I See Red when You See Green

BY ALEX AU
May 17, 2009
*Special to asia!

"Stupid or what?" the father said to his son.

"Can't you see what I'm pointing at?"

 

They were a family of four with what many would consider a dream configuration: father, mother, nine-year old boy and five-year old girl. They had just come into this Chinese dessert shop after dinner.

With nostalgia making a comeback, the place was outfitted in the traditional style with wooden tables and stools. In the old days, the items would be inscribed on pieces of wood and hung on the menu wall. In this modern reincarnation, it was printed on pieces of A4 paper. Most were green, but the "specials" for the day or week were printed on sheets of a different colour.

Father was trying to convince his son to try one of the specials -- the one in the centre, on a pink piece of paper. The only pink one.

"Which one?" the boy asked.

"The pink one," said the father.

"Where?"

"How many pink ones are there?"

"Pink?" the boy was almost whispering.

"Can't you see? Don't you know what pink is? Stupid or what?"

And that's when I saw the problem.

The boy was colour-impaired. He was among the minority who have a hard time distinguishing shades of red from green I have seen that particular pink and green before -- in the Ishihara colour test. That they feature in the color test, tells to me that those are the very colours this minority have the greatest difficulty with.

Among Chinese and East Asians, about 3-5% of males are red-green impaired. The percentage is higher among those of European descent. It's a genetically-linked condition, and since the gene in question lies on the X chromosome, it is much more frequently expressed in males, who only have one X-chromosome, than in females, who have two. If a boy inherits a faulty gene, he does not have a back-up gene. They do not have a second X-chromosome to supply one, whereas girls do. That's why red-green impairment is well under 1% among females.

Through that evening, the father never realised what the problem was. He might have concluded that his son was just plain stubborn. But one day it will dawn on him and his wife.

They will try to get their heads around the fact that their son will never see colour the way they do. They will blame themselves -- for was it not due to their genes? They will wonder if certain professions might forever be ruled out from the boy's future.

Fortunately, colour blindness is a relatively minor impairment. The boy will almost surely do just fine.

The boy never ordered the special, too young perhaps to appreciate traditional Chinese desserts. He chose a concoction of strawberries, pineapple and kiwifruit on ice. Whether the strawberries or kiwi looked green or pink, in the end didn't matter. To son and father -- who couldn't resist digging into the boy's bowl too -- they tasted the same.

 

alex au

Alex Au is a social and political commentator, gay activist and entrepreneur. He has his own website www.yawningbread.org