We were not the first couple to adopt an Asian child, but when she entered our lives, Korean adoptees were not as common as they would be later. Now not just the spouse with her short leg and brace, but the daughter could bring stares and comments when she was with two white adults. (Apart from us she is, of course, less noticeable if she is in a community that has more than a sprinkling of Asians, but sometimes that is not the case. The daughter and I recently took a trip to Peru along with fifteen white people in addition to me. The daughter stood out whether or not she was with me.)
When the daughter was still a toddler, the spouse one day took her to a neighborhood park. A girl, maybe six years old, looked at the daughter and then up at the spouse and then back at the daughter and then at the spouse again. After this had gone on for a while, the girl approached the spouse and stood there for a moment. Finally, she asked, “Is that your baby?” The spouse replied, “Yes.” “Funny,” the girl felt compelled to say, “she sorta came out Chinese.”
I was in Venice on a water bus with the daughter when she was three. A man kept staring at us. He started talking to me in broken English. I gathered he was asking whether the daughter was mine. I replied, “Yes,” but he was not satisfied. He kept jabbering, and since my Italian consists of a few words that might appear on a menu, I did not understand him. Finally, somehow I grasped that he was asking if she truly was my daughter, why was she Asian? I told him that she was born in Korea, and my wife and I had adopted her. His loud and insistent replies indicated that he did not understand. How come she was Asian? I tried to find a simpler way to convey this in English, but he just kept getting louder. He was making me, and others on the boat, feel uncomfortable. Finally, I said, “Wife. Chinese.” He said the Italian equivalent of “Ah” and walked away.
Teaching moments in this family were sometimes different from those in other families. On one occasion—the daughter was five—she and the spouse went to a fast-food outlet. When they had their food and taken their seats, the daughter quietly noted, “Mom, they’re staring at us again.” “Get used to it, Sweetie,” she replied. “It’s always going to happen.”
I am part of a conspicuous couple and conspicuous family, but I do not feel the center of the attention. I am the barely noticed person with The Woman with the Brace or the unremarkable white man with The Asian Female. Perhaps only one time did I feel personally conspicuous because of the family.
The daughter was kindergarten age, and we were in New Hampshire for a week in a rented cottage. I took the daughter to a toy store in the nearby village. The spouse for part of the week was at a scientific conference, and she was not with us. It was a weekday, and I was the only man in the store. A toy vacuum cleaner was a demo, and the daughter starting “vacuuming” the carpeted stairs that went from one level of the store to the next. She went on and on trying to clean each step. I felt that the mothers were all looking at me out of their peripheral vision not because I was a white man with an Asian daughter. Instead, I was convinced they were looking at me and thinking, “Oh, he is one of those men who have traditional notions for girls. Next he is going to tie a little apron on her and bring her to the toy stove.” And I wanted to say, “I would never give her a vacuum cleaner. She has trucks and Legos and I play ball with her all the time.” (The daughter is now an adult, but she still likes to vacuum. Maybe I should have bought that toy for her.)
On this same trip, I decided that as long as we were going to be in a New England village we should experience as much small-town life as possible. I had us do things like go to a church dinner at some ungodly hour like 5 PM (the food was not good; I did not buy this church’s cookbook) and to a chicken barbecue in the town park (the food was quite good, but there was no cookbook). We had gone to both the grocery stores and the specialty food shops and, of course, to the gas station as well as a trip to the hardware store. Towards the end of the week, we were back in the park for a band concert. I stayed with our picnic packings while the spouse and the daughter went closer to the bandstand. A seemingly nice man came up to me and said, “I have seen you around town, and I want to say, ‘God bless you for all that you have done.’ ” I must have looked dumbfounded. He then indicated that he meant that I must be a wonderful man for marrying a cripple and adopting an Asian. All I could do was smile politely and say, “Thank you.” But as he walked away, I thought how little he understood. I had not adopted out of a sense of charity, and I had merely married the woman I loved. I was not somehow apart from those two, however, conspicuous they might be to others. The three of us were simply family no matter how others might stare or wonder.
Being conspicuous and part of a conspicuous family, however, must have affected the three of us—our images of ourselves, each other, and a world that often distinctively reacts to us as individuals and as a family. The daughter has written, amusingly and touchingly, about her identity. Perhaps someday I will get her to post about that.