"What defines someone's identity?" is something I've been asking myself for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I never fully knew who I was. I was born Cambodian, raised Italian and live in America. Each culture comes with different values that contradict each other. Despite being a part of all three cultures, sometimes I feel like I don't belong to any of them.
My dominant identity is my American one. My surroundings are American, and it's the culture that I know better than the rest. My hometown is what I call the "Epitome of American Life." There are white picket fences, the grass is a lush green, kids are always playing outside, all the houses lookalike, sports are a big deal, the school system is one of the best in Jersey, and most of the households can be classified as "upper middle class."
Sometimes I feel like I'm right at home, but I also feel like I could be from a different planet. The diversity is nearly nonexistent. As far as I know, I was the only Cambodian in my grade, and by my estimations, only 15 percent of my graduating senior class were people of color. The lack of diversity within the town makes me stand out even more compared to my peers, but I also don't mind it.
Despite being Cambodian, I can't help but feel that I'm American because of the surroundings I grew up in. I eat American food all the time (some of it happens to be my favorite food). I dress like an American student, complete with sweatpants and uggs; I talk like an American with all the hip words and accents, and I act like one with my fast-paced life that's centered around work and school.
On the other hand, Italian culture is another large part of my life. It's been with me ever since I was adopted, but it takes a back seat to American culture. I think of myself as Italian-American, not Jersey City Italian-American, but first generation, fresh off the boat, Italian-American. My dad immigrated to the US when he was a boy and grew up in an Italian-speaking household in NY and he's tried to pass down Italian traditions to my sister and me.
Whenever someone asks me what I am, I'm ready to respond with "Italian" but then I realize they are probably asking about who I am based on my looks, which is something I don't connect with. I eat Italian food every day and I'm basically fluent in Italian. I'm close to my Italian relatives and I grew up with Italian values. But despite all of this, I feel like I'll never be Italian because it's not in my blood.
By blood, I am Cambodian. I tested my DNA and the results were I'm 62% Vietnamese Southeast Asian and 38% Dai-Tai Southeast Asian, which means that I'm Cambodian. I'm proud to be Cambodian, but sometimes it feels like a burden. My dad always tells me that I'm the product of the Vietnamese War or the Khmer Rouge. Whether or not that's true is still up for debate. I came from the same area where the war happened, but we never found out caused me to end up in an orphanage. I've always been curious about my birth parents and I've wanted to look into it, but I don't know what would happen if I do.
The only leads I could have for my birth family was the orphanage I was adopted in, but it closed a few years ago. The only other leads that I have are my name from the orphanage, "Melea" and a farm. My parents said that when I was younger I would tell them that my birth parents were on a farm in Cambodia. Everything that I said to my parents could be the product of an overactive imagination or it could be the truth, but I don't think I'll ever find out which one unless I go back to Cambodia and try to find out.
Even with all of this, my Cambodian identity is absent from my life. I look Cambodian, I have Cambodian clothes, and I have a stuffed toy that I took with me from my orphanage, but that's really it. I've never been back to Cambodia and I've never explored my birth culture and what it stands for. I just look Cambodian, nothing else.
Living with all of these identities is difficult, as it gets confusing and I feel lost in terms of who I am. When I filled out my college applications, they asked what my descent is and I didn't know how to answer that question. I wanted to say "Italian" because it's the culture I identify with, but I had to stop myself because genetically, I'm not Italian.
As much as I love having a strong connection with Italy and America, I wish I could be more in touch with my Cambodian side, but I've taken a few steps towards this goal. Three years ago, my friend and I went to a Cambodian festival in Maryland. Going there allowed me to dip my toe into Cambodia's culture, but I felt like it wasn't enough. Returning to Cambodia is the only way I can truly connect with my Cambodian side and make it a larger part of my life. Of course, I could try bringing a little bit of the culture to me by adopting some of their ways of life or eating more of their food, but it's hard to change my lifestyle when I'm not fully immersed in it.
All of these cultures and identities have shaped me into the person I am today, and as much as I wish I could only belong to one, I am glad to have had the experiences that each one has brought me.