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In Praise of Aunts, Our Unsung Heroines

Many years into my growing up, I thought I had understood the awkward piquancy of biracial children with the formulation, they are nothing if not the embodiment of sex itself; now I modify it to, the biracial offspring of war even more offensive and intriguing because they bear the imprint of sex as domination.

(Norma Field, In the Realm of a Dying Emperor)

Reading this passage I am reminded of a confusing incident in childhood. My Irish Aunt Margaret, who like several of my dad’s siblings had never married or had children, delighted in dressing me up and taking me downtown to show off. One day we were walking down Main Street and a man stopped her and asked about my dad. She told him he was back from Japan and that I was his son, proudly beaming down at me. The big man looked down too and stared, at first with a quizzical expression and then suddenly breaking into a big smile as if he was recalling some fond memories. “I’ve got some kids over there myself,” he boasted. Margaret’s smile vanished and her sweet face became suddenly fierce. She looked him in the eye and said, “Well, my brother’s not like that!” She pulled me hard by the hand and we walked away from that man.

My Irish aunts and uncles may not have understood our situation, but they struggled to help overcome the stereotypes and stigmas we faced. They taught us good manners and proper etiquette. They showered the priests and nuns with gifts of stationery from the paper factory where my Aunt Joanna worked, so that we were admitted to the St. Mary’s School a year early, receiving a classic Catholic education steeped in tradition and strict discipline. Our aunts bought us only the finest clothes so that on Sunday we would be seen at church looking proper. They took us out to the fanciest restaurants, one by one, once a year, where we ordered lobster, the most expensive item on the menu, so that we would not appear or feel small and poor. As we looked at the menu and noticed the prices, they would look at us and say with a smile, “It’s okay, you can order the lobster.” So even when we didn’t want lobster, we ordered lobster.

The racially stigmatized need to work hard to overcome the stigma. By my behavior, I always had to show others how well I was brought up, how even a child like me, so marked by my race, could be a good boy, a smart boy, a credit to his family. I didn’t realize at the time that I was also stigmatized by my father’s alcoholism. My dad was the only man I knew who didn’t drive a car, but I never fathomed what a social misfit he was, though I could sometimes sense it. In many ways, my Japanese mother was seen by society as the more normal one in the marriage, highly respected in the community as a wife for enduring her wayward husband’s antics and as a mother for bringing up three respectable “half-breed” kids.

Excerpt from When Half is Whole

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