By Emma Kate Tsai
I had no idea what he’d look like.
I only knew what I could find out with a wave of a wand. Gender, length, amniotic fluid. But it didn’t tell me what everyone wanted to know: Would he have my hazel eyes, my Chinese father’s olive skin, my mother’s blue eyes, my husband’s red hair, or the blonde hair Mom once had? I didn’t know the answer to the questions the Chinese half of my family didn’t have the grace not to ask: Would he look like them or white like my mother? Of course, I look like neither.
“Do you think he’ll look Chinese?” Toni, my oldest stepsister, asked me over lunch when I was four months pregnant.
I had just announced that my first baby would be a boy. Every one of their dark-topped heads bobbed up and down, as they let out the breath they’d each been holding. My three stepsisters, their spouses, my stepmother, my father. All Chinese. (My stepmother and her family from Taiwan, my father from China.) As if to say, boy = good. I was sitting next to my father on the leather sofa, my stepsisters spread out around the living room, cross-legged on the pearly bamboo floor. Their heads were bowed, long, straight black hair cascading over bare shoulders. Shih-tzus clicked their nails on the floor around them. My own short hair is the darkest brown it can be. Visually at least, I look the part. My skin isn’t too white, my eyes more brown than blue. I’m half-Chinese, but to them, since I’m not all-Chinese, I am basically not Chinese.
I looked over at my father. He was wearing that polite smile that told me he was barely listening. Baba, as I called him (Chinese for Dad), met Toni’s mother, Ines, in a Chinese drama club. My mother—a beautiful brunette with blue eyes and freckled skin—he met at university, shortly after setting foot on American soil. From their union, I, my twin sister, and my brother were born. Half-Chinese, AmeriAsian, mixed breed. Whatever you want to call us, we are only part Chinese. Richard, my fiancé, is all white.
I know what Toni wants to hear: that I will have a Chinese-looking boy. My father doesn’t care, or so I lead myself to believe. A traditional Chinese man he may be, but he’s not a traditional Chinese father. He never pushed me to marry a Chinese man, or to marry at all. When I first brought Richard home, he liked him because he was friendly and respectful, and treated me well. Not a single word was ever said about race. But then again, he could hardly argue with something he’d done himself.
I give a non-answer, filling the silence with truth. “I don’t know.”
“Well, you don’t have that much Chinese, really, anyway,” she says. “Only half, right?”
Her words sting, cutting my otherness from me. Baba doesn’t respond, only clucks his tongue a bit at a joke that isn’t all that funny. My father is stout and muscular, his skin brown against my own, his black hair makes mine look caramel. His big eyes remind me of melted chocolate, so dark his pupils get lost in them. My eyes are hazel, a color created by my particular genetic inheritance. Baba’s nose is wide and flat, while mine is flat at the top and narrower at the nostril, an exact blend of my two halves. My high cheekbones and full lips come from my mother. Baba’s lips are little more than two plumped-up straight lines. He could never wear a mustache well with a mouth so slight. What would my son get? Mom’s Marilyn Monroe mouth? Baba’s big eyes? My hybrid nose? Or would he bypass my side altogether and come out as All-American as my husband? The Chinese can be facially stereotyped, but what features define an American?
I’ve always called myself half-Chinese, never half-American. I wear my father’s Chinese name and so I have always had to come up with an answer for why I look American but have a surname no American can pronounce.
I wait for Toni to say something, to accept my mixed heritage, to withdraw her judgment and offer some sort of apology. Instead she just stares at my father, as if he doesn’t look Chinese at all, either.
“Yeah,” I say, “he’ll probably just look like a regular ole white kid, blonde hair and blue eyes.” I feel defeated, as if my son is already here, denying my maternity and culture. Toni nods slowly. I have confirmed what she already believes.
Later that night, I tell Richard about Toni’s question. He laughs.
“Of course he won’t have blonde hair. Brown is the dominant gene.” I Google genetics, trying to figure out the probability. It is too much science, and my pregnant brain can’t make the calculations. When I try to picture my son in my mind, I can’t. I only see a fuzzy outline. No colors. Chinese is what I have, what’s different from Richard, what makes me stand out. Will I vanish within recessiveness if my son makes his entrance looking far less different than I always have?
Soon, I find out for myself. Five months later, Oliver arrives after twelve hours of labor and pushing. About a half hour after the countdown starts, the head nurse announces, “I see dark hair!” Her exclamation is a cheer, one for my team.
“Really?” I breathe. Dark hair means Chinese. Dark hair means me.
But when Oliver emerges completely, he proves us all wrong. The nurses roll up my sweaty, bloodstained nightgown and place him on my belly, and he looks up at me and stares. I stare back and get lost in eyes that are not my own, blue eyes that should belong to a character in a story.
They are not the murky newborn blue many babies are born with. No, Oliver’s blue could be a Pantone color, a gradient created by a graphic designer. Not a placeholder for brown or hazel, but my mom’s blue, and my husband’s. After five minutes or thirty—I have lost all sense of time—the nurses scoop up our baby and take him for his first bath. When they wheel him back in, we stand to greet him and see it: blonde hair. Mom’s blonde, the blonde she was born with, the blonde Richard was born with.
My baby is a blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy.
When my father comes to see Oliver nine hours later, he laughs. “He looks just like you!” he says to Richard. My husband beams. I nod, as if it was my joke too. Our baby boy looks just like his daddy. It is like I am not even there. My dad leans over Oliver and whispers, “So, so beautiful.” He never stops saying it. Not that day, not the next week, not for several months. Even when he isn’t saying the words, you can see them in the way he gazes at our child. As if he’s afraid Oliver is a mirage that might disappear if he looks away. Is it because of Oliver’s fair skin and eyes? Is white more beautiful to my Chinese father than whatever I am? Has that been the reason why my father has been so uninterested in me, why he’s now so interested in my son? Why my mother came and went, then came and went again? I don’t look enough like either of them. I’m stuck somewhere in the middle, someone neither parent can attach to.
A couple of days later, my stepsisters come to meet the new baby. Their feet have barely crossed the threshold when the declaration is made. “He looks just like Richard!” Toni says, and her words are echoed by the others. “He looks so…WHITE,” Georgette informs me, as if I needed to be told. My white fiancé holds my white baby, while I sit in the corner and eat a Chinese meal of rice, bok coy steamed with garlic, and roasted salmon. I watch as the other within me—my Chinese family—surrounds my two men, protecting them from the outside world. From me. As if he is Richard’s baby, and I just happen to live here. I stare at Oliver in the center of their circle, who now feels so far away. They have turned him into a question of either/or and forgot all about how Oliver came to be. I don’t care what he looks like, why should they? Why does it have to be a competition? Richard vs. Emma, White vs. Chinese.
“Look, I did all the hard work,” I hiss through clenched teeth.
“Well,” Georgette says, “maybe he’ll look like you later on.” Then, as if on cue, Oliver starts to cry. I steal him away and mount the stairs to feed him. As soon as I place my nipple in his mouth, he stops crying and I start, my family’s words reverberating in my heart. It is just one more way my Chinese heritage has subjugated me. The meals and parties and holidays I sat drowning in my father’s foreign tongue, the family from Taiwan he chose over his own, spinning tales in Chinese that his own children couldn’t understand. The mispronunciation of my name every single year in school, the “what are you?” questions, the Chinese boys who tried to date me then gave up, the American men who wished I could cook Chinese food. Can’t Oliver just be whatever he is without the label of Chinese or white?
Color was masking everything, in his case. His blonde hair and blue eyes distracted viewers from the shape of his eyes—Chinese, like mine—and the shape of his nose. If you looked hard enough, you’d see him for what he was: a quarter Chinese.
It wasn’t just my family who was colorblind. It was everyone. Out in the world, I felt like his nanny, his nursemaid, anything but his mother. I would force Richard to take my picture with Oliver positioned just so, hoping to catch a shot of our complementary features, offering the world evidence that he was part Tsai, part me. Here, try to say you don’t see any resemblance.
It would be four months before Toni finally says, “He looks more and more like you.” And more than that before everyone else agreed.
When we are out together now and someone gives Richard claim to Oliver’s face, Richard does his best to turn a sole proprietorship into a partnership: “He has Emma’s nose.” Usually he is met with a quizzical look, as if he is speaking a foreign language. In fact, he is: he is speaking Emma, and all they know is Richard. It is the Chinese in me, in Oliver, they don’t see. The very reason Oliver looks the way he does is because of my mother’s American heritage and mine, not in spite of it. You’re just seeing color, I want to shout, there’s more to us than that. But am I talking about Oliver or about myself? Am I really asking others to see me as something more than the sum of my parts?
That majority ruling pulls at my heart more than the pain in my abdomen or the pulsing in my nipples after a long feeding. It’s a feeling that lasts longer than the days Oliver cries for hours without a pause, or pees all over the bathroom walls. All of that lingers in the background, as Oliver smiles and erases the identity theft of the immediate past. This feeling of disconnectedness from my child—in the eyes of the world—comes back again and again. They are subjecting him to a label that does nothing but segregate him. From me.
Eventually, Oliver becomes a part of the world, his own person, even though he’s only seven months old. He looks like Oliver, a growing boy who could be something out of a Precious Moments catalogue, with his round nose, huge eyes, and a lower lip that he likes to tuck in. As his hair comes in, it appears to be different shades of dark blonde and red—reminiscent of Richard’s hair, but not identical to it. His face has the delicate roundness of a baby’s. He has a tiny belly, unlike Richard, and long legs, very much like the both of us. Now and then, someone will say he looks like me; now and then, someone will say he looks nothing like me. In his very own way, Oliver has become more about Oliver, and less about us, and that’s what we had wished for all along.
Emma Kate Tsai is an editor and writer in Houston, Texas. She has been published online and in print, including an essay entitled “Chinese-American Girl: Drinking from East to West” in the anthology Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up, and the lead essay in the self-published anthology Loving for Crumbs entitled “Spell of Starvation.” Emma has an essay upcoming in Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, pending from Seal Press, and is currently at work on a memoir that focuses on identity through the lens of an identical twin.
Photo: Lesley Shone