It starts with the term gweilo, a frequently used Cantonese slang word for foreigners — most commonly, white people. Its literal translation is “Ghost Man” or “Foreign Devil.”
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Editor’s note: Former NYC Dads Group member Marty Forth and his family left Manhattan for Hong Kong in early 2015. He wrote this about his experience with the unique cultural differences he faces in raising a child of mixed race in a foreign country for our NYC blog last year.
We knew our move to Hong Kong would not mean everything would be magic dragon dances and bottomless plates of dim sum. The pronounced race and class issues here are in your face on a daily basis, and we expected this.
It starts with the term gweilo, a frequently used Cantonese slang word for foreigners — most commonly, white people. Its literal translation is “Ghost Man” or “Foreign Devil,” and it first came to prominence during the Opium Wars. Though originally derogatory, the word’s colloquial use has changed its meaning over the years. In my short six weeks in Hong Kong, I have heard it used many times to talk about foreigners, like myself, without much negative meaning. And, like similar terms in the United States, many in the group it applies to have reclaimed the word themselves to celebrate their difference.
One of the greatest concerns about moving to Hong Kong for us, as white parents, was how to educate and support our nearly 5-year-old adopted son, whose biological parents are of mixed European-Caribbean descent, as he becomes cognitively aware of race and racism – specifically his own a place in a society where very few people look like him. Living in New York City made this easy as so many people had a racial background similar to his, and restaurants, museums, parades, community events and experiences regularly celebrated that celebrate the culture and history of the African diaspora. But here, when Black History Month came around in February, even with so many expats from the States living in Hong Kong, I could find no kid-friendly events to take our son to, just mostly evening social events for adults.
We knew this would always be part of our parenting story. The adoption firm we worked with required all its clients to complete a 4-to-6-month course to prepare you for anything. For us, this required reading a book on interracial adoption. One chapter, for example, dealt with white people dealing with the unique needs of black children – specifically Afro hair, and angry black women confronting white people with black kids who are not doing their hair “right.” We did not have this issue, and as I have curly Afro-similar hair (check your own bias – not only black people have curly and hard to control hair).
To ensure our son has a solid sense of self and understanding of his black or Afro-Caribbean history, we try to:
Be proactive, not reactive.
I have been told more than once, “Why bring it up if it is not an issue for him?” or “He looks like all the other kids, why does he need to know?” It is absolutely unacceptable that we would never discuss race or skin color with our son just as it would just be bad parenting if we were not prepared to have that conversation if he brought it up. We as parents must be ready to give honest and age appropriate answers on the topic. This was also a recurring theme for us in our education on the open adoption process and history: Knowing is better than not knowing.
Actively seek knowledge.
When we lived in New York every other Saturday, we would visit the library and take out dozens of books. We always made a point to choose different topics including religion, culture and people. In our new home, our current crop of new books center around Hong Kong history, the Chinese New Year and myths about Asian cultures. Doing this allows us to have educated conversations with our son about where he is, the experiences he is having and help him be prepared for all the many people he will meet, regardless of the city he is in.
Embrace many races in play and entertainment.
When my son was 2, he kept asking for a doll and we supported it. His grandmother asked if she could get him a Cabbage Patch Kid, and we agreed as long as she got him one that was not white, which she did. He saw nothing unique about the doll’s coloring and loved this garden-grown-mini-me greatly. He loved him so much, he buried the doll in our old yard in New York City in hope it would grow into an entire family of cabbage brothers and sisters. I wonder if the new tenants found him yet?
Seek other caring adults and kids to help.
As our son gets older, there is only so much his two white dads can tell him about “being black.” But we have friends who can. We actively surround our family with caring, respectful, intriguing and diverse people – this includes people that look like my son. Mostly it happens naturally (as friendships should), but I have no problem being more deliberate about this in the future. If you are envisioning me running across the playground, dragging my son by the arm behind me, because I finally see a black kid that he can play with, this is far from the truth. I would carry him.
Remember language is powerful.
Language choice and using inclusive language that is honest and diverse is of the utmost importance. I labored around whether we say African American, Caribbean, Afro-American, Caribbean-American or some other term. I asked some specialists in diversity and inclusion and they could not come to consensus either. However, the consensus with them all, borrowed from gay and transgender populations, is to use and accept the terminology he identifies with and to be prepared that it might change over time for him.
While writing this, I learned my son recently observed discrimination first hand. In the playground across from where we live, a man working there kept asking our helper, who is Filipino, to not sit on the swing beside our son, claiming it was “just for the kids.” They were the only ones in the playground, my son told me, and he remembered that I was sitting on that same swing days before without being confronted. This has happened before, but now at less than 5 years of age and after many discussions and questions, my son was able to recognize it for what it was. In retelling me about it, he told me that he thought it was wrong and mean, and that if it happened again he would say something to the man. Can you say, “proud papa”?
On any journey with kids, the desired end goal should guide all your actions and decisions. As parents of a mixed race, adopted son, ours is to raise a happy and healthy son who is also knowledgeable about his background and who has real cultural strength. This was a key part of our decision to move to Hong Kong as it would allow us to expose our son in many other cultures, religions and people in Asia. And this cultural embedded learning has already happened. He has learned firsthand that in traditional Chinese culture it is in no way rude or wrong to stare at people or things that are different, to ask what a Westerner would perceive as a deeply personal question (what is he? why is his hair so curly?), or to touch without asking. And, who can blame them. He has really awesome hair.