It’s not that I failed to notice before the recent events in Missouri that the US carried a lot of racial baggage. During my first three years living here as a grad student from Canada, there was no avoiding the knowledge that I was only one of three Asian students in the creative writing program. In the three years I attended the college, I only had one course where there was another Asian student in the room with me. There were also times when I got the distinct impression that people were surprised when I spoke up during a discussion using English without an Asian accent. I made sure to be especially articulate and intelligent in my contributions so classmates and professors wouldn’t think English was my second language, which it is. I was terrified that fellow writers would read my stories and think that it was written by an Asian, whatever that meant. For the most part, however, I was shielded from prejudice by my circle of enlightened writers, friends, and professors.
But since leaving that hallowed space of intellectual and creative common ground, the pedestrian world of parenthood and ordinary life has introduced me to far less inspired company.
There are the obvious, raging racists. Like the White woman in the supermarket parking lot who said, “Go back to your country you fucking Chink!” after I refused to let her take a spot that I had been waiting for. Or the White man who came out of his truck screaming at me the rules of the road after we got into a minor fender bender, adding, “Welcome to America!”
But more often my run-ins with racists–and yes I will call this group of racists racists; not the raging kind, certainly, but the educated, middle class, rationalizing sort of racists who don’t even realize they are racist–look more like this: a White boy of about six comes up to me and asks where I’m from while his White mother smiles on; the White girl behind the counter in the ladies’ change room at Crane Beach greets the White women walking in and out but she says nothing to me; a neighborhood friend mentions that he should introduce me to a colleague of his…he’s Korean, too, he explains; I’m at the park with my son and the only other mother ignores me pointedly while she immediately strikes up a conversation with another White mother to come along, introducing herself and her kid.
There have been more incidents like these, but these are the ones I remember because they happened recently and in close succession.
With the overtly racist encounters, I get scared. I hurried through my shopping at the supermarket, for instance, because I was afraid that the woman might look for me, pick a physical altercation possibly. I was there with my eight month old. Who knows what an ignoramus with an overblown sense of entitlement and irrational hatred is capable of? A person who shamelessly screams that kind of vitriol and stupidity in public is capable of anything, as far as I’m concerned. A person who screams at a pregnant person involved in a car accident and tells her to essentially go back to where she came from is capable of anything as well, as far as I’m concerned. I get shaken up from encounters like these, but find I can put them behind me fairly quickly because the assholes are obviously idiots.
From the other encounters with racism, the effects have been more insidious and enduring, perhaps because they were quieter and seemed more innocent, and for those reasons I second guess myself. For instance, I find myself reluctant to speak Korean to Henry in public even though one of my biggest goals for my son is to ensure he is bilingual. I don’t want people to look at me and think immigrant, or can’t speak English, or god, what an awful sounding language, I wish she’d shut up, or why doesn’t she speak English, doesn’t she know she’s in America? I find I avoid making eye contact with people, striking up conversations with strangers, or smiling. I don’t feel comfortable walking down the street with my son. I feel people look at me with annoyance or hostility or, worse, surprise, wondering why an Asian is in this White neighborhood. I feel relieved when my husband is with us because I think people will see that I must be able to speak English, that I am White people friendly. Then I wonder if they think he married me because he has yellow fever. I think about that term, “yellow fever,” as if being attracted to Asians is like being infected with a virus—unbidden, unintentional, hopefully transient. I’m glad my son looks more like me than my husband because people won’t assume that I’m his nanny. I wish my son looked more White. One of the several reasons I took my husband’s name after the wedding was because I thought it would make me more appealing when I applied for jobs. (Hairee Lee got me nowhere, not even a phone call. And I wasn’t being paranoid to think that my given name was a significant obstacle to my becoming employed. Just read this blog by a man who finally got a job only after he added “Mr” to his resume. And he had a White name. Now imagine a name that’s not only confusing to pronounce but has an ambivalent gender association and a minority surname. I had little to no chance.) I find myself looking at White people with a low level hum of dread and suspicion. I doubt that the power of imagination is strong enough for any of my White friends and even my White husband to understand where I’m coming from. Even when they evince sympathy, I don’t believe that they can truly know what it feels like to be an Asian in this country.
I’m not imagining the racism behind the instances of bigotry I’ve experienced since moving to the US. Yes, I’ve experienced it in London, while I worked there, and Toronto, my home town. Yes, I’ve met some wonderful people here, that includes wonderful White people. But I’ve never experienced discrimination to this extent and this frequency. I’ve never felt as vulnerable and anxious as I do living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a city, ironically (or very ironically for Professor Gates ), with perhaps the densest population of educated denizens in the country. My experiences are nowhere near the sort of hostility and violence that befalls Blacks in the US, without a doubt, but being anything but White in America is a handicap.
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What has aggravated my reaction to racism since living in the US are my sons and imagining them growing up here. I worry they will grow up in a country that treats them with a veiled, yet intractable prejudice; a country that looks at Asians as having small penises, who are good at math, dry cleaning, and manicures; a country that will more likely publish their mother’s book if it is “ethnic”; a country who will make them identify themselves as either White or Asian with no other boxes available to them; a country that exoticizes Asian women; a country that views Asians as perpetual foreigners (just look at the way the Japanese Americans were treated during World War II–placed in concentration camps, their properties and possessions stolen from them by their own government, all the while the government left the White German Americans alone); a country that will always ask them, “No, really, where are you from originally?”; a country that will view them as people who take away jobs from US citizens and then murder a Chinese man after calling him a Jap and serve no jail time; a country with a miserable coverage of Asians in the media; a country that uses Chinese as a synonym for Asian; a country that stereotypes Asians as model minorities characterized by obedience, subservience, politeness, or, put less politely, weak, harmless, powerless, resulting in Asian children getting bullied by their non-Asian peers. I worry, and one of my sons isn’t even born yet.
Of course, I should count my blessings. Cops won’t shoot my sons for walking down the middle of the street or get hogtied for getting the mail (they’re harmless). Clerks won’t follow them around the store (they’re model citizens). They won’t get shot if they get into a car accident and knock on a door for help (they’re polite). Women won’t clutch their purses and finger their mace when they step into an elevator with them (they have small penises). I don’t feel the need to teach my sons to walk, never run, down the street when they have something in their hand (they obey to the law) or how to behave during a search and frisk (they’re powerless). I don’t have to prioritize obedience over self-reliance in order to keep them alive (they’re already obedient). They’ll live in a country whose employers will probably respond to their requests for interviews because their names look and sound White, and who will be eager to hire them once they see them (they’re subservient), a country whose university professors will probably respond to their requests for guidance because, again, their names look and sound White and male. These are things I don’t have to worry about and I should be grateful. I should be grateful they’re not Black (they’re not obedient or powerless (!)). And what a terrible thing to have to be grateful for.
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I have to make a conscious, daily effort to talk myself out of my defensive state of mind. I don’t want to live like a hostage to my fears. I know it will become a self fulfilling prophesy if I continue to cultivate anxiety and a bitter vibe by holding grudges. Who wants to be nice or helpful or friendly to a guarded, standoffish pregnant woman? Living in fear of discrimination was also making me paranoid. I didn’t know if I was confusing racial hostility with just plain, indiscriminate unfriendliness.
So, I remind myself to smile when I get on a bus or go up to a checkout counter or place my order with the waiter. I look up on the subway or when I’m walking down the street and there are people around. I make eye contract. I speak Korean to my son. And like the dictum by Loyola says–“Perform the acts of faith and faith will come”–acting like I’m okay with the world has made me okay with the world. Also being nausea-free during my second trimester helps to make a sunnier world view.
When Christopher Moltisanti finally believes his girlfriend’s innocence of cuckolding him, he turns to Tony Soprano and says, “It don’t make no difference. Even if it wasn’t true, it’s what people think.” What do you care what people think? You know the truth, says Tony. And Christopher says, “I gotta live in the world.”
Why should I care what people think? I know the truth. But I have to live in the world. My sons have to live in the world.