by Amber Wong
/ Nonfiction /
When I strode into the newly refurbished Roosevelt High School library that morning, Bryce jumped up – proudly, I thought – to greet me. As I handed him the excused absence slip he’d forgotten in the rush to school a few hours earlier, he smiled as he tucked a straggled lock of brown hair behind his ear. “Thanks, Mom, for getting this to me so fast.” His voice was uncharacteristically soft, his eyes brimmed with something akin to tenderness. He knew I’d made a special trip to save him from a teacher’s diatribe.
But that night over dinner, when he filled in the details, I was surprised that it stung. As I’d entered into the library, his tablemate saw me first.
“He elbowed me and said, ‘Hey, what’s that lady doing here? She looks lost.’ So I saw you and jumped up and said, ‘Oh, it’s my mom.’ Then you know what he says? He goes, ‘No, it’s not.’” My chopsticks clattered on my plate as I turned to stare at him. His level gaze was unreadable. “So I turned and gave him a ‘what the hell’ look. As if I wouldn’t recognize my own mother.”
Bryce’s story caught me up short – a clear affront, however minor, to my steady volunteerism at his Seattle neighborhood school. But more significantly, it confirmed what I’d suspected for years: despite sharing half my DNA, my son can pass for white.
Had Bryce deliberately hidden, even denied his Chinese identity all these years? Was I jealous of his ready acceptance into white society, while I was still seen as “other?” Or was it because of the incredulity – or disdain – with which his friend regarded me?
When I think back to my first pregnancy – eight months of morning sickness, my belly thick with kicks and punches from the nascent person within – I’d assumed, wrongly it seems, that he/she would be imbued with an overwhelming measure of my essence. In fact, I’d been so sure that my children would look like me that I felt I had to give my husband fair warning.
“You know,” I said, patting my three-month tummy, which, despite my morning sickness, was much more emergent than all the other pregnant women I knew, “I come from an unbroken line of Chinese. We trace our roots back to the twelfth century! So, don’t be surprised if the kid doesn’t look much like you.”
He drew his hand through his thick auburn locks and his green eyes crinkled between a pout and a smile. “You don’t think my mongrel Scotch-English DNA can compete, do you?”
I simply shrugged. “Remember, an unbroken line! Pure-bred Chinese.” I tapped my head. “Black hair, I’m sure of it.”
* * *
A few weeks after the library incident, I leaned against one of the heavy beam supports at the Pocock Rowing Center, waiting for Bryce. Rowing shells – an eight, a double, and two singles, wood oars splayed wide – floated above, lightly suspended by invisible wire from the vaulted wood ceiling. Hand built by George Pocock, these slender fiberglass and wood hulled boats were champions, propelling their rowers to victory. One, the Husky Clipper, was emblazoned with Olympic rings, a reminder of its glory days. Nine University of Washington oarsmen swept this legendary shell to a gold medal victory at Berlin’s 1936 Summer Olympics while Hitler scowled in the stands at his Nazi team’s defeat.
The junior team had just finished a grueling workout beneath the storied canopy. Twenty boys stepped off their Concept2 rowing machines and, to no effect, wiped foreheads on bare arms which were equally as wet. The boathouse, now filling with parents, smelled of challenge and sweat.
“Do you have a child in the program?” A man in a crisp button-down shirt and slacks, a burnt orange Gore-Tex parka draped over his arm, leaned toward me. He’d guessed, correctly, that I’d come for the parent meeting prior to the first regatta of the season. After a quick half-hour meeting, we’d pack our voracious kids home for a carb-heavy dinner.
I smiled and nodded. “Yes, this is my son’s second season here. He’s on the varsity team.” Going directly from novice to varsity – completely bypassing junior varsity – was a major feat.
“Really? Which one is he? My son’s on the novice team this year.”
The sting of the library incident was still fresh in my mind. Even as I spoke I knew it was mean, but I just couldn’t help myself.
“He’s standing over there.” I waved in the general direction of the boys, now milling about, bouncing against each other like puppies, joking and laughing. Proudly I declared, “He’s the one who looks like me.”
I saw the man turn, look expectantly, and for just a moment, appear baffled. Surely he could discern a short Asian boy in a throng of whites. His eyes jumped from group to group, but rowing, it seemed, was an all-white sport. He took a desperate stab. “Is he the one in the green shirt?” He pointed at a small slim dark-haired boy, one of the coxswains.
“No, but he’s just to his left. There! Right now he’s putting on a brown sweatshirt.” I pointed out my 6’1” slender but well-muscled son. His medium brown hair, sweat-drenched at the temples, ruffed about his face.
“That’s your son?”
“Yeah,” I said, laughing. “Doesn’t he look just like me?”
* * *
From life’s very first moment, there’s something primal about identity. Relatives peered into my newborn’s face, caressed his head and hands, and then, stepping back, pronounced their findings with astonishing certitude. “He has your eyes and his dad’s coloring.” “He has his grandfather’s chin.” “His nose is small like yours.” “Look at the bridge on his nose! It’s positively Caucasian.” “He has lucky earlobes, see how they hang down.” Through this roughly orchestrated process, each son was accepted into both clans because each family recognized something of themselves in them. That bond remained even after our divorce.
As a teen Bryce grew into his own hapa – mixed race – self, taking on the tight jeans, thrift store T-shirts, and carelessly mussed hair of the indie generation. He was a contradiction: at dawn he was an elite rower in spandex, at night he played music gigs in bars. He negotiated the streets of Seattle with the confidence of a native. His focus was on the world around him. Home was only a base for dinner and sleep.
“You’re too strict!” he’d yell as he headed out the door after dinner. “My friends, even the ones younger than me, don’t have to tell their moms where they’re going!”
About family functions: “Do I have to go?” Every weekend when I held out the phone so he could talk to my parents in California, he frantically waved me away. I’d shake the phone at him, insistent. Only then would he reluctantly come forward, glare at me as he took the phone. Suddenly he was transformed. “Hello?” he’d say brightly, a welcome lilt in his voice.
One afternoon I asked him several questions about his evening plans, only to be met with monosyllabic grunts followed by an exasperated, “I’ll be back later!” as if that adequately answered the question. His older brother Alex glanced up from studying the sports pages. “He shouldn’t talk like that to you,” he said, shaking his head.
He was a typical American boy.
* * *
I desperately wanted my boys to have a sense of being Chinese, even as they typified the “melting pot” that American writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson envisioned as far back as the 19th century. The metaphor – the blending of unique, disparate elements into a homogeneous whole – came into common use when Israel Zangwill’s play, The Melting Pot, premiered in 1908. While the original focus was on European nationalities – Italians, Irish, Germans – the term gradually came to describe the assimilation of all immigrants – white and non-white – to the United States. Racial tensions would ease, the theory went, when interbreeding would blur national and ethnic distinctions into a new American identity.
Although I’m a fourth generation American – two of my great-grandparents were born in San Francisco in 1875 – cultural differences and anti-miscegenation laws kept our family racially distinct up to the 1980s. My parents and their contemporaries married Chinese Americans, raised prototypical 1950s suburban families, and felt good about assimilation. Assimilation meant progress; at least they weren’t being run out of town like the Chinese at the turn of the 20th century, or economically strangled like their Depression Era parents. My parents instructed me to ignore the taunts of “Ching Chong Chinaman” with nothing but a withering stare, a “We’re better than that” my only consolation. My brother and I were blind to our own faces as we claimed our rights as Americans. Flung from the protection of Chinatown, mute in our native tongue, we had no other choice.
What a difference a generation makes. My sons, biracial fifth-generation Americans, grew up under a new paradigm even as they exemplified the old. In the 1970s, the metaphor of the melting pot fell into disfavor; the model’s simplicity didn’t account for emerging racial consciousness and pride. Who wanted a nation of bland sameness? It clashed with the prevailing lore of Americans as hardy, imaginative individuals. The metaphor shifted to embody both: a mosaic, a salad, a mélange of shade and spice. Valued separately as well as together, various mixes formed unique communities. A new American society emerged, house to house, neighborhood to neighborhood.
* * *
My hapa sons resemble their second cousins – hair color ranging from titian to black, medium to dark brown eyes, pale to olive-toned skin. At family gatherings where my Chinese cousins and I provide a strong cultural touchpoint, our children have clear Asian features. But out in the world by themselves, they are easily misidentified as Italian or Spanish. They don’t seem to mind. Not surprisingly, hapa children can accurately identify each other, much better than I can.
Why this fixation on my sons’ looks? Like all parents, I longed to see myself in them. I clung to the old adage, the one I learned from my relatives, that appearance is entwined with identity, and identity with values. If my sons didn’t look like me, they could easily deny me and, by extension, their whole Chinese heritage. But if they looked like me, they’d also magically inherit my Chinese values. Values of filial piety, the importance of family. Respect for one’s elders. Perseverance to do one’s best. Being honorable. Things I tried, with incomplete success, to do. Even though at times it was difficult, inconvenient, or required a measure of self-sacrifice, I wanted them to know how to be Chinese.
Maybe they’d even come home for dinner every week.
* * *
Four years after the library incident, the sun sinking on the horizon, I stood in my kitchen chopping onions. A key turned in the front door. I looked up and quickly wiped my hands on my apron. Alex, now twenty-five, appeared in the kitchen, dropped his keys on the counter and smiled as he leaned down to give me a hug. “Hey Mom, good to see you. Thanks for having me over for dinner.” Although he’d been three years back in Seattle after going away to college, I was always astounded at his towering frame. In his button-down shirt and khakis, he looked even more impressive.
He reached into the cupboard for a glass and traversed the kitchen in three swift steps. Now he held a brimming glass of ice water. He drained it and filled it again. He strode to the pantry and emerged with a bag of potato chips, tossed aside the bag clip and sat down at the counter. The bag rustled open.
“What’s for dinner? It smells good.” He crunched into a stack of chips and I realized I should get dinner on the table before he filled up with junk food. Just like when he was ten.
“Dow see dow fu.” At his raised eyebrows, I continued, “You know, black bean tofu. I’ll put some ground pork in it, not too much, but enough to give it flavor. Onions too.”
“Sounds great. Hey, what about the wedding you wanted me to go to?”
I tried to sound casual. “Oh, your cousin Nick – well actually he’s your second cousin, my cousin’s son – is getting married in Portland in two weeks. But I can’t go. I’m going to be in Boston. I can’t change it.” I paused and there was no protest, only crunching. Another beat. Finally, “Could you represent?” Before I even had a chance to tell him that I’d spring for a hotel room for him, a fun weekend getaway, he nodded vigorously. My heart soared.
“Sure!” he said, as he lifted his smartphone and tapped in the date. “That sounds fun. It’s his brother who was up here in Seattle a couple years ago, right?” I nodded in surprise that he’d accurately catalogued this information. He put his phone down and his tone turned wistful. “I’d like to see the relatives. I miss seeing them at Christmas.” My eyes widened. When they were young I’d always dreaded flying home for Christmas, but every other year we’d lug down two large duffels of gifts and spend a week in California. Christmas dinners with fifty relatives were raucous, unfocused, chaotic. But clearly memorable.
A few days later, Bryce, now twenty-two, came home from college for a visit. As he carried in his backpack, guitar, and dirty laundry, he leaned down so I could give him a hug. His tattered green corduroy shirt felt soft and familiar – twelve years ago I’d bought it for his older brother. I thought about telling him about the wedding, but hesitated. Wasn’t it just a few years ago that I’d wheedled, then dragged him to a family event? He hated dressing up. I shouldn’t put him in an awkward position, forcing him to confess that he’d rather hang out with his friends. But…if I’m sending his brother on a fun boondoggle, I should at least give him a chance. I caught up with him the next morning as he sat at the kitchen counter with his toast and coffee.
“Hey, there’s this wedding in Portland.” I watched his face, buried in a book.
“Who’s getting married?”
“Your cousin Nick.”
“Nick?” He looked up, puzzled. “I don’t have a cousin Nick.”
“He’s your second cousin. My cousin’s son.”
“I don’t remember him.”
His abrupt responses needled me. My first thought: he’s making excuses. I stepped to the sink and started to empty the dishwasher, clanking the dishes a little too loud.
“When’s this wedding?” he suddenly asked. “I’d like to go.”
“Really?” I turned around, searching his face. What was he thinking?
“Yeah, it’ll be a good chance to see the relatives. Who’s going to be there?”
I grabbed the back of an envelope and quickly drew him a family tree, highlighting the family members that were most closely related to the groom. “These people will be there, remember them!” He glanced at the envelope and shrugged, set it down on the counter.
“Thanks, Mom, but I don’t think I can remember all these people.”
I brushed away a twinge of disappointment and hugged him around the shoulders. I waved the family tree aside and laughed. “Here’s what you do. When you get there, keep Alex out in front. Have him say their names out loud when he greets them.” I gave his shoulder one last squeeze and turned back to the dishwasher. “They’ll be so happy to see you.” He couldn’t see the tears in my eyes.
* * *
The first book I bought for Alex, six months before he was born, was P.D. Eastman’s Are You My Mother? During his mother’s brief absence as she searches for food, a baby bird hatches and falls from a tree. He sets off on a quest to find her. Since he doesn’t know what she looks like, he asks everything he encounters – a hen, a dog, even a piece of construction equipment – “Are you my mother?” Even at the end, when he finally finds his mother and they live happily ever after, the image of the baby bird, beak wide open, claws clinging to the loader’s teeth as he shouts, “I want to go home! I want my mother!” continued to haunt me. As a child, I cried every time I read this book.
But when I stood in the aisle perusing the children’s books, for a moment I must have displaced my distress. Most likely I bought this book because I thought it would reinforce the love of a mother for her child. But perhaps, even then, my subconscious was afraid that my son would not look like me, would not identify with me. Reading this book to him, early and often, might fill that cognitive gap, stack the deck in my favor. As a child searching for his identity, he would know that his mother was the key to his own identity, his culture, his values.
But it’s not that simple. Culture and identity morph from generation to generation. Like a word ladder where you change one letter every turn, after 10 iterations you end up with a different word, a completely different meaning. My parent’s generation, a few steps removed from China, was still recognizable as Chinese in tradition and culture. My generation, another step removed, looked Chinese, rebelled from tradition, but retained some culture. My sons, a distant five steps removed, look vaguely Asian, are unaware of tradition, and barely scratch the surface of culture.
But here’s the irony: identity is as individual as fingerprints.
After all, even my virtually untainted pedigree didn’t prevent my mother from telling me, in a fit of anger, that I wasn’t really Chinese. It seems obvious now, but it took years for me to realize my hypocrisy. Look at me – straight black hair, unmistakable epicanthic folds on my eyelids. You ask me who I am, and I’ll say, “Can’t you see? I’m an American.”
And as it turns out, my sons are Chinese. Just like me.