So, I don’t want to come off as flippant or dismissive… but some mixes are just… common. Run of the mill. Overdone. SOOOO 2000. Just kidding, people!! But there is truth to certain mixes showing up in higher numbers. Asian-White mixes and Black-White mixes, for example, are high in number, as the Census tells us. However, for some of us in the mixed race community, our mix feels very singular, rare. Perhaps something like being a unicorn in a field of horses and everyone else talks as if you don’t exist.
It’s Christmas of 2010. Much of my Sri Lankan mother’s side of the family decided to meet in Sri Lanka for a sort of a family reunion and holiday. For Sri Lankans who have moved away and started families outside the country, going back to Sri Lanka during the holidays in December is common. Hotels are packed, nightlife is busy, tourism is booming. Definitely fun times.
For much of our stay in Colombo, we chose to stay in The Cinnamon Grand. A sort of luxury hotel in the heart of the city, it’s always bustling with people. Wedding processions, photo shoots, live music and family meetings are always occurring simultaneously in the lobby. There is a café right in the main lobby area where I would sit, snack on my mutton roll and sip a cup of some of the finest tea in the world and just people watch. Let me prove to you how many Sri Lankans come from all over the globe during the holiday season. Once, while sipping my tea, I looked up and recognized a cousin of my cousin (yes, Sri Lankans families are big and connected like that) who was a bridesmaid in someone else’s wedding. I ran up to her as she waited to take photos and we did the girly screaming-jumping huggy hello that girls do when they realize they are having a chance meeting on a remote island.
My mix is Sri Lankan Tamil and African American (or Black). If you didn’t know and chose not to google it by now, Sri Lanka is a very small island off the coast of India. It is somewhat rare for most to meet a Sri Lankan, much less a Sri Lankan mixed with something else. As an adult I now know of 4 adults who are also Sri Lankan and Black, excluding myself. I have met two of them, and the other two are cousins of a friend. I also now have a niece and nephew who are also Sri Lankan and Black. Growing up, though, I felt as if I was the only Sri Lankan Black girl. Ever. It was exciting just to meet someone who was African American and East Asian (Japan, China, etc) because that was the closest match I had ever met to my own mix (Asian/Black). Now, it wasn’t as if I didn’t know anything about my heritage and wanted to learn about myself through my peers. On the contrary, I was very involved with my father and his side of the family and had met all of my mother’s siblings and most of her first cousins across the globe by high school. I just thought it would be cool to meet someone else of my same mix so we could share stories and experiences.
Back to the lobby of the Cinnamon Grand. I think I was snacking on a Sri Lankan pancake with some coconut inside while people watching. Phenotypically, most people see me as African American and the African American male who approached me must have thought the same. He assumed I was on a vacation on this “exotic island” and wanted to share some tips on where to go and what to see. What resulted was surprise at the fact that I was mixed and there to see family. Turns out he was previously married to a Sri Lankan woman and was there visiting his two boys as he does every Christmas. We chatted for a bit, he told me a bit about his sons and we said our goodbyes.
The next day, as I was walking through the lobby I heard my name being called from the café area. I turned to see the African American father waving me over. As I walked over to say hi, I saw he was sitting with his two sons. His sons, both African American and Sri Lankan, spend the majority of the year in Sri Lanka with their mother and visit the US to spend the summers with their father. The father says, “Hey boys, this is Jennifer. She’s here to visit with her family this Christmas.” They seemed uninterested and they continued looking at their books they had with them. The oldest boy, probably 11, glanced up for a second but just to say hi as he had clearly been trained to do. Their father then said to his oldest boy, “Hey, guess what? Her dad is African American and her mom is Sri Lankan! Just like you!” At that, the boy’s head snapped up and he gasped audibly and stared at me with his mouth agape. In that instant, the knowledge of all that he meant by his gasp hit me in the chest. I immediately understood his reaction. I understood that this kid was experiencing the same feelings I had at his age. Feelings that there was no one out there like us, that he was the only one who knew what it was like to be Sri Lankan and Black. That he was the only one who knew what it was like to interact with African Americans and then how to make the various adjustments necessary to interact with and be understood by Sri Lankans. That Christmases in Sri Lanka and summertime at Black family reunions share as many similarities as they do differences. That if I exist, there must be others – other mixed people like us, others who were the evidence of two worlds meeting. That he was a real person, that he wasn’t the only unicorn. That we didn’t know each other, but we so intimately did.
And as he stared in silence, I just smiled and answered all that his gasp and stares said. “I know, right?! Pretty cool, huh?” He nodded his head slowly and said, “Yeah!”
By Jennifer Noble