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Happy Little Hapa

In case you missed it, I'm totally Asian (Chinese, to be exact). Hubbs is very much German-Ukrainian Caucasian, complete with pasty-pale feet and lobster-red sunburns in July. Little L comes from both of our gene pools and traditions, making her a "Hapa."

Though we are truly blessed to live in a community with a prominent Asian population and a great acceptance for mixed-race kids, I sometimes think (and worry) about how Little L will see herself as she grows up. Will she self-identify as being "white," or will she think of herself as Chinese? Will she struggle to fit in and belong, or will it be a non-issue? Will it be awkward for her to switch back and forth between the worlds of multiple forks and charger plates, and that of cash-only chopstick diners and roasted meat in the windows? Will she embrace all of our various traditions with equal enthusiasm, or reject one with shame and embarrassment? 

I grew up as a banana - white on the inside and yellow on the outside. Because I lived in a city with a very small Chinese population, all of my earliest friends were white. Often, I would actually forget that I looked different from the kids around me. Sometimes, they did, too. However, that did not stop me from feeling like I was somehow trapped between two worlds - the one inside my own home, and the one beyond its four walls. Because my parents were still quite traditional (being landed immigrants), there were things that we would eat and things that we would do that I couldn't really share with my peers and expect any understanding of. It would be in that moment that I would be reminded of my difference - the curious questions and befuddled expressions and my own embarrassed attempts to normalize what I knew to be supremely odd to my Caucasian audience. Things like eating chicken's feet as a delicacy, feeling like my failures could actually shame my entire family name, being spanked with a bamboo rod covered in chicken feathers, and having a clear delineation between "going out" clothes and "at home" attire - these were part of my everyday life at home, but nobody at school could understand my frame of reference. 

I still remember the first time my Ukrainian mother-in-law asked me to set the table (in response to my offers to help with dinner). I literally had no idea where the spoons and forks and knives were supposed to go, never mind the water cups and wine glasses. I guess I had never paid attention to the place of cutlery in my own limited (casual) Western dine-out experiences; growing up, I ate with two sticks and a ceramic spoon, and it never mattered where I put them as long as they were near the bowl. In that moment, I realized once again how different I was, and how fraudulent it felt to be part of a Western society that I didn't really fully belong to. With much trepidation, but to the best of my ability, I laid these shiny silver tools down in a neat arrangement beside each plate and hoped for the best. Hubbs later shared with me that after he had seen how I set the table, he had to go back and correct all of the settings. I was completely horrified (but have since learned the proper placement of these utensils).

And how often have I felt the reverse alienation, when not-so-well-meaning Chinese folks from my parents' generation have said to me in mock incredulity, "Waahh! You Chinese, but you not read or write Chinese?!" Thankfully, I spoke it. Otherwise I'm certain the unsolicited feedback would have been even worse (particularly while I was living in Hong Kong).

My hope is that Little L will be a happy, confident Hapa. My wish is that she never has to feel limited or embarrassed by who she is or where she comes from. I want her ethnicities to matter, but not matter. I think it is important for her to identify with and be defined to some extent by her cultures, but equally important for her not to limit herself (or others) by them. It's a hard balance to strike, made all the more difficult by the fact that we still live in an age of "tolerance," not acceptance.

She's only 2.5 now, so obviously this hasn't started to be a big issue yet. I mean, she is only now beginning to use words like "mine" to indicate her growing awareness of self. It will be a little while before she thinks about concepts like ethnicity and heritage and "what colour" she is. In the meantime, I've started trying to use inclusive language with her. Instead of describing people as having "brown" or "white" or "yellow" or "black" skin, I have simply described them as being "people-coloured." And at 2.5, she has embraced it. The other day, we had this conversation:

LL: O the Owl has green eyes and an orange beak and orange feet.
Me: What about you? 
LL: [Little L] Owl has black eyes and ...
Me: ...what about your "beak"?
LL: It's people-coloured!

May she always see similarities before differences.


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