Carnegie Mellon University

First Place for High School Prose

"Confessions of a Biracial Disabled Woman"

When I show my family photo, I get a mix of different reactions. Some say that it is a lovely picture and leave it at that, but mostly, I get the standard questions: So they are Muslim? What do they think about you being a Catholic? Is their country dangerous? Are the women forced to wear that? I’ve learned that with many Americans, there is a deep misunderstanding about what Islam is and who Muslims are. They might think that the precepts of Islam call for fanaticism, oppression of women, child brides, and that the countries in which they live in are dangerous and have strict laws and cruel ways of punishment. That is simply not true. We cannot forget that since the beginning of time, religion has been a prime excuse for inexcusable acts of violence.

My mother is an immigrant Muslim woman from Indonesia, now an American citizen. She entered this nation with my American father, with no notion of what the people were like or what to expect. She had to build a brand new home here. She had never even seen snow before, and the first place she lived in America was Salt Lake City, home to the best skiing in the country. She learned, simply, that people are people. The neighbors brought housewarming gifts and introduced themselves. When the neighborhood heard that she was pregnant with me, they threw her a baby shower, even though she had only lived there for a few months.

But being different is still hard. In my own life, I can remember when Christians have told me that they are praying for my mother’s conversion. I’m careful about who I talk to about my background and my mother, because I don’t want a confrontation.

I am very proud of my heritage. I could talk about how much I love Indonesian food or traditional clothing, sure. I’ve engaged with those things almost daily for my entire life. It’s not uncommon for my family to have a meal with teriyaki chicken and pasta, together. What is important to me, however, is to understand the events that are happening in my mother’s country.

As a small child at three and six years old, I went to Indonesia but didn’t remember nor understand much. I remember not even knowing how long the flights were: about 25 hours, split up by transiting in at least four different airports. When I finally went to Indonesia as a teenager, I met my family for the first time in years. Many of my relatives cannot speak English, and I cannot speak Indonesian, but I still feel a deep connection to them. They support my faith, and I support theirs, because both of our faiths call for love and service to others, regardless of their background. I became obsessed with learning about the country’s history, politics, and religion. I care about these topics deeply within the context of America, so it only made sense to understand them in the context of Indonesia. Being knowledgeable about the country made me feel more connected to it, my mom, and my heritage.

I realized in my psychology class last year that, because of my cultural background, I have a different set of values that is distinct from most people’s. We were learning about cultural dimensions, a theory proposed by the social psychologist Geert Hofstede. The theory is about how each society’s culture influences their members to hold certain values. Specifically, Hofstede came up with six binary ideals. The most recognized dimension is individualism and collectivism. In a collectivist culture such as my mom’s, people are attached to their families, and they have collective responsibility for all of the extended family. In an individualist culture such as America, we value individual responsibility, independence from parents at an earlier age, and freedom of self-expression. I’ve grown up with a mix of both ideals. Another dimension, “power distance,” relates to either accepting and promoting hierarchies or lacking any hierarchies. The East has a strong power distance, and my Indonesian influences have taught me to show my utmost respect to my teachers and elders. However, the West has influenced me to have more personal relations with my superiors, such as my elder family members and teachers. This was the first time that I recognized that my mom and my dad have taught me things I would not have received in a “monoracial” or “monocultural” family. I’m proud of being biracial. I learned from an early age what multiculturalism is really about: the idea that everyone benefits from increased exposure to diversity and worldwide thinking.

An amazing thing about Indonesia is its national motto, “Bhinneka Tunggal Ika,” which means “Unity in Diversity.” There are hundreds of native languages, cultures and ethnicities that are now all celebrated together. While it is a majority Muslim country, its national symbol is from Hinduism, being a nod to its ancient heritage. The holidays of all of the major religions are celebrated. I can only hope to inspire a type of coexistence like the kind in Indonesia within our nation, but the only way to do that is to spread each and every one of our cultures without fear.

Another more personal struggle I’ve endured is a disability. I had an aneurysm at age eight. It caused my right side to be severely weakened and spastic. My right side was completely paralyzed at one point, and I had to learn how to walk, talk, and eat again. To this day, my hand remains paralyzed. I have many orthopedic problems and pain, all caused by my spasticity and weakness. However, it is almost invisible, which means that when it is visible, people might be quick to judge the actions that I take, or can’t take. For example, my leg often shakes uncontrollably and my arm will retract like a T. rex. Sometimes, I’ve felt sympathy directed towards me. At worst, I’ve felt disdain directed towards me, because someone thinks that my involuntary actions are weird.

I’ve felt marginalized ever since I was a little girl. Of course, how do you expect little kids to understand why I was in the hospital for two months? Most kids just thought that as soon as I was back at school, I was completely better; it was just like when they got the flu. I remember that when I would tell kids about my paralysis, many would say that I was faking it. They would say that I was joking; there’s no way that I could have it. I remember a few kids pinched me or hit me, of course without any warning. I don’t have loss of sensation in my paralyzed limbs.

I felt isolated for a long time. The typical, “no one understands me” garbage that pre-teens say? That actually would, and to be honest, still does apply to my life. Most people my age aren’t limited in their movements; their movements are effortless. They have yet to understand what it is to “count their spoons”: to make sure that you don’t waste energy throughout the day by making automatic calculations in your head to conserve your energy ration, just to accomplish everyday living. While most don’t fret about everyday activities like typing or writing, I worry about them sometimes. I know that I can’t do these activities when I’m tired late at night without my hand and leg involuntarily contracting and causing pain. This is just one of the many examples of the challenges I face, that no one even cares to know about, but it is real. “No one understands me” because most people don’t experience paralysis or spasticity or know just how frustrating these conditions can be.

I can still remember in a biology class when we were talking about genetic disorders, and someone said that it would be more ethical to abort someone who would have a disability. The rationale? Because their life “would be sad.” I wanted to dig myself into a hole rather than stand up to this person. I go to a small school. This person knew about my condition because I had been very outspoken about it. Sometimes I don’t even want to be outspoken about it because when I elaborate in class about any of my identities—be it my race, disability, or even the music I like to listen to—it falls on deaf ears. Typical high schoolers think that they know everything and are “woke,” but when I speak about my experiences of isolation, they’ll just start whispering about other things around me. They have better things to do than hear me get on my soapbox. Am I really invisible? They care about mental health and think that it’s so important, while making fun of neurodivergence and making casual remarks about longing for suicide because they have a test to study for.

Because my disability is mostly invisible, I don’t usually tell people until I want to. If a personal experience is tied into our conversation, then I tell them. Then they mostly freak out. This leads me to downplay my long, dramatic, crazy medical history, saying something like, “I’m completely fine now,” or “I’m used to it now.” While that is true, I am through with downplaying it: it was a hell of a journey with three major operations and procedures bi-yearly at least. Many would be surprised by this, but the most aggravating comment that I get, pretty frequently, is that I look completely normal, and that I shouldn’t be so down on myself. I shouldn’t call what I have a “disability.” My favorite: call yourself differently abled instead, doesn’t that sound better? While I may look, in their words, “completely normal,” my internal workings are not, and I need to be able to acknowledge that. I also think about how bigoted the implications of using the word “normal” are. I think that when people react negatively to disabled people (whether it be with disdain or with pity), it is because when they imagine if they themselves had a life-altering disability, they imagine that their lives would be bad: on a scale from just more difficult to not worth living. They project their own ideas of what disability means onto us. The truth is that whether someone is born with a disability or it develops later in life, most individuals just learn how to deal with it until it becomes their “normal”.

Sometimes I think about how much better my life would be if I was “normal”—able bodied and neurotypical—but then I realize that my accomplishments, perspectives, and values are unique because of both my strengths and my weaknesses. So many of my interests and experiences stem from having a stroke as a child, from my interest in psychology, to my volunteer work at children’s hospitals. I call it a disability because I’m realistic, but I don’t want that label to make anyone feel sorry for me. Disability isn’t something you overcome, but something that you learn to live alongside, and I want my use of that word to represent how much more I have to adapt and learn to live with it while still being able to live my life like everybody else. I can sew and play piano with one hand, and I can paint my nails by myself, even with my limited motor skills. I’ve had to adapt in every physical aspect in my life, and I am currently adapting to driving. But I’ve never seen having to adapt as an impossible struggle. Everybody struggles with something, whether it be discrimination or a personal battle, so just because my life is harder than most people’s my age, my life is still worth living.