“As with many traumatic experiences, they were anguished by their memories and haunted by shame for something that wasn’t their fault. Shame is a cruel thing. It should rest on the perpetrators but they don’t carry it the way victims do.”
― George Takei, They Called Us Enemy
I pass them frequently on the recreation trails; usually just before sunrise.
Two elderly ladies; they walk close together, shoulder to shoulder, nearly touching.
Another elderly woman toddles along and as I pass we wave to each other.
There’s the couple, at least I think they’re a couple. He walks about ten paces behind the woman, both of them about my age.
The runner; a slender girl with big round eyeglasses. We exchange the customary runner’s nod as she cruises past.
My friend, Michelle. I see her and her yellow lab Duke during the mornings when I get a late start. I stop and as we talk, Duke and Lexi do the doggy greeting; a butt sniff and some tail wagging.
They all have one thing in common; they’re all Asian. They all share the knowledge that Asians have become ground zero.
All of them know me by sight now so I guess I’m not seen as a threat. I wonder how they feel when they approach someone who they’ve never seen before.
What about the Asian people who are seeing me on the trail for the first time. Is there a moment of pause, a gulp, a little twinge of apprehension?
I can’t get inside their heads or feel the rise in pulse. I can’t know what’s in the pit of their stomachs; that place where mistrust and apprehension reside. I can’t fathom the idea of having to calculate the risk of going out for a walk, or getting on a bus, or going to the supermarket.
Reason tells us that if leaving your house puts you at risk of getting attacked then maybe you should just stay home. The problem with that notion is that it’s entirely at odds with American ideals. You know the ones, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are the words so often quoted by the very people who are among the most likely to deny their fellow citizens of those inalienable rights – a denial based on looks, customs, beliefs and lifestyles that aren’t welcome.
The ideals in The Declaration of Independence are no more than hollow words if reality means staying in fortress home.
Is this the America that the founders envisioned?
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,”
It’s awfully hard to breathe free, when you have to think twice about walking through your own neighborhood.
It’s Asians who are huddling now but in America, the land of opportunity, the predators will seize on any convenient opportunity, any excuse, to find a vulnerable group to brutalize.
After September 11th, 2001 and in the fall of 1990 (when the First Gulf War was launched) that dubious opportunity fell on anyone who appeared to be Muslim or Middle Eastern.
The intended target of hate in America in those days might have been Iraqis, but if the guy receiving a beating just happened to be Indian or Egyptian, well, did it really matter? He carried that dark complexion or THOSE facial features. She was wearing a hijab or he was wearing a turban; all trying to import Sharia Law, even if they weren’t even Muslim. In the end the reasoning was, what the hell they’re all the same.
There’s a saying that’s popular among white supremacists. It goes, “Kill them all and let god sort them out.”
Now the hate radar has locked onto Asians and Pacific Islanders. Why? Because a virus that originated in Wuhan, China, has become the burden of anyone of Asian descent; Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Vietnamese. Does it really matter? They all have those eyes, that nose, the dark black hair and that skin color that’s just, well, not white. The virus? That’s just the reason du jour. Virus or no virus, the haters would still hate, still wish those people gone, by whatever means.
The hate radar is constantly sweeping for targets and this is not the first time it’s landed on the Asians.
Nineteenth century immigrants from China came to America either to escape persecution, or to make better lives for themselves through work opportunities, or to try their luck and labor in the gold and silver mines. Seen as competitors and inferiors, they were subjected to discrimination and brutalization.
Fifteen thousand Chinese workers helped to build the Transcontinental Railroad. They were paid less than their white counterparts and forced to live in tents while the white workers lived in dormitory railcars.
Those who came to America to escape persecution soon found that they’d come to the wrong place. Chinatowns sprouted; sanctuaries from systemic and violent racism, havens where residents could practice their religious and societal customs, and trade in goods and services common to their culture.
Racism was codified by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942.
In the 1970’s, a group of Vietnamese refugees who’d fled to America settled in Houston, Texas. When they left Vietnam they carried with them the kind of work ethic that’s born of survival in a nation that had seen decades of war.
Many of the immigrants to Houston took up shrimping, they worked hard, harder than the long time locals, and they quickly became good at shrimping. Local shrimpers viewed the newcomers as unwelcome competition and when tensions came to a head a war broke out. On one side were the locals and the Ku Klux Klan, egged on by a disaffected Vietnam War vet named Louis Beam. On the other side, the Vietnamese shrimpers.
The war was settled in court with the Vietnamese shrimpers prevailing, but it was a demarcation; a point at which white extremism took a hard turn, driven largely by Beam and other vets like him who felt they’d been betrayed by their own government. It was a turn that would follow a road forty years long; one that would lead to the events of January 6th, 2021.
George was in my high school graduating class but we probably would never have met had we not joined the cross country team during our sophomore year.
We became friends at the back of the pack during workouts, wondering to each other why we’d joined a sport that required expensive sneakers, resistance to pain, and a somewhat thick skin to deflect the catcalls and insults hurled at runners during those days before jogging was a thing.
We were good friends but not necessarily great friends. Still we had the unique bond that one can only share with teammates.
George was his given American name. He had a Japanese name that his parents had given him at birth, but George always went by George – at least outside of home.
George’s parents, steeped in tradition, had emigrated from Japan. Maybe even George had emigrated, either in or out of the womb, but that’s something I can’t recall.
The family ran a little mom and pop grocery/bait shop in the area of 2nd Avenue and South Idaho, in San Mateo, California. They lived in the same neighborhood as their store, maybe right upstairs; another misplaced detail.
Unless you know the town and its history, 2nd and South Idaho won’t mean much to you. These were the flatlands that housed the town’s Japanese community; one that began to flourish in the early 20th Century when immigrants arrived to work in the salt ponds and the flower industry. It was on “the other side of the tracks.”
George’s family had arrived after the war; an event that, in 1969, was still fresh in the minds of the so-called Greatest Generation and their children. Maybe that’s one reason why George was something of a quiet kid, the result of an admonishment from his parents to lay low and not get on the white people’s radar.
Or maybe it was just George’s nature.
George came to my house in the hills above San Mateo on a number of occasions. He’d stay for dinner or lunch and we’d hang out in my room and listen to music and talk about school or girls or what a pain in the ass our coach was. Mom used to comment about George being a quiet kid.
When I got my first car, a ‘64 Chevy Nova hand me down from my parents, George and I cruised El Camino Real on Friday nights, listening to Santana at jet plane decibel levels. We stopped for burgers at A&W and to admire the carhops; girls who were untouchable for us, as they all seemed to have football player boyfriends.
At school we critiqued teachers, procrastinated on term papers, pissed and moaned about cafeteria food and got kicked out of the library for being too noisy.
Here’s the thing about George, the really, simple, basic, down to Earth thing: he was just a regular high school kid, just like all the other high school kids.
Certainly he was different at home. But weren’t all of us different at home?
George’s parents were Buddhist, something that he didn’t really have any truck with. They ate Japanese food, maybe with chopsticks. They spoke Japanese at home. They led their own legit, harmless lives.
None of it was anybody’s business.
Just like it wasn’t anybody’s business that my mom was Catholic, and went to church on Sundays while I stayed home watching football, and my parents gave me a splash of wine with our Italian dinner, and we often spoke Italian at home.
And it wasn’t anybody’s business that the guy next door was a Brit, and when they came home from playing, his kids had to get naked on the back porch and head straight to the bathtub, and once they were squeaky clean they didn’t eat with mom and dad, they ate afterwards. Their mom went to some Protestant Church, I don’t recall which it was – it really wasn’t my business.
And it wasn’t anybody’s business what the Dutch family across the street did in the privacy of their home, except maybe for the eldest daughter who used to swap spit with her boyfriend on the front porch in front of god and everyone.
George was just a regular guy but then, as now, there were some people who took exception to his particular family’s customs. Something un-American about them; their food, their eating utensils, their language; oh and that religion bereft of the bearded white guy on a cross.
The notion of a cultural melting pot or salad is just fine and dandy, but there are some things, different sounding things, different looking things and different ways of acting that just don’t seem to belong in a crucible or a salad bowl.
It was 2015, and I’d known Marques for twelve or so years when I told him, “I don’t think it’s going to get THAT bad,”
Marques is a Black man who I’d met at a tavern in nearby Pinole. I can’t remember what originally got us talking to each other, but we soon became barroom buddies. We had two things in common; we were both high school coaches and we claimed the same politics.
2015. Donald Trump declared his candidacy. Marques was predicting the end of life as he knew it, while I downplayed Trump as a sideshow. I told Marques that he was exaggerating. Trump could never be elected and even in the odd event that he was, how much damage could Trump really do?
How much damage? We’ll be making repairs for years if not decades.
From the start, Trump set his malevolent sights on just about every minority that suited his deflections.
For most of Trump’s term it seemed that the Asian Community might be spared much of Trump’s cruelty.
And then; China Virus, Kung Flu. The President of the United States turned the wrath of a nation on a group of people who had no more to do with the pandemic than the guy down the block mowing his lawn. How convenient that an entire group of people became available as a distraction from a horribly failed policy; one that resulted in needless death and economic devastation.
Trump helped to turn the virulent clock back to the 19th century when Asians found a haven in the Chinatowns of America. This time though Chinatown is hardly a refuge. Chinatown has become a target rich environment for the coward looking to prey on an elderly victim.
I’ve learned a lot since 2015. I learned that Marques’ fears were well founded. He often told me during discussions, sometimes heated, that I, a middle aged white guy, had nothing to fear, that I couldn’t possibly comprehend his despair.
Marques was right. He was right about Trump and right about my lack of comprehension.
I learned that Marques has something that I’ve never possessed; a burden that I’ve never carried – the experience of being a target.
In just the last few weeks, as the terms kung flu and China virus have infected the social environment to an intolerable, unavoidable high, I’ve learned two new lessons.
Eden Baylee is a writer who lives in Toronto, Canada. I guess it was in December of last year that I read one of her posts about a Chinese funeral. I commented, she responded, and then she read one of my posts and commented.
Since then we’ve become friends.
Eden is Asian-Canadian.
Eden and I have talked about race, both in public posts and comments, and privately through emails.
A few days ago Eden wrote a post titled, Growing Up Asian in a Racist World about her own experiences with racism; ones that go back to her childhood.
She was moved to write the post by a particularly brutal attack which took place in New York, one in which a 65 year old Filipino woman was knocked down and then stomped in the face.
Eden writes that the attack, “was the final straw for me.”
“I don’t know why viewing that particular attack shut me down,” she continues.
Eden’s piece is a powerful one, longer than most of her posts, and that’s a good thing because there’s so much that can be taken from it.
There are stories of her own experiences, from the “slanted-eye gestures” she endured as a child to a slur that was hurled at her in the early days of the pandemic; an event that, as Eden recalls, “rattled me for days.”
Allow me a little bit of a sidestep here.
Stories of racism have nearly always come to me from strangers or through the news; always filtered through the thick glass of distance, third parties and anonymity.
I think of anger as the common, most understandable, response to these reports. Those in my demographic watch and feel rage but pain doesn’t touch us. We’re insulated by the whiteness of our skin or by our “Christianity” or our “straightness,” or what we like to call our “normalcy.”
Eden’s story changed that. Eden’s voice is a personal one and while I don’t doubt the veracity of other stories of racism her story brings it closer and the pain more perceptible.
Since she published her piece on April 1st, I’ve read the entire post a few times over, but every time I find myself returning to the same places, the ones that have affected me the most.
“all I can feel as I write this is pain. And if I can’t get rid of the pain by writing down what is true to me, a part of me thinks I should just stop writing altogether. I started this blog in the morning with half a box of tissues and countless used ones crumpled on the floor full of my tears and snot. It was gross, but I didn’t fucking care. I would wash my hands and sanitize everything later.”
“It’s evening now, and my box of tissues is almost empty..”
This hurt my heart. It still hurts my heart; hurts to where I still fight back tears as I write this – days later.
It comes from a place I don’t know. As Eden tells it, “coming from somewhere deeper in me, and all I can feel as I write this is pain.”
I will never be able to know the hurt because I have the insulation that I was born with. I will never know the frustration of not knowing the answer to the simple, “Why?”
Why her? Why people who look like her?
This is the part of the white privilege that doesn’t get talked about so much; the one that’s different from opportunity or standard of living. It’s the privilege of not having to deal with the fear, the frustration, the pain and not having to carry around the unanswered “why.”
I also learned that words matter. Oh, we’ve learned about the power of words since 2015 when Donald Trump declared his candidacy; learned it over and over again, all of it in the negative sense.
But I’ve learned it in a positive sense. Over the course of the past month I’ve reached out to some Asian friends, checking on them to see how they’ve been holding up. For a long time I hesitated to reach out because I reckoned that it was superfluous. What good would, “Are you okay,” and “I’m sorry this is happening,” really do?
The gesture wasn’t as superfluous as I’d expected. My messages of support were received with words of thanks and appreciation. Reaching out is, as Eden put it, being “an ally.” It’s part of standing up “for marginalized and racialized people.”
If you know somebody who is “marginalized and racialized”, reach out, be an ally. It’s the least we can do.
“All these years I kept my true nature hidden, running along like a small shadow so nobody could catch me.
― Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club
Eden’s entire post can be found on her website. Please follow the link.
Banner Photo: Mural in Oakland, California, by Emily Ding, titled “Dizzy.”