I’ll never forget when my Chinese husband John and I married, and my father stood up to give a speech. He spent more than half of his talk praising John — loving, hard-working, loyal, thoughtful — and ended by hugging him in front of the entire audience.
It’s such a tear-jerker of a moment that I almost cried the last time I watched it on our wedding DVD. Maybe they were tears of gratitude — because my family embraced John so publicly.
After all, not every white father — or parent — has the same opinion on the Asian boyfriend. Over the years, I’ve met many white women with Asian boyfriend and their meet-the-parents story is never quite the same. Usually, there’s acceptance. But sometimes it doesn’t come immediately, or even easily. And even if they welcome you with open arms, it doesn’t mean they understand you either.
One thing is certain, though. White parents sometimes think the darnedest things about your Asian boyfriend.
What did my father think of my Asian boyfriend and soon to be having a Chinese son-in-law? Something like this:
“…I could care less if (Chinese Guy) is Chinese. He could be Muslim or Hindu or black or any color of the rainbow and that wouldn’t matter to me a bit. Because I know how much (White Girl) loves him and how much he loves her. And that is enough for me. I can’t wait for him to be my son in law.”
This is the kind of parent reaction you probably dream of. It just doesn’t matter that you’re Asian. No roadblocks, no family drama worthy of a Lifetime made-for-TV movie. Instead, they’re already talking about your future engagement or wedding, or maybe even inviting you to the family’s summer lake retreat. Life is beautiful, we’re all one, and all that matters is you love her. Cue the Kumbaya, anyone?
However… keep in mind total acceptance doesn’t mean total understanding. I should know. I was raised by colorblind parents like this, who never really talked about race/culture because they didn’t see it as an issue. But when I married my Chinese husband, then brought him to the US, I began to realize just how much race was an issue.
My husband recently took a diversity course and read in one of his books that all white people are racist. That was tough for me to swallow, but I’ve learned what that really means — acknowledging things like white privlege, and learning how to talk about race. That’s something I really need to learn, especially if I have children.
As Stuff White People Like will tell you, a lot of white people — including parents — love diversity, and love the fact that you’re dating their daughter.
- Korean? They crave kimchi and have wanted to visit Seoul for years.
- Chinese? They think kung pao chicken is the bomb and just started learning Tai Chi at the gym.
- Vietnamese? They’ll gush about how much they adore pho, and ask you for recommendations on their next trip to Little Saigon.
Who doesn’t want her parents interested in your background? This parent is, overall, pretty nice to have around.
But there are minor drawbacks.
They might be the only white parents you’ve met who love braised chicken feet or have actually done a pilgrimage through the temples in Japan. But does that really mean they really understand your background? There’s a lot more to Asian cultures than Zagat-rated international restaurants and “postcard Asia” destinations like the Great Wall and Angkor Vat.
I imagine that, if you’re born and raised in the same country as they were, they might just make you feel, well, a little foreign.
Plus, “diversity” is a largely white concept and I can’t help but wonder if, for some people, diversity-obsession hides larger issues).
Everyone in my family, from my father to my grandmother, always compliments my Chinese husband with two adjectives: smart and hard-working. John is smart and hard-working, but I sometimes I think — do they notice these things just because that’s the stereotype of the Asian boyfriend? He’s handsome too, I want to remind them. And super-funny.
A lot of white parents see Asian men through that whole model minority lens. You could be funnier than Dat Phan and as dapper as JT Tran, but they still superimpose positive stereotypes on you like a one-size-fits-all Beijing Opera mask.
The good news is, the more they get to know you — as a person beyond the Asian stereotypes they have — the less of an issue this is.
For some white parents, there’s an asterisk that goes after dating and marrying an Asian boyfriend — a harder life. As much as they love their daughter’s new Asian boyfriend, there’s always that “But…”: But it would be so much easier if you chose a white man.
In a way, they might as well say, we know white means privilege and we don’t want our daughter to have anything less.
Most of the time, parents like this don’t stand in the way — especially if they see how much their daughter adores you. But if they think your being Asian has caused problems for the two of you (often the case for fresh-off-the-boat immigrants, who have a harder time finding work or just getting by because of language/cultural barriers), they might bring it up to their daughter like a kind of “we told you so.”
In Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Bruce Lee tells Linda’s mother he’s an American. Her answer? “You’re an American citizen, but you’re not really an American.”
Yes, to some white parents, it’s not enough that you’re a card-carrying, born-and-raised-here American. Your Asian face means you’re a foreigner. (Never mind that white people were also foreigners before immigrating to America hundreds of years ago.)
This is devastating, but with persistence, sometimes white parents can come around. One friend told me her very Southern, very close-minded dad did a complete 180 with her Chinese husband — even eventually accepting the man as his own son.
Better Than Black
Once my grandmother confessed she was so grateful I didn’t marry a black man, like my sister did.
For some white parents (and often grandparents), dating and marrying an Asian boyfriend is “the lesser of racial evils” — because “the children won’t look so different.” Ugh. Just thinking about this makes me want to send all of these parents to a required diversity class!
What About the Children?
I turn to Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story for another great example from Linda’s mother: “But what will they be? They won’t be white, and they won’t be oriental. They’ll be some kind of half-breed that won’t be accepted by either side.”
Some white parents see you with their white daughter and immediately think, what about the children? They believe your offspring will be some abomination. (Oddly, this is completely the opposite from China, where many Chinese are obsessed with the “beautiful, clever” half-white/half-Asian babies. But I digress.)
Maybe they’re worried the children will have a harder time, or maybe it’s a more racist “appearance” issue. In cases like this, be prepared to do what Linda did — live life in spite of her parents.
Still, white parents are human beings — and as we all know, people do change. When Bruce and Linda Lee had children, her mother reconciled with them.
So remember — no matter what her white parents think of you, first impressions don’t have to last. Her parents might have crossed their arms at the thought of your relationship together. But someday, they could be making that same “welcome to the family” speech at your wedding, just like my dad.
Bet your wife cries too.
Writer, Chinese translator and founder of Speaking of China, Jocelyn Eikenburg knows her white family isn’t perfect, but still loves them anyhow.