Paisley Rekdal on ‘Biracial Rage’ in Hanoi, Viet Nam

diaCRITICS will periodically have guest blogs. This essay on biracial rage originally appeared at Anapessimistic, the blog by poet, essayist, and professor Paisley Rekdal. Here Rekdal analyzes how wars, colonization, and consumerist globalization have impacted Viet Nam’s “white noise” and perceptions of biracialism. Relaying a conversation in Hanoi with an American man, however, she also critiques the arrogance of Americans who deny the individuality of mixed race peoples and instead insist upon some essentialized identity or experience. According to Rekdal, “the predominant psychic space that has been granted” her as a Chinese-European-American is to continually adapt herself to the “logical proposition” of being defined, by Americans, outside her own terms. Rekdal’s anger at her friend’s father (and others who that demand she perform their cliché assumptions) is insightful and refreshing. Yet she ends on a dream of being “wildly, uniquely indifferent” to one’s meaning in this world—a rather sweet dream, after all, that’s never scented like Miss Saigon perfume. Do you enjoy reading diaCRITICS? Then please consider subscribing! _

Paisley Rekdal, photo  by Tommy Chambers

Travel, people like to say, is wonderful precisely because of how much it changes you. Mostly I am changing into something I don’t want to be—angry, hot, overwhelmed; one more ex-pat whining in an air-conditioned lounge, unable to ask for the bill in Vietnamese. Last night, I got to be changed into a hot-headed, self-deluded bitch.

Why, you ask? Because of my appearance. Let me say that I’m used to people talking about what I look like here. The northern Vietnamese are pretty blunt: they’ll tell you if they think you’re fat or not, pretty or not, old-looking or young. But the most common comment I get about my appearance here is how I don’t quite look like an American. “You look like Asian peoples,” is, in fact, what I was just told by a bookshop owner, after having a drink at a bar where the waitress asked me if I was Korean, an hour after my French class  in which all the other Vietnamese students asked if I came to Hanoi because I might be part Vietnamese. It’s been years since I’ve had this much continuous speculation about my appearance, a fact I had chalked up to a) increased media attention to mixed race people as a whole in the US and b) just looking really white. I have traveled to a lot of Asian countries over the years (China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, then-independent Hong Kong, and Taiwan) and what’s struck me in each of these places is how obviously the people with more historical exposure to the west are better at identifying mixed- race people.

Being mixed race is Asia is not just a marker of a possible foreign nationality but of class status, family history and language.  I mean, you don’t have two major wars with two major western powers in the course of less than a hundred years, along with decades of colonization, and not have a thing or two that pops into your mind upon seeing a mixed-race person of my particular age in Vietnam. I haven’t met many mixed Vietnamese or Viet Kieu here, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen a lot of them. There’s a fashion magazine here called Dep which routinely puts mixed-race models on its cover, and a lot of the travel tourism television ads that come out of Malaysia and Singapore feature attractive biracial women running in and out of shopping complexes, eating something barbequed over a pit, flying helicopters and going deep sea diving. The mix of west and east in these models offers the viewers (most of whom would be Asian) their own sense of the “exotic” experience all of us want, with the added comfort of knowing they will never be—or become—too far away from the familiar comforts of home.

An important side note: as you might expect, if biracial women are the female spokesmodel of choice here, white men are the inevitable leads to this eternal costume drama that is the southeast Asian tour brochure. Thus, in an ad for a new swanky Hong Kong hotel, you can see a gorgeous mixed-race  woman (possibly full, hard to tell as she’s always in half-shadow having a dumpling shoved into her mouth) being clutched near a balcony by a white guy, or sitting down on the chair a white guy is offering to pull out for her, or following a white man into what seems to be a steam room-meets-wedding chapel. The worst ad I’ve seen that panders to this is a perfume ad in which a white man at an airline ticket counter gets a whiff of the young Vietnamese woman standing next to him in line, falls head over heels and then pursues her maniacally throughout the rest of the airport. The perfume is called—and you’re really going to hate this—“Miss Saigon.” Leaving aside for the moment how “Miss Saigon”/ Madame Butterfly Redux finishes, I should say that I’m not as upset by this this as you might imagine, largely because it’s so familiar to me and because I’m just too damn tired to keep getting worked up about it. This is the background music of Asia—Vietnam’s “white noise”—that I’ve learned to live with (not happily, I’d like to add) and that I think a lot of the smart young Vietnamese students in my class at least are pretty savvy about. I think they see it for what it is—a fantasy that feeds on that complex brew of envy, competition, and—yes– self-hatred, all of which has been injected with an awareness that parts of Vietnam have become more globally changed; if not in the physical make-up of Vietnamese themselves, then at least in its landscape of  the business world. To me, “Miss Saigon” isn’t just a reference to a bad rock-opera, it’s a nice little dig at a changing Saigon itself.

But what does this have to do with me becoming a raging bitch? Well, the other night, I had an odd dinner with a friend’s father. This man is a 76 year-old white American, very kind, smart, well-off and certainly well-traveled. He had just read my book The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee which I wrote fourteen years ago (TOTALLY not per my request: he was just curious). The book is about some of these issues I’ve listed above: the ambivalence I feel about seeing Asian women in relationships with white men considering the persistence of our stereotypes (both positive and negative) about Asian femininity, the confusion of being told that race doesn’t matter while at the same time being forced to continually acknowledge the appearance of your difference, the ways in which your “exotic” appearance makes you the object of someone’s consumerist fantasy. Anyway, he told me he thought it was very, um, interesting (pursing his lips here sourly to let me know he hated it: thanks for that, by the way) but that he wondered about some things.

For instance, he said, he’d just gone to a party in Hanoi with a bunch of young ex-pat couples. All of them were mixed: white husband, Asian wife. The backyard was filled with their happy, mixed-race progeny chasing each other around the grill. As he had just finished my book, he decided to take a little survey, and so went around the party polling people about what they thought about their marriages, about their kids being mixed race, if their children (or they themselves) ever felt confused about it. “And guess what?” he asked, shaking his head with bemusement. “None of them thought anything LIKE what was in your book!” “How old were the children?” I asked. “Six,” he said. Let’s pause here to consider the fact that I wrote my book when I was 26. If at age 6 I had felt anything like what I felt about my life at age 26, I can say with some confidence that I wouldn’t have made it past my tenth birthday. And let’s also take a moment to consider that people at a party might not feel comfortable talking about their identity issues to an unknown American near-octogenarian trying to use them as a basis for a survey.

These things acknowledged, what galled me about this remark, and the conversation we proceeded to have after (“I’m telling you, you don’t look Asian at all to me. And I had a wife who was mixed! I have a very good eye for these things!”) was the fact that I was again being questioned about my appearance (this time, my NOT-Asianness), but this time being implicitly asked to defend not only myself but a book written to explore the meaning of this very betweenness of identity. And what mattered in this debate was NOT the conclusion that I myself had come to about what I was or felt I was, but the conclusion that I could make HIM come to about what I was (“I don’t know, those kids seemed fine, and my mixed wife, well, she basically told me it never meant anything. She was, admittedly, an unhappy woman. To be honest, I only married her because I liked her kids.”). In short, the book was not about my life or my perceptions of it, they had to be about HIM and HIS perceptions, and if they didn’t correspond to things he experienced at an hour-long barbeque with strangers less than half his age (or, better yet, to an unhappy but brief marriage to a woman he acknowledged he didn’t even like), then the conclusions I had reached about what being mixed race meant over the shortish/nasty/brutalish course of my life were essentially negated, ESPECIALLY considering the fact that I didn’t look mixed to him at all, thus shouldn’t have ever bothered myself writing about this topic. All of which really made me want to bash his head in with a wine bottle. What also galled me about the conversation was that, during our meal, the waiter kept looking to me for confirmation of what this man was ordering—in very loud English—and would address all his questions for this man to me: something I notice that happens when I eat with other friends who look more white. Basically, a lot of waiters here seem to think that, between the two pale foreigners sitting before him/her babbling in English, the one most likely to understand Vietnamese in a pinch is the darker-haired, vaguely familiar-looking one. And so while this man is going on and on about how white I seem to him, the waiter is subtly signaling to me (via his visual distress) how Asian I hopefully might be.

For the record, I don’t doubt that those children weren’t conflicted about their identities. First of all, they’re six. They’re still learning about zoos and ice cream.   They also, obviously, come from a different generation, one in which the media is—if not exactly saturated then at least burgeoning with images of multiracial people, ambivalent as these images may be. They also live in Vietnam, in an ex-pat enclave that has a VERY healthy percentage of mixed families, and are going to the expensive international school which requires that a certain percentage of its attendees be Vietnamese. In short, these kids are living the globalized, mixed family dream. I won’t lie: I had a great childhood, but if I’d had the chance to be among those families at the barbeque when I was a child, I’d have killed for it. But the thing that enrages me most, that still makes me seethe writing this, is that at stake was the very palpable sense that the only identity at that table that counted, the one truly stable self-consciousness able to make such fine distinctions and judgments, was his:  it was only through the surety of his perceptions of me that I could be granted an identity that fit with my own perceptions of myself. In short, only he could decide to confer identity on me. On that level, I had to PROVE something to him: something that he couldn’t, or didn’t want, to see. “You know,” I said, angrily at one point. “We could flip this whole thing around. We could spend a half hour talking about what I first thought YOU looked like when we met, and then how surprised—or not—I am by the facts of your opinions based on my assumptions.” “I didn’t tell you what I thought you looked like when we first met.” “But you’re telling me now.” “Yes, because you brought it up!”

It is true that, having published that fucking book, I brought it up. And yet, even without that book, I think it would have come up, and keep on coming up. Because at some point I would have mentioned my family, and maybe mentioned that my mother is Chinese American, and then we’d slip into the quagmire in which we found ourselves last night: the conversation about race that’s been going on around all of us, not just in Vietnam, but in the States. Let me be clear: when the Vietnamese (and Cambodians and Laotians) ask me if I’m Asian, it doesn’t bother me. If someone from America thinks I’m white, it doesn’t bother me. What bothers me—and I’ve said it before in this blog—is when someone starts to implicitly or explicitly insist that I must curtail myself to certain values and experiences based an identity that he thinks HE gets to confer on me. THAT’S when I get annoyed. I’ve had Asian friends who have been just as teeth-gratingly annoying: friends who insist I like food because I’m Chinese, who say I think certain things because I’m Chinese, that I like certain types of men because I’m Chinese. I’ve had Asian boyfriends who want me to be as Asian as possible in public and as white as possible in the bedroom. (Don’t ask how that works: I still don’t know.) The thing is, it doesn’t work like that. Perhaps it might be nice if we could tie certain personal tics so directly to the genetic, physically expressed invariables of racial appearance. But we can’t. We have culture, which explains much, but race itself explains nothing. It’s just one more digit in the ever-expanding equation.

Honestly, I hate the fact that I’m writing–again–about this. But being biracial is like living in a room filled with mosquitoes. Every time you start to drift off to sleep, you get bitten. And I’m sad about the dinner because the friend’s father is actually a kind and generous man; it’s just a testament to how infuriating the topic of race is, how it turns everyone into cartoon versions of themselves.  In all honesty, I understand his argument. I even understand his suspicion and his petulance. I understand these things so well because his perception of and feelings about me are the predominant ones that American culture offers: they are—and this is what I wasn’t able to explain to him—the predominant psychic space that has been granted me. I exist, but only as far as I don’t insist upon another narrative about my life other people don’t recognize or feel uncomfortable about.  In this, I’m the one who is asked—constantly—to give something up, to adapt myself to an outsider’s way of seeing, rather than the reverse. This man’s position is the one we start from, the logical proposition which has to be—through logic and persistent alternative reasoning—negated. Wouldn’t it be interesting if it were actually the reverse? If my identity was the “stable” position we had to start with? In my mind’s eye, I go back to that party filled with six-year olds. I don’t know what they’ll think about race, what they do think already, but in some ways I like to imagine them the way my friend’s father saw them: wildly, uniquely indifferent to their meaning in this world.  What a change that would be, to be like them. I can hardly begin to imagine it.

Photo by WT Pfefferle, from Poets on Place

Paisley Rekdal is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee (2000 and 2002), and four books of poetry, A Crash of Rhinos (2000), Six Girls Without Pants (2002), The Invention of the Kaleidoscope (2007), and Animal Eye (2012). Intimate, a hybrid photo-text memoir that combines poems, nonfiction, and fiction with photography, was just released from Tupelo Press, in April 2012. Her work has received many awards, including a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, an NEA Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Pushcart Prize. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, NPR, The New Republic, Poetry, Tin House, The Kenyon Review, The American Poetry Review and the Best American Poetry series. She teaches in English and at the Asia Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She grew up in Seattle as the daughter of a Chinese American mother and a Norwegian father. _ Please take the time to rate this post (above) and share it (below). Ratings for top posts are listed on the sidebar. Sharing (on email, Facebook, etc.) helps spread the word about diaCRITICS. And join the conversation and leave a comment! Does her biracial rage resonate with your own? What did you think of this piece? Do you enjoy reading diaCRITICS? Then please consider subscribing!


  1. Here are a number of photos from that shoot. On the Flickr site you can check the EXIF info for dates, and the variety of shots of her with Hana and Shumai should aid in any discrepancy.

    The coloring of the photo you’re showing also matches the same treatment I used on all of the blog photos I did of the 60+ American authors I visited in their homes and offices during the 2003/2004 travel for my book Poets on Place.

  2. The photo of Rekdal with her dogs Hana and Shumai was taken by me in early April 2004. I’d like the credit for its use. I can provide the original files as evidence.

  3. Thank you, Paisley Rekdal, for this post, as well as for your first three books which I enjoyed very much and have used in my classes (I’ll have to get caught up and read your more recent work). I’m going to use this blog post, also, including the comments. The whole interaction reminds me of a conversation I had with my white father, in which he suddenly apropos of nothing said, “Why do groups of Black men have to be so scary?” I immediately thought of all the Black men I knew–geeky professors, serious lawyers, artists, and scientists, and couldn’t imagine them making anyone scared if they were gathered in a group. I argued with him for half an hour about how frightening a group of white men could be to a Black man, or a Black child, like maybe Emmet Till. What your dinner companion and several of the commentators have failed to understand is that they occupy privileged positions in which their world view is also the dominant world view. That you are turning this around on them through the power of your language and your insistence on being seen from your perspective is obviously threatening. Again, I thank you.

  4. Thank you for your honest and personable story. Sometimes, people forget that the mind perceives what their eyes see – and I’m not saying that the mind’s eyes are correct. In an ideal world, people are not judged visually but through the time-honored fashion of their intercourse/interaction. “Plumbing the depth of oceans is easy, but how does one measure the depth of other’s heart?” (A vietnamese saying) Although a book – such as “The Night My Mother met Bruce Lee” – may give one a glimpse.”

    Maybe Jamie Maxtone-Graham’s peeve about the praise people have for his 8 yrs-old daughter when they first saw her: “Xinh quá!” is misplaced, as when a male first made contact with a female, he should not make any comment how beautiful she is? Do comments for a baby or toddler carry the same import as when men say it to older female? So, when an Asian or a Caucasian comment to a mixed race woman that she looks more Asian or more White, what does it mean? A compliment or a slight depending on who says (or who receives) it? So in the end, do white men make ‘mixed-race females’ in his own image? I wish I would never commit this cardinal sin of judging people: whether by the content of their character or the shade (color) of their skin.

    BTW, and don’t know by Viet Cu you mean Việt Kiều (expat Vietnamese) or not, but ‘CU’ means penis in Vietnamese) and the ‘friend’s father’ (the second paragraph from the bottom) is actually a kind and generous man.

    • Wow. So a man with an Asian fetish suggests that Ms. Rekdal shouldn’t be angry because his perception is that Black people have it worse than Asians? And then uses the word “bleating”? What a world we live in.

      • get it straight. maybe english is not your first language, but i do not have an asian fetish. a fetish is for inanimate objects or parts of a whole. i do have a nose fetish, for example, but i have a yellow asian preference. and there is nothing wrong with having a preference for another human being of certain characteristics or phenotype. people act on this preference everyday in finding a partner.

        • Let me put a stop to this right now. “Maybe English is not your first language” is not an acceptable comment, especially but not only in regards to Vietnamese and Asian Americans. You don’t help your argument by resorting to this kind of tired and racist insult. I don’t have to give a history lesson about how Asian Americans are always hearing about how they can’t really speak English, right? And you know the person you’re talking to is Bao Phi, who has a book of poetry that was reviewed in the New York Times? If you have a disagreement with the original post, or with BP’s response to your comment, go ahead and critique what they have to say without stooping to this kind of rhetoric.

          • I had absolutely no idea what BP’s sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, color, religion or continental origin is. But what I do know, in an attempt at condescension s/he misused the word “fetish.” So pardon me for presuming. But this is cyberspace after all and such presumptions are natural when people misuse words on the internet.

          • According to your website, Stefhen Bryan, you seem to have a bit[e] of yellow fever, whether you confess it as a ‘fetish’ or not: “A self-acknowledged sex addict with a predilection for East and Southeast Asian women, Bryan moved to Japan in April 2001 for the sole purpose of indulging his addiction.” With that in mind, it seems as if you’re taking offense to Paisley Rekdal’s article because it’s forcing you to reflect upon yourself and your motivations, as a man with yellow fever. However, as others have already mentioned, it gives you no right to be racist towards Paisley Rekdal, BP (Bao Phi), or anyone else, just because you are in a reactionary mode. Even if you lack the self-reflexivity to see your ‘predilection’ in its true colors, to many others it’s obvious that a non-Asian man seeking out and using Asian women as sexual objects (to placate one’s sex addiction, in particular) is also motivated by racism, combined with misogyny, as explained by Edward Said and other critics of Orientalism. This trope of Asian-women-as-sex-objects is as old and tired as the line you fed to Bao Phi–in the United States this stereotype goes back to the 19th century with the arrival of women from China, but we see many 20th century examples in history and in culture. It is usually white men who have yellow fever, but some black men also have yellow fever. See Busta Rhymes’ music video “Pass the Courvoisier” for a pop culture example of this phenomenon, complete with the line “We be bangin’ all types of chicks from here to Hong Kong.” As for your own “maybe english is not your first language” line — is it part of your pick-up repertoire, too? If so, I offer sincere condolences to the [sexual] objects of your [sexual] addiction.

          • I have not taken offense to this article Ms. Julie. What I’ve taken offense to is the misuse of the word fetish. And perhaps english is not YOUR first language, otherwise YOU would not be misusing the word, “racist.” Nowhere have I declared that I subscribe to the ideology that one race is superior or inferior to another. I love sex and I have a preference for yellow, mongoloid asian women, as opposed to black, caucasian asian women (south asians). Those are the women to whom I’m attracted. And it is perfectly normal. Some people have a preference for tall, or for brown hair. Paisley Rekdal’s article caused no such self reflection, I’m just sick of asian americans whining about their so called “disadvantages” in american society, because they’re not on the NBA or on tv. sick of them whinging about the social perception of being the model minority. if you don’t like being the model minority, start stop being so diligent in your studies and start smoking crack. Its especially annoying when the moaning is being done by one who’s half white half yellow.

            Trust me, nothing forces me to reflect on myself as a man with “yellow fever.” My preference is perfectly normal. I have had it since I was 4 years old in Jamaica. Which is why I moved to Japan and have been here ever since, where I’m married to a japanese woman and get to interact with women of my extreme preference on a daily basis. black men and white men are not the only group with “yellow fever.” a billion men in china have it too. around 60 million men here in japan have it too. your cries of “orientalism” is outdated. Get over it and just accept the fact that there are men like me who will act on our preferences by moving to the country where women of their preferences are in abundance. Had I a black preference, I would’ve moved to ghana or kenya. had i a white preference I’d move to denmark or the czech republic. but my preference is yellow, so I moved to japan. my children are half black half yellow. thats how I wanted my progeny to be. It’s my choice to decide with whom to procreate, as its my progeny. And finally, you were almost right about my most successful pick up line. My opening line on the train is usually, “you look like you speak english.” works like a charm every bleeding time.

          • So only black people have an “excuse” for not prospering in the U.S.? Open your eyes and do some research for yourself, if you want to understand why so many people are having difficulty surviving in the U.S. today. Nothing I say will be effective unless you do. While you are off in Japan indulging your sexual fantasies, the U.S. is facing the worst economic depression since the 1930s. For you to be blunted to the suffering of untold millions of people is not something I can “enlighten” with a reply you’re not really hearing anyway.

        • Stefhen Bryan, it’s ironic that you keep throwing around nativism regarding English-speaking with the insult that we Asians (full and mixed) are all doing far too well for your taste. It’s not at all difficult to find the studies which debunk your racist assumptions about “model minorities” in the US, or which illuminate the possibility of being bi- or trilingual with full fluency in each language. In many countries, being fluent in multiple languages is a given — sadly, the U.S. lags behind the rest of the world with its insistence that English is the only language worth knowing. Furthermore, you’re definitely in the wrong when you troll around on a website addressing Vietnamese culture, history, and politics in order to insult Southeast Asian Americans for being overachievers. Let’s take a quick glance at some statistics:

          “Vietnamese-Americans have a 37.8 percent rate of not receiving a high school diploma in this country. This is much higher in the White, Black, and Hispanic/Latino categories. And for Cambodian, Hmong, or Laotian-Americans, this rate tops those of all other racial subgroups in this country with a whopping 52.7 percent who have not obtained a high school diploma, with 9.9 percent receiving public assistance—the highest overall percentage of all racial and ethnic groups in the survey.”

          Perhaps you’re unaware of the discrepancies between different Asian peoples, subscribing to the shallow stereotype that we’re all the same, and that being a “model minority” is somehow a positive, especially when hurled against us as an insult. You are mistaken, by all counts. You probably aren’t interested in the causal factors, but the particular struggles of Southeast Asian communities in the U.S. have been widely documented since the 1970s. In any case, your misinformed and bitter comments have made many diaCRITICS readers aware of the glaring gap between reality and racist public perceptions about the academic, social, financial, and economic successes of a community that is still largely struggling to gain a foothold after postwar immigration as refugees. If you just see all Asians as a shiny golden yellow, you’re missing the point entirely. This would not surprise me in the least, given the rest of your observations.

          • So what is their excuse? They’re not black, they have no excuse. Just as poor whites in america have no excuse. Their race – that of poor whites and southeast asians – all but ensures them dramatically improved life chances in the US. What’s their excuse? Please, enlighten me.

  5. Paisley Rekdal, THANK YOU for writing this! Your insights are totally on-point. I’m a biracial Vietnamese American female and I’ve had similar encounters and conversations with the expat men in Vietnam, replete with hitting boiling-point rage. I find it absolutely remarkable that of all the people who ask me about my race (and yes, you’re right, people of all ethnicities engage in this tedious guessing game) the only ones who had the gall (sense of entitlement?) to flat-out tell me that I am not Asian, even AFTER that’s how I self-indentified, were white men. Might I add that these three prefer to date “real” Asian women exclusively…
    Personally, I think that’s more along the lines of “wanting it all, nothing and both ways at the same time”: that white men want to be in relationships where race, gender, class and culture are fraught and sensitive to communities, but they also want to be absolved of all responsibility to think and deal with it if it makes them feel uncomfortable.
    Why, otherwise, would they feel so compelled to tell you, a biracial Hapa author that YOUR experience, and opinions around that experience, are offensive and wrong?
    If I was a white man with a mixed-race family, I would hope that I would have the insight to understand that my kids (and wife) might have a few questions about identity, and that hey, maybe The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee would help prepare me for helping my family deal with those questions with empathy and compassion. I really hope that attacking the author would NOT be my first gut-instinct.
    But, clearly we see that on two occasions (with the octogenarian and Mr. Maxtone-Graham) that was not the case…
    Kudos to you and The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee just went to the top of my reading list.

  6. Hmmm….. I find this a little bit annoying. The author wants it all or she wants nothing and both ways at the same time. Surely the majority of people are not as self-conscious/self-aware as she seems to live it and surely we cant all walk around being as PC as she in all our perceptions of one anothers otherness.
    I write this as a white man living in an Asian city (Hanoi) with a Vietnamese wife and a mixed race child. From the other side of the coin, as I walk down the street every single day and receive the stares of otherness from my Vietnamese neighbors and others who have seen me for the past five years, there is no shortage, still after all this time, of imagining or creating of what my story is. I hear it (I speak Vietnamese so I understand the brief murmurings as I pass), I see it and most of all I feel it. It could trouble one if one let it.
    My now 8 year old daughter is cute. When we first moved here, at the local market (the outdoor kind) every single merchant we buy food from would constantly tell my girl whenever we were purchasing something, “O, xinh qua!” So cute! After two years of this, one day I finally told one of the women that, yes, she is cute but she’s also smart and funny and strong and musical and that even at the then age of 5 she finds it boring to hear ‘xinh qua’ all the time. She’s so much more than that.
    A couple of things happened – they all stopped saying that, for one. For another, we all got to know something about one another through this exchange about appearance. Three, now if we’re in the market and someone within earshot of the market ladies calls my daughter cute, they invariably come to her defense and tell them that a) we dont like it when people call her cute and b) she’s also a very smart girl. This is great because it gets a lot of other people involved in helping at least one young girl being seen as something other than what her appearance projects and she becomes dimensional.
    Now, I dont want to deny the author her history or experience with the issues she obviously values and gets power from – I think she actually likes it when the metaphorical mosquito bites her – but isn’t this just the state of things and that the more one protests, the more power one gives to the very thing one is protesting against? People will look at other people and imagine what they will. People look at myself and my Vietnamese wife and make all sorts of terrible assumptions about our relationship based on the stereotypes that get projected from seeing ‘tall white man with petite Asian girl’. What can I/we do about that? It’s not my problem. I give their imaginings no authority what-so-ever. People will look at mixed race children and see what they will – my western friends think my daughter looks completely “Asian” (whatever that means) and our Vietnamese friends look at her and see her Western characteristics predominating. She and I talk about all of this and my constant message to her through all the commentary about what people think of her, her looks, her heritage is this – just be yourself. Isn’t just that enough without worrying what everyone else is thinking about because actually in this increasingly global, mixed culture/mixed race climate – culture itself explains nothing as much as race does.
    Thanks for taking the time to put all this down, though. It (obviously) provoked a few thoughts of my own on this subject…….


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here