Saturday, May 10, 2008

Non Blonde

My early years were spent in the exclusive care of my mother. My father was a soldier who spent some years overseas in Korea and Vietnam, so I saw little of him. My mother did not drive or work outside the home, and friendships were hard to maintain in these transient military communities, so our little household was somewhat isolated from the rest of the world.

My first experience away from my mother was when I started first grade. It was pretty terrifying, but I was ready. By some weird coincidence, I happened to be the only non-blonde girl in the classroom. I looked around in startled amazement at all of these pale little dolls and wondered if the world looked the same through their blue eyes as it did through my brown ones.

I announced at the end of the week that I wanted my mother to take me somewhere to have me changed. She had no idea what I was talking about, so I explained that I wanted to have yellow hair and blue eyes so I could be pretty like the rest of the girls in my class. She informed me that was not possible and suggested that I try to make friends with some of these girls.

After my father retired from the military, we started to visit some of his family. My earliest memory of my grandmother was hearing her remark to my father that we children looked too much like my mother. She turned to him and asked why he hated her so much. "Why did you have to go and marry a Jap?" I had never heard this word, but the look on my mother's face told me everything I needed to know. We were not accepted.

This was my introduction to racism. The lessons continue to this day. I remember how much it hurt my mother when I asked her not to walk me to school anymore because the other kids called her names when she walked away. I learned about pecking order - White kids picked on Black kids who picked on Latino kids who picked on Asian kids. But the Asian kids knew martial arts.

I decided to act as White as possible. I emulated like crazy and never mentioned my heritage. I learned to keep my mouth shut in church during the "the Bible says we should marry within our own race" lectures. I ate only American food and never learned to speak Japanese. I was only interested in White boys. Tall blondes with blue eyes were my weakness, which made my father very happy.

Sadly, it never seemed to be enough. My father's family never accepted me. Neither did my husbands' families. My first husband encouraged me to wear blue contacts and bleach my hair. When I've made the "mistake" of trusting enough to tell people that I am half Asian, I am often sorry I did. Employers, classmates, teachers, church members have all proven capable of saying the most asinine things. I smile and tell myself that they can't help being stupid. I try to understand what they really intend.

I thought I was getting a grip on this, but I realized that one of my daughters is being viewed through the same filters I was. She does not get the same attention, from family members and strangers alike, that her younger light-haired, light-skinned, blue-eyed sister gets. She asks me why people like the Little One better. And I cry a little inside every time I tell her, "I don't know."

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