Our first grader looks at a welcome sign near the school library. The sign features cartoon drawings of several children, each with different features.
Our daughter asks which child I think she looks like. I say she resembles the girl with light brown hair. She counters that she might look like the girl with black hair. That girl’s eyes are drawn as horizontal ovals, while the other children’s eyes are vertical ovals. That girl could be Japanese.
Does our Thailand-born, American/Japanese daughter prefer to look all-Japanese? Does she think she needs to? She has begun the school year with a new classmate from Japan—a girl with black hair. We have welcomed the girl’s family, helping orient them to the school and inviting the daughter for a playdate. It thrills us to have a child nearby with whom our daughter can practice Japanese.
We have also helped plan a Japanese language-learning time in the neighborhood, and had our girls visit Japan with my husband this summer (while I studied in Vietnam) to “charge up their Japanese.” Does our wish to boost their language skills make them feel they have to look the part?
Is it time to talk with our daughters about race?
More specifically, should we discuss the fact that they look different, almost everywhere they go?
This is not a talk that my husband or I had with our parents growing up. For most of our young lives, we were not Asian or Caucasian—we just were. He had black hair and an epicanthal fold in countries where many people had black hair and an epicanthal fold. I had white skin in a region where most people had white skin.
We now raise two brown-haired, olive-skinned lasses with almond eyes. In Japan, their hair marks them as hafu, “half.” In the central U.S., their skin and eyes make them “mixed.” In Thailand, they are children of a farang and a khun yibun, white foreigner and Japanese. Friends and family welcome them most everywhere, at ages three and six, but nowhere do their faces make them “normal.”
This is an asset, according to some. A man in line at the U.S. embassy told us that the girls should be models. Apparently, faces that look both Asian and Caucasian are prized here, as consumers support a huge market for skin whiteners. Our daughters look familiar enough, yet exotically fair enough, to rake in some dough. (We will not be taking advantage of this.)
On a less superficial note, their features may help show them, and others, that they are neither defined by nor confined to a certain group. Like everyone, they are more than a birthplace or a set of phenotypes. They are themselves.
Yet most of us get to wait until early adulthood to define ourselves. These two may have to do so earlier, because they do not fit into a clear group. And for kids, it matters to have a group. It really matters in the world outside international school.
This makes my husband and me unsure about placing the girls in Japanese school for a few weeks over summer vacations, as many overseas Japanese do. We worry that their hafu appearance would attract attention.
In the U.S., similarly, I worry that their looks will make them conspicuous. Will they have to explain themselves often, and never get to enter summer camp or church or, eventually, a college class, without the option to blend in?
My husband and I have experienced hints of what it means to be a racial minority. My husband is one of five Japanese on a large faculty administered by Caucasians. When I step into the Thai neighborhood near our apartment, mine is the only white face for blocks.
And yet, we both can go places on Earth where our appearance draws no attention. In Wichita, I can push a cart through Dillons without anyone knowing that I live in Bangkok, or asking me about the latest coup (daily life is as normal, though we are concerned). My husband can board a train in Kamakura without anyone knowing he has an American wife, or asking if he does household chores (yes, he does).
And we both passed our childhood years in a dominant race and culture. As the white child of a pastor in a majority religion, I enjoyed privilege. So did my husband, the Japanese son of a banker. No matter where he or I moved, a community that looked like us awaited and welcomed us. We never had to explain or prove ourselves.
So we hardly qualify to teach our daughters about race, or predict how their looks will affect them. They will have to teach us.
They will have to tell us how it feels, what surprises them, and what irks them. They will have to inform us, eventually, what they prefer to be called. The 2010 U.S. Census referred to my race as White, and my husband’s as Japanese. (Other choices included Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Vietnamese, and Other Asian. Does race mean nationality?) As the girls grow, I wonder which boxes they will check. What identities will they embrace?
As a writer, I anticipate these discoveries. As a mother, I just brace myself. For the moment, I often sing this song to the three-year-old, from the Muppets section of The Reader’s Digest Children’s Songbook (1985):
I like your eyes;
I like your nose;
I like your mouth,
Your ears, your hands, your toes.
I like your face,
It’s really you;
I like the things
You say and do.
There’s not a single soul
Who sees the skies
The way you see them
Through your eyes
And aren’t you glad?
You should be glad;
There’s no one, no one
Exactly like you.
I hope the girls will be glad—at some point—to be the only ones just like them. Mommy and Daddy cannot coach them to that point, but we will take the journey with them.
At the school, I tell our elder daughter that her bob haircut looks more like the black-haired girl’s on the sign, and that her hair color looks more like the brown-haired girl’s. We will see if she asks again about the eyes.
Words to song “No One Like You” by Andra Willis Muhoberac. Copyright © Birdwing Music, Cherry Lane Music Publishing Co., Inc., and Garden Valley Music, ASCAP. All rights reserved.