Guest Opinion | April 25, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 25, 2014

Guest Opinion

Bridging the cultural divide in an interracial marriage

by Elizabeth Lee

Marrying into a first-generation Chinese family allowed me to step over a line into an insular world that few can cross, but I learned that with flexibility, creativity — and humor, it could be done successfully.

My Chinese in-laws Lily and Joe didn't want to like me. They told my husband that I must have been drugging his food for him to want to be with a European-American like me. Everything about me was wrong; I was a therapist, tall, older, redheaded and — oh horrors! I had a son from a previous relationship. The fact that I had studied Mandarin didn't matter — they spoke Cantonese. The following is my experience as a European-American woman marrying into a local Chinese family.

"You can tell a good Chinese restaurant," my husband Scott explained when we were dating, "by how many Chinese people are eating there. If you look in the window and see mostly non-Chinese, you know the food can't be that good. But if you see mostly Chinese, you know it's good." It is a Chinese custom to eat out with friends and family, so much of our time together with my in-laws before their deaths was spent in restaurants.

This is how a typical dinner went. After entering the restaurant and waiting our turn to speak to the hosts, Lily, Joe and Scott did the talking while my little boy, Dale, and I waited by Scott's side. "Can I help you?" another hostess asked me, assuming that Dale and I were a separate party.

"We're with them," I answered, putting my hand on Scott's shoulder.

"Oh!" she said, looking down in embarrassment. That's when I always imagined that they, too, wondered what my husband saw in a Caucasian like me. The food there must have been really good because Dale and I were the only non-Chinese people in sight.

"They give Chinese people a menu written in Chinese, and that menu's dishes are more authentic," Scott had also explained. "The dishes on the menus given to non-Chinese are more Americanized."

When they seated us at a round banquet table, two servers rushed to our table and gave Dale and me forks. Not the others, just us. I could use chopsticks as well as anyone, I thought, and so I was determined not to touch it. Scott, Lily and Joe were handed Chinese menus. The two servers stood off to the side and stared at us with awkward frowns. They had different ways of serving Chinese and non-Chinese; what were they supposed to do with us?

"Can I please have a menu?" I asked. They handed me one in English. As I consulted it Lily, Joe and Scott ordered our food in Cantonese. I'd learned to understand some Cantonese from listening to it even though I could barely speak a word. Catching the word yu, I knew they were ordering fish. Although I was mostly a vegetarian, I occasionally ate fish. Next I heard the words dou miao, for pea shoots. Loved those. But when I heard the word gai, or chicken, I tensed. I didn't want chicken. "Excuse me," I said in English. "Could I please order some braised tofu?" I asked our server.

He looked at me as if he were thinking: "It spoke." Asking my questions in Mandarin usually elicited the same response.

Our food was served, and the fragrant smells of ginger and soy sauce triggered my appetite. I ate mostly the dou miao, tofu and rice, as well as a piece of crab in its shell. Watching as Scott, Lily and Joe picked up the large pieces with their chopsticks and carefully broke off the shells with their teeth, I attempted to do the same. At first the heavy piece fell back on my plate. Picking it up again, I tried biting off the hard shell with my teeth. It cracked sharply against my mouth, and then dropped again with a clatter. Embarrassed, I looked around the restaurant. To hell with what anyone thought, I decided. Putting down my chopsticks, I picked it up in my fingers and bit off the shells. Messy, but effective. Noticing my bad manners, our servers brought me a bowl of lemon water to rinse my hands in. At least I hadn't touched the fork.

When our food was finished small bowls of either tapioca or warm, sweet bean soup were served on the house. Once when Scott and I ate out, he'd looked with longing at a table of Chinese people eating tapioca; they hadn't brought us any. "They didn't bring us free tapioca because I'm with you," he said. "If I weren't with you, they would have. They only bring it to groups who are Chinese." Along with the dessert they brought fresh orange slices, another thing only served to Chinese. Another restaurant had only given us fortune cookies, however, something normally just given to non-Chinese.

When our daughter Rowan was born she looked like Scott, so the sight of her never raised any eyebrows; only Dale and I did. As the years went by the restaurant staff got to know us. One night the servers gathered around oohing and aahing over the baby and laughing and joking with Dale. It felt wonderful to no longer have them staring at us from the sidelines, wondering how to serve our mixed-race family. Even Lily and Joe seemed to like me better, although they would never have admitted it. They were thrilled to have a granddaughter, and Dale and Rowan's universal laughter and play helped bridge the culture gap for everyone.

As the servers brought our dessert we looked up in surprise. One smiling man carried a tray with bowls of sweet bean soup while another, beaming in triumph, carried a platter loaded with orange slices — and fortune cookies! They'd found the perfect solution to our racial conundrum, and as they served us like royalty we burst out laughing. What an easy solution for bridging our cultural divide, and a good time was had by all.

Elizabeth Lee is a member of the board of contributors who lives in Palo Alto.


Posted by European-American, a resident of University South
on Apr 27, 2014 at 12:12 am

Dear Mrs Lee,

Thank you very, very much for your candid, inside view of Chinese immigrant attitudes towards their hosts and the host culture. It is not very flattering, frankly, but it rings clearly like the truth. Truth is too often glossed over or avoided in contemporary discussions of culture clash, in favor of saccharine, politically correct falsehoods.

I sympathize with your having to wait years for acceptance by your in-laws and their fellow Chinese. But isn't this bizarre -- the newcomers condescending to the host culture and populace? What kind of America are we creating if this is typical of other immigrant cultures as well? And if little or no honest public discussion of the clash is permitted?

Posted by Sparty, a resident of another community
on Apr 27, 2014 at 4:16 am

Kirin in Mt View. I've been there several times with "mixed" groups, and everyone gets the dessert. Sounds like the restaurant in the story has issues.

Posted by Rupert of henzau, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2014 at 7:37 am

Sparty is correct. The restaurant has issues.
European- America: this happens in all religions and cultures. Some members do not want their children to marry " outside" the religion/ ethnic group.
I really wonder how much of this story is made up or exaggerated to give it that " cutting edge" feel that stories I the weakly typically lack.

Posted by Chris Zaharias, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 27, 2014 at 8:04 am

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

Sorry, but I don't think the author bridged the cultural divide successfully. Rather, she willingly endured racism as if it was justified. I think a better approach would have been to never in the first place stand for her in-laws' reactions.

Posted by resident, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 27, 2014 at 9:10 am

What "host culture" is Mr. European talking about? The Ohlone Nation? Almost all of us are immigrants here and we need to start treating everyone like equals, not minorities that need to be forced to abandon their language and religion and other traditions. This "host culture" attitude is what makes Donald Sterling feel entitled to tell people "not to bring black people" to his basketball games.

Posted by Mixed Race Adult, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2014 at 2:28 pm

As a mixed race adult who was once a mixed race child, I HIGHLY recommend that people not have children if they wish to enter into a mixed race relationship or marriage.

I listened to a lot of " What the hell ARE you?" questions and sneering comments all through childhood. Most were from classmates, some from teachers and other adults. I must add that most of this came from the Asian side, not the American Caucasian side. The Caucasian side was more accepting and saw me as exotic ( especially, as I got older, the men!). My mother's side, the Chinese, just saw me as a "dirty white devil who stank of milk", and had very little to do with me during my childhood or even now. This despite the fact that they escaped Communist China and had two sons executed there! America took them in, no questions asked (this was in the Sixties). My mom was their "American child", but my grandparents, and aunt never bothered to become citizens of the U.S.

My father's family never made me feel like some sort of freak half-breed, as my mother had feared they would. However, for reasons I may never know, my parents never had any more children. My mother did not allow me to learn Mandarin, because she was so fearful for my assimilation experience, as she called it. However, in the sixth grade I was allowed, through a middle school in Cupertino, to take a Stanford-sponsored honors course in Mandarin that I completed my junior year in high school.

I was pushed hard in school by my mom, and did not have birthday parties, pets, slept-overs, after-school sports, etc like the other American children I grew up with, and have always felt that I did not get to enjoy the average American happy childhood the other kids did. However, my mother said that she did not, either. Nor did I ever get hugs and other physical affection that I saw Caucasian kids get, and I learned by the age of four that if I needed a hug, my Chinese mom was not the one to ask--ask a neighbor parent, or my father's mother. Same with getting affirmation or praise.

The racial and cultural gaps are just to big at this point in history, and I have never even benn able to imagine how horrible it must be for a child who is half black or half Latino. I am sure the ostracization probably comes from the Caucasian side as well, in those cases.

When it comes to interracial childbirth, JUST SAY NO!

Posted by Sam, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2014 at 2:51 pm

"When it comes to interracial childbirth, JUST SAY NO!"

Since you are interracial, I assume you will not have kids, right? If your answer is "yes", you will be missing out on a wonderful experience.

Posted by palo Alto Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 27, 2014 at 5:28 pm

@sam - many people who have tough childhoods either decide not to become parents or decide to parent in a totally different manner than their parents did.

@ Mixed Race Adult, thankfully the world has changed since you and I were kids. Being of mixed race, especially in Palo Alto if you are partially Asian or Latino, is no big deal. Being half or any part black here is still difficult simply because there are so few black families. I suspect being half black in Atlanta or Chicago is not such a big deal.

Posted by Mixed Race Adult, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2014 at 6:55 pm

Sam: my husband is an American of European/Native American heritage. We did NOT plan to have children originally. However, accidents do happen and we have a son. However, although his eyes are dark, his hair is light, and when he or I fill out paperwork requiring ethnicity to be indicated, he or I are accused of lying to receive extra benefits and consideration or affirmative action! I almost always have to give my mother's maiden name and my husband's grandfather's surname as proof, because the boy looks so European.

My son has not had a difficult time due to his appearance, but when teachers meet us they assume he is adopted. Lately, with the Chinese nationals so prominent in Palo Alto, though, I do get a lot of cold shoulders at parties where people do not know me.

I am aware, though, that genetic dominance could have turned out differently and my son could have looked more Asian or Native American than European, or simply more mixed, racially. I thank the Race Gods he did not, because the Asian community is quite cruel about Asian blood mixing with any other.

Posted by mix it all up, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 27, 2014 at 10:35 pm

Lets all just get together for a few generations and create a world of beautiful light brown children, so we can get back to hating each other for religious reasons.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 28, 2014 at 5:09 am

@mix, well that would be boring

Posted by Sue, a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 28, 2014 at 8:49 am

Regarding tapioca, the author inferences that "They only bring it to groups who are Chinese." I am not sure about this claim. I am a Chinese, my husband and I sometimes do not get the tapioca. My observation is that when I am in a larger group, my table will order more dishes, and we will typically get tapioca. When I am alone or with my husband only, sometimes we don't get the free tapioca. I feel the free tapioca is more of showing the restaurant's appreciation to the customer's big bill. Since it is free, I wouldn't complain if I did not get it.

There are many ways to see things. The author has her way. But I just do not agree about much of what she says in this article.

Posted by Mixed Race Adult, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 28, 2014 at 9:21 am

It is not problematic to be interracial in a white neighborhood. It is extremely problematic to be interracial in an Asian neighborhood--a half-Asian child or adult is seen as dirty, tainted,,ugly, inferior, a devil, etc. In a white neighborhood, I have found, a half-Asian child or adult is exotic, or cute. White men especially find half-Asian women exotic; in high school and college, men pursued me even when it was unwanted and inappropriate.

My son, a freshman at Cal Poly, is finding just the opposite: when he claims to be of mixed race, he is accused of being a liar and a cheat who is trying to game the scholarship and financial aid system as well as affirmative action. He is one-fourth Chinese and one-eighth Cherokee ( the Cherokee nation accepts him even though his hair is dark blonde). I have had to supply MY birth certificate with MY mother's maiden name, as well as my father-in-law's birth certificate with his father's Native American name to prove my son is being honest, despite his European appearance!

BTW, we have NEVER gotten free tapioca even when in a large group at a Chinese restaurant, probably because most of us are "dirty half-breeds"! But, who cares? Does anyone over the age of six REALLY like tapioca anyway??? Additionally, I have personally found that if a Chinese restaurant is filled with Chinese, it is a pretty good indication of two things: some really creepy specialties, like shark fin soup and dancing prawns ( shrimp fried at your table while still alive), or generally very greasy food. I, for one , prefer Asian is far fresher, safer, and healthier as well as tastier!

And NO, here Von Henzau, the writer's story sounds honest and dead-on to me, and I am in a position to know!


Posted by Cliven, a resident of another community
on Apr 28, 2014 at 10:22 am

[Post removed.]

Posted by This:, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 28, 2014 at 10:30 am


"Lets all just get together for a few generations and create a world of beautiful light brown children, so we can get back to hating each other for religious reasons."


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