Every so often I like to take some time and assess how much emotional and psychological damage I’m inflicting on my daughter. It’s a lengthy review, because there are so many different ways to scar her. Where does a useless father even begin?
One item that always comes to the top of the list is, “How harmful is it for Rae to be one of perhaps only six Asian kids living on the entire Western Slope of Colorado?”
We live in a very small, very white town. Rae has a few Asian friends, so she’s not totally on her own. And I’ve never seen or heard of anyone making an issue of her race. The Ouray community is really exceptional. But I worry that her being Asian might bother her internally, like she might always feel different simply because she looks different. The way people act towards her might not even matter.
So part of the reason I was excited to come on this trip was so Rae could simply be surrounded by people who look like her. She actually said to me when we first got here, “Now you’re going to be the one who looks different!” (OK. Definitely scarred internally.)
There’s one problem, though. Even though Rae looks like everyone else here, she’s constantly flanked on one side by a 6’2″ Caucasian sideshow freak with a shaved head and on the other side by blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jew from New Rochelle. Even in the middle of 87,000,000 Vietnamese people, she still doesn’t blend in.
The good news is that people here for the most part have been incredibly kind to her. My guess is that they take one look at me and Pam and are suddenly so overcome with pity for Rae that they can’t help but shower her with affection.
People’s attention to Rae manifests itself a few different ways.
Vietnamese women tend to fondle Rae’s hair a lot. We’ll walk into a store, restaurant or hotel and at least one woman working there will smile at us, say hello, then immediately redo Rae’s ponytail. Other than the fact that it’s sort of a strange invasion of one’s personal space, it’s actually very sweet. This has happened at least half a dozen times already, from Hue to Saigon.
I like to believe these women were all thinking, “What a delightful little girl. I bet she’d love for me to tighten up this ponytail that’s come loose during the day.”
But more than likely they were thinking, “Jesus Christ. What kind of father won’t take 20 seconds to fix his daughter’s pony tail? Bald asshole.”
The Vietnamese men pretty much go for the head, too. When they see us coming, they gleefully pat Rae on top of her head and say, “Hello, bay-bay!” (even though she’s almost eleven years old.)
Then they often look at me and Pam and ask, “She Vietnamese?”
Rae takes all this in stride and seems to actually enjoy it. She’s usually grinning ear to ear when something like this happens.
In contrast to the people asking us if Rae is Vietnamese are the ones who automatically assume that she is.
When we toured Saigon with our Vietnamese guide Duc, we stopped at a real locals’ hangout for lunch. Pam and I sat on one side of the table. Duc and Rae were on the other. The waitress handed us all menus. A few minutes later, I asked Rae what she wanted to eat.
She looked at me and said, “Uh…Dad?”
Then she handed me her menu. The waitress had given her one written in Vietnamese. Pam and I both got gringo versions.
When Rae got an ear infection in Quy Nhon, we took her to the medical clinic. The doctor immediately unleashed a flurry of Vietnamese on Rae for about five straight minutes. Pam and I kept waving our arms and shouting, “No Vietnamese! English only! She doesn’t speak Vietnamese! Stop!”
The doctor would occasionally nod at us before turning back to Rae to continue peppering her with something that sounded like an “Alvin and the Chipmunks” record being played backwards.
Rae just sat there and laughed. (Though she stopped when the doctor suddenly uncovered the set of surgical tools sitting on the tray next to her.)
There was only one time when Rae was approached by a stranger who was somewhat…less than cordial.
We were walking along the street in Hue on our way to the Dong Ba market. We had just arrived in town a few hours before, and I was ready to show that whole market how one motivated American man and his dong can revitalize an entire economy.
As we were heading in, an elderly, bent-over Vietnamese man not much taller than Rae hobbled straight up to her and shouted right in her face, “WHERE DID YOU COME FROM?!”
He sounded like some kind of Vietnamese Gestapo agent.
Rae and Pam took a quick step back, and I turned immediately to make sure this guy wasn’t about to conk Rae on the head with a coconut shell or bamboo cane.
He seemed harmless, other than the fact that he just screamed at my daughter out of the blue.
Now, after ten years I’m somewhat used to handling awkward or inappropriate questions regarding Rae, our family, and interracial adoption, in general. People don’t usually mean any harm when they ask questions about how the three of us ended up together. It’s just that they often lack any grace or delicacy when discussing the issue. This old coot was probably just surprised to see a little Vietnamese girl with two American parents strolling around in the middle of Hue.
And besides, he probably didn’t even know much more English than what he blurted at Rae. He may not have even realized how he sounded. Different cultures, different languages, etc. Part of the reason we go on trips like this one is to help Rae learn to bridge these differences.
So rather than make a big scene, I just took the high road.
Taking Rae’s hand in mine, I leaned over so I was eyeball-to-eyeball with our new friend. Wearing the biggest smile you could imagine, I made sure I spoke slowly and clearly.
Building bridges, man. Just building bridges.