"Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" ~ Mary Oliver

Tag: prejudice

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.

Who knew?

“braintube”. . .

at cape ann photo, g. evans

I was in the sixth grade when my family moved to Virginia. A boy in the class befriended me for no reason that I could figure out. But I was glad. In those days during the McCarthy era, lots of people looked at anyone from China as a “communist.” The Red Scare was rampant and I felt lucky when I was the butt of racial slurs only once in awhile. For some reason, this boy named J. thought I was smart, even though he was obviously the brightest in the class before I came on the scene. He nicknamed me “braintube,” a salutation that he uses to this day when we write to each other by email, even though we are both grandparents by now. J. is one of the few people that I kept up with from that far back. He worked as a diplomat for the State Department and was posted in various countries, always coming back home with his wife Anne who accompanied him abroad.

In 2008, J. came to a luncheon at a Chinese dim sum restaurant which turned out to be my mother’s last supper with her friends. It occurred in September a few weeks after she had received a diagnosis of cancer in August. All of her friends came to gather one more time. The charm with which he greeted my mother, told us stories and put everyone at ease reminded me once again how much I enjoyed and valued J.’s friendship. My mother died shortly thereafter without pain in early November.

As I thought about that reunion, it occurred to me for the first time that his nicknaming me “braintube” in the sixth grade was akin to parting the Red Sea for me (no pun intended). He was very popular and well-liked when we were twelve years old. And his taking a shine to the new kid–a stranger who was a Chinese girl, no less–made it okay for the others to accept me as one of them. My social assimilation could not have been made easier by Moses! Sometimes it’s hard to tell what strife we might have endured when someone rescues us from potential doom. The thing is, he did it all on his own, maybe not even as consciously aware as I have given him credit for. Maybe it emanated from his southern manners or from his innate diplomatic nature. In any case, it made a big difference in my life! Thanks, J.!