There used to be a time — and I’m embarrassed to admit that it wasn’t all that long ago – when I believed that any question asked of me and every statement directed my way deserved a dignified response. It didn’t matter if it was a stranger asking me how or where I learned to speak “very good English” (wouldn’t this be a fun retort: “Hooked on Phonics – it worked for me! Oh and by the way, I actually speak English very well, but thank you for noticing.”) or if it was an acquaintance speculating that my Korean mother was probably a prostitute and that I most likely have dozens of half-siblings roaming the streets of Seoul and would I be interested in finding them one day? (Really? This person actually thought that this was okay to say? To my face?!)
There have been so many offensive and inappropriate things said or asked of me in which many cases my only response was a blank stare – which in turn gave the offender an escape handed to them on a silver platter of trying to absolve themselves of any responsibility with a casual and innocent ”Oh you know I’m just joking! Don’t take any offense” kind of remark. And without me uttering even a single word, I would walk away from the one-sided exchange feeling humiliated, appalled, embarrassed and incensed – more so at myself for just sitting there and taking it. And the other party? Well, in my estimation, the other party had the luxury of just walking away.
As for the rest of the questions and remarks – as dubious as they would appear – I still found myself delivering responses that were unnecessarily kind, patient and generous in nature. Random people inquiring about my Korean parents and the reasons behind my relinquishment? Of course I should share! People who are neither adopted nor persons of color trying to tell me what it must be like to be a Korean adoptee? Sure! Why shouldn’t they have the chance to voice their opinion regardless of how inane or insane it might be?
What I finally realized is this: My personality flaw of wanting to please everyone augmented by my desire to never want to hurt anyone’s feelings amplified by bouts of low self-esteem compounded by decades of internalized messages that have told me to always take the high road, to turn the other cheek, to never make a scene and God forbid, to not EVER be rude made for a woman who did a piss-poor job of standing-up for herself.
I honestly used to think that it was my personal cross to bear to be a walking educator for those who wanted to know all about international and transracial adoption. I used to make excuses for those who’d project their racist and prejudiced attitudes out on me and genuinely believed that handling them with kid gloves was the most effective way of trying to influence their views or soften their hearts. Kindness begets kindness, right? Everyone deserves the right to be heard, no? Walking away or just saying you don’t want to talk about it is the epitome of disrespect towards another human being is it not?
Perhaps some of you can relate to the unspoken mantra that I have spent a lifetime ascribing to: That no matter what may come your way the important thing to remember is to always, always BE NICE.
Those two little words that always seemed to be permeating the lining of my brain and dictating my actions. The two words that in certain situations make absolutely no sense whatsoever. The two syllables that in some scenarios by which I have learned the hard way can actually be harmful and even downright dangerous. They are two words that together create a phrase that I have since reclaimed its power and renamed its meaning to suit my best interests. (Sounds selfish doesn’t it? And don’t you just love it?!)
Being nice doesn’t mean having to answer questions that people have no business asking in the first place. Being nice isn’t about tolerating teasing or putting up with other’s “jokes” that clearly are offensive, insensitive and just plain wrong. Being nice doesn’t mean you can’t tell a classmate or a colleague: “I don’t like what you’re saying to me and I want you to stop” and then leaving or reporting the situation (gasp! the audacity!).
Since becoming a parent, I realized that I had a lot of work to do in breaking the cycle in how I wanted my own family to handle other people’s ignorance regarding race and adoption. When I think of the countless times in my life where I was approached with crass, insensitive and rude remarks and then actually responded as if I was the one who had done something wrong, I literally cringe. Calling people out on their behavior is still something that I am working on, but believe me, I’ve come light years from where I used to be. I’m acutely aware that modeling this for my kids is critical and that what they see me doing is far more powerful than listening to me talk about what I should have or wished I would have done. Through regular and age-appropriate role-playing activities and conversations, my kids know they don’t have to say or do anything they don’t want to. When people approach my 8 year-old daughter with a quizzical ”You’re awfully cute. What are you exactly?” – she knows enough to recognize that this is a highly personal and inappropriate question to be asking and that it’s entirely up to her whether or not she chooses to say or share anything at all. When kids say to my son - which happened in his preschool this past year -”Your eyes are funny looking” he knows that one of his options is to simply walk away. No explanations necessary and no residual guilty feelings needed.
And maybe some people will still accuse me of being too nice in my responses. It’s just not in my nature to raise my voice, hurl profanities or be outright cruel in order to feel that I’m getting my point across. But what I do now – and what I actively try to teach my kids to do every day – is to exercise the right to employ an arsenal of options (non-threatening and non-physical ones, of course) to handle different situations as I (and they) see fit. That means letting go of the mentality that I am obligated to speak when spoken to and to be mindful of the fact that not everyone deserves my time, attention and energy just because they demand it. Because they don’t. And it’s not my or my kids’ responsibility or moral duty to offer any explanation.
And that’s not being rude. And it’s not being “not nice”. And it doesn’t mean that I’m being impolite. It’s just me taking care of business while concurrently taking care of myself.
And yes, I acknowledge that I am a late bloomer – that what I’m saying is nothing new - and that it’s what I should have been doing the past 30-some years anyhow.
But the point is that I’m doing it now and more importantly, so are my kids. And you know what? As a mom, that is something that I do think is really, really nice.