By now you’ve probably seen the viral video clip of ‘BBC dad’: while East Asian expert Robert Kelly speaks via live video to a BBC interviewer, his small children barge into his office and are hastily retrieved by an Asian woman.
Sure, the clip is hilarious, charming and relatable. Any parent who’s ever worked from home has probably been photobombed by their children at least once during a video conference call, or drowned out by a high-pitched chorus of ‘Mummy…’ in the background. (I was lucky when my toddler derailed a conference call before my husband ushered him away: my co-workers said, “Ooh, turn the computer that way, we want to see the baby.”)
Yet many Western media outlets and people in the US, where I live, kept assuming the woman in the video was the nanny. She’s not. In fact, she’s Kelly’s wife, Kim Jung-A.
See, you expect to run into certain challenges when you become a parent. Changing a squirming child with a diaper blowout in a public bathroom, for instance; or making sure the children are on their best behaviour at restaurants. What you don’t expect is to be mistaken for the nanny.
But that’s the reality for multiracial, multicultural families, who face misconceptions and prejudices that run the gamut from amusing to aggravating, to downright hazardous.
I’m married to a Caucasian American man who is a junior academic, not an expatriate investment banker; we’re not rolling in dough and certainly aren’t going to be eligible for a platinum credit card anytime soon. My African-American friend from university is her pale-skinned, curly-haired children’s mother, not the babysitter.
Other assumptions are even more hurtful and harmful. The Vietnamese woman in line for the noodle stall is not a prostitute: she’s the mother of a Singlish-speaking, football-playing, Singaporean primary schooler. And then there’s the SPG.
I first encountered the stereotype of the ‘Sarong Party Girl’, while still in school. The derogatory term, coined in the 1990s by writer Jim Aitchison, describes a particular sort of gold-digging caricature: a painted vamp who dates only white men. Women’s opportunities have expanded in Singapore since then, but the stereotype still dogs us. A colleague once jokingly called me an SPG — never mind that I out-earned my husband. I shot him a withering glare.
Yes, a growing number of Singaporean women are marrying foreigners: in 2015, there were 1,622 marriages between Singaporeans and a non-resident groom — a 39 per cent jump from 2005. But the rise is for positive reasons: such couples are often well-matched in income, cultural references, and education, The Straits Times reports.
Multicultural families, in fact, are very much mainstream in Singapore, where racial harmony is supposedly baked into Singaporean identity. In 2015, more than a fifth of all marriages in Singapore were inter-ethnic. The same year, fully a fifth of marriages in Singapore were between a Singapore citizen and a non-resident.
There are better ways to ask a multicultural family about their family life. ‘How did you meet your spouse?’ and ‘what languages would you like your children to learn?’ are some. There are tone-deaf ones. ‘Is that your child?‘ and ‘she’s so pretty! Too fair to be your daughter!’ are, frankly, offensive.
To ask ‘why don’t we just treat everyone as human beings?’ and ‘why can’t we just be colour-blind?’ is naive. It ignores the reality that today’s societies still treat people of different skin colours, nationalities and features differently.
In fact, it’s because we’re human beings that we make assumptions and leap to conclusions. When my husband gently plucked our son away from my computer on that conference call, no one mistook him for the babysitter. Why not?
The reaction to the ‘BBC dad’ video raises other, thornier questions: why, after more than half a century of Korean post-war recovery and educational development, are white men still the face of expertise on the geopolitics of East Asia? What exactly is wrong with being mistaken for the help? Why do we judge women who employ nannies, and women who are nannies, when we all know that it’s literally impossible to raise a child alone? Why do we under-value or deride the labour and love of women (because it’s nearly always women) who care for other people’s children?
But we can save those for another day.
The ‘BBC dad‘ story has a happy ending. Kelly and Kim saw the lighter side of it, and eventually gave a press conference with their family. In it, Kim is much more gracious than I would have been.
Multicultural families are a reality in South Korea and around the world, she says. “I hope that the video will become an opportunity to change views about multicultural families in South Korea.” Amen.
Grace Chua is a writer and recovering journalist. Her work has appeared in The Straits Times and other outlets. She is currently based in Boston with her husband and toddler.