The One Thing I Didn’t Know I Would Ever Have to Explain

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Mark, May 2017, Ottawa

As the official head of the parental communication team, I was fully prepared to help Mark read the fine print of life in society. I wasn’t afraid of tackling difficult questions—why you can’t marry mommy (didn’t work out well for Oedipus), why it’s not a good idea to kill bugs (because that’s serial killers 101 skill training), why you can’t have an iPhone (because we’re cheap), why the two guys over there are kissing, why everybody is beautifully different, and why we should all fucking respect each other. I was ready to explain how to make friends, how to make money, how to make life amazing, how babies are made and how avoid common troubles.

Seriously, you can ask me anything. Of course, I don’t have all the answers but I can try my best to provide acceptable explanations and perspectives on life. Mark is smart enough to figure out the rest.

However, I had no idea I would ever have to explain I’m not actually Chinese.

It started as a joke, one of these funny moments you can have with a four-year-old.

My in-laws speak Mandarin with Mark and although we mostly speak English at home, we also use a number of Chinese expressions—or sometime we speak Chinese just because. Mark understands the concept different languages now, so he likes to tell me what he learned at school in French and occasionally, this happens:

A few days later, I showed him how to write numbers in Chinese because he was tired of spelling “CAT,” “CAR,” “I LOVE BOOKS” and other words I teach him.

“Can you count in Chinese?”

“Yī’ èr sān sì wǔ liù qī bā jiǔ shí!”

“Right, so yī’ èr sān are easy… see, 一二三. Now, it gets a bit more complicated. 四… I’ll help you for that one. Then五,六,七… yes, it looks like a seven upside down. And 八, 九,十.”

“Shí looks like, the… the church thing!”

“Oh, a cross. That’s right.”

At one point, I laughed. “Okay, that’s it for me for now. This daddy’s job, after all!”

“Why?” Mark asked.

“Well, daddy is the designed Chinese of the household,” I joked.

Mark looked at me, puzzled.

I rephrased my joke. “Daddy is Chinese. So, daddy is probably a better resource than me to learn Chinese.”

Mark was still confused, so I used logic—or at least, what I thought was logical to the rest of us, and hopefully to Mark.

“Is daddy French?”

“Huh, no! Daddy is Chinese.”

“Right. How about me? What am I?”

“You’re French and Chinese.”

“I’m not Chinese!”

“Yes, you are.”

“Why do you think I’m Chinese?”

“Huh… because you’re my mommy. And you speak Chinese.”

I paused. How can I explain I’m not Chinese without resorting to stereotypes?

I can easily pass for Latina or Mediterranean but I look about as Chinese as Trump looks Jamaican. With their usual bluntness I have come to accept and enjoy, the million of Chinese I crossed path with openly and rightly labelled me as a “外国人”, a term I often heard walking in the street in China. I was stared at and I was asked to pose for pictures with strangers because on the other side of the world, I was an exotic minority. Whenever I dared to step into clothing shops, I was expressly told I was “too big! No size for you!”—like I said, Chinese are blunt and most of the time, they were right because my 5’7 (1.70 m) and my 135 lbs can’t fit into most made-in-China-for-Chinese pants, skirts or t-shirts.

But Mark doesn’t care about physical characteristics grown-ups use to conveniently label people—Black, Asian, Arabic, etc. And if feels completely wrong to teach him the concept of racial groups because it’s very flawed.

Mark is racial bigots’ worst nightmare, and not just because he is a mixed kid but also because he seems completely oblivious to genders or ethnic backgrounds. For instance, he often mixes up “he” and “she” and when I ask him to clarify (“So is your friend a girl or a boy?”), most of the time he shrugs, clearly annoyed: “oh… I don’t know. A girl?”

“Sorry, honey. There are 1.3 billion of Chinese people but I’m not one of them.”

“But, but… what I am, then?”

“You’re Canadian, Chinese and French.”

This came up several times over the past few weeks.

Mark is still convinced I’m Chinese.

He half-convinced me by now.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

13 Comments

  1. Hey!!
    Our kids should meet!
    Our maybe you can have conversations with my son. 🙂
    The question these days???
    Why we never see black chinese people?
    Yeah…. We don’t even know where to start…
    But you kid is awesome!

    • That’s actually a great question! I can’t remember seeing a mixed kid Chinese/Black but I’m sure it does exist. I think it’s healthy and cool kids ask these questions 🙂

      • Actually he asked for original Chinese people that happen to be Black not mixed. And it’s a great question, and the answer is actually really sad in terms of Asian countries killing a lot of Black or brown skin people. But I agree it’s a good thing they ask!
        🙂

  2. Awww that’s adorable! I guess he maybe wants you to be like him, a mix of French Chinese and Canadian?
    Without going into race or stereotype you can explain that you were born in France but learned Chinese and went to China, so you’re French but a little part of you is Chinese?

    • And I’ve often been asked by kids I babysit why “I’m brown” or why my teeth are crooked haha One little girl even found a Playmobil of a native woman that “looked like me” I guess it’s part of growing up to explore the world and ask questions?

      • I guess so! Honestly, I don’t remember asking strangers these questions, at the back of my mind, I knew it was “proper etiquette”. But North Americans are taught to be more… confident, I’d say.

  3. This reminds me of a weird episode I had in a hostel in Yangon.

    See, it’s a pet peeve of mine when people mistake me for Chinese. My father is part Chinese, so there is a part of my face that does look Chinese. My mother is part Spanish, but I suppose that isn’t easy to see. After all, plenty of Chinese bump into me in random cities around the world and immediately start speaking Mandarin because they think I am Chinese. It has happened to me in Boston, in Sarajevo, in Tehran, and in many others.

    Anyway, when I was in Yangon, there was a Chinese girl staying in the hostel, who saw me, and initiated conversation. Somehow this was also the time when the whole South China Sea / West Philippine Sea fiasco was flaring up. So when she was persistent in claiming that I was Chinese, even though I told her I was Filipino, I got annoyed. Even when I told her that my father is part Chinese, but I am Filipino, she responded that “if your father is Chinese then you are Chinese”.

    Irrational, I know, and I should have just let it go. But it annoyed me a lot that I just left the room and went to the common area to diffuse it.

    • It’s funny, I don’t think Feng was ever addressed to in Mandarin when we travel. It’s less common now, but 10 years ago, people used to tell him “konichiwa”, as if every single Asian was Japanese. There are less Japanese travellers now, and more Chinese… Honestly, I wouldn’t assume you’re Chinese because you look Asian. That’s… silly.

      And it’s even sillier to force an identity upon you. Seriously, what’s wrong with people!

  4. C’est fou comme il me semble éveillé, allumé comme on dit au Québec. Devient on Chinois par le droit du sol et de naissance seulement? Si oui ca peut être une explication facile. Peut être sinon faire un arbre généalogique.. Mais avec des pays 🙂

    J’adore le fait qu’il te réponde “i don’t Know, a girl?”, pas comme s’il ne savait pas mais plutôt comme si ca n’avait (et j’aimerais que ce soit le cas) aucune importance

    • Bon, je dois être honnête : pour certains trucs, il pose des questions super philosophiques, mais y’a des domaines pour lesquels j’ai l’impression qu’il n’a aucune curiosité 😆 Genre, le concept des emplois. Si je lui demande quel est le job de sa maîtresse, y’a un gros blanc… oui chéri, she is a teacher. Et il se fout royalement de savoir ce que Feng et moi on fait dans la vie 😆

      Si je ne me trompe pas, jus sanguinis en Chine. C’est donc pas facile à expliquer, parce que Feng et ses parents ont perdu la nationalité chinoise en devenant canadiens, mais ils sont quand même chinois… et du coup, moi, avec ma double nationalité, je suis canadienne sans être née ici. Bref, tout ça, ça le dépasse. Au moins, maintenant, il fait bien la différence entre les trois langues, ouf.

      Et expliquer le concept d’un pays, c’est dur! J’ai essayé cet hiver, en Amérique du Sud. Mais bon, la différence n’est pas toujours frappante, surtout quand on passe les frontières à pied.

  5. Oooh, I identify with this so much. My husband is Indian so my kids are also of mixed heritage, and it was so weird when they were growing up having to spell that out for them. They just accepted us as Mom and Dad, and their various grandparents for who they were, and never gave one thought to identifying or labelling people based on their race or heritage. I remember about three years ago having a conversation where it came up that Daddy is Indian and their minds were BLOWN. It’s touching, to see how little they are aware of race, but also so odd to imagine a life where they just don’t notice these things.

    On our street we are one of at least six different mixed-race families, all within 20 houses or so. I love that all of our kids play together and it’s one big melting pot around here. I think that’s what makes the difference – they see so many different people all the time, with mixed parentange, that it’s just no big deal. One of the things I truly love about living in Canada, in Ottawa in particular.

    • The multicultural aspect of your family doesn’t come up often in your blog and I’m curious about it! Does your husband have strong ties to India? Are the kids curious about their Indian heritage?

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