By Kiernan M. Steiner
I remember being about three or four years old, catching myself in the mirror, and realizing that I didn’t look anything like my family. I quickly reminded myself “Kiernan, you’re adopted,” and kept on playing. I had been told my entire life that I was adopted, so it was no surprise, I guess. I was celebrated and shown daily that I was loved and cared for by my family, however, it was just one day that I remember reality setting in and realizing how different I was from the rest of my family. I knew I was never going to have light brown hair or fair skin, like my best friends growing up, my cousins.
About 28 years ago, I was born in Madison, WI. Usually, I start my story when I am about six weeks old because I don’t know much about those first few weeks. All I know is that I was in foster care and lived with an older couple, until my adoptive mom picked me up and took me home.
The Steiner family embraced me right away and I know I always felt cared for, protected, and loved. There was no doubt that I belonged. But, not seeing anyone who looked like me made me question myself a lot. What was even harder was that I didn’t really know what my ethnicity was. My birth father was not in the picture at the time of my birth, so I didn’t know my heritage. Let me tell you… being brown is hard some days, but being brown and not knowing my origin was even harder. Hearing the question, “What are you?” stings, but not having much of an answer was worse.
Growing up, I struggled a lot with my body image. I hated my short frame, curvier body, and especially, my nose. I didn’t have any BIPOC mentors or teachers that I could look up to, which made it difficult for me to find confidence in being different.
Fast forward to when I decided to take an Ancestry DNA test in 2017. At the time I received the results, I had a different ethnicity estimate (the algorithm changed in 2018), but I know now that I am 50% Filipinx. To be honest, I had no idea what that meant. I never learned much about the Philippines in school, and my specialization in choral music has kept me from learning about non-Western cultures. Learning my ethnicity was so exciting, but I also felt a lot of shame. For a while, I didn’t feel like I could claim to be Filipinx because it felt fraudulent. How could I claim to be something I didn’t know anything about?
In February 2020, I met my birth father and many relatives on his side of the family. Since meeting them, I have learned that I am Ilokano and we can trace our lineage back at least five generations. Now, I have enough information to track the migration of my ancestors from the Philippines to Hawaii, where most of my family still resides.
With the help of my aunties, uncles, lola, siblings, and my dad, I have learned a lot more about my heritage and my family history. For the first few months of COVID-19 quarantine, I spent a lot of time on the phone with my dad learning about our family, and my favorite part, the family recipes! In addition to the talks with my dad, I started listening to podcasts, such as The Filipino American Woman, Filipina on the Rise, and Reclaiming Filipinx Identity.
Once I started to dig in, I realized that even though my story is different than most in the Filipinx diaspora, I have many themes in my life that seem to reflect the larger Filipinx community. The one thing that sticks out the most is my love for singing and making music. In my opinion, it was both nature and nurture that stirred my passion for music and the power it has to create community. Now, as a doctoral student in choral conducting, I am dedicating my work to examining choral music and its traditions through a decolonization framework, in order to break down barriers for individuals who have been historically marginalized. It is my hope to further explore and reclaim my heritage by studying how choral music has played a role in preserving cultural identity in the Filipinx diaspora.