Reflection: Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates


Dear Sons,

I recently finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir, Between the World and Me. I expected to come into a deeper encounter with the experience of being black in America—and I did. But what I did not expect was to come into a deeper awareness of my love and responsibility for you.

See, Coates is a journalist and a brilliant writer. He recently won a Macarthur Genius Award. But this book, although a memoir, is written to not only to convey his story, but also his love for his one and only son. By birth, Coates was thrust into the chaotic streets of Baltimore, where even his loving, unreligious, but strict home were living legacies, the ongoing fall out of the subjugation of “black bodies.” He went to Howard University, a historically black college, and found a safe place to explore the full spectrum of blackness. Yet even there, was reminded ‘safe’ is a relative word when one of his friends—a young man who turned down Harvard for Howard, whose mother was Chief of Surgery, a man who was bound for success—was shot by a police officer. Coates met his wife at Howard too—another black person, similar but different from him. They travelled to Paris and experienced not only a sense of foreignness by geography, but also because of they were no longer viewed as especially dangerous or suspicious, i.e., black; he felt like a fish out of its water; and even if that water was poisonous, it was familiar. But then he had his son. Not born into the same chaos Coates knew when he was young. Yet he saw how his boy, born into a new era, could so easily be pushed aside. He saw how his son ran into his room to weep when he saw Michael Brown lying in the middle of the street on the TV. And Coates realized that as far as he’d tried to struggle and live well into being a black man in America, that he would not ultimately succeed if he did not pass the baton to this son whom he loved.

I have not been the worst father, but I have not been the best either. It’s not fair to you guys that the person who is responsible for fathering you is still working out his own identity, his own insecurities, his own imperfections, his own demons. It’s not fair to you guys that Daddy isn’t perfectly selfless, that Daddy is still learning to be Daddy. I didn’t grow up on the chaotic streets of Baltimore, but I did grow up in confusion. I grew up in a loving Toisanese family, but felt embarrassed by them at school. I grew up in a world, that still makes me feel unwelcome. I look back with shame at how, in struggling to be an American teenager, I disrespected my hard-working immigrant parents and made them feel hurt and rejected. But, also unlike Coates, I found God, or better put, Jesus found me. And things have been changing. And the world continues to change too. But not that much. Even as an adult, even as someone who’s been following Jesus for over 20 years now, I am still someone who is just beginning to grasp the edges of self-knowledge, and far from self-mastery, and even further from Christ-likeness. Yet this is the Daddy you have.

There’s a part of me that wants to apologize. And I do. But what all of me wants to do is love you. And by love you, I do mean hug and play with you. I do mean teaching you ride a bike and run a route. But I also mean teaching you what I’ve learned about life, about being a Chinese-American Christian man. And ultimately to be better than Daddy. Because by default, you will be no better than me.

One day, you will read the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and you will at first think they are wise pithy sayings. But eventually you will learn that these are hard wrought lessons of a king to his sons, the future kings of Israel. And that’s what you are. You are my princes, you are the future kings of this world—even if the world will not have you. And I promise to not only father your strength, but also your mind, heart, and soul.

Coates with his son Samori.
Coates with his son Samori.

“Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?” (Ch. 3 Reflections: The Early Years)

This post is long overdue – life got busy.

I love the question which opens this chapter, a question Tatum’s daughter once asked her:  “Is my skin brown because I drink chocolate milk?”  Hearing kids talk about race is fun and sometimes even subversive.  My kids have never referred to their friends as White, Black, Yellow, or Red – because, it turns out, none of us are actually those colors (except Brown).  Race, I’m reminded, is a social construct.  Another example:  I just polled my three boys; oldest says he’s Chinese, middle says he’s English, and youngest says he’s Spanish (I asked him why, Because I look Spanish.)  But these humorous conversations with kids about race remind me that while kids certainly have some wrong-headed ideas about race, so do we as adults.

Talking to our kids about race isn’t easy.  Some parents fear that by introducing the conversation so early, they are raising questions and concerns that before didn’t exist.  Even for patently racist parents, they know that they must speak about race in hushed tones, or at least behind closed doors.  And yet passing on values about racial & ethnic identity and relationships to our children is vital, even if it happens non-verbally.  I am convinced that there are a few places where we can see where our real values are.  One is how we use money.  The second is how we raise our kids.  As a Christian, it’s almost cliche to talk about people who are Christians – until it comes to their money and their children.  But this an untenable position before a Jesus who told his disciples:  “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” (Mt 19:14).

There are some stark differences though between Tatum’s world and my world.  First, I am not Black; while I am a racial minority, there is something categorically unique to the stigma associated with being Black in America and something unique to the relationship between Blacks and Whites.  Second, it seems like I live in a much more diverse neighborhood than Tatum does; where I live, Whites are as populous as Latinos, Filipinos, Chinese, and Indians; White normalcy seems to be more prevalent in her neighborhood, or at least at her children’s schools.  Third, my kids already come home with messages about racial inclusion and equality–unsurprising given the racial diversity among their teachers.  And for these reasons, I don’t naturally feel as nervous about my kids growing up as Chinese-Americans as Tatum does with her kids.  This doesn’t mean that there is no racism in our neighborhood–there is, but not of the character Tatum writes about.  At this stage, they don’t perceive that they are worse off or that they are weird because of their looks or their Chineseness.  They don’t think they are yellow because they drank “too much” (insert yellow colored drink).  In fact, they would be happy to bring their Chinese soy milk or yogurt drinks to school with a level of confidence that would have put my 3rd grade self to shame.  As far as they are concerned they are as different and as similar as their friends who are Armenian, Filipino, Caucasian, etc.  At least for now (or more accurately, as far as I know.)

Tatum advocates that FIRST, we should be happy to accept children for where they are at developmentally (often making broad generalizations, e.g., about one’s consumption of chocolate milk).  SECOND, we as adults need to watch how we unconsciously transmit messages about race to and around our kids (do we mention someone’s race unnecessarily?  especially in a pejorative way, or to express surprise?).  And THIRD, we should help them develop a critical consciousness (e.g., using racial stereotypes in media as simple entry points to teach them).

At this point, as a parent, I find myself emphasizing three things with my children which overlap, but slightly differ from Tatum:

  1. ACCEPTANCE:  Like Tatum, I accept where my kids are with respect to their understanding of race and ethnicity.  After that one conversation, I have never asked my kids what race their friends are.  When they describe what’s unique about their friends, only once or twice have they ever referred to skin color; all other times they’ve referred to their hair color or curliness, their height or size, their raspy voice, and (when pressed) if it is a girl.  I want to learn about their world as they see it.  And even when my youngest insisted that he was Spanish because he looks Spanish (what does that even mean?), at this point, I see no reason to correct him.  Because at this point, self-discovery is just too fun and fluid.  The stuff my youngest says is wrong almost half the time.  And rather than spending all my time correcting him and stifling the joy of discovery, I delight in seeing how he discovers things about himself.  But with my older son, I do find myself correcting him because he’s old enough – but I always do it in a way that steers his understanding of the truth rather than making him feel embarrassed for being so “ignorant.”  We laugh a lot when we talk about race, ethnicity, gender, or outer space aliens — and I hope, learn a lot too.
  2. IDENTITY:  Clearly, two of my boys have identity issues (but who doesn’t?).  But that’s the freedom they have at this age.  But what does it mean to be Chinese-American?  I resonate with this question, because I am Chinese, and yet I’m not.  I look Chinese, yet I don’t speak Chinese.  I have Chinese family values, and yet I am also a Western individualist.  I cook and eat Chinese food, but pretty much every other cuisine as well.  My kids are the same.  Unlike my grandparents, I don’t feel the need to preserve their Chinese-ness, and yet I want them to have a sense of what it means to be Chinese-American, especially in the diverse environment that they are growing up in.  Recently, I’ve been reading through with my boys Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, a marvelous graphic novel that approaches the Boxer rebellion from the Traditional Chinese perspective and the Catholic Chinese perspective.  There’s also lots of gods, and magic, and knives, so my boys love it.  I also read Yang’s American Born Chinese with my oldest – and to my surprise, he understood it’s meaning, despite not growing up wanting to be like the cool White kids.  What I love about these stories is that they are both Chinese and Western.  Yang offers a narrative that not only bridges those two worlds and their histories, but also brings the tensions to surface.  I am resistant to the idea of imposing what it means to be Chinese-American on my boys, and story provides the freedom for them to discover that for themselves with some narrative anchors.
  3. JUSTICE:  Particularly out of my Christian convictions, I want my children to grow up being sensitive to anyone or any group that is being ignored, bullied, or singled out in a pejorative fashion–regardless of the social marker.  I regularly ask them if there are people who no one wants to play with, that everyone laughs at because I want them to be the first to be their friend, to include them.  Race has generally not been something I have specified as a reason to rile them to action, again, because they have not brought it up as a reason.  More often, it will be because someone is smelly, or weird, or dumb, or mean (do these labels track with race, gender, or socioeconomic status?  maybe/maybe not).  A good friend of ours has a son who is autistic, so that is also on my radar.  As they become more race-aware, you bet it will be a more intentional conversation.

If you’re parent, it’d be great to hear what’s on your mind when it comes to conveying messages and values about race to your children.

Children: To have or not to have. Is that the question?


TIME Magazine recently featured an article about couples who choose to go on without kids.  It’s caused quite a stir.

I’m sure I could weigh in – I am, after all, a father of 3.  But I think the article serves more interestingly as a sociological piece. Our world would seem so strange to the ancients – or even to those in developing countries.  Whereas they viewed children as a gift you hoped for, susceptible to early death, and also a means to economic security…we view children as a human choices made in our plan, objects of our medical-technological control, and a trade-off with our economic mobility.  This is generally true regardless of how many children we do or do not have.

In any case, I think you can have some pretty horrible reasons for not having kids – just as you can for having them. And of course, there are some pretty glorious reasons to go one way or the other as well. And still, there are those of us who have kids by ‘accident’; others who cannot no matter what we try (both instances betraying the modern notion that children are mere products of our will).

Seems to me that our station in life is important, but it’s not always clear which is inferior or superior. What seems most important though is, having found our station, how we choose to live within it. If we’re ever going to be judged, I suspect it will and should be for that.

This is especially true for those of us who are Christians.  The Apostle Paul teaches us that marriage is relativized in light of eternity (spoiler:  there will be no marriage in heaven).  Jesus subverts the sanctity of marriage, children, and family when he asserted that his family was not necessarily biological, but spiritual–i.e., those who do the will of my Father.  Our “life stage” (that whole concept is demolished not only in modern thinking, but in view of the resurrection when we should no longer assume that every single person should get married, or that every married couple should have children, etc.), or station in life, as the ancients called it, is a present reality and of real importance.  And yet it is not of ultimate importance.  That’s why Paul could have the guts to say something as blasphemous as, “Those who are married should live as they were not.”  If we were to follow that logic, we should also say, “Those who have children should live as they did not.”  Being married isn’t better than being single, nor is having children better than not (although – most people still would prefer to be married and have children; it’s natural).  What matters most is how, as a married person, or a parent, we give ourselves wholly to the Lord.

But if we take Jesus seriously, we could even say, “Those who are single or childless should live as if they were not.”  Because our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, our sisters, our children aren’t biological but spiritual–those who do the will of our Father.  Even if I am single – by choice or not – I am called to belong to and sacrificially love God’s family.  Even if I am childless – by choice or not – I am called to care for “the least of these” and to make disciples, that is bearing spiritual children.  Being single or childless means a large measure of liberty (although with loneliness mixed in), but the question Jesus and Paul would ask us is:  What are we doing with that liberty?  Are we living for YOLO?  Or are we living for YHWH?  (please don’t roll your eyes).

And this is where we, as Christians, must diverge from the contemporary ideas about marriage, children, and family.  Our goal isn’t supposed to be personal fulfillment or self-actualization.  Having children merely to make us happier is as evil as not having children for the same reason; because while either path can make us happy, regardless of the path, we are called to service, not to self-gratification.  And children are not a means (or an obstacle – although Jesus says we adults can be one for them), they are human beings made in the Image of God, people whom we must continue to love and nurture even when their ability to make us happy diminishes.  And so as followers of Jesus, while I think we can weigh in on topics like these, the most important question isn’t IF we should do this or that, but HOW.  The goal isn’t personal fulfillment, but living wholly unto the Lord, offering our lives as living sacrifices to God – regardless of what kind of station we find our lives in.

How Do You Do It With Three Kids?

My previous post, inspired by Laura Meehan, seems to have stirred some interest.  Enough to somehow end up on Reddit.  Some have mistaken that I disagree with Laura; I don’t one bit.  I just wanted to fill out some of the positives to having three kids.  It is crazy hard, yet it also also crazy awesome.  But at the end of the day, you’ve got to choose for yourself — or you don’t choose, but you learn to roll with the punches.

In any case, given the interest in the topic, I thought I’d reprise an old post in response to the most common question my wife and I get asked:  How do you do it?

I like Laura’s answer:  There’s no magic.  It’s hard.  You mess up.  But you just do it.

My answer’s not all that different:  We work hard at it.  But more so, we’re incredibly blessed.


How Do You Do It With Three Kids?

January 26 2011, 10:29 PM  by Brian Hui


Painting by Donny Hui, my brother.  No, we don’t have four kids.

The most common question/comment my wife and I get  is, “I don’t know how you guys do it with three kids.  How do you??”  And at first, since most people we knew were still childless, it was, frankly, an annoying question.  And it’s not because I mind the question, but the underlying vibe I got from most folks was that we’re crazy for having three kids; we’re freaks.  Or there was this sense that kids are such hassle, a burden, almost like asking how we could manage to have our lives so ruined.

But now that more and more of our friends are having kids, especially for the first time, the question sounds different.  It sounds more like true curiosity, maybe even a little bit of exasperated wonder.  And so I thought I’d share a few thoughts on “how we do it” — at least some thoughts that come to mind immediately.

But first a couple caveats.  First, I don’t think we’re heroic for having three kids — so there’s nothing self-congratulatory going on here.  My grandma had 7 kids (that survived) and emigrated with her whole family out of communist China to Hong Kong and eventually here to the States.  That’s heroic.  Second, what follows is descriptive and not prescriptive.  And now on with the show…

We both come from families three.  So it might seem a lot to some people.  But it feels perfectly normal for us.  Weirdos like us can be surprisingly well-adjusted when we think we’re perfectly normal.

We have loving & helpful parents who live close by.  The difference this has made cannot be overstated.  My sister-in-law’s family, for example, lives far away and they don’t have anything close to the support system that we do; so it’s much harder.  Also, our parents love taking care of our kids.  A few of my friends have parents who prefer not to babysit; that also makes it harder.  Now, this doesn’t mean we just drop them off and subcontract out our parenting to them – – although my mother-in-law does help babysit during work hours.  But we do spend a fair amount of time with them.  And whenever there are multiple adults around, caring, feeding, bathing, playing with our kids is always much easier.  And of course, during the rare times when we do need to run an errand or go on a date, we have the grandparents to depend on.

We’ve created pretty efficient routines.  No, not everything is color-coded, pre-packaged, or automated.  But between getting-the-kids-ready-in-the-morning rituals, getting-out-of-the-house rituals, to washing-them-up-and-putting-them-to-sleep rituals, my wife and I have our roles pretty down pat (sometimes there’s still hiccups).  And they also know that if they slow things down, they’ll get in trouble.

Our kids are flexible sleepers.  They can sleep anywhere; they’re not too fussy about that.  They can also sleep late if we’re hanging out with friends (although less so now that Caleb’s in school).  It’s not that we “trained” them, but we’ve always just brought them along and I guess they’ve always just been used to it.

I am half as strict as Amy Hua.  Which means I am strict as hell.  Three isn’t freakishly large, but three is still a crowd.  And we’ve put a lot of discipline into the front end of their childhood so that all the basics — cleaning up toys, eating together at the table, washing up, going to sleep, listening to voice commands, etc. are mostly down (keyword:  mostly).  And once we had the basics down, home life (and even life outside the home) isn’t nearly as frenetic as it could be.

I employ crowd control strategies.  There’s two of us, three of them.  Much of the time, there’s one of us, three of them.  And if we were to try to chase down, or get the attention of each child one at a time, it’d be nearly impossible and we’d go nutz.  So I’ve found ways that I can get all their attention at once and can corral them all like cattle.  I’ve figured out how to have fun with all of them at the same time — whether it be wrestling, going to the park, story time, etc.  And for much of the time, if one person gets in trouble, they all get in trouble.  Yeah, that latter one sounds unfair…because it is.  But it also teaches them the consequences of fighting, trains them to negotiate and resolve things on their own, reinforces their bond as brothers, and most of the time, it really is everyone’s fault.

We still value each child and know what makes them tick.  No, we don’t go on special outings with each child like Jon and Kate did — although I did take Evan to DC this fall.  But we know when someone needs a hug, a break, or just some extra attention.  We know what their favorite foods and activities are and we’ll eat and do those things together; an added bonus to that is that they learn to enjoy those things with each other.  We know what they’re afraid of, the things they can and cannot do.  And while we have common expectations across the board for all our kids, we also know that there are just some things that are peculiar and probably unbendable about each child.  Why is Caleb so competitive, Evan so moody, and Dylan so fat?  We don’t know, that’s how God made them.  And we love them as they are and work with what we have.

We are lazy.  We admit it.  We use the TV, Netflix, Wii, iPod, iPad, etc. when we’re too tired or when they get too MMA with each other.  We also have a DVD player in our minivan.

Everyone has a role.  Running a house is like running a business.  And since I’m Cantonese, I am a firm believer in child labor.  So whether it’s cleaning up, setting up the table, fetching things for mom & dad, kitchen prep, or simple laundry, we keep them involved in the family chores.  It teaches them responsibility, but we also just need the help.

We hang out mostly with friends who are good with our kids.  This wasn’t a conscious choice.  But we’ve always thought of ourselves as a package.  So if you like hanging out with our kids, can be patient with their volume, and like playing with them too — well, we’re gonna naturally be that much more likely to invite you over.  It’s more fun to hang out with you and, to go back to the adult:kid ratio, the more (helpful) adults around, the easier it is on us.

We genuinely believe children are a gift to be received with wonder and gratitude, not an intrusion into our lives.  I know that sounds way holier-than-thou.  Maybe it is.  But if your primary disposition towards kids is that they’re troublesome, require too much sacrifice, etc…well, obviously having more kids feels that much more of a burden.  But even though they can be a handful at times, we don’t think that they’re in the way of us leading a happy, meaningful life.  Kids are not the antithesis to our dreams.  At the same time, our kids in and of themselves are not the objects our dreams.  My wife and I got married, dreamed big, and our kids are just along for the ride.  We just have to make more room for them.

The grace of God.  At the end of the day, my wife and I were mostly naive about having kids.  We never thought it would be daunting, and so maybe for that reason, it hasn’t felt daunting.  But it’s probably mostly because God has always given us everything we’ve needed — beginning with the first, then second, and now the third son.