What ARE you? Talking about interracial identities and relationships
by Grace Hwang Lynch
Talking about mixed-race relationships can be tricky, and even more so when discussing the topic across generational lines. In April, I was part of the panel discussion “What ARE You? Navigating interracial identities and relationships” at the North America Taiwanese Women’s Association (NATWA) 2013 Convention in Los Angeles. As I headed down to the conference for breakfast, I realized that the overwhelming majority of the participants were closer to my parents’ age, and as I scanned the crowded tables for a place to sit, I took a deep breath and chose a seat next to some women exchanged some pleasantries in Taiwanese, and then listened to them gripe about their daughters who spent too much time chasing after and worrying about their young grandchildren. Ahh… just like home.
The seminar was organized by NATWA II, the second-generation branch of the organization, and while I expected the discussion to be dominated by panelists in their 20s, 30s and 40s, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of interaction and genuine desire for honest dialogue by the older generation, as well.
the panel, I was joined by Professor Roselyn Hsueh, teacher and writer Monica Zarazua and NATWA II moderator Jennifer Kuo. Roselyn is a Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Temple University, and is married to a mixed-race Mexican/Caucasian American. Monica is an elementary school teacher and fiction writer who is mixed-race Taiwanese and Mexican American. As the discussion started, we all agreed that Taiwanese are uniquely position to understand interracial relationships and identities, with the island’s long history of colonialization and immigration. Add to that the fact that we — or our parents– are immigrants to America, and you get a group of people whose understanding of identity is already more fluid than people from more homogenous backgrounds. Roselyn expressed it well by saying that not only do Taiwanese Americans have the ability to understand cultural identity, we have also exercised our sense of self-determination to construct a uniquely Taiwanese identity from those various influences.
Monica shared her first-hand experiences being a mixed-race person growing up on military bases and then in Birmingham, Alabama, how the other Taiwanese immigrant women ostracized her mother, not only because of her interracial marriage, but also because of her Buddhist faith and more independent viewpoints.
The discussion was quite casual, and I had come to the table prepared to talk about my experiences raising mixed-race children. But as I was speaking and listening to the discussion, it struck me: raising hapa children and helping them process their identities was as much of a pivotal point in my own journey of identity as my experience as a 10-year-old moving from the Midwest and joining a community where there were many Taiwanese American kids like myself.
During my kids’ earliest years, I thought they were too young to talk about issues of culture and identity — and I just didn’t bring those things up explicitly. During Big Brother’s toddler years, he offered unsolicited comments such as,
“Chopsticks are Chinese, and I use them because I’m Chinese!” and “My Ah Ma speaks Spanish, you know.”
But the conversation really got interesting when the floor was opened up to the audience. While the panel was a breakout session that took place in a smaller conference room, the crowd was a good mixture of second-generation women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, as well as older, first-generation Taiwanese Americans. And a handful of men joined in, too.
While immigrant parents are often thought of as opposing interracial dating and marriage, the majority of people in the crowd were open to the idea, with their main concerns being about their children’s (and future grandchildren’s) well being and happiness. Their comments reflected wisdom about the challenges of any marriages and the additional difficulties that might be posed by cultural differences. Interestingly enough, the “mixed marriages” that came up often in discussion were those between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese! The discussion also veered touched upon gender roles and varying expectations – or hopes – for sons as opposed to daughters. I also learned a few things from the members of audience, such as how Taiwanese culture places greater emphasis on relationships between in-laws; whereas in America, it’s not uncommon for a husband’s and wife’s parents to have little interaction with each other.
Sometimes people fall in love with unexpected partners, and we certainly can’t control who members of our family fall in love with. But we can offer guidance to help each other choose partners who treat us with love and respect, and support one another in learning and passing down Taiwanese culture, whether it’s through language, traditions or foods.
Thank you, NATWA and NATWA II for tackling a controversial topic and organizing such a thoughtful event.