scooters and a lesson about race

March 1, 2011 |  Category:   growing up half life parenting

We’ve pulled the scooters out now that the weather has been exhibiting Spring-like tendencies. Claudine was barely able to ride it when we put it away 4 months ago, but something must have happened during those few months. Maybe she’s grown into her body a bit more (or her “big fat head”, as she likes to call it), or maybe she’s a bit more coordinated. Whatever it is, she hopped right on there and started zooming down the street like she’s been doing it for years. Have to admit, it sort of makes me nervous seeing her go down a hill so fast. I mean, we didn’t have scooters when we were her age. We rode around the sidewalks in Big Wheels and that ride was looow to the ground. If you fell, you didn’t have far to go. But what we didn’t have were helmets. We rode around on Big Wheels, bikes, rollerskates, and skateboards, all without helmets. Hell, we didn’t even ride in carseats. The 70s were dangerous, I tell ya.

The girls and I had an interesting conversation the other day. They were pulling their eyes with their fingers like the way people do when they want to make fun of Asian people. I kinda just shook my head like, what? I asked them why they were doing that. They said it was because it looked funny and they were making funny faces. I told them that when people did that to me when I was a kid it hurt my feelings. They did it to make fun of me because I was Asian and I didn’t look like them. They got kind of serious and I didn’t see them do it again.

This afternoon on the walk home from school, Claudine randomly blurted out loud, “You shouldn’t pull your eyes with your fingers”. I asked her why. She said, “Because it makes fun of Asian people”. I was sort of surprised that she remembered. But then I paused and thought to ask her, “Do you know what an Asian person is?”. She replied no. Huh. I asked her, “Do you know any Asian people?” She just shrugged her shoulders. I told her that I was Asian, that Grandma was Asian, Grandpa, Aunt Jeanie, Uncle, and Aunt Dorothy. She smiled and laughed and said, “ohhh”. I told her she was Asian too and she giggled. Ok, so really, why would she know what Asian meant if I never explained it to her? She knows what Korean is about, but it’s not like we really discuss race issues, or maybe I should say, race really isn’t an issue in our lives for the most part. Most of her friends in the neighborhood are of mix race and that’s been a big reason why we choose Brooklyn to raise our kids.

I remember when Mia was this age and noticing that her nanny had darker skin color than our family. She was noticing a lot of differences in people at this age, actually, and I would pray that she didn’t blurt out something offensive in a public place, like say, the subway. I know kids sometimes state the obvious and it’s all done innocently (mostly), but sheesh, talk about prime opportunities for embarrassment. Then you feel like an ass because it looks like you don’t teach your kids about racial sensitivity, but in your defense, it might not be until these moments happen that you even realize that they notice and are able to articulate the differences in people. Mark sort of had that moment with Claudine the other week. They were in Chinatown when all of a sudden, she started looking all worried and walking with her head down. Mark asked her what was wrong and she replied that she was scared because everybody looked “strange” and was speaking in a different language. I was sort of surprised by this given that we go to Chinatown a lot, however, it made me realize that we needed to talk about it.

I don’t know if Claudine really gets it yet in the way that Mia now understands that she’s half Korean. Claudine’s been saying around the dinner table all night that she’s Asian-American and that daddy is just American. I was going to correct her and say that we’re all American and blah blah, but I got tired just thinking about all the explaining I’d have to do. I’ll put that off for another day.

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  • Jo March 1, 2011 at 1:45 am

    You know, it’s funny… I’ve never explained anything about race to my kids, I guess because it’s not really an issue for me, but I’ve had to explain to them not to say {loud} things about people because of their weight, or lack of hair, etc. I think it makes it easier because to me we are all human, and then the bits that look a little ‘different’ are just the things that make us who we are… and we’re all pretty special in our own way. Hopefully that attitude will just pass to my kids via osmosis : )

  • Jules March 1, 2011 at 1:59 am

    i recently found your blog and i’m hooked! i especially love the posts about raising your girls. my baby (not so much a baby anymore) is 14 months and reading your stories gives me a glimpse of what the future may hold. i also love their haircuts and maybe i’ll try it out on my little girl when her hair is long enough =)

  • yukot March 1, 2011 at 2:43 am

    i was told that it’s rude to point with fingers at people, so one time when i was 4 ish, i used my fist to gesture towards the man sitting behind me and my mom. he had a very red face. i was very confused when my mom told me that was rude.

    do you speak to your kids in korean? i am trying to only speak japanese to my half japanese son, but am dreading the day he starts to get embarrassed and refuse to speak it. it seems like that is a phase most bi-lingual kids go through, only to regret it once they are college-age.

  • Theresa March 1, 2011 at 3:45 am

    I have also been dealing with similar issues.  I am half black, half white (skin tone: think Halle Berry) and my husband is white.  We lived in a VERY mixed neighborhood and two weeks ago my 3.5 year old blurts out, “Mamma you are black, pappa you are white and I am white.  Right pappa!?”. What, what, what….!!!!  I was stunned into silence. The next day I asked her where she had heard/learned that I was black and she was white.  She just shook her head, almost nervously.  Then I asked her what color her little brother was… She thought for a long time and then said “orange”.  Thing is, he is much darker then she is.  You can pretty much tell that she is more then “just white” but she is very light skinned considering. So, what I think is interesting is how she sees/describes herself.  I asked at daycare and they said the issue has never been brought up.  I would love to talk more with her about it but don’t really know what to say yet.  Plus, she is soooo young.  Personally I had a lot of issues growing up being the only girl of color in school in Orange County, California (early 1970’s).    

  • Sally Kamille March 1, 2011 at 4:13 am

    I love the top photo 🙂

  • stuffedmice March 1, 2011 at 5:13 am

    I don’t have children and don’t ride a scooter so cannot really add anything substantial in my comment. But, as always, I enjoyed reading:)

  • siri March 1, 2011 at 6:30 am

    I really liked this post.

  • lilly March 1, 2011 at 6:51 am

    haha I really had to giggle reading your entry! I have to tell you that I love your stories, the way you’re writing, being so honest and human! I’m sure you’re doing a great job educating these girls.

  • Susan March 1, 2011 at 6:54 am

    The 70’s were dangerous-it’s amazing we survived. 😉

    What a beautiful lesson you taught your children, in a sweet and loving way.

  • Anna March 1, 2011 at 8:44 am

    Thanks for the post, Jenna! Having just given birth to a baby of mixed-race, I am interested in how this will eventually come up in our lives, and love how you approached this with Mia and Claudine.

    Newsweek ran a really interesting article a few years ago on race and babies/children. It’s a worthwhile read:

  • Laura March 1, 2011 at 10:04 am

    I have just recently found your blog as well and I love it. I also have mixed race children. Korean/Canadian. My husband is Korean. We have two girls too, two and four. It is nice to live a multicultural area. The city we are in wasn’t too multicultural back in the 70’s when I was a kid, but now it is. At my four year old’s preschool there are many different races of kids and I think that is so great, it has just become the norm. On another note, I am surprised I never ended up in the hospital as kid, we didn’t have seatbelt laws back in the 70’s/80’s so we rode around in the backseat, no carseats, no seatbelts, cringe…LOL.

  • michelle March 1, 2011 at 10:06 am

    ha! i had an interesting conversation just this morning with my (almost) 9 year old & 7 year old on the same subject. i am filipino & my husband is white. (although when my daughter was in kindergarten her teacher told her that all people were brown, just different shades). it went a little something like this:

    * 9 year old: can twins be different colors?
    * 7 year old: yeah, like on “pair of kings” ( a new disney program where one twin is white & one is black)
    * me: not possible.
    * 9 & 7 year old: but on the show the mom is black & the dad is white!
    * me: well i’m filipino & your dad is white and all 5 of you are the same, right?
    * 9 year old begins listing which family members he thinks are filipino & which ones he thinks are white
    * 7 year old: right! except ate madeleine (her big sister who is almost 17) told me that she was adopted.

  • angie March 1, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Aww, wow, this story takes me back to when I was a kid. I too, am half Korean and grew up in a very small town in Kansas, with mostly ignorant farm kids. I was the only “minority” in my whole town and was constantly a target of some very mean spirited torment. I had a hard time coming to terms with who I was because my parents split up when I was only 3, and my (caucasian) father remarried a caucasian woman (my stepmom) and I never had a relationship with my Korean mother. Now 28, I love and embrace my culture so much and feel very special about my Korean heritage, through my own interest. Reading this about your girls is a nice reminder of feeling special about being different, but also realizing how “American” I am as well, and how I want to raise my kids someday 🙂 Btw, I’m always exploring in Brooklyn and would love to meet up sometime! Maybe you can teach me some Korean cooking (i’ve only attempted Bulgogi so far!) 🙂

  • Annie March 1, 2011 at 10:50 am

    … what is it with the scooters? my 3year old is like a maniac on it.

    and regarding race, I never gave it to much though, until the day my girl asked me when she will turn brown, like me, and her tita (grandma)…it became and obsession with her. She got a freckle and asked me if it will grow and make her brown. She will ask me if she ate brownies she will be brown… eventually she gave up. She gets it that I am not from here and may say things incorrectly, she gets that my family is not here and that we all speak Spanish and her too (in her mind everyone speaks 2 languages) But she doesn’t get it that she is half Colombian.

  • Carolee March 1, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Wow, I never would have thought about something like this. At least in the “new” generation, inter-racial kids are are cool thing. They’re definitely the most beautiful! I wanted to marry a Caucasian guy so that we could have beautiful halfies but ended up marrying a very Korean looking dude. Now we’re gonna pop out the most Koreanese looking kids ever, but oh well =) That’s not important!

  • yossy March 1, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    I come from a multiracial (Iranian/American) home, but don’t remember my parents addressing race with my brother and I. I had a few friends with the same ethnic background when I was very young so it didn’t seem odd to eat the food we ate or hear different languages spoken at home. It wasn’t until high school, when I moved from a diverse/urban school district to a suburban (90% white) one that I realized just how unique my family is. I didn’t even know my dad spoke English with an accent until one of my friend’s told me they couldn’t understand anything he said, when I was 16! Ha!

  • Stephanie March 1, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    We’re at a stage where our daughter is very aware of similarities and differences… especially those that relate to race. My wife and I are white and white/Mexican and our daughter is African-American. We’ve tried to point out differences and similarities since she was a baby and she’s finally at an age where she’s vocalizing more of what she understands. Yesterday at the park she was playing with a little African-American boy the same age and stopped mid-play to yell over to us “He has black skin like me!”

  • aqua6 March 1, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    The same author mentioned in the first linked article, Po Bronson just spoke at our preschool last month. He had a book out a year or two ago called NutureShock, well worth reading. Each chapter is a different topic but one is talking about race. The points I most remember are that white parents tend to talk least about race, figuring kids will work it all out on their own. The clearest thing he said though was when reading to your toddler, you point out the colors of all sorts of things but often avoid skin color.

    I asked my almost-3 year old the other day what color crayon looked closest to her skin tone. She found one that was close but then decided she wanted to be blue instead. 🙂

  • Claire March 1, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    Wow, great topic! My daughter was pulling her eyes like that the other day while we were waiting to pick up my son from school. There has been a couple Asian girls playing in the schoolyard near the car so when I saw her do it I immediately asked her why she was pulling on her eyes like that. She said “Because those girls have beautiful eyes and I want mine to be beautiful.” In that moment I wasn’t sure if the right thing to do was tell her that some people use that to tease and hurt so don’t do it or let it go and agree with her that Asian women (and men) have beautiful eyes. This time I agreed with her. I hope that wasn’t wrong, but I really was glad that she was noticing and appreciating how beautiful the girls were.

  • plum March 2, 2011 at 3:44 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your life. Can relate so much that it really helps to fill the void. I always like to say BOTH. Somehow describing my daughter and her friends as half this & half that always seems to imply that they’re not quite… know what I mean? So I always tell her she is both english & chinese. Again, thank you for your lovely blog. London winters are very long, soggy and grey.

  • Jen Kim March 2, 2011 at 12:14 pm

    i was really touched by this post, sounds like you’re doing a great job talking with your girls. i was teased so much when i was little with the eye-pulling thing, very hurtful. but it’s so cute to hear about how kids conceptualize things like race. adorable pics too!

  • becky March 2, 2011 at 2:27 pm

    hi jenna- i’ve never commented before but i love reading. can’t help but notice the gorgeous colors in these photos. it this the 35mm f/1.4 lens?

  • Jenna March 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    Thanks for the comments, guys. It’s nice to hear other people’s take on things.

    @Becky, I use the 50mm 1.4

  • Lauren March 2, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    Jenna –
    I think it’s great that your girls are innocent about the possible inference of making squinty eyes. I am a Gen-Y (28 yrs. old), and was raised in NOVA with every color and race. I didn’t experience racism until I moved further South in middle school. I’m glad I was that naive because I feel that I was truly raised in a post-racist upbringing for a time (also raised on Sesame Street). It’s been great because me and my siblings do not care about race at all, and only use those that do care (whether they are racist or have a chip on the shoulder) as fodder for our humor.

  • FunkySteph March 3, 2011 at 7:02 am

    I am living in a very small country (400k people) and many, many couples here are multicultural, multirace couples… We are a French-Belgium family living in none of our native country and our son is going to an English school. In my company out of 600 people we are around 45 different nationalities, which is very common here…. Many people speaks at least two languages, but most commonly three… But still… I think it is not easy to raise children with open minds and no fear of others…. I like Plum’s comment yes our children are not half, half but both or many…

  • Karen March 3, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    Such a good topic to ponder…my American Jewish brother is married to my favorite Korean woman, and they have two children, 12 & 9. There is nothing serious about my brothers, which makes for a very fun, very cool father, and a slightly painful husband at times, I’d guess. My very first phone call to him to congratulate him on the birth of his son was met with a very happy daddy who exclaimed that he made a “halfsie”. The name stuck, irreverent though it was, and I now have the pleasure of hearing my brother call across the market – “hey you! Halfsie kid! grab bananas, will ya?” Is it disrespectful to others? Probably. Does it make me cringe? Yes, it does. But, I have to say, what I’ve come to admire about my brother and his candid, frank ease with this name is that it’s true, it’s said with love, and it always makes the kids, my brother and his wife crack up. There’s such levity and joy in their house, and it’s clear that everyone is comfortable with who they are and where they came from.

  • kaci March 3, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    Even adults don’t get it. I think people really should ought to know the difference between ethnicity and nationality.

    I’m Canadian. Ethnically, I’m half European (German, Swedish, Finnish) and half Chinese. However, I’ve been told I look more “asian”, whatever that means. Since I look more asian, people are often curious where I’m from. They’d be like “Where are you from?”, and I would say, “Canada”. And then they’d be like, “No, really, where are you from?”. This doesn’t happen in Canada, only when I’m travelling, by the way. They obviously want to know my ethnicity.

    And it still annoys me that people have an image of North America (Canada and United States mainly) as a “white man’s country”. Um, no. Both Canada and the States are colonized lands. Those “white people” came from somewhere. And I really hate the term “white people”. I always call myself half European–not because it sounds cooler / more sophisticated but because when we talk about ETHNICITY I’m AM half European. Canadian (or American) is not an ethnicity, it’s a nationality…and people just don’t get that.

  • carolyn March 3, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Hi Jenna, I’ve been thinking about this issue too lately. Pema asked me to read a chapter in a book the other day and it has this elf character named “Chinky” (it’s an Aussie classic). Even though it’s not at all racial, I still hate this book for having that name and have refused to read it as I can’t say that word without feeling the anger and shame I did as a kid. I explained the same thing to her just like you did with the eyes. I will be interested to see the children’s reactions when we visit Brooklyn. There are Asian families here, but virtually no Hispanics or people of African descent. Sometimes when I ask Pema what she remembers about Brooklyn she talks about “all the Aboriginal people there”.

  • Visty March 3, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    I had to have a very different kind of conversation with my older kids recently about pulling eyes out of shape. My son was doing it (and a host of other things to his face) just to look silly, and I knew he was as far from thinking of Asian people as he could possibly be, but I felt I had to bring it up. I didn’t want him doing it at school where someone might think he was making fun of Asian kids. The look of complete bewilderment on his face during my big talk was confirmation of how sad it is we even have to have these talks. He’s 13 though, so he understood how not only is it important to not make fun of people, but it’s also important (after a certain age of innocence has passed) to not even APPEAR to be making fun of people. The hurt feelings could still happen, even if unintended. I didn’t want him sitting in the corner of the lunchroom twisting his eyes while pretending to be a Bionicle while others thought he was doing something else.

  • bronwyn March 6, 2011 at 11:19 am

    Love this post. My 4 year old is half Chinese. My mother and father in law speak very limited English and she really started noticing this in the last year or so. Now she is just totally fascinated with languages. But there was a period of a few months where she was really frustrated by not being able to communicate very well with her a-ma and ye ye. We live in a predominantly Chinese neighborhood – it’s often referred to as Little Chinatown – and have for her whole life. One day a few months ago she had a total freak out walking around our neighborhood. She started crying and saying “Everybody is speaking a different language! No one is speaking my language!” I was shocked! I think that was at the height of her frustration with the language barrier with her grandparents. But still. This was the language that half her family speaks to her in and she considered it “not hers”. What do you do with that? She knows that she comes from mama and daddy and she knows where mama’s ancestors come from on a map and where daddy came here from. But I wonder how much she identifies with either side. It’s hard to tell with a four year old. I do know that ever since the new year, she’s been all about “Chinese” things. They did a lot of projects at school and she was dazzled by all the lion dancers she saw around the city.

  • IrisMES March 10, 2011 at 9:10 am

    Loved this post, I have a 4 year old son and when you say sometimes you were terrified of what your daughter might say in very public places I totally get this. I’m Latin, dark skin wavy hair etc, my husband is too nevertheless his family is Spanish so he looks pretty Caucasian to the simple eye. My son went through an awkward faze when he’d state to every living thing he didn’t like “brown” people and the only “brown” people he liked were “papa” who is my father and myself. I felt humiliated, though everybody just laughed it off. We got through this face alive thankfully, but it is pretty astonishing at how perceptive they can be at this age.