The Real Reason the Stranger Was Staring at Our Interracial Family

Thien-Kim selfie with kids-I'm Not the Nannym selfie with kids-I'm Not the Nanny

I’m used to being stared at when I’m out with my kids.

I hardly notice unless the person is blatantly staring at us.  Even then, I don’t acknowledge their rudeness. I just wait. I can almost see the gears in their brain spinning as they attempt to figure out what my kids are. Or what race their father is. Or if I’m really their mother. Or more commonly,  if I was the nanny.

Most of the time, the stranger says nothing, but I can see the questions in their eyes. I pretend I don’t see their questions, I smile bigger, and I focus on my children. Luckily, they don’t notice.

Sometimes the questions are uttered. Or an awkward comment about my children’s biracial skin. I am always conflicted on how to respond. My instinctive response is to be snarky because that’s who I am. But I can’t be snarky or rude to a stranger in front of my 5 and 9-year-old. I want to model civility and good behavior. Rudeness would only call attention to their difference and how others want to put my kids in the “correct” ethnic box.

Last week, I decided to take my kids to our warehouse membership store to pick up groceries. I was also parenting solo in a crowded warehouse store. I love a good challenge. After picking up mounds of produce and various sundries, we head to the registers.

At the checkout lane, our friendly cashier scanned ten pound bags of navel oranges, out-of-season strawberries, baby cucumbers, and snacks my little foodies would devour in less than a week. At first, I didn’t notice how the cashier stared at Sophia and me. I was too busy wrangling Jaxson and making sure our purchases rung up correctly.

“I’m sorry,” the cashier blurted, “I don’t mean to stare.”

Thien-Kim and daughter at the beach via I'm Not the Nanny

I stopped, my debit card in mid-swipe. Everything around me slowed down. Here we go again, I thought. I braced myself. The unuttered “but” hung between us. I looked up at the cashier.

“It’s just your daughter looks so much like you!” she continued, practically glowing with her compliment.

I stood frozen for a few seconds, in shock. I was speechless upon hearing her unexpected compliment.

Now it was my turn to smile. I reached over to Sophia, whose four foot frame reaches up to my shoulders, and pulled her close. “Like mother, like daughter,” I replied. Gah! What a lame response.

As I finished paying for our groceries, I smiled to myself. I was so used to others questioning if my kids belonged to me, that in the back on my mind, I was always on alert. I needed to be ready to protect (and claim) my kids if others dared to question our family or make my children feel freakishly different because of their looks. It’s sad that those moments are the ones I remember most. Like how an author will always remember a bad review verbatim, no matter how many 5-star reviews they receive.

That cashier renewed my faith in how others perceive mixed race families. Instead of pointing out how we were different, she gave us a compliment I rarely hear from strangers. Compliments that I’m used to hearing about families whose racial make-up is more homogeneous than ours.

Sophia practically beamed at the compliment. What little girl doesn’t want to look like her mother? It seemed like only yesterday when she was 2-years-old and cried inconsolably about how she didn’t look like me. She had a breakdown because she had curly hair instead of my Asian stick straight hair and her skin color didn’t “match” mine. My heart broke that day. That’s when I learned that I need to talk to my children about our family’s skin color and celebrate our differences.

I still get emotional thinking about the cashier and her words. While it wasn’t a big deal to Sophia, the cashier touched my heart. She didn’t question my relationship with my kids. She didn’t make us feel weird for being interracial. She didn’t try to “figure us out.”

She saw us as a family.

I will never forget how she made me feel.

[READ MORE: Picture books that celebrate mixed race families.]


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