Saturday, January 28, 2012

The value of a Chinese New Year party run by white parents

Tomorrow is our Chinese New Year party, hosted by the adoption agency, a little bit past the actual date as tradition holds (so that people can still come if they have other Chinese New Year parties to go to, or perhaps so that we can hire the good dancing troupe when it's in the budget).

I'm on the planning committee, which is a little funny when you consider that I can't plan my way out of a paper bag, but there you have it. I managed to be useful this year - I painted a lovely dragon banner for the year of the dragon, Cloud and I took a great little trip to Chinatown with Auntie C to buy gifts and trinkets, and I had the amazing good fortune to find someone with a dragon head while both of our previously used dragon heads were busy becoming unavailable. You can't have a lion dance without a dragon head. Our tradition is to have the little kids line up behind the dragon head and follow it around the room, doing whatever kind of jiggling, swaying dance they're physically capable of. It's not very authentic. Nobody there has actually spent significant time in China. None of the ethnically Chinese people were old enough to learn how to throw a real Chinese New Year party when they were adopted, and in fact most of them are still very, very young. Cloud is about average age and he's not even 4 yet. Also, a bunch of the kids are from Kazakhstan.

I had a conversation with someone about cultural authenticity, and he defended the idea of it. I agree with him, actually. I want cultural authenticity too. I'm glad that he cares enough about Chinese culture to defend it; a lot of people don't. A lot of people like to fawn over the cute Chinese kids, and are happy that we have our families, but when it comes to things that are actually Chinese... well, China is the country that makes all our stuff and buys all our national debt. And that's not something to think happily about. They talk funny and they have all those human rights issues that we'll just avoid talking about because-- hey, these kids sure are cute.

And we parents realize that when we throw them a Chinese New Year party, we're not giving them the real deal. We don't know what the real deal looks like. We make some of it up, and we add American traditions like the balloon guy and the gift raffle. We eat food that's mostly typical of an American Chinese buffet, with a few special desserts across from the French fries and General's chicken. We let the kids go off and play with each other, not exactly a sea of Asian faces but not exactly alone in a crowd of platinum blonds either.

And we realize that someday the kids will look back on these parties and know that they weren't authentic. They'll know that the lion dance wasn't THE lion dance. They'll have mixed emotions about our efforts, but each parent hopes that one of those emotions will be, "At least they tried. At least they gave us something."

We can give them other things, too, in life. Mandarin lessons, history lessons with an emphasis on respecting Chinese culture, maybe a trip back to China. We can give them the opportunity to take what little we've given them and run with it, expand it into a cultural identity that fits themselves. We hope they'll try, that they'll appreciate a small head start instead of resenting us for doing too little or too much.

There are some people who claim that removing a child from his original culture is cruel. If we adoptive parents are so aware that we're doing an inadequate job, shouldn't it be better not to do it at all? Maybe. Maybe maybe maybe. Always, there's something that could be better than it is about everything in the world. Anyway, there's more to life than parenting to culture. I'm betting on a post-racial future, a future in which Homo sapiens as a single species is given more weight. (It's coming! Thanks, geneticists, for all your recent discoveries!) A future in which we remember what we'd meant by 'melting pot'. One thing that probably won't happen in the future is the ability to see how far we've come already. Within a lifetime; decade to decade; year to year. When I was growing up in the '80's, Asian people were still novelties to be gawked at and joked about in White America, and Westerners were the despised enemy in China. Now there are Gaps and Walmarts in China, and Chinese people named James and Jessica in the US. It got better, and it will keep getting better, and all the cross-racial mish-mashing that is going on will contribute to the erasing of racial lines and the strengthening of Homo sapiens.

And when should we start, if not now? Who can wait until post-racialism is normalized? The good stuff in life is all achieved before it's all safe and comfortable to achieve things. Anyway, we're not trying to contribute to a race eradication movement. Race eradication is a nice ultimate goal, someday, but all we're trying to do is our best for the kids we have. So, yeah, it's a challenge; a little challenge. Authenticity is nice. But the world changes so fast, what the hell is authenticity anyway?

It's people failing to remember how things used to be before they were the way they were recently. It's people holding onto flawed memories from a specific point in time, ignoring the fact that time is a continuum. It's an esoteric idea that people strive to grasp from some entity that they perceive as 'authentic'.

We can all do that! That's no problem! Recent studies in neurology have hinted that the part of the brain that perceives the long view of life is different from the part of the brain that perceives the short view. I'm a long view thinker, mostly because I found out that most people neglect the long view so I was going to embrace it as my own. But even I use the two different views separately from each other. Even I forget one view while I'm considering the other.

My son has a whole life ahead of him, in a society that I grew up in but still very different, and he has many philosophies and opportunities available to him. But in the past two weeks, he has managed to stomp on my injured toe a minimum of 20 times. And he has picked up the hilarious phrase, "Nice dragon, Mom!" which he blurts out at random while I'm working on the New Year banner.

Thanks, kid. I think so, too.


  1. What a great post. You have out to words the thoughts that have been swirling about in my head these past few days. We have a CNY thing at our home- just the four of us as we always live "away". Away from family, away from big cities, away form anything remotely Asian. So I constantly struggle and feel guilty about my kids being lost in a "sea of platinum".
    I always laugh inside at our CNY- it's construction paper decorations, the less than authentic meal I prepare. Heck I even manage to get the timing wrong each year- for instance this year we are feasting tomorrow.
    I do find myself wondering if my kids will look back and think I was nuts or if they will appreciate that I tried. They love it now and happily go along with what I have established as CNY traditions. I hope it's enough- or a start...or something good for them.

  2. You know what? The fact you are thinking about it and doing something about it is immensely better than ignoring it and not talking about it. I really respect you for doing it, and I think your kid(s) will appreciate it as well.

    Happy Lunar New Year to you and your family!