We did an exercise. A poem with I am from. I’ve done it before with SheLoves. There’s something kind of like it on my About page. But this is what I learned about myself. I am from white also, but not only.
I was a girl who believed herself to be unlike the others.
I had dirty secrets and broken places and I could never force the jagged bits down smoothly when I pushed up against the fringes of the gathered ones.
I would approach tentatively and stand at the edges dipping my toes into hope, praying to be noticed and invited in. And sometimes I’d rehearse in my mind the words that would gain me entrance and my heart would pound in my ears and I’d swish my tongue across dry lips and look for an opening to belong. I’d push the words out high and strangled and they’d fall between us and land heavy on the ground, and my eyes would seek refuge in the tangled knots of my shoelaces as they inched back and the red heat would climb from my chest up into my cheeks and stain me crimson and I’d mumble something about needing to be somewhere and their eyes would all slide off me like I was never there at all.
I learned not to use my voice or speak up.
It was easy really. I raised my hand when it was expected and when I knew there was a right and wrong answer independent of opinion. I never wanted to be caught explaining myself. I got A’s in my classes partly because I could always do the work and partly because my teachers expected nothing less of the Asian kids.
Grades didn’t mean a whole lot, my parents wanted us to learn to think. We read and talked a lot at home but in the world, I learned to hush it up in my bones.
My parents were proud of me but no one in my family had a college degree until my mom went to night-school in my teens to become a nurse. She was the first and to this day, only one to get a college degree.
My dad had an 8th grade education and was born into white skin and blue eyes under the South Carolina sunshine. He came wailing into the cold hard poor where being white and being raised on the wrong side of the tracks didn’t get you far. He was born into a life devoid of soft spaces, and dreams were as scarce as food. But there was still a pride instilled that at least they were better than those blacks. He was told as a child to never come home if he was caught playing with them n#@^#’s. My great-grandfather had Klan ties and shot a black man who he claimed was harassing my great-aunt. My dad was a boy and saw the whole thing.
He left home sometime shortly after dropping out of 7th grade and got himself into heaps of trouble. But this was also the man who met Jesus while hitchhiking and lost and married my half Japanese-half Korean mother and who introduced me to Dr. John Perkin’s writing and Thurgood Marshall. I read Letter from a Birmingham Jail and wondered how people could be so blind.
We watched Sidney Poitier in Separate but Equal and talked about Plessy vs. Ferguson. I knew of Emmett Till and Jim Crow and I cried my way through To Kill a Mockingbird in 4th grade because I recognized the evil that was in the world. The racism that could say at least we’re better than the blacks. But I, like my father, believed the good won and the civil rights movement, under the leadership of so many courageous folks, had ended that battle. I believed I would’ve been on the right side of that war if I was born into those hate-filled days.
It’s easy to say that when you look back on things.
It’s easy to believe yourself heroic and principled until you’re asked to be uncomfortable or hated.
I believe in my heart, that had my father been alive today, he would’ve admitted that for all he got right, he was wrong about some things too. He had the humility to see people and to love cultures, he did. But the work of his roots, my roots, can’t just be dug up and discarded. You have to plant something new in its place or a void takes over. That void can strangle the life right out of you.
There are places I went lifeless and hushed.
Because race is complicated and all the while I believed that the times I was stereotyped, or called names like chink, or gook, or Ching Chong China girl, were individual to me.
I believed racism was black and white and mostly over in America except in some obvious individuals. I believed racism could go any which way and that we all benefitted from being colorblind.
But I was as foreign to some white folks as that amalgamation of studious Asian kids with straight black hair and foreign things in their lunch boxes. They were all one thing, one type. Their parents spoke in foreign tongues and halted english at the parent teacher conferences, sometimes their kids would translate. There were so few Asian Americans at my school and they seemed so other than me. I was glad I wasn’t like them. I was embarrassed for them.
But white people didn’t differentiate like I wanted them to.
“Where are you really from?”
“Your mom speaks good english.”
“Yes, she was born in Hawaii,” I’d say.
I’d think, I’m just like you. But I wasn’t. Because I was white also, not only.
I had white friends and I knew better than to bring Kim Chee in my lunch. I begged for money for pizza or Lunchables even though the crackers were stale and bland and there was always a hunger in me that wasn’t quite filled. I didn’t tell anyone that home was spam and seaweed and a rice pot always plugged in on the counter.
I look in the mirror today and am learning to see all of the parts of me, of my story. I look at the places I’ve failed and the places that have failed me. Some days I even think I’ve gotten pretty good at starting my own circle of gathered ones, all the ones rejected or unseen who then found refuge in a new place to belong. But mostly, I feel other.
I stumbled into blogging half backwards and upside down. I thought it would be something else entirely but writing gave me a language for my scars, a way to navigate down deep to the roots. Some things need digging up, some things need watering and nourishment, and a bit of light shone on them to grow.
This is a three, maybe four part series on my blog. I’m telling a longer story but instead of hurling 5,000 words at you, I’m going to spread them out in this series. I’m going somewhere with all of this. I’d love it if you’d join me as I tell this story, my story.
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