“Looks like you got a little some’n’ in you.”

Growing up in Raleigh, Maureen Searcy would sometimes hear this from the locals of small-town North Carolina. It was rarely mean-spirited, and now she finds their curiosity amusing, even a bit charming. They couldn’t put their finger on it, but they felt there was something exotic in her appearance.

The elusive “some’n’” is Filipino. Maureen’s mother is from the Philippines. Maureen’s father is Irish-American—his mother emigrated from Ireland, and Maureen’s family life in North Carolina revolved around her extended clan. Maureen, with her black hair, apple cheeks and cream complexion looks as Irish as anyone; but her almond black eyes hint at that something more.

Maureen’s mother is not culturally Filipino. As a small child, she lived in an orphanage in the Philippines with her younger brother—their parents had died, they were told—and they were adopted by an American white woman when she was five. The white woman—Maureen’s adoptive grandmother—lived in Quincy, Illinois, and “cycled through foster children and husbands.” She acquired Maureen’s mother and uncle while in the Philippines with one of those husbands, who was stationed at Clark Air Base. The Filipino brother and sister were the only foster children she ever adopted. According to the story Maureen was told, a Black baby whom her adoptive grandmother had loved had been taken away in the normal dealings of the foster care system, and she wanted to make sure no one could take away her two Filipino children.

This past May, Maureen and her mother traveled back to the Philippines. Fifty years had passed since her mother had seen her birth country. Maureen’s sister was not interested in going—but Maureen went, hopeful of an “epiphany” and a thesis topic. She had wondered from childhood about what it meant to be biracial—“where I fit in.” Her mother’s adoption—creating a hole where an extended family and a cultural heritage should fit—had made this even more confusing.

The trip was a disappointment. First, they were unable to locate the orphanage that her mother and uncle had lived in. They found an orphanage that might have been the right one—but both women were reluctant to imbue it with meaning out of some “self-serving” need, when they might easily be mistaken. Throughout the trip, Maureen did not have the sense of coming home that she had hoped for: “It was a different culture. I didn’t feel a connection to the people, or the land.” They found some plausible but unverified information that they may be of Chinese ancestry instead of native Filipino, muddying the search for roots even more. Her mother’s reactions were largely interior, and she spoke little about her feelings; Maureen’s later attempts to interview her were “like pulling teeth.” Ultimately, instead of a pilgrimage back to herself, Maureen found the lesson of the trip to be quite a different one: “We are not Filipino.”

Paradoxically, this conclusion has allowed Maureen to put to rest the nagging feelings about her mixed heritage. She finally feels “at peace” with the facts of her existence. Her biracial self-definition has come down to this: Her mother is Filipino. She is someone with a Filipino mother. Peace is tangible in the manner with which Maureen tells the story: She is not talking herself into something; she is stating something that is. Now, she just has to find a way to write her thesis.