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Monday, March 29, 2010

A Pale Shade of Yellow

I was thinking about all the times since I have lived here in Illinois that people have asked me a certain question. This question is usually preceded by an apology of sorts like, "I'm sorry, but do you mind if I ask you a question?" or something to that effect. I always think it's going to be some great big inappropriate question that would necessitate an apology before being "Do you really think you should be eating those french fries?" or "Have you ever had a communicable disease?"

No, it is always the same..."What are you?" or "What is your background?" Okay, here in the suburbs of Illinois, I am sort of different. I am a mixture of Okinawan, Japanese, Irish, and Scottish. And, believe me, in Hawaii there is a big difference between Okinawan and Japanese. Growing up in Hawaii this is pretty much the question asked after hello. Usually, "So, what you?" Most everyone back home is a mixture of this and that or that and this with a little bit of something else mixed in.

There are a couple of times that this has really been strange. Once while giving a tour of a mansion at an old job, this couple (the guy was white and the girl was Chinese) asked me the question. I followed my answer with, "Hey, so this (making a circle with my finger around my face) is what your kids will look like some day. Hope that's okay?" They giggled and said yes. I must have done my makeup well that day.

Another time, I was actually in the recovery room of the hospital after some surgery. There were three nurses at the desk facing me. They looked at me continuously and whispered back and forth. I was ready to ask what was going on. I thought that perhaps they did something wrong. You've all heard those stories, wrong person operated on, wrong leg amputated, etc. Finally, one of them walks over to me and says, "I'm sorry. Can I ask you something? We were all trying to figure out what you were." Okay, they knew my name...Irish first name not spelled the original Gaelic way (Siobhan), Irish maiden name not pronounced the Gaelic way, and name after hyphen: Mexican. I can see their confusion. I told her what I was, she thanked me, and went back and told the others. They all nodded, "Ohhhh." Whatever, nurses.

My favorite of all of these was when I was in a church meeting and a very kind man asked me the question. He was asking because his own wife was Mexican with a tiny bit of Japanese in their family background. I answered him with, "Tom, I'm Japanese, Irish, and Scottish." He replies, "Oh, what's that like?" I looked at him and said, "Sort of a pale shade of yellow." Everyone started to laugh and I think he realized that his question was absurd. I am still not quite sure what he meant, but living here in the Midwest, I guess a lot of people must wonder what that's like.

Fortunately, I think being of my background gives me some space. Let's face it, most of my friends are white. That's who lives here. I have never felt any discrimination and wouldn't put up with it if there were. The other thing that I am allowed is the freedom to say things to some people because I am not white. I can say things to a non-white person that coming from me is okay, but coming from a white person would not be okay.

So, the bottom line is I am an American, born and raised in Hawaii to a mother whose grandparents came to Hawaii from Okinawa to work on the sugar plantations and to a father whose Japanese mother, against the wishes of her parents, married an Irish/Scottish white man from Ohio. Now I live in Illinois and am married to a man who is of Mexican heritage and doesn't speak a lick of Spanish. Actually, My Little Guy is getting pretty good at it...he can count to 15 in Spanish and say a few words. They've been learning in preschool. He is probably the only child in these parts, besides his big sister, who can (with a little coaching) count to ten in English, Spanish, Japanese, and Hawaiian!

My Oldest is a mixture of me and his father who was white, but we don't know much more since he was adopted and is now deceased. Ahh, and My Girl and My Little Guy well in these parts, aka our house, they are known as McMacMexanese. I'll have to tell you about how my half Mexican children think they are not Mexican on another day.

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