When we went home to visit my boyfriend’s family during college, it took me a while to get used to being the minority in the room. Not because I was uncomfortable with anyone around me, but because it drew attention to me. Attention to a very minor detail that I was tired of being pointed out. But apparently it was a big detail to others.
If you’ve ever been in an interracial relationship, you probably know what I’m talking about.
By the time the stares and comments die down, you’ve just mastered how to handle them with grace and charm. Not everyone means to pick on you; some are simply amused at the sight of a new face and ethnicity in the room.
But I’m not always feeling so graceful, or tolerant. Sometimes I’m hurt and embarrassed by the constant attention. Sometimes I can see the stares in my peripheral vision and hear the chatter in another language. I wonder if they’re talking about me, about my husband’s choice in a wife, or about my kid’s skin tone.
But many times they’re enamored of the differences and just as accepting as I’d hoped they’d be. It’s something I’ve had to learn to deal with, and my children will too.
I married the Cambodian love of my life eight years ago, and we now have two beautiful sons. And when I say beautiful, I mean it. They are the perfect mix of dark brown and porcelain. Their golden glow has my Norwegian glow in a jealous uproar.
I’m always surprised when I hear someone say my boys look like me, because aside from a few features, I think they look nothing of the sort. But it’s always nice to hear from time to time, since I’m often mistaken for their babysitter.
It’s disheartening to constantly be told how different I look from my children. As if I don’t know! Their Cambodian family calls them “white boys” because they aren’t as dark as the rest, and yet they’re a considerably darker color than my family. We are aware enough of our physical differences, and hear it enough from our own friends and family, that we don’t need to be told so by strangers, too.
Quite frankly, we don’t need to be told at all.
The only way I see my genes had anything to do with procreating my oldest son are the specks of sandy blonde in the light brown mop on his head. Because I’m blond-haired and blue-eyed, I somehow offset my husband’s dark features on that kid.
I can’t say the same for my youngest. He’s Cambodian through and through. But both are equally magical and hold pieces of us inside them that come out and shock us with pride every day.
I never thought much about how our kids would handle being biracial, because I never thought there was anything to handle. Being on the inside of this family, we don’t’ see the differences the way others do. Sure my kids point out my fair skin in comparison to their brown skin, but we function and behave like any other family.
Except all anyone else sees ARE the physical differences, and I forget about that sometimes.
But what I wasn’t prepared for – as I’m sure many aren’t – were the questions and comments from my own children. My oldest is seven, and as a biracial boy growing up in America, he’s constantly trying to understand how the Cambodian culture mixes and works with the American culture he experiences day to day.
He has many biracial friends, but their ethnicities are all different. He wants to know why we have to go to the temple and pray with the monks during ceremonies and holidays. He wants to know why his grandparents have such strong accents and can’t understand the American customs and norms the way others do.
While these are all valid questions and wonderful opportunities for education, sometimes the inappropriate comments flood out of his mouth faster than I have time to digest them. And I’m left feeling sad and defeated at the rejection he’s displaying of his own culture, or so I think.
My boys are the exact opposite of one another when it comes to cultural acceptance. My oldest cringes at the food, hates the smells, doesn’t understand a lick of Khmer, wants his grandparents to speak “proper English,” and until recently, couldn’t listen to the music without objection.
My 3-year-old, however, we believe was taken straight out of the rice fields of Battambang and placed with us in Central California. I assure you he wasn’t. He has an undeniable bond with my husband’s parents; he is in LOVE with the food, he sings and dances to the music, and even understands and speaks some Khmer words.
Night and day, I tell you.
But as I have always given deep thought to the explanation of all things Cambodian, American and everything in between, I realized something. The questions my son has aren’t weird, mean, inappropriate, or uncalled for. They are valid. His comments, on the other hand, might be, at times, but that’s because he hasn’t grasped the understanding of the answers yet. He’s still learning.
All children have the same questions about their own culture, no matter where they come from. Why do we do this? Why do we do that? The only difference in interracial families is that oftentimes we are living in a country where the culture in which our children stem isn’t always the normal practice. And that can create a lot of confusion and a ton of questions. The answers may not make sense right away, but with time and experience, they will.
As parents, we also need to take into consideration how the contexts of our children’s lives have been different from that of our own. It’s not rejection taking place, but a yearning to learn and understand something that isn’t and won’t be taught anywhere else but home. And that is CRUCIAL to understand.
It’s our responsibility as parents to answer the questions and teach the lessons to the best of our ability for however long it takes. And my sons will be OK. Your child will be OK. They will all be OK.
No one gives us parents an instruction manual on how to raise children the right way, and they sure as hell don’t give one on how to raise biracial children. It just takes a little more time and patience, and a realization that our children are so lucky to have the opportunity to be enriched by another culture, and have that culture be a part of them. And whether I knew it or not, that’s what I signed up for. And I’m so thankful I did.