Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Book Review: "My Mom Is a Foreigner, But Not to Me"

by Sharon H Chang

I'm very sorry to say this, but I can't recommend this book. God. This is the weirdest, hardest post to write. First, I don't do many book reviews. The few I've done on children's books especially have all been carefully chosen and glowing. I figure there's so friggin' few books out there on mixed race kids it doesn't serve to get overly critical and frankly we need as much uplift as possible. Second, there's an Asian mom involved here (Meilo So, illustrator, who is also mother to at least one multiracial Asian child) and I think we have to be incredibly careful about how we question our own sisters/brothers of color in a racist society so that we are transformative and don't succumb to rewriting internalized oppression upon ourselves. That said. I still can't recommend this book.

My Mom Is a Foreigner, But Not To Me, published in 2013, is a picture book portraying children with immigrant parents. It looks at how these children love their parents dearly but feel awkward and conflicted about difference. It was written by A-list-Hollywood-mega-celebrity Julianne Moore (whose mother is a Scottish immigrant) and illustrated by Meilo So (herself Chinese from Hong Kong). It caught my eye in the library when I immediately noticed a mixed race Asian girl on its cover. I'm still not seeing many, if any, books on mixed race Asian families so I checked it out right away. I really tried to like it. I really did. And I don't hate it. But I don't love it. And I certainly don't think it's a healthy book to read to mixed race Asian children with immigrant parents (which both my husband and I are) in an American context. Now. Let me tell you why...

The big mistake: Choosing to center this book's narrative around the word/idea "foreigner" in portraying family members of color. That was a deeply uninformed, insensitive and thoughtless choice in my mind. And certainly the kind of choice someone can make from a place of elite white privilege. Listen, I am actually a big fan of Julianne Moore's work as an actress. But her outstanding artistry and ginormous celebrity don't render her beyond reproach here as a white woman generalizing her own personal experiences of white immigration onto people of color immigration when they are Not. The. Same.

Let's get real. To be a white "foreigner" in America (e.g. Moore's mother is Scottish) means one thing. To be an Asian "foreigner" in America is something ENTIRELY different. It follows that living as a mixed white American child with a white "foreigner" mother is worlds apart from living as a mixed-race Asian American child with an Asian "foreigner" mother. Woooorlds apart. To treat the experiences as synonymous is colorblind, ignores the reality of race, is harmfully invisibilizing and potentially damaging to immigrant families of color self-esteem.

A little bit of history for you. The Scottish first came to the North America in large numbers in the 18th century:

"The Scots people were among the first European settlers, and along with the other colonists from the British Isles, helped create what has been recognized as the dominant culture in America, namely, white and Protestant. By working hard and seizing the opportunities of a rapidly growing country, many Scottish immigrants were able to move up rapidly in American society. Unaffected by barriers of race, language, or religion, they earned a reputation for hard work and thrift that was greatly admired in the young republic." - Everyday Culture

Perhaps this piece of trivia encapsulates the message: Of 43 men who have served as President of the United States thus far at least 23, over half, have had Scottish ancestry.

How many U.S. Presidents have had Asian ancestry? NONE.

Asians (predominantly Chinese) began arriving on the US mainland in large numbers in the 1800s. They worked hard too. But guess what? As Laborers. On the Trans-Continental Railroad. They were imported "coolies" when the British ended the slave trade. And when the Chinese worked hard in America and showed potential promise of success? Congress passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which barred all Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens. It was the first time in U.S. history an entire racial group was singled out and forbidden to step foot on U.S. soil.

From My Mom Is A Foreigner, But Not To Me by Julianne Moore [Illustration credit: Meilo So]

She makes me do stuff foreign ways. 
She says that "it's polite."
I HAVE to tell her all the time 
that she's not always right. 

Congress later expanded anti-Chinese exclusion laws to bar other Asians, explains Kevin R. Johnson in his piece Race, The Immigration Laws, And Domestic Race Relations: a "Magic Mirror" into the Heart of Darkness. The Gentleman's Agreement from 1907-1908 greatly restricted Japanese immigration. The Immigration Act of 1917 prohibited immigration from the "Asiatic barred zone." The Immigration Act of 1924 created the discriminatory national origins quota system and allowed for the exclusion of non-citizens esp. Asian immigrants who (as non-whites) were prohibited from naturalizing. In various cases where the exclusion of Asians was ruled into law, some of the reasoning words of our U.S. Supreme Court were [bold mine]:

"[t]he power of exclusion of foreigners [is] an incident of sovereignty belonging to the government of the United States, as a part of [its] sovereign powers delegated by the Constitution."

"[t]he right of a nation to expel or deport foreigners ... is as absolute and unqualified as the right to prohibit and prevent their entrance into the country."

Oh yeah and then there were the 110,000-120,000 Japanese Americans interned during World War II from 1942-1945/46 (including children who were as little as 1/16 Japanese by the way). Full repeal of anti-Asian exclusion laws did not come into effect until the 1965 Immigration Act. Do a Net search for "forever foreigners" now and who comes up? Asian/Americans. Who still gets asked daily if they know how to speak English even if they've been here for generations? Not Scottish Americans that's for damn sure.

This is all to say "foreigner" is a not a happy word for Asian/Americans. It's a trigger word meaning one that invokes a long legacy of systemic state/institutional violence and racist, intergenerational trauma. It's a loaded word fraught with centuries of xenophobia, exclusion and white supremacist hate. It's a coded word for "you don't belong here." And it's a scary word that many of us know means: the other shoe is about to drop hard. It is not a word I would ever recommend we use to refer to ourselves on U.S. soil because it has not (and still does not) mean something affirming, positive or good for us. The political work of Asian American identity has long been to demand - particularly in a place that prides itself on being a nation of immigrants but has taken great care to selectively decide who those immigrants will be - that we are as American as everyone else regardless of our generation. That we belong here too.

From My Mom Is A Foreigner, But Not To Me by Julianne Moore [Illustration credit: Meilo So]
You may not understand the clothes
My Mom wears every day.
Sometimes she wears WEIRDER clothes
For special holidays.

Given this violent, long racist history of persecuting and excluding Asians from this country on the grounds that they are forever foreign - I would never, let me repeat never, encourage Asian American children to think of their immigrant parents as a foreigners. Again, as a nation that describes itself as a nation of immigrants - immigrant parents should be as American as anyone else. And I would never encourage said children to use words like "weird," "different" or "not right" to describe themselves and their families. For children of color with immigrant parents I know that's how it feels. But it's because others make those judgments about us all the time and we are taught to believe them. It's very self-damaging. We need new words that celebrate and liberate.

What mixed race Asian children with Asian immigrant parents really need is literature that helps them develop a critically-informed consciousness; understand the nuances of coded language; how certain words mean different things to different people through the prism of race; why their immigrant parents are treated badly by white-dominated society; why Asian Americans today are still fighting to say we belong here as much as anyone else regardless of our generation. What our mixed race Asian children really need is their Asian American history; help understanding what "foreigner" has actually meant - and continues to mean - for them and their parents in a racist, xenophobic society. And then our mixed race Asian children need help rejecting these mainstream deficit-narratives that work to undermine (i.e. you're "weird", "different", still "less than", "not American enough", "don't belong here") and choosing instead ideas and words are self/family-affirming. This is the true work of transformative anti-racist children's literature.

I guess My Mother was a step, in a way. I mean we've got visibility. We've got a person of color illustrator. We've got some kind of a conversation about foreignness (versus none at all). But as a book written by an elite white woman that really centers her own white story and perspective, I think My Mother ultimately ends up becoming a one-step-forward-two-steps-back kind of thing. And what I'm really holding out for is that mixed race Asian kids book on the library shelf that blows that b-llshit out of the water. I want the book that not only catches my eye, but captures my mind, captivates my heart and soul, and gives me a story I can really use to revolutionize my parenting.

Till then... 


  1. I appreciate your very complex suggestions at the end, asking for,

    "literature that helps them develop a critically-informed consciousness; understand the nuances of coded language; how certain words mean different things to different people through the prism of race; why their immigrant parents are treated badly by white-dominated society; why Asian Americans today are still fighting to say we belong here as much as anyone else regardless of our generation."

    My sense is that adults often assume that these concepts are not attainable for young children (even preschool age). But, in my experience kids are SO much smarter and attuned to power structures and social difference than adults often give them credit for. There could be a picture book about all of the topics you highlighted. And, it would be awesome.

  2. Totally agree with you. The words chosen are ones coming from someone who has obviously not had experience as a non-white immigrant.

  3. You being an elite white woman, have totally MISSED the point of the book. These were from the childs perspectives growing up with a parent of a different race and culture to them. The red head caucasian daughter of a Japanese mother is trying to understand her childhood and of course it will be confusing. You obviously dont know what its like to be mixed and feel 'foreign' to the culture of one or both parents because i could never fully fit into either side, being only half of each.

  4. Actually, the person who wrote the article is multiracial.
    (Also, I don't think it's accurate to say that the character is the "caucasian daughter of a Japanese mother" or has "a parent of a different race and culture," since both the mother and child are Japanese.)