Bonus Child

I explode. Here are the fragments put together by another me.

-Franz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks


My partner’s daughter is white. 

Her hair is thin and nutty, the kind I was nervous to braid growing up, afraid the girls would cry if I pulled too hard. Mine is black and sheds all over the house like the tail of a dying ferret. From time to time she’ll find a strand, hold it up and say, “You’re everywhere.” When she smashes her forehead against mine, she announces that my eyes are super dark. Hers are the shallow end of a Sicilian beach, which is where we go in pretend-summer, in the afternoon of her room. In the real summer I slather sunscreen on her Alsatian limbs while I bake into a gentler shade of rotisserie chicken next to a lifeguard barking Achtung! at a lake swarming with platinum heads. 

Margaux is seven and a half now. We’ve known each other for over five years. She calls me her “bonus mom” since the prefix step-, in old English, is rooted in mourning, and designates replacement. It’s all still zero-sum math: finite equations that negate states of flow. 

At times I still don’t know if I’m a mom. What do mothers feel? When I hold her hand, there’s a rocketing tenderness—and then, like a relay, the black tag of fraud. The emotions are inextricable. It’s as if I was forced to steal something that belonged to someone else and apologized by loving it. In immigrant terms: I know I’m not supposed to be here, but I’ll make it worth your time. 

The feelings are there when I pass for her mother. They are there when it’s made very clear I do not. But maybe it’s not about feelings. Maybe all of this is about something else. 

I rationalize my conflicting emotions by observing my set of fixed conditions: I am Chinese-American, living in Western Europe. Naturally, the image of us walking down the street lends itself to pause or at least imagination. But lately I’ve become suspicious of my own tropes, bored of my own rantings that have begun to taste like canned identity food from the internet. Perhaps another way of putting it is that I’ve begun to headbutt another truth that troubles me much more and seems almost impossible to hold. It’s easier to trash fairytales and racism than it is to face the simplicity of my conundrum: that I’ve inherited the defunct reality of a stranger’s manifest desire. Here, a small body someone else wanted, someone else produced. And now: Must I desire the outcome of that person’s choice? How can I learn to desire something I never imagined? 

I just mean: what the fuck do I want?

1. How can a child feel like empire?

I met Margaux in a sandbox the September before the pandemic. She was two and a half; my partner and I had been together for five months. I was also two and a half when I first met my father, and this fact makes me feel falsely, preemptively close to her. On a late September day, we met at a playground in neither of our neighborhoods. I found her and my partner at the edge of a sandpit, playing with shovels. There was neither shock nor symphony upon seeing a smaller genetic variant of him; just a curiosity more akin to meeting parents. I watched from a safe distance like an anthropologist: Margaux, growing out of a bowl cut, wore a navy down jacket with leggings under a dress. She shoveled sand. “Wow,” my partner responded. I was struck by a conjugal mix of boredom and need, the way you stare down the grammar of a new language. Already, the image was one I immediately understood would demand from me interpretation, skill, and most of all, labor. 

Later I learned that the sandbox was invented by a Prussian: the pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel installed them all over Berlin, where we live, in a fit of Romantic euphoria in the middle of the 19th century. A couple decades later, sand gardens made it to the east coast of the US, where I would grow up, while Fröbel’s government colonized my grandparents’ hometown with a good plumbing system and pilsner. (When Germany suffered intense flooding in the summer of 2021, some Chinese netizens asked whether the country had left its sewage tools back in Qingdao.) 

It became clear to me, as I approached their hunched figures, that a process had begun. I knew that once I entered the sandbox, the borders of everything would glitch. I would have to reorient myself in relation to who I was in context of the two white figures in the sand, already boxed off like somebody’s plot of land. And who were they to me? What would I become? This fear produced in me a violent reflex to make a good impression on another civilization. Suddenly, I was focused on appearing harmless, fluent, and beautiful. I fussed with my hair and moved toward them as naturally as I could. 

Later I thought: What would be an unnatural movement?

What is natural about anything? 

Salut, I heard myself greeting her. 

2. What language does motherhood speak?

Between the three of us, English is the lingua franca. It’s the language my partner and I use with one another, though he speaks Hungarian to Margaux. She gets French from her mother and takes home German from school, reminding me that she is a reliable descendant of the First World War. (I imagine the same linguistic cacophony when the Eight Nation Alliance invaded northern China in 1900: my childhood’s yodeling patriarch, Georg Ludwig von Trapp of the Sound of Music, was decorated for bravery aboard an Austro-Hungarian ship in Tianjin.)

When I met her, we faced a deeply existential bureaucratic problem: whose language do we speak? (Is it fair to ask: who is immigrating?) I could manage in two of her three, but she knew none of mine. My mother tongue is Chinglish, which is more like hopscotch, or a whack-a-mole of words that forms from the instability of knowledge. I cut that tongue out with prudence and sorrow, and chose French over German, the way I’d pick a corset over handcuffs. 

French: a self-project I began in middle school, convinced it would elevate my view of the world. During university, I went to Paris to be at point source. I wanted to rewire my reflexes and gestate the sounds, the way imitation strives, psychotically, to beget another person. I occupied the guest room of a bourgeois family in the 16th arrondissement, where Benjamin Franklin stayed for nine years during the American Revolutionary War. When the grandmother wanted wine, she called the cousin from the flat above to descend and pour it for her. The son, in his early 40s, was nursing a breakup and spent most days locked in the computer room circle-breathing Marlboro Reds. The mother was a magistrate and full-time ghost; there was a father, or a partner, although this distinction remained unclear during sitting-room aperitifs, which were spectacles I entered thinking there were stage cues. 

Paris showed me, through a process of corporeal grammar, the distinction between learning French as an immigrant and speaking French as a subject. I realized I was Orientale, that chopsticks were baguettes, and hot pot, the Sichuan staple, was called Chinese fondue. I saw Yuan Dynasty scrolls in the Louvre without asking their provenance. In bars I danced to autotune trash with French students, who would beam at me with the glow of youth and goodwill, then drunkenly shout, “THIS IS PERFECT! ALL WE WERE MISSING WAS AN ASIAN CHICK DOING AN ORIENTAL DANCE!” and bow deeply to give me the floor. There was nothing particular about such situations there versus the States, or Germany, or any other place, really. It was rather a strange, new feeling I was rushing toward—something akin to narcissism or an intimacy with the original image of my orientalized self. Anyone who has fantasized and been an object of fantasy knows this: the abject girth of your body in someone’s imagination. 

The result was, unbeknownst to me then, that years later I would understand everything Margaux said—yet whatever came out would make me feel, absurdly, pressed under her little thumb, as if her open mouth froze me into a china doll. 

Perhaps it was a small price to pay. She picked up English in under a year. There, in it, I have the freedom of the clown: I am Chaplin, or Elmo, or the queen of England. There is no mother or native. Its blankness as the greatest common denominator offers us pidgin and play. She requests an extreme French accent when we draw so I can pontificate about fine art in character. She finds it uproarious and is aghast she can’t do it herself, despite the fact that she’s French. I can’t do a Chinese accent either, I tell her, and when she asks why, I shrug and figure it probably has to do with hearing things at greater distance.  

3. What does it mean to be comfortable?

Whiteness, the theorist Sara Ahmed writes, is a bad habit. It’s a series of actions that are repeated, forgotten, and that allow some bodies to take up space by restricting the mobility of others. White bodies are not the ones getting “stressed” at points of encounter with others. They do not have to confront their whiteness. Space becomes theirs as they make everything in it extensions of themselves, incorporating both objects and others. The pandemic had done many things, but it foremost changed the meaning of place entirely: there was now delineation of danger, and it was made very clear to me where my body stood. 

A few weeks before going into lockdown with Margaux and my partner, a Vietnamese neighbor received a mailbox full of used ‘Corona tissues.’ A retiree on the street told me it was shit what I’d done, bringing disease to Germany, and another shoved me from my seat in the metro. After I woke up to “CHINA VIRUS” scrawled on a poster outside, I thought about removing my name from the door. Then a white man murdered six Asian women in Atlanta in one go to cure his sex addiction, while my American friends sent photos of mochi-white nephews smelling hydrangeas at a beach club, as if we didn’t know, whatsoever, how to talk to each other. 

 Meanwhile, the flat my partner had just moved into still housed the previous inhabitants’ stuff. The old tenants were friends of Margaux’s biological mother and had sold croissants for a living. Cookbooks clogged every orifice: Cuisine de Chine! Japon Gourmand! On the shelves, Michel Houellebecq’s entire career aged between a book about Chinese women and a stack of sauce recipes from the Second Empire. In the back room, an illustrated kid’s book on art featured a page of slit-eyed Asian tourists taking selfies with The Scream. The only thing adorning the living room walls were two maps: the vineyards of France, and on the opposite flank, the chicken-shaped country where I was born. Ahmed: we can return here to the domestication of the Orient. 

Out of boredom and morbid fascination, we raided a photo album of their travels across my birth country, titled ON VA DÉGUSTER!, which translates roughly to WE’RE GOING TO TASTE IT! and patently equates experience with consumption. Lodged between selfies of bun-steaming with locals was a used pregnancy test that guillotined the afternoon. 

The person I had become began talking to the person I was. In fits of loneliness, I dug out books from my past that were suddenly en vogue again. In the white world, the man of color encounters difficulties in elaborating his body schema, Frantz Fanon wrote. The image of one’s body is solely negating. It’s an image in the third person. Didn’t I see it there, when I had first read those lines in France? I’d lived with a white family then, I was living with a white family now, except this time it was mine. What did it mean, ‘mine’? Decolonize space!, everyone cried. But what if the external living room matched the inner one? How could I find freedom in my situation?

I became paranoid. I preemptively told acquaintances that I hadn’t pushed her out of my cervix. I enunciated the timeline of my relationship with her father, as if to clarify that I technically wasn’t the Other Woman, and the fact that I framed my own presence in ethical terms disturbed me. On the street I watched people watching us. What were they thinking? My mind growled, I was alone, I was back in Paris. 

Eight months later the inhabitants came back to take the furniture and claim their nineteenth-century garbage. 

And? the French man asked me with expectant glee. How did you find the flat?

Trop bien, I replied. 

4. What’s a choice?

I decided a few years ago I didn’t want children. I thought about whether it was the child or the nuclear family I didn’t want, but in the end, spending the majority of your day bartering inner and outer realms seemed like an exhausting life. I wanted less buffer between myself and the world. Perhaps because my own parents were unhappy, or that I simply didn’t want the responsibility—if only I had a kinship structure that let me raise a child the way I wanted, beyond the house and trinity, but I don’t; I was in love with a cis man, and he had a child. 

What good was my choice for now?

Someone with a degree in psychology tells me: you don’t have a moral obligation to parent her. I stare at him because I don’t understand the verb. Where is the line between parenting and not-parenting? What is my moral obligation to this child? I shower and dress her, sometimes, not always—in the bathtub we gab a lot about teeneagers and periods, though I’m not obliged to—we craft oversize cat-mermaid cutouts and listen to Olivia Rodrigo, which is undoubtedly premature; she’s still afraid of the vampires in that video. I tell her to clean up, though I’m not obliged to. When she throws tantrums about tights, I sit with her through her feelings about tights, though I’m not obliged to, and when she’s an asshole, I suck in my rage so we can work out a problem. I do it because I want to, but on the back of that want is a blurrier surface muddied by a fear that if I don’t, the orbit, later, might spin out, because look what we’re up against. 

Out of the blue, Margaux says to me at the kitchen table one morning: A bonus mom is just like a mom. I put the coffee on, and kiss her forehead. She looks at me intently, smelling like dried saliva and sleep. Then asks: What’s a mom? 

5. What are we up against?

One day, my partner sends me a photo of Margaux, back from holiday in France, wearing a qipao. The qipao is the most recognizable traditional Chinese dress, originating in the Qing Dynasty and made popular in Shanghai in the 1920s. My partner sends it without comment, and I sit for a moment, interpreting the image. The silk is gossamer white. There’s faint blue embroidery with the trademark buttons snaking toward the collar, where her head begins. She is drawing something on the table. My feelings arrive very immediately but then grow quiet, as if I have to think about whether they are true. My long-gone grandmother had taken me to get one tailored during a sweltering summer in Shanghai, where a Chinese acupuncturist fixed my scoliosis with a full pew of needles. There’s a picture of the two of us in matching qipao, looking like a postcard for descendants. If I had a hypothetical daughter who looked like me, I suppose I’d get her one too, if she liked it, though I’m not keen on folk dress. Instead, a white mother had allowed her white daughter one, and the sweet girl was parading it at a time when my own face was getting me in trouble on the street. 

The dress disappeared by the time I came over the next day. My partner had it confiscated after she stained it at dinner, and when she demanded it for school the next day, told her it had disappeared in the wash. 

The lie sat there sacrificing her joy for—what? What was the dress doing, as an object? And so: did my pain come from seeing her as I had seen yellowface and all the other costumed white girls (if she were Asian, would that same dress cause any pain at all?) or the fact that it wasn’t me who’d given her the dress, that it had been a white European woman who referred to me as a whore? 

Once, I told a white acquaintance that if I were to ever have children, I would adopt. “From China?” she asked reflexively. I was offended. Why would she consign me to a particular ethnicity of baby? What did she interpret of my desire? I replied tightly that I wouldn’t assume so. But the truth was that I hadn’t considered it, because I hadn’t decided to adopt, and the absurdity of choosing a child would only occur to me when I saw Margaux in a qipao.  If I had adopted her—if I had chosen her—would I feel entitled to dress her in one simply because I had made the decision to raise her? 

Is this about permission or pain? 

Here’s a plot twist. 

In this European house I’ve slanted, I’m not the only Asian woman. Margaux’s French uncle is married to a Chinese woman, and they have a daughter. The chances of me meeting her are below sea-level, but they’re sweet together, I’m told. Looks like you need one of them too, Margaux’s mother had seethed at my partner during an argument once. They had been talking about neither her sister-in-law, nor me. We were simply narrative foils, as the use of ‘them’ of course implies that there’s an ‘us.’ The white man with the Asian woman is a relationship that does not exist without justification—or as the scholar Robin Zheng writes, “a deviation that demands explanation,” and thus requires imagination. It will raze the possibility of love to fetish, which turns me into an object. 

But yellow fever is just the sexy niece of Yellow Peril, a phrase coined in the 1897 essay La Péril Jaune, written by the sociologist Jacques Novicow in Margaux’s mother tongue, to encourage European colonization of China. This narrative, writes the scholar Wing-Fai Leung, “blends western anxieties about sex, racist fears of the alien other, and the Spenglerian belief that the West will become outnumbered and enslaved by the East.” Where I grew up, this notion became the axis of a system that exploited Asians to build its railroads, refused them entry and citizenship on the basis of race, and lynched them by the dozen on streets named Calle de Los Negros. The Atlanta murders were referred to by the police chief of Cherokee County, on stolen land, as the events of ‘a bad day.’ 

I think about Margaux’s aunt a lot. I wonder how she feels. I’m rarely in a good mood in France, so I project empathy onto her sharper moments. But maybe she is nothing like me. Anyway she has her own daughter, whom she parents according to her own values. When Margaux comes home pulling the corners of her eyes to show me what her grandfather said sumo wrestlers look like, whose moral obligation is it to take down the natural order? Who tells her that the game rock, paper, scissors should not be called ching, chang, chong, the way German kids learn in school? 

The obvious answer is my partner. 

But my partner is a grown white man. Who educates him? 

What have I done, inviting society into my house?

6. What’s the difference between passing and trespassing?

In Leslie Jamison’s essay on becoming a stepmother, she recalls the sense of fraud she felt in the early days. Taking her stepdaughter out for ice cream, she overhears the other mothers chastising her behind her back: “What kind of parent gets her child that much ice cream?” 

I usually bide my time in ice cream lines by ballparking what people think my relationship is to Margaux, who is clutching my hand like a best friend while she zeros in on the one with the highest concentration of food coloring. This is a flavor called “Schlumpf,” which happens to be a cartoon race. It looks like radioactive Smurf waste and tastes like moon sugar. 

“I wanted to make the stranger feel ashamed,” Jamison writes of the moment. “To speak back to the maternal superego she represented, to say: What kind of mother? A mother trying to replace a dead one.” Here’s where she and I differ: post-fraud, I do a victory lap. I squeeze my white daughter’s hand and buy myself two scoops of Schlumpf-race ice cream. When the cashier hands it to me saying here’s mommy’s scoop! I rejoice in the evidence that I have naturalized, and then realize something far more acrid, which is that I am celebrating the joy of passing. I don’t correct them. Isn’t it at least a little bit true, and doesn’t that make the assumption a little fair? 

Yet when I eat the victory, the sprinkles on the Schlumpf scoop fall like late words onto the sidewalk and my brain freezes at Fanon’s lines, read on a step around Trafalgar Square when I was 20: she asks for nothing, demands nothing, except for a little whiteness in her life.

7. Who is Margaux’s mother?

Margaux’s biological mother is three years older than I am. She grew up in Alsace, and uses pads when she menstruates. Like me she has fillings in both rows of molars, and gets gassy from Brussels sprouts. Her first crush was named Gilles. She prefers tea to coffee in the morning, and when she makes butter pasta for Margaux, she doesn’t mix the pat in, just lets it sit there to melt. These details I picked up from Margaux, like static electricity. 

She also refuses to formally meet me, and when I’m present, avoids eye contact and English. She simply behaves as if I was not there. It’s painful in the way being ignored is painful, but there’s also an element of awe, to feel the surface of someone’s will so bare. Such moments afford me observation: up close, she exudes the skittish, single-minded energy of a woodpecker. Her hair, now closely cropped, is going white in a patch by her ear. Why are you here? were her first words to me, hissed during a handoff at a playground long ago. 

For years I dreamt about her. She never appeared as herself, always foreign bodies I was shocked to find manifesting her personhood, as if my imagination couldn’t turn itself off. Once she wore overalls and a glowstick necklace, another time she had the face of a partisan I had seen on Instagram. I was always needing something from her: to talk, to witness me and Margaux, happy together, but she never does; she gets off the train and walks away. Poor woman, I often think in waking life. Vile woman, I think in other times. After five years, why is she still so hostile? Can’t she see that we’re women, we’re supposed to be on the same team? 

Stupid! my own mother cried, without a lick of thinking. 

8. What makes something natural?

I like to think that I was also born to Margaux. I didn’t really exist for her until the sandbox, and then I did, and then we became conscious of each other. Isn’t that what birth is? A sudden, violent presence? Neither of us chose the other. Trying to define motherhood, like trying to define choice, is missing the point. It’s a trick question that makes us unfree, that locks up our time trying to answer it. What we are to each other is perhaps in the becoming, in the mysterious drive of games, like Can-You-Draw-My-Hand, which began simply enough when she was three: she’d slam her palm across a page of my notebook and I’d trace her fingers. At first they were normal hands. She liked to see her imprint on my page. But soon the mutations began—hammerhead thumb, pizza nail. Then there were forests, amoeba and houses with lake-lain backyards coming off her fingers like a former empire. Her little feet would duck-shuffle with anticipation every time.

You’re doing something verrrrry special, she’d hype, barely able to contain herself. 

Oh yeah, I promise. It’s gonna be really good.

She’d lift her hand for the great reveal and laugh uproariously, every time, as if I had the magic to transform a part of her, like we’d gone to a mezzanine kingdom, she and I, and got barfed out the other side with an accidental hay that made us high and possessed with newfound knowledge. 

She never tired of it. I drew a cliff, a coral reef, a burning house. 

“Encore!” she’d shout, and I’d begin again.

Fertility Facts

The double line of an at-home pregnancy test cannot predict the future.


You’ve been conditioned to witness the miraculous—seen every medical marvel flash before your eyes one thousand times on-screen—doesn’t she watch Untold Stories from the E.R.?