I take my job as a mother very seriously. I want my daughter to grow up in a world better than the one I grew up in. Alexis turned 13 the other day and I realized this could never be so.
I grew up in suburbia. I went to good schools in good neighborhoods with the sons and daughters of good, hard working people. My daughter’s world looks much the same. I park my mid-sized car, in front of my middle class home in my middle class neighborhood where my daughter plays with the sons and daughters of good hard working people. Our worlds look so very much alike, but there is something in her world I can never see, touch or reach, no matter how much I want to.
I grew up white, in white America. My daughter is growing up brown. To those who know her casually, this may seem a misstatement. She is as fair skinned as any of my red-haired ancestors. But her delicate features, wide almond eyes and sheen of straight black hair speak her father’s Asian heritage. To the casual observer, she is a beautiful physical amalgamate of two worlds. Look more deeply into those dark eyes and you will see. In her soul, she is brown. Brown like her daddy. Brown like her grandma. Brown like her many aunts and uncles and cousins… her people, who bear her same features, carved in caramel skin.
When Alexis was born, pale as a fish’s belly, her paternal grandmother patted my arm and said “She is mestiza. Fair Asian beauty”, sounding slightly surprised that her own family’s dark skinned, Pilipino genes had been overwhelmed by my pasty Anglo ones.
For many years, her racial identification was not something I ever gave a thought to. She was simply my daughter. There were a few awkward moments for strangers who assumed her exotic features counter-pointing my own white bread ones meant she was adopted, but those were quickly resolved with an icy “No, she’s mine. Wanna see the stretch marks?” to anyone rude enough to ask.
Starting her in school gave a brief moment of pause when filling out forms that insisted I make an ethnic selection. ‘Other’ sounded like she was an alien; there was no choice to describe her, and so I went with “Asian”. It wasn’t something I gave a lot of thought to. She was simply my daughter.
The last few years, this subject … the subject of color, race, ethnicity has forced itself into my consciousness; from my daughters world, into mine. As she began to explore the world and bring home stories of her day, I realized that although our worlds looked the same, they were not. That even though our worlds looked the same, the way the world looked at us was as different as night and day. That my daughter has experiences with the world that I cannot empathize with or even truly understand. I worried about this.
There are things my child understood too soon. The subtle underpinnings of being different. The blessing and burden of not being homogenized. The reality that sometimes, different is seen as less than. She bears this knowledge with as much grace and style as a 13 year old can muster. Painfully, (for me) she must bear it alone.
I can never know what she knows. I can never feel what it is like when classmates call her chink or gook. I have no real explanation why that grown man at the restaurant snarled at her to ‘get back on the boat she came here on’ when she accidentally bumped into him.
I cannot deny the racist tone of a teacher who suggested that she should be better at math, because “she is Asian after all.”
These experiences are a foreign land whose borders I cannot cross.
I worried about how she would steer herself through these treacherous lands without me.
Today we went shopping for the Halloween costume she has coveted since seeing it in the mall last week. She had finally nagged and worn me down enough to convince me that this was as good a time as any to break my ‘I hate the mall and will only go there at gunpoint’ rule.
She was so excited, she chattered the entire way there describing every minute detail of this beautiful costume. We arrived at the store and she pounced on the costume immediately, excitedly pointing out every detail just as she had described. It was adorable and I knew she would be adorable in it.
I handed her the cash and she went to make her purchase while I absentmindedly browsed (ok, maybe I don’t hate shopping, but I still hate the mall)
As the clerk was ringing up her purchases, I heard her say “A Chinese Alice In Wonderland?” the sarcasm dripping from her words.
I was about to step in, irate and ready to fling demands to see the manager, when I heard my daughter sweetly say “yeah, isn’t it great? Here in America, you can be anything you wanna be.”
She then leaned in closer and looking the girl straight in the eye, in an icy tone I didn't know she possessed, said, “Of course that probably doesn’t apply to the truly ignorant… get used to being a cashier.”
With that she collected her change and her purchase, smiled sweetly and literally skipped out of the store… leaving both the clerk and myself in shocked, jaw dropped silence.
Today I learned what else my daughter got from me besides fair skin.
Today I learned to worry a little less.