Matthew and I have had some interesting conversations lately regarding race, ethnicity, etc. These stemmed from an initial question last week in which he asked "Mommy, how come everyone always stares at us?". It brought me up short and made me realize that I have become immune to the stares, having grown used to our status as a "marked" interracial, obviously adoptive family. The new has worn off for me, where Matthew is just growing into the age of awareness of differences, and this new maturity has him recognizing more of the world around him, and how others react to him and with him.
Matthew has identified himself as being "black" for a long time, despite my best efforts to explain the differences in ethnicity and heritage. My obviously Asian son, who admittedly gets extremely dark skinned during the summer, sees things in a black and white world, and in his world I am white and he is black. We are different, and others stare.
Not trying to supply the answers for him and wanting him to think for a moment, I asked him what he thought, why he thought we were often the object of others' curiosity. He immediately came up with the answer I knew he would provide, "because we are different colors.". I asked him if this bothered him, that we were often stared at and he said "No, but I get tired of them staring.". I then took it further and asked him if he would prefer it if I looked more like him, if it would make life easier. He instantly giggled and said "No silly, then you wouldn't be my Mommy!", I then laughed and said "Good, 'cuz I have NO idea how I would ever get enough of a tan without burning to look more like you!". Having seen my lobsterlike sunburns after only a few minutes without sunscreen, Matt thought that was hilarious.
I realized though that he needed to know something else so I then asked him "Matthew, what would you do if a man walked in your school and had a peacock on top of his head?". He thought for a moment but wasn't quite getting the point. I then asked "Would you stare at him because he looks different? Do you remember staring at someone in a wheelchair, or when we saw twins, or when you saw that guy who had lost his arm? You stared at them because they were different, didn't you?". I saw the dawning of understanding as I watched him in the rearview mirror. I went on "It is human nature to stare at something that is different, you have done it a million times too. But being stared at doesn't really mean anything. It doesn't mean anyone is thinking something good or bad about you, it's just different and they are curious, just like you are.". He piped up then and said "I'll bet the guy with no arm gets tired of people staring too!" and I said that I'll bet he does, but that it isn't worth wasting any time thinking about it, that people are not really mean, just simply trying to figure out why we don't "match".
I'll admit though, at times it would be nice to go through life anonymously. When we are in Southern California, we are rarely given a second glance. But living in rural Colorado where the ethnic diversity leaves a lot to be desired has it's joys and challenges. Having a multi-cultural family in a county where the Asian population is less than 1%, well...it's easy to see why Matthew sees himself as black. He has rarely even seen an African-American person other than on TV. And being an Asian from Kazakhstan jumbles it all up even further. When we go to a Chinese restaurant, we get glances from others and I just know they are thinking "Oh, isn't that nice, they are keeping their sons connected with their culture by taking them out for food that is familiar." not knowing that my Kazakh sons would be more likely to be eating borscht than egg drop soup. The funny thing is that the Chinese waiters will watch us with a puzzled look on their face, as they can tell immediately that our sons are not Chinese, but they can't really figure out where they are from. At our favorite place in town, after our 3rd or 4th visit one of the waiters finally got enough nerve up to come over and ask us where the boys were from.
Sometimes, because I am so used to how we all look together, I actually have to remind myself so that I am more sensitive for Matthew's sake (Josh is too little to "get it" yet). I have grown used to our contrasting skin tones, to our different facial features. Sometimes, in my heart of hearts, I think more often about how beautiful my children are and how people must wonder how someone as unattractive as myself came to be their mother.
Each time we have adopted since Matthew, I have spent months looking at photolistings, and my eyes are drawn only toward the Asian children. It is funny, as the blonde haired, blue eyed kiddos that actually look much like my brother and I did as children don't captivate me. I'll see an Asian child and I'll say to myself "Oh, isn't he/she adorable!". It is what is familiar, it is what my children look like, it is Asian faces that I have lovingly wiped every day, kissed every day, and smiled with every day.
You know, it is a fine line we walk, as an interracial adoptive family. I want my boys to have an appreciation for their birth culture, to be proud of their ethnicity. I will never deny that they they are A) Not mine by birth, but are a gift from God that I have been allowed to have for awhile B) They had a life before we ever arrived, and we always acknowledge that fact C) We are different than some other families. I will not go through life pointlessly pining away for the time we didn't have them (which will be far more of a factor with Kenny than Matt or Josh), we will not go through life or teach them to go through life with a chip on our shoulders because others see us as different. We are, it's a fact, get over your Bad Self!!
But as much as I try to incorporate their culture into our family, just like we do my husband's Italian-ness, there is also no denying the fact that my sons are also thoroughly American children. Actually, they embody all that is America...they came here from somewhere else for a new life. So we all walk a tightrope of American-ness and Kazakh-ness, knowing that somehow Dominick and I are both a tiny bit Kazakh (and soon Kyrgyz) now in our hearts too. Ultimately, I guess the thing I want the boys to know more than anything is that black or white, asian or caucasian, nothing is as important as the love we all share, and the character they exhibit.
It will forever be a process, this understanding and embracing of all that they each are. We continue to teach and they continue to absorb. And the day my Asian son comes home with an Afro I'll realize that maybe I missed something...or...maybe not. After all, why CAN'T an Asian have an Afro???? It's America!!!