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

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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