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Parenting Multiracial Children

ByFrances Kai-Hwa Wang
Acting Editor of Asian American Village Online

While flipping through TV channels one night, we came across a typical PBS documentary on San Francisco's Chinatown: shots of people walking down the crowded streets, lunch at an elegant dim sum restaurant, backstage in the steamy noisy kitchen, buying Chinese vegetables at a corner market, etc. My two and three year old girls, Hao Hao and Mango, were absolutely mesmerized: "e;What is that place? There are so many Chinese people."e; When I told them it was Chinatown, my three year old, Mango, promptly responded, "e;We should live there! But not Daddy, because he's American."e; When their father tried to explain that they were American too, not to mention parts Romanian/Scottish/German, they giggled in disbelief and then became really upset: "e;No! We're Chinese!"e;

I realized that they have no idea that they are multiracial. Part of this is simply because they are girls and identify more strongly with their mother, who is Chinese American. But part of this is also a sign that there is much more to parenting multiracial children than just raising them. Like many young parents, I am concerned about doing it "e;right,"e; and I [hope to] spare them the insecurities of my own youth growing up as a minority in America. However, none of the parenting books I rely on so heavily ever discuss this issue; what literature I do find is largely about parenting African American and Caucasian multiracial children, which has different issues. So I began to interview a number of parents of part-Asian multiracial children across the country and Canada. The parents interviewed were interracial couples where one partner is ethnically Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino; they were immigrants and American-born; they were married to both immigrant Europeans and American-born Caucasians; they were parents of children aged 3 to 33; and they lived in Michigan, California, and Ontario.

Their viewpoints on this subject were as varied as the children themselves, and they varied along many lines: Parents of now-grown children had different concerns than parents of young children today; immigrants and American-born had very different perspectives; and of course the temperaments and interests of individual parents and children were important factors, too. Here are some suggestions and ideas from a number of parents of part-Asian multiracial children. See what makes sense for you and your family.

Cultural Heritage
Most parents interviewed believed it was important to teach the children about both parents' cultural heritages. Stay-at-home mom Donna Tien-Hurter, a Chinese immigrant from Taiwan who is married to a Swiss man and now lives outside of Toronto, Canada, said, "e;It's a lot of work. You have to do a lot of research to know the other parent's culture, especially if he is not around as much as you are."e; She says that despite the expense, she takes her daughter to Taiwan and to Switzerland on alternate years. Keep close to grandparents, relatives, and other people from that country, she advises. Expose them to music and stories and pictures.

Create an interest. When they are older they can always learn more. Retired doctor Maria Dohi of Sherman Oaks, California, who immigrated from Spain to do her residency in the 60's, said that her children were naturally sensitive to the interests of their Spanish-born mother and Nisei Japanese-American father: "e;When my son, Gregory, was at Harvard, he took some courses and now knows more than I do about Spanish light opera, as well as early art in Japan."e;

For the American-born parent, it is also important to research one's own culture and Asian American history to fill in the gaps of what one may or may not have learned directly from family and experience, and to place oneself and one's child into a larger context.

Parents could also take a further step to learn and teach their child about other Asian cultures. Japanese-American graphic designer Lori Saginaw's own upbringing was very ethnocentrically Japanese, and she was surprised to realize how little she knew about other Asian cultures. These days, however, multiculturalism is in vogue. "e;(My teenage children) are now fourth-generation multiracial people in a multiracial culture,"e; says Saginaw, "e;but I want them to feel a kinship with people of other Asian backgrounds. Make an effort to cross into those other cultures and go out of your way to meet people of other Asian cultures. There is a true richness and breadth to being Asian which is very complicated with lots of crossing over boundaries."e;

Language is an important part of maintaining cultural and family ties (as well as future career opportunities). Many parents send their children to language school and to grandparents to learn more languages. Language will allow the children easier access and entry into the Asian community, which will always have many multilingual people and those who do not speak English so well.

My husband Dennis and I send our toddlers to the only Chinese daycare in Ann Arbor, Michigan, even though it is on the opposite side of town, just so the children can hear more Chinese and be with Chinese people. Even before our eldest, Mango, turned three she was signed up for Chinese language school. Dennis has been learning Chinese alongside his two daughters so that they can all communicate as a family; he jokes, however, that the children surpassed him within weeks of learning their first words, and that his in-laws laugh because he only knows baby words.

Find Others
Surround yourselves with other multiracial people. College math instructor Shirley Ling, who is Chinese raised in Taiwan and the Philippines, says that her children had a very hard time living in her husband Olov Lindberg's native Sweden because it was such a homogeneous society, but since moving to southern California, "e;It's like paradise. Nobody raises an eyebrow because you're mixed. We go everywhere and it doesn't matter. It's more socially acceptable. We had a neighborhood block party and realized that every couple on our street was mixed."e; Her now-teenage children used to be the only people (in all of Sweden, it seemed) that had black hair, but now in southern California, "e;everyone has black hair."e; She says they fit in and feel better about themselves.

Lori Saginaw takes it a step further: "e;Expose your kids to many different types of people through drama, books, playgroup. This helps children who don't typically see themselves reflected on TV, at least not around here (Michigan)."e;

Prepare for Racism
Unfortunately, it is also important to prepare multiracial children for the inevitable racial taunts that they will encounter. Lori Saginaw suggests, "e;Share stories of racism and prejudice so that they know it's not new, they're not alone, it happens to everyone, and that it happens out of ignorance and from people who can't see past their own perspectives. You can't really shield them from it, but if you give them the tools to deal with it and a level of comfort with people of all colors, that will give them a sense of comfort in the world, a strong sense of who they are, and respect for everyone else."e;
Prejudice can manifest itself as early as preschool, so children need to be given the tools to know how to deal with it and to know that they can go to their parents about it. Maria Dohi says that there are universal lessons to be learned from injustice-about good and bad, and how injustice happens in all countries, even in more homogenous ones like her own Spain.

Ultimately, all of this is aimed at helping children form a strong sense of identity and pride in themselves as individuals. It is about helping the children feel secure and comfortable with themselves in our world. Now, how one does this is the tricky part and really depends on the family involved. Some parents foster in their children a sense that they are true international citizens, belonging to three countries (mom's, dad's, and America). Others say they are true Americans, multiracial in a country of many races. Some say that they are half one ethnicity and half another. Others say that they are fully both ethnicities. Hawaiians group them together as Hapas. At some level, it is just a matter of semantics. But for children creating a place for themselves in the world, the exact semantics can be critical. The only thing that is certain is that because they are born in America, they are American and they are changing the face of America.

Lori Saginaw tells her children that being multiracial is a gift, an asset, and a privilege. It allows them to cross a lot of boundaries. "e;You have a key to a door that most people are going to have to work very hard to know even exists. You are a child of two ethnicities so you have twice what other people have. You are not burdened with only one perspective, which is hard to see past. You can look at things more than one way because you come from more than one way."e;

Reprinted by Permission of the author from Asian American Village Online. and the Multicultural Villages are the leading online source for diversity recruitment, career development information, and cultural/community content for underrepresented U.S. minorities.
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