Notes for my son
Dear Little Mate,
You came into this world calmly and quietly, not kicking and screaming as we’re told most babies should.
As the doctors whisked you away to give your lungs a bit of help to get going (goodness knows they’ve been working just fine ever since!), I was left to stare at the operating room’s stark white ceiling, quite oblivious to the flurry of activity going on around you.
In the long minutes before I was finally able to gaze into your deep brown eyes, I wondered what you looked like. Who you looked like. It bothered me to no end that your dad had gotten to see you before I had. We’d spent the past nine months, as most parents do, debating which one of us you’d look more like; squinting at each scan in the vain hope of a clue to help us get to know you.
We already knew this: you would be a mix of bits and pieces from all over the world - Malaysian Chinese, Indonesian Chinese, English, Scottish and Irish.
But far beyond how that would manifest itself in your looks (you’re already unbearably cute, of course), I was much more interested in how this mix of ethnicities would inform your sense of self, and in particular - given it’s the half you got from me - how closely you’ll identify with being Chinese.
Here’s what I hope.
I hope you’ll take pride in your diverse heritage. Mixed race children are nothing new, but in my mind you’re a model child of this global age. You represent my belief that different cultures can and should live side by side, learning from and enriching each other.
I think we as a society are still figuring out how to do this. But I’m confident that by the time you start school, the repertoire of playground chants won’t still include “Ching Chong Chinaman”, complete with the mocking of Asians’ eye shapes. That your schoolmates won’t wrinkle their noses when I sneak a BBQ pork bun into your lunchbox, making you feel embarrassed to enjoy one of your favourite treats.
These are things I remember from my days at school, but that was a long time ago now. A time when just-immigrated Chinese kids were encouraged to choose “English names” because they were easier to pronounce than the ones their proud parents had given them at birth. When being Chinese came with the assumption you were smart (especially when it came to maths) and bad at sports.
On the subject of maths, the numbers give me hope that these stereotypes are vanishing as Asian cultures become more visible in New Zealand. Between 2001 and 2013 the number of under-five-year-olds identifying as Asian doubled, according to census data. Official projections estimate that, as of 30 June 2017, just over 18 percent of all Kiwi kids under five were Asian.
So you are far from alone. But even if you are occasionally made to feel like an outsider, I hope I will have equipped you with the resilience to instead see it as something that makes you special.
I hope you’re proud of your Chinese middle name, and don’t think it’s weird like I used to feel about mine. My memory of feeling disconnected from my middle name - like it belonged to some other part of me I barely knew - made me change my mind over and over again about whether to give you a Chinese one, lest it have the same impact on you.
In the end it was your Pākehā father who convinced me of what it would represent: a hope that you would be curious about that side of your heritage, and as connected with it as his side, whose surname you share.
We chose your great-grandfather’s name for you. He was a brave man who worked hard to support his family in difficult circumstances - a racially divided Indonesia, where they became the target of violence and hatred. When it became too dangerous for his young family to continue living there, made the gutsy decision to move them to New Zealand - a much safer place, but nonetheless bereft of familiar people, language, food or customs.
And so, here you are.
I know that the older you get, the harder I’ll have to work to keep you connected with your Chinese side. How do I do that, when some days I barely “feel Chinese” myself?
I speak Spanish, not Cantonese. I make a mean potato salad, but don’t ask me to cook hor fun noodles for you.
I have thought a lot about what being Chinese means to me, a born and bred New Zealander, and in turn what it means now I’m a mum.
Here’s what I can promise you.
We’ll get your oma and opa to teach us how to cook their best dishes, the ones that remind them of where they grew up: beef rendang, laksa, nasi lemak.
You’ll look forward to celebrating Chinese New Year, and realise the value is not just in how much you receive in red packets or how much you eat at yum cha, but in the time you spend with your family.
I’ll take you to visit the towns and cities where your grandparents grew up: Ipoh in Malaysia; Lasem and Bandung in Indonesia. You’ll spend time with your great-grandmother, and even though you won’t speak the same language as her, you’ll know her as the kind of strong, independent, resourceful mother to your opa that I hope to be to you.
I also hope that, while I’m busy trying to teach you all about being Chinese, you’ll also get to know the other side of your family: war veterans and teachers who journeyed by boat to the other side of the world to make New Zealand home.
It might be a big ask for you to feel connected to all of these things, all the time. That’s quite alright - I’ve been there too.
I am what people call a “third culture kid” (TCK) - someone who’s grown up in a culture other than my parents’. I’ve experienced the classic TCK symptoms of divided loyalties, and identifying with so many different groups I don’t feel I truly belong to any.
My lack of Chinese language skills have often made me feel like a fraud. I used to dread going shopping in Malaysia and Indonesia - or even at the Asian grocery stores in Auckland - because I’d feel ashamed at having to tell people I couldn’t understand them, even though I looked just like them.
But, while I desperately used to want brown hair instead of black, and to never be asked where I was born, I now consider being a Chinese Kiwi something of immense pride.
I love seeing the hordes of people flocking to the lantern festival each year, and - hangry as I might be - the dumpling shops with long queues outside. Though these barely scratch the surface of our culture, it speaks volumes that they are now an indispensable part of Kiwi life.
Before long they’ll be part of your life too - and I can’t wait.
Kim Choe is a digital and broadcast journalist based in Auckland. She is currently on parental leave from Newshub, where she has worked since she was a university student. Career highlights include covering presidential elections and inaugurations in the United States, and musical theatre shows in Australia. Kim is a graduate of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University New York. You can follow her @kimchoe on Twitter