|War Baby/Love Child: What Are You?|
War Baby/Love Child: What Are You? (Questions # 0, 1, and 3) by Wei Ling Dariotis
Being asked, daily, “What are you?” (Question # 1), I was made aware at an early age that the people who asked me that question wanted to know something that went beyond my personal identity. They wanted to know something about my parents, and they were curious because there was something about us as a family; and me as an individual, that was not normal. If I answered, “Chinese, Greek, Swedish, Scottish, English, German, and Pennsylvania Dutch (two different kinds of German),” as I usually did, all in one breath, I would then be interrogated regarding which one of my parents is Chinese. Most people assume, correctly, that my mother is Chinese. But why would they assume this, and why would they need to know that, if they really just wanted to know what I am? (Note: the question is not “Who Are You?” it is always, always, always, “What Are You?”)
The answer is simple: Question #1 is not really about my individual identity; it is really a question about race and about gender. It is about power: who has it, personally and institutionally, and how it is used in the world. And, ultimately, how creatures like me upset the balance of power by messing up the lines of power.
“Where did your parents meet?” is Question #2. By those less tactful, but perhaps more honest, this would be phrased, “Was you father in the military?” In other words (and though I’ve never, ever been asked this, I’ve often wished I would be, just to see how I might answer): “Are you a War Baby or a Love Child?”
How have I made this leap? Well, I was born in 1969, just two years after the historic Supreme Court decision, Loving V. Virginia that struck down the remaining anti-miscegenation laws (laws prohibiting the intermarriage of “whites” with non-whites) in 17 states. 1969 was also the height of the escalation of US involvement in Vietnam, and it was at the crux of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements.
The two historical factors that have had the largest impact on the number of Asian and Pacific Americans of mixed heritage are war (and his attendants: colonialism and imperialism) and the Civil Rights movement. Arguably, war is really the progenitor of all mixed heritage since, as the Third World Liberation slogan goes, “We’re Here Because You Were There.”
For years, I’ve wanted to make a t-shirt that reads “War Baby/Love Child” on the front, and “What Are You?” on the back. The “What Are You?” T-shirt has been made, I think several times over, by various mixed heritage student groups. The “War Baby/Love Child” t-shirt may never be made by a collective of mixed people, because it brings up painful stereotypes that too many of us have had to counteract. The problem is, people who assume our mothers are Asian women in a war-torn country, and our fathers are American military personnel, too often have a cinematic vision of what that means (picture: Rambo holding a beautiful Vietnamese village girl, whom he loves, in his muscle-bound arms as she dies; or, more likely, picture: Asian bar girl, any ethnicity, dressed lewdly, approaching soldiers with dollar signs in her eyes, “Me love you long time; suckee suckee; me so horny, soldier boy.”) They picture desperate/amoral women, or perhaps innocent (but still sexually available) peasant victims. They picture lovely geishas (WW II, Japan) or Korean bar girls (Korean War) or Vietnamese bar girls (Vietnam War) or Filipina camp girls (US military bases in the Philippines) or Chamorro bar girls (US military occupation of Guam) or Hawaiian (Native and mixed Asian) bar girls (US military occupation of Hawaii). Will they now picture Afghan and Iraqui bar girls (in full “I Dream of Jeannie” “harem girl” fantasy ensemble)? The picture tends to blur because, after 100 years of US military actions, colonialism, and imperialism in Asia and the Pacific (and the importation of labor from Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and China to Hawaii, for good measure) maybe we’ve begun to all look the same.
But the truth is, even when our parents met in college (as mine did at the University of Hawaii, Maui, in 1968), our history is also the history of war, but it is also the history of our struggle for liberation, social justice and human rights. War Babies/Love’s Children: What Are You?”
My own family’s history may not have been as directly affected by war as some, but neither can it be divorced from this larger global story. My mother’s family did not immigrate from Southern China, as did so many in the 1850s-1880s, to the USA, Latin America, South America, Canada, South-East Asia, of Africa. Those that did mostly left because of the wars, poverty, and starvation caused by the Opium Wars waged by Europe and the US from the 1830s-60s to get China to open its borders to the Opium trade being pushed especially by Britain (opium being grown, of course, in the British colonies) to satisfy the need to rectify the trade imbalance caused by European desires for silk, tea, and spices from China.
My mother, the daughter of a wealthy Shanghainese “merchant” (stories of my colorful grandfather, Gung Gung, another time), was one of the many young children handed through a window of “the last train to leave Shanghai” in 1950 before the Communists came (still not sure if this is something she truly remembers or something she saw in a movie). She was raised in Hong Kong and, as had many immigrants before her, decided to come to the US to seek out a different life. My mother did not have to pay a smuggler, nor was she tricked into prostitution of indentured labor. Unlike many other immigrants, she came from a life of relative privilege. She had servants, a nanny, and went to private school. She saw little of her parents, however, and found the life style of her family stifling and hypocritical. Her parents seemed concerned only with making money and keeping up appearances, so, when she was 16, my mother-the-mischievous, asked her father, casually, if he would send her to school abroad, just as her brothers had gone to Sydney and London, if she could get into a school in America.
My mother was a trickster. She had already applied for and been accepted to a private girls’ school in Boston; when her father humored her apparent impulse by saying, “of course,” she promptly handed him her acceptance letter and demanded he follow through with his promise.
A few years later, after a year freezing at Michigan State, my mother had had enough of cold weather and decided to live out her fantasy by transferring to the University of Hawaii. My father had also done his time in the cold—a year at Seattle University following a lifetime of living near Seattle (his grandfathers, one from Sweden and one from Greece, had settled there with his grandmothers, both multi-generational European Americans: one Scottish and Pennsylvania Dutch, the other English and German). My father was a hippie. It was because he saw himself as a member of the counter culture, that, as he puts it in his version of our family history, a video titled “When We Were Golden,” he had to marry his “Chinese girlfriend.”
This is where the “Love Child” thing comes in. My dad was/is a white liberal. His family, in 1968, was so “cosmopolitan” that they had no problem with him marrying a Chinese woman. (Nor, for that matter, did my mother’s family have any problem with her marrying a white man; in fact, two of her brothers married white women, while my other uncle, Robert, married a woman who is French-Vietnamese).Perhaps all this gentility was due to the fact that both families share a similar upper-middle class background.
In any case, my father had the luxury of marrying his “Chinese girlfriend” because, as he put it, he’d never tried it before (in a case of the importance of clarifying your referent, I’ve never been sure if by “it” he meant marriage, or Chinese). My mother’s motives were more maternal and less “anti-establishment.” Eating a bowl of noodle soup one day, she glanced down and saw, not her own reflection, but a vision of her daughter: me. She saw my father at a party and thought, “We’ll make beautiful children together.” The marriage didn’t last long, so it turned out to be just the one child. Origin myths being what they are, however, there is of course more to the story.
The term “Love Child” must be applied loosely in may case. In so far as it labels me the children of hippies (or really, just hippie-singular, as I don’t think my mother every really embraced the vegetarianism or the Sikh Master or the LSD), the label “Love Child” is accurate. Whether my parents ever really loved each other is certainly open to debate. It is fair to say that they were excited about the idea of doing something socially unexpected. My father’s second wife was Chicana, and he has prided himself on being open minded and dating women “from around the world” and “of every race.” My mother’s story is also not just about love, however. In my mid 20s, I started to ask her Questions about her history. After learning something about Asian American history, and learning about the high rates of intermarriage for Asian American women, I asked my mother if she had married my father at least partially because it would make her more accepted here in America. Her answer? “Duh!” (she’d been spending a little too much time with my teenage brother). “Of course,” she said, sounding a little irritated at my clueless-ness. “I was an immigrant, a foreigner. I had no family here, no support. After 10 years of English lessons in Hong Kong, when I came here I still couldn’t understand anything anyone said to me. What was I? Just a cute Chinese girl—at best. At worst, well—you know. Walking down the street with your father, I might be accepted. I might be seen as just a little bit more Americanized. They might assume I spoke English.”
Then, as an aside, she added something that shook me: “And with you. Just holding your hand, even without your father, that made me more American. You made me more American.” When she told me this my mind raced in circles; we are always thought to think about our identity in terms of our ancestors—we are their creations, their descendants. We are the sum of what they were. But here was my mother telling me that I had made her who she was; she was at this point in time identifying herself no longer as Chinese, but as a Chinese American—because America is where her children had been born. And then I wondered: when my Swedish/Scottish grandmother showed me proudly around Seattle, saying, “This is Wei Ming, this is my granddaughter,” did my identity change hers in a kind of reverse-inheritance? When my father sometimes introduced me to his dates, what was I changing about his identity? What did my existence say, retroactively, about my ancestors? I am the tree that grows from their roots; but I am a hybrid, I am the unexpected mutation. I am not the answer to the question they may have been asked when they got married (Question # 0): “What About the Children?” I am my own question, my own inquiry into how all of this: love, war, sex, power shapes who we are and the world we live in.
War Babies: White Side/Chinese Side
And, to come back around to the beginning, I must look again at our myth of origins: War-- because it is also the story of my family. As I mentioned earlier, my Uncle married a woman, Annick, my Auntie Nickie, who is the child of a French military officer and a Vietnamese mother, a native of Da Nang. I am reasonably certain her parents would never have met had it not been for the French colonial occupation of “Indochina.” I’m also fairly certain that she would never have met my Uncle if she were not of mixed heritage. Unlike her siblings of two Vietnamese parents, Auntie Nickie was able, at age 18, to leave Vietnam for Japan. Eventually, she found her way to Bangkok and worked at a bank, where she met my Uncle Robert. Their children, my three cousins, have been educated at French schools in Bangkok and boarding schools in Sydney (the family tradition continued). I’ve bugged my cousins about their identity. After saying, “I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it,” they admit they don’t feel particularly Vietnamese. They know they are not French, although culturally they feel connected because of their education. They are Chinese, but only in the way that so many people in the world outside of China and Taiwan are Chinese (for more on that, read the excellent collection by Ien Ang, On Not Speaking Chinese). They actually consider themselves Thai, but not really Thai, since they have a fake Thai surname (a law in Thailand for citizenship purposes) and they do sometimes use their Thai personal names in addition to their French personal names.
All my cousins on my mother’s side of the family are mixed, except for the latest addition, who is “pure” Shanghainese, according to his father, my Uncle Rudolf. I say, “my mother’s side” though I have just as often called it, “my Chinese side.” Inaccurately, as it turns out. But things change, and sometimes it takes our minds a while to catch up. I’m the eldest of all my cousins, so for a time it made sense to call it, “My Chinese side,” and this is often how other multiple heritage people refer to their families: by sides, as though it were a chess game. And as though their families were color-coded.
My “white side” is also a fallacy. For one thing, I’m part of that family, too, so, because I’m not white it can’t be white, either. But for another thing, my Korean cousin comes from my “white side.” Yes, this is another war story.
My Swedish/Scottish/Pennsylvania Dutch grandmother’s cousin was a military officer during the Korean War. He met a Korean woman, and married her, and adopted her son from her marriage to a Korean man. My cousin, Tae-ji, is a Korean transracial adoptee. As it happens, my grandmother’s cousin didn’t have much other family, so he ended up moving to the Seattle area to be close to someone. And who knows, maybe it was because of me that he and his family felt more comfortable with my grandmother than with his other relatives. I know that he and his wife enjoyed coming to family gatherings if they knew my mother and I would be there. We would eat, with relish, their homemade pickled daikon. My Korean cousin, Tae-ji, is one of tens of thousands of Koreans who have been transracially adopted, mostly by European Americans. My Auntie Nickie is one of tens of thousands of Eurasians and Amerasians to emerge from half a century of imperialism and war in Vietnam.
We cannot ignore the truth of the War Baby stereotype, just as we cannot ignore the Hollywood-driven fallacies of that image. War Babies and Love Children is what we are, but we can just as well say these things are what the world is, because without these histories of war we would not be the world we are now. American middle-class prosperity, free from war, is a myth we cannot afford.
I will wear a t-shirt that says, “War Baby/Love Child” and on the back, “Ask Me!” because as long as I have hated being asked Question #1 and Question #2, I have also always wanted to tell you my answers.
Ang, Ien. On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West. New York: Routledge, 2001
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