Playground Primer

This essay can be found in Pangyrus’ collection, NEXT: Visions Toward a Less-Divided America. Grace Segran was a gifted writer and treasured friend who is dearly missed. We’ve dedicated the collection to her.

A month after we relocated to Paris in the summer of 1989, our daughter, Elizabeth, started first grade at the International School of Paris. Et alors, after school the first day, the mothers brought their kids down to jardin du Ranelagh. Elizabeth and I went along, hoping to get to know other parents and their children. I watched her playing from the shade of the oak tree. She stood out prominently with her father’s South Indian dark skin
tone, as she played with white European and American kids on the swings and slide.

An American mother in a crisp linen shirt dress with a sun hat and a monogrammed L.L. Bean canvas tote bag walked over to me.

“Hi. Are you Elizabeth’s nanny?” she asked.

I smiled. “I’m afraid not. I’m her mom.”

She gushed apologies.

“Do you live close by?” she asked awkwardly, trying to make conversation.

“A twenty-minute walk from school, in Passy. What about you?”

“We live just down the street from school.”

Shortly after, the mom moved away to join a fellow American who had just arrived with her son. I noticed a younger woman following close behind her who looked a lot like me — brown skin, black hair, no makeup, sandals, shapeless knee-length skirt, untucked peasant top. I found out the following day that the young woman was the school mom’s domestic helper whom she had brought from their previous posting in Manila.

When Raja, my husband, got home that evening, he wanted to know how Elizabeth’s first day went. I mentioned in passing my encounter with the American mom at the playground.

“How did that make you feel?” he asked. I knew he was concerned because it was synonymous with being asked if I were the maid. In Malaysia, where we were born and bred, the hired help lived in and did household chores as well as took care of the children of middle- and upper-class families (socio-economic brackets that Raja’s family and mine didn’t qualify for). My family at least had food on the table. Raja was lucky if he got one decent meal a day when he was growing up.

“I wasn’t expecting such a question,” I said, “but I wasn’t upset nor felt humiliated. In fact, I was slightly amused.”

I wondered why I was nonchalant about being called a maid. Didn’t bat an eyelid. Why was I not offended by the question?

This is probably why. Raja and I were the minority racial groups in Malaysia and were discriminated against by the Malaysian Constitution that required the government set quotas for the dispensation of scholarships, employment in the civil service and the private sector, housing, and land ownership. The law favored the Malays with the intention of improving their economic status and participation.

When the 1971 New Economic Policy was implemented, we were in middle school, soon to enter high school, college, and the workforce. We were not able to get scholarships to go to university. Raja managed to scrape together financial contributions from his eldest brother and a cousin, received a small bursary provided by the Indian Association, and was admitted as a super-freshman straight into second year, thereby saving a year of tuition fees and living expenses. He was unable, however, to get a job after grad school and looked further afield in neighboring Singapore, which operated on a meritocracy policy. There, socio-economic mobility was made possible through hard work and ability, regardless of ethnicity. He got a job with Singapore Airlines and rose quickly in the company.

I endured a different type of discrimination as an adopted child in a home with a couple who already had three older children of their own. I was adopted by my natural mother’s brother when she died giving birth to me. My adoptive parents favored their own children. And they showed it. That emboldened my siblings. I was marginalized and became the other: the one they didn’t really want. There was often no mercy or justice when there was conflict between my siblings and me. Grace — unmerited favor — was difficult to come by, if at all. I learned from a very young age not to expect anything from anybody. If I wanted something, I had to earn it. Make it happen myself.

That philosophy prepared me for when I had to deal with issues in the real world. I was not eligible for a college scholarship despite good grades because I was of Chinese heritage. My Malay friends were showered with handsome stipends and full scholarships and sent overseas, albeit often with help from the government to get a place in the university. At work, I reported to a manager, who barely got through high school. She was offered the higher position by virtue of her ethnicity — sanctioned by the national employment policy.

So I settled. I accepted the situation I didn’t want and that which I couldn’t have. Made peace with my lot in life and used whatever agency I had to improve my life. I didn’t become a lawyer or study literature as I had dreamed but worked my way up to become a registered nurse. I would never become the director of the nursing division — such high-level positions were reserved for Malays, but I had a job. I was in a good place, all things considered.

I had good childhood friends who were Malay and whom I loved. I didn’t envy them. It was their good fortune to be born on the right side of the economic policy. The fact that they benefited from the policy and I didn’t never came between us in our relationship. It just was. Life continued genially on a level social playing field and an unequal economic one.

Raja’s job took us all over the world. We were always in the minority group, but I was not intimidated by that, integrating with gay abandon with the locals. I often forgot that I bore a different skin color and culture, and spoke with a weird accent. Racial discrimination was not the first thing that came to mind when someone said things that could be interpreted as racist, which was why the playground question didn’t faze me. It didn’t bother me to be called a nanny so much as it piqued my interest in the reasons for the assumption, the way I investigated my subjects when covering a human-interest story for my editor.

It was an unusual thing to ask someone if she’s the nanny, I thought, though I couldn’t say precisely why it felt unusual. I pondered that remark for several days afterwards. What does a nanny look like? I wasn’t in a nanny uniform as some employers expect of their help. Was it the casual way I dressed? But the way I dressed didn’t define my identity. I chose comfort and ease of grooming over sophistication anytime, except when I was at a social event or official function that required a formal dress code. Was it because Elizabeth and I looked racially different? We had different skin tones and facial features: hers were South Indian like Raja’s and mine were more Filipino-esque, coming from Maritime Southeast Asia (also known in the 16th Century as The East Indies and in the 18th Century as the Malay Archipelago in history books) which included Malaysia and the Philippines. And because many Filipinas had gone abroad as immigrant domestic helpers, was the assumption that I must be the nanny to a foreigner? If Elizabeth and I had the same skin tone and features, would the school mom still have thought so?

Back home in Malaysia, no one assumed I was the maid just because our family unit was composed of different races. Neither did I encounter it when we lived in Manila or Jakarta where I could blend into a crowd. Two years before Paris, like the school mom, we had also been posted to Manila. Although a Malaysian of Chinese descent with 25 percent Thai blood, I was frequently mistaken to be Filipina. That flattered me. It meant I was considered one of them. I belonged. I felt safe riding in jeepneys and shopping in the wet markets in Manila.

Being brown and vastly different-looking than Raja and Elizabeth didn’t prompt the nanny question either when we lived among white people in Belgium, the U.K., and France, except for the school mom at the Parisian playground. But then she was American.

Our downstairs neighbor in Paris, Fanny Ardant, was delightful, chatting with us in the hallway and asking us how we were settling in or telling us in the fall that the oyster man had set up shop at our street corner. She even mischievously took the liberty to play our piano when the deliverymen stopped to catch their breath in front of her appartement. We later found that she was the femme fatale of French cinema whose partner was François Truffaut, the renowned film director. For whatever reason, her celebrity status didn’t affect her treatment of us. She was simply the girl-next-door, gracious et très génial and didn’t seem to notice we were brown or our lack of sophistication and savoir-vivre.

Was it a white American phenomenon to assume one is a nanny because of one’s looks or skin color?

I recall our visit to Beaufort, SC four years earlier in 1985. We attended adult Bible class before church service. The folks in the class and the service afterwards were pure white, except for the three of us who stood out like sore thumbs. The teacher, probably trying to make us feel welcomed by including us in the class activities, thought he would ask Raja to read the Bible passage aloud, however, he prefaced the request with “Can you read?” I saw Raja suppressing a smile, somewhat tickled by the question. “I’ll try my best,” he said. He then proceeded to read with gentle eloquence in the same manner he spoke his lines as John Proctor in The Crucible in high school or when he led business meetings at work.

We were rather bemused by the Sunday school teacher’s question. We had been introduced to the class by the Capps, our hosts, who were missionaries in Malaysia and were home on furlough. Growing up in a British colony, we spoke English as our first language. We only spoke our mother tongue at home — Tamil for Raja and the Hokkien dialect for me — and rather poorly at that. Our mother tongues were peppered liberally with English words. We thought Americans were more informed about the world than us Southeast Asians. Our people were generally poorer so we were less educated — only a few of our cohort could afford to go to university; less read — English books were imported and expensive; and less traveled — most Southeast Asians at that time had never been on a plane. If Raja hadn’t worked for an airline and received travel privileges, we likely wouldn’t have traveled at all. It appeared that the folks at the Beaufort church were not so well-traveled either.

“They’ve probably never seen the likes of us,” Raja said after the class when we were alone.

“Does it mean they think we live in trees?” I asked.

“Possibly. It’s a stereotype of people from the Far East, I suppose. Primitive. Preliterate.”

The ignorance was sobering.

However, the Paris school mom was highly educated, well-traveled, lived in our part of the world, and married to a high-ranking European man who worked in the Asian Development Bank (the equivalent of the World Bank in Asia). Thus, the nanny question was bewildering. I didn’t expect someone with her global experience to ask such a question.

One theory I had for the phenomenon was that perhaps the Belgians, French, and English were at ease with foreigners like us because they were cognizant of other races through their colonies in the recent past. I am not saying colonization is good, only that it afforded knowledge of, and even experience with, another race.

The Belgian Empire included the Congo from 1902 till 1960. Belgium was our first posting outside of Asia. We had two tours of duty there. In our first tour in 1987, my Belgian French teacher spoke fondly of life in Kinshasa and the bush where she was born and lived till she came back for college. We returned twenty years later for another tour and, while the younger generation of Belgians did not have direct experience with colonial life, they knew a lot about it through their parents and grandparents.

After Belgium, we moved to Paris and our white French friends spoke knowledgeably about cultures from French North and West Africa, the Caribbean, Indochina, and beyond. They also tended to go on vacation in those countries and the surrounding areas.

Most Brits knew Malaysia well. For example, on our first tour of duty in London in 2001, our B&B host in the Cotswolds, a pretty pocket of rural England, had actually been to our neck of the woods. On our second tour of duty in 2008, our landlady in Hammersmith told us she grew up in Sungai Petani in our state of Kedah, a small town 30 miles from where Raja and I lived till we completed Form Six (high school). Her dad was the head of the public utilities department during British rule. Coincidentally, her wifi password was ‘Kedah.’ Incredibly random experiences but it showed that the Brits were aware of, and even loved life, in our part of the world.

There are more interracial marriages today than during our time. My Chinese family cut me off when I married Raja, who was Indian, in 1979. In 2012, our daughter married a white American man from Atlanta, whom we loved. The wedding party resembled the United Nations assembly, friends along with their partners and spouses of all shades and colors and from different continents. The unconventional had become conventional. To cut the Paris mom some slack, the encounter with her took place in 1989. It is now 2020 and globalization has taken place. People are crisscrossing the globe regularly and reading widely on the internet. The playground scenario, one might imagine, must be history. Apparently not.

In March 2017, the BBC “Dad, Interrupted” video went viral when South Korea expert Robert Kelly was gatecrashed by his two little children during an interview. Thousands upon thousands of viewers assumed the Korean woman who swooped in to salvage the situation was his nanny or maid. I didn’t. Not even for a second. I was more concerned for the poor man’s reputation and applauded his wife for her valiant act.

I wondered if there were similar conversations out there about the roles played by non-white women in mixed race marriages here in America. I googled “Are you the nanny?” and many links came up that led to many more. There was creativity in the question these days and such incidents occur not only in the playground but everywhere. At the grocery store, school gate, and soccer practice.

Here are situations and variations of the question I found online.

• Poaching seems to be a regular motivator: “Are you working part-time for this family? We’re looking for a new nanny and you’re so loving with the child.” Or “You take very good care of the child. Are you looking for a new job? I am looking for a new nanny.”

• While her biracial child was playing in the sandbox, an Indian mom new to the area walked over to a white mom who was pushing her child on the swing. She smiled and said hello. Instead of receiving the friendly gesture in kind, the white mom said sternly, “Shouldn’t you be doing your job and watch the kid instead of coming over to talk to me?”

• “Please tell his mom that this little cutie is so well-behaved,” was said to a mom at the grocery check-out line.

• “Do they pay you extra to speak Vietnamese to the child?”

• “Did he just call you ‘Mom’?!” takes the cake.

• “So nice of you to adopt a child!” Maybe not a nanny question, but predicates that you can’t possibly be his mom because you look different.

It sometimes happens between moms of the same race. One Haitian mom with a biracial child was asked by another, “They treat you good?”

The assumption, though rare, has happened to a white mom with biracial children too. “Even though it’s much more common for women of color to be asked the nanny question, it still stings,” one mom wrote on a blog. “It’s the offensive assumption our culture makes about class and race.”

There are assumed role reversals when the nanny is white and the mom is brown. A Colombian scriptwriter and actress said that when she’s out with her white nanny especially when she “hasn’t put on make-up yet,” people assume she’s the nanny. This tends to happen more often in rich neighborhoods.

I wondered if dressing smartly — more smartly than women who are unmistakably the moms of the child they are with because they look like them — or speaking like an American would invite the assumption. Some moms wrote that it didn’t matter how you dressed or how you spoke. “Once they see you are brown and have a lighter or darker child with you, you must be the nanny,” said one mom who lived in an affluent neighborhood in Los Angeles.

These situations all occurred in the U.S., as far as I could tell. I wondered if it’s the same in other countries? An Asian mom wrote, “I have never experienced people thinking I was the nanny until I moved here (U.S.) even though I’ve lived in Australia, France, and England. And suddenly there were nannies all around and they began to assume that I was one of them. They would sit with me and ask me if I was looking for another job or if I was working part-time.”

It appears that these societal and socio-economic constructs are rampant, judging by media coverage and the moms who are blogging about it. Some people can’t make sense of what they see before them and they slip into that construct. Some comments are even egregious and flagrant.

Enough already, I hear the moms saying. What is wrong with you? Have you not seen a multiracial family before? Is a multiracial family offensive to you? When they share the experience with a friend, they are told “You are being sensitive.” “This is reality.”  People expect them to laugh it off. But some can’t: “I gave birth to my baby and raised her and people don’t recognize it.” They are just tired of explaining to others why they don’t look like their child.

The fact is they shouldn’t need to, but they have to because of white privilege and the biased thinking that families should all look the same. If the woman in the Robert Kelly video had blond hair and blue eyes, would viewers have assumed her to be the nanny? Not even for a second.

Three decades and seven cities around the world later, I still look the same. Brown skin, dark hair, no makeup. Casual, comfortable clothes. Malheureusement, five years in Paris, the fashion capital, didn’t do any good for my presentation. The difference is I wear Allbirds now instead of Clarks, live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and have a three-year-old granddaughter named Ella. Ella has her white father’s porcelain skin and her mom’s thick dark shoulder-length hair that bounces when she moves. Last week, I visited them at their home in Harvard Square. While her mom was running errands, Ella and I went to the neighborhood playground with my son-in-law. He read on the bench while I watched Ella play on the monkey bars. A white American mother sidled up to me and said: “Are you Ella’s nanny?”
Paris suddenly didn’t feel that long ago.

I thought I had graduated from the nanny question when my daughter graduated from the playground. But my playground membership had been reactivated with the arrival of Ella. Then lightning struck again. In the same place. This time the stakes were lower — I’m one generation removed — but in another sense the stakes were higher because I’ve never been so racially conscious as I have since I moved to the U.S. I’ve learned, albeit very slowly, to respond to an invasive comment or line of questioning. I had a varicolored expostulation for the white woman but I didn’t say it because it wouldn’t be helpful. But I needed to let her know the question was inappropriate. So I shifted the responsibility of answering it back to her.

I smiled. “Why do you ask?”

“Hmm. Uh. I…uh…I thought…uh…,” she floundered.

Lucky for her, Ella ran to me squealing “Grandma! Grandma!” and hugged my knee. I took her hand, her dad took the other, and we walked towards Harvard Square debating whether to stop at Burdick’s for hot chocolate.




Image: photo by Harris Ananiadis on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Grace Segran
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