I was mindlessly scrolling through Instagram in bed when I came across a Japanese fashionista’s account. There it was, a photo of her white husband lovingly cuddling up to her from behind against the backdrop of her cozy home. “Merry Christmas from our family to yours!” read the caption, the photo exhibiting all the tell-tale signs of a perfect all-American family.
A part of me laughed bitterly and the other part of me sighed, “Not again.” This neatly packaged version of a multicultural household designed for mass consumption just didn’t apply to my family.
I was raised in Guangzhou, China, where my parents met in the 1990s. My mom spoke basic English while my dad knew maybe five words in Mandarin. He wooed her with trips to Europe and fancy dinners. But because of their language barrier, they never talked about how their cultural differences and values would impact their marriage.
I grew up in a house where my parents carefully claimed their own territories so that they could avoid talking to each other. My dad occupied the entire second floor while my mom and I always hung out on the first. I was the only person in the house who had a working knowledge of both languages, so I was often forced into the uncomfortable position of mediating their conflicts.
As I sat on the downstairs sofa reading one day, my dad shouted from upstairs, “Where’s my plaid shirt?” He demanded that I translate his frustration to my mom, who was downstairs with me, and to describe what “plaid” was to her. I had no idea what “plaid” was myself as I wasn’t yet fluent in English. So I ran up and down the stairs for twenty minutes, trying to figure out how to find this shirt without escalating their argument.
When we moved to America, our new, small house didn’t allow them to chart their own territories and avoid each other. So these conflicts became more frequent since they had to communicate with each other to make major decisions about our new life. In the first year after we moved to America, I rarely went a week without having to translate some fight in the house or talk my mom out of giving my dad the silent treatment.
Once, as I walked down the bread aisle at a Chinese grocery store with my mom, my dad stopped her because he wanted to get cheaper bread from the local American store instead.
She exclaimed, “It’s OK!” forcibly grabbing the bread from the counter. She wanted the Chinese store’s bread that she was familiar with, and she was not about to let my dad mansplain her. She refused to let him make decisions for her just because he was a white American male who thought he was more capable of navigating our new life than she was.
I stood there, frozen and unsure about what to do as they both started to ask me why the other was being so unreasonable. I attempted to calm them down by repeatedly saying, “It’s just bread!”
When we got home, I sat uncomfortably on the couch as a fight erupted. I anxiously awaited for one of them to ask me to translate as they talked over each other in their native languages. Eventually, my mom who never raised her voice shouted, “Gun!” (fuck off) in Mandarin to my dad.
He quickly asked me, “What did she say?”
I paused as I considered different translations for what my mom had said. I was shocked by the ugly things they were saying about and to each other. I wanted to protect my dad’s feelings, and I didn’t want to admit to myself that my parents’ marriage was broken. So I opted for a more neutral version of “fuck off” and said, “Um, she just told you to go away.”
I felt like only I could understand exactly what was going on in both languages. So I bore double the burden and experienced double the emotional pain. I was the only thing keeping my parents together, the only person who could get them to communicate.
This nuance of being stuck as a reluctant translator in my parents’ cultural tug of war was often lost on American media. In America, I encountered the idea that the mere existence of more mixed children will heal racial divides. This was amplified by campaigns like National Geographic’s “The Changing Face of America” which featured mixed-raced children as the future of America.
I felt grossly misrepresented as they praised mixed-race children as the easy, organic solution to America’s racial divide. But my experience was anything but easy. This campaign idealized my family as the token for post-racial America, in which all races are equal because everyone is mixed. How could someone only romanticize being mixed without acknowledging the cultural clashes that often come with it?
I am tired of people thinking families like mine can dilute white-dominated structures of power. You can’t fuck your way out of racism –– if interracial relationships solved all our problems, I would have parents who could talk to each other without me.
Don’t use me as your token of the future, because that future you think I represent will not come if we continue to use my existence as an excuse to avoid addressing deep racial inequities in our society.