For all the existential handwringing I did over issues I might face raising biracial children, it never once occurred to me that effusive compliments from older Asian ladies would be a source of stress and confusion. But, there you go! Once again intense worry leaves me woefully unprepared.
For the record, as their mother, I think my children are freaking gorgeous. As a mother does. I would describe my son's eyes as the darkest brightest eyes I've ever seen, which makes no sense. My Molly has the sweetest face, so pure and darling, with absolutely no trace of her mother's giant schnozz. My baby has the best smile, huge and joyful, and her whole face scrunches up in this perfectly wrinkly way. And when Older Asian Ladies smile at me and tell me in their broken English that my kids are beautiful, it's hard not to say, "AREN'T THEY?!"
Those comments, however, are often (always?) attached to additional observations. All of them are beautiful, yes, but Molly is inevitably singled out as "more Chinese" or "more like Daddy" and Emma is singled out as "more white" or "looks like Mama". Jackson, they feel, is a good mix of the two. The ladies who push the carts at dim sum will stand there and marvel over my children to an uncomfortable degree, as they did this last weekend when we went out with my in-laws. It's all meant as friendly, kind, and complimentary, and I'm determined to take it as such. Whether or not one of my kids has "such big eyes!" says more about the commenter than my child.
Grocery store checkers, restaurant staff, distant aunties, grandmas at swim lessons, they've all made a point to coo over the kids' mixed race-ness. I have a standard response now when I go to Safeway - "yes, their dad is Chinese." I am happy to satisfy their curiosity and thank them for the compliments, even though I'm often thinking to myself: "We live in SEATTLE. How novel can white/Asian kids possibly BE?"
All that to say that even though the compliments and/or curiosity can be uncomfortable, I'm not offended by these statements. I'm not really frustrated either, and I have absolutely no intention of coming up with a smart retort or pointed response that displays my disapproval. That would be rude, disrespecting my elders, and unkind. So that's not what I'm trying to figure out.
But for the first time this weekend, when other people labeled one daughter Chinese and one daughter white, in front of them, aloud, publically, I worried.
They may be saying those things in Mandarin and Chinese, they may nothing but complimentary, but one of the girls they're referring to is nearly five and she can hear them. She knows what they're talking about. God knows what she's learning, thinking, feeling, internalizing. If she's not doing it already she'll be doing it soon, and what will it mean to her to be "the Chinese one"? What will she understand about people observing that her sister has "big eyes"?
Right now all my kids understand about race is that some of their family members are Chinese and some are not. Being Chinese comes with different languages and different food. White and Chinese are neutral in their eyes, as far as they are anything at all. And it's not that I'm expecting one to become better than the other. I have no idea what values my kids are going to assign to their ethnicity or comments about their appearance. I'm not worried about Jack (which probably isn't right or fair.) I'm not worried about Emma because she doesn't yet understand. But I'm worried about my big girl, who already pays so much attention to the way she looks. Right now she thinks she's a pretty princess. What will she think later?
This particular one is a racially charged discussion, but this goes for any label. The Smart One, the Pretty One, the Fat One, the Talented One, the Outgoing One. I definitely know how I see myself in comparison to my sisters and my friends. I know my daughters will do this too. All girls learn to stare at themselves in the mirror and criticize. But I don't want that to happen yet. I don't want Molly's picture of herself to be influenced by even well-meaning comments from family members she barely knows.
But there's only one thing I can think of to do about it, to stem the tide of self-criticism that comes with being a girl. And that's somehow intentionally and positively addressing the issue. Maybe after one of the aunties inevitably compares the kids to each other and their parents at the big family gathering we're headed to in a few weeks, I can whisper to Molly, "You are my perfect beautiful girl and I love you." I don't know! What do I say?! "You are exactly the way God made you to be." "I think you're beautiful inside and out."
I don't know if this is paranoid or pointless or what, but if there's ANY way I can impact or influence how Molly sees herself before other people get to her, I want to do it. If there's any way I can shape her self-image before SHE does, I want to do it. It feels worth it, even if it also sounds... I don't know. Oversensitive. (That's my middle name.)
As I sit here, age almost 34, ashamed and fearful over the fact that I've gained 10 pounds since last summer, feeling like The Fat One all over again, I want better for my girls. As much as I know I can't really do anything about it, I want to TRY. I want to do SOMETHING. I honestly have no idea how those comments will affect my girls, negatively or positively, or what they will understand about themselves. But I know they will understand SOMETHING and I want to try my hardest to give them a good and true foundation for doing the understanding. That they are fearfully and wonderfully made, that they are beautiful, that they can be nothing more spectacular than what they are, that what's inside matters most.
I've tried to write this post for a few days now and I'm positive there are things I'm leaving out. This is stressful. I feel like this is a big idea and I want to get it right, or at least explain my perspective correctly. I think this is my best effort. I've talked about it with my Asian girlfriends, with my husband, with white friends. It's a thing that translates - wanting to protect your daughter. Let me know if you've figured out how to do it.