Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Chinese Face

The other day, Maya and Zoe were chatting in the back seat while I was driving them to ballet.  Suddenly, I heard Maya say, "I don't like having a Chinese face."

I wasn't overly surprised;  Maya doesn't like being different and sees being Chinese as different.  When I asked why, she confirmed what I thought.  She felt "left out" at school because only she and one other girl in her class have "Chinese faces."

Zoe jumped in immediately to tell Maya how wonderful it is to be Chinese -- my girls are very different on this point!  Zoe loves being Chinese, loves being able to share with others all things Chinese (Zoe's adoption issues are different from Maya's, all about loss and grief and missing her birth family, while Maya professes to have no interest in her birth family, but doesn't like how transracial adoption makes her different). 

My contribution, then, had to be about Maya's feelings since Zoe was so insistent on the it's-wonderful-to-be-Chinese front. We talked about how normal it was to feel the way she does, and that it's OK to feel that way even when Zoe doesn't! I told her about other transracial adoptees who feel the way she does, and she was really fascinated to hear that -- mostly because it was different from how Zoe feels.

I explored whether anything in particular had happened at school to make her feel left out, and she said no.  I'm not surprised -- Maya is really popular in her class.  When I last visited during recess, Maya was mobbed by kids who wanted to play with her.  She was the undisputed leader in some game involving spies and kids pretending to be animals;  all the kids ran to her to seek approval for whatever animal and spy superpower they'd concocted!  There haven't been any more incidents with the little boy who said Maya couldn't sit next to him since she was Chinese.

The conversation kind of petered away, as they often do, redirected to the need to get to ballet class on time.  But I made a note that we needed to talk again, and that I had a book on the bookshelf that might be good to read.  This evening, I finally got around to pulling it out -- An American Face, about a little boy adopted from Korea who thought that when he received his American citizenship he'd also get his "American face."  He doesn't like his flat nose or slanted eyes or light brown skin.  The ultimate lesson in the book is one I love, that lots of different faces are "American."

Maya liked that the boy felt like she did, being the only one with an Asian face in his kindergarden class.  But she ultimately said that the boy was silly, because it doesn't matter that people look different, that they all have the same heart. It sounded like a rote lesson, not really something she internalized. so I reiterated that I understood how she felt about being different.  When we were in China for five months in 2007, my "American face" made me very different, and sometimes that made me feel very uncomfortable.  Maya's kind heart was quick to defend me -- "But I like your American face!"  That gave me the opportunity to tell her, feature by feature, from the little peak in her eyebrows to the point of her chin, how much I love her Chinese face!

I know this won't be our last conversation on this point -- it certainly wasn't our first.  But I'm always glad that my girls are willing to talk about their feelings.  And I'm glad I hoard all manner of books to open (or re-open) the door to such topics. 


LisaLew said...

This is a great post, and very helpful for this age group. It would have been so easy to sugar coat things in your conversation, Zoe who is clearly embracing differences! But you didn't, you sound like you were very neutral and supportive. I haven't read An American Face, will have to look into that one. Thank you for sharing your experience.

The Hernandez Herd said...

Thanks for sharing.

Holly said...

My son feels this way. His dad is American Chinese so I thought that he would be less likely to feel out of place. But, it's his friends who he compares to more. Thanks for the book recommendation.

Chris said...

My 5 year old daughter just remarked the other day that she didn't like being the only Chinese girl in her kindergarten class. She was also upset when everyone had to bring in a baby picture for a class discussion on 'change and growth'. All the kids knew which baby picture was hers whereas other kids'{baby}pictures were not quite as obvious.

I am just glad she is talking to me about these things and her feelings!

Thanks for the book recommendations.

Victoria said...

Just because Maya is most popular doesn't mean that she is not singled out for being different - perhaps it is because of her difference. Being special or especially popular could be a double-edged sword for her.

malinda said...

Good point, Victoria. I was looking at it based on Maya's statement that she felt "left out." I can see being "singled out" because of difference, but she isn't left out (which doesn't change that she feels that way).

Anonymous said...

This year we had to decide on a school for first grade. I took her to a new school or we could send her back to the school she went to kinder. She told me she didn't want to go back to her kinder school (which she loved) because no one looked liked her. new school was diverse, so off to new school she went... (which was not my first choice academically.)

Today she told me her liked her new school. When I asked why she said "because many kids have black hair like me, even my teacher." (Her teacher is African American, so she puts dark hair-- AA, Latino and asian together."

I just don't think adoptive parents can undermine the significance of race in our children's lives. For the adoptive child, education goes beyond books...