My wife and I often joke that when it comes to physical appearance, my daughter is clearly a “hybrid” of the two of us. With her dark hair and dark eyes, and her distinct nose, I see my genes coming through loud and clear. I can see the face of my Sri Lankan mother and her mother before her.
But when I look at her brother, my son? Not so much. He has my wife’s red hair and blue eyes, and when we walk together through the mall together, I get puzzled looks (more on that later).
The kids, though, don’t dwell on this. If asked, Anaya will say, “I am a human girl, from Portland, Oregon!” with enormous confidence. As someone whose own sense of identity is tenuous because of my nomadic background, I am at once proud and somewhat envious of her confidence. So, I decided to push her further.
“OK, but when someone at school or elsewhere asks you for your background, what would you say?”
“I would say I am half-Sri Lankan and half-Wisconsin,” she responded, puzzled that the question would even have to be asked. As a 7-year old, her sense of identity is just blossoming.
While we have just scratched the surface of exploring what it means to be from two cultures with our kids, I found her self-assurance remarkable. Much like other mixed families, we’ve experienced “interesting” experiences while we’re out and about, from the intense stares my wife gets when she’s alone with Anaya to the innumerable, intrusive and insensitive comments we’ve received, including: “Are you the nanny?” or “Are you his dad?”
Even as Jessica and I silently seethe and brush these incidents off, the kids continue to thrive in their own worlds. A wise-beyond-her-years second grader, Anaya is consumed with books. Our house is littered with books that are in various stages of being read; a Helen Keller biography on the couch, Ever After piled up on her bedroom floor and Book 5 of the Land of Stories series on her pillow. Three-year old Zane is wildly exuberant and affectionate. His world consists of his PJ Masks taking on bad guys, My Little Pony adventures, and playing princesses and creating wild Magna-Tile castles for them with his sister.
As their awareness of the real world around them grows, we anticipate that their consciousness about who they are and questions about their roots will ramp up. Already, Anaya is peppering us with questions that are both mundane and profound: What it was like for me to grow up on an island (island time and island hopping), what did we used to read (Hardy Boys and Tintin for me, Anne of Green Gables for my wife), what were our bedtime routines (island time, remember?), would she have been born if interracial marriage was still illegal, (we would have broken the law to marry each other) and whether I rode elephants all the time as a kid (no, I did not).
As parents, we worry that perhaps we’re not doing enough to expose Anaya and Zane to their roots and to prepare them to live in a world that can be cruel and unpredictable. Perhaps we made a mistake living too far from their grandparents, maybe we should go to more cultural events, and how does Zane, who outwardly looks like the all-American kid from the Midwest, grapple and relate to his Sri Lankan roots?
But when I see the two of them playing together, dressed up as Anna and Elsa from Frozen and ready to escape into make believe adventures in Arendelle, their love, acceptance and silliness quell my anxiety. Maybe all we need to do is give them the confidence to be who they are, and they’ll find their own way in a world that prefers conformity.
Readers — I’d love to hear from you about how you grapple with the question of identity in your family and how you approach this with your own kids. Get in touch at [email protected]