miscegenation: n. Cohabitation, sexual relations, marriage, or interbreeding involving persons of different races, especially in historical contexts as a transgression of the law.
After reading this NY Times article, that old and (thankfully) nearly extinct word came to mind. At the same time, I thought about how it would have been illegal for my wife or I to marry outside our race until the 1920s (even here in New York City). Obviously, anti-miscegenation laws sprung out of the Jim Crow South and Indian-eradicating Old West, to prevent either dilution of white bloodlines, or a mulatto child’s claim to freedom and/or the master/father’s estate. My situation is far from that, and pretty much mirrors the couples outlined in the article, but it still got me thinking.
My wife and I have a number of Asian friends who are either in relationships with, or married to, people outside their race. Many of them have beautiful biracial children. In and of itself, that isn’t all that uncommon, and our friends’ biracial kids will grow up rich in multiple cultures. People forget, though, that no less an icon than Bruce Lee was vilified by both sides when people found out he’d married a white woman. Eons ago, I was even beaten up in high school by some rednecks who decided that not only did they not like me, they really didn’t like that I’d gone to a movie with a white girl. No soup for you!
As an Asian American (AA) – specifically, a Korean American – married to another Korean American, it’s safe to say that my parents and my in-laws were happy about our pairing (at least from an ethnic standpoint). Neither of us had been specifically looking for a spouse from the Olde Country, but as the Times article states, it does allow for common cultural ground at the outset of a relationship. There are countless things, especially when it came to discovering each other’s family, that my wife and I didn’t have to explain – it just was. We’re neither FOBs (fresh off the boat) nor fully assimilated Twinkies (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), comfortable in our middle-ground existence, without feeling the need to celebrate one side of our heritage at the expense of the other. The second language in our house is Korean, and our kids will hopefully be at least conversant in Korean. If language can open a door for Ryan and Sophie, so that they can see how it helps unlock their grandparents’ homeland, then I’m all for it.
My best friend, who’s black, made a bet with me years ago when we were still single. He said that his chances of marrying an Asian woman were higher than mine, and about equal to my chances of marrying a black woman. This was coming from a man who had lived and studied in Asia, wrote a novel set in Japan, and was a practicing Buddhist. On my wedding day, I asked him if I’d won our old bet, but he just laughed at me. For what it’s worth, I’ve been telling him for years that he’d probably feel more comfortable in our predominantly Asian part of Queens. I’ve long suspected that his ideal woman from a shared values standpoint is Asian, if not Korean American. If he finally gets off his butt and moves up here (that was a hint, Calvin), he might even have a chance to test that theory.
When did Asians bonding through shared culture and values, though, become trendy enough to be covered by the Times? If so, why not assign an AA writer to the article? And if the Times were going to plumb these depths anyway, why not get it right? At the very least, the author could have realized that even within the AA community, demarcation lines exist between Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, etc. This isn’t to say that intra-Asian marriage doesn’t happen, but that it tends to occur more frequently between members of the same Asian sub-group. My brother in-law and his wife are a wonderful example of Asians of different ethnicities marrying, and their wedding is a convenient excuse for me to post this photo of my little man as their ring bearer – see below.
The other side of the marriage coin, which Ms. Swarns either chose not to touch, or just didn’t see, is Asians’ and Asian Americans’ widespread intramural racism. This isn’t as overt as a black kid and a Korean greengrocer, but it could very well create a chasm between two people named “Lee” whose families come from Chiang Mai or Taegu. This is anti-miscegenation of a different sort, one that had never been bound by law (at least, not in this country), but a sentiment that our immigrant parents might have still held on to after immigrating to the Great Melting Pot, because at least they knew their own tribe and there was some comfort in familiarity.
I can still recall almost verbatim, mainly because it so repulsed me, when I had “the talk” with my father. But it wasn’t just the sex talk, it was a “race” talk with respect to whom I could date. According to my father, he wanted me to date Korean girls; that’s fine and dandy, but Harris County TX in the mid/late 1980s (yes, I’m dating myself here) wasn’t exactly a hotbed of Korean emigration. Failing that, he enumerated a list of races like my old first sergeant posting the Order of Merit List on the company bulletin board. Chinese or Japanese were acceptable – essentially, any northern Asian; Southeast Asians, the polyglot that spanned the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, et. al., were not. Neither, for that matter, were South Asians, Arabs, or Persians. He said he’d rather see me date a Hispanic girl than a black girl if none of the aforementioned approved races were available, like I’d be able to cherry pick one over the other. A black American girl was preferable to a black African girl. White girls were always acceptable, but not a Jewess. So what did my rebellious self do? Of course, I dated a Jewish girl and took her to the prom. I even hung out with black girls, one in particular, but looking back, we were both too shy and too insecure in our own racial identities at the time to consider anything beyond friendship. I did, however, think about the look on my old man’s face if I’d ever had the gumption to bring her home to meet the folks. I’d always wanted to see what a real conniption fit looked like.
My children won’t be dating, thank God, until the mid to late 2020s. My hair is graying enough now, let alone in 15 years when my kids will make it grayer still and fall out. Sure, they’ll be your usual teenage bundles of unfocused hormones, but my wife and I would be stupid and hypocritical to ignore those phases of our own lives. I’ll have a chat with each of them in due course, but I’m foreseeing a different tack on “the talk” than my old man had with me.
My advice now, and what will be my advice in 2027 or so, will be this: respect yourself enough to be with someone who helps you become a better person. That person could be white, black, Chilean, Korean, Turkish, or any variation of those; that person could even be from the same gender, because you will feel for whom you will. “Love” is a four-letter word, use it sparingly and only after deep reflection, not lust based on a few exchanged glances in algebra class. I can and will hold final approval or disapproval authority over whom you can or cannot date, but it won’t be based on race, ethnicity, social status, or anything besides what I feel is right for you emotionally. And maybe even spiritually – I don’t intend this as a religious term, because true affection should feed and bolster one’s spirit. Do what you will after you move out, but that’s my advice and my rules until then.
But if a young man has something other than the mall and 10pm drop-off at home planned with Sophie, I have a a pistol that might need cleaning…
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: I‘m a second-generation Korean American who is distressingly close to 40. I’m also the father of 2, husband, restauranteur, chef, and wine geek. I was a soldier once, and lessons I learned in the service inform every day of my life.