my mother’s side, one of my Irish ancestors was a hillbilly: that great-grandmother was a poor girl from Appalachia. But she was lucky enough to be born with a pretty face. So when she was a teenager, she put on her best dress, came down from the mountains, went to the city, and caught herself a man. Then there were my English ancestors who lived in New England before the Revolutionary War, my Swiss ancestors who moved to the Midwest, my French and Cherokee ancestors — I’m not sure I buy the bit about being descended from a chief’s daughter, although that story has been passed down in my mother’s family for years.

According to another old family story, whispered for generations, one of our New England ancestors married a half-African woman. That makes me something like 1/2048th African, completing the American mosaic, the torn bits and pieces that make up me.

Some people do recognize one of those torn pieces or another, and it seems that some don’t like what they see. One tanned summer day when I was 12, I was riding my bike through the white suburban neighborhood where I lived with my grandparents, when a voice startled me from my daydreams. A little girl of about eight hollered, “Get out of my neighborhood, you dirty Mexican!”

Ever the optimist, I duck-walked over to her on my purple Schwinn with the banana seat, to explain why it was wrong to call people things like that. I was sure that when she saw how friendly I was she would recognize her error and apologize. The pain didn’t hit me until I saw the truth in that little girl’s narrowed eyes, followed by her turned back and stomping feet: my friendly explanation only made her hate me more. I slowly pedaled away, thinking, “This can’t be how most people are. This can’t be how my life is going to be.”

I was right. Sure, a few store clerks have ignored me in favor of paler customers, and a few people have asked me questions like, “With a name like Lopez, why don’t you speak better Spanish?” — I wanted to ask that guy, “With a name like Mc-whatever, why don’t you speak Gaelic?” Still, it’s not how most people treat me. It’s not how most of my life is.

Many men find my exotic blend intriguing. Then they discover I’m just another American woman who has spent half her life looking for an American man — often going to lengths that would shame even the skeletons in my ancestral closet. They find me unusual, yes, but not in the ways they want.

Alaska taught me to embrace being different, to almost desire oddity. But the penetrating, sometimes hostile stares in this country (China) are growing tiresome. Until now, I never really knew what it felt like to be a foreigner. Before China, the only foreign destinations I visited were Canada and Mexico. Because I’m 3/8ths Mexican, in Mexico I’ve sometimes been mistaken for a local. Because I’m 1/8th Chinese – as if a person could be broken down into a pie chart – back in the U.S. sometimes Asians study my eyes and ask, “Are you part Asian?”

But here all they notice is my difference.


Do you wonder about your ancestral past? Do you find it difficult to reconcile the pride and embarrassment of being different? Do you think the question “What are you?” is central to the American experience?

You can order a copy of They Only Eat Their Husbands: A Memoir of Alaskan Love, World Travel, and the Power of Running Away (Ghost Road Press, November 2010) from Amazon, IndieBound, Barnes and Noble, or CaraLopezLee.com.

18 thoughts on ““WHAT ARE YOU?” – The Ancestral Traveler Within

  1. Jina Bacarr


    You’re so right about the Irish being storytellers! There’s something about the green of Ireland and the mist and the fog and the rain and the backroads that set your imagination into gear…not to mention the promise of that pot o’ gold at the end of the rainbow. It makes you believe anything is possible when it begins “Once upon a time…”

    My heroine, Katie O’Reilly, is like that–she runs away from the grand house where she’s in service after being wrongly accused of stealing a diamond bracelet…when she boards the Titanic she meets Captain Lord Jack Blackthorn, a gentleman gambler who offers her his protection when the constable comes looking for her aboard the ship…

    Thanks for letting me ramble…

    Katie O’Reilly Titanic blog

  2. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    I’m flattered you think I’m brave, Stephen. But I think you give me credit for traveling farther off China’s beaten path than I’ve really been. Plenty of buses, cars, and motorbikes ply even the remote rural roads there. I still feel culture shock sometimes, but that country is really modernizing.

  3. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    I’m not sure any strangers have just walked up to me on the street and asked that question, Helen. However, a few people who’ve just met me have asked it with little to no preamble. Others have waited until they know me better, and most of those people are polite and simply trying to resolve their curiosity. Only a very few have shown signs of discomfort at my answer. I think most people simply find it interesting.

  4. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    The Irish are great storytellers, Jina. Many a great writer has come from that little island country. I love historical fiction. I’m currently working on a historical novel loosely inspired by stories from the Mexican-Chinese side of my family. If I knew more about my Irish origins, I’d probably mine those stories as well.

    A passenger on the Titanic, you say? I’m intrigued.

  5. Stephen Tremp

    This was a fascinating blog for sure. I wish I could visit China. Not sure about the rural villages as the concern would be so far off the beaten path if something happened, there could be no help. You’re a very brave person!

  6. Helen Ginger

    Good gracious, I can’t imagine walking up to someone and saying, What are you?

    I absolutely love your book title, and your story sounds interesting.

  7. Jina Bacarr

    Hi, Cara,

    What a fascinating post! I really enjoyed reading about your travels and experiences…definitely a lot of story ideas here.

    I’m Irish and I write about Irish heroines–the stories handed down to me from a large Irish family have shaped who I am.

    My latest heroine, Katie O’Reilly, is the closest to who I am. Even though she lived a hundred years ago (she’s a passenger on the Titanic), I found her voice in me and her character grew out of my experiences.


    Katie O’Reilly Titanic blog

  8. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Thanks, Lisa. I feel strong roots in my California culture, too. I didn’t realize how unique a culture it was until I started noticing my strong connection with fellow SoCal ex-pats. As the last continental stop in Westward expansion, Californians do tend to have a blended cultural identity. And here’s the Southern Californian personality as I experience it: we tend to be fast talkers, opinionated but open to other ideas, business first-pleasure later, laid back but ambitious, spiritual with a touch of hedonism, living the examined life yet still image aware.

    You can take the girl out of California, but you can’t take the California out of the girl. 🙂

  9. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    It’s funny, what’s in a surname isn’t it, Mr. Sanchez? Some people hear my last name, Lee, and say, “Oh, then you must be Chinese.” The answer: “Yes, I’m part Chinese, but the Lee isn’t Chinese, it’s Korean… and I’m not Korean.” Huh?

    The name Lee came from my father’s stepfather, who adopted him. His adopted dad was Korean, but there’s no blood between us. The Chinese name in our family background is Mar… which is an Americanization of Ma.

  10. lisa

    Great essay!

    I’m a Euro-mutt. When I was growing up, I used to envy people who had “ethnic” background, not feeling any connection to one of my own. Now, I would say that the connections I feel are not so much ancestral as cultural–growing up in California and feeling a part of the mosaic that makes up our state. Culturally, we’re Mexican and Latin American and Asian, as well as European. It’s a different American mix, and one that I treasure.

  11. Bob Sanchez

    Hi Cara,
    I love your comment about being the “melting pot personified.” Many people have said to me, “Gee, you don’t look Mexican.” To my knowledge, I’m not. But I am Irish, English, Prussian, Swiss, and Spanish…at least. It would be nice to think I have some African and Maya thrown in somewhere too, but I have no evidence of that. Most important, I am a human being and a proud American.

  12. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Thank you for the great story, Sheila. I’m so glad I asked the question.

    It’s fascinating how prejudices shift over time. When I was a girl, I was sometimes afraid of how people would react when I told them I was Mexican, but never worried they’d seem repulsed by my Irishness.

  13. Sheila Phelan Wright

    I hated being Irish until I read James Joyce’ The Dubliners. I knew my four grandparents and come individually in steerage from Ireland. My grandmother Jane got on board by herself, pregnant with my father. Her farmer husband joined her six months later. My mother’s mother came alone also, but met her husband at a boarding house.
    I learned from my city friends that Irish were drunks and from my family that Irish women kept everything secret and the British were responsible not for the potato blight, but for the famine.
    When we moved to the suburbs I knew there were people in our very WASPish town that couldn’t come to my house or be friends with ‘that Irish girl.’ Those same people, in their tweeds and madras, weren’t supposed to hang around with the Jewish group either. We were ethnically identified and boxed.
    Then I read some Joyce…and some O’Neill…then I fell in love with Yeats and Edna O’Brien. I fell in love with the Irish, my family and myself. Have gone to Ireland several times, contemplating my ancestral past.

  14. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Gay, thank you for sharing your heartfelt story. I think it’s good for the national soul when we remember that the enslavement, violence, and bigotry that have shaped African-American history is also the family story of individual people. I get a strong sense of the gratitude and pride with which you realize how much your accomplishments mean in light of the past. Your attitude is inspiring.

    It’s interesting how many of us mixed-race Americans must reconcile that the DNA of both perpetrator and victim live within us. According to my family branch’s version of history, one of my Chinese ancestors raped one of my Mexican ancestors. Though I’ve spent time resenting the one and pitying the other, in the end I’m a product of both. I hope never to forget that as I strive to become the best human I can be.

  15. Gay Pinder

    As an African-American I often ponder my ancestral past. For many of us our past can only be hinted at by a few stories passed down from generation to generation. According to stories on my father’s side, we are decendent of a Confederate general and a slave woman from the Roanoke, Virginia area. Ironically, this general is buried just a few miles from my house in Baltimore City. Because we were denied our heritage and our families were split apart for profit during the slave trade, many African Americans have slim hope of really finding out “what we are.” We were listed as property on ledgers mostly with only first names and ages, like a pet, a horse, or the favorite cow you might name Bessie. From the color of my skin and eyes, you can surmise that somewhere along the way, the rules of misegination were ignored. As a matter of fact, my father’s mother was a mulatto – that archaic word half-black, half-white offspring – the supposed result of the general and the slave.

    Also when we think about who we are and we hear stories like the one above. We also assume the union was consummated in violence or at least duress. It would be most unlikely that it was a love match.

    But however I started, whatever my ancestral past, it has all led me to the person I am in the 21st century. I’ve travled to 13 countries so far. I’ve taken advantage of the educational opportunities afforded to me and I strive to live my life as a positive force in an often negative world.

    I know my ancesters had a rough go of it – from slavery to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Era. I just want them to know that I don’t want their suffering to have been in vain.

Comments are closed.