When my son was just six months old, it happened. I decided that he would learn Chinese. Seems like a logical decision to make for any Millennial parent, right? Well, it would be if I was Chinese, but I’m not. I’m Black, and my son’s father is a very fair-skinned redheaded White guy with freckles. Not the exact genetic combination you’d think of for the next English and Chinese speaking mastermind, I know!
To be honest, I knew very little about the Chinese language or the culture for that matter. Other than the local take-out menu my Chinese expertise only extended to egg rolls and shrimp fried rice.
But, nonetheless, I made the decision, and I was sticking with it. Over the next three years, I spent hundreds of hours searching for language resources, schools, and tutors – digging for any and everything I could get my hands on to get my son immersed in Chinese.
But, I was the only one excited for my son’s new bilingual journey. His dad, not so much. To him learning another language was downright un-American, a slap in the face of everything our English language represented. A crime, worse than burning the flag!
So, I did what any strong-willed, open-minded, future-thinking mom would do – I listened, nodded my head, and then taught my son Chinese anyway.
Everything seemed on track. My son was reading Chinese characters, responding to his teacher in Chinese, even teaching me a few things.
And, then I got a text from a friend and everything changed…
It read, “Hey! How’s the China man?”
“The China man? Who’s that?” I thought. Was the text meant for me? I’m Black, so I can’t be the “China man.” And then it dawned on me. They were referring to my son. To tell you the truth, while I did see a funny side to it, I also found it vaguely inappropriate. Actually, more than vaguely. It made me completely uncomfortable.
My son is biracial, but he’s not Chinese, and could never be mistaken for such. But her text did make me wonder how others view him. In my mind, his bilingual ability would be a huge asset as he grew up. But, would others see it in the same light? After all, there’s enough discrimination in the world, as it is. And, to think that I had unwittingly made him more susceptible to discrimination made me sick to my stomach. Even worse, had my son already experienced it at school?
I sat my budding linguist down, and we talked about race. Well, as close to the subject as I could get for a pre-schooler. I didn’t want my son to think that something was “wrong” with him for being different. So, I approached the subject with extreme caution. Knowing that he was the only non-Asian at his Chinese immersion school, I was terrified, to say the least. But, I pulled up my big girl panties and asked him.
“Do you feel the same or different from the other kids at your school?”
“I feel different.” (At this point I’m starting to sweat)
“OK. In what way?” (Holding my breath)
“I’m the only one with curly hair. And…” (Now, ready to vomit)
“And, what else?”
“Well, I like tacos, but they never give me tacos at school!” (Smile and exhale)
“Ahh, I see. You have curly hair, and you like tacos. Well, what about the other kids?”
“They have straight hair and like rice. Like a lot of rice.” (Hug and repeat the conversation another day)
Those precious moments with my son, albeit some of the scariest minutes of my life, taught me an invaluable lesson about race and our differences. It made me reflect on some key points that I had overlooked. So, if you’re in a similar situation, sitting down with your young child about to hash out race relations in the U.S., here’s my two cents:
- Yeah, they called him a “China man,” but so what! If they’re talking about you, then they’re leaving someone else alone. And kudos to you for getting them talking, you must be doing something right. Who cares whether my child is learning Chinese, Arabic, or no second language at all? Our kids are who they are. And they are ALL magnificent.
- Talk to your child before the world does. Remember, it is our differences that make life much more interesting. No one rushes home to watch paint dry. We need excitement, intrigue, and being different brings all of this.
And, if my two cents fail you, just mutter a couple of curse words under your breath (in a different language, if you can) and keep on carrying on. I know me and my “China man” sure will!