It’s an all-too-typical scene for me: I walk up to the cashier at Manning’s and greet the cashier with a casual “你好.” Perhaps this is my giveaway – Chinese culture tends to be light on unnecessary formalities. “Have membership card?” the cashier replies in an incredibly strong Hong Kong accent. The slight is unintended and perhaps unperceived by you. But I come across it daily, and while I typically ignore it, today I take it head on. I ask him, “你可不可以同我講中文？ (Can you speak to me in Chinese?)” The cashier apologizes with a deep shade of embarrassment, and quickly tells me the price in Cantonese. I thank him after collecting my change and move on.
An all-too-typical question to me: “Which of your parents is white?” As many times as I’ve heard this question, I still lack a quick response. The answer the questioner wants to hear is “my mother”, but this answer sells out my mother, with which I’m not comfortable. I gauge how long I want to spend talking to my conversation partner(s) and I choose either the simple answer. “Neither. They’re both Chinese.” A true statement that I’m perfectly comfortable delivering.
Generally, this is accepted with minor acclaim and the conversation proceeds as normal. Occasionally, I get retorts of disbelief and accusatory follow up questions. I will hear “then why do you look like what you do? Are you sure?” from generally well-mannered people unaware how rude they sound while assigning someone a race to their own satisfaction. To avoid this line of questioning, I sometimes give a longer response. “Neither, but my mom’s family is mixed. Both my parents were born and raised in Hong Kong.” The conversation will never stop here. The most common follow-up question I hear is “oh so you’re 1/4?” I’ll generally take this comment in stride, while making a note to self that I probably shouldn’t talk advanced mathematics with this person and their limited vocabulary of fractions. For these simple people, I’ll sometimes say, “Sure,” more willing to sell out a grandparent I’ve never met.
An atypical scene happened in the waning days of 2005. I was in the dark days of college applications, having just spent my entire winter break writing college essays for Ivy League schools and non-common app schools (damn you Northwestern). My parents had been overly involved in this process from the very first page of the application form and had poured a lot of sweat into making me express the very best of myself. For every application, I checked Asian in the race/ethnicity box without much thought. However as it came time for me to send out the application for Pomona, a school I only knew about because of my cousin Andrew Barnet, I thought about filling in an extra box. Andrew’s father is a white man from Ohio, and I figured if my biracial cousin could get into Pomona, maybe I should try being biracial as well. I stealthily went back to page one, ticked “White” as well, and closed the application before I felt too guilty about it. It felt like a bold lie on an official form, but I told myself, “technically you are part white.”
The details about my ancestry get complicated quickly. Yes my mom is the mixed one, but her parents are both mixed. Further complicating matters, her parents/my grandparents were distant cousins, sharing the same full blooded white European ancestor. There is likely at least another white European ancestor in the family. The one I’m most aware of is Charles Bosman, a Dutchman who traded in Guangzhou and Hong Kong in the late 1800s. His son Robert Ho Tung was definitely a halfie, and he became Sir Robert Ho Tung, whose bilingual skills made him invaluable in the growth days of Hong Kong and became the first Chinese knighted by the British.
My uncle has set aside a portion of his retirement into investigating our heritage, visiting Bosman’s grave in London and publishing an ancestry book. He believes Bosman was Jewish with roots outside of Holland, but that we likely aren’t related to him at all, instead having Parsi blood (Zoroastrian practicers banished from Persia in the 1500s and mostly migrated East) through some off-the-books relationship.
The most precise fraction I’ve seen for our non-Chinese part is 13/64, and I’ve made sure this calculation is possible, but honestly I have no clue if it’s true. But it doesn’t really matter. None of these details affect my identity. I don’t have a direct fully Caucasian relative alive, and neither does my mom. She grew up what they call Eurasian in Hong Kong, speaking Cantonese primarily but English secondarily, and it was only after I came here that I realized how atypical her experience was from that of the average local. But she moved to the eastern US where she was just Asian, at a time when there weren’t many, and I don’t think being mixed has had any part of her identity for a long time.
My dad is “just” Chinese, but even his family history takes a few lines to retell properly. He was born in Hong Kong into a Shanghainese family who were refugees anticipating Cultural Revolution purges. They spoke Shanghainese at home and identified as Shanghainese, but in reality, their history in Shanghai spanned only two generations and their ancestral hometown was somewhere in Hunan.
They claim to have some Manchurian blood, with some relation to the last Emperor of China Pu Yi, but the details may have passed away with my great-grandmother. My grandfather was extremely adventurous and quite a gambler, a combination that saw my dad move to Brazil, back to Hong Kong, to Sierra Leone, New York City, Boston, Cote D’Ivoire and back to Boston. He has since lived a decade in Shanghai, a city he visited for the first time in his 30s.
My own history is far less interesting. I was born and raised in suburban Boston, and I grew up Chinese-American. I had two Chinese parents, played chess and piano, excelled at math and sucked at basketball. I went to China for three months in college and for the first time, I was told by a society around me that maybe I’m white. Only two-and-a-half years removed from guiltily ticking “white” in that college application form, I was giving an English lesson to a Chinese man, and somehow I ended up writing my Chinese name. He asked me, “how did you get this Chinese name?” and I replied that my parents gave it to me. “Really? Why? You’re Chinese?” Turns out he legitimately believed the whole time that I was completely white, which was an utter shock to me. This was far from the last such instance.
Too often I am assigned an ancestral history that isn’t mine, and often without me realizing it. Many times I’ve discovered years into a friendship that a good friend had thought I was half-white the whole time. They were misinformed about me for years. To a great credit to today’s society, this hasn’t usually mattered much, because as far as I can tell, people have treated me the same whether they thought I was Chinese or half-Chinese. But when I do correct people who mistakenly call me a halfie, they rarely get what the big deal is. “But it’s a good thing! Halfies are really good looking!” said my friend after she introduced me as her halfie friend, for the second time. True, halfie is nothing like a racial slur and it seems for whatever reason that most societies’ conceptions of attractiveness venerate Asian-Caucasian mixes. So really, why should I care that someone gets my racial background slightly wrong?
Because the truth matters. The difference between my experience and that of a half-Chinese half-White guy has significant differences. I was never a child walking down the streets with parents who looked nothing like me or each other, receiving bewildered stares from people. I never had to choose between adopting my father’s or my mother’s cultural heritage. I never spoke a language that only one of parents understood (and still don’t, because I think my mom understands more Mandarin than she lets on). I never heard any lessons of “good old American values” from a white grandparent. I never grew up as a mixed kid – I grew up as a Chinese kid in America. And guess what? I never thought I looked mixed. When you grow up everyday thinking you’re Chinese, everyday you look in the mirror you’re going to see the reflection of a Chinese kid. Now that I’ve had several years dealing with people telling me that I’m mixed, I start to look in the mirror and think maybe I look mixed. But I still don’t think I look like a halfie.
I am also fully aware that I’m far from alone in the experience of constantly being on the receiving end of incorrect assumptions. I bet all mixed people have experienced this in some way. Most anyone who speaks a foreign language will experience this in some fashion. I will say though, I’ve been the “Chinese guy” who had to rely on a white person for linguistic help while learning Mandarin in China, and I’ve been the “white guy” whom Mainland Chinese people had to rely on for linguistic help in Hong Kong. I’m not sure that’s a typical experience.
Anyway, while most Asian Americans I know are put off when people assume they can’t speak English, the “Forever-Foreigner” stereotype, that rarely happens to me in the states. Probably that’s part of my privilege growing up educated in liberal diverse areas, but even when it does happen it’s easy to shake off. That’s because my Americanness is unshakeable – it’s a permanent part of my identity that I’m totally secure in, partially because the concept of American is so fluid. Try as he might, not even Donald Trump could deny me my Americanness. I’m definitely less secure in my Chineseness, partly because it’s not so well defined worldwide and some people have a very restrictive view of it.
So when a cashier doing his job assumes I’m not Chinese and speaks to me in English, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. But it hurts me. The U.S. equivalent would be a Hispanic immigrant who spent many years in the U.S. and learned English going into a store and having a white clerk ask in 6th grade Spanish “tienes bago?” Many such shoppers would feel offended and wonder if they would ever feel truly accepted in this country. And perhaps for me it’s even more personal. Even though English is my best language, I actually spoke Cantonese first. It is inextricably tied to my identity especially my Chinese identity. When I hear parents telling their kids “乖乖地,小朋友要聽話,” it resonates back to my childhood. So when someone tries to deny that language to me, I feel like a dart has been thrown at me. Even more painful is when I’m debating Asian-American issues, and my argument gets this rebuttal: “Well you wouldn’t understand, you’re mixed.” Few things would get me more riled up, so luckily this has only happened twice.
So back to the cashier. Yes I get it. We all have to make some judgement calls and when I have to ask some Chinese stranger on the street, I will talk to him first in Chinese, even though I don’t know for sure that’s his first language. And when I see a Caucasian stranger, I will always use English first. The reasons why cashiers in Hong Kong instinctively use English has a historical backdrop in colonialism that has nothing to do with me. These instances occur much more often in places with a long history of service to westerners like Bangkok, Hong Kong and Philippines rather than say in Taiwan or South Korea. Hong Kong is a city where westerners almost never learn Cantonese, and both the local and western community seem to accept this without any qualms. The language situation here is another post entirely (and likely will get one soon). So when I am able to properly consider all that context…no I can’t really fault the cashier. Yet at the same time, I don’t fault myself for feeling bothered. It’s certainly a paradox isn’t it?
So how do I want people to interact with me? Don’t get me wrong, I totally welcome asking about my race/ethnicity. I never shy away from asking others, and I ask directly (none of this ‘where are you really from?). The point is, we have to be more educated in the way we talk and think about race. Being mixed does not mean half one race half another race, and future generations hereon out are only going to be more complicated. You will also likely encounter more “third culture kids” of mixed race. If you don’t learn how to talk to and understand these people, you will be that crotchety old grandparent who embarrasses the younger generation. Reduce your assumptions as much as possible, and just ask curious but respectful questions. And even if you find to your satisfaction that the person in front of you has a grandfather from Italy, a grandmother from Korea, another grandfather from Turkey and a grandmother who was adopted into an Irish-American family…well that might not actually tell you anything about who the person in front of you really is.
P.S. Pomona was the most selective school that accepted me.