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What I See, And What I Miss

My daughter is an American. Like I'm an American. Like my wife and son are Americans.

It doesn't matter to me if your mom and dad waded the Rio Grande eight seconds before you were born, or if your ancestors came over on the Mayflower: if you are an American citizen, then you are an American, and there are no classes, gradations, caveats or qualifiers.

I think that's an admirable ideological position.

That having been said, I'm white, my son is white and my wife is white. And my daughter is Asian.

So, we're visiting New York. We (not my wife, she was giving a speech,) go to the natural history museum. For the life of me I don't remember exactly what we're looking at, just that it's in the Asian People's portion of the museum. No doubt I was being pedantic, turning some damned thing or other into a "teachable moment," and all of a sudden I realize I'm having this conversation:

Me: Well, Asian people were . . . while white people were . . .
My daughter: I'm a white person . . .
My son: No, you're an Asian.

Heart comes to complete stop . . .

Sometimes, when you're a parent, you are just off your game. You have bad days. You walk right into it, eyes open and stupid.

Later, we're in Chinatown. We eat at a restaurant that is significantly more authentic than P.F. Chang's. My son and I are the only white people in the room. We're seated at a table with an ancient Chinese couple who stare at us as we eat duck soup. My daughter feels compelled to count to four in Mandarin. Out loud. It's all she remembers of her native tongue. "One, two, three, four," plus "Good," and "Hello."

She's trying to fit in with people she doesn't know, but that she knows look like her. Strangers. "One, two, three, four," I am one of you, somehow, in some way I can't explain or make sense of.

Set aside the black hair, the almond-shaped eyes, the dainty nose, the lingering accent, and there is nothing Chinese about her. Don't tell me about culture: her culture is Hannah Montana and High School Musical. And what the hell does "race" mean? I'm"white" and she's "Asian?" That means something? It means nothing.

Except that it means something to her.

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“What I See, And What I Miss”

  1. Blogger fabius.maximus.cunctator Says:

    michael reynolds:

    The simple fact that your daughter looks different form other children and from you will have an impact, like it or not.

    Judging from my own experience she will be aware of the first difference very soon. Lots of people will make her aware of it.

    In case you wonder what my experience is, I simply have an admixture of northern mediterranean blood and a name which is foreign in the country of my birth, Germany. No whining. I am in a fairly decent position professionally, a nice place to live in for the family, a merc, lots of books, decent suits, cigars, single malt etc. What I haven t got or achieved yet is most probably due to traits like laziness, sarcasm, overfondness of scotch or just bad luck, not discrimination.

    Nevertheless I can be identified as a foreigner and when one is young that is not always funny to say the least. I was effing born here dang it ! And my mother is German. Never mind. People will respond to two things on a 1st impression of me - one: blacker of hair, darker of eye, thicker of eyebrow - ladies often like it but there it is, foreign - two: a lawyer. Point two is choice. Point one is imposed on one.

    "She's trying to fit in with people she doesn't know, but that she knows look like her. " Heartbreaking. That s the feeling I had as a boy in Italy or France on holiday. Somehow I was in a foreign place but the people were more like me than those in the land where I was born.

    I do not want to make too much of this. Just my experience. However, I have heard much the same thing from others who are similarly placed.
    BTW asian children have been adopted in the States and Europe for a long time. I ve heard about one lady who is about my age (40ies) who s actually put her experiences and feelings in a book. Maybe the sort of thing has been done in the States as well. Cd be interesting.

    In any case, I d say prepare yourself that your child will experience a strong feeling of foreignness. Whatever you do, that is something she`ll have to face. And she`ll mainly have to face it alone.

  2. Blogger Alan Stewart Carl Says:

    Good friends of mine have an adopted black son who's about 4. They still get people who come up to them and ask "is he adopted?"

    My friend Rob has taken to answering "no, why? do you think he looks black? I think he looks black but my wife swears he's mine."

    That's it. That's all I have to add to your serious post.

  3. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    Fabius:
    Thanks for that response. I imagine your parents had the same feelings on this that my wife and I do, thinking of you not as even slightly alien, but as entirely theirs.

    I have heard that Germany is a bit slow to accept racial differences. It's interesting that the only people in the US who have ever given us odd looks are non-US-born Asians.

  4. Blogger Michael Reynolds Says:

    Alan:

    I love that comeback. I've used versions of it, but only about my son when he's doing something like denouncing a font, (Oh, my God, they're mixing helvetica and comic sans!) or explaining vector images, or otherwise demonstrating that sometimes the apple does fall a fair distance from the tree.

    I was telling Fabius above that we never get "those" kinds of looks, except from fresh-off-the-boat Asians. In fact Americans are almost seamless in their reaction. We can be at an event, meeting soccer coaches for the first time or whatever, and I have to point out my daughter in a crowd and no one ever says, "No way! You mean the Chinese girl?"

  5. Blogger fabius.maximus.cunctator Says:

    michael reynolds:

    My mother is German, my father is Greek. That is not unusual, many couples like that around. Married over 40 yrs now. It gives me a slightly foreign look with a foreign name but culturally and linguistically I am more German. No adoption, though. It seems my comment wasn`t quite clear on that.

    My favourite bonmot on that (own invention): "When Greeks settle somewhere they immediately endeavour to improve the genetic makeup of the indigenous population by means provided by nature." Delivered in a dry, faux-academic tone this works really well.

    "Germany is a bit slow to accept racial differences" - Difficult to say, really. Many Germans rather like certain foreigners like Greeks or Italians. There are a lot of both about there since the 60s and they live quite well. People from muslim countries are decidedly less popular.

    Whether it is worse than in comparable countries is difficult to say. My personal answer wd be "no". That doesn t mean it is all great in that respect, but name a country where it is.

    In any case you are aware of yr daughter`s situation in re foreignness already. Obviously you are taking it very seriously which is really the main thing I think.