The Special, Awkward and Funny Side of Interracial Unions

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The fridge, March 2017

My simple mission was to print pictures for the fridge. Yes, for the fridge—in an ideal world, I’d have a wall full of perfectly aligned framed pictures, but since this is not going to happen, lose prints, magnets and fridge display work just fine. We’ve gotten used to staring at the fridge, remembering good times, better weather, happy moments. Sometime, we almost forget we were about to open the door to get food and we just stand there, lost in travel memories.

“Yes, I want 6 x 4 prints.”

“Yes, I swear I’m not infringing any copyright law.”

“No, I don’t want the shitty collage upsell.”

Yes, I’m talking to a Kodak machine.

After tapping the “I accept” button half a dozen times, I finally placed my order. Because I’m cheap, I didn’t choose the “prints in seconds” option where the machine spits out snapshots in minutes (not seconds). I opted for the “one-hour service,” which at Walmart often translates into “if we are not busy and if there is an employee behind the counter, you’ll get your pictures at the end of your grocery trip.”

I had to provide a phone number and a name. I entered my cell number and because I didn’t feel like typing “Giannesini” on the touch screen, I borrowed Feng’s last name. “Hey, it’s mine as well, we are married, after all,” I muttered, typing the three letters. I hope Mark thanks us one day for giving him Feng’s easy-to-spell last name. On the other hand, I was rarely called up to the board because teachers didn’t feel like saying “mademoiselle Bossard-Giannesini.”

I walked to the photo counter to pay for my order.

“Twenty-five pictures?” the employee said. “It will be ready in five minutes.”

“Oh, that’s great,” I replied.

I stood there, checking my emails on my phone.

Five minutes later, I saw the machine behind the counter printing out what were presumably my pictures, since I was the only customer around (snowstorm outside, don’t ask).

The employee collected them, placed them in an envelope and paused.

“I think the pictures are ready…?” I suggested to speed things up.

“Ahem … ma’am, I don’t think so … is your name ‘Pan’?” he asked, almost suspiciously.

“Yes,” I replied.

Your name is ‘Pan’?”

“YES!”

He was still staring at me, dumbfounded.

I laughed. “It’s my husband name. Obviously, I’m the non-Chinese member of the family.”

I was about to tell him to look at the pictures, where he would see the three of us—although I had printed out quite a few beach shots and I wasn’t sure I was ready to share them with a random Walmart employee. He finally handed me the set, still suspicious, as if I was stealing some Chinese guy’s treasured memories.

Once home, I told Feng the story and we couldn’t stop laughing.

“How come you can get away with picking up a half-white kid at school and I can’t be Mrs. Pan?” I joked. “That’s not fair!”

Yes, we laughed. I wasn’t offended. I’m used to it. Because this is the truth: no matter how progressive and open-minded people are, when you are an interracial couple, by default they assume you aren’t a couple but two strangers.

It happens all the time. If the three of us are queuing together, employees will ask for my order and someone else will ask for Feng’s as if we were two separate customers. When checking in at the airport I have to state that we are a family travelling together. Before Mark could say “mommy” and “daddy,” if Feng was joining us at the park, strangers would warned me a man was playing with my son. “That would be his father,” I’d correct.

Are people stupid and ignorant? Maybe. But I am too. I’m going to confess something. Early on in the pregnancy, one of my fears was that the baby would look 100% Chinese and nothing like me, and that no one would believe I was the mother. In my dreams, I pictured a little Chinese doll, straight black hair, dark eyes, Asian features. It would have been a very cute baby, for sure, but I was scared it would be harder to bond—and at the same time, I was fully aware I was being irrational. I laugh about it now, it was just one of these strange pregnancy moments. Mark is a chameleon: with me, he looks European, with Feng, he looks Chinese, when travelling, he looks like us. And frankly, who cares? Parenthood and family bonds go way beyond physical features and are much stronger, like every adopted kid can testify.

Bottom line is, since we are young, we are taught to match shapes, associate by colours, organize stuff logically—square with square, light blue with dark blue, girls with girls, boys with boys. We absorbe stereotypes—families with a mommy at home and a daddy at work, people with a different skin colour are “foreigners,” big guys play sports and small kids read books… the list goes on and on—for an up-to-date version, schedule a meeting with your local far-right-wing party member.

The human brain is built around pattern recognition and predictability. We like to generalize, to stereotype—it does make life convenient and yes, some stereotypes are true. But life is also subtle and complex and should be embraced as such. We can adjust and expand our perspective to eventually eliminate stereotypical thinking.

We aren’t a stereotypical family. It’s cool. I can deal with a pause, a curious look, some assumptions. I don’t get offended. Hell, I can even handle ignorance … as long as people are willing to change and embrace difference.

Today, we’ve been married for 12 years. Eh oui!

Hotel room, Buenos Aires, January 2017

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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.

32 Comments

  1. Love this post SO MUCH. I’m also in an interracial marriage and I get it. My kids, however, really do look just like their dad – there’s been times I’ve been mistaken for their nanny or babysitter. But we just laugh it off and roll with it and I’ve gotten used to explaining my last name (which is his) to everyone.

    Happy anniversary!

    • I’ve seen pictures of your kids (… I think? Faces hidden maybe… can’t remember) and I can’t imagine anyone thinking you’re the nanny! Were you offended the first time it happened?

      Did you ever consider not taking your husband’s name because you knew you were going to have to explain it constantly?

  2. Don’t tell me you didn’t consider naming Mark as Peter instead?! 🙂

    Seriously though, this is a topic that is relevant to me too. It’s not as involved as your family, since we don’t have children (and we aren’t planning to have any), but there’s an added dimension since both of us are hard to pigeonhole so to speak. I might be Filipino, and he might be Israeli, but there are so many things in our background that provide exceptions to all the stereotypes that one might expect for Filipinos and Israelis.

    • Major trauma here: I LOVED the name “Peter” but I quickly realized it just wouldn’t work 😆

      I agree with you: both of you are NOT stereotypical! I mean, I’m sure you do have some ties to your respective cultures (food, maybe?) but it certainly seem like you are quite unique. And what were the chances of an Israeli meeting a Filipino and starting a love story in Germany? That’s awesome!

  3. Happy anniversary! I wish you many more happy years together 🙂
    As you can imagine I can totally relate 😉 I was in Mark’s shoes as a kid, except I had white parents and brothers and wasn’t white myself. TBH I spent more time with only my mum and people would sometimes comment on my skin color. As you know it was a taboo subject in my family, so it was like wearing your most shameful secret on your face. I (thankfully!) don’t feel that way anymore but it was hard.
    I’ve also had situations as a teen and young adult when pple would assume I was half of a couple with my brothers (we’re similar in age).
    It still sometimes happens with Jamie that people get confused. But as long as people are nice about it and laugh at their mistakes it doesn’t bother me at all. What bothered me were some nasty comments I had when I was still living in France. Or when people take Jamie apart to ask him “where is she from?” Like I can’t speak for myself or like I’m not just “French”.
    Having grown up with both Feng and you in a 3rd country and culture, I’m sure Mark will have a totally different outlook on things though 🙂

    • I thought of you when writing this at first, after the discussion we had on the topic. I can only imagine how strange it felt… and frankly, mostly because of the taboo part of the story, the one you had zero day in the matter and it shouldn’t have been your burden to carry :-/

      I was mistaken as the “mother” of my cousins a few times when they were babies and I was in my early teens. I was horrified 😆

  4. That is pretty funny! Did you see the BBC news clip recently with a man who is being interviewed at his home and then his child walks in and then is promptly dragged out by his wife who everyone has assumed was his Nanny because she was Korean?

  5. Martin Penwald on

    It really annoys me that Canada uses the absurd concept of “race”, which has strictly no scientific ground.
    Oops, I’ll continue later, load seems to be cleared by customs.

    • Oops, sorry, comment was held by customs… missed it yesterday!

      I agree with you, the concept is absurd! But what should we say?

      • Martin Penwald on

        I’ld use multi cultural or multi ethnic, which both accurately describe your situation. But I know that the tendancy here is that use the stupid disproven notion of race.
        About that, a funny fact that emphasize the absurdity of this notion : the most diverse genetic population is found in Africa, in the area where humanity seems to have appeared. There could be more genetic différence between 2 people of this area than between 2 people (for example from China and France) of everywhere else. But with the notion of race, these 2 people will be classified as “black”.

        • I like both terms, multicultural or multiethnic. Yeah, the notion of “race” doesn’t make much sense, plus it always reminds me of darker pages of our history, even if in Canada, the term is more “neutral” than in Europe.

          À chaque fois, ça me rappelle une vieille affiche du FN, sur laquelle on voyait une grand-mère BCBG s’exclamer “mes petits enfants seront-ils NOIRS??” 😆 Chez nous, c’ets la blague : “non, désolée, juste Chinois…”

  6. You can’t help… Je m’applique de plus en plus à inclure, quand je parle à mes enfants, l’idée que leur amie (par exemple) puisse avoir des parents du même sexe. Donc je dis des trucs comme “est ce que ce sont le papa et la maman de ton amie machine qui sont venus la chercher ce soir?” (Pause) “ou ces deux mamans? Ces deux papas? Son parent tout seul ?” (Englober toutes les éventualités lol).
    Et bien ca n’empêche pas que ca m’a pris deux mois à rentrer chaque soir en suivant mes voisins qui arrivaient par le meme bus que moi. Et deux mois à me dire “Wow dis donc ce collègue de boulot il vient souvent le soir quand même”, “Wow il a meme dormi là”, “Wow il a meme les clés”. Hey il a fallu que je les vois se TENIR LA MAIN pour comprendre qu’ils étaient un couple. Bravo championne.
    C’est difficile je pense pour le cerveau humain de prendre en compte d’instinct des possibilités qu’il n’a pas côtoyé, notamment en grandissant, en se construisant, malgré toute sa bonne volonté …

    • Ah non, mais je suis exactement pareil! Quand j’enseignais le français, j’ai parfois repris des hommes qui disaient “mon petit ami” (“MA petitE amiE, John!”) alors que non, c’était bien un ami qu’ils avaient. Oups.

      Je laisse aussi les portes ouvertes avec Mark, genre “oh, ben ça peut aussi être un garçon avec les cheveux longs…” ou “ah, ben peut-être que c’est la maman de Zaïd la dame blonde!” Tant qu’on ne les conforte pas dans des stéréotypes, je crois qu’on est sur le bon chemin 🙂

  7. My daughters look more like me so Asian features. When their great grandmother took them out for a walk, she would bumped into her friends and proudly introduced them her great granddaughters. Her friends would ask if they were adopted, and from which country. She would insist that they are the daughters of her grandson, but her friends, confused, would then presume that her grandson was adopted then. Her friends just can’t imagine an Asian kid to be her great granddaughter. lol

    Wow, I don’t really like to participate in my kids school outing or any volunteering jobs, because the kids always stare at me, and ask me questions, like to speak Chinese. I know they are innocent and curious, but I don’t like the feeling. It has been almost two years I send and pick up my daughter from school, and kids still staring at me, just because I look different than them.

    • I agree, your two daughters look like you! But beyond the Asian features, it’s also their smile 🙂

      I can see why these older ladies would think “adopted kids” at first, France isn’t that multicultural yet outside major cities. I wouldn’t be offended as long as the mistake is acknowledged gracefully.

      I’m sorry kids are staring at you, though. That’s weird. I remember a few “foreigner” parents when I was in middle school and we, kids, didn’t care much, we didn’t notice these kinds of things. I can’t remember staring at anyone, for sure!

  8. One of my distant relatives married to either Deutsch and Switzerland man (not sure), they have a daughter who has Southeast asia look, but doesn’t speak Indonesia. When the girl travelled to her mom’s country, it’s akward as she doesn’t understand us :)) while we are look a like.
    Btw…Happy anniversary!!! May the three of you are bestowed with health and happiness all year long…and I’m looking forward to grab your book in amazon as soon as possible!!

    • Thank you for your good wishes!

      It’s very common in France for second-generation immigrants to not speak their parents’ mother tongue. Many Chinese over there speak a dialect (i.e. Wenzhouhua, Teochew) but can’t speak Mandarin or write/read Chinese.

  9. Et par rapport à ce que tu disais du fait que les étrangers ne partent pas du postulat que vous êtes un couple/ une famille quand ils vous voient, ça me fait penser à un ami japonais qui était en gang avec nous. A qq places de là, une fille japonaise. Ben le type à l’accueil lui a demandé pourquoi sa blonde traînait comme ça derrière, et que s’ils voulaient une place ensemble il fallait qu’elle vienne en même temps ?! Lol. Il ne la connaissait ni d’Eve ni d’Adam mais l’instinct du gars lui laissait penser qu’ils étaient ensemble

    • C’est tout à fait le genre de situation qui nous arrive! En même temps, tant que la personne n’insiste pas lourdement et reconnaît la gaffe, je comprends. J’ai été surprise il y a quelques temps d’entendre les stats sur les mariages aux USA : c’est vraiment blanc avec blanc, noir avec noir. Les mariages interraciaux sont un pourcentage ridicule (de mémoire, moins de 5 %). Idem ici, finalement les couples mixtes ne sont pas si communs. Donc c’est plus une question de statistique que de racisme ordinaire… en tout cas, jusqu’à preuve du contraire, je le prends comme ça 🙂

  10. First of all happy belated anniversary!
    Secondly I love this post so much. It is funny because we are not an interracial couple but I feel what you say. I am half Asian-half European and my son is light brown with blue eyes and looks like his dad (and I have brown eyes and black hair). When he was younger I was mistaken for his babysitter a few times! Now he can talk and interact more, it hasn’t happened lately but it was strange getting the feeling people didn’t think I could be his mother! Now people sometimes think he is adopted when I am on my own with him (not so much with his father as he looks so much like him!) Genetics can do amazing things, my maternal grand mother had blue eyes but being half Asian, I never expected a blue eyed child!
    Wishing many more loving years to your interracial couple/family!

    • Thank you Emma!

      I remember seeing a picture of your son and I thought he looked like you! Funny. He definitely has a bit of this Eurasian look, like Mark. I remember (also based on a few pictures I’ve seen of you, long time ago!) that you looked young, which also probably prompted people to think you were the babysitter. Once thing I learned traveling and being in an interracial relationship : NEVER ASSUME! I’ve seen Asian kids with blue eyes (rare, as you know!), brother and sister who had different skin tones, etc.

  11. Aww happy belated anniversary! ! Give me all the good tips of marriage! !
    Haha my pregnancy was that my son would look very white and nothing like me which is crazy looking back. Now he looks caramel lol !

    We always get asked our order separately at Starbucks and at restaurants, servers always ask us if we do seperate checks. Annoying but hey what can we do…

    • I remember when we met (ahem… the one time we managed to!) you told me you found your son was very light skinned. And I thought “well, looks like you and your husband, from what I can see!” It’s funny how we obsessed about the little things, skin colour is so irrelevant after all, he is yours and he is your husband’s 🙂

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