I’m Not a Vegetarian. I’m Chinese!

Have you seen this video yet? Fascinating. And disturbing.

 

It’s the type of thing that I’d comment, “WTF” on Facebook, SMH, & then move on. But nope. Today, I write a blog post because, WTF.

One day when our oldest daughter was in preschool, I got a call from her teacher, Katie.

“Today Zoë wanted to try some of another kid’s turkey, but I noticed that you guys rarely pack meat in Zoë’s lunches. I asked her if she was a vegetarian, & she laughed & said, ‘I’m not a vegetarian! I’m Chinese!'”

Katie & I had a good laugh over that one. Kids. They really show you what they think of themselves.

I’m first-generation, American-born Chinese. My parents are originally from China but spent their adulthood in Taiwan; they immigrated to the United States when they were in graduate school, & we’ve lived both stateside & overseas. My husband is Caucasian, born in Texas, raised in small-town Maine. His family has been in America since the Mayflower. Somehow, despite the differences in our childhood experiences, we two are kindred spirits.

When Zoë was 5 & declared herself to be Chinese & not a vegetarian, I don’t think we’d ever really talked to her about her mixed-race heritage, being Asian or white, or being an American. I think I was a little busy worrying about soy vs. dairy & whether or not My Baby Can Read was going to work (still not sure). When Katie told me what she said, I realized we had never covered the topic consciously or explicitly. And I wondered if we should.

AIM Mixed Race Family

We “Chinese” people. (Photograph by Desiree Asher Photography. I love this photograph. Aw, look at us…)

I subscribe to the belief that “what we focus on expands.” And I have feared that the focus on race in our family might lead to more issues or negativity than otherwise. We’d kind of been operating on the basis of, “You are who you are, & it’s awesome, & other people are awesome too.” Period, no qualifiers.

So, we had a little convo with Zoë that day, & it also came up that she thinks “we” are all Chinese–Daddy included. And I didn’t correct her right away, because I wanted to find out what “Chinese” meant to her. And as only a 5-year-old can, she explained herself in phrases & terms that I didn’t totally get. I think it meant we’re a family, & we are “we.”

Occasionally, the topic of moving to Maine has come up. Max & I always talk about it with a lot of enthusiasm & idealism: It’ll be great for the kids to have lots of nature! They’ll be able to play outside. They’ll love the seasons & the snow! They’ll be close to grandparents. They’ll learn can-do, country skills! No traffic! The cost of living will be so much more affordable than living in a Big City! Max is understandably wistful & nostalgic & longing to give his own children the idyllic upbringing he had in Small Town, America.

But I remember distinctly arriving in Maine the first time I visited there to attend my future sister-in-law’s wedding. I was the only person of color in the entire Bangor Airport. I think I usually wouldn’t notice, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been the only person of color anywhere I’ve been, since I’ve been living in Los Angeles foreverrrrr. It was the same feeling I had when I arrived in Taiwan when I was 12–but in reverse, because there, everyone looked like me (don’t get all crazy: not all Asians look alike alike, just keep reading). I’d never been in a majority population before. The truth is, I’m not comfortable with either end of extreme homogeneity. I’ve always been most at home in a really diverse environment like the one we live in now–populated with people of many ethnic backgrounds: whites, Hispanics, Asians & blacks from all different countries.

So, I told Max, “I don’t want my children to grow up in a town where their mom is the only person of color.” It would mean that the kids would be the only mixed race kids. I’m all about kids growing up feeling unique & having challenges that they overcome in the name of building character, but I remember very clearly what it was like to be one of three Asians in my elementary school in an area that is now ironically very Asian. Sharon Yamamoto & Mike Arai were both great at sports, which pretty much cements your social status in a Southern California suburb. I was not. I deeply felt my differentness in the 1970’s & 1980’s when Christie Brinkley & Cheryl Tiegs were the epitome of beauty. My only role model was newscaster Connie Chung. And the only other Asian women I saw on TV played prostitutes & refugees (you remember: M*A*S*H). So, in fifth grade, I decided I was going to go into broadcasting. Made sense.

And deep inside me, I don’t want my children to be led to believe that their non-white side is lesser than their white one. It’s very easy for this to happen, regardless of the model minority stereotype that comes with being Asian. America–& the world–has a long way to go with race relations. There are deeply ingrained prejudices that underlie the attitudes of the people that will come into contact with our children–their relatives, their teachers & coaches, their friends, their friends’ parents, their college admissions officers, their potential employers–attitudes most people won’t talk about, & when they do, it’s usually in a “political correctness be damned” kind of way, which really just means rude & self-righteous. Furthermore, our children will come in contact with attitudes that seem to represent people, but not through people–through social media & the news.

In Zoë’s class recently, the topic of Donald Trump’s racism came up. A student said, “If Donald Trump becomes president, he says he’s going to deport all the Mexicans.” Now keep in mind, this was said in the context that Trump’s views are actually repellent & wrong, but there was something about just those words that brought a real pall to the energy of the room. For the one Mexican-American child in the class*, I wonder how that felt for him. I think I know how it did, because for the 9-year-old me, it would have felt yucky. And I would not have had the words to express that feeling–or my indignation, or fear, or disgust, or bewilderment. As the parent teacher in the room that day, witnessing this discussion, I said, “Well, that’s not going to happen.” Because over my dead body.

Whether we like it or not, whether we want to admit it, prejudice is invisible & ubiquitous. That is what was so disconcerting about the video above. Where do children get these ideas? Most likely they are not consciously & explicitly taught them by their parents, though some may be, horrifying as that is to many of us.

And the teacher & parent in me always asks, “What can we do about this?” How can we raise kids not to have these prejudices about themselves & others? And if your own children are mixed race, how can you raise them to honor & celebrate all the components of who they are?

And I wonder, what would the kids in our community say if asked the same questions in that video, with a black doll, brown doll & a white doll? And for my kids, none of those dolls represents them either.

Zoë is 9 now, & she knows we are not all Chinese. I’m not sure when she discovered or determined that. I’ll have to ask her. I’ll report back.

* Zoë’s class has 5 kids in it (more about that another post when I will toot the horn of this amazing progressive school), & the breakdown is three Caucasian-Americans (one is half Iranian), one Mexican-American, one Amer-Asian.

 

 

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boobs & boundaries: the nexus of the sexual & the sacred

I came across this beautiful photo via Jade Beall Photography & the Women Hold Up Half the Sky pages on Facebook today. It was paired with this insightful quote:

“Breasts are a scandal because they shatter the border between motherhood and sexuality.”
― Iris Marion Young

Image

And therein lies the truth about the difficulty people have with breastfeeding (especially in public), & we have to face our culture’s inability to see women, men, & our body parts as prismatic, multi-functional, multi-dimensional. Boobs are the boundary between the sexual (woman) & the sacred (mother), the Madonna & the whore. Think about why calling someone a “motherf*cker” is such an insult…

It all started with Eve, all naked & that damned apple. Message: Being smart makes you a wicked bitch.

And then Mary, with her spontaneous reproduction. Message: Good girls don’t have to have sex to have children. Well, that’s helped a lot of young people practice safe sex (*note sarcasm*).

And so we come to breasts, that attract our lovers, that are erogenous zones, that have admirers for every shape & size, that are worshipped, augmented, encased in spandex, framed in sequins, that are soft, & weighty or perky & small. They are sexy or supposed to be sexy.

And when people have a problem seeing them in the mouth of an infant or toddler, those people confuse the sacred with the sexual. For those of you who see a breastfeeding mother & are repulsed, I know why. There are only two explanations: You are either imagining yourself as the mother with the breast being suckled, or you are imagining suckling her. It is the nature of human beings to project themselves onto others, & also to “mirror” those we see in order to understand or to judge. And yes, this is confusing the sacred with the sexual. And yes, this is YOU being confused. And yes, this is YOU being unable to fathom that this part of the body, like the mouth, or the hand, has more than one function–some sexual, some sacred, some just purely biological. The mouth can kiss, curse, pray, or eat. The hand can heal, hurt, or hold.

Most breastfeeding mothers will tell you there is NOTHING sexy about your breasts while you are nursing for those weeks or months or years. The cruel joke is that these full breasts, larger than they ever are when not nursing, are not for playing, not for husbands, not for touching. They belong to baby. They don’t even belong to the mother. They let down milk when your baby cries–completely independent of your own thought. Or, in conjunction with your thoughts about baby, your milk lets down. The mind-spirit-body connection is so clear when you’re nursing; & in that, the woman can embody the sacred & the biological all at once.

The breast is life. The symbol of the nursing Madonna is exactly that–the breast, the heart of mother is life. And life itself is at the nexus of the sexual & the sacred. Many years ago, during one of those long, oh-so-deep conversations that takes place in a roomful of college friends, someone asked, “Why does everything come down to sex?” And a friend answered, so simply, “Because it’s where we all come from.”

And when you say that breastfeeding is “disgusting” or “profane” or “indecent,” you’re saying that a mother is doing something sexual with her child. Anyone who thinks that is the disgusting one. Our entire culture needs group therapy to re-frame the breast in the collective mind.

the battle of the tomato (or how you can’t force a kid to love food)

Today on Facebook, I came across a provocative (& depressing) article that was shared via several parenting pages–an article about how one mom basically uses the “my way or the highway” approach to her 2-year-old when it comes to eating. You can read it here. And you can read all the opposing comments that are on two sides of the Food Battle: parents who applaud this mom for not taking any shit, & parents who are dismayed at her lack of empathy & sensitivity.

What disturbed me first about the article is that the writer posts a photo of her daughter at the dinner table–crying. She doesn’t use this image of her daughter to elicit any sympathy–she uses it to degrade her, make an example of her pickiness. I don’t see “pickiness” when I look at it though; I see suffering. I see a 2-year-old who, for whatever reason, is not enjoying mealtime. The mother says that, “Right now, every dinnertime, my desire for parenting is pitted against my daughter’s determination not to eat.”And her strategy? She tells her daughter, “Either eat or starve.”

Ironically, the mother says, “I view food and mealtimes as earthly communion. It’s our time to reunite, to talk, to eat,” but she immediately follows it with “and if you don’t like it, you learn to smile, wash your bites down with your milk, and hope dessert is good….[because] respecting mealtime is important. Not just for learning how to be part of a family, but because it’s one of the ways you are evaluated as a person. Want to go on a date? Inevitably you will share a meal. New job? You go to lunch with your co-workers. From interviews to friendships, most of life’s most important relationships are conducted through meals.”

Let’s look at the irony here: She hopes to teach her child to do well during personal & professional meals in the future by using snarky comments such as “tough” when her child makes a request for something that isn’t on the menu. I can just see how those conversations will go during an interview over a lunch. What this mom doesn’t understand is that she assumes her child will always be the subordinate, the one controlled–& that is how she currently wants it. She doesn’t think that one day, maybe her daughter will be the bitch that tells someone else their feelings don’t matter.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, my family went out to Sizzler, a mid-priced steakhouse, to eat. We didn’t eat out often, so it was a treat to go with my parents, my sister, & my grandparents. I ordered a hamburger which came with a very thick slice of beefsteak tomato on top of a piece of lettuce. I assembled my burger, dressed it, & enjoyed every bite. Except for the tomato. I couldn’t stomach tomatoes at all, & it had already been a problem at home, when my mom would prepare dishes with tomatoes–squash & tomatoes, liver & tomatoes, potato & tomatoes. At the end of the meal at Sizzler, I had eaten everything on my plate but that slice of tomato. As the meal wound down, my father told me, “You need to finish that tomato.”

I stared at him in disbelief & confusion. How did he not know that I didn’t like tomatoes? Like, couldn’t eat them. They made me gag. We had already been through this–many times at home. Did he not remember?

I told him, “I can’t.”

He said, “You will.”

And so the battle ensued. Horribly.tomato

Looking back, it’s amazing how much power a parent has over a child. I was not chained to the chair–but I stayed. I didn’t run away. (Many of the commenters to the blog post said, “She doesn’t force her child to eat,” but I ask: Does the child feel forced? Does the child feel like there are any other options but “eat & please my parent, or don’t eat & risk wrath/punishment, or starve”?) I cut a piece off of the tomato, put it in my mouth, & gagged. Tears welled up in my eyes from the taste & the frustration. I sensed with great gravity my father’s anger–& found it impenetrable. As I cried, my grandparents & mother started to protest, & my father angrily ordered them to go wait in the car.

At this point, the entire restaurant, crowded on a weekend night, could hear our battle. When I started to cry in earnest, the room went silent for those moments during which time seems to stop. Which only of course made it impossible for my father to back down. I stared through tears at this enormous slice of tomato for what seemed like an eternity. I knew I would throw up if I tried to eat it. I don’t know what it was about the taste of tomato that so turned my stomach, but it was visceral; it was not a choice, it was not pickiness. Did my parents think I would really “pick” for them to be so mad at me everytime a tomato was on the menu?

Finally, I came up with the idea to drown my tomato slice in–ironically–ketchup. Yes, I hated tomatoes, but I like ketchup. I cut the tomato into tiny pieces & ate each one with a huge dollop of ketchup. I got the tomato down. While choking back tears & the occasional wretch.

“See, that wasn’t so bad,” my father said.

Well, let’s see if it wasn’t so bad: It did not make me like tomatoes. It did not make me like my dad. It did not increase my appreciation for food “while so many children in Africa are starving.”

It wasn’t bad–it was horrible. In the moment, it was humiliating, confusing, & physically painful. In the long term, it always made me wonder what the point of it was. Why pick that battle?

10356523-happy-tomato-characterAnd so it is funny that sometime in college, I started to like tomatoes. On salads, in sandwiches. I developed a taste for them. A chef boyfriend of mine helped me discover that it was mostly the seedy, gooey part that I didn’t like. One time while visiting home, I voluntarily ate a tomato without any fanfare at a family meal, & my mother said, “I thought you hated tomatoes.”

“I like them now.” Cuz that just happens sometimes.

“See, it’s good I forced you to eat them,” said my father.

It was pointless to argue that that probably wasn’t the reason that I liked them now.

So, now I have a daughter, our second child, who really doesn’t care for a lot of kinds of food. She likes what she likes, & she doesn’t like a LOT of stuff–at least stuff that I prepare or buy. And while I do get frustrated after preparing a meal, & she wants no part of it, I try not to take it personally. It’s not about me. It’s about her taste buds.

So you know what wasn’t so bad about being forced to eat that tomato in Sizzler? I learned I’d never do that to my own kid. So in that way, Dad (bless you), it is good you forced me to eat it. 🙂