Nina Mohanty

What’s your full name?

Nina Mohanty.

How old are you?

26.

Where were you born/brought up?

I was born and raised in the Silicon Valley in Northern California.

What do you do for a living?

I now work for a Swedish payments company called Klarna based out of Santa Monica, but before that I worked at various FinTech companies in London.

What’s your ethnicity?

My father is Indian and my mother is Taiwanese (which, I feel is important to point out, is not Thai or being from Thailand).

How did your mum and dad meet?

My mom interviewed my dad for job! Both my parents are immigrants to the United States and both pursued their Masters degrees in Texas of all places. The didn’t meet while in Texas (it is a massive state, after all), but they met in the Silicon Valley later.

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How old were you when you became conscious that people saw you differently? What impact did that have on you?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been aware that I am different and that people viewed me as different. This is probably due to the fact that when I was young, all three of my living grandparents were in town to see me. They couldn’t speak to each other because my grandma only speaks Mandarin, Taiwanese and Japanese. My dad’s parents only speak Hindi and Odiya (my dad’s Indian dialect). It’s always been apparent to me that people viewed me as different because I don’t look anything like my mom and she initially did a lot of the caregiving when I was young. In terms of impact, I thought I was special more than anything. Who is so lucky to grow up with such a diverse household? It wasn’t until I was slightly older and I realised people viewed my “different-ness” as negative that my feelings soured.



Describe your most memorable moments when you were made aware of being mixed race.

There’s two incidents that stand out the most. The first was when I was very young and my mother dropped me off at a one-on-one ski class during ski season in Lake Tahoe. When we finished for the day, all the children and instructors gathered and the parents waited for their children. The instructor said, “Nina’s mom? Nina Mohanty’s mom?” My mom, who is a mere 5 feet tall, came bounding forward saying, “That’s me!” The instructor looked temporarily confused, and then as if had suddenly dawn on him, he knelt down and said, “I didn’t know you were adopted!” I’m not. At that time, I don’t think I even knew what “adopted” meant. It wasn’t the first time people were perplexed by my appearance compared to my biological mother’s, but it’s the first time anyone audibly commented on it. The second time was when I was at Chinese school (I used to attend Chinese school every day from 3pm-6:30pm after regular American school). We were on a break one day between classes and we were playing tag. I tagged a boy who turned around and threw a fit. He screamed at me in Mandarin, “Ew! Don’t touch me! You’re so dark, you’re a burnt chicken.” All I remember next is running to the bathroom and crying. I didn’t understand it, but my gut reaction was to be upset by it. It was the first time that someone had pointed out that I was different in an negative way.

Did you want to change your appearance when you were a child?

Oh my god, yes. I grew up in the Silicon Valley in the 90s. There were a lot more Asian people than other parts of the United States, but it was still predominantly white. For many years, all I wanted to be was white. I wanted to be a white girl. I wanted blue eyes and long blonde hair. I wanted my skin to physically be white. This is partially due to the fact that my entire life, I had both grandmothers pushing skin-lightening or skin-bleaching creams on me. To this day, I find random creams and scrubs that are from Taiwan or Japan or India to lighten my skin hidden in my childhood bathroom or in storage. I haven’t used them in ages as I grew more comfortable in my skin and the colour of it, but they haunt me. I always wanted to be lighter skinned and even today I find myself hiding in the shade when it’s a really sunny day so that I don’t tan. I have a closet full of massive hats to shield my face from the sun and sadly, I think that is a worldwide conditioning that lighter skin is more beautiful than dark skin. I also always wanted blue eyes, and this is probably more of a product of growing up as the daughter of immigrants more than anything, and desperately wanting to be an “All American Girl.” Even in my teens, when Katy Perry’s California Girl came out, I remember this strange shame-like feeling knowing that I don’t look like a stereotypical beach blonde California Girl. It’s messed up.

Do you feel your parents prepared you for life as a mixed race person?

Absolutely not. I don’t think I’ve ever met a mixed race person who *was* prepared for a mixed race life. I mean, who sits their child down and says, “Listen because people are not used to things that are different, you’re going to get some weird looks. People are going to ask you intrusive questions. They’re going to judge you and they might even ostrasise you.” I think my parents just assumed and hoped the world was ready for two half-Taiwanese, half-Indian children. Unlike Trevor Noah, I wasn’t born a literal crime and so I imagine my parents had me and my brother and hoped for the best. My parents are pragmatic and probably just assumed that my brother and I would find a way to cope.

What ignorant comments have you heard about being mixed-race that really rile you?

“You’re not mixed race- you’re just Asian.” And yes - I am Asian, but I’ve come to find that many people think half-black, half-white when they think of mixed race. Yes, my parents come from the same area of the world, but their cultures are so markedly different. I mean, if we want to talk about skin colour, one is a dark-skinned, brown Indian man and the other is a light-skinned Taiwanese woman. When they stand next to each other, one would not assume they are a couple, especially when I was younger. Added to that they come from markedly different religions - my dad is Hindu, my mother is Buddhist; their food is wildly different. Taiwanese people will pretty much eat every kind of meat, including snakes, frogs, chicken feet, etc. Indian Hindus tend to be vegetarian. I am the product of two very different worlds colliding, just as much as someone who has a black parent and a white parent. And if we want to talk about what is or was “socially acceptable,” I assure you there was drama on both sides of my family when my parents decided to get married!

What do you wish people who aren’t mixed-race understood?

Growing up mixed race comes with so many wonderful things but it also comes with a silent crisis. I’m still figuring it out. I don’t know how I identify. I speak Mandarin fluently and get on perfectly with my Taiwanese cousins. I text my mom in Mandarin and yet, I am brown-skinned so I am out-of-place. I look more like my Indian family in Oriyssa, but I can’t speak a word to them. I can’t handle spice the way they do in their food and I can’t wrap a sari for myself. I am a clash of civilisations and while that makes my life experience that much richer, it also makes for marked fault lines that do lead to huge questions of identity.

Do you think mixed race people/families are well represented in the media?

I think up until recently, it was not something that was really touched upon. Trevor Noah’s book (honestly, how many times can I mention Trevor Noah!) Born a Crime and Barack Obama’s book Dreams from my Father made me feel seen. Here are two prominent men writing about their mixed race upbringings and outlining the conflict and fear, sometimes paralysing, that came with it. In just the past year, there’s been such a huge wave of mixed race celebrities and public figures like Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, comedian Ali Wong, musician Norah Jones, or presidential candidate Kamala Harris. I've noticed how in advertising, campaigns increasingly include mixed race families (which I love), but it still doesn't really help shed light on how to live the life of a mixed race child. Growing up, there wasn’t much available but now it really heartens me to see more of it around me in a more normalised manner.

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Back in the late 19th century/early 20th century being mixed race held a stigma, as it was clear proof of interracial relations which was seen as an affront to society’s morals. Do you think it’s easier nowadays to be mixed race or is it more that racism has become subtler?

It’s hard to say, isn’t it? It depends where you are. In London, you tend to get less abuse. Once, I was with an ex-partner walking around in a more rural area and walked by someone who called him a race-traitor. That stung, that really hurt. I think now, people view me as more of a ‘curiosity’ or as something ‘exotic,’ which is a term, by the way, that I abhor. I’ve had exes’ families make comments that have made me uncomfortable and sometimes make me want to bolt for the door, but they don’t realise what they’re saying is racist or inappropriate - that it makes me uncomfortable. I think it’s widely more subtle as society moves towards a more open and accepting culture, but again - it’s all contextual. People still look at me strangely when I walk around Taipei with my mother and my mother and I get stared at when we walk around in my dad’s town in India. Words aren’t exchanged, but the looks… they say it all.

Is being mixed race a burden or a blessing for you?

I have chosen to view being mixed race as a blessing. Living in a dual culture household (three, in my case as we’re an immigrant family as well). It comes with clashing and harmonising sights and sounds, it comes with swirls of colours, and a fusion of never-ending tastes. I am so blessed to live in a household in which we celebrate the Fourth of July with hot dogs on the grill, my dad’s infamous Tandoor chicken, and a heap of Chinese dishes my mother has prepared. We celebrate Chinese New Year and the Moon Festival but also Diwali. I appreciate both Buddhist and Hindu thought and superstitions. My childhood was illustrated with the most vivid, beautiful stories, idioms, heroes and villains. Despite the heartache that I have felt in navigating my identity, I am unbelievably blessed.

Have you felt a struggle with your identity? If so, how did you deal with it and if you are now at peace with who you are, how did you come to a place of self-acceptance?

I still struggle with my identity daily. It is something I have struggled with everyday for most of my conscious life. When I was younger, I always identified as ethnically Taiwanese. My mother spoke to me in Mandarin as a baby and I went to a Chinese nursery and so in that sense my identity was so early on set to default as Taiwanese. But then my grandparents came from India and stayed for a while to help out with me. My grandmother would oil me up in coconut oil and decorate my chubby arms with gold bangles like I was her doll. As I grew older, that third culture of being American took hold and I just wanted to be “normal, all-American.” I rejected both sides of my identity. I got lunch from school because I didn’t want to bring leftover Chinese food or Indian food in, because I was afraid that people would remark that my lunch “was stinky.” I wanted white bread and Mott’s apple juice. Because my mother forced me to attend Chinese school after school, I always remained linguistically close to her culture, but I pushed my self away from my Indian identity until my last few years of high school. I joined the Indian Club at school and took part in this huge event that was held each year called “Bombay in the Bay.” It was a revelation. It was a celebration of my dad’s culture. We danced, we ate, we sang and celebrated being brown and beautiful. I only attended uni in the US for two years and my identity remained relatively fluid until I moved to Paris. It was yet another shock to be a mixed race person AND American in a major European city. That was difficult to navigate and I found myself leaning more on my mixed-race identity than my American identity. It wasn’t until I moved to London and started to understand what I wanted and what was important to me, that I truly realised that I am the sum of all my parts. I can be American. I can be ethnically Indian, ethnically Taiwanese. I can be an immigrant in the UK. I can speak Mandarin, English, French, Spanish even. I can have Cheerios for breakfast, dim sum for lunch, and rotis with aloo gobi for dinner. But that does not detract from me being Nina.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Don’t let others determine your self worth - being different makes you more valuable. It means you have a completely different perspective. Your lived experience will make your ideas and your words that much more powerful.

Is there anything more you would like to say?

Dating as a mixed race person is really hard. I have a tendency to date white men (to the chagrin of my father) and it has always been an issue that I have dealt with silently. I rarely bring it up with my partners, but I know that in the future it will affect many of my life choices such as settling down with someone. Any two people coming together tend to have to teach each other bits about their life - their culture, their traditions. But with me, it comes with double trouble, not least because my father wants me to have an Indian wedding and I would like to have some sort of Western (white) wedding. Being mixed race will affect the way I raise children with a future partner because there are things I have learned from my mother and things I have learned from my father - can you imagine how confusing it’d be if my partner is mixed race? Navigating your identity is hard enough when you’re flying solo, but infinitely more difficult when you’re trying to share your life with someone. It is a lifetime of teaching and emotional labour, so here’s hoping it will be worth it! ;)

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