Alea hopped in the car after school yesterday and cheerfully asked me, “Mama, what am I? Is it true that I’m half Chinese and half Midland, Texas?”
Puzzled by the question, and curious about the back-story behind it… I held back on answering and asked my own question. “Why do you ask?” Her answer was nonchalant: a teacher and an older kid at school and one classmate had asked her where she’s from. I wondered if this all happened in one day, or if she had just thought to ask me about it. None of the questions sounded like they were rooted in any sort of mean-spirited cruelty… just curiosity. She wasn’t bothered (this time) by the questions and she recounted the conversation with the older student.
“He asked my name and I told him and then he told me his name and then he asked where I was from. I told him I’m half from China and half from Midland, Texas. My eyes are Chinese, so that’s the half that’s from China. And so is my hair. But my nose is just regular.”
At this point, she and her sister started arguing about how you can’t divide a body in half and assign its parts to a place. I listened to their conversation and wrestled myself with the complexity of her question for a moment. On the one hand, I’m glad she has sense of place both here in her hometown and in her birth-country. I’m grateful that she’s currently proud of her Chinese heritage, though it makes my stomach hurt to think that in her current vernacular, the opposite of looking Chinese is looking “regular.” But I can’t deny that she lives in a world with very few Asian faces… her “otherness” is always the first thing people see. At one point Cora tried to tell Alea that she should say she’s half-Chinese and half-American, but even though I knew Cora’s point was to be consistent in naming, frankly this explanation grated on me even more than her saying she’s half-Midland, Texas.
Because isn’t she all the way American? I quickly interjected that it doesn’t matter where someone is born, they can still be an American. Both of my daughters were born on foreign soil and both of them have proof of US Citizenship, but only one of them will spend the rest of her life being asked where she is from. And so I wonder, what does an American look like? At 6-year-old my ethnically Chinese daughter is already figuring out that by a lot of people’s standards, maybe she doesn’t.
My kids are wrestling with this on the playground and at church and at the grocery store because our entire country is wrestling with this, and we’ve all grown guilty of assuming we know someone’s history and identity and belonging and home because we see the shape of their eyes or the color of their skin. Even if we aren’t intentionally drawing negative conclusions about someone… even if our questions are just rooted in good-natured curiosity and a desire to know someone better… we are still guilty of confusing nationality and ethnicity as synonyms.
Years ago, when Alea had only been home about 6 months, we stopped at a McDonald’s on our way home from a trip to Dallas. A curious gentleman in line behind us gestured to Alea and said with a chuckle, “She sure looks like she’s a long ways from home.” For once I had a quick retort: “Nope, only about an hour away now.” I turned and walked away, not dignifying his joke with a serious answer. I held Alea close and wanted to shield her even then from this experience of always being seen as an outsider.
Now she’s out in the world on her own each day, and to be honest, in our community and at school and in our church, she’s surrounded by people who love and care for her and have enveloped her in protective circles of belonging. But I also know she has to figure out a way to handle the questions. She’s never going to have the luxury of just being “regular.” She’s going to have to find her own place in a world that’s always trying to categorize her. She’s going to have to form her own words to make sense of her identity.
And for now, the answer she came up with works for her, so it works for me too:
“Yes, Alea, you can say you are half Chinese and half Midland, Texas. You are 100 percent American. That makes sense to me.”