“Are you the new neighbor?” asked a boy, peering over the fence.
We had just moved to a new house in Renton, and my kids and I were playing in the yard. I waved and told him that we were.
“My mom thought you were the cleaner,” he said.
I was shocked, confused, mostly heartbroken. Why would my neighbor assume I was the housecleaner and not the new homeowner? Did she — subconsciously or not — believe that someone of my ethnicity didn’t belong here? Had I been white, would she have made the same assumption?
Recently, Asian Americans have been speaking out about the importance of representation. Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” wrote about experiencing racist and sexist harassment on social media.
Every article about the movie “Crazy Rich Asians” mentions its significance as the first movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years.
These discussions — and the interaction with my neighbor — are fueling my own internal conversations about being Chinese American in my community, and particularly as a mother.
Straddling two cultures
Growing up, I had few opportunities to see myself reflected in the media. I was born and raised in California by Chinese immigrants. We primarily spoke English at home, but I spoke Cantonese with my grandparents. I ate everything from burgers to chicken feet. I identified with being American and Chinese — but in the media, characters were usually one or the other.
I grew up thinking that being beautiful meant having lighter hair and sharper facial features. I didn’t want to be white, but I recognized that beauty was defined by what I saw in mainstream media. I spritzed my hair with lemon juice and laid in the sun, hoping for “natural” highlights. I never removed my glasses in public, to avoid being teased for having small eyes.
Today, my kids have slightly more options than I did to see themselves represented in the media, but we still need more. I want my kids to be proud of who they are and feel a sense of belonging rather than striving to look and be like the dominant culture.
Grace Lin, a Chinese American author who depicts the lives of present-day Asian American children in her work, describes books as windows to show you the world and as mirrors to reflect the reader.
For all of us, but especially for the dominant culture — for whom most books are mirrors — it’s important to also read books that are windows. This introduces other cultures and viewpoints to children, fostering empathy, appreciation and compassion.
Books featuring Chinese American culture and characters include "The Ugly Vegetables" by Grace Lin, "The Great Wall of Lucy Wu" by Wendy Wan Long Shang and "Apple Pie 4th of July" by Janet S. Wong. To discover more books with characters of color, check out the We Read Too app.
After hearing me speak, she exclaimed, 'Wow, you speak English well!'
Don’t think this matters? Last year while riding the lightrail in Seattle, a teenager asked me if I spoke English. After hearing me speak, she exclaimed, “Wow, you speak English well!”
If children are exposed only to limited images of Chinese — e.g. we’re all born overseas, do martial arts and excel at math — this will negatively impact their interactions with and further isolate the people being stereotyped.
I also recognize my role as a mother in shaping my kids’ perceptions of Chinese Americans. This responsibility compels me to seek roles and actions that defy stereotypes and demonstrate that we’re not invisible or submissive, and that we have a voice.
I want my kids to see me speaking up — for myself, for them, for others — even if it scares me. Whether or not someone else believes I have a place at the table, I believe I do. And as a result, I hope my kids also will have the confidence to believe that as well.
Beyond that, perhaps my actions will help to shape the world my children will inherit: a world where no one questions whether or not they belong.