What are they?

‘What are they?’ They’re our kids

March 31, 2007 – Dianne Scott

The clerk smiles at me as I hand her the watch I want to purchase. I see her look over at my daughter in her stroller.

“What is she?” the woman asks.

My smile freezes. I quickly review my options. Play stupid? Ignore her? Scream: “She’s a little girl, for Christ’s sake.” I decide to get it over with. “She’s half Korean, half English,” I respond.

The clerk nods and smiles at Claire as she takes my money. Unaware that I’m this close to strangling her with my purse strap.

As I push the stroller out of the store, I wonder what exactly angers me about the woman’s question. Is it because people still seem surprised that a child could be parented by a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian and a brown-haired, brown-eyed Asian?

Is it so weird that two different races – or cultures or whatever anthropological name you want to give it – get together and procreate?

We aren’t in Hicksville. We live in Toronto, one of the most diverse cities in the world, an urban centre of 3 million whose philosophy is tolerance, respect and acceptance. In Canada: a country known for its open-armed multiculturalism, for its international peacekeepers.

Sure, when I was first dated my husband Michael, I was aware that people stared at us sometimes. “Look at the interracial couple,” I could sense them thinking. Michael said people noticed us because they weren’t used to seeing a Caucasian woman with an Asian man.

So I was used to a bit of staring. But now, as a mother, the comments by strangers were driving me insane.

“Hey, is she mixed?” was a common query. A mix of what? I felt liking retorting.

As if there was a human pedigree. As if cultural homogeneity was the gold standard. So, are you pure-bred Asian or a mongrel? No cross-breeding, please!

In a billion years, if we are still alive, we’ll be one big global village teeming with brown-haired, brown-eyed and honey-brown skinned people.

As my husband likes to remind me: dominant brown genes kick the ass out of blond, blue-eyed recessive genes any day.

Aside from questions on genetic pedigree, my second favourite comment from strangers is: “You got her from China!”

The first time a woman congratulated me on my adoption, my mouth dropped. Claire’s labour flashed in front of me: 20 hours of contractions, a placental abruption, no fetal heartbeat, emergency C-section, and two days in intensive care. Add another nine hours of labour and another C-section for my son Matthew.

Yep. I’m their biological mom, all right.

Last, but not least, I love when strangers attempt to guess my children’s “mix.”

“Look, Chinese boys!” a man declares with glee, pointing at my two children in the library. After the first shock, I ignore him, and continue to read to my kids. He repeats himself, loudly; patrons at adjacent tables look over. My children look from me to him, confusion on their faces.

“They are not Chinese,” I finally respond, hoping to get rid of him “They are Korean. Half Korean.”
He continues to stand in front of us. I try to get rid of him.

“She’s a girl,” I say, pointing at my daughter. “He’s a boy,” I say pointing at my toddler. The man stands there for another couple of seconds before leaving.

I don’t know why it is acceptable for a stranger to approach me and debate, question, or proclaim my children’s ethnicity. Whether it’s a Filipino nanny. Chinese store clerk. Caucasian shopper. Or that guy in the library, who was black.

Really, I’m happy to talk with people I’ve known for more than two seconds about cultural issues, biracial parenting, interracial relationships. It’s just that my children’s racial makeup is not the singular, remarkable thing about them. Relentless comments on this one trait just highlight and solidify the big racial divide.

I need a better comeback.

Should I swear at them? Tell them to mind their own business? Ask if I know them?

How about:
“She’s my daughter. Her name is Claire.
“He’s my son. His name is Matthew.”

Dianne Scott is a Toronto writer. Write life@thestar.ca.