This story is one of three stories about mixed race experience, each told by a different member of the Black-Chinese American Malone Family. We encourage you to listen to the short audio pieces, each roughly 3-4 minutes long.
“Here, wear this.” My mom hands me a matching skirt and blouse that she pulled from deep within my bedroom closet. It’s white, with blue and purple trimming, styled in traditional Chinese fashion.
“I have to wear this?” I say in my ten year-old, exasperated voice.
“Mei-Ling, Ai-Ling!” My mom calls to my sisters. “Get dressed.” My sisters give each other a knowing look and get moving.
My maternal grandfather is in town and we are going to visit him. I’ve never met him before because he lives in Taiwan. And we live in California.
As my mom heads across the hall I hear her shout, “Amani, Khulani, Nkululeko, you better be dressed!”
My three brothers all have Swahili names and us girls got Chinese names. If you couldn’t tell by looking at us that we were racially different, our names definitely put that nail in the coffin. There was no escaping our Chinese-Black biracial identity.
I put the outfit on and walk into my parents room. My mom is wearing a black dress with pearls around her neck. My dad is wearing a black suit and a gold tie. He looks like he is going to give a sermon.
“Sunshine, where are the rings?” My dad asks my mom. He was fumbling around in the cabinet.
He finds the two gold wedding bands. My eyes dart back and forth between my parents. I can feel the nervous energy in the room.
My parents have been married for twenty years, but they never wear rings. Today their rings are on.
My siblings and I pile into the silver mini van. All of my brothers are wearing suit jackets and slacks, complete with collared dress shirts and ties, mirroring my dad. My teenage sisters are wearing dresses and cardigans.
My dad drives us the one hour to San Francisco where we are meeting my grandfather for dinner. My mom is in the passenger seat, gently resting her hand on my father’s shoulder. My siblings and I laugh and irritate one another in the back seats.
Inside the Chinese restaurant the server leads us into a private room. Seated at the table are two Chinese elderly couples. One of the couples is my grandfather and his wife. The other two are their friends. I don’t know who is who. The first couple I see gives us a friendly smile. I approach the elderly woman who happily greets us. I give her a hug.
My mom reroutes my attention to the other couple and introduces me to my grandfather and his wife. My face flushes. My eyes peer over my mom’s dad. He seems serious, mouth pursed, eyes narrowed. He has thin silver hair and is wearing a white collared shirt and tie.
We are served a full course Chinese meal complete with rice, chicken, pork, dumplings, and more. Throughout the dinner I steal looks at my grandfather- trying to find any resemblances between us. It amazes me that we’ve got the same blood running through our veins.
Soon, it’s time to return home. We take a picture together before our departure. Little do I know this photo captures a historic moment in my family. This was the first and last time my dad interacts with my mom’s father.
Later, we laughed about the moment I hugged the wrong grandparent, which I suppose helps ease the discomfort of the estranged relationship. Even at my grandfather’s funeral fifteen years later, I could still feel the more than just physical distance lingering between us. His caring enough about my immediate family to help us financially did not make him feel less like a stranger. I later understood that he wanted “more” for my mother than partnering with a “lower class” Black man. He knew her life would be harder. To some extent he was right- my parents did struggle and many of those hardships were due to anti-Black racism. But, I wonder if we had interacted more, he could see the beauty of the fusion between the two rich cultures that shaped me.