LI recently caught a butterfly fish. This particular butterflyfish lived just south of Lizard Island in the Great Barrier Reef in the 1970s. He swam with two others: the gold-striped butterflyfish, whose shiny bodies looked as if someone had dropped a coin into a piece of butter. But he didn’t exactly look like his two friends—the silver spot on his body seemed to blur in bands. This butterflyfish, my butterflyfish, was half the size of the others, but led the trio while foraging on the reef. As the other fish approached, my butterfly fish bent its head into the sand and pricked its spines. He was the most aggressive of the three to others and the most nervous to strangers.
Three fish swam this way for two hours, which we know from a marine biologist following them. Two hours later, the marine biologist took a photo of my butterflyfish and then shot it with a 303 powerhead. Taken because it looks different, not like a known species, but a mix of two different species, like a hybrid.
I learned about my butterflyfish from a 1977 scientific paper, and I found myself wanting to find out how two gold-striped butterflyfish maintain their friendship, whether they’re related, or whether they’ve encountered each other on the reef. I wanted to know more about how he lived his life.
Considering how a century ago I might have been considered a hybrid, how recently Western science has tried to separate the human races into separate species, how the laws of crossbreeding are simply unconstitutional, identifying with a hybrid fish feels risky, even objectionable. 1967, how many people in the gloomy corners of the internet can still laugh at my birth.
“Hybrid” began to be used around 1600 to describe the offspring of different types of plants and animals. But eventually its meaning will spread (neutrally) to mixed-fuel cars and (aggressively) to mixed-race people. The line between scientific jargon and scribbling has always been slippery.
Read more: On Being Black and Asian in America
I first saw someone describe hybrids as “hybrids” and “hybrids” on a Neopets chat board when I was in middle school. Racism seemed so remote from the life I lived in the seemingly liberal suburbs that it looked almost comical against the yellow backdrop of a virtual pet website made for kids. My friend Saya, who is half Asian, and I joked about it for weeks. But that’s all, I was probably 12 when I first thought of myself as a hybrid, and maybe the association never broke up.
The father of taxonomy—why do sciences have fathers?—is Carl Linnaeus, who has named more than twelve thousand species. He devised a binomial naming system in which every species on earth would have a name in two parts: the first is the genus and the second is the species. Many of these species already had names, of course. Native Hawaiians knew about butterfly fish – that’s what they called them. kikakapu and verified—Before Linnaeus named the genus chaetodon In Linnaeus’ system, organisms were named largely after they were “discovered” by white men.
Scientists did not give it a name when describing the hybrid butterflyfish. Hybrids do not have Linnaean names as they are not separate species. Many hybrids do not produce fertile young, if they can reproduce. They are expected to die. In Linnaean taxonomy, hybrids look like algebra – two species names contiguous with x. Becomes a hybrid between a thread-finned butterflyfish and a striped butterflyfish C. auriga × C. lineolatus. These names identify hybrids by their lineage, not their individual presence. There are, of course, charismatic exceptions – ligers, narlugas and grumpy bears. But butterflyfish hybrids are elusive and random, unlikely to evolve into their own species or replace their descendants, so we don’t give them permanent names. If they exist forever, this is out of homage to their parent species, the only new area carved for them and marked with an × for short.
This × most of us combine hybrids, regardless of our mixes. A man at the bar, or a man at work, or a man, we stood miserably against genealogy dissections made by any man. We saw the same blurry composite photo of a beige woman who was said to be America’s mixed-race future and wondered why she looked so white. We felt like strangers in a place called homeland. This × is abstract and technically meaningless on its own. But it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s the only thing we know is completely ours. We will never be caught between worlds as long as we can ×; this is our world. when i read C. auriga × C. lineolatus, The first thing I saw ×.
“What are you?” it is an act of taxonomy, even if the person asking is not aware of it. That’s the question scientists are asking my hybrid butterflyfish. The question my SAT forms ask me before I open my test booklet to write an article about whether people should accept injustice as a condition of being an adult. The question strangers ask me at the malls of my childhood is looking over my bowl to see if a legit pair of parents will pop up out of nowhere. I’ve lived my life chasing The Question.
I’m lucky that the question is the most common vector of racism I’ve come across. It shows me as something mysterious – a strange amoeba in a petri dish that has never been seen in this pond before. In any other context, I’m happy to remind you that I am an organism like humans, pigeons, and bacteria like any other living in homeostasis on the pavement. But unlike real science, the driving question here is objectification, not knowledge seeking. The question does not understand me as a person, but as an object – not who but i What.
Over the years, I’ve become convinced that those who ask me the Question are looking for confirmation, not an answer. I know this because when I tell these people “what” I am, some argue with me. “Aren’t you Korean?” A Lyft driver once asked me in disbelief. “I could swear you’re Korean. Are you sure you’re not Korean?” I develop a random taxonomy for myself: What people misunderstand is what they want from us. If they say we’re Korean, they think we’re beautiful. If they say we’re Chinese, they want us to go back to where we came from. East Asian ethnicities are not on a list given to us on some sort of tasting menu. As long as they never ask if we’re Japanese.
Read more: Tired of Trying to Educate Whites About Anti-Asian Racism
It is tempting to write against the Question and advocate for a future where mixed-race people are no longer scheming codes to crack on the pavement, where we can simply exist undisturbed. It would be even simpler to dismiss these interrogators as random scumbags who need to find a life and stop interfering in my life. But I can not. Because every time I meet someone who looks like me, I want to ask them the Question. I want to know what kind of Asian they are. I want to know how their parents met. I want to know what words they use to describe themselves. I want to know how close or far they feel from their own whiteness. I want to ask them questions that I don’t want strangers to ask me. In other words, I’m an asshat too. I can never give up on The Question because I am endlessly curious about our mutual hybridity. Maybe it’s because I grew up with a longing for a role model surrounded by dozens of white and Asian families like mine but without mixed Asian adults. We were all children, a new and fuzzy generation, all of us peeking through our oldest to get a glimpse of our uncertain futures, to get an idea of who we might be when we grow up.
For a while, whenever people asked me Questions, I ignored them, my steps quickening in anger. I pretended not to hear. Maybe I would answer now, my steps would slow until I stood on the pavement, my stance was so wide that people would have to circle around me. “What are you?” they ask me I look into their eyes and say “×” to them.
Excerpted from Sabrina Imbler’s book How FAR THE LIGHT REACHES. Copyright © 2022. Available from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc..
More Must Reads from TIME