Sunday, February 18, 2007

What They Are

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.


Toccata said...

Johnny Yen, I just love reading your blog. Sometimes I can't get over my good luck in finding it. That was awesome. I think you need to make a hard copy so you can present it to your son.

Tim said...

This is sad, so very sad. Almost child abuse. I am totally against this kind of thing.

Taking a child and making them a Cub fan. When will the nightmare end? ;)

kim said...

Um, are we talking about the same kid? My stepson has dark brown hair, not blonde. That is the aryan coming out in you. . .better watch that!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

hahaha Tim!

Well said, Johnny Yen. Your son is a lving example of my dreams for the world, a world where everyone is a fabulous mix of races and cultures. That's the kind of world I want to live in.

Nationalism and xenophobia lie at the heart of so many of the world's problems. At to all the naysayers, I say to them, have you never heard of hybrid vigour?

Beth said...

How lucky your son is — not only to enjoy a multicultural life, but also because the adults in his life encourage it. He's gonna be a very cool man.

Echo said...

Tim's right... Cub fan???

Seriously, though... what Toccata said...

Mob said...

I can't add anything to this save for my kudos on your writing, heartfelt and interesting as always.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful, extremely well written piece by a deservedly proud parent of a uniquely insightful, delightful, engaging young lad whom I am very proud to know.

Erik Donald France said...

excellent yet again! Wonderful post.

Three Cheers and happy Tet!

kim said...

Oh Johnny Yen, you are loved by all!

Bats in the Belfry said...

It is so funny to see what kind of son you have. If anyone would have asked me way back when what kind of father you would be, it would not be the one I see today.

Your son is an awesome kid. You have done a wonderful job as a father and friend to him.

You Rock Pierre!

....and the best part of all, raising a red blooded Cubs fan! Hazzah to the underdogs in all of us!

me said...

my family is pretty diverse too

we're all mostly vietnamese, but i'm half chinese and we've got some whities and lesbians mixed in there too

but that's no problem for us.

Anon. Blogger said...

Loved the post!

Before my mom died she and I spoke about how the world had changed in her lifetime, relative to the idea of 'mixed' relationships / cultures and their offspring. But I think in many ways her perspective on this was magnified, though. It was her life of raising a family overseas and in many different parts of the US. As a family, we were all influenced significantly by our exposure to many 'ways of being'. I changes you, and I think in a good way.

Bubs said...

Cool story about the grandfather...I love to hear about the extraordinary challenges so many regular people have overcome, that most of us never know about.

It's cool how, gradually, some of our racial paradigms are breaking down. It gets harder to put people in categories, and kids like your son are leading the way. Bravo to him for knowing who he is.

By the way, I learned to use chopsticks from MizBubs. When she was little, her alcoholic mom used to hang out at a Japanese restaurant with a bar on Lincoln Avenue. Miz would hang out in back while mom drank at the bar, and some kindly Japanese woman would look after her and bring her food and stuff. She learned how to use chopsticks that way, and eventually taught me.

Danny Tagalog said...

Great post. As someone who has worried about ramifications of having a mixed child, the post soothed fears. Your son is fortunate - what bullshit about not knowing who he is. That comes from someone who is merley a composite of nation building propaganda, and can not look beyond
or deep enough to see the advantage of having mixed descendancy.

Natalie said...

Beautiful post. As a mixed race person I have heard many of those same "problems" about being of mixed heritage. I think facing those issues has made me more aware of who I am than most people out there. People sometimes question why when asked about my background I don't say mixed, I say Black. It's because that is who I am. My little sister says mixed. It's a very individual thing. Kudos for supporting him in his assertion of his identity. Danny, don’t worry. Mixed kids are the coolest (and so good looking).

Johnny Yen said...

Thank you. Thanks for the idea.

Then why are you raising your kids on the North Side? ; )

Actually, the very first words I ever said to him-- I'm not making this up-- was "Remember son, the Cubs are bums!" He obviously didn't listen-- probably had something to do with being born at Columbus Hospital, bascically right down the street from Wrigley.

It gets blonde in the summer, like mine.

As you may have guessed, Tim's an old friend. That's okay-- both of his daughters will marry Cubs fans.

An old acquaintance once said that to change the world, live in it as if it's changed. I've taken that to heart.

Thanks! It extends to the rest of his life-- he's got quite a diverse group of friends, too.

Thanks! Hey-- win or lose, they've got the greatest park around.


Thanks, George!

And a Happy Tet to you!

Thanks! Are you trying to tell me I was a little wild back in the day? No way!

Glad to know that you're good with all the varieties of diversity in your family!

Anon. Blogger-
A few years back, while the war was going on in Bosnia, I was purchasing a pair of glasses. The lady who ran the shop was Croatian. She talked about her family, how they were faring in the war, and made reference to a member of her family who had married a Serbian, and referred to it as a "mixed marriage." It was funny, because in the wonderfully diverse neighborhood in Chicago my family had lived for a while, Albany Park, there were a lot of Yugoslavs, including my friend Boro Reljic. He never once referred to himself as anything but Yugoslav-- he was quite proud of it. He never, ever referred to himself as whatever his Yugoslav identity was.

When you study a little history, you see that ethnic identity, race, etc. is a transient, ever-changing thing. It's wonderful that your mother and your family was able to take away growth and education from your experiences.

Thanks. What a sad and interesting story about your wife. Was it, by chance, that bar on Clark right where the el (the Brown Line) turns? The one that scene in "The Untouchables?"

Glad to be of help. In looking at your child, you're looking at the future. Perhaps your kid and mine and others will be the people who help everyone figure out that we all have more in common than differences.

You seem pretty happy and adjusted-- and you got the point. Nobody can tell you your identity-- you stake it out yourself, and only you are allowed to define yourself.

lulu said...

One of the things I really like about my school is how diverse the student body is, many students being a mix of 4 or more distinct and celebrated heritages. One of my favorite students is a quarter each Native American, Irish, Mexican and German.

What's going on, by the way, with your high school choices? When do you appy and find out?

Dale said...

Wonderful post Mr. Yen. I read it the other day and came back again for more.

Coaster Punchman said...

This is a great post. As you may know from my blog, I am fake-married to an ABC (American-born Chinese) and often find myself ensconced in that culture which is so enriching. Poor George has a number of Eurasian cousins, nieces & nephews from siblings and other family members who married Caucasians. I also know a fair number of Eurasians. My impression is that it is getting easier for kids these days, mainly because mixed race marriages and offspring are not as unusual any more. Which means that there is also less pressure to "choose" an identity rather than embrace the all the richness & complexities of your individual background.

Your son looks like a great kid (and for what it's worth I could certainly pick him out of a crowd as a Eurasian!)

My goddaughter is Eurasian (mother white, father Japanese). This little girl looks way more white than your son even, but there's something very subtle about her that our neighbors in Chinatown pick up on immediately. One day the girl, her mother, Poor George and I were out for a walk in Chinatown. All these old ladies came up to her and just assumed that she was the child of Poor George and Beth, rather than assuming it was my child. I found that fascinating.