Unknown Child

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By Richard Helmer

While gathering paperwork to get our son registered for kindergarten a few weeks ago, I came across the hospital record of his birth in San Francisco. Beneath his gender designation, length, and weight at birth was his racial designation in big-block capitals:

UNKNOWN.

It stopped me dead in my tracks. Our son, born in 2003, holds immediate claims to two heritages: American and Japanese. Had his mother been, say, French or Swedish, he would have easily been classified as White or Caucasian. Had his mother been African American, chances are he would have been classified as Black. But because his mother is Japanese, and I am of European – mostly English – ancestry, Daniel is a mystery, an unknown quantity in the slippery pseudo-science of race and identity.

Part of me rejoices that he defies standard classification. Part of me worries that his heritage falls into that nebulous, but ever-growing population of children born of marriages that transcend the boundaries of nation and race; children who get a second glance on the street as a rude question bounces around the conventional mind. It’s a question best summed up in the title of a work by author Pearl Fuyo Gaskins: What are you?

“UNKNOWN,” its big, black-on-white, block capitals seemed to also carry with it a mild insult. Marrying across racial boundaries and then having children continues to trip up the legal system in its categorizations, even in an avowedly liberal city like San Francisco. As I prepared Daniel’s kindergarten registration, I was reminded that we are still less than half a century beyond the day when anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. And still only decades from an era when I might have been shipped off to an internment camp with my wife for simply living and loving in the wrong place at the wrong time, for being wed on the wrong side of the war.

In its infinite wisdom, the government now offers a new racial category to the list of choices, and I don’t mean that bland Other ____________. (Please fill in the blank.) It’s “Mixed,” which brings to mind the ways Daniel can at times look white and at other times, Asian. Which stereo-typed feature shall we pick? The brown eyes and dark hair or the fair skin? The long fingers or the round face? Will he “pass” as a white person when he needs to, or is he Asian enough to go unnoticed in Japan? Or perhaps he simply fits into the relatively new classification of happa, a term that denotes someone born of one Asian and one non-Asian parent. But even happa says very little. Once considered derogatory, the word is derived from the Hawaiian hapa-haole, which simply means, “half white.” But no Solomon could ever determine which half of Daniel is which.

Mixed belies the deeper truth about our common heritage. Daniel might be mixed but he works: he’s healthy, happy, and behaves like most four-year-old boys do, taking over space in all the lives he meets with his boundless energy. Mixed at one time in the Judeo-Christian tradition implied something or someone impure, less than fully functional, whole, or worthy. The truth is, we are all Mixed if you dig back in our genetic history very far. Our wholeness is deeply rooted in our unity as people made in God’s image, and a shared genetic history that is only several tens of thousands of years old. Our racial categories are very late to arrive on the scene. We have in each of us the biological essence of what it is to be European, African, Asian, Latino, Aborigine, Indian, Native American. . .and the capacity to see the face of Christ in one another and the Body of Christ revealed in one another’s cultural heritage.

It’s also in this way that we are all Unknown.

Unknown like the first-born child of young woman and her carpenter husband two millennia ago. Unknown to the world, born in a stable in a backwater town far from the seats of power and empire. Unknown, yet Mixed, says our tradition – of divine and human origin, but not happa; rather 100% each in the theological math that never seems to add up. Instead, it plunges us into the mystery of a God who touches every piece of us, giving new meaning to that line from the Creed that reminds us that ours is the God of the “seen and unseen,” or in that line from the confession, the Redeemer of the “known and unknown.”

Unknown like every child is born – children who must be named and must receive a social identity from those who care for them. Unknown even then, as they must ultimately find themselves and grow into the gifts they have received. Gifts that came from the only One who truly knows each of us when the stardust comes together in a new way, the genes play mix and match, cells divide, and a new heart begins to beat.

So perhaps Unknown is a good category for a child who is a mystery as much as any of us. Our two-dimensional racial categories pretend to know a person, saddle us with an identity that may or may not fit, pigeon-hole us without regard to our unique natures as children of God. The racial categories, while they might remain useful to track our slow institutional progress in honoring the dignity of all, ultimately reveal the hand of human hubris at work in God’s Creation.

Maybe one day, Daniel will recognize Unknown not as a slap for those who fall in the arbitrary fault-lines of race and culture, but a true freedom to become who God made him to be.

All I can do is keep vigil, pray, and wonder, and reflect on my son’s Unknown-ness – that which has yet to be revealed.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. He has served in interfaith, ecumenical, diocesan, and national church organizations, including Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries. His sermons have been published at Sermons that Work, and he blogs regularly about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, and church politics at Caught by the Light.

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4 Responses to "Unknown Child"
  1. Blessings, Richard, to you and your family.

    Several years ago, we had to take our dog to the emergency vet in the middle of the night. She looked at our beloved shelter mutt, and asked, "So, what kind of dog are you?" My wife, quick-witted even in the middle of the night, responded, "She's a loved dog."

    My point is not to draw too close a parallel between my dog and your son. There are many important differences there to be honored. On the other hand, perhaps in God's time we might come to have that answer for all our Unknown children: what sort of child is this? This child is loved.

    Marshall Scott

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  2. Good friends of ours, he Italian American and Mediterranean or Arabic-looking dark and she English and Anglo-Saxon Nordic fair, have two young children, a lovely, mysteriously dark haired, brown-eyed, luminously olive-skinned daughter, and a renaissance European cherubic, fair-haired, blue eyed, bright radiant son. The dad reports more than once when he's at a playground with his two children having people ask if they're brother and sister, then 'full brother and sister?' and finally, accusingly - 'how did that happen?'

    Another friend of European descent whose daughter is half African-American says his daughter is herself amazed at the blond, toe-headed grandchild she birthed. 'I was there,' she says, 'so I know he's mine.'

    Something godly and mysterious about ancestry, mixing, and biology can surprises with unexpected and unprecedented beauties, a joyful surprise from our unpredictable God.

    And it's painful when our joyful surprise becomes another person's scandal. What is it that makes so determined to categorize.

    I think I remember Desmond Tutu, when Apartheid was still in place talking about his ID card which identified him 'mixed or colored, unknown race.' With our saint before us, maybe 'unknown' starts to hint of the Cloud of Unknowing, the divine mystery itself.

    Thanks Richard for a loving, provocative meditation.

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  3. Hey Richard,

    Nice to see you post this up. Believe it or not, I have a couple of friends in my high school are like that. One is my Trig teacher's daughter... as the Trig teacher is the Japanese parent. I don't know the other that well, but I have heard the info from some friends I know. Anyway, with a diverse changing world, I definitely think there will be more people like you facing the problem.

    Meanwhile, it's a good problem to think about from a single Asian like me. Since I am a first generation immigrant, I am still fluent in Mandarin and Cantonese. When I am with a girl some day, I know a series of questions would arise.

    Q1: Is ethnicity a factor for me to choose my girl?

    A1: I don't really care, I just want to find a girl who loves me and is willing to care for me. I would be more than willing to do the same. If it's gonna be a non-Chinese girl, so be it. The "unknown" problem, we would deal with that when time comes.

    Q2: What is going to be the language spoken at home?

    A2: If I am with a Chinese girl, it would be an equal split between Mandarin and/or Cantonese and English. I wanted to keep our language skills sharp so that we can pass it on to our children. If I am with a non-Chinese girl, we would have to talk it out. But, I will teach my kids Cantonese regardless. The more languages they can speak, the bigger the advantage they have in this diverse changing world.

    Q3: Am I going to teach my kids how to write Chinese?

    A3: I probably won't. I forget how to write most of the characters I knew myself. However, I would try my best to teach them how to type Chinese, since I still can recognize my fair share of Chinese characters. It will be a great asset for them in the world of computers.

    Q4: What would I do with my grandpa's antique Chinese books? How would I tell my girl and/or my kids?

    A4: I would probably just keep a few of them for memories sake... if my family can figure out how to sell the rest of them on the Internet between now and then. After all, it's no easy task to take care of 10 moving boxes worth of ancient Chinese books.

    - Bill Wong

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