My son has inherited my pale Russian pale complexion and long lashes, and his Chinese father’s beautiful eyes and dark hair. He is gorgeous, something most mothers can say about their children with pride. People have commented that he looks like a little doll. Yet it has been a struggle for me to embrace his “Chineseness.”
I am raising my son on my own, strike that…I am raising my son without his father, but we are not alone. We live with my parents and my son loves his Baba (grandma) and Deda (grandpa). Still the absence of his father is palpable and I often wonder how it will manifest and impact my child as he grows up and begins to form his identity. I draw so much of my identity from my heritage and my exposure to other cultures. I was born in Russia, and when I was nine years old we immigrated to Durban, South Africa. Then, when I was in my early teens we once again packed up and moved, this time to the United States. I feel very fortunate that my son is being raised in a bilingual home; I mostly speak English to him and his grandparents are teaching him Russian. Yet, I want him to have a link to his Chinese ancestry and would love him to learn Mandarin too.
But my son’s father is an active alcoholic and an addict. He lost his mother (my son’s grandmother) before he had any tangible memories of her. He was than forced to grow up in a neglectful and abusive foster home, which no doubt negatively impacted his ability to form attachments later in life. Like so many addicts, he centers his life around his substance abuse and is unable to be a reliable parent to my son. He has shown up to meetings with my son intoxicated, or not shown up at all. In order to protect myself and my son, I have made it clear that he is not allowed to see my son when he is drunk. This boundary means my son sees his father very rarely, and mostly outside our home.
As my son begins to connect and form relationships with the people in his daily life, he does not recognize his father when he sees him. I have heard that in traditional Chinese culture, a son is a blessing and fathers are strongly attached and invested in their male heir. My mother’s Chinese friend said it was very “un-Chinese” for my son’s father to not be involved in his life. Sadly, his addiction trumps any cultural traditions or fatherly instincts. Even though, my son’s father was born in China and immigrated with his family when he was a toddler, he only speaks a few words of Chinese. It seems he himself is not interested in preserving a connection to his culture.
I want my son to have a connection to his Chinese heritage, yet the absence of his Chinese family and my own feelings of resentment and abandonment present serious obstacles. I know I have some work to do regarding my feelings, expectations and disappointments that can hopefully transition and transform into acceptance and forgiveness. But, I have found that I have transferred my complex emotions about my son’s father onto his culture. Every time I see a Chinese film or hear about the Chinese New Year celebration I think about taking my son to attend. But I am confronted with an emotional tug of war. I long to connect, yet it reminds me of the absence and I want to stay away.
I realize that as my son grows, he will have more questions about his father, his heritage and his Chinese family. I want to be prepared for these questions and don’t want to transfer my own bitterness onto him. I am still working out how to do that. Thankfully, I am surrounded by a supportive family and understanding friends, who do show up and remind me to be grateful for what I have rather than staying fixated on what is missing.