What is Essential Is Invisible to the Eye

It was August 1996 and I was in the TV room of Akwe:kon, the Native American Residential House at Cornell University watching TV with a freshman named Beth. Beth was whiter than fresh snow from Michigan and had just arrived as a Freshman. She turned me to me and asked “What do you think of biracial marriages?” Shocked by such a question in a NATIVE AMERICAN RESIDENTIAL HOUSE, I looked at her lily white a** and simply said “As the product of one, I’d have to say that I’m okay with it.”

Seriously, WTF?

Me cross-country skiing in December 2019.

I may not look like it, to you, but I am ethnically half-Chinese. I’m neither an eighth nor a quarter, but a full 50% Chinese blood. My maternal great-grandparents and my grandfather were born in China. My maternal grandmother was born in Peru and spoke Chinese and Spanish. Her name was Rosalbina Mu Lok de Yi. My grandfather’s name was Humberto Yi Man. I do not know what their Chinese first names were. People are surprised when they see photos of them and say “[but] they look Chinese.” I hope they do since they were. It’s been a struggle though since I wasn’t entirely accepted as Chinese growing up since I didn’t speak the language and had never been there. My dad is of Slovenian and Croatian descent and I inherited his side of the family tree’s wavy brown hair and brown eyes. My mom was born and raised in Lima, Peru and speaks Spanish. I grew up going to Peru to visit my relatives, speaking Spanish, and learning Peruvian culture with a heavy Chinese influence. I guess it’s more common in Lima, which has the largest concentration of Chinese outside of China (5% of the Peru’s population, mostly in Lima). In San Francisco though, unless you looked 100% Chinese and spoke the language, it didn’t seem like you were accepted as Chinese. This was especially true if you were a mix, like I was.

Visiting my grandparents with my sister and mom in Lima, Peru. Grandpa is holding me.

My dad recalls being in San Francisco Chinatown with me as an infant. We were in a shop when the woman behind the counter said “her mother is Chinese, isn’t she?” and my dad said “How can you tell?” I had light skin, light brown hair, but slightly slanted eyes, the only clue that I had any Asian blood in me. I didn’t have a Chinese name, heck I didn’t even have a Latin name. I have enough yellow in my skin though that yellow clothing is not a good look on me, but blue looks fabulous.

I was lucky that my parents never emphasized race lines. I didn’t realize until years later that my Catholic grade school class only had 2 black kids, a handful of Asian kids, and then the rest of the 66 students in my class were white. I was embarrassed by the horrible annual “holiday” of “Grandparents Day” where you brought your grandparents to school with you for all these special activities with them because of course they live nearby! My paternal grandparents were in Lazy Acres, Arkansas (I dare you to try and find it on a map), and Lima, Peru. Eventually my mom started letting me take a “sick day” to save me from the embarrassment of being one of the only kids at school without a grandparent there. I wouldn’t have to sit there at my desk alone all day doing all these special activities by myself while everyone else got to indulge in the fact that their grandparents came to school with them that day. Catholic school could be cruel.

My parents’ wedding day in Lima, 1964.

I can’t even say that I wanted to see people to look up to who looked like me. I never thought about physical looks. I wasn’t conscious that I didn’t look like other kids. I don’t even look like I’m related to my maternal first cousins, who are half-Chinese and half-Japanese (born and raised in Peru). My parents, in particular my dad, didn’t make a big deal out of it. In fifth grade, my teacher had us write down on some homeroom assignment what our ethnicity was. I had no idea what mine was. I knew my maternal grandparents and a bunch of my family lived in Peru and my paternal family were in the Illinois and Minnesota. So I ended up putting down “Peruvian-American” after asking her for help on how to spell “Peruvian.” That was also the year that I first learned where Peru was on a map after going there twice a year my entire life.

Swimming with our first cousins was always a highlight of our annual Spring trip to Lima.

No one else in my class spoke Spanish. A couple of close friends were Chinese and spoke it at home, but I didn’t understand a word of it. We didn’t really celebrate Chinese New Year like they did except for my Tía Julia giving us a red envelope when we’d see her around that time. My family would go to dim sum on the weekends and knew Chinese food. It’s always uncomfortable for me when in Chinese restaurants they’re explaining what the foods are to me like I didn’t grow up with it.

I have cousins in Boston who were born and raised in China and moved to Boston with their parents and grandmother (my maternal grandfather’s sister). They speak English and Chinese fluently. I’m sure people see us and think that we’re just friends, not cousins related that closely. Of course they look related to my maternal first cousins even though we have the same degrees of separation on the family tree.

I’ve been called “white girl” by some people which always rubbed me the wrong way. I’m proud of my heritage from my dad’s family, but it’s completely disregarding half my family tree that I grew up closely with. It was an ignorant dig of not being accepted as Asian that stung. Ironically I’m accepted as being Peruvian around other Latinos both in the US and in Peru. I was talking to a man in Trujillo, Peru once in Spanish telling him that my mom was a Limeña (woman from Lima) and he said he could see it in my face.

A friend in college once said that she was more Hispanic than me because some distant relative of hers was from Spain. She didn’t speak Spanish, didn’t know any of family there, didn’t know the culture, had never been there and had no real connection to it. Somehow she felt like she had some birth-given right to say that though which I didn’t understand. Yes my maternal family has Chinese blood, but to say that they’re not Peruvian would be like saying that us born and raised in the United States aren’t American since our families originated elsewhere. It’s a very narrow way of thinking.

My grandparents.

My mom was a bilingual education grade school teacher. At the graduation ceremony for her MS in Education at SFSU, the staff kept trying to make her sit with the “Chinese education” graduates instead of the “Spanish education” graduates. It took quite a bit of arguing with them to finally get to sit with her correct classmates. Even in the 1990s San Francisco, she was being cast based on her looks.

To this day though I don’t really feel like I belong to the Asian culture since I don’t speak the language and no one from it outside of my family ever made me feel like I was a part of it. It’s a difficult loss for me that I don’t know if I can recover from. The only people who ever accepted me as Chinese are my family Do I even need to overcome not being accepted as Chinese? I don’t know. A longtime friend told me once that it was important for me to go to China to see where my family came from even if I don’t know the language or anyone there. I would like to go even though I have this underlying feeling that everyone there will look at me as “White American woman.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has made me think more about the situation. I find it painful to read messages from friends saying that they can’t bear the thought of their children watching them killed by the police because they’re black or knowing that they are more likely to be killed by the cops than anything else because of the color of their skin. They’re not “my black friend” as they’re “my friend.” I’ll never refer to them by their skin color since it isn’t some demographic checkbox I’m trying to check off. It really bothers me when people talk about their friends even with phrases like “You know my [insert race or sexual orientation] friend [insert name here]” or similar like that’s the single most important characteristic that they and you should remember about their friend above all else. I have to consciously think about people’s demographics as I naturally focus more on if someone’s a good person with a good heart. I care about them immensely though because they’re good souls who positively contribute to the world every day. I have compassion for their situation that they’ve lived their entire lives and continue to endure. I want to help them out however I can. They don’t deserve to live in fear.

Small collection of my family at my Tíos Lydia and Nañin’s wedding at my grandparents’ house in Lima.

My good friend Naji and I were talking the other day about the BLM movement. He flat out said this is a white people’s problem, not his, to fix. I whole-heartedly agreed with him. He doesn’t want to be the token black guy for any group that was severely lacking in blacks before today. People and organizations overall need to start doing more to include blacks who tend to be at social and economic disadvantages. We as individuals need to start treating each other without prejudices based on skin color. Like when people ridiculously aruged about if President Obama was really black and someone said “Put him in a hoodie in an alley and what do you think?” How many would have avoided Obama dressed up like that not realizing he was the U.S. President?

I’ve gotten countless emails from companies saying that they were standing with the BLM movement without any real specifics on what they’re doing to actually help make progress. However I got an email from my cross-country resort saying that they were changing their hiring policies to be based on abilities instead of years of experience and removing the bachelor degree requirement for job positions to be more fair to applicants. My employer, the California Academy of Sciences, also sent out an email to us saying that they realized they were part of the problem as their upper management and staff overall didn’t have enough minorities represented and are evaluating ways to correct it. THESE are constructive steps in the right direction!

Naji has worked on trying to teach more black children how to swim. He was told as a child by white people that it was impossible for blacks to learn how to swim. He didn’t learn for himself that this was a lie until he learned how to swim in his 40s. Blacks have the highest rate of drowning among any ethnic group. How many of them were told that they couldn’t learn? I felt pain hearing Naji’s story as white guys laughed at his request to learn how to swim and he just went along with it without understanding what was so funny. Now he knows that they were making fun of him and what they made him belief about himself was completely false and racist.

I may never be accepted as Chinese outside of my own family. Between being treated by my ethnicity and who I actually am as a person, I’d rather be treated based on my heart and mind. Stereotypes will continue to exist until we stop making assumptions about who people are based on their looks. There are so many mixed race people now in the world, but it isn’t going to automatically make racism go away. A cultural change needs to happen in order to make this go away. People need to change their attitudes. Many still see with their eyes and not their heart. The same as people need to start treating others, especially minorities, for who they really are as individuals and not based on some demographic or artificial idea that isn’t based on who the person really is.

My mom, Tío Nañin, and grandparents.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
— The Little Price

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6 Responses to What is Essential Is Invisible to the Eye

  1. markbittner says:

    I met you, as you may recall, in a small boat of some kind beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. You were being moved between boats–or something. I thought you had one of the most interesting faces I’d ever seen. I resisted for a long time, but finally had to ask you what your ancestry was. I was guessing American Indian. But I’ve never thought of you as anything other than Kelley.

  2. George Prebil says:

    A very, special read. I’m proud that you you expressed yourself so elegantly. You’ve seen and experienced more of life and people than most people. Your perceptions are admirable. Be the best person that you can be and the rest will take care of itself. Love you.

  3. Tom prebil says:

    Kelley, very well written and a great reflection of your heart felt emotions. Ut is evident that this has been on your mind. Keep up the wonderful work.

  4. Kathy Monahan says:

    Thank you, Kelley. You have looked with your heart and beautifully shared all that came before you. Just think – al those amazing people! What joy is family.

  5. Kip Baumann says:

    Such a touching background story that is beautifully written Kelley!

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