who knew? . . .
Guess what? I’m Chinese. I’ve been Chinese all my life too, ever since I was born in Chungking during a Japanese air raid, as the story goes. For awhile, I lived with my paternal grandparents in their ancient house in Peking. My grandfather was Dean of Religion at the University and was also active with the World Council of Churches. I came to the States when I was five and landed in a country where the three dialects of Chinese that I spoke didn’t apply anymore. I learned English on the fly and also how to take care of myself because everyone around me had lots to do on their own.
Growing up during the McCarthy era was a challenge. So much so, that I grew an invisible set of armor that saw me through most of my life, like Colgate’s “Gardol,” an invisible shield to protect teeth from cavities. Even though I was subject to name calling, that kind of overt racism was easier to take than the covert kind. You know, those people who want to accept other ethnic groups but can’t seem to let go of their own sense of superiority. When I was visiting my first husband’s family in the Midwest, a woman in a grocery store remarked to my future father-in-law that “she has such nice teeth,” as though I were a horse or some kind of livestock at an animal auction.
I wouldn’t even be talking about this in a post except that it happened to me again this week. A former classmate from the Ivy League school I went to came for lunch at the cottage and managed to be so rude as to puzzle me afterwards. During lunch, she mentioned that even though she knew that blacks, gays and lesbians were socially acceptable nowadays, that she couldn’t get past the “training she received as a five-year-old.” She sounded like she didn’t really want to outgrow racist attitudes and even sounded like she was a little proud of it! Later on the drive home, it occurred to me that her behavior might have been an outgrowth of wanting to be superior to me because I happened to be a minority ethnic group. Or maybe it was something else, I have no idea. It did bring back how isolated I had felt so many years ago as a scholarship student among a bevy of well-to-do princesses.
The more I thought about this, the angrier I became with myself. For being so naive and trusting as to ignore the possibility that this kind of covert discrimination had been ever present all my life. Or that who I was as a person and my abilities were insufficient to offset this kind of prejudice from people I thought were my FRIENDS. On the other hand, what good would it have done to acknowledge it then? Maybe I might have seen rejection more clearly. Anyhow, I am writing about what has become a very uncomfortable realization: that life is not fair and that people do care about what your race is.