From “Chinese eyes” to Asian American

[To commemorate what is back-to-school time for many families, over the next month, Anti-Racist Parent will discuss education and race. You'll hear from parents teaching children to navigate race bias from fellow students and teachers, educators striving to be anti-racist teachers, and home-schooling moms working to develop diverse and anti-racist curriculum for their children. You'll learn how to help new college students maintain their sexual health. You'll read some whimsical getting-ready-for-school posts and more.

If you would like to submit a post related to race/education, send it to team@loveisntenough.com. The editorial team will review your submission for inclusion in our "carnival."

What follows is out first post in the series.]

written by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Margie Perscheid

I remember the day clearly. Our eldest child, our son, whom we adopted as an infant from Korea, was in kindergarten, and his younger sister, also Korean, was a toddler. A junior in college now, our son always loved school, more for the learning and intellectual challenge than for the social interaction. Still, he made good friends, starting right in that first year in kindergarten.

One day, he returned from school in a particularly active mood. I watched him as he ran around the house letting off the steam he had accumulated that day. I didn’t catch what he was saying at first, though, because it would never have occurred to me to expect it. But suddenly I noticed that he was pulling the corners of his eyes back, and was chanting “Chinese eyes! Chinese eyes!”

I was struck dumb, and honestly didn’t know how to react. It was clear that however this taunt was delivered, he hadn’t picked up on its negativity. Gently, I questioned him a bit, about where and how and who had taught him how to do this, but he said little. Perhaps I failed in my effort to remain casual; perhaps there was hurt under the surface that he was unwilling to share. All I learned was that his friends had been doing this, and it seemed OK to him to join in.

We stood side by side at the mirror as I explained how people were different, in the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, and in many other ways. We talked about why it was hurtful to tease people about any parts of their bodies, and he seemed to understand. But it was clear that he didn’t really get that the Chinese eyes game he’d been playing fell into that category. He didn’t understand that it was hurtful.

That day was my wake-up call. Until then, I’d focused on my children’s Korean heritage, and the traditional culture that was so easy to love. Looking into my son’s beautiful eyes, I realized that in school and in our community, he would never be seen through the prism of samulnori or kimchi; he would be seen as an Asian, and possibly the target of other people’s racism.

This experience encouraged our family to engage more deeply with the Korean American community. It was there, among Korean American friends, where I finally learned what my children’s experiences would be like as Asian Americans. Helping them develop the strong, proud identities my Korean American friends possessed became a focus of our parenting.

I brought our daughter to the airport this morning to board a plane to take her across the country to an orientation program at the college she’ll attend this fall. I asked her once what drew her to this university in particular, and she said without hesitation that its large Asian population and diversity were the most important factors. Our son is also at a school with a diverse population. In addition to his major, he is studying Asian languages, and plans to spend next summer in Japan and Korea to fine-tune his language skills. His open embrace of his identity is a wonderful thing to watch.

There are a lot of things I would have done differently as a parent, and lots of times I failed. But I’ll be forever grateful for the fact that when that wake-up call came all those years ago, my husband and I responded.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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