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race blind

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.

tom (two-time Wendy’s Employee of the Month) and his half-orientals

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.

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58 Comments Post a comment
  1. If you are concerned about being politically correct in any situation trying naming people by who they are and not by their colour. Children get confused when we are trying to be politically correct, they like truth and understand truth for truth is beauty and beauty truth. Simply say African-American. There are African Americans of all shades

    September 27, 2012
    • Yep….just my point. I’m not being politically correct….calling us African American is being pc…anyway, didnt mean to be confusing, just making a point thar as an Afro American I prefer to be called Black and my friends respect that.

      September 27, 2012
  2. Elaine #

    I remember hearing Oriental refers to food and rugs, Asians are people.
    Also, I have friends who are Sri Lanken and Indian and refer to themselves as brown.
    While the term African-American is common in the States, I have never heard anyone in Canada say they are African-Canadian my black friends just say they’re black.
    I’m half asian half hispanic btw.

    September 27, 2012
    • yeah this is exactly what I was referring to in my comment above re: African American. so difficult to navigate these waters and i’m appreciative of all the insights

      September 27, 2012
      • Elaine #

        Forgot to mention, I’m really enjoying your blog – so entertaining! Found you through your post on skinny jeans and became hooked after reading your piece on mandals.

        September 27, 2012
  3. Interesting read…I actually prefer being called “Black”. For me, Black or “my blackness” has nothing to do with skin color per se, but it is the sum of all that I am in terms of my heritage or history. It carries an inexplicable weightiness that resonates with me and many other Blacks. I can’t imagine being called “Brown” as a standard or even accepted alternative, unless it was being used as a slang term, i.e. cute, brown gal with the red dress on, etc. Anyway, that’s just my two cents, but this was an eye-opener. I had no idea that some felt uncomfortable using the term. But as far as this “Black” gal is concerned, I ain’t mad at ya! 😉

    September 24, 2012
    • I totally appreciate this. The reason I am increasingly nervous to use African-American (after using it all my life) is that my understanding is that some people who would otherwise identify themselves as black do not consider themselves African-American, depending on how long they have been here and their nation of origin. I have heard from others that “black” is the preferred term, for the reasons you specified. Thank you for taking the time to share here

      September 27, 2012
  4. in the UK we’re regularly asked to fill out forms that ask for your race (anonymously my arse) so companies the government etc can monitor how well they’re doing at treating everybody fairly but it drives me crazy, there will be a dozen distinctions like black African, black British, black Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Indian, British Indian, etc et al but never have I seen anything but White or occasionally they’ll add in White Irish. I walways mark myself as White African and argue when their racist machines won’t recognise me.

    September 17, 2012
    • man i thought american categories were tough. guess not!

      September 27, 2012
  5. Hope #

    There is recent research on racism in kids – how you actually have to teach against it, not expect kids to magically absorb our colorblind attitudes. Here’s an excerpt from a chapter from Nuture Shock about it. I totally recommend the book – it’s hilarious and surprising, but yet complete common sense, in a way. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2009/09/04/see-baby-discriminate.html

    September 17, 2012
    • i think this is the book that one of my closest friends, suzanne, keeps recommending. i will have to check it out for sure. thanks!

      September 27, 2012
  6. Catherine #

    My son is trilingual (English, Spanish & German) and when he first started learning to speak, his words weren’t pronounced perfectly, naturally. So his pronunciation of the Spanish word ‘hombre’ (man) was ‘homey’. Well, we were in a store one day, when my son happened upon a Barry Bonds bobble-head doll. Suddenly my 20-month-old son, in that shrieky little kids’ voice that carries EVERYWHERE, is pointing at the Barry Bonds doll saying ‘homey! homey! homey!’ I’m mortified because people will think I’m raising my kid to be a racist. So I say in my loudest possible ‘natural’ voice, ‘Si, Alex, muy bien. HOMBRE HOMBRE,’ then bolted from the store.

    September 17, 2012
    • i am very envious that your child is trilingual. i speak korean and i can’t even manage to get that drilled into my kids.

      September 27, 2012
  7. I hate mandarin oranges on salad.

    I have a confession. I didn’t know that “oriental” was a thing. I mean, I don’t USE it, but I know that my friends are Korean or Vietnamese or Japanese or Chinese or whatever… But I seriously didn’t know that it was a thing. Is it like saying “colored” or “Eskimo”?

    September 17, 2012
    • I dunno, except to say that when I hear it used to describe me, it feels offensive. Other Asians might disagree.

      September 17, 2012
  8. Donna in Doha #

    How funny! Since I’ve lived in Qatar, I’ve had to explain “little people” to my 7 year old son. The little people (I hope this is PC) work in the birthday indoor play area/ party venues at a local mall here. Sam (my son) asked recently ” Mama, why is the man shorter than me but he has a beard?” That was fun. Wheelchairs were another interesting discussion because Sam thought he would like to have one and wondered why other people could ride around but he couldn’t. We the past spent the summer on Samos, Greece where my son walked by a black man and very non-chalantly said “Wud up?” I almost pi**d my pants. The guy laughed and replied “Not much, you?” Whew. Where did Sam learn THAT? He doesn’t care if people are tall/short/black/white/different from he, he just likes people and I think it’s great. Sam also has a pink papa!

    September 17, 2012
    • Donna in Doha #

      BTW, I lived in Seoul for six years in the mid-90’s and I travelled to North Korea on one of the Hyundai ships that were, at that time, taking interested (intrepid travellers?) people to N. Korea. I didn’t meet many North Koreans but certainly more than one:) It was the most bizarre trip I’ve ever made in my 19 years of work/travel around the world. The Red Cross met us when we got off the ship and took our blood and checked our pulse before we entered the “most wonderful” country in the world!

      September 17, 2012
  9. Helen #

    Oh, Yoona. You speak English so well!!!
    That seemed to be the one I heard the most growing up. But that was in Ohio where people didn’t even know of Korea, much less a North or a South. It was always “are you Chinese or Japanese?”

    September 15, 2012
    • i hope you always answered that you are chapanese

      September 15, 2012
  10. Yoona, great post. I’ve lived here in the Netherlands for all of two months and have been asked twice if I’m North Korean, once at the Vodaphone place and the other somewhere else, I forgot the details. Never have I had to answer that question in the US. I had to explain that it is highly unlikely I’d be in their country, via the States if I was North Korean for the same reasons you’ve had to use. Can I share your blog on my facebook page? Also, I’ve also had to school my own parents on why Oriental was not a cool way to refer to their own (adopted) kid. That was a few years back, but I think they’ve learned that lesson. Thanks.

    September 15, 2012
    • hey loey. hope the north korean queries aren’t the beginning of a regular pattern…would add to the annoyances of establishing life abroad, i imagine. have enjoyed reading about your move. of course you may share the post. cheers

      September 15, 2012
  11. akismet-db27352d1e883297b51b26f6b0193898 #

    Next time someone (especially another lawyer) asks me if I’m from North or South Korea, I’m totally using your line – “Yes, I broke out of North Korea and swam to the US.”

    Love it.

    September 14, 2012
    • now you can’t wait to be asked, I bet. 😉

      September 15, 2012
  12. Kids are so much cooler than adults about this type of thing. My daughter recently did well in a maths test and a Chinese kid in her class did a double take when he saw her mark and protested “But you’re not Asian!”. he then fell to the ground moaning that he was “losing …. Asian …. powers”. Pretty funny, I thought.

    September 14, 2012
    • two things I love: how Brits say “maths” instead of “math,” and that kid in your daughter’s class

      September 15, 2012
      • I am an Aussie rather than a Brit but same thing. And yes, that comment cracked me up. Used to be a Vietnamese-Australian comedian whose routine included the joke ‘How do you know if Vietnamese have broken into your house?’ Answer:”Your dog’s gone and your homework’s done.”. That would be SO un-PC if anyone else said it!

        September 15, 2012
  13. Meg #

    Yoona, if you wouldn’t insist on wearing that “Property of Pyongyang High School” sweatshirt, people wouldn’t think you’re North Korean. Just sayin’…

    September 14, 2012
  14. Lisa L #

    You hit it right on. Racial differences to your child are all about what you make them. I grew up in North Idaho and went to school with ONE mixed race person the entire 18 years I was there. Let’s just say I have some family members who think diversity refers to how many different kinds of jell-o salad are represented at the church potluck. I have tried hard to overcome my redneck roots, and have my kids at a Montessori charter school in NE Portland with a mission to educate children of racial and economic diversity. I love it that my daughter’s best friends include a mixed race Chinese / Latino who speaks fluent Spanish and Chinese, and two African Americans with whom she talks freely about their “poofy” hair. The families at our school are not wealthy, but we have a nurturing community that accepts everybody for who they are. I feel as though I have given my kids the gift of race blindness, which is truly priceless.

    September 13, 2012
    • that’s some mindful parenting right there, Lisa. I know your girls, and by extension, our community, will be better for it. bravo.

      September 14, 2012
  15. Kristin Corcoran #

    Yoona! As you can imagine, my family is quite the same as yours. However I grew up with my Irish/English mom and she consistantly make efforts to bring me to Hawthorne for the Chinese Festival and to spend time with my Chinese grandparents. For her, things were very reversed and she would receive many chinese stink eyes because they were not sure what I was. Also, why was this woman here in the first place. At least you have explained it to your kids where as my mom didn’t quite know how to explain it or really didn’t. My responce as a pre schooler was that I was half Chinese and half normal. God only knows what “normal” meant. Still trying to figure that out, but for now I will be sticking to my “normalness”. My kids however, still find it a little confusing when we are watching Ki Lan on Disney and I mention that they are a quarter Chinese. This is there heritage and that they could learn a few words!(Same goes for me.) Then all of the questions come about the different words and say to say that I can’t help them and neither can my bio-father because my grandparents wanted them to be so American and really didn’t teach them any!
    Loved the post!! You’re awesome!!
    K

    September 13, 2012
    • It’s interesting to observe the generational patterns with regard to the desire to assimilate vs. the desire to carve out a minority identity in the new land. I imagine the first impulse is based at least partly on the tremendous difficulty of establishing a foothold in the new country–blending in probably makes the going marginally easier. We owe those trailblazers for giving us the basis on which to build a life secure enough to be able to fight for other things, like the opportunity to reaffirm our cultural differences, as you have done with your kids, and I’m trying to do with mine. Thanks for sharing, Kristin.

      September 14, 2012
  16. Cait #

    I was shocked to learn when I moved from the US to Canada several years ago that there IS a difference between brown and black people. Brown people are from “south Asia” as you call it, and black people are, well, the same as in the US. But I still haven’t figured out what that makes Asians (of the east variety). I’m glad to hear that your kids are unaffected by any of this…after all we are all just guys and girls, right?

    September 13, 2012
    • right. although guys and girls is tricky too these days!

      September 14, 2012
  17. Meredith J #

    Excellent post, but I like chicken and mandarin oranges! But then again, I’m Chinese… Funny that Alexa and I were also talking about people’s bodies being different in the car on the way to school this morning. I thought she was referring to the disabled, but she meant different hair color, eye color, and skin color. Her retort was that “if you don’t like the color (of your skin) you just go to Hawaii to get brown.”. This is the child that turns pink instead…

    BTW – I have a yoonanimous following at work now! They’ve been hearing me laugh from my cubicle and want to know what it’s about.

    September 13, 2012
    • ok, i can see i’m going to have to come clean. i know about the Wendy’s salad because i’ve ordered like 180 of them, hating myself each time. i didn’t eat the oranges but i had a real sesame dressing and crunchy noodle problem for a while. ok, fine, i ate the oranges too.

      yoonanimous is very work friendly. thanks for sharing me, meredith. love to terra and alexa..

      September 13, 2012
  18. hallerwoman #

    Love this one. Nurtureshock, the book I recommended to you yesterday about lying, also has a chapter on race and why we should absolutely be talking about it. Right on target, yet again.

    September 13, 2012
  19. I applaud you on another very funny, very thought-provoking post! And on your kids (that photo of them with Tom is gold!) who clearly ‘get it’. I won’t pretend to know what it is like being South Korean in the US, but I do know what it is like to throw people into racial political correctness mayhem just by entering a room.

    I am mixed English and Malawian and grew up in 1980s Scotland and then in Switzerland. In both countries this sort of racial mix was quite uncommon at that time (to an extent still is) and often is assumed to have been a means to getting a visa or at the very least, an unequal marriage, which is obviously insulting. My parents married for love alone and I remember trying to explain to kids at primary school who asked why I ‘already have a tan’ that Dad is white (I’m afraid I said this because it best explained the colour – my 5-year-old mind couldn’t handle the implications of dark brown plus pink), Mum is dark brown, so I am light brown. Or the ‘Where are you from?’ ‘The UK.’ ‘No, but where are you really from?’ conversation that I still sometimes get and have no satisfactory way of answering because it makes me so angry.

    Anyway I think I’ve made my point that I get what you’re driving at so I won’t go on. Here’s to the day when we’re all race blind and when an ‘Oriental Chicken Salad’ is just a chicken salad. 🙂

    September 13, 2012
    • hey. thanks for sharing your story with me, which is a lot more glamorous than mine in many respects. it reminded me that the difficult part is that when people ask questions like “where are you from?” they are often curious, and mean only the best. my friends all know the story of the time some distant relations of my husband asked me “how i liked it” in this country. i think i replied that i “like it a lot.” i wish i’d said something wittier. but sometimes, laughter is the only way to deal, right?

      September 13, 2012
  20. gina maria #

    i LOVE your posts. i’m always happy to see a new one appear in my email…thanks for all your hard work…i cannot imagine how you find the time to keep all the plates spinning, but i’m grateful.
    anyway, i want to somehow infuse you w the wherewithall to SPEAK the comment about being from North Korea, or any other thing you feel like you want to say. i think the world would be a better place if stupidity is CONSISTENTLY met w sarcasm and ridicule. it’s clear that you’re a person whose consideration for others is paramount, but i say f*ck those dumb b*tches…the world is overrun w them & it’s time we started shooting them w our own finger-guns. then again, maybe i’m just a cynical city girl w an itchy trigger finger.

    September 13, 2012
    • i think i give people a pass on the north korea question because hey, at least they know there IS a north korea. baby steps. 😛

      with regard to the plates spinning, i have a feeling it’s all going to end badly for me one day, but here’s to writing while i can, and readers like you, gina

      September 13, 2012
  21. Well, to be fair, us Canadians DO know Santa Claus aka Mom & Dad. 😉

    “Because, Mommy. He’s a MAN.” That’s the best. The astute observations of toddlers (mine included) never gets old.

    September 13, 2012
    • i wish i had time and available pens to write them all down

      September 13, 2012
  22. You’ve just got to love children as well as their honesty.

    September 13, 2012
  23. Tami #

    At the end of the summer we had the “pleasure” of visiting my in-laws at Schweitzer, just up the hill from Sandpoint, ID (home to Mark Fuhrman). I was dreading it because every time we get over to the place I call Whiter-than-Portland-plus-rednecks, something racially weird happens. I was standing in line for the zip line with my (half-oriental) daughter and there were three older men sitting at a table staring at me. I just knew it was coming, and sure enough when I got close enough, one of them said, “What part of the Philippines are you from?” I am Chinese, and I take no offense at being called Filipino, but I do get annoyed when 3 idiots assume that because I am “oriental” and my kid is half white, I must have married my way into the United States. I made the man repeat himself 3 times before I acknowledged what he said (why this made me feel better, I don’t know). I looked at him and replied brightly, “Oh no, I’m from California, born and raised there.” He then said, looking around knowingly at his friends, “You see the three of us? We are all married to Filipino women.” He pointed to a group of women half their ages, kids in tow. So many awful replies came to me at that point but I didn’t have the balls to make the words come out of my mouth, so I just sputtered, “Oh, uh, congratulations?”

    PS: Have you seen the box of Hamburger Helper that says “Oriental Helper?” Nice.

    September 13, 2012
    • i would sympathize but i can only speak about korean-related foibles, as that is the pain i know. i will say this, a few years ago there was that quiz online where they show you 20 pictures of asians and you have to guess their nationalities. i got 3/20. tom, my very caucasian husband, got 13/20

      September 13, 2012
  24. The term Oriental referred to anything east of Europe, which includes the Middle East. So Asian is more accurate. However, I’ve had Indian people correct me to say that, as a Filipino, I’m from East Asia and they’re from South Asia. To which I always say that it doesn’t matter – we’re all swarthy immigrants… I suppose East Asian is a heckuva lot bettter than “Dog Eater”, which I’ve been called before and I’ve lovingly used on other Filipinos and other East Asians (yes, incl Koreans, sorry). Thing is, the only people who don’t get the joke and are offended are non-Asians. So I just quickly apologize and go back to eating my More Eastern Than Oriental Chicken Salad with Mandarin Oranges…

    September 13, 2012
    • dude, i’ve read my edward said. i get it. that’s why i don’t use the word oriental at all. i have south asian and east asian worked out pretty well in my mind, but the philippines get me every time. also: philippines, but filippino. discuss. also, i could write an entire post about my fear of using any of the following:latino/hispanic/mestizo

      September 13, 2012
  25. Jennifer #

    Finn slowly licked his ice cream cone and rolled his eyes. “Because, Mommy. He’s a MAN.”

    From the mouths of babes!! I love your children!!

    September 13, 2012
    • my kids, like most kids, do not suck. thanks for reading the post!

      September 13, 2012
  26. I feel you. Here in the Czech Republic, being in a multi-racial family is not quite the norm.

    One time, when my son was in a children’s play area in a mall, one of the parents commented: “That boy is exotic.” To this day, I am still unsure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. 🙂

    September 13, 2012
    • it is a good thing. he’s like a lamborghini. sometimes i think all i want are kids who want to be different from everyone else.

      September 13, 2012
  27. Confession time: 1) On numerous occasions in my no so distant past I’ve scarfed down all sorts of salads featuring mandarin oranges and chicken and sesame dressing…no matter what it was called. I’m not saying I’m proud of that – I’m just admitting it is a weakness I indulged, like watching reality TV shows. I would love to say I don’t and have never – but I’d be lying through the chicken shreds still stuck in my teeth.

    2) My daughter recently had a fairly loud “discussion” with her Dad about why he should not say “Oriental” when he meant “Asian”. E.V.E.R. Even grown kids can be schooling their parents. And around here? They do. Routinely.

    3) I think it is slightly hysterical the pop-up ad I get with this post is for the Wendy’s chain. Clearly their robot ad matcher needs some schooling from their little bots.

    And off I go to shop at my food co-op (they are cool enough to make up for the fact I am not) where they might have organic free range chickens and 5 types of sesame seeds but they don’t sell mandarin oranges in a can.

    September 13, 2012
    • i did worry about the wendy’s ads. but i figure that outing tom as a two-month employee of the month (back to back months, UNHEARD OF) should mend fences. plus, i’ve eaten many a spicy chicken sandwich in my day

      September 13, 2012

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