My little family is racially diverse, and it starts with me. I’ve had people talk about my race since I was a child, but it’s always been a guessing game. When I was little, strangers would come up to my mom and ask her if my brother and I were adopted from Italy and tell her she was a good person for adopting us. I remember a time when my brother and I were sitting outside a card shop and a woman stopped to say, “I bet you don’t get those cards in Mexico.” I remember someone asking me if I was a Persian princess. People have always wanted to guess so badly what I am. I just let them guess. It takes many, many guesses. So I have dealt with people’s fascination of race for a while now. I admit, I do have a unique look. I have dark hair, dark eyes and pale skin. You would never guess that I am half Vietnamese and half Caucasian.
I loved growing up biracial. I had two cultures to learn and grow from. I’m sure other kids in school couldn’t master chopsticks by the time they were in kindergarten like I did. We had an extra holiday to celebrate. We celebrate Vietnamese New Year (Tết) and got our lucky red envelopes. I didn’t have to go out for “Chinese food” like other kids because I had the real deal fresh at home. I grew up eating Vietnamese food every other day, while the other days were classic American foods.
My dad spoke Vietnamese in our home, but he never taught the language to us (biggest bummer ever – if you know a second language, please teach it to your kids). I know some basic words, numbers and phrases though. I went to school where the majority of students were white, so I was more than your typical light hair and light eye kid. I remember in first grade my teacher brought me up privately to the front of the room. She wanted to let me know that she had a sister who was half Asian like me and that we are unique and beautiful. I grew up feeling unique, and I loved that.
However, I always have and still feel like I have to prove my race. It was kind of like, “Hi, I’m Erin, and I’m half Asian. Now let’s move forward.” My favorite accessory that I wear everyday is my jade necklace which is a cultural Vietnamese stone. I received my jade from my parents and the chain from my grandparents in Vietnam. It is thought to bring good luck and safety to the wearer as well as being simply beautiful. An Asian man at work questioned why I was wearing a jade necklace as if I shouldn’t be because I’m not Asian like him. I’ve had many experiences where I feel like I’m not Asian enough but also not white enough. You learn to grow some thick skin in those instances. I’m half and half, but 100% me.
Now fast forward to my current family life. I married my husband Jakin who happens to be 100% Caucasian. What will our kids look like? I thought it would be so cool if they looked more Asian than me! There was always a chance! Will I look like their mother? Will he look like their father? Three boys later and none of them look Vietnamese. I have two with blonde hair and light eyes, but my oldest boy looks the most like me with brown hair and brown eyes. My experiences have been like my mother’s where her children didn’t look like her at all. I am always questioned if I am their mother. My race is still a guessing game. I was offered the “Spanish” tablet at my son’s school during open house recently. It’s times like these where I wish I looked Asian, so people would stop guessing all the time. One thing is for certain, no one will ever guess or believe that my boys are Asian.
My son recently experienced his first situation questioning his family. My dad went with my son to his school party and the teacher was a little confused as to who he brought with him. She asked him if his grandpa was his “friend.” So, I felt the need to ask him how that made him feel. He said he corrected his teacher right away and said that he was his grandpa. I told him that not only is he Vietnamese, but his grandpa and mom are too. You may not look like grandpa, but your genes are from Vietnam.
I am raising my kids just like the way I was raised. My 7-year old can use chopsticks better than anyone in his class, my kids love eating Pho (Vietnamese soup) and eggrolls. We go “home” every weekend to eat Vietnamese food with my parents. We are celebrating Vietnamese New Year in a couple weeks and my kid’s cant wait to get their red envelopes (Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!). My kids know about the same amount of Vietnamese as I did growing up. My youngest, with a speech delay, can actually count better in Vietnamese than in English. We use Vietnamese when we are using the public restrooms so no one knows what we are talking about. We hope to all go back to Vietnam one day and we can visit our aunts, uncles and cousins that are there. I liked being unique growing up so I am hoping my kids don’t mind that I am raising them with Vietnamese culture as well as American culture. My husband is all for the kids knowing and living their Vietnamese heritage.
We celebrate being Vietnamese however we can. It is a part of me and will hopefully be a part of my children’s lives. We are an Asian family who doesn’t look one bit Asian, but we are living out who we are. Please don’t forget to look beyond appearances when it comes to diversity as it’s the experiences in your life and your culture that make you equally diverse. Diversity is all around us and it’s all so unique. Like the old saying goes, you can’t always judge a book by it’s cover. The contents may surprise you.