01 April 2008

Race and Fashion

I'm not very fashionable. I'm a jeans and sweaters kind of gal in the winter, capris and t-shirts in the summer. I don't really like to shop. I look presentable most days, but I wouldn't say I have my own personal style or anything. I do own and wear a lot of orange, but that's about the most unique aspect of my wardrobe.

John was the same way. He was all about jeans and sweaters and cargo shorts. He missed the Korean gene that encodes for never leaving the house without looking 100% put together. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law always look impeccable. Gorgeous clothes, polished makeup, perfectly coiffed hair. Most Koreans I know—especially women—take pride in their appearance and feel that they are letting themselves down if they go out looking anything but their best. Oh, they may wear jeans and dress "down" on occasion, but they always have a sophisticated polish that I lack.

This past Sunday, I indulged myself by not taking a shower before the twins got up. I slept in until after 7:00, rolling out of bed only when the sweet chatter in the babes' room turned pressingly fussy. I got the kids dressed, but stayed in my pajamas myself through our breakfast of pancakes with maple syrup and eggs with cheese. The kids got syrup all over themselves during breakfast, which I made a halfhearted attempt at wiping off, but most of which dried as spots of sweet sheen on their shirts and pants. Riley was wearing Maddie's pink flowered shirt, as he likes to do. When I finally put on some real clothes, I chose the same outfit for the third day in a row: Patriots t-shirt, blue hoodie, jeans, and SmartWool socks. My hair was in pigtails. I did wash my face and put on some lip gloss, but that was the extent of my effort.

Later in the day, the kids and I did some fingerpainting; I put oversized, pre-stained, hand-me-down shirts on the kids to keep them somewhat clean. After fingerpainting, Maddie refused to take off her smock, so she was in a too-large, stained grey t-shirt and hot-pink stretch pants. And I didn't do a great job of cleaning off her face, which had taken a hit during the painting process.

Let's just say that we were looking . . . rumpled. Comfortable. Relaxed. Casual.

We headed out to the co-op for some playtime. The past few weekends, I've run into the same woman there. She is Korean, a doctor, and a really nice, interesting, smart person with a daughter about the twins' age. And guess what? She always looks like a million bucks. As the twins and I come staggering down the stairs, who should I see at the bottom? You guessed it. With her husband and parents, all looking sharp. Her daughter was perfectly turned out, too.

We exchanged pleasantries, and the kids played together some during the hour or so we were there. But seeing her and her family, I felt very conscious—self-conscious even—of my lowbrow look. I was aware of the kids' stained clothes, my own unwashed and untidy garb. I don't think this woman cared. But still. As I do any time I'm around a stylish Korean woman, I started to think about respecting myself, what it means to put my best foot forward, whether or not it matters if I'm put together every time I walk out the door.

It also made me think of this post from CityMama over at Kimchi Mamas. Like CityMama at swim classes, I feel so pulled to this woman at the co-op. I couldn't wait to tell her that my kids are half-Korean. When she introduced me to her parents, she gave them my name and the twins' names and hastened to add, "The twins are half-Korean!" to the introduction. Since John's death, I feel so out of the loop on things Korean. I almost never cook Korean food anymore (that was his domain, and he was really, really good at it), and the twins don't even like rice. In fact, I only cook brown rice at home now, on the stovetop. When John was alive, it was white rice in the rice cooker, all day, every day. I don't go to the Korean market or to Korean restaurants. I could make the effort, but with the parent who personified that half of the twins' identity gone, it's been all too easy to go back to being just another Caucasian American family.

I want to connect with women like the one at the co-op. I want people like that in the twins' lives, more regular contact with their Korean halves than the sporadic visits from their grandparents, aunt, and uncle. I toy with the idea of going to a Korean church or to sending the kids to Korean school on Saturdays when they get older. But the Korean church that John attended growing up was the bane of his existence, a place filled with awful memories, and the source of all things about the Korean community that he hated. I know he would not have wanted the kids to be involved in a Korean church on any level, and knowing that gives me pause. I also know that hapa kids are not always welcomed with open arms at Korean churches or in their Saturday Korean schools.

My kids will probably encounter racism as they grow up. I want them to know what their Korean heritage means and be proud of it, be proud of being half-Asian. One of my coworkers is married to a woman who is half-Japanese/half-Caucasian, and she likes to tout her "hybrid vigor." I love that. I want the twins to believe the same—that their two halves make them a stronger whole. Any mixed-race people out there have advice on how to honor both halves of the whole?


BethanyWD said...

What a lovely post. I bet that women would be happy to help you keep John's Korean past alive with your kiddos.

moo said...

I have no actual experience with this, but here's my assvice nonetheless. I think it will be easier, as the twins get older, to implement a "Korean Night" once a week (or even once a month, if the other is too much for you). You guys can talk about customs and beliefs and cook Korean food (or even get take out). You can look at pictures of John to include him in your evening and tell the twins stories, perhaps about how he grew up.

You're a good mom, no matter what the state of your attire is.

Casey said...

I am Chinese American and my husband is Caucasian American. We have a son, Matthew, who (out of the two of us) resembles me more strongly. When we lived in Chicago, my husband bore the brunt of rude comments ("Where did you get him from?") from people who were astonished that he could even possibly be the biological father of our son.

I don't have any easy answers for you. I think by being open and willing to talk about racism when it is apparent (and even when it is not) is one step.

Another site to read, if you don't already, is antiracistparent.com. It helps me to read about others who are in similar positions, parenting/culturally/advocacy-wise.

sappho said...

i'm a new reader. i discovered you through alittlepregnant.com and am so glad i did.

i'm half-scottish and half-trinidadian (indian ancestry). some of my most cherished memories (i'm a book-lover) from my childhood include reading scottish and indian/trinidadian folk tales/myths. i also watched a lot of films to do with both cultures.

i also remember cooking a lot of dishes from both cultures. i still make scones (with crazy variations on the ingredients!!) which my croatian husband loves. most of the dishes we made when i was young were really easy, and fun to eat.

i think things can be really simple to instil a love, respect and identification with bi-cultural kids for both cultures. stories are particularly powerful, and they don't have to be in the native tongue (i do not know gaelic (my scottish ancestry is traced back to the highlands) and i don't know arabic or urdu which my dad speaks). i didn't necessarily spend a lot of time with kids who identified strongly with their backgrounds - we were mostly just kids.

but to this day i still identify strongly with both cultures. i've been to trinidad a few times and am planning my first trip to scotland for this year or next (and cannot wait).

sorry for the long comment but i hope this helps a bit!

sappho said...

p.s. i encountered a lot of bullying and racism at school, but i think just by teaching your kids basic street sense and a strong identification with their cultures (for me in particular it was knowledge of scottish and trinidadian stories and legends) they learn to ignore it.

most people i'm friends with are from so many different cultures that it's the norm.

Andria said...

No advice, but kudos for being a great, strong mama, who is looking out for the best for her babes. :)

It's me, Kenna! said...

First off I wanted to say that you are doing a wonderful job with your kids. I am an avid reader and in awe of you and your strength each and every day.

Now in regards to your question, I am 1/2 african american and 1/2 caucasian. I grew up with my caucasian parent, seeing my african american family only on holidays. I did face a lot of racism and hateful comments while growing up - some from my own family - and I have to say that while it was not easy, it did make me a whole lot stronger. I do consider myself a hybrid, however I do favor my caucasian-side, and I don't feel badly about it at all.

Don't stress, no matter what happens, you're still a kick ass mom!

Anonymous said...

OMG. All this time that I was reading your blog, I had NO IDEA that John was Korean! So sorry to hear that John's experience at the Korean church was so terrible... but sending them to Korean school sounds like it might be a good idea. It could also be a way to connect with women like the one at the co-op! And if it doesn't work, you don't have to keep going! =)

Anonymous said...

Try to be aware of their actual experiences, and how being a person of mixed-race is different (and similar) now as it was when our generation was growing up. We all understand others' experiences through our own; but I humbly advise a practice of relating to them other than through your own preconceptions, as much as possible (but never fool yourself that you are doing so fully). You are amazing and I love lurking on your blog! Wishing you a day (and days and days) of freedom, free of perfectionism!

Anonymous said...

You are definitely approaching it in the right way, teaching the twins to value and honor both parts of their identities. Exactly what sappho said too - learning about their culture(s), the traditional stories and foods, gives kids a strong sense of identity and can even help fend off the otherness that almost every (pre-teen) kid feels, no matter their heritage or racial makeup. You can send them to a special school or church group (we've thought about doing that too), but doing it at home, (might also be a chance to do something special as a family to honor John's memory) would be just as beneficial. It's something very important to me too, my son (18m) is half Caucasian and half Lao.

You might also check out the book "Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?" by Donna Jackson Nakazawa. I found it really insightful and inspiring.

Take care,

Mama Nabi said...

Yet another reason for you and the twins to move in with me and LN. :-)

Y'know, I feel like a total slob when I'm in Seoul.

Right now, I wish I spoke more Korean to LN... So I make up for that by doing one Korean restaurant dinner a week... that way we are around other Korean speaking people.

Playdates with other Korean kids?

I am also reluctant to join Korean churches... on the other hand, I hear they have good food... :-)

KCRSummertime said...

Did you see the video in the recent NY Times called "Being Multiracial In America"?

And related article, "Who Are We? New Dialogue on Mixed Race" link, i hope

You're in good company.

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

Although we don't have a bi-racial family, I'm raising a bi-cultural son. His father is French and we're living in Paris, so I expect his French identity to trump his American identity for the most part. But I see as part of my duty as a parent to transmit an understanding of his other half.

I guess I think the most important part of one's cultural identity is often the language (and stories and legends, as a previous poster said), so I know sharing that is very important to me. But food comes a close second. I want our son to eat all kinds of French cheese, but he'd better like mac and cheese, too.

Man, do I hear you on the "not looking put together enough" problem. French women look so polished even when they go casual, and it is intimidating to me still. I'd feel better about it if I could just get a decent haircut.

Angela said...

I feel rather self conscious too when I'm around other Korean women, they tend to wear a lot more make-up than I do and take a lot more care with their appearance. I guess I didn't get that high maintenance Korean gene.Anyway, if the Korean woman you met is friendly maybe you could suggest a playdate and go from there. From my limited experience Korean churches and school, they tend to have cliques that can be hard to join.

electriclady said...

I'm missing the high maintenance Korean gene too. I had to laugh when, for my daughter's first birthday, my (white) in-laws gave her a bunch of little matching sweatsuits--and from my side, she got, not one, but TWO Ralph Lauren tennis dresses from different Korean relatives.

No advice on the keeping-Korean-culture-alive front, as it's something I struggle with myself with my hapa daughter (and I AM Korean). But kudos to you for being aware of how important it is.

Rachel said...

Love this post.

I so relate. I feel like such a slob when I'm around Korean women. Even when I dress up, I don't look as pulled-together as they do.

As for making friends with Koreans, I've found it hard in the "real world". Maybe you could have a local Kimchi Mamas meetup and meet some other mamas. I'm sure there are some in your area.

Anonymous said...

I am a longtime reader, but I've never commented before. (I am Chinese-American, married to a Caucasian, with hapa kids.) How about befriending this woman at the playgroup (whom you seem to like very much anyway)? To me, a lot of these ideas--a Korean night, cooking Korean food, etc--seem pretty artificial, and I imagine your children will sniff that out immediately once they are old enough. Ethnic identity, when it comes down to it, is really about individuals and people. The trick will be to find them Korean people they feel comfortable with and whom they will be able to share experiences--and confide in.

You are obviously such a lovely person, with such a knack for friendship; use your powers for good! I would hesitate to give this advice--make lots of Korean friends!--to someone else, but I think you could actually make good on it.

I know it's really hard for you to imagine, but it might be that the twins will be more comfortable talking about racism not with their Caucasian mom, but with other hapa kids and other As-Am kids.

And it goes without saying you are a great mom for pondering these issues.

Anonymous said...

It's tough -- I'm Indian, and my kid's grandparents are around, so that provides a cultural connection (both of which you don't have easy access to). I've tried, sporadically to make contacts with Indian immigrants in the area, but I really feel very disconnected from them (I grew up here).

I think you could do a lot by hunting down books -- there are lots of sources. I've found a bunch o books at this site: http://www.asiaforkids.com/. And, the korean restaurant idea seems like a possibility when the kids get a bit older -- it's a way to expose them to the food without your having to learn to cook it.

I've given myself permission to do the easiest things, and my life is much simpler than yours.

buddha_girl said...

I wish I had words of wisdom to share.

Rather, I have only troubled conversations with many of my students who have trouble with identifying who they are because their parents choose to ignore one half of the genes which created their children.

With that said, I think this insight you have will greatly help you in your quest to educate the twins and honor a very component of your family. I love moo's idea about a Korean night. I also highly recommend the Korean Cinderella story. It's beautiful.

Beloved said...

I have a feeling I know exactly what your husband meant about Korean church. My husband and I have started going to our local Korean church again regularly. I have to admit though, that I go only to support his connection to Korean culture. I am the one who encouraged him to go in the first place. That being said, their philosophies are definitely not in sync with my own, so it can be hard going sometimes. It's tough here where we are though, because it's not easy to make Korean connections, and cultural isolation is not a good thing.

Zoe said...

Hi, I'm a lurker, delurking to give my own assvice. I'm a 31-year-old hapa (Chinese & Greek, both parents American-born). My Caucasian mother died when I was twelve, and after that point I was mostly raised by my Chinese American family (father, grandmother, aunt, etc). As an only child who didn't quite "fit" in with the rest of my family's racial make-up, I was very conscious of my multiracial heritage, even when my mother was still alive. I didn't want to be half-Chinese/half-Greek, or half-Asian/half-white, I just wanted to be a *whole* person. I longed for someone else in my family to look "mixed" like me instead of being wholly white or wholly Asian. I didn't want to be some exotic novelty, I just wanted to be a normal person whose racial identity wasn't constantly being dissected by strangers. It wasn't till college when I joined a hapa group that I felt more comfortable in my own identity as a person of mixed heritage, and now I'm married to another hapa (Japanese-black-various European things) raising our very multiracial kids. I think it's about more than exposing your children to Korean culture or other Korean Americans, it's also about finding ways to integrate their multiple heritages into one. Instead of having a specific "Korean night," why not serve kimchi along with your brown rice and non-Asian food (this is just a vague example, and obviously they're too young for kimchi)? Supply them with books, toys, and videos (if you allow them to watch TV) that feature multiracial characters. Place them in schools/playgrounds with kids of various ethnicities--even if there aren't any other hapas, perhaps they'll be someone who's black and white, or Latino and Native American, someone else to whom they can relate. Assure them that they don't have to choose sides when articulating their own identity. It's likely that at various phases of their lives they'll relate to their multiracial heritage in different ways. I think the best thing a single-race parent can do for multiracial children is to be open; be careful about using words like "half this half that"; be aware that no matter how close you are to your children, there will likely be things about their identity that they won't be comfortable discussing with you; expose them to people like themselves whether in real-life or via the media; and most importantly, acknowledge that no matter how hard you try, there will always be asshats out there who will hurt your kids at one time or another, and unfortunately you can't stop them.

Based on what I've read from your blog, I think you're doing more than fine. The fact that you're thinking about these issues gives you more points than a lot of people. Oh, and for the record, I feel horribly unfashionable compare to anyone from Asia.

Good luck! :-)

Amy said...

No advice on the kids but have to say I dress like you.

Have never been a fan of clothes in a fashion sense. If I am clothed and looking half way respectable (read=casual) I feel I am doing fine. To each to their own I suppose.

My sister LOVES clothes and looks fabulous most of the time. Different priorities?

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

Might there be some resources in the Korean adoption community? I know that here there are camps, potlucks, all kinds of things. Can totally relate to the messy attire situation. I am the Pigpen of my family, though I'm always clean and mostly neat. It's a matter of perspective, but I am who I am, and I just can't seem to change that.

Mel said...

Can't believe we still have to deal with racism at this time in our world. Ridiculous! I tend to forget that other countries have to deal with this too.
In SA we don't have any Asian racism, just good old black-white crap. I am sorry your kids will have to deal with that one day, it must make you want rip peoples hair out and do some serious mama growling. Grrrrr!

Anonymous said...

I am mixed and I agree with Zoe's comments wholeheartedly. Make things from both cultures part of the twins' daily life (like kim chi always on the table regardless of what else is served) and make sure they play with kids of all backgrounds. I think the half/half things is very hard, and I felt the same as Zoe, that when I found a community of mixed race people I had really found the place where I belonged fully and where I was accepted fully. Something that the two "half" cultures never fully offered. And I find the people I relate to the most are other mixed folks, but of all different sorts of mixes, not necessarily similar to my own.

I also agree with Sappho that stories and other cultural "entertainment" like music and movies really does help give you ownership of an experience and ease identity struggles a bit.

It is great to be thinking about all of this so early, my parents never gave it a second thought that us kids may need some guidance through the experience and that definitely made it more difficult.

Nina said...

What a great post! I don't think my parents ever really thought about consciously nurturing our cultural identities (I'm half Korean and half white) or about what to do when we confronted ignorance or racism because we were mixed.

But I always took pride in being mixed, even when people were rude and stupid. I think my parents' attitude was basically "screw the haters" or something of the sort. But I was still very sensitive and I totally identify with the identity struggle that most hapas go through.

That said, I think Korean school is a GREAT idea. My mom sent me to Korean school for a short time, but not until I was way too old (I was about 7 in the preschool class...it was horribly embarrassing). But I always regretted not learning at least a little Korean and ended up taking 2 years in college. Yes, full Korean people can sometimes be ignorant and rude towards hapa kids (I still~ get it from my full Korean friends all. the. time.), but I think it's worth it.

I also think that integrating Korean food into your diet in some way...whether it be a "Korean food night" or having a couple of banchan dishes at the table (kimchi is kind of hard with toddlers, I'd think. But there are many non-spicy and easier to prepare banchans). Teaching them to use chopsticks (that will help when they're older and have Korean friends). Reading them picture books by Korean American authors.

I can't imagine my (white) father making such an effort to raise us with an awareness of our Korean heritage if my mom hadn't been around. So seriously, kudos to you! I know you feel like a fish out of water, but I'm sure your kids will benefit!

Anonymous said...

I am white and married to a Filipino man and I just had to say I empathize entirely with the fashion bit - my in-laws always look impeccable, in particular the women. Plus my husband's brother-in-law is Korean, and he's quite fastidious. I'm...not. :-) We don't have kids so I have no advice on that end, just the empathy.

Helen said...

I'm part Japanese, and plan on showing parts of my family's culture through food and Japanese books (translated into English, since I don't speak the lingo) that I used to read as a kid. Additionally, the twins will spend time with the Japanese side of my family, who have promised to speak Japanese with the twins and try to show them more of their heritage.

I think multi-cultural families really, really benefit this way. It's familiar growing up, and this way they have a strong connection to their dad and his heritage, too.

Denise said...

Heh, I read that post at Kimchi Mamas and had to laugh, because when I am out and about without the kids and I see Korean families I always want to feel connected to them, and of course they look at me (w/out kids) and think "Caucasian," not "Mother to Koreans." Does that make sense?

I also struggle with this question. I try to implement Korean food and traditions when I can. The kids are not always terribly interested. I also try to keep contact with other Asian adults in the community. There aren't many here, but they are usually very sweet to the boys when we run into them.

I have thought about Korean church, too, but am conflicted as we are, uh, atheists, and it feels disrespectful to use the church for a cultural context.

Anonymous said...

I'll bet the Korean mother wishes she were more Bohemian like you. ;o)

Julia said...

I don't have much constructive to say. We are raising Monkey to be proud of her heritage, but she doesn't look different, and we are both right there to encourage her. Your situation is different and much much tougher.
The one interesting thing is the part about being all put together all the time. Women from the Old Country do that. And women in the Old Country do that. Just not all younger women from the Old Country who grew up in or have lived in the States for a while. Funny, ha?

Deirdre said...

I can empathize with your fashion feelings. I always feel incredibly unsophisticated when I'm with my (Chinese) BIL's wife.

As for raising hapa kids, I do think that food is important. I have three half-Korean half-siblings who won't even eat kim chee or most Korean foods, which is a bit sad. For my own kids, we purposefully sought out a more mixed neighborhood and school so they'd be around other children who look like them (hapa, not just Asian). We've been incredibly lucky in that regard.

Joanne said...

I had to delurk to offer my experience as a mixed race kid. I am half Scottish, half Chinese and I was always, always so proud of it. I remember feeling very special as a kid. We did encounter racism now and then and my parents always reacted to it with such surprised indignation that I think I always realized how ridiculous it was and maintained such a pride in my Asian roots. We also read lots of Chinese folktales and poetry and had lots of Asian art in our house which I think helped me feel connected to my hertitage daily. Our traditional Xmas dinner was also Chinese food which was fun.

Anonymous said...

My partner is Chinese so our son is mixed. My son's face resembles mine but his colouring is his daddy's. We have many Asian friends so, if we're out, I am often passed over as "mom" by strangers. My partner does not often embrace his Chinese heritage (first generation Canadian) but I want our son to know and be happy with his. My son knows his Chinese name (it's tattooed on my arm) and knows that he's special to have a Chinese name. He'll be able to write it at some point. We'll take him to China when he's older. I'd like to find him a Chinese language school for weekends - but it's weird that I'm the one pushing his knowledge of all things Chinese.

His grandmother says he has a wonderful accent when he pronounces his dim sum dishes in Chinese but we see her only once a year.

erica said...

i wish i were a fluent speaker, but i can only read, write, and comprehend korean at a 1st grade level. i'm korean-american and my husband is white, so i'm not sure what we'll do with our children.

several friends and acquaintances have chided me for thinking that my children should learn korean. after all, their reasoning goes, i'm being a bit hypocritical for wanting my children to be more 'korean' than i am.

sigh. i want my children to learn korean so they can converse with my parents. the saddest thing for me is not being able to talk with the only grandparent i've ever known.

oh boy, i have dreams about the food at korean churches. it's all about the food. if nothing else, my babies will eat mainly korean, because that's my favorite kind of food!