Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Melting Pot, on Vacation

Last week’s New York Times contained an interesting story by Vivian Toy about the Chinese fascination with mixed-race children. Or perhaps it was more about the protectiveness of American parents in foreign lands. After reading the piece several times, I’m still not sure. The writing is thoughtful and its judgments hidden in plain view.

Our family has encountered similar situations over the years—Chinese tourists who ask for their picture with us, Nepalese porters who can’t resist patting our daughter on the head—but I’d never attributed this attraction to the mix in races.

On the one occasion when race came to mind, the attention we received was hardly benign. The incident occurred in Tagbilaran, the so-called “city of peace and friendship” on the Philippine island of Bohol. This is what I wrote about it at the time:

I didn’t see what happened next, nor did I see it coming. I heard Sarah cry out, and I followed her shocked gaze to her attacker. The woman was not much more than five feet tall, with streaks of gray in her black hair, and tanned skin nearly the same color as my own. She had used her clenched fist to deliver a low blow, and now she stood glaring at us. There was a challenge in her expression, along with something like hate, or defiance.

“What was that about?” I asked inanely, but the woman did not respond.

Meanwhile, Sarah grabbed Dave by the hand and started across the street.

“Come on,” Sarah said. “Don’t confront her.”

I picked up Marina and followed.

We fled several blocks in the general direction of our hotel, before slipping into the friendly confines of a Chinese restaurant. One wall displayed a banner congratulating local students, and several celebratory dinners were already in progress. Over roast duck and pan-fried shrimp, Sarah and I tried to decipher what this incident meant. But we could not. There was no identifiable provocation—or motivation. The woman did not have the unfettered look of a lunatic, yet she had acted purposefully, with malice aforethought.

The explanation that I did not want to consider was racial hatred. Had the woman looked first at my black hair, then at Sarah’s white skin? Had she contemplated our children’s features before striking at the offending womb?

I don’t know. After all, such a reaction would not have been impossible here in North America, at least within our parents’ memories. As recently as 1950, fifteen states, including Montana, Maryland, and California, prohibited marriage between whites and Asians.

From this perspective, communal affection for mixed-race children seems like a good thing.