I consider myself rather ordinary looking, neither good looking or its opposite. I just sort of blend into the woodwork, at least when I am alone. But even so, I am part of a highly visible family.
The spouse, on the other hand, has always been conspicuous. She was born with the right leg significantly shorter than the left, and she has always worn a brace on that leg. The brace has taken various forms, but since I have known her, two pieces of metal on the side of the leg extend above and below her shoe. The shoe sits on a metal plate and is attached to the plate by a T-bolt. She drills through the sole of the right shoe, forces the nut part through the hole, and fastens the bolt from under the plate, which has a hole, to the shoe. A crosspiece is at the bottom of the brace covered in tire rubber, and this is what she walks on. A leather cuff with Velcro is at the top of the brace, and this wraps around her leg. Of course, this makes her noticeable, and that does have a benefit. People do not have to meet her three or four times, like they do me, to remember her, and acquaintances from decades ago instantly recognize her.
On the other hand, strangers everywhere regularly stare at her. Sometimes we have joked about it. In my small northern hometown, we stood outside Prange’s department store. Some wonderful Wisconsinites stopped about ten feet away and stood and gaped. She looked uncomfortable, and I said, “They have never seen anyone from Florida before.” She laughed.
Little kids do not always stand ten feet away to stare. Many come up right to her with eyes locked on the brace. Some ask about it. The wife has a patter for these situations—“I was born that way; were you born with a short leg?”–but sometimes it is wearisome. And often the parents get embarrassed or get angry at their child for their apparent rudeness, and this only makes things worse.
In my initial years with her, I learned to accept what she had long before accepted—not to be surprised by the stares and comments. These experiences, however, did make me reflect on some childhood behavior. My hometown, like many small places in the Upper Midwest, was all white. Six miles north of us, however, was a small Army base. (Gunnery practice was held there. Shells were fired at targets carried by pilotless planes towing targets over the lake. If invaders flew at fifty miles per hour like these planes, I knew we would be safe.) Some of the soldiers were black, and on a few occasions these soldiers would come to our downtown. They stood out, perhaps even more than the wife. I know that once at the very corner outside Prange’s where she was stared at, I stood motionless across the street and stared and stared at the black soldier. Because of the wife, only decades later did I get an inkling of what that man might have been feeling.
Then along came the daughter. We were not the first couple to adopt an Asian child, but when she entered our lives, Korean adoptees were not as common as they would be later. Now not just the spouse, but the daughter could bring stares and comments when she was with two white adults. (Apart from us she is, of course, less noticeable if she is in a community that has more than a sprinkling of Asians, but sometimes that is not the case. The daughter and I just came back from a trip to Peru along with fifteen white people in addition to me. The daughter stood out whether or not she was with me.) When the daughter was still a toddler, the spouse was sitting on a park bench. A girl maybe six years old looked at the daughter and then up at the spouse and then back at the daughter and then at the spouse again. After this had gone on for a while, the girl approached the spouse and stood there for a moment. Finally she asked, “Is that your baby?” The spouse replied, “Yes.” “Funny,” the girl felt compelled to say, “she came out sorta Chinese.”
I was in Venice on a water bus with the daughter when she was three. A man kept staring at us. He started talking to me in broken English. I gathered he was asking whether the daughter was mine. I replied, “Yes,” but he was not satisfied. He kept jabbering, and since my Italian consists of a few words that might appear on a menu, I did not understand him. Finally, I grasped that he was asking if she truly was my daughter, why was she Asian. I told him that she was born in Korea, and my wife and I had adopted her. His loud and insistent replies indicated that he did not understand. How come she was Asian? I tried to find a simpler way to convey this in English, but he just kept getting louder. He was making me, and others on the boat, feel uncomfortable. Finally, I said, “Wife. Chinese.” He said the Italian equivalent of “Ah,” and walked away.
I am part of a conspicuous couple and conspicuous family, but I do not feel the center of the attention. I am the barely noticed person with The Woman with the Brace or the unremarkable white man with The Asian Female. Perhaps only one time did I feel personally conspicuous because of the family.
The daughter was maybe four, and we were in New Hampshire for a week in a rented cottage. I took the daughter to a toy store. The spouse for part of the week was at a scientific conference, and she was not with us. It was a weekday, and I was the only man in the store. A vacuum cleaner was a demo toy, and the daughter starting “vacuuming” the carpeted stairs that went from one level of the store to the next. She went on and on trying to clean each step. I felt that the mothers were all looking at me out of their peripheral vision and thinking, “Oh, he is one of those men who have traditional notions for girls. Next he is going to tie one of those little aprons on her and bring her to the toy stove.” And I wanted to say, “I would never give her a vacuum cleaner. She has trucks and Legos and I play ball with her all the time.” (The daughter is no longer a girl, but she still likes to vacuum. Maybe I should have bought that toy for her.)
On this same trip, I decided that as long as we were going to be in a New England village we should experience as much small town life as possible. I had us do things like go to a church dinner at some ungodly hour like 5 PM (the food was not good; I did not buy this church’s cookbook) and to a chicken barbecue in the town park (the food was quite good, but there was no cookbook). We had gone to both the grocery stores and the specialty food shops and, of course, to the gas station as well as a trip to the hardware store. Towards the end of the week, we were back in the park for a band concert. I stayed with our picnic packings while the spouse and the daughter went closer to the bandstand. A seemingly nice man came up to me and said, “I have seen you around town, and I want to say, God bless you for all that you have done.” I must have looked dumbfounded. He then indicated that he meant that I must be wonderful for having married a cripple and adopted an Asian. All I could do was smile politely and say, “Thank you.” But as he walked away, I thought how little he understood. I had not adopted out of a sense of charity, and I had merely married the woman I loved. I was not somehow apart from those two, however, conspicuous they might be to others. The three of us were simply family no matter how others might stare or wonder.
Being conspicuous and part of a conspicuous family, however, must have affected the three of us—our images of ourselves, each other, and how the rest of the world reacts to us individually and as a family. The daughter has written, amusingly and touchingly, about her identity. Perhaps someday I will get her to post about that.