08/31/2016 12:53 EDT | Updated 09/23/2016 05:40 EDT

When 'What's Your Background?' Turns Into A 20-Minute Argument

born and raised

For as long as I can remember, one of the first questions I would get upon meeting people would be, "What's your background?"

One day when I was three, I sat on my dad's lap and pretty much said "OK, Daddy. What's the deal. I keep hearing all these adult folk going on about how I'm mixed. What in the hell are they talking about?" (Such an articulate three-year-old I was.)

In my mind, I pictured a piece of chart paper with a mash of purple, red and yellow paint. I thought I must have a rainbow on my face.

"Well, you're a little bit of everything," he explained. "You're a little black, a little Chinese, a little Indian and a little white."

I got off his lap and walked to my room, thinking: "That answered absolutely nothing."

angelyn family

My brother's eighth birthday party in Kingston, Jamaica with a mix of family and friends. (I'm in the red dress.)

I grew up surrounded by friends and family members who looked like all of these races, but all I knew at three was that they were all Jamaican.

When I'd visit from Canada and arrived at the airport in Kingston, Jamaica, we'd be picked up by my uncle who looked Chinese, go home to his kids who were mixed Chinese and black, get a visit from my cousin who was mostly white, and then take a trip to see my dad's side of the family, who was pretty much all black.

But to me, they all spoke with the same accent, lived in the same place and were all my family.

Nowadays when I answer questions about my background I simplify the races and just answer black and Chinese Jamaican.

For people who aren't familiar with the Caribbean, it isn't common knowledge that multiple races have been born and bred there. A byproduct of its history of colonization is the diversity of the people who still live on the islands. People from across the globe have been shepherded to the region's shores: slaves from Africa, indentured workers from China and India, Jewish refugees, Arawak who are indigenous to the region, and Europeans who decided to stay. Jamaica's motto is "Out of Many One People" for a reason.

My dad's answer to my question about being mixed didn't make sense at the time, but it wasn't long before I started to understand race, and what people were trying to figure out when they asked about my background.

Nowadays, when I answer questions about my background, I simplify the races and just answer black and Chinese Jamaican.

But you would not believe the amount of people who have been dissatisfied with that answer.

angelyn francis

"What's black Jamaican? Don't you just mean Jamaican?" someone once asked.

"No, black is the majority, but Jamaica is a country, nationality and culture, not a race."

My three-piece answer is now a 10-minute history lesson.

"So who's Jamaican, your mom or your dad?" they ask when I'm finished.


"But I thought you said you were Chinese?"

Yup, now let's start from the top ...

Every part of my background exists in tandem, it's not a competition.

All it means is it takes a little more breath to explain my family and background to people, which I don't mind. They're just curious, and while I don't have prominent Chinese features like narrow eyelid folds and straight hair, I get it, I look mixed.

The one interaction that really put me off was when I answered the "What's your background" question with a simple Chinese-Jamaican, as was my habit at the time.

The person narrowed their eyes a little and asked, "Why do you put Chinese first, are you not proud to be Jamaican?"

I was utterly confused and had to laugh at the irony. All I know is my Jamaican family and I damn sure am proud of them. And although I consider being Chinese my race more than my culture, I still dressed in a cheongsam for special events as a kid and we cook both Chinese food and Jamaican food.

Every part of my background exists in tandem. It's not a competition.


My mom, dad, brother and I on a family vacation.

As I've gotten older I've developed a firmer definition of my self-identity. Though it's not exactly rock-solid and I think I will always be a bit conflicted about how to scale the different races that make up me and my family, I know what defines me.

The problem is when others try to define me, or decide that they're dissatisfied with how I explain my identity, or try to force me to pick one, or don't get how I "work."

There isn't a finite number of words you can use in a sentence, so there isn't a maximum number of cultures or races that can inform my life, or make up me and my family. And I can be proud of all of them.

So please, just take my word for it when I explain my background to you. It may not make sense to you, but I'm starting to pick and choose my battles and learn when to not bother explaining.

When I go to a Chinese restaurant with my relatives I usually place the order, for a laugh. We order salt fish and chicken fried rice, Chinese sausage, ham choy and fish, dumplings -- that sort of thing.

We get curious stares and sometimes comments: "You're not ordering what Canadians usually order."

I laugh and sit with my family -- everyone some sort of mix of black white or Asian -- smile and keep right on eating.

Born And Raised is an ongoing series by The Huffington Post Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. We want to hear your stories -- join the conversation on Twitter at #BornandRaised or send us an email at

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook


13 Children's Books That Celebrate Diversity