Living in a small community in mid-Missouri, my Chinese-born children Truman and Tiana have grown accustomed to seeing mostly white faces wherever they go. Though our beloved hometown of Ashland is slowly but surely becoming more ethnically diverse than it was when Bethany and I first moved here nearly 20 years ago, our kids see very few faces that resemble their own.
It only occurred to me as I sat down to write this piece that of the 31 members of our family who were gathered at our home to celebrate Thanksgiving last Thursday, Truman and Tiana were the only non-white people in attendance. My Chinese kids see more faces of color at school than they do in their own family.
I’m not sure why this fact took me by surprise. Perhaps it’s because I sometimes forget that Truman and Tiana are not my genetic offspring. Though they may not physically resemble us, their behavior leaves little room for doubt that they’re Naughtons. The truth is that Bethany and I do not see them as anything other than our kids.
Once, Bethany asked a friend, “Does Truman still look Chinese to you?” She really wanted to know because to her, he no longer looked Asian. I laughed at my wife when she first told me that story, but now I see where she was coming from. When you are able to see and appreciate who someone truly is on the inside, it ceases to matter what they look like on the outside. As gorgeous as our children’s Asian faces are, we know that their loving hearts are even more beautiful.
There are well-meaning people in this world who will tell you that when it comes to race, they are colorblind. Adoptive families may be the only people who can honestly make that claim. Nevertheless, colorblindness is not necessarily a good thing. Pretending not to notice skin color or race is disingenuous at best. Although we are not solely defined by our ethnicity, it is undeniably a part of who we are as human beings.
Bethany and I do not teach our kids to ignore race. Our oldest son Alex is genetically ours, and therefore White. We have taught him that he is ethnically Irish and German. We celebrate his (our) cultural heritage, just as we celebrate the Chinese heritage of Truman and Tiana. Full disclosure: For a short time, Truman was convinced that he was in fact Irish, an error for which I bear a small measure of responsibility. I thought he knew that I was joking, but I realized my mistake when he came home from school very upset one afternoon because he had been in an argument with some classmates who could not be persuaded to believe that my obviously Asian child was Irish like his father.
Despite being well-adjusted and fully-assimilated Americans now, Truman and Tiana are undeniably Chinese, too. Bethany and I try not to let their Asian-ness fade too far into their backgrounds. We attend reunions with the two-dozen other American families we met in China where they, too, adopted children. It’s always great fun to get the kids together, and it’s important for them to have contact with other Chinese children whom they have known since they were young.
We have lots of reminders of China throughout our house, too. Figurines of dragons, Asian elephants, pandas, terra cotta warriors, and Buddha can be found in almost every room. We also have photo albums of our journeys to China to remind the kids where they came from and how they got here. But it’s still not enough.
When Bethany brought home a copy of Crazy Rich Asians on DVD last weekend, I realized how rare it is to find quality entertainment created for Asian-Americans. When was the last time you watched a movie starring an Asian actor that had nothing to do with martial arts? When was the last time you saw a movie starring an Asian actor—period?
As my kids watched the movie, I watched them. I saw the joy in their eyes as they identified with the characters on the screen. It was good for them to see Chinese people depicted as successful, strong, tender, funny, passionate, and intelligent. Truman and Tiana got a glimpse of what life is like in a Chinese family, albeit a crazy rich one, and I think they liked what they saw.