One day a kid in my kindergarten class pulls out a tray of alphabetic blocks. He bothers me but I can’t remember what he said. I go off in the corner to get a little distance, but in memory it’s all approximate. My father drives me home with my older brother in the car. He claims the school called to say I had punched someone at school. He is proud of me. I have the distinct knowledge this never happened. I have never punched anyone in the face but I also know it’s making my dad proud of me. I sit in the back of the car and say nothing.
My niece says she wishes her father would quit having a country accent and saying y’all and Tuesdee instead of Tuesday, etc. Doesn’t he know he was born in Europe? My brother runs into people speaking French on the beach. He can understand everything they say and manages to befriend them though he doesn’t say a word of French to them.
The poet Farid Matuk talks about his daughter’s night terrors. If he says he loves her, she screams more. If he says he’s related to her, she screams more. If he says he will hug her, she screams more. She screams for half an hour every night. He realizes the only thing he can do is back up and be absolutely quiet.
I noticed that Chinese people didn’t think of me as Chinese. I told my dad how they’d say I wasn’t a real Chinese. I felt stuck in a gray area between this reaction and the reaction that I was very Asian. My mom and dad kept neutral faces as I told this story and said not to say anything about it, not to let my upset show. Le non-agir. Have no reaction. The one who fights is losing, my dad would say.
There’s a massive flea market at the edge of Louisville in the early 1990’s. A woman from Jamaica is looking over the wares at a stand. Someone says, Where are you from? She says, Dixie Highway and nothing else, doesn’t look up, just keeps checking out the antiques.
I strike up a conversation with a street guy who wants a sandwich. I go into CVS with him and he picks something out and a cola. We go up to the register and very loudly he says to everyone nearby, “White people don’t do this. White people don’t buy black people sandwiches. Count on it. This would never happen with a white person.” I tell him to shush and that my sister-in-law does this all the time—he’s asking in the richest neighborhood in the city where I happen to be taking a walk.
I am at an artist retreat and barely use my studio room located—it so happens—in the sunshine. A man arrives a few days after I do and says how much he loves that room for working on his photographs and they gave him a terrible and small room. I give up my studio to him seeing as I barely go in there. At breakfast the next day somehow we get on the topic of race and he says something that makes me tell the anecdote about the black son moving to Louisville from Cincinnati. He flies into a rage. I start to say there’s no really big difference between the cities so this is a mystery to me, but he’s no longer listening. A woman who does transcendental meditation calmly talks to him.
My colleague who grew up in a missionary family in Japan, gave up her marriage and law practice to travel the world by herself for eight years. She traveled in disguises and went to many countries in solitude. She says she got to the point she was so used to being alone for days, she would try to talk to ants and get them to do a meeting with her. Better than nothing, better than no one to talk to at all. She remarks that when she was little, she knew in Japan she shouldn’t fight back, but that when they got to America, her father told her that now it was okay, now she could fight back. This didn’t make any sense to her as a little girl.
Kevin Nadal in the American Psychology Association website states: A quantitative measure was created to examine the various types of racial microaggressions that people of color experience (Nadal, 2011). Thus far, findings suggest that people of color who encounter greater amounts of racial microaggressions are likely to exhibit a number of mental health issues, such as depression or negative affect (Nadal, Griffin, Wong, Hamit, & Rasmus, 2012), as well as physical health issues such as pain or fatigue (Nadal, Griffin, Wong, Davidoff, & Davis, 2012). So, while overt, intentional racism may have led to the deaths of these three abovementioned innocent men, racial microaggressions may also be slowly killing the entire population of people of color.
I see a website is dedicated to micro-aggressions. I feel like I am looking at the preservation of trash. That some way should be found to get rid of all this ideation of wrong and story telling and holding on. That it is not interesting to polish one’s chains. But I know the effect is real, poisonous and everywhere. It has something to do with hearing and seeing well. Seeing others and seeing the self in equal clarity. The way the equation is valid that one loves or hates others as much as one loves or hates oneself.
I notice that all the emoticons are yellow. This seems hilarious to me. I start to look up emoticons that are other colors or races. There are none. It is 2015. I find some Caribbean emoticons, smiley faces with afros and black, green and red berets. I send these to my friend who finds the one with a bow and a tiny Afro to be darling. I have about three million dollar ideas in my head and this seems like it could be the fourth. But then I see that Apple seems to be concocting some and it’s hyped as cutting edge. I have been g-chatting with this friend for going on 5 years. This has never really occurred to me before.
The comedian W. Kamau Bell has a routine about the fact he must have a chat with each of his children when they reach a certain age about their being black. Okay so this is why every day seems like you’re having a shitty day he says. This talk is galling news to me and then I’m galled again that it’s news to me. I read that walking in nature can change the brain’s health for the better. I think about the articles I see posted on how black kids aren’t taken camping. The luxurious value we put on either having proximity or having plenty of space.
Watching TV idly one day, I see an Asian-American couple in a cereal commercial. They’re in their home, eating cereal so cheerfully it’s hilarious. Aren’t all people in cereal commercials cheerful? Mmm. Maybe. I laugh out loud and so hard I actually fall over on the sofa. I’m dumbfounded. There’s no one around to tell that there’s Asians in a network television commercial. I’m pretty sure they were Cheerios but I’m not sure.
Once in high school a cable customer service person called my parents’ house. She asked what cable package we might be interested in. I say is it possible to buy certain channels? She laughs. I say, I think you would sell more television that way. She keeps laughing. I hang up. I don’t watch television because when I moved to the east coast, not only had all the broadcast signals been converted to digital, the company repairman was only able to come within an eight hour window during which I was never completely free. I got internet instead, dropped the idea of television. This is the revolution of looking at what you want to see and only that coinciding with the advent of being able to curate one’s friends digitally.
For this reason I notice one day people posting a YouTube of children watching a Cheerios commercial that features an interracial couple. Apparently people were incensed in 2010 that an interracial couple is on a Cheerios commercial, so someone put children up to watching it and asked each to guess what people were mad about in the commercial. The children were completely stumped.
I sit in the armchair in my mother’s living room and the interracial Cheerios commercial comes on. My white mom married a Chinese man in 1960 in Europe. I turn to my mom and say, “Oh mom, people got really mad about this commercial, can you guess why?” In the commercial a little girl asks her mom, who is white, if Cheerios is supposed to help people’s hearts. The black dad lies on the couch and his daughter pours Cheerios on him. “I don’t know, she’s a nice little girl. Hm.” She looks at the screen carefully. “The dad is fat? Is that why they’re mad?”
I watch Jeopardy with my mom. She often points to a contestant and says they look like so and so, always some friend of the family or a neighbor. Sometimes she likens the person’s face to a celebrity’s though not often. I’m struck by the fact that I cannot see these resemblances straight off. Sometimes they actually seem like hallucinations. She sees in a random face someone she knows. I sit in a waiting room one day and read an article in People about face blindness. It’s a phenomenon of the mind: people who actually cannot identify people by their faces. I reflect on the fact that no one can tell my brothers apart when they’re on the phone. Sometimes people ask if I look like my brothers. I say the one that looks like me looks like a half-Asian Colin Powell and the other one looks like a vaguely Mexican Tom Hanks/white Denzel Washington. I hear myself say this and it never sounds sane.
My mother and I watch Sense and Sensibility almost every time I come home which is about four times a year. It’s another story that’s fine to say over and over. I think after ten years of this we topped out and stopped watching it every chance we got. There’s a scene when Elinor and her sister find out that Elinor’s suitor Edward Farris has gotten married to someone else. Marianne says, “Always resignation and acceptance. Always prudence and honor and duty. Elinor, where is your heart?” “What do you know of my heart?” Elinor spits back. The first time I see this scene I cry. Eventually this becomes the scene during which I regularly squint at their mesmerizing teal-blue dresses and try to decide what to call that color.
An almost identical exchange appears in the Chinese movie Yin Shi Nan Nu, Eat Drink Man Woman directed by Ang Lee. He wrote the script before he had ever laid eyes on the novel Sense and Sensibility. In that movie, the scene goes like this: “...my heart was broken by Li Kai. And you probably think that I'm pathetic for never getting over it. But at least I had a heart to break. I don't need your pity. And what do you know of my heart?”