Posts Tagged ‘understanding’

Culture Cross

18 March 2011


Dear J-

True story: in 1999, after my brother got married they held two receptions as the ceremony itself was limited to a handful of participants. The ceremonies held to appease the mobs that are our families were in Spokane (where we’re from) and Taipei (where she’s from). Upon flying in to Spokane my parents had us wait around for a few hours while other flights were trickling in to GEG, bringing hordes of cousins and other relatives. As meal service was nonexistent and the airport restaurants were shut down for the night we got hungry in short order and finally asked my parents if they had anything to eat in between flight arrivals. They produced a couple of plates of food from the back that they adnitted to saving for my brother (whose flight had been delayed by that point) which we ate with overeager gusto and hunger-induced relish. As we ate I saw little Caucasian kids staring at us in amazement and some disgust (we were eating garlicky fish by that point) and elbowing theVet I jerked my head towards the kids and told her that no doubt they were thinking what disgusting Asian people we were, but by then the hunger was our judge and we didn’t care about the stares.

I think about that story lately when we’re talking Alexandra Wallace, the UCLA student who posted the rant about too many Asians in the library, distracting her with phone calls and the scads of relatives descending on dorms over the weekend. Enough digital ink has been spilled and hands wrung that she understands it was poor judgment at best that caused her to speak her piece but this much may be said quickly: there is some truth to the stereotype, as there is some truth to all stereotypes, and why we can’t say these things out loud doesn’t always make sense. Yet clearly a line has been crossed and perhaps it’s because you’d expect more from someone at an elite college, one that’s got a good mix of races and faces. Pry into motive and eventually you find your own biases and assumptions projected back at yourself: you generally find what you expected to find. We see her as a vaid blonde, she sees us as a faceless mob of nonindividuals all behaving with a strange hive intelligence.

I came back from my grampa’s funeral carrying a couple of pounds of fresh dumplings as my carry-on. In post-9/11 America it brought on some scrutiny at the airport but not as much as shoes or gels. In the line for the x-ray machines the Asian guy in front of me turns around and asks if they’re home made. When I say yes he turns back to his blonde girlfriend and tells her how good they are, how lucky I am (man how much better the homemade ones are!) when really I’m not feeling much of anything inside, having seen my grampa wrapped in a sheet earlier that morning. But the point is not what keeps us apart, it’s food in airports eliciting two different reactions. Given two different people in two different situations I don’t think you could have two more different reactions. Without the cultural interpreter to tell her how and why I wonder if she would have bothered to be curious enough to ask about the dumplings or if I would have gotten written off as someone weird and disgusting. Seek first to understand, never assume. It all sounds so trite but without it you find yourself at the center of a firestorm of words you don’t understand and never will until you want to understand.



Catch Understanding

27 April 2010

Dear J-

I understand that it’s not a conspiracy, but the day we had planned tomorrow — four different medical appointments between the two of us and various errands to run, not precisely fun perhaps but a day full of accomplishment — contracted in the space of ten minutes as figgy, fussy tonight, vomited. It’s selfish of me to have wanted that time for myself, isn’t it? It’s life; I can’t pick the schedules, and I suppose it’s lucky that we had the time slated off anyway. Every so often I just need to remind myself that my time really isn’t; we have obligations and responsibilities that are inescapable.

It doesn’t stop the first hot initial reaction, that little stab of flame from infecting my mouth. Reaction always outpaces reason. So long as I eventually come around to realizing how silly I look with my foot in my mouth, I think there’s hope for the future. Be the change you want to be and all kinds of swelling music rises in the background; motivational phrases and cliches fall from the ceiling over my head. Point of fact: there’s a sick kid sleeping thirty feet away. It’s not about me. Easy.

Frank Miller of Sin City and 300 fame also wrote Batman: The Dark Knight Returns; it’s a graphic novel that chronicles the late career of Bruce Wayne, and it shows how old they’ve all gotten — Wayne, Clark Kent, Selena Kyle. And Jim Gordon, Commissoner Gordon has an oft-repeated catchphrase throughout: “I think of Barbara. The rest is easy.” I’m starting to understand — understand again, understand for the first time.


Walter Read

5 March 2010

Dear J-

I’m reading a lot more lately, even if it is unfathomably fluffy stuff like Percy Jackson and Harry Potter; not sure if it’s inspired more by wanting to relive my youth or having to, given that our bedtime jobs are for me to read books and theVet to sing songs together with figgy. I woke up a little early so that I could finish The Last Olympian, in fact; despite me writing it off as being relatively unoriginal (Greek myth-based universe where the gods have survived and, unsurprisingly, continued to create more and more demigod children with the rest of us mortals), the books were a fun read and interesting enough to keep kids turning pages.

It’s got me thinking about the differences betwen cultural icons; in our Judo-Christian world, the God is a distant power, influencing everything, perfect, and yet relatively unknown, at least in comparison to the Greek gods, who loved to sport with humans and who wore their warts with some pride — jealousy and discord were never far from any Olympian gathering. God, it’s said, makes man in His image, and yet it seems we’ve made our stories in our image instead. The polyglot of United States citizens means that we’ve at least got a passing familiarity with many different influences, even if Greek gods underpin much of Western culture.

On the van yesterday one of our riders pointed out to me that the picture our company had chosen to represent the current Year of the Tiger was terrible: it was cartoony, but the mouth was hanging wide-open. It’s like the prohibition on certain gifts (no knives as wedding presents, for instance, as it represents severing a bond) or numbers (four is unlucky, as it’s a close homonym to the verb “to die” in Chinese which is why you don’t see too many cameras with four by itself in the numbering scheme); it is inauspicious to depict a tiger ready to pounce. There is still so much to learn about everything; we can only come to a better understanding of ourselves and our fellow citizens by keeping an open mind.


Hemi Sphere

9 April 2009

Dear J-

I spent part of the day — the part not spent working, that is, of course — looking at such varied topics as E-body Mopars (‘cudas and Challengers, especially the AAR and T/A models), lenses (as always, thinking of what I want, not need), sunsets (our work hours are changing again and I still can’t remember how nice it may have been to have Fridays off; I might actually have some time to spend with my family during the week, consequently), and palm trees (still trying to figure out the kinds we have around here — obviously they’re not coconut palms, but they’re not dropping dates on my head, either).

It has been a long and eventful week for us; I’m hoping that the drama is behind us now, and the skies continue to clear as we point the wheels south.  The tasks grow exponentially more Sisyphean; sometimes I run the same reports bare hours apart so that I get some perspective on the difference I make (answer is, unfortunately, not too much).  I will say that the nice thing about the new system is that I’ve gotten to be a lot more visible; there’s good and bad there (some bad, this week in particular), but I’d guess that most of the engineering staff here knows who I am and what I do.

Fame in my lifetime.  Sure, it’s redefining fame on my terms, but surely it can’t be as ridiculous as the doublespeak and tortured logic that passes for policy around work.  When they say that truth is often stranger than fiction, I always think back to how little we trust and empower people to get their jobs done.  Are all workplaces so combative?  Defensive?  I spend my free time trying to understand the rest of the world because it feels like my working world is upside-down, and I’ve given up on making sense out of it.


Donald Duk (II)

13 February 2008

Dear J-

More than just a diatribe, though, Donald Duk succeeds in telling a story not unlike those of many kids I grew to know: growing up and feeling out of place with those people who’d raised you, and wanting to fit in seamlessly with a more popular (stylish, wealthy, athletic — you takes your pick) crowd.

It’s not just an Asian-American theme to believe that anyone older than your generation is impossibly old-fashioned; I see parent-kid relationships breaking down in one of three categories:

  1. Man, what a generational gap!
  2. Now you’re adding language?
  3. Who’s taking care of who?

To be honest, I’ve been relatively lucky, as my dad speaks virtually perfect Mandarin and English, so we’ve always been somewhere between category one and two. Unique to the children of immigrant experience, though, is the possible added barrier of language and even more distancing, the possibility that the kids end up serving as translators. See, you naturally grow up thinking that your parents know nothing, and any life discoveries (driving! sex!) you’re the first in history to ever experience, and will brook no advice regarding them.

When you grow up not always knowing the nuances of what your parents are saying — and you could understand 90% of what’s being said in Mandarin, like me and still miss the point, because that shared cultural background of lore and holidays and traditions just isn’t there — then that’s another factor keeping you from understanding your folks. And when maybe they’re not as educated as you, maybe their English isn’t perfect, well, you end up not just being a family spokesperson, but, after awhile, you end up helping to run the household (how many kids out there are filling out the taxes?). Those are unique experiences to immigrant children, I think.

Donald, I believe, like me falls somewhere between one and two, maybe a little closer to two It’s incredibly hard to balance two faces — the you at school and your peers wth the you at home; eventually, it gets to be easier to let one dominate; you write off the place that didn’t win (and I’m willing to bet that for most of us, it’s not home that wins) as wasted time. So he continues to believe his life, his time revolves around getting out of Chinatown and making a name for himself that doesn’t involve Chinese as an adjective. The Chinese Fred Astaire. The Chinese Frank Sinatra.

It works in a colorblind society, one where you don’t show up at vacation rentals to strange looks and muttered (“You sounded like you weren’t foreign”) remarks; one where you aren’t stopped every so often to be complimented on how well you speak English. It’s not necessarily a matter of defying stereotypes in the end, it’s a question of what to expect from people. You learn that there’s a million roles for you to fulfill based on all the exposure that Hollywood expects of you: kung-fu master, sacrificial lamb, but never anything more complex than your face dictates you can. Donald Duk reminds me that it’s always better to define yourself rather than merely fitting in where you’re placed.

The novel has a gentle mocking humor in it; Chin never hits you over the head with the important themes — he challenges you to figure it out on your own. We should all remember that even though we hold a shared culture, the origins and history that makes us different are equally worthy of accurate examination, and may serve to further our understanding of each other. (i.e. don’t ask “Why don’t you fit in ?” unless you really want to know).

Lunch Hour at the Raphael Weill (flickr scaled)

At the same time I truly believe that our differences aren’t so vast that we can’t bridge the gaps; the Dorothea Lange (she of “Migrant Mother” fame) photo above amply illustrates that we have no inherent biases and hates that aren’t capably bred in by society.

“If I get mad at Arnold Azalea because of books he didn’t write, no good.” Donald Duk lowers his head. “He is your friend,” Dad continues. “All he knows about Chinese, as far as you know, is you. You say, he wants to know the truth. You say, you and Arnold dream the same dreams about trains at night. You should have the brains to reckon it out: in this war he is your ally. Do you think people are going to like him more for backing you up in class today? If you want to be stupid and call him a white racist and that kind of stuff, that’s your business.”