Scenes from a beach:
Evan is frolicking in the ludicrously cold surf, Abby is assembling a vast shell collection, I am sitting in a beach chair a dozen yards from the surf line, just at the edge of the wet sand, and zoning out in the sun. It's Monday morning and the beach is sparsely populated with a handful of families and grim-faced joggers.
Enter Talkative Man and his family.
Talkative Man is Anglo and stout, much stouter than even me, almost assisted-by-a-private-investigator-named-Jake stout. He looks to be in his mid to late forties. He's got a face for radio as surely as I have one for anonymity. He's got on a methodically ugly Hawaiian shirt that looks like the punishment tent at a Polynesian reeducation camp. Walking behind him several paces are a young Asian woman of perhaps 25, quietly pretty in a girl-next-door sort of way, pushing a stroller the size of a Lincoln Navigator, and a beautiful, petite toddler, probably about one. The woman walks the toddler down to the waves, speaking to him in an Asian language I cannot place.
Talkative Man stands, arms crossed, watching. Eventually he spots me, then my kids (Evan has run back to me, lips the color of an eggplant, teeth chattering, voice shuddering like he's sitting on the dryer during a spin cycle, to report that the ocean feels REALLY GREAT and he wants to swim for a LONG TIME.)
Talkative Man strides towards us, the stride of the Determined and Great Man. When he gets closer than is entirely necessary on the quiet beach, he asks in clipped business tones "Chinese?"
"Sorry?" I ask, though I can already sniff which way this is going. At this point, conversationally speaking, I am already slumping a bit more, distracting with my left hand, and drawing my blaster with my right under the table so I can settle Greedo's hash for him when he crosses wherever the line is for me today.
"Your kids. They're Chinese?" Talkative Man delivers this in the tone one uses to a generally reliable but not-to-be-trusted-with-the-big-picture-work subordinate.
"Korean, actually." Coolly but politely.
"Hah. They must be half?"
"Half?" I am not in the giving vein today.
"Your wife is Chinese? Mine's Vietnamese." He does a head-gesture towards the pretty woman playing with the toddler. And then: "Great . . . aren't they?"
There are any number of ways one could interpret this. Maybe he's talking about how kids are great. I'm supposed to believe in the best about people and not assume the worst, and I've been wrong in imputing bad motives before, even in these sorts of encounters.
But on the other hand, I've been talking to people for nearly 38 years, and a lot of factors tell me that what he's saying is having an Oriental (for surely that is the word he would use) wife sure is swell! It's in the little double eyebrow-lift, the smirk, the head gesture, the body posture, the tone — it's in a dozen things I've gotten used to when certain men talk about women. It's the anticipation in his expression as he waits for the appreciation I'll share with him.
"Actually, mine were adopted from Korea," I say, suppressing the serious fucking squirm factor this guy is giving me.
Talkative Man gives me the Disappointed Senior Executive Face and says "Oh." He looks back at his wife and son, who are playing in a few inches of surf. After a while, he turns back and starts to quiz me in a distinctly less interested tone of voice. Do they speak Korean? Did they speak Korean when they came home? Are they really brother and sister? And then, in the Congratulations-To-The-Employee-of-the-Month voice, "It is WONDERFUL that someone is looking out for the LOST AND FORGOTTEN CHILDREN of the world." Jaw juts and head nods seriously to convey how wonderful this is going to look in the Quarterly Report.
I am perfectly capable of burning this twit down to his ankles even sitting in a beach chair squinting into the sun and smelling of Spongebob-themed SPF 50. But one of the most irritating things about such people is that they unerringly pull this shit in front of your kids when an old-school throwdown is just not appropriate. The kids — who at 7 and 5 still have an ear for tone — are starting to do the things conveying to me that they are uncomfortable with this guy too. I can't responsibly compound that by doing anything that would make them remember that Daddy gets VERY ANGRY when people talk about how they are Korean.
So I just say "Oh, I'm the one who is lucky."
Even though it's perfectly true and I could and did deliver it sincerely, pitched it warmly as a conversational embrace of the kids, for the first time I've landed a hit. Something flickers in his eyes and a look of genuine puzzlement crosses his face before the Senior Executive falls back into place. He clasps his hands behind him, cocks his head as if he plans to say something else, opens his mouth, closes it, and finally gives a toothy Executive Smile and says, "Well, best of luck." He turns and walks several paces back towards the woman and child and stares at them until the woman sees him, gathers the child, drops him in the stroller, and throws her shoulders into it, moving it steadily but slowly down the beach a half-dozen paces behind him. He strolls rather than strides now, hands still clasped meditatively behind him. I hear her speaking softly in strongly accented English.
Raising three kids of a different ethnicity I'm accustomed to people leaping to conclusions based on appearances, and in theory committed to avoiding such judgments. Did I leap to conclusions as quickly as he did, by reading him an unattractive middle-aged affluent guy with an internet-bride wife and a white-man's-burden attitude? I'm not sure — though he did everything he could to confirm that gut impression.
It's tempting, but almost certainly unjustified, to impute to multiracial families a modern and "progressive" attitude towards ethnicity.
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