Downtown La Crosse

Eau Claire might be more like La Crosse than any other city in Wisconsin. Only ninety miles apart, both places are river towns, both have a state university as a centerpiece, both are politically purple in a state where other communities are either red or blue. Both are predominantly white. Strangers can drive through the respective downtowns and not notice a difference.

Because of these similarities, I was excited when I came across a memoir written by a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire professor titled Chinese Prodigal. Even though author David Shih is Chinese American and my connection to all things Chinese is through marriage only, I thought I would find aspects of me or at least aspects of my marriage in the stories he had to tell.

The subtitle of Shih’s book is A Memoir in Eight Arguments. The first of these arguments is about the regrets he feels for having missed the chance to say goodbye to his dad when the man was on his death bed in Texas. My own dad died only minutes after I arrived in Green Bay from Minneapolis, and I choose to believe he fought to stay alive until I got there. He didn’t want to die while my mom was alone with him in his hospital room.

Downtown Eau Claire

Shih’s second argument is about his fears of the racism that his biracial kid will face in his lifetime. While I identified with the chapter about his dad, I can’t say the same for the essay about his son. Shih is Chinese from Hong Kong, his wife is white American, so the racial makeup of Shih’s son is not unlike Clare’s. Still, none of my worries about the well-being of my daughter have much to do with race.

Why the big difference? Taking into account that Shih and I live in cities that are culturally identical, the obvious difference is that he grew up Chinese American and I did not. He experienced discrimination firsthand, and I haven’t. I am embarrassed to admit that it’s taken a chapter in a book to get me thinking seriously that my daughter might encounter problems solely because she’s half Taiwanese.

Clare called me on the phone last Thursday, so I asked her if she’d ever had to deal with blatant racism. Her very first comment was that no one can identify her race just by looking at her. If anything, people assume she is white. A couple of times jerks in passing cars have shouted out racial slurs, but each time it was because she was walking alongside a Chinese or Vietnamese friend. She said that as far as she knows, none of her mixed race friends have had problems, whereas most of her friends with two Asian parents have. As I write this blog, I am less upset about potential racist actions directed at my daughter than I am by the fact that it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be an issue.*

* Even if my daughter hasn’t encountered racism, my wife has. In Wisconsin, Manyu has not been directly confronted by anyone, but she has been intentionally ignored by waitresses and store clerks. She thinks that the problem is not that she is Taiwanese, but that she was mistaken for Hmong. In Taiwan, my wife has been ostracized for consorting with a Westerner. None of these incidents are commonplace, none have been physical, but neither are they anything that she should have to deal with.

Steven Simpson