Carmen Rita Wong reckons with her identity after learning a secret hidden for decades
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Imagine living your whole life believing a certain story about yourself - where you came from, who your family is - only to see that story upended because you discover your mother has been lying to you your entire life. Well, this is exactly what happened to Carmen Rita Wong. In her new memoir "Why Didn't You Tell Me?," she confronts the true origin of her origin story. And as the truth unfurls, she's forced to rethink her family, her race and the choices her mother made. It's a story about how your entire identity can shift over one lifetime, rocking your very sense of belonging. Carmen Rita Wong joins us now. Welcome.
CARMEN RITA WONG: Thank you so much for having me.
CHANG: Thank you for being with us. So, you know, for much of your life, the story that you understood about who you were is that you had a Dominican mother and a Chinese father. And their marriage was this, like, transaction for immigration status. And I want to ask you about something you wrote early on in the book, something your mom had told you. She said your father was chosen for that transaction largely because, quote, "Chinese was the closest thing to a white man." That sentence, like, burned into my brain. Can you just tell me what you felt she meant by that?
WONG: Oh, well, that ties to Dominican Caribbean culture. I should say colonialism, colorism, right? So when the immigrant waves came in from the Caribbean, specifically Dominican Republic, from the '50s through the '70s, Dominicans come in all colors. So one of the things, though, is that it's communicated throughout the Caribbean and South America, because of colonialism, that white is best. And so that was part of, quote-unquote, "the American dream" - was to get whiter.
CHANG: And Chinese - why was Chinese the closest thing to a white person, in your mom's mind?
WONG: Well, I think she thought about that mostly because that's what her father said, my grandfather, Abuelo, who kind of arranged both his daughters to be married to Chinese men to start their migration into the country. I think in society, especially at that time, there are so many stereotypes which remain to this day. You know, Chinese, Asian - very hardworking, very smart...
WONG: ...Do very well in business.
CHANG: The so-called model minority myth.
WONG: Oh, boy, do I hate that phrase - yes, model minority. And what a heavy, heavy mantle that can be.
CHANG: Yeah, absolutely. Well, as you were growing up believing that you had a Chinese father, how Chinese did you actually feel inside?
WONG: That's a funny question. I - you know, I was a kid. I was - I had a Chinese father for the first 31 years of my life.
WONG: And even though they were separated, he was very much my father in all the ways that fathers are fathers if they're engaged still in their kids' lives.
CHANG: And we should just explain for our listeners who might be a little confused. It was because you later on in life learned that the person you thought was your father was not actually your father.
WONG: Yes, of course. That's - but that's only one big reveal of many...
WONG: ...As you know.
WONG: I don't think it's even the biggest in some ways. It's one of the most painful, if only because it is so tied to race and culture.
CHANG: Yeah. Well, the heart of this book - you know, it explores this specific relationship between you and your mom. She was the teller of your story, the keeper of the secrets that you would later discover. Can we just step back? Like, how would you describe your relationship with your mother as you were growing up?
WONG: Oh, difficult. In many ways, she made me the parent. I was the oldest. I took care of everybody. She had me do a lot of things and treated me like an adult. So of course that's going to cause problems because I was a child, you know? It's like, wow, where did my childhood go?
CHANG: Right. Well, she was struggling with her own burdens. Like, when she ends up leaving, at the time, your Chinese father, Papi Wong, and marries a white man, you all moved from New York City to New Hampshire. And you call your new white stepfather, Marty, your mother's, quote-unquote, "white knight," one who extracted a price from her. Looking back, how would you describe what that price was?
WONG: Oh, disconnection, disconnection. The mantra in those days was, you know, America is a melting pot, and it was all about assimilation. But assimilation into what? Assimilation into white America. What that meant for her, though, was not only did we leave behind a city that we loved so much but a city filled with people that looked like us - we could just exist and coexist - to a place where we knew no one. We had no family, and we stuck out because we were the only nonwhite people there. She became very isolated. So it extracted a big price from her wanting to have this American dream.
CHANG: Yeah. I was so struck that the only time she made Dominican food was when Marty was not home.
WONG: I got the sense that it wasn't allowed...
WONG: ...To be honest. Like, this was - we weren't allowed to speak Spanish. And these were his rules. We did not eat and nor did my mother ever cook Dominican food for any of us or Chinese food unless he wasn't home. So just in that, you can see, like, what a shock it was to go to a place where basically everything that defines you is erased, which makes you feel very unmoored.
CHANG: It then eventually becomes even more confusing as you discover the secrets your mother kept from you while she was alive. And I don't want to give away the exact details of what you ultimately discover. But there is this larger question you ask, and that is, how do you let go of your racial identity after you have held onto it for so long?
WONG: Yes. I say in the book, how do you stop being Chinese? You know, it's - you can't erase the first 31 years of your life, that you had these two parents that happened to be of these races and ethnicities. That was your experience. Now, to discover biologically that I'm not is one thing, and I get that. And I've accepted that, of course. But I don't say now I'm Dominican Chinese. I say I'm Afro-Latina, but I say I was raised Chinese. And that's all I can say. But I'll tell you, I'm still - it's something very, very difficult because you don't ever want to appropriate. You always just want to respect what's happened and the origins and the truth. And so that's what I try to do - is respect the truth of that.
CHANG: You do still keep the name Wong. You still choose today to call yourself Carmen Rita Wong. What story about you do you think your name tells people about yourself today?
WONG: I'll tell you. I'm proudly a Wong. I was raised a Wong. I had a papi, Papi Wong, who passed away, actually, last month.
CHANG: Oh, I'm sorry.
WONG: So that stuff - it doesn't stop. Also, my brother was a Wong, my older brother. Alex was probably the only biggest fan and support I've ever had. So I'm a Wong with him and his daughters. As to what that means to everybody else, I'll tell you the short story. It depends if you want the short story or the long story.
CHANG: Let's go for the short story today.
WONG: I usually give the short story. And people say, oh, you're Chinese? And I'll say, stepfather.
WONG: That's what I say.
CHANG: Carmen Rita Wong's new memoir is called "Why Didn't You Tell Me?" Thank you so much, Carmen, for being with us.
WONG: Thank you so much for having me.
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