Wednesday, March 6, 2013
The question of racial identity plagues my son of late. At 4 years old, he is already asking me if he is Chinese or American. In his toddler way, it is through the lens of nationality that he approaches race. I side step the question because I think it is a question that is important for him to eventually answer on his own. He must learn to define himself. I cannot do that for him.
While as a sociologist, I know that his eventual racial identity will in large part be a function of how his society comes to define him, his self-identity, race included, is also something that I want him to feel empowered to shape himself.
So when he asks me if he is Chinese or American, I simply tell him that I am an American and his mother is Chinese. I leave it at that.
Even at his young age, though, he is learning to fluidly move between these two possibilities, and learning to use this to his advantage.
A couple of weeks ago at his American pre-school, the administration decided to introduce the students to Chinese culture by having several days of Chinese New Year celebrations. Lanterns were made, stories were read, little red envelopes (小红包) with fake money were distributed, and the kids were taught to use chopsticks to eat ramen noodles.
This was my kid’s chance to shine. He was in his element. As I indicated in an earlier post, he has a real lantern hanging in his living room, he had just had a real Chinese New Year celebration at his home, he had already received the traditional little red envelopes full of real money, noodles are his favorite food, and eating with chopsticks at home each night, he handles them better than I do.
So when his teacher was having trouble picking up the slippery noodles with her two sticks of wood, she asked my son, the Chinese expert who at that exact moment was shoveling noodles into his mouth with his chopsticks, for help.
My son: “I don’t know how to do it.”
His teacher: “But you’re Chinese.”
My son: “No I’m not.”
His teacher: “Oh, are you an American?”
My son: “No!”
His teacher: “Well what are you?”
My son: “I’m Korean!”
As the teacher tells it, he then proceeded to drop the chopsticks he had been flawlessly using and began dancing and singing WapdamGangnam style. (His favorite part is where he loudly sings “Hey! Sexy Ladies!” while he swings one hand in the air as if riding an invisible horse. Rodeo style.)
While his beauty and brains comes from his Chinese genes, he gets the smart-ass side from his Texas father.
In many ways, this fluid movement within and between identities is not something unique to him or any bi-racial individual. For all of us, our notion of self is a fluid set of possibilities that we learn to play with. The Latin root of the word “person” (and “personality”) is persona. Translated literally, persona means mask, indicating that who we are is a function of the many masks that we have at our disposal.
In this regard, my son is no different than anyone else. While I can wear a Texas mask, or an American mask, or a Cajun mask (these representing all the ethnicities at my disposal), and thereby present myself to others as a slightly different person, so too can my son choose between his own, unique set of masks.
And his smart-ass mask seems to be his favorite. Let me digress.
As any parent of a toddler knows, “Why?” is the most frequent sound that comes out of their mouth and “Put on your shoes!” is the most frequent sound that comes out of the parent’s mouth.
Which turns the process of leaving the house into some twisted version of Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” bit.
“Put on your shoes.”
“Because we’re leaving. Put on your shoes!”
“Because it’s time to go. Put on your shoes!!”
“Because we’re late. Now put on your shoes!!!”
“Because I said so! I’m not saying it again! Put on your shoes!!!!”
“Stop asking why! Just put on your shoes!!!!”
And on it goes for the next 10 minutes. “Put on your shoes” is such a frequent phrase in my house, my in-laws can now utter this in English.
On this day, I reached my wit’s end with the morning shoe ritual. I finally placed him in time out. Visibly frustrated, angry and running very late, I began sternly lecturing him.
My son, unmoved at my admonishments directed toward him, simply sat there staring at me with a whimsical and quizzical look on his face. When I finally paused to take a breath, he spoke up…
…in fluent Chinese…
“爸爸，我是中国人。我不懂你！” (Baba, woshi Zhongguo ren. Wo budong ni!)
Translation: “Daddy, I’m Chinese. I can’t understand you!”
Like I said, he’s a smart-ass, just like his Texas father.
A wise philosopher once made the claim that it is only through pets and children that we can truly learn something new in life. In my son’s smart-ass comment to me, I found the wisdom in this, for my son has taught me something valuable.
Even at the age of 4, as he explores the possibilities of his self-identity, he is sometimes Chinese, sometimes American, and here of late, he is even sometimes Korean.
But in my eyes, despite the mask he chooses to wear at any given moment, he is always and simply just my little boy…
…who likes to wear a smart-ass Texan mask, just like his proud, Texas 爸爸 (BaBa).