Sunday, June 23, 2013

What Am I? I'm Batman


(image source)

 ©  Sharon Chang and Multiracial Asian Families Blog, Jun 23 2013

My son is now 3 and half and he’s just starting to experiment with ethnic labels. He’s heard us use them, so I suppose it’s only natural. For instance, about a week ago we were driving to preschool. In the back he played with two baby dolls and chatted to himself cheerfully. “This is Jack,” he said of one doll, “He speaks Chinese and Japanese, like me.” Then he held up his other doll, “This is Sade. She’s American and German. I don’t speak that.” A few nights later we were reading This Next New Year by Janet S. Wong about a half-Korean boy  (and here’s a great example of how children’s books are a launching pad for race discussions with children). I stopped partway through and asked, “Kazuo. Who do we know that’s Korean?” He said, “Me!” I replied gently, “No. You’re not Korean. Do you remember what you are?” He thought for a moment, “Japanese! Dad’s family is Japanese.” Then I also talked about him being Taiwanese and American (among other things), and his moment of clarity was completely gone...

My husband and I have discussed at length how to describe our son’s ethnicity to him. Though it seems a little counterintuitive, it is said (by academics and professionals) that labels are important for mixed race children in helping them develop healthy racial identities. But this is VERY tricky when you have a multiracial multiethnic child. Do we tell him he’s “part” this and “part” that? Or “half” this and “half” that? As multiracial people ourselves, we’ve experienced that kind of language as extremely divisive. It has left us feeling chiseled into pieces, neither here nor there, existing in the gray, belonging nowhere. So maybe we should allow our son full membership in all his heritage groups by simply saying, “You’re Japanese. You’re Taiwanese. You’re American. And you’re Slovakian, German, French Canadian, British and Welsh too.” But then, that doesn’t really seem quite right either, does it? He may or may not be accepted by monoracial Asian Americans as “Asian.” He certainly will not be “Asian” in Japan or Taiwan where he will be viewed as an American foreigner (which both my husband and I know from firsthand experience). On the other hand while he is certainly American, that seems to ignore his visibly obvious ethnic heritage and the fact that he’s 2nd generation being raised to have strong ties to Asia. And even though he has European heritage, he will never be considered “White” here in the States nor “European” in Europe.

 So then maybe mult-culti lingo is a better fit. How about “Asian-American”? Nope. That one has always driven me up the wall because I’m never sure if people mean monoracial Asians or mixed race Asians, both together, or one excluding the other. How about “multiracial” or “multiethnic”? Okay but that’s awfully broad. First, “multi-“ doesn’t speak at all to my son’s specific Asian heritages and the strong influence they have in his life. Second, our experiences as an Asian/White family are VASTLY different than say those of a Black/White family (whose children, let’s be honest, will be treated as Black). Maybe “mixed” or “mixed race”? My husband hates that one, cause he thinks it makes us sound confused. Okay, so how about “hapa”? That’s a good one, right? I have to say, it’s probably closer than anything else. But while “hapa” now represents a large, empowered multiracial movement with Asian roots – which I love – there’s some stuff there that gives me pause too. For example, hapa comes from a Hawaiin Pidgin word that denotes a part or fragment of something (there’s that divisive language again) (Wikipedia). And some take issue with its use as an appropriation/devaluing of Native Hawaiian culture reminiscent of colonization and domination (hapastories.com) (Mixed Heritage Center). When my husband and I get asked about our ethnicities, we often side step by referring to our parents, “My father’s from Taiwan” or “My mother’s from Japan.” That appeases people quickly. But in my son’s case this technique is convoluted and probably unhelpful, “My mommy’s dad is from Taiwan, and my daddy’s mom is from Japan.” What?? Yowza.

 There’s no end to this story. This is about the ongoing conversations we have as a mixed race Asian family around the inadequacy of labels to capture us. At the end of the day it is of course my son who will choose what he identifies with. I can only hope along the way we offer him as many empowered choices as possible so that when he starts facing those countless questions about his ambiguous ethnicity, he will feel like – as my husband says – the “batman of race.” An un-identifiable superhero with a kick-ass toolbelt. Able to combat, defend, deflect and then swoop away in a shroud of beautiful, awesome mystery…

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