I’m Not an Asian Mom

by Luanne

Cover of "Invisible Man (Modern Library)&...

Cover of Invisible Man (Modern Library)

From the moment I entered Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man I understood the importance of a story told from the “I” perspective.  When I say “entered,” I mean that as I started to read, I penetrated a different and unknown world.  I became the “I”:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.

Ellison had taken me with him through his own distorting mirrors (I am this ignored person) and made me an African-American man in the early part of the 20th century.  Outside the book, I still was and would always be a white woman, born three years after the book was first published.

While I was shown how to see the world of Invisible Man and how to feel invisible by Ellison’s narration, the truth is that I wasn’t at all Ellison’s protagonist.  The book opened my mind to the reality of other worlds, but it didn’t really teach me how to think through the world with the eyes of an African-American man.  My responses and reactions to events remained those of a white woman.  It undoubtedly made me more sympathetic, but I can’t truly understand.

As the mom of two Korean kids, adopted as infants, I need to remember this.  Just because their issues have become my issues as I’ve raised them, doesn’t mean that I have walked in their shoes.

As a reader and curious person, I tried to give my kids a grounded, but open and questioning environment.  Nevertheless, I should have recognized early on that what I could not give them was a way to see the world as Asian Americans with Asian parents.

What do I mean by that?  I suspect that there are ways that minority parents teach their children, consciously and unconsciously, what it means to be a minority in our culture.

Panel Discussion

I thought of this recently when I watched a video of the debate at the La Jolla Playhouse over casting decisions regarding Asian Americans.  Andy Lowe, one of the founders of the San Diego Asian American Repertory Theater, said that his Chinese mother warned him to be on his best behavior because he was the first example of his race people in their neighborhood might meet.  Although it’s true that sometimes my kids were the only Asians in their classrooms or activities, I certainly never gave them a warning of how to act as Asian Americans. I’m sure I was more concerned how they would be treated than by how they would comport themselves as examples of their race or ethnicity.

Here’s a fictional example that relates to my point.  On an episode of Glee (sorry, but I do love the show) Mike Chang’s father has this exchange with Tina:

Mr. Chang: You want to be a performer, too? . . . [Your parents] are not honest with you.  . . . This path you’ve chosen . . . there’ll be such heartache, so few opportunities for you.

Tina:  I know.  I’ve heard the jokes.  I better hope they do a musical of Joy Luck Club and Memoirs of a Geisha.

After this kind of warning, it’s up to Tina and Mike if they go after their dreams anyway, but suffice it to say that they’ve been warned by someone of their own race.

My kids have trudged naively into the world around them, not protected by warnings from parents who have gone there before them.  I’m not suggesting that this is such a bad thing, but as a parent by adoption it’s something I need to remember.


  1. Lisa DeNike Ercolano says:

    Thought-provoking piece, Luanne. As another white parent of an Asian child, I often have to remind myself of this, too. As members of the privileged (yeah, it’s true, and everyone knows it) white majority, there are things that our children experience that we will have to struggle to comprehend — if they even tell us about them.

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