Seeing through ‘Chinese eyes’

In general, I don’t give books or videos as presents unless I have re-read or watched them fairly recently. This includes “classic” works geared towards children, including many books that were my favorites. (Note: the book pictured above was not and will never be one of my favorites.)

As a child, I didn’t have the ability to critically examine racist, sexist and other -ist images and portrayals. Hopefully I’m doing a better job now. Writer bell hooks notes as follows:

No one, no matter how intelligent and skillful at critical thinking, is protected against the subliminal suggestions that imprint themselves on our unconscious brain if we are watching hours and hours of television.

I would argue that it’s not just television. There is a battery of images beamed at us daily; many of them become deeply entrenched into our minds despite our best efforts. Legal scholar Mari Matsuda writes of how she once saw a woman with a bindi on the street, and, unbidden, a racist slur popped into her head.

So the work of examining racism (and other -isms) is ongoing. I expect that twenty years hence I will have different opinions about books I like now. Hopefully the learning process continues throughout my lifetime.

Which brings me to the subject of the book pictured above, “Chinese Eyes.” It was originally published in 1974. I’m not so sure that I find it shocking for that time, although certainly there were folks of that generation who would recognize it as offensive. What I do find shocking is that this book was re-released about five years ago. So in the intervening 28 years, neither the publisher nor the author learned anything new about race and racism?

The illustration and the pseudo-Asian font are bad enough. But the content promises to be worse. The card catalog description reads as follows:

An adopted Korean girl gets a lesson in how unimportant it is that some people think she is different.

Because why? Because racism is unimportant, you dolt. What’s important is what’s in your heart! Toughen up. Sticks and stones and all that.

Publisher’s Weekly writes as follows:

“Becky is a Korean child who has been adopted by a white American family. She’s usually happy; she has two good friends—Laura, a black girl, and Stuart, a white boy. But one day in the school cafeteria, Becky is called ‘Chinese Eyes’ and has a rough afternoon. Later at home, she helps her mother in the garden and is moved to tell of her distress. Mother smiles and suggests that those who said Becky’s eyes were Chinese were ‘pretty close’ but persuades the child that it’s all right to have brown, slanted eyes, they see as well as round, blue ones.

And the Holt newsletter is quoted as follows:

Chinese Eyes is a real help to adoptive parents who are troubled about how they can help their foreign-born child understand that being different is okay.

Since 28 years have passed since little Becky has had this experience, I thought I’d write the follow up book, “Chinese Eyes, F*ck You.” That is, since we’re ventriloquy-zing:

My name is not Becky. I changed it back to my original name; all your “Americanization” was for naught because children and adults still harassed me despite my “American” name and my “American” ways. Pretending I was white or “just like you” didn’t really help all that much. But maybe it made you feel better.

Maybe you could have simply acknowledged the hurt that other people caused me. Maybe then I wouldn’t have internalized their racism. Why did you smile when I told you about something that hurt me? Why did you attempt to minimize it?

By the way, I’m Korean, not Chinese, and my eyes are not “slanted.” I’m not crazy about being told I have beautiful “almond eyes” either. Don’t you think that’s just a tad Orientalist? I’m glad to know that you think that my eyes are “just as good as” blue eyes, even though everybody else told me differently. That was the message I absorbed despite your platitudes. I think it was impossible not to absorb the message “White is best” given that we only associated with white people.

My friendship with Laura fell apart when you made her and her black friends feel unwelcome in the house. She told me you were racist and I could scarcely disagree. Although you never said anything directly, all of us knew. And Stuart told me that we could see each other secretly, but he would not acknowledge me as his girlfriend because it would upset his parents and ruin his image.

I just have one question for you: If you really believe that being different is okay, why was I the only person who was “different” in our life?

Fuck you,

No Longer Becky.

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3 thoughts on “Seeing through ‘Chinese eyes’

  1. Wow! I totally remember my parents reading that to me when I was little. I’m definitely going to have to find it and read it again. Thanks for this excellent post and review of that book.

  2. This was a blast from the past. I TOTALLY remember seeing that book in the library when I was a kid. Not that my adoptive parents would have known it existed since they didn’t know about ANY resources/books/movies about Korean/Transracial adoption — but at least someone from the library knew something.

    I love the No longer Becky signature.

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