It’s not unlike any other interview. Well, unless you consider that it’s not consensual; that is, generally I sign up for interviews for jobs or volunteer positions. This interview is one for which I never enlist. It’s also unscheduled, so that’s different too. The interview of which I write is not something I step forward to do and not something I ever know is coming. So actually, it isn’t like any other interview at all.
It often begins innocuously. The opening may be “Are they yours?” This question refers to my children. I don’t recall ever asking a stranger if the children with her or him actually belonged with her or him, except one time when a child wandered pretty far within a large room and I walked the child back with a head tilt and a silent eye glance saying Yes? Does he belong here? before quietly walking away. Come to think of it, it’s not an innocuous question at all.
“Yes,” I reply. I am already remorseful. I never know what to say, and it’s not a question that’s been covered in my Interview Preparation courses. If I don’t say yes, then my children, who are plenty old enough to understand at ages 9, 10, 13 and 14, will hear that I am not standing up for them, I am not claiming them. I would find this completely unacceptable. I find answering affirmatively unacceptable also, in its acquiescence, but less so, making it my chosen utterance.
It’s likely the fact that we are different races. I am typically labeled White or European-American, and they are labeled Asian-American. Already they have faced interviews of their own. Where are you from? Can you really see out of those eyes, with those eyelids and all? Where are your real parents? We are a racialized society, fifty years after the assassination of Martin King.
“Are they twins?” I know that the interview is likely not even half over. My interviewer, whom I have never met, who doesn’t know me from Eve or from any other stranger for that matter, has not concluded her investigation. She does not yet comprehend my family portrait, so the interview continues. “No,” I reply. “They are different ages.” I begin to fail my interview. An edge creeps into my voice and if one listens very carefully, one can hear the silent “you idiot” at the end of my response. My dilemma deepens. If I am not engaging, I am showing my children rudeness. No matter what another person says, I do not appreciate rudeness as a chosen response. A stranger could say to me: “I think all women belong in the home; when women began taking jobs, our economy suffered and it’s never recovered,” and I would answer “I don’t see it that way.” Clear, assertive, true to my soul – but not rude. This interview challenges that ethic. If the other is rude, why shouldn’t I be? Can’t I put this person in her place? When I am not rude in response, do I suggest that I am condoning this interview, this inquiry that I neither consented to nor desire? I wouldn’t hesitate to be rude to someone assaulting me, and this interview, like all microaggressions, feels like an assault.
At this point in the consultation the interviewer faces a choice. She still does not quite have clarity for my family tree, but she isn’t sure what angle to take next. I can see her reviewing her mental notes: they’re not twins. They’re not the same race. How did this happen? Lightbulb. “Did you adopt them?”
My situation begins to feel dire at this point. I don’t want this job anyway, so why not go for broke and completely blow the interview? Ah, but I know why – my children. My children are listening. They are learning, whether they realize it or not, how to navigate these intrusions that they will face throughout their lives in the US. What response can I offer that would support their truth, show love for our family, set a limit with a stranger, affirm us while avoiding rudeness yet model how to pilot such an ambush? I have been here many times before and I am here again, unclear, indecisive, blood pressure rising.
No, I bought them at the farmer’s market last Friday. Table in the back – did you see them? They’re likely to have a new crop next week. My brain is screaming. No, I slept with an Asian man and out they came. Marginally less sarcastic, but yet marginalizing and thus not effective. The truth is, they adopted me. They chose me in a way I can’t begin to convey but it’s truer than sky is blue and grass is green. I don’t say any of this, though I would feel great joy if I could convey how I was able to re-unite my family for the first time and how obvious it was to us to do so.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” I finally utter out loud. After seven years of interviews I have come up with a meager one or two options that feel partially complete, such as shifting the lead to me and shifting the topic to the celebration of a family lovingly created.
My interviewer is not amused. “Were they born here?”
Joy did not derail the inquisition, and sadly I have found that it rarely does. I should probably relinquish it as a strategy but I remain likely inappropriately hopeful that one day my questioner will join in my jubilation.
“No, Guangzhou, Harbin, Shanghai and Chongqing.”
I try a new strategy. If I provide answers she doesn’t understand, and I am thinking it’s likely she hasn’t heard of Chongqing Province, perhaps her lack of knowledge will fluster her and quiet her questions. If I say directly, these discussions are not always comfortable for us, and would you mind terribly if we didn’t have this question-and-answer exchange, I estimate a very high risk of an indignant response that now exposes my children to righteousness regarding their family, a feeling that disparages us, putting us down as it raises our accoster.
“Oh. They are siblings, then?”
She is nothing if not persistent, and they often are; she is not so unusual. I know well the code for this question. I know the code for them all. She refers now to biology. She knows that we are family, that they are adopted, that they are foreign born – now she must know if they are biologically akin. At this juncture I am ready to lose my mind. I too am an adoptee, and nothing is a bigger secret slap in the face than exalting biology as the real glue defining a family. She at this point is not asking if we are all family; we have passed that test. Ah, but are we a real family?
“Yes, we are all family. I have such great kids. Have a good day.”
The ending is often also outside of my control. Either our turn at the register at the dollar store is finally done, or we need to leave the park to make it to the pediatrician’s appointment, or some other externality has finally come to pass. If I pull us away artificially, I appear to my children to be running, that we have some reason to hide. Particularly today, that is a dangerous message. It would also be unacceptable to me, leaving me but one option: to choose a situation in which I cannot choose but can only hope for the concrete task at hand to conclude.
My children, I am proud to say, are kind and compassionate. Often they will read my face. They can’t articulate the real question, which is: did we pass? Did you get the job, Momma? They may be distracted enough not to see what just transpired, which is my eternal hope. Sometimes I will hear, Mom, are you OK? My answer to this is the only response of which I am sure: “Are you kidding? I have the best family on the planet. I am beyond OK.” I bask in their sweetness and seethe at the entitlement of strangers, strangers who somehow feel permission to assume the role of investigative journalist, relentlessly, until our family configuration is not only defined but judged, labeled and filed. In fact, this interview is like no other. It puts my family in the role of Other, the perceived illegal immigrant or fearful nonwhite resident or dangerous outcast or other projected boogey-man outsider from which the stranger must with no exception distance herself. It is not benign or misguided curiosity, make no mistake. While likely not overt to the cross-examiner, it is at base a central mechanism of our divisive society. No other interview even comes close.
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