Born to a Hispanic father and white mother in 1971, when that romantic combination was uncommon and subject to strangers’ unsolicited judgments, I have always been interested in interracial and interethnic relationships. I see mixed couples in public and guess at their ethnicities, then catalog them in my imaginary database. I compulsively count the mixed couples I know and tally the various combos—white man plus Japanese woman, Mexican woman plus Jewish man, black man plus Vietnamese man.
I spent the ’80s fielding the question Are you going to marry a white man or a Mexican? while my teachers and the Benetton ads insisted there were other colors in the racial rainbow just as worthy. So now, mixed children riding shopping carts through Kroger elicit my silent hopes that they aren’t getting grief from grandparents on either side.
I am not a scientist. I know that bias and anecdotal evidence do not make for winning Internet arguments. Once, a coworker, a white woman my age married to a black man, accused me of being oversensitive when I complained about strangers’ reactions to my own interracial dating. And, while she wasn’t observant enough to see her husband’s adultery, she may have had a point. But anecdotal evidence does have its place. That place is in magazine features, and so I bring this excerpt from my 10-year unscientific study, “Changes in the Prevalence and Acceptance of Relationships between Caucasian Women and Asian Men in Houston.” It documents the experiences of a half-white, half-Chicana woman who looks white (me) and a Chinese man with a Vietnamese name (Dat) from tentative flirtation through secret workplace romance, long courtship, eventual wedding, and then not-secret workplace marriage.
When we go on dates to restaurants such as Mama’s Café or Two Rows, we are the only Asian man + Caucasian woman couple there, and the waiters often bring us separate checks without asking. If there is a Caucasian man + Asian woman couple, the same waiter brings them one check.
When we go to Pho Saigon, its old Asian patrons stare openly at us. Dat explains that staring isn’t considered rude in China or Vietnam.
The first time Dat drops me off at my nail salon, his departure sets off a flurry of Vietnamese conversation around me. My pedicurist asks who Dat is, and I say he’s my boyfriend. She translates to her coworkers and more animated discussion ensues. I ask, “Are you surprised that I’m dating an Asian?” My tech, without missing a beat, says, “Of course not. Nothing wrong with that at all.”
We know only one other couple of our combo: a white woman with a Laotian man. Until, that is, I discover one of my distant Chicana cousins married a Vietnamese man. Another cousin confides that she finds Asian men attractive but has always assumed they’d never date non-Asians. That’s what I used to assume, too. We share tales of high school crushes who ignored us with impassive faces.
Dat tells me that he and his cousins were always attracted to non-Asian women but assumed the appreciation would be unrequited, hence the self-protective stony expressions. We discuss the theory that indigenous Mexicans walked here from Asia. When two cultures have such love for cilantro, why shouldn’t they indulge in mutual love, as well?
Neil Clark Warren, founder of eHarmony, advises Salon.com’s Rebecca Traister to date a feminist-friendly Asian man, since she can’t find a white guy up to her standards on the Christian-values-based dating site.
Meanwhile, some Internet douchebag is selling a self-published book that purports to teach his “AZN brothers” the secrets to “banging white chicks.” This author declares blondes the most desirable of white women. I’m offended as a liberal and insulted as a brunette.
Dat and I have been together four years now, and we’re tired of people staring at us when we take our kids to the Fuddruckers in Cy-Fair. Yes, we have three half-white, half-Hispanic children from my first marriage who are all taller than Dat and me. Does that really warrant such interest? Next time some baseball-capped dude gawks, we promise ourselves that Dat will speak to the kids in Chinese and they’ll respond, “Okay, Dad.” I prefer the Fuddruckers on 59, where the customers are diverse and keep their eyes on the TVs.
Whenever we go to Tostada Regía, the waitress speaks to Dat in Spanish.
Dat’s parents have trepidations about our relationship and the serious direction it seems to be slowly going. Then their friends tell them a worse story: their daughter eloped with a Saudi Arabian man with four kids and is converting from Buddhism to Islam. Dat’s parents don’t say as much, but we can tell they’re relieved that Dat’s only moving in with a lapsed Catholic with three kids. (Catholics blend well with Buddhists because they also like incense, honoring elders, and fruited altars.)
My family is pressuring me to marry Dat because they want sushi and half-Asian babies.
Our Honolulu honeymoon blows my mind. If I ever questioned my perception of fellow Houstonians’ perceptions of our relationship, Hawaii has settled the matter. The difference is undeniable. Here, for the first time, we go into public together and no one stares. There are plenty of Asian man + Caucasian woman couples on the street, along with every other combination you can imagine. The barista at our hotel’s Starbucks tells us, “You guys look like my parents.”
For the first time in my life, I consider moving out of Houston. I love my city and have always thought of it as diverse, friendly, accepting … but Hawaii’s real melting pot makes me reevaluate everything I knew to be true.
Our car breaks down in a small Texas town, and we’re forced to spend the night. We have dinner at the most prominent restaurant, Dairy Queen. Everyone stares. Openly. Without smiles. And not because they come from a culture where staring isn’t rude. The air is dense with tension, and I’m equal parts afraid and defiant. My Inner Loop barrio defense mechanisms kick in, and I tell Dat, “I’m about to get up and ask all these mother-effers what the eff they’re looking at.” Dat says, “Baby, we can’t fight them all.” We finish our Hungr-Busters and leave in silence.
Thank God I live in Houston, where people are diverse, friendly, and accepting. Relatively.
Every weekday for two years now, Dat and I have bought breakfast from Rosa in the cafeteria in the building where we work. One day I have an early conference call and Dat buys breakfast without me. Rosa takes the opportunity to tell Dat that the cafeteria chef is interested in his friend. She means me. Dat’s wife. She and the chef apparently think, “Look at this sad woman who has no boyfriend and eats breakfast with her Asian male friend every day. Let’s hook her up!” Dat corrects their misconception, and Rosa is mortified. After that, the chef always gives Dat extra nachos at lunch.
Dat and I walk through our workplace parking lot holding hands, reflexively seeking comfort and safety from passing cars. We let go at the door, so as to look professional. An older black woman—a stranger who works in another department—tells me in the elevator, “I think it’s so nice how you and your husband hold hands.” An older white woman, also a stranger, tells me, “You and your husband remind me of me and my Donald.”
Old women are colorblind. They don’t see race. Also, they have supersonic hearing, like dogs. (That’s a metaphor for their ability to sense love when waiters can’t.)
Waiters ask if we want separate checks, and I say, “No, I think this guy will buy me dinner, now that we’re married.”
At pho places, I stare at everyone while slurping my noodles. It’s fun.
The nail salon ladies don’t bat a fake lash at my husband. They know that he’s Chinese and not Vietnamese, what route his family took to flee the communists, and that he’s not any of the cousins they lost in the diaspora. They know that we have three kids from my first marriage and aren’t planning to have more, that his parents accept me, and that my kids eat pho with no problems. Now their curiosity’s sated and we can talk about the plots of their soap operas, instead.
Unscientific studies show Korean Glenn and white Maggie are the Walking Dead couple audiences least want to see eaten by zombies. Probably because their babies would be so cute.
I see Caucasian women with Asian men everywhere in Houston: Barnaby’s, the Galleria, PetSmart, Viet Hoa. It’s kind of annoying. “I’m glad we got in on this trend at the beginning,” I tell Dat. He says, “Everyone at Pho Saigon knows we were the first.”
Three times this year, I’ve seen Asian men dining with black women—such a rare combo—but I couldn’t tell if they were dating or just friends. Last time, while looking for clues, I accidentally caught the woman’s eye once or twice. She looked uncomfortable, but I don’t know why. People here are totally cool with interracial relationships.