A few months ago, I had to work my second job, my waitering job, on a Saturday night. It was a weekend my son was at my home-- his mother, a former girlfriend, and I switch off weekends with him as per our joint custody agreement.
My wife took he and my stepdaughter out for Chinese buffet, which both of them enjoy a lot. My wife related a story later about that meal. He began eating his meal with chopsticks. He smirked, and asked, in that I'm-almost-a-teenager smartass way, why they weren't using chopsticks.
The fact of the matter is that he is very good with chopsticks. His mother, who is Chinese-American, taught him how to use them.
Her father came to the United States from the Canton region of China in the late 1930's as a teenager. He grew up and served in the military in world War II, storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.
He withstood racism in the military and other parts of his life. More on that later.
After the war, he brought a young beauty from his village in China to the United States and married her. They had five children-- my ex-girlfriend was the youngest.
He ran a series of businesses, laundries and restaurants, in Pekin, Illinois-- where the high school had the team name the "Pekin Chinks"-- and Chicago. He finally decided to open up a restaurant in downtown Arlington Heights, Illinois. The city refused to approve sale of the restaurant-- because he was Asian. His best friend, who was white, bought the building and sold it to him at cost. The restaurant was very successful, thriving even after his death in the early 1990's. My ex's mother sold the business a couple of years ago and retired.
His story was a wonderfully American story. He very much earned the right to be called an American. I regret that I never had a chance to meet him-- he was dead before I met her-- and my son will never get to meet him. He does, hoever, bear his last name, a very common Chinese surname.
My ex and I were talking recently about our son's identity. This has been, in the past, a matter of importance. When he started school, we wanted to get him into a good school-- it's a whole game you play with the Chicago Public School system. We were blunt with the school administrators we talked to-- in order to get him into to a school, should we list him as white or asian? We simply used the ethnicity that gave him the best chance of getting into the school (we ended up using Asian, by the way).
My son has blonde hair like me. He looks white. My ex has long joked about it-- she kiddingly complained that she had done all the work in his birth and she ended up with a white kid.
But when asked, he will tell you that he is Chinese.
This normally would have been my weekend with my son. Every year, if the Tet, or Chinese Lunar New Year parade in Chicago's Chinatown, is on my weekend, I trade weekends with my ex. They go down to Chinatown, meet up with her family, and watch the parade. They'll go to a dim sum restaurant and eat dishes that he can pronounce, and I can't. He'll eat them with chopsticks.
When my son was a baby, more than one person said something that really galled me. They said "Mixed children are very good-looking, but the problem is that they grow up not knowing what they are."
Last year for Christmas, my father-in-law gave my son a book that has statistics and information on every guy who ever played for the Chicago Cubs. When he gave it to him, he told him about Mike Kreevich, a member of the Chicago Cubs and later the White Sox, who was the only baseball player that his father, a Croatian immigrant, could name besides Babe Ruth. Kreevich was himself of Croatian ancestry. My father-in-law's father, who knew little about baseball, connected to his new homeland and to a sport he didn't understand, through this guy.
My father-in-law's mother was not Croatian, but English. It was, back then, a "mixed" marriage.
I enjoy watching the two of them, my son and my father-in-law, who like one another a lot, bonding over a shared love of baseball. The son of an immigrant and the grandchild of an immigrant, these "mixed" children whose roots are in places in the world far removed, bond over a uniquely American institution.
My son loves all parts of his heritage-- his mother's Chinese roots and my tangled Irish/German/Slovenian/Jewish/Czech/Hillbilly/Scottish roots. He loves the Chinese food my ex's mother makes for him when he visits her. He loves the corned beef my mother makes for him when we visit her-- which he eats with rice. He loves the Tet parade and Christmas and Jimi Hendrix and Weird Al Yankovich and summer afternoons at Wrigley Field. He loves architecture (that's a Lego version of the Empire State Building in the picture) and Star Wars. So when those people wonder, of "mixed" children, "what they are," I will tell them, based on my own experience, what my son is. He is interesting, complex, complete and comfortable with all the parts of himself. He considers it an opportunity to invent himself in the image he's happy with. No one can pigeonhole him into an identity that's been imposed on him. What some may consider a liability, he considers a strength. What others might consider confusion, he considers uniqueness. "What he is" is an energetic, confident child who is healthily and happily approaching adulthood knowing just who he is-- a person who has a diverse bunch of people who love him, and has a rich range of traditions and cultures to draw his identity from. We should all be so lucky.