December 21, 2018

A Question of Heritage

In our "politically correct" society, we spend so much time fretting over word choice and potential offence. I am a biracial woman, the child of a Hong Kong born Chinese father and an American born mother of Welsh and German descent, who married a white man. I enjoyed living in racial majority until age ten when we moved to a predominantly white (and rural) community. I take pride in my unique heritage and find the various ways people ask about my racial background interesting. "What are you?" "Are you Hawaiian?" "Are you mixed?" I am matter-of-fact about my heritage. I am half-Chinese, born in Canada to immigrant parents.

My father never pressed my younger sister or I to learn his mother tongue. He learned English as a second language and seemed self-conscious over his mastery. As a child, I learned some words in Cantonese, but now I can only count to ten, sing "Jesus Loves Me", say "thank you" in two different ways, and wish others a happy new year. Not exactly life skills. My rendition of "Jesus Loves Me" seems to please my Chinese-only speaking grandmother.

I have oriental decorations in my house, I have worn traditional clothing, and I love Chinese food. I can relate to the "only exceeding perfection is good enough" parental expectations. Indeed, I wonder if my father has ever been proud of me. He never says he loves me, although my mom assures me he used to when I was little. He demonstrates his love by offering me money—even though I don't need it—as financial security is very important to him. My mother is very vocal about her pride and love. I don't feel unloved. I'm actually quite confident my father loves me. I know he loves my children.

My father has taught my boys to count in Chinese. He would prefer they call him "Goan-Goan" which is the Chinese name for father of the mother. It's hard to change a lifetime of Anglicisation. They usually call him "Grandpa". My oldest son, although one-quarter Chinese, identifies quite strongly as Chinese. My youngest son doesn't consider himself Chinese at all. My husband and I encourage the kids to learn and appreciate all facets of their heritage.

What started me on this line of thinking? I sent out a digital Christmas card to my mailing list this week. One person unsubscribed with a lengthy comment about how my characters are white-washed and don't reflect my heritage. This is something I have never considered. Character selection is driven by my characters themselves. I don't give them red hair or dark features. I don't write them as happy or angry or high-strung. They assign their own appearance and personality. To force the issue would be akin to betrayal.

What does this say about me and my identification to my heritage? Should non-white authors write non-white characters?

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