"Mommy." Becky's hand pauses mid-air, Cheerios halfway to her mouth, her features settling into the world-weary look 10-year-old girls get when confronted with fresh evidence of their mothers' ignorance. "Why in the world would I think about being Chinese? I don't sit there in class thinking, 'I'm Chinese, Miss Fern.' I just do my work."
She says this with utmost conviction, my fourth-grade daughter. Never mind that just moments earlier, we'd been pooling our memories to reconstruct a cluster of year-old encounters in the school hallway involving fifth-grade boys and some unpleasant racial taunts. She couldn't remember if there were four or five boys, if most were white or if half were black. All she could remember was that these older boys thought her Chinese looks were "stupid or funny," and that she told them, "That's your problem, not mine."
"Do you remember how you felt at that moment about being Chinese?" I ask.
That gets a shrug. "I just thought I was a normal person."
"Do you remember how you felt about the boys?"
"Yeah. I wanted to kill them." Pause. Giggle.
"No." giggle. "Yeah."
Bewildering stuff, this business of race. Make too much of it, and you risk grooming your child to forge an identity based on other people's insensitivity and ignorance. Make too little, and you risk failing to prepare your child for life in a country that every 10 years maps its racial boundaries in such meticulous detail that the 2000 Census offered 63 different options.
During the prelude to an international adoption, you sift through a (pardon the expression) Chinese menu of choices. By the time you've checked all the boxes and answered your social worker's barrage of questions: Will you raise your child to respect her heritage? Will you honor your child's place of birth? Will you instill racial pride in your child?you feel like you've considered all the angles. But all those hypotheticals are a lot like the vows you take on your wedding day when you promise to love and honor your future mate: You really mean it, you just don't have a clue what it will look like or how it will play out.
In hindsight, I would say that my husband Joe and I gave less forethought to issues of race than many adoptive parents. Perhaps this is because we are secular in outlook, our lives revolving around each other, our work, our shared values. Uninterested in gatherings inclined to tell us how to think or behave, neither of us belongs to any religious congregation; political, civic or self-help group; association with a racial, ethnic or gender agenda.
Before we exchanged vows in 1985, we agonized over whether we wanted to marry, but we gave no time to our religious or regional differences. Eight years later when we began to consider adoption, we anguished over whether we were too old to be parents; whether two writers could nurture the talents of a child who showed, say, strong math or art skills; whether we could give up the convenience of city life for a backyard and swing set. But we did not worry about whether we could love a child who was black, brown or, well, what color do you call Asian skin? In short, we entered parenthood with "race" relegated to the place it holds in our daily lives: far down our mutual list of obsessions.
A decade of parenting now behind us, race continues to be largely a non-issue in our household. On this particular day, it's part of the breakfast chatter only because I, about to tackle this essay on race, have raised it. Otherwise, as Becky might say, Why would we think about it when other aspects of our identities loom so much larger? On a more typical morning, Becky ("student") and I ("teacher") run through her spelling words. Joe and I ("journalists") page through three newspapers, discussing news stories and hunting for items that will variously satisfy Becky's ("tween") appetites and our ("nurturing parents") need to stoke her interest in the world (yes, with a particular eye to China). We also tear out pictures of lions (a "race" that our Lion King-crazed daughter seems to identify with more keenly than Chinese people). The three of us go through these paces far more aware of the color of our day's attire than the color of our skin. Count on it: at some point my (literally) color-blind husband will ask, "Does this tie match my coat?" Count on it: at no point will he ask, "Does my skin match the color of my daughter's?"
Yet, every so often, issues of race catch Joe and me by surprise, reminding us that each day when Becky leaves the house, she wears not only her jeans and t-shirt, but her skin. Skin that occasionally stirs notice because it's not one of the two predominant colors (black and white) in the adoption-friendly suburb that we carefully selected for its much-celebrated "diversity." Though there are Asian-Americans in the town, among them other children adopted from China, there are occasions when Becky stands out the way a lone woman does in a roomful of men. Becky claims not to notice when she is the only Asian face in a room. "That's just stupid," she says. And I believe she believes that. At least for now.
It is those rare occasions when someone notices for her that Joe and I are left pondering what response will best prepare Becky for the world she will someday navigate without us to protect and guide her. Take her encounters with those fifth-grade boys. Beyond the thought of Becky surrounded by taunting older boys, a vision that would upset any parent, there was this unsettling fact: by the time Becky told us about these incidents, several weeks had already passed. Why had she waited? Whom did she intend to protect? The boys? Her parents? Herself?
Ordinarily, when something bothers Becky, she comes to me first. In this instance, she turned to Joe, the more easygoing of the two of us. To my mind, that conjured two possibilities: either Becky was concerned that I'd be upset and was trying to protect me at her own expense; or she was worried that I might make more of the incident than she felt they deserved.
Certainly, for me, the hallway encounters summoned memories of a two-year-old incident (to my knowledge, Becky's only prior brush with racial slurs), when an African-American boy in her first-grade class pulled back the edges of eyes and taunted, "Cut the cheese, you're Chinese." In that instance, Becky also delayed telling us, then confided in Joe, again leaving me to coax the details out of her. When she insisted, "It wasn't a big deal," I responded (calmly, I thought), "You're right, it's not a big deal. But it is unacceptable. It's important that your classmate understand that he hurts people's feelings when he does that."
A call to their teacher led to a meeting between Becky, the boy and a guidance counselor. The boy was surprised to learn that his "slanty eyes" gesture was offensive and his chant hurtful. Becky and the boy hugged. Soon after, their teacher held a class discussion about diversity. Everyone walked away with a worthwhile lesson: the boy learned that words can wound; Becky learned that she can speak up and defend herself; their classmates gained a better appreciation of the world's complexity; and I discovered that the boy's actions had been fueled by ignorance, not a desire to inflict pain.
This time, though, several factors prompted me to proceed more cautiously. I was concerned that Becky may have turned to Joe because she felt I'd been too heavy-handed the last go-round. Also, I was uncertain how upset Becky was: while sufficiently disturbed to mention the taunting, she claimed not to remember either how many boys were involved or how many times it had happened. Finally, I felt that she'd handled the boys brilliantly when she told them, "That's your problem, not mine."
"I'm so proud of you," I told her. "I don't think I could have handled it as well." After stressing that point several times, I said, "The school should know about this." I persuaded Becky to let me tell a teacher, but left the selection of which teacher up to her. I didn't explain that one of my aims was to provide Becky with an adult outside the family to talk to. She'd hesitated before telling Joe and me about the incidents; perhaps there was more she wanted to say. As it happened, there wasn't. Though the teacher invited Becky to identify the boys, Becky chose not to (or couldn't). The school year ended. Becky never mentioned the incidents again.
Some parents, no doubt, would have pressed harder for a confrontation with the boys. But I was held back by more than the fact that the encounters were already several weeks old, leaving open the question, Would the boys remember what they'd done? My greater instinct was to refrain from a dramatic reaction that might deter Becky from coming to me, should another incident arise. I also didn't want to magnify the incidents into something so big that Becky might wind up feeling self-conscious about her Asian-ness. Perhaps most of all, I didn't want to give a response that would imply that race should or must be central to Becky's sense of herself.
I remain comfortable with that response. As appalled as Joe and I were by the racial taunting, it would have been inconsistent of us, and therefore baffling to Becky, if we'd dwelled on the importance of taking "pride" in her Chinese heritage, instead of focusing (as we did) on the pride she should feel at having handled a difficult situation well, shaken it off, moved on.
The way we are raising Becky, she is a polyglot kid growing up in a polyglot household. Joe's identity includes Cherokee, Episcopalian and Midwestern strands. Mine includes Jewish and East coast threads. Becky's Jamaican baby sitter is black, Pentacostal, an immigrant. For years we've joked that Becky is the world's only Chinese-American-Cherokee-Jewish-Episcopalian-Reggae Princess. Becky's been to seders and Christmas Eve services, Chinese New Year's parties and Jamaican weddings. Annually, we celebrate a Family Anniversary to commemorate her adoption day. None of it, however, is the focus of our family life. For better or worse, Joe and I believe that to prepare Becky for the world (which we regard as our most important job as parents), we should expose her to all of these influences. Both of us feel strongly that it is up to Becky, not us, not those boys, not anyone else, to decide which hyphens she will drop, which she will retain, which she will add.
I suspect my own feelings stem from my Jewish upbringing. As a child of parents whose generation survived the Holocaust, I grew up hearing, "Stand up and be counted." Though it sounded important, I could never summon the feelings to match the command. Yes, I regarded myself as a Jew. But my connection to my Jewishness didn't come close to some of the other identifiers that gave me a sense of my evolving self: aspiring writer, loyal family member, hardworking student, attentive friend and girlfriend. I understood why my parents' generation of Jews felt a need to stand up. But why, I wondered, should I? No one was telling me to sit down.
The only time I ever felt an impulse to "stand up" was when I learned that the Christian mother of my high school boyfriend wasn't too thrilled about her son dating a Jew. As soon as I caught wind of that, I made it a point to wear my long-ignored, Jewish-star necklace every time I visited his house. I haven't worn it since.
In this era of global tensions and showy patriotism, I've come to realize that I feel much the same way about being American. I am American to the core. As such, I don't feel a need to advertise, flaunt or parade it by hoisting flags or sporting pins in my lapel. My own impulse is to seek commonalities, not to accentuate differences.
Am I "proud" of being Jewish or American (or white or a woman, for that matter)? Apparently only if I sense someone would prefer I weren't. Otherwise, what do I have to feel proud of? For me, personal pride is a by-product of hard work. I did not have to earn my Jewish or American (or white or female) identities. They came with my birth.
So it is with Becky's Asian identity; it is her birthright. I acknowledge, embrace and celebrate that, just as I celebrate all things Becky. But I am disinclined to try to dictate to Becky what her skin color, Asian features and cultural heritage should mean to her. I'm not Asian; how could I possibly know? I also don't know how to instill racial pride in her, as the adoption literature often exhorts. Instead, I resonate to a comment made by a Native American adult whose adoptive parents are white: "I'm very grateful that my parents never tried to give me what they weren't able to give: my Indian self. I think that causes confusion. It was my journey to find out more."
To launch Becky on her own journey, Joe and I make efforts to expose her to aspects of the Chinese culture (though parents who send their children to Chinese-language classes and culture camp would find our efforts meager). Her bookshelves, which overflow with volumes about Hanukkah, Christmas, adoption, diversity and feisty young girls, include books about China and Asian-Americans. We've been to culture days, Chinese circuses, the Chinatowns in various cities, a Chinese New Year's celebration at the Chinese Embassy in Washington.
I have little sense what impact any of this is having on Becky. As yet, she shows scant interest in anything Chinese, save rice. At 3, a Chinese-born friend of hers walked up to a TV set, put her finger on the face of an Asian youngster and said, "Me!" Becky has never done anything remotely like that. From the start, she proved as uninterested in her Asian-faced dolls as she was in her white-faced and black-faced dolls. (Stuffed lions are another matter.) She balked when we suggested Chinese lessons. She's indifferent to the various "Asian role models" we've put in her way: she quickly dumped a Chinese piano teacher ("She's so boring") in favor of a Latina teacher ("She's cool"); she seems not to notice that her pediatrician has an Asian face; she feels no identification with her choir teacher. ("He's Korean, Mommy.") When we talk about a trip to China that we plan to make before Becky turns 11, she harrumphs, "What's the point?" She'd rather return to Jamaica (home of her baby sitter) or England (land of Harry Potter).
On this morning as I probe Becky about race, I ask if she ever thinks about being from China. "Never," she replies. "I'm too distracted with what I'm doing for the day." Does it bother her when people ask where she's from? "It's good they ask," she says, her tone practical. "That way they can learn what people look like." Her friends include a smattering of Asian-Americans, but that fact seems of little interest to her. "Meili was born in China. Big deal." Shrug. "Corrine was born in Korea." Shrug. "Eva's parents are from the Philippines." Shrug. About Eva, a close school friend with whom she sits almost daily at lunch, Becky adds, "People think we're sisters or cousins. We tell them, 'No, like for the thousandth time!'" Have she and Eva ever talked about race? "No." Did she ever tell Eva about those incidents last year with the fifth-grade boys? "Why would I do that?" Cue in the eye roll. "It was so long ago."
The question that lingers, of course, is what, if any, enduring impact that taunting has had. Does it make Becky feel less secure in the universe? Or stronger for having dealt with it effectively? Does it make her identify more closely with her Chinese roots? Or less? Does any anger or hurt linger? Or has she shrugged it off with the other bumps and scrapes of childhood? When questions like that start to buzz, Joe and I get to wondering if we are remiss not making more of Becky's Asian inheritance. After all, we've been told repeatedly, "You may not see her that way, but everyone else will."
I'm not as certain what other people see. Today's younger generations seem more embracing and less inclined to draw rigid distinctions. And older generations are hardly predictable. Not long ago, a black school administrator in our diverse-and-proud-of-it town made my jaw drop when he referred to Eva and Becky as "a pack of Orientals." But I was no less astonished by a recent phone conversation with a dear friend, an African-American who's had a life-long involvement in race relations. During our exchange, I referred to my family as "mixed race." With genuine surprise in his voice, he asked, "Do you really think of your family as mixed race?" From the tone of his question, I gathered that he sees only two hues: black and white.
At times, so does Becky. A few years back, she referred to a boy as being "not like us." When I asked what she meant, she said, "Well, he's, you know, black." I laid my hand next to hers and said, "You don't see us as being different?" No, she said. Hmm, I thought, was her response genuine or did it perhaps reflect a wish not to be "different" from Joe and me? Either way, time for some race education. "Many people do see us as different," I explained. "They see black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Indian." Becky swatted that away, "I'm white, too."
These days, I am not sure that she would offer the same answer.
When she shows her friends her adoption scrapbook, she points to pictures and says, "See, that's China." While she gets restless when Joe and I debate world events, she seems to listen more closely when we discuss China. Not long ago, she asked, "Why don't people in China have freedom?" and wanted to know when they were going to get some. (Then again, a paper she wrote about Gloria Estefan and her family's flight from Cuba precipitated the same questions.)
On this morning as I wind down our conversation about race the one that elicited her impatient, "Why in the world would I think about being Chinese?"I make a reference to Becky as Chinese-American. "No, I'm not," she corrects me. "I'm Chinese."
"No, sweetie," I counter gently. "You're an American citizen now, an American citizen of Chinese heritage. That makes you Chinese-American."
"I'm Chinese," she says firmly.
At present, I have no idea what she means by this. I doubt she does either. Whatever she decides down the road, I hope that I embrace and support it wholeheartedly and with grace. For now, I offer the best answer I can think of: "You're right, sweetheart. You are."
Reprinted with permission, this essay is an excerpt from A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents, Penguin/2005.