Some things are complicated. Like how to address race with my kids. Cuz, who has lived in NYC all of her life aside from a four-year sojourn at Dartmouth, recently overheard me talking to Finn about someone with brown skin. “What the hell is a brown person? You mean a black person?” I looked at her in horror. “We don’t say ‘black person,'” I hissed, fighting the urge to cover Finn’s ears. “You’re right, ‘brown person’ sounds so much better,” Cuz shot back. This, only days after I overheard her nonchalantly chatting with a wide-eyed Finn about people she knew, DYING. I have a feeling this is going to be an educational year for Finn.
I admit to being overly sensitive about race and nationality. But consider this. I am Korean. And over the years, I’ve built up a distaste for inaccurate labels. Like, when people ask me if I’m North Korean. I get that question every couple years, usually from a lawyer. One day, I hope to work up the guts to respond “Yes, I broke out of North Korea and swam to the US.”
Let me save you and the Koreans in your life from an awkward moment: chances are extremely high—like 99.8%—that none of the Koreans you know are from North Korea. I know a lot of Koreans, and I don’t know any. Cuz has met ONE, and the incident sticks out in her memory as if the North Korean she met was Kim Jong Il.
To put it in perspective, asking a Korean-American if they are from North Korea is like asking a Canadian if they know Santa Claus. Neither question reflects well on the speaker’s intelligence. A quick refresher: North Korea is an impenetrable hermit kingdom from which there is no easy escape. There is a reason you don’t see real North Koreans except every four years during the Olympics, when their tiny delegation will inevitably suffer some unfortunate diplomatic slight. I come from South Korea, a modern democracy that has HOSTED the Olympics and is likely responsible for producing your cell phone, flat screen TV, and the valedictorian of your high school class.
But I’d rather be called North Korean than oriental, any day of the week. I don’t hear it as often as I used to, but I still hear the word and it drives me batsh*t crazy. If you don’t think “oriental” is still a thing, consider that until very recently, Wendy’s had a menu item called the Oriental Chicken Salad. First of all, many of the Orientals I know don’t like chicken, and they sure as hell don’t like it on a salad. Second of all, the addition of canned mandarin oranges to a dish does not make it Asian. It just makes it gross.
Anyway. My kids seem to have it figured out, in spite of my pathetic efforts at political correctness. Denying or negating differences just doesn’t work, and leads to lots of uncomfortable questions to which I have no answers. So I’ve decided to affirm my kids’ astute observations that people are different. Because we ARE different. The kids sometimes describe friends and teachers as having browner skin or whiter skin, and their daddy as being pink. Which is all true. Why get in the way of that kind of honesty?
Last night we sat outside Ruby Jewel, licking ice cream cones. Finn silently shot all passerby with his finger gun, until a black man passed by. Finn then gave an enthusiastic hello: “Hey, Man!” The guy turned to smile at Finn and say “What’s up.” Tom and I froze and looked at one another, thinking identical thoughts. Tom gave me a look: my turn.
“Hey, so Finn, why did you call that guy ‘Man’?,” I asked.
Finn slowly licked his ice cream cone and rolled his eyes. “Because, Mommy. He’s a MAN.”
And there you have it.