“No one is ever completely happy, or free, or safe” Explained.

If there is one quote from Nella Larsen’s Passing, that can easily touch on all the themes from the novel it would be:

“I’m beginning to believe,” she murmured, “that no one is ever completely happy, or free, or safe” (Larsen 121).

Take a minute and let that settle. Not much of an optimistic motivator, huh? I know. Humans are a unique species that’s able to take free will and run with it. But of course with all our decisions bring forth consequences: good and bad ones. Funny, when you think of it. If free will gives us no boundaries, then why are there consequences we must face afterwards? It should be a stream of actions and no limitations. Won’t our “free-will” or decision to do whatever we want to, be influenced one way or another? That’s why what we do, I would like to think, is for happiness. Because a bad consequence is something no one really aims for.

In Larsen’s novel, Clare and Irene marry for some kind of happiness. Though Clare’s situation can be seen as her marrying to reserve her “white identity,” I can still see it as her choice to be happy. Or in the least, be content with her choice. As for Irene, it is pretty evident that she loves her family and will do just about anything to satisfy and keep them whole. However, in both cases, the women in the novel aren’t truly happy. The initial sense of happiness is just a front, a mask to distract whoever is looking outward in, that they are complete. Internally, they are broken. Clare has to suffer her husband’s racist comments and Irene is paranoid that she isn’t enough for her spouse. Which brings me to the next point: freedom. Because they are confined in a marriage, Clare and Irene cannot really escape their husbands’ highly opinionated personalities and must abide by certain rules. The notion of freedom is also closely related to identity. Both women are a mixed race of white and black, so the stereotype as well as their physical appearance hinder them from being self-expressive. They are looked at as what they are supposed to be, opposed to respected as who they want to be. Their identities are inescapable.

Trying to answer how one can be “safe” is very interesting in Larsen’s novel. There are many secrets, suspicions, and taboos explored in Passing, that the question of safety becomes relevant in the major scenes. Because Clare sneaks off to Harlem to be amongst her fellow black community, her secret to her husband is at risk. Mr. Bellew is oblivious to the fact that Clare is half black and if he finds out, he will be furious. The consequences of Clare’s other identity coming out will call for a very hostile response. Aside from identity and secrets, worldly issues become a problem in the Redfield household. Irene’s husband wants his little boy to know the issues and topics discussed in the real world, and not only what he learns in school. He wants to prepare his son to know the ins and outs of reality and ensure that this fantasy life of childhood is not the only world he knows. But as a mother, Irene’s instincts kick in, and shelter her boy from the harsh realities of the grown up world. Though, no matter how much a mother tries, her children will see the world they try so much to shelter them from. It is no longer “safe” because information reaches young ones unfiltered and their minds tend to wander into the unknown. A parent can only do so much in guiding their children, but they can never really control what is handed to them.

One of my professors told me that we need to have a sense that we are free. We are told we have freedom and can achieve anything we put our minds to. But it’s a system. We are told this because once we figure out that it isn’t true, there will be and uproar. People will just go insane. And it’s true. No matter what our decision are, they are never completely ours. Rational beings have to think, sometimes over-think, their actions. The simple fact that we think before we act proves that this freedom holds a kind of responsibility. And responsibility is binding. So how can we ever be truly happy, free, and safe, if we know we have to pay for it at the end? We won’t know, is the answer. But we can’t let that question bother us too much. So live like there’s no tomorrow? NO. Live like there is tomorrow, because you shouldn’t restrict yourself to just today.

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Falling in Between a Hyphen Explained.

I am American by citizenship/birthright, but Filipino by blood. I was born and raised in the wonderful city of New York, but my upbringing didn’t shy away from the traditions of a Filipino household. I speak my language pretty well, know a bit of my homeland’s history, and current events. I probably know more about the celebrities in the Philippines than those in American television. I’ve visited the Philippines countless times and constantly yearn to be swimming in its transparent waters or immersed with locals in the market. I am so proud to call it home and to be a part of such a deep culture. We are known to be proud people, always raving about our culture, but I like to think there is a good reason for it. I mean, have you been to a Filipino party? We won’t just feed you, we will let you take home some of the food. Not only that, but we will entertain you with some uncles who can’t dance and mothers who will sing some of the music industry’s greatest hits… as if they were the originals. Overall, we are a fun, happy, loving bunch of people.

And even though there’s a great side of being Filipino-American, there’s a dark side to it side as well.

I have to accept that I fall in between a hyphen. Because I wasn’t born Filipino, I am not truly Filipino. Because I live in America and mingled with a whole diversity of people, experienced “American things,” and haven’t eaten Balut, I am not entirely Filipino. “My education is American.” I haven’t “lived” the harsh realities of the Philippines, so I can’t identify with its struggle. I’m not part white, so I can’t be “American.” Some Filipinos don’t consider Fil-Ams as Filipinos at all. Other Fil-Ams don’t think of themselves as Asian because we are specifically “Pacific-Islanders.” Filipinos tend to be prejudice to others because of the hyphen. Because I am also American, I can’t just be Filipino.  In other words, as much as I identify with being Filipino, I can’t escape the fact that I am also an American. Trust me when I say, people have reminded me of this fact time and time again.  And before anyone thinks that I am not proud to be an American, I want to clarify that I am very proud to be. See, that’s where the struggle with the hyphen comes in. How can I give an explanation for being proud to be both, without sounding too prideful or alienating to the other? Is it that negative to actually be prideful? No. But once you start mixing things up and interlocking different cultures, suddenly it’s like your stepping on someone’s toes. There’s this need to identify, but oh wait, you must be very careful on how you word things. Don’t make one side sound worse than the other. Make sure your facts are right. Don’t sound like an “ugly American” or “another bandwagoning Filipino.” Really? Does it ever end?

In Nella Larsen’s Passing, Clare struggles with the same issue. She comes from both white and black parents, however, she “passes” as looking more caucasian. Since her appearance hides her “black identity” she embraces it and doesn’t even tell her husband she is mixed. When she runs into Irene, who is also mixed and a childhood companion of hers, she instantly connects. Clare is seen as a traitor of the black race because she is ashamed of it, putting it all behind her, and claiming to be only a white woman. But as her highly racist husband expresses his indifference with black people, Clare becomes just as uncomfortable as Irene. The reason why Clare is so happy to see Irene is because she has this need to be with someone like her. She has confined herself to only one side of her identity, that her latter side is seeking for attention. In another sense, Larsen expresses that no matter how much one tries to escape their dual identity, it will always find its way back. It will always have this need to be expressed. Clare struggles with balancing who she really is and who she is trying to be. Because she identifies with being white, she cannot escape the fact that she is also black.  Both sides of her just want to blend together, but she cannot let it. A lot of this is because of what I said earlier: there’s a caution when expressing who you are. We see that with the perspective of Mr. Bellew (Clare’s husband) and Irene. Mr. Bellew represents Clare’s white half and Irene represents her black half. Either way, if Clare picks a side, the latter would look at her in disgust. Making it a difficult decision for her to openly be who she is.

Race is such a major identifier. Not in the sense that it keeps you in a box, but it helps in explaining who you are as a person. There is history that influences your choices, morals that drive your thought, and language that help your articulation. For those who are mixed or know what it is like to live in between a hyphen, you understand the hardship in trying to explain who you are. There is a push and  pull notion when you talk about a particular side of you. It’s hard to choose sides. Often times you are told you are, when you aren’t. Stereotypes are thrown at you from both ends. You then start to question why it all has to come down to this. Why is it so hard for others (and often times, yourself) to just accept that you are you? I wish I could give you an answer. But I will tell you this, be happy with who you are. You don’t have to choose a side. Society will push ideas down your throat, cultures will clash, but honey… go ahead and spit out all that glitter and rainbows. You are more than what the hyphen says. Take it and run because even if you are Latino-American, Asian-American, Orange-Green, an Alien Bunny rabbit, or whatever… I trust that you know yourself. And if you are still trying to find who you are, don’t worry. You aren’t the only one.