The mixmyth revisited: mixed race children in Hong Kong

As we’ve recently had a couple of interesting comments on my initial mixmyth article, I thought I’d post a follow-up.

Daughter Tall, my own nicely mixed daughter, is now four years old. Within just the past few weeks, we’ve had to confront the issue of her mixed race, as her biracial status has just dawned on her.

Her first step was realizing that Mommy and Daddy are, well, different in ways that go beyond one being a girl and the other a boy. She then concluded that Mommy is Chinese, and Daddy just is not. Eventually, the concept of ‘westerner’ came onto her mental stage. She insisted at first that she was only Chinese (not surprising, given that’s her context for most cultural references at this point). We didn’t make too much of this, but did remind her that she was both Mommy and Daddy’s little girl, so she was half western, and hence a ‘mix’. At one point, she burst into tears and hollered ‘I don’t want to be a mix!’, but that seems to have been a one-off reaction. She’s now aware that she’s different from most other Hong Kong kids, and for the moment this doesn’t seem to bother her.

Mrs Tall and I haven’t bothered trying to shield Daughter Tall from the reality of her mixed race because it’s pointed out to her so often. I have a great deal of sympathy for our commenter, who said she felt as if her daughter was often treated like a ‘science experiment’.


When the Family Tall is out in public, we’ve become accustomed to being the subjects of a standard form of examination. The examiner usually proceeds as follows:

  1. A double take, then a long look at Daughter Tall.
  2. A back-and-forth survey of Mrs Tall and me.
  3. An even longer, less inhibited assessment of Daughter Tall’s face, with quick, periodic re-evaluations of Mrs Tall and me, to confirm which of Daughter Tall’s facial features comes from which of us.
  4. An unpleasant epiphany, as our shameless examiner realizes that Mrs Tall and I are staring – rather crossly – at her, too, and likely have been so doing for some time.

I use ‘she’ consciously, as more women than men seem interested in evaluating Daughter Tall’s genetic makeup, though there are plenty of men who seem just as fascinated (more creepy, that!).

So, at this point, do we see an upside in the mixmyth?

Well, for one thing, Daughter Tall herself is delighted by her own bilingualism. She certainly enjoys criticizing Daddy’s Cantonese, although that has a shooting-fish-in-a-barrel challenge level that’s leaving her increasingly uninterested. Much more fun now is catching one of Mommy’s infrequent errors in English grammar or pronunciation.

I think it’s also doubtful she’ll be very uptight about being a mixed kid as she gets older and more aware of the implications of her racial status. There are so many mixed kids in Hong Kong that she’s really not all that special, and as we’ve amply documented here, in articles and comments, the stereotypes of mixed kids in Hong Kong are generally positive. What I hope she can avoid, as long as possible, is getting mixed up in the tedious racial identity politics that so poison the atmosphere at many schools and universities in western countries.

And maybe there’s a more tangible upside, if this recently-published book can be believed. Its title – Breeding Between the Lines: Why Interracial People Are Healthier and More Attractive – probably tells us all we need to know about its contents, but I may try to find a copy anyway. Interestingly, its author – whose website is here, by the way – is not in fact of mixed race.

As always, reader comments are welcome on this subject! Tell us what you’re experienced if you or your kids are in the same boat.


The view from the blender

It's very interesting to read how Daughter Tall's awareness of her mixedness is developing. I was about to write that MsB at 3 has just recently begun to recognise the difference between spoken Chinese and English... but I just heard French coming from the main room, so now I'm not so sure.

She's watching a not-quite-as-authentic-as-it-could-be copy of Chicken Little, and the DVD only has French or Cantonese soundtracks. I just stuck my head round the door to ask if she'd rather have it in Chinese, but she's insisting it should be left in 'English'. So maybe I'd better rethink her level of language comprehension! (She's certainly not reading the subtitles - it does have English subtitles but to save money they come from a different movie...)

As for staring, I've come to the conclusion that's just an occupational hazard of living in HK. The urge to take another look is a natural one, as our brains seem to be wired to pay great attention to 'what's wrong with this picture' type of events. Of course what makes it worse here is that the stare is usually full-on (I wonder if there is a translation for 'sideways glance' in Chinese) and there is often a soundtrack to accompany the stare, on the assumption that since we can't understand Cantonese there's no harm talking about it.

My most recent experience was last week, in the queue at the gate to the plane from London back to HK. There was a returning school party in the next queue, and a young boy (maybe 10 years old?) was doing the back and forth survey of MsB junior and me (she was strapped to my front in a carrier). Here we had a slight variation on the theme, as he eventually informed his fellow queuer in a clear voice that the baby looked Chinese, I didn't, and just what exactly was going on here?

I took it as a 'welcome home' stare.


We get some stares

We get some stares sometimes. Last spring on the bus taking the kids to school, a guy kept looking from sk-son to me and back again, wheels whirring until I think he figured it out. When I'm by myself w/ one or more of the kids people sometimes ask me.

My favorite question comment came from a little African-American boy in a playground in Massachusetts several years ago. He came up to me and bluntly said, "Your kids don't look like you." I explained gently why he might think that (although I think our kids look like both sk-baba and me).

When w/ sk-baba alone (walking hand-inhand) or w/ the kids, we do get side-long glances, not full-on stares.

Us too, but not always

All mixed kids reflect both parents to some extent, but sometimes the mix can be ambiguous. I've actually been asked if my wife is Indian, as young Miss O can look very middle eastern. (They both have very big eyes, but Miss O's are a trifle rounder.) She's also very tall, and not at all spherical, unlike a lot of local kids.

We were buying some tropical fish the other day, and I swear I could hear jaws drop as my six-year old daughter was translating the written Chinese names of the fishes for me.

My daughter enjoyed the time

My daughter enjoyed the time when she was in the lift with her mum (Chinese) and our helper (Filipina), and Ah Poh got in. Like kids, these old dears say what's on their mind. So she turns to the helper (who had very fair skin - a combined result of Spanish heritage and loads of SKII) and tells her that her daughter was very beautiful. Not so sure if my wife enjoyed it, mind.

Mixmyth dilemma: solved!

This past weekend I was talking with Daughter Tall about the new year in kindergarten. She said it was good, Teacher was nice, etc., etc.

Then we turned to the subject of Friday's English lesson: the letter Z. Daughter Tall informed me, rather majestically, that she and I pronounce that letter's name 'zee', because we are Americans, and Mommy says 'zed' because she is not an American. I thought that was quite fine.

Then I asked her what the other children in her class called it.

She replied, 'They all say "zee" like me because they are all Americans too!' [So far as I know, she's actually the only one in her class; all the others are local HK kids.]

And then she added, 'And all the siu peng yau [i.e. children] in my class are mixes, too! Some of them look like they are just Chinese, but they are really mixes like me.'

So no social adjustment problems to report at the moment!!

Mixing it up

As a couple who are trying to create a mixed child, I laughed out loud at (with) your experiences. My husband and I have gotten everything form "your chldren will be beautiful because they will have long eyelashes" to shock horror (this from a *ahen* charming auntie who has yet to step out of the dark ages and who has way too much free time) that my husband was even considering 'diluting his Chinese blood'.

I have even been assured that we did not need to worry as much about school fees as other people as our future child's modelling fees would certainly cover the costs.

Do you think a diet of breastmilk would cover the new stipulations from Milan over model's weight/height ratios? Do you have to be able to walk to use a catwalk?

On another note, a friend of mine in a mixed relationship has a daughter from a previous relaionship who is a lovely blonde girl. The open speculation about how this couple managed to have a blonde daughter is very funny. Even funnier is that my friend has become adept at keeping a straight face through it all and just lets the speculation run wild.

"...tedious racial identity politics..."

"...What I hope she can avoid, as long as possible, is getting mixed up in the tedious racial identity politics that so poison the atmosphere at many schools and universities in western countries..."

Mr Tall, what you said is what I have been concerned about and to some extend - worried. Me and my family live in the UK. I am Chinese and my wife is English. We have two beautiful sons (3 years old and 2 months old).

When we are out and about, we do get quite a few stares from older folks and kids who show fascinating interest and curiousity in our mixed relationship, well espcially in me and our kids as where I live dont really have many Chinese. Often they do pass on comments about how much they look like me, especially their "EYES". Its like they have to confirm to us that "yeah they definitely have your Chinese blood!" Don't get me wrong, I do take the comments positively.

Persoanlly I have experienced some degree of racial inequailty here, no doubt some of you must have the same expereience too, but I have accepted it as its my decision to live here and I can deal with it. But what I am concerned about is when our kids go to school, how will they deal with the "tedious racial identity politics"? will comments from other kids be as positive when they are on their own at school playground?

Would you say Hong Kong is a better place, with better opportuinties, for someone with "dual heritage" (its the official term to describe mixed kids here) to grow up in? Do you have any negative experience about this issue and how did you and your partner deal with it? Sorry I may have gone off the topic a bit, but would really appreciate it if you can share your experience and advice.

Tiger leads the way for mixes?

Thanks for that, anon -- what I meant by 'tedious racial identity politics' is the intentional focusing on questions of racial identity, solidarity, victimhood and so on that's so common in American universities and, I think to lesser extents, in other western universities and schools.

In the USA, at least, this whole venture usually flies the banner of 'multiculturalism' or, more recently, 'diversity', but I think it has little to do with true diversity, and rather falls into the trap of racial essentialism, e.g. assuming anyone of a given racial group must share a closely-defined set of political and cultural views, or suggesting that students from some racial groups need to learn differently or learn different material from others because of their genetic background.

I've seen at first hand in American universities how this relentless push to identify with a racial group divides people, and ends up souring rather than improving race relations.

I don't want my daughter to get caught up in this. I want her race, mixed as it is, to be an afterthought whenever possible, much like Tiger Woods treats his 'caublinasianism'. I find his approach to this whole issue admirable.

In Hong Kong, I haven't seen much in the way of this kind of politicking or heavy worries about racial idenity, at least in the education system. I think this is mostly because in spite of HK's unique history, it's still an essentially Chinese city, and so it shall remain unless things change drastically.

So do I think it's better for mixed kids than other places? I don't feel qualified to answer that, in that I've never been the father to a mixed kid anywhere else! Seriously, it seems like a good place to me. In spite of my occasional griping about stares and such, mixed kids are common here, and although they may be susceptible to occasional identity crises, well, aren't kids everywhere?

I think the biggest challenge here for parents of mixed kids is choosing which educational system you're going to have them pursue. You can read much more current discussion of this issue here.

Thanks again for writing, and I'd love to hear more about your experiences in the UK.

Tedious racial identity politics in action

As a follow-up to my previous comments, I'd like to recommend a recent article from the NY Times on the plight of Asian/Asian-American university students in the USA.

It's a fascinating expose of what 'affirmative action' really means for Asians in the USA -- rather than being favored for admission to the best universities, they're actually quite strongly disadvantaged when affirmative action policies are put into effect. The effects on white students are negligible.

The article also has a lot to say about the balkanization of American university campuses according to racial/cultural groups.

looks and identity

I have a blonde blue eyed child, who was born in Hong Kong.  She does not understand why she doesn't have dark long hair and eyes.  She would LOVE to look like she was chinese.  Why?  I think because that is the dominent look here and  she identifies that with being beautiful.  And when you're 5, being a beautiful princess is important.  And all the beautiful princess like looking women here happen to be chinese!

My 4 year old son appears to currently be completely color and racially blind.  Kids are either good guys and his friend or bad guys (he hits/ is naughty or whatever) and not his friends.  The only thing he is aware of is that there is a japanese guy in his class and he is super smart.  Perhaps the kid told him he was smart because he was japanese?

I hope things stay this way and kids are judged on their own merits rather than how they look.  I think its up to us as parents to make sure that it is. 

Racial awareness

Thanks much for that comment, Gweipo. It's interesting to hear how differently your kids have reacted to this issue. I wonder if girls are just generally more perceptive and sensitive to such issues, at early ages, at least.

At the moment Daughter Tall again doesn't seem to care much. She considers herself to be 'Chinese', but also will let any and all know that she's an American, too.

I would like to think that we as parents could raise truly color-blind kids, but I guess it's impossible. There are too many cues they receive from too many sources that give them all kinds of messages, both good and ill, e.g. the Japanese boy in your son's class.

My 3 yr old JJ is mixed, I'm

My 3 yr old JJ is mixed, I'm a typical American caucasian, my wife is Hong Kong Chinese.  He's very Caucasian looking, other than dark brown hair and dark hazel eyes, where my family are more shades of blond, and all blue eyed.    

We got married and moved to Malaysia about the same time.  Here in Malaysia the Chinese still refer to me as Gwei Lo or Fei Zhi, and to my son as Gwei Zei, and more and more often even by her close Chinese friends in Hong Kong she is referred to as a Gwei Poh.  To Malays we're Maht-saleh which is the local term for foreigners.  

He's been back in Hong Kong for a week now, and we're most likely relocating back, so I am interested to see how he develops and embraces his heritage.  He knows distinctly the difference between 'Mommy is Chinese' and 'Daddy is American', and I am not sure how he classifies himself.  He's made a point of not wanting to talk Chinese, because my wife speaks to him in English at least when I am around, but he obviously responds to it.  He's now listening intently and saying 'uh-huh' to everything when extended family speak to him in Chinese.  My wife and her mother were having a conversation in Chinese about whether or not he really understands Chinese, and he responded to his Poh Poh in English 'I do understand', which surprised us all.  

Now that he is there and most likely staying we have to find him a school, and because of his HK citizenship we're consider a local route through at least part of Primary, considering DSS schools, rather than ESF, or the more expensive Intl schools.  

Anyway, thanks for your excellent blog.  I've been reading post after post for the last day or two, as it all really hits home, and it's all very informative.  Keep it up!!! 

Mixed children and their choice of language

Different children seem to come up with different rules about when to use which language. I've seen a couple of cases where mixed children can speak chinese well, but are loth to speak it in front of their english-speaking parents. It didn't last for ever, but it was very frustrating for the parents at the time.

Glad to hear you're enjoying the site,

Regards, MrB