Friday, November 14, 2008

That's Why I'm Turning Japanese*

(In which a white girl waxes inappropriately about race and ethnicity.)

"Do you think I look kind of Japanese, mommy?" Lana asked me yesterday.

We were sitting in a Lebanese restaurant, and she was eating hummus and chicken schwarma at the time.

Which kind of made the whole thing feel that much more surreal.

(I do suspect I am raising the only Vietnamese-Episcopalian-Schwarma-Addicted six-year-old in the Midwest. I could be wrong, though.)

I didn't know what to say.

The truth is, I don't think she looks Japanese AT ALL.

I've been told (repeatedly) by people who are Vietnamese, Chinese, and Korean, that she does not "look Vietnamese". (Vietnamese and Chinese people tell me she looks Chinese. Korean people tell me she looks, "a little bit Korean." Is there any appropriate way to respond to this? Anyone? Please? The worst was a Vietnamese guy who looked at her and said, flat out, "She's NOT Vietnamese!") (Dude! She TOTALLY is. I swear.)

But, I do know that I lived in Japan, and, to me, my child doesn't look Japanese. (In fact, last summer, when we were at the water park with our Japanese exchange student, and the life guard asked Miho to keep a hold of her sister's hand, my first thought was, "they look nothing like sisters!" (Which is ridiculous, when I let myself think about it, because she doesn't look like her brother either. Obviously). (Photographic evidence of the two of them not looking anything alike below.) (Although, admittedly they ARE both wearing horizontal stripes. It IS amazing no one asked if they were twins...)

But, back to Lana's question.

Ultimately, I took a bite of hummus and I said, "Why?"

And Lana said, "Sadie** says I look kind-of Japanese." (I find this very interesting, because Sadie's parents are from Hong Kong and Thailand. Well, actually they are from Vancouver, but, via Hong Kong and Thailand.)


So, I said, "Well, I don't think you look Japanese. I think you look Vietnamese." (This is a lie on my part, because I don't really feel like I have enough knowledge to say that I think she looks Vietnamese or not. But, it IS where she is from, and I feel like she should feel secure in her identity.)

"Do YOU think you look Japanese?" I asked her a few minutes later.

"No. I think I look like Lana."

Well...that much is absolutely true.

LM

* The Vapors, Turning Japanese

**Sadie is not her real name

8 Comments:

Blogger SunnyDays said...

Yeah, I have a Japanese husband and a whole bunch of Japanese relatives, and I would not say that she looks Japanese. If I saw her and didn't know, I would guess Vietnamese. (But then, I'm a white gal, so for what that's worth.)

But we expect to have a version of this issue... Trying to figure out how we'll respond to comments about "She looks just like her Daddy" when clearly she won't look like her adoptive Daddy (and whether she looks like her Birthdaddy will be a mystery).

Friday, November 14, 2008 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Melissa said...

Thanks for the reference to the song, I'd never heard it looked it up and really liked it. It's kind of catchy, maybe weird, but catchy.

As long as she knows she looks like Lana that's all that matters, right?

Friday, November 14, 2008 11:52:00 AM  
Anonymous rachel said...

Ava and Tim both get comments like that all the time (Sera's VN heritage has never been questioned). They have never been questioned on their ethncity by caucasians, only other Asians. Most of the local Cambodians we know say Ava does not look Cambodian - usually they say Vietnamese, sometimes they're just confused by her features. And other Asians we know often tell Tim he does not look Vietnamese - usually they tell him he looks Cambodian or Filipino. This is actually one of the things that has really bothered Tim, as it brings front and center the fact that he doesn't know his ethnic roots. (He's pretty sure he's not Filipino, but he was born on the border of Cambodia.)

But, then again, there are so many ethnicities within each country, I think it's hard to know what terms like "Vietnamese" really means when it comes to someone's physical features.

I think it's good to concentrate on Lana's Vietnamese heritage, regardless of comments concerning her ethnicity. That is what we have done with Ava as well. No need to add more identity issues.

Friday, November 14, 2008 12:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Elaine said...

I've had people tell me Tank Boy looks Chinese. I've had Chinese people ask me if he's Chinese. Then there was the guy the other day who wanted to know the difference between Koreans and Vietnamese. But also? Somebody asked me a few weeks ago if I am French (in heritage, obviously, since I don't sound French). And so that makes me wonder, how much of my boy's indentities do I really want invested in where they came from? Scandalous, I know. Obviously we will teach them about where they came from, but how wrapped up in all that do I want their identities to be? Someone thought I looked French (whatever "French" looks like), and I couldn't have cared less. While I want the boys to know where they are from, I hope it won't bother them if somebody thinks they look like a different ethnicity; and if it does bother them, I hope I can help them get to a place where it doesn't. Not that you said it bothered Lana, I'm just thinking out loud on your blog. I should probably save it for my own. sorry.

Friday, November 14, 2008 1:50:00 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

I think Lana summed it up perfectly! :)

Friday, November 14, 2008 2:04:00 PM  
OpenID mrsbroccoliguy said...

When I went to college in downstate NY I got really good at distinguishing the different NYC accents - like I could tell Bronx from Brooklyn and both from Long Island. It's sort of like that for me with races - I can tell a Cambodian from Vietnamese from Japanese from Korean - but that's because I know people from these countries. I probably couldn't distinguish Laotian from Filipino. (Similarly I'd have a hard time distinguishing which country a European was from). Which is all to say I can see why it bugs people, but I also understand why strangers might guess wrong. But then I wonder why people try to guess in the first place. And I think Lana's right - she looks like Lana. :-)

No doubt though many of our kids will deal with extra identity issues because they look like one ethnicity but are growing up with another. And I think you handled the conversation with Lana very well.

Friday, November 14, 2008 3:28:00 PM  
Blogger mam said...

Haven't been able to get that friggin' song (which I know very well, thank you very much) out of my head ALL DAY. Thanks for that!

Friday, November 14, 2008 4:36:00 PM  
Blogger Dianne said...

There are Vietnamese women who work at a local restaurant and they insisted to us that she is not Vietnamese, she is Chinese. We didn't know what to say. She was born in Vietnam, she really was. They haven't said anything to us since she's been older and I am thankful for that because I don't know what I'd say.

Saturday, November 15, 2008 9:23:00 PM  

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