Even now, three years into being a mother, and I still get jokes about it.
Sometimes it’s by people who know me only through Facebook, the people who have seen my wedding photos and vacation photos. Sometimes it’s people who have met my husband at a social gathering. Some are people who barely know me at all. In all cases, they’ve seen my husband — and then they get a look at our kid.
“So who’s the father?”
This is almost always accompanied by a visible sizing up of my child. I see the scan of my son’s skin, eyes, nose, hair, and then I watch the gears turn. His ethnicity is a puzzle. I understand what prompts the jokes, but that doesn’t make them hurt less.
My husband is Asian. Our son is too, by virtue of genetics — but he doesn’t have the features that fit with preconceptions of what an Asian looks like.
It’s the same issue with my husband, who is Japanese but appears ethnically ambiguous. That means when we’ve gone to a Chinese restaurant together, a table full of customers has tried to give him their orders. (That’s happened more than once.) He’s been called Jackie Chan (wrong ethnicity), Daniel Dae Kim (wrong ethnicity), and Toshiba (not even a person). He’s a teacher, and some of his students have been so blunt as to ask, “What are you?”
Our son, on the other hand, is also ethnically ambiguous but looks more Caucasian than anything else. His hair is light, fine, and wispy; in the sunshine it looks red. His eyes are stunningly dark but wide. He doesn’t fit with the stereotypes of what part-Asian people are expected to look like, but that doesn’t make him any less Japanese.
This isn’t exclusive to strangers, by the way. I’ve had awkward exchanges with those closest to us. About a month after the birth, this happened with someone in my immediate family:
RELATIVE: How’s the baby? We were all looking at photos and talking about — well, you know.
ME: No, I don’t know. What?
RELATIVE: It’s just a surprise. That’s all.
ME: What’s a surprise?
RELATIVE: Well, he’s not very Japanese-y, is he?
My son is Japanese because that’s what his heritage is. He’s also German and Polish and Irish. It’s possible that he will grow up without feeling any strong ties to his heritage or with his own questions about his identity, and that’s something we’ll discuss as he gets older.
Right now, this is what I can tell you about my son. He is mixed race. He loves maps and Mo Willems books, watermelon and the color orange. He’s the funniest kid I’ve ever known, and I’m so grateful that he’s ours.
Images by Maggie Downs and Marisa McDonald Photography.
This post was originally published July, 2017.