The Divine Comedy of Liberal Good Intentions

This morning I was sent a slice of internet gold.* The story is of a white American couple, desperate to adopt a baby. An opportunity presents itself in a (very) young Asian American couple, offering their newborn son up for adoption. The adoptive parents are overjoyed, and without further ado set about building a family with their new son. Within the first year, they begin to feel that they should make preparations to put their child in touch with his ‘ethnic origins’. Given that they live in a large Chinese American community, they send him for Mandarin lessons; find him an ‘adoptive’ Chinese aunt and uncle; celebrate Chinese festivals; and take him to China every two years on holiday:

We try and be PC as possible and we thought we were doing the right thing.

At seventeen years old, the son is preparing his college applications, and his father digs out his adoption papers. There, jumping out of the document at him, are the surnames “Park” and “Kim”:

For those of you that do not know, those are Korean last names. My son is not Chinese. Not even a little bit.

He’s Korean.

The penny has dropped, and gradually the news starts to sink in. The father, horrified, begins to think back over seventeen years’ worth of blind assumptions, with the truth now staring him in the face:

Now that I look at him, he looks INCREDIBLY Korean in comparassion to all of the photos of Korean men that I have just googled. Very square jaw, less hooded eyes, very broad build. None of this ever crossed my mind.

Too mortified to tell his wife and son, the father makes his confession to the internet, which duly rolls up its sleeves to give him a good pummelling for being, as the writer brands himself, “that dumb liberal white dickhead”.

Distressed, after receiving a wave of negative comments, the father publishes an addendum to his story:

I know this is the internet and I can’t tell people to stop saying such harsh things, but please know I’m a Human and a Dad. It hurts more than I care to admit. I love my son, I’m not a racist.

The great irony is that, despite bending over backwards to be culturally sensitive and to open his son’s horizons to a second language and national heritage – actions that would meet with approval by most parenting standards, and which many would consider highly appropriate for a ‘multi-ethnic’ adoptive family – the father is deemed to be racist when he is revealed to have made an apparently grave category error. ‘Racist’, because he couldn’t tell apart ‘Korean’ and ‘Chinese’ physical characteristics, and instead was guided by the (much more tangible) cultural milieu in which they lived. (By the way, judging people’s cultural background by their physical appearance may also be deeply frowned upon by ‘liberal’ Americans, frustrated by the ignorance of those who ‘make assumptions‘ and ‘get it wrong‘ – proof of the old adages that appearances can be deceiving and you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover).

Fortunately, some readers began to see the funny side, and similar stories started to flood in. As it turns out, America is full of Chinese Americans who look Korean; Irish Americans whose ancestors turned out to be Scottish; Dominicans of Chinese parents who don’t care about their ‘ethnic’ origins; and Americans who wish everyone could just be happy to call themselves Americans, plain and simple.

Most genealogists know that voluntary and involuntary ‘ethnic mix-ups’ have been happening for generations. Family trees are full of people who changed categories to suit the needs of the times: from ‘black’ to ‘white’, from ‘mixed’ to ‘Spanish’… In older times, when ‘ethnic’ heritage was not in such vogue, some people did what they could to downplay or forget their Old World origins, leading to difficulties for their descendants today who are trying to discover ‘who they really are’.

In the same vein, my favourite response to the post deserves a full reprint:

My Mom is really into geneaolgy and has mapped us back a ton of generations. My Grandmother kept telling my mom she was part Native American, and we all believed her because she actually really looked like it. My mom spent years looking for the connection somewhere in her mothers side of the family, and actually thought she had nailed it a few times.

Cut to early 2001 and my Grandmother is in the hospital on her deathbed. She and my mom are in the room alone, and my grandma tells my mom she has something very important to tell her.

GM: “You know how I’m Native American?”

mom thinks she’s finally going to find out where the relation is

GM: “yeah, I was just messing with you because I knew how badly you wanted a complete family history.”

I think that was the last time I heard my Grandma laugh, and it was glorious!

Amidst all the agonising over political correctness and cultural sensitivity, it’s good to know that people still have a sense of humour.

*Thanks to KM for the link.

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