I can draw many stories from my life: lonely misfit finds true love, melancholy pessimist becomes joyful mother, aspiring artist finds new calling, and more. The stories continue and multiply with time, and many, I hope, I suspect, remain hidden even to myself.
Of all the stories, one of my least favorite to tell is this: I have been the target of racist, anti-immigrant attacks. Obviously, this is not a pleasant story. And worst of all, it’s not a neat narrative with a satisfying resolution, as much I and many others have wished, have strived for otherwise. No, not for the time being.
For the time being it is a vicious, repetitive cycle, spiraling determinedly into a darkness of infinite callous possibilities with tiresomely similar aggressors and similar victims.
In this story, I’m the victim and xenophobic nationalists are the aggressors. The outcome will be that readers feel terribly sorry for me, or reproach me as some kind of oversensitive, ungrateful, unpatriotic complainer, or perhaps even a little of both. Nonetheless, part of me will feel bad for sharing such a story in the first place. Staunch racists (if they would even bother to read such a thing) will not suddenly see the error of their ways. Nice people will not learn anything they don’t already know.
However, my life is much, much more than one story—than this story. I refuse to let someone else’s malice or stupidity define it, and thus, confine it. My daily life is so achingly stable, my community so boringly peaceful, and purposely so, that I really shouldn’t care anymore about some asshole, racist or not, I meet along the way or from way back when. I may even be harming my current friendships, as the story also bolsters the assumption that I am self-righteous, overcritical, and ready to pounce on any perceived slight.
Yet, despite how problematic this story can be in our fraught media landscape seething with outrage and boiling with identity politics, it is the most urgent story. I am compelled repeatedly to tell it—fresher, bolder, louder, its scope ambitiously greater than my tiny individual life and my relatively insignificant personal opinions, like a giant rocket attached to a tattered paper figure. Why is that?
For one thing, current events. Current political events keep drawing out the story like a new digital version of Bingo gone horribly wrong, the pattern lighting up with every phrase and buzzword of the day, unmistakable and striking.
“We must increase border security.”
“Build the wall.”
“We need to focus on our own people.”
But nothing lights up the story better than the persistent calls for “human decency” as impassioned rebuttals to these statements attempt to shout louder over the ever-buzzing din of bots, instigators and self-interested propagandists such as Fox News, the divisions entrenching themselves into battle lines.
I didn’t know it at that time but Lloyd, the manager of the fast food restaurant I worked at when I was nineteen years old, would be one of the heroes of my life. He was a middle-aged Southern gentleman whose most striking traits were his rotund form, his butter blond hair and his voice, which teetered not much louder than a whisper and was rather high-pitched for a man. “I talk this way to hide my thick Southern accent,” he once told me half-jokingly, “Otherwise, Northerners treat you like you’re dumb.”
We were in a small town in western Washington state. I was fairly new to small town life, my mother had moved us there from Seattle the year preceding. Jobs there were hard to come by. After applying to every company that was hiring at entry level, I jumped at the first and only opportunity that came my way. The minimum wage I would earn in the restaurant was desperately needed to support my family, so I was extremely grateful for the job. Most of the time, I enjoyed it. I liked to keep busy, my coworkers were chatty and entertaining, the time went by fast.
When I first met Neil I liked him immediately, he seemed like a good person, we were about the same age and we both planned to attend the same university. He was reading a stack of old National Geographic magazines in the break room when I first met him. “Do you like to travel?” I asked him. He looked up at me and stared for a moment, I thought he wouldn’t answer, “I haven’t gone anywhere yet,” he said softly.
Over the next few days, as we worked together in the restaurant, Neil was often quiet, I assumed that he was an introvert. Then one day, as we were cleaning the back counters, he asked me out of the blue, “What are you?” I was used to this question because most people can’t figure out what race to assign me, so I answered it quickly, “I was born in the Philippines.” I didn’t bother to say that I actually spent most of my life in Chicago and Seattle.
“So you weren’t born here?”
“No.” I said.
“You’re an immigrant?”
“That means you don’t pay taxes.”
“What?” I was quite taken aback by the quick escalation of his words and was quick to correct him, “I do pay taxes, everyone in my family always pays their taxes.”
“What do your parents do?” He continued as if he didn’t hear what I just said, his tone that of an interrogator. He walked closer to me, his over six-foot frame towering over me. I knew he wanted to intimidate me. I didn’t have to explain myself to anyone, of all people to him, but I found myself answering him anyway, against my better judgement.
“My father died when I was seventeen,” I said, suddenly aware that I was sharing personal information with a malicious person, “My mother is an accountant for an insurance company.”
“I thought she bagged groceries for a living,” he said haughtily.
His nasty tone seared my pride and his condescending assumption surprised me. Although I would not be ashamed if my mom did have a menial job, what was the oddest to me was that he was so proud of his ignorance. As if he expected my life, perhaps everything in the whole world, to fall in line with his assumptions. As if he just had to hold on to them as proudly and stubbornly as he could and they eventually would become true—even when it was clear that he was absolutely wrong. His hate was not grounded in fact. I couldn’t respond at this point, my words were caught in my throat.
“I thought your mom just bagged groceries for a living. You know, an Asian mom with a very opportunistic daughter who aspires to become a doctor.” He had remembered an earlier conversation we had when I told him that I wanted to study medicine.
It was then that I tried to end the conversation. “No.” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t want to talk to you anymore!”
“You don’t belong in this country.” He said loudly, as if I represented a contaminant, “You take our jobs and our tax dollars.” His voice was loud enough for the other coworkers to hear, but they said nothing.
I felt the need to defend myself in some way. What he said reminded me of a boy in my high school class just a few years before who said that only “Whites” and “Blacks” and no one else contributed to the US being the “greatest” country in the world. I decided to share something with him that I hadn’t before.
“My grandfather worked for the US Navy. He was an engineer in the US Naval base in Guam for more than twenty years. He was also an interpreter between the Americans and the Japanese during WWII. My family was only allowed to immigrate here because of his service. Also, it wasn’t easy to come here, my parents spent their whole life savings to pay for the move.” I said it clearly, loudly and felt slightly relieved to explain some of my family’s history.
Neil seemed to ponder what I said for a moment. I even wondered if he might change his mind. But the moment passed. My story simply didn’t fit his narrow view of the world. He shook his head and laughed at me as if everything I said was a lie.
“Go home,” he said a few more times.
I found it strange that he had treated me like a normal person up to the moment he learned that I was an immigrant. This time, I was the one who was confused about where to place him. “Are you a racist?” I asked.
“I’m not a racist,” he said, “I just care about my own people more and I believe people should stay in their own countries and fix their own problems.”
“Then you should go back to Europe,” I retorted with a sneer.
He was oddly calm, “Yeah, I plan to go to Iceland or Norway.”
I wondered why he didn’t notice his own hypocrisies. I imagined him finally feeling happy to be in a place where (he assumed) everyone was the same race, then I imagined them making fun of him for not speaking the language or for being an outsider, “Yeah, you should totally go!” I said, but the sarcasm was lost on him.
“I will one day,” he said, “but this country shouldn’t allow foreigners in.”
“I don’t want to talk to you anymore.” I said to him curtly. I walked away and continued working. I tried to be strong and keep a stiff upper lip for the rest of the workday, even when Neil repeatedly came over to me to say, “Pay taxes. You don’t belong here.”
At a certain point, near the end of the day, I tried asking my other coworkers for help, a few of them had immigrant parents. “I’m sorry,” said a young man of Mexican descent, “but I agree with him. You’re a foreigner.”
I was so angry I couldn’t speak. So, as long as he doesn’t target you or your race specifically, it’s okay to make someone else feel worthless on the basis of their race or nationality? I thought. What makes you so sure you won’t be next?
To this day, it’s not just Neil and the people that share his views (which I would later learn call themselves the “Alt-Right”) that anger me, those people may always be unchangeable, immovably self-superior. As obstinate a part of this world as the idea that we have free will to choose between good and evil. What concerns me the most are the people—who outnumber them—who do not necessarily share such extreme views but stand by and support them anyway, unaffected and secure in the assumption that it will never be their problem.
The only person that put a stop to Neil harassing me was the restaurant manager, Lloyd. With no other recourse, I told him about our disturbing conversation and how Neil kept telling me that I didn’t belong. Lloyd quickly took him aside and said in no uncertain terms that he was to stop harassing me immediately, that it was illegal to discriminate someone and create hostile working conditions, and if I was ever to make another complaint, Neil would be fired immediately. From then on, Neil never harassed me, or even broached the subject. I refused to speak to him ever again, although I would have if he had apologized. But he never did.
I know people make mistakes, I have made a few insensitive comments in my life as well. The big difference was that I never meant to hurt someone on purpose and I quickly apologized when I saw they were hurt. One example is when I was an adolescent and suggested to a Native American friend that we do a “rain dance like wild Indians”. When I realized how demeaning that was to her and her culture, I was ashamed, I apologized and never said such a thing again.
Living in a multicultural society is not without its friction, but it is exactly in pushing past these hurdles of stereotyping that help us improve ourselves, our awareness, our friendships, and expand our worldview. I don’t believe a “perfect” person exists and neither does a “perfect” culture. All cultures are alive, subject to change and in need of improvement. But that improvement can only come with interaction, comparison and communication.
I wish I could say I triumphed over Neil and that’s the end of the story. But my immigration and race-related troubles in the restaurant only continued. A few customers would come in to berate me in coarser ways than Neil had. One man told me with great conviction that I “couldn’t possibly speak English because I was Chinese”. It was hilarious that he had quantified not only my race, but my capabilities in one cursory glance! But it wasn’t funny when he and a few other American flag wearing customers asked for me to be fired. They would come in continually demanding this, even though I had always been a good worker. Again, it was Lloyd who sent them away, shrugging off their demands with a high whistle, shaking his head. “Idiots,” he would say.
A few years after the experience, I was finally able to talk about it with my family. They were so sad that I had experienced such hatred. To try to make closure and reassure everyone I said, “Well, these people will never be happy, there’ll always be a border to secure and a wall to build. There will always be a wall to build.”
I wish I could say the story ends here and I’m so much stronger for it. But you know as well I do that it doesn’t.
When Donald Trump won the presidential election of the United States, I burst into tears in the middle of a public street the moment I found out. I knew who was rejoicing and who wasn’t. I knew Neil had found his dream president, as well as those who didn’t feel threatened by such a belligerent, narcissistic leader (who, ironically, kept his tax forms hidden). I knew it would just be a matter of time before his administration would take steps to bar and punish illegal immigrants, as we have seen with family separations at the border, then continue onwards towards restricting legal immigration as well.
After the shock of his election, there was an enormous onslaught of accusations hurled at all sides for “dividing” the country.
Why couldn’t we talk to each other? Why couldn’t we talk? Why couldn’t we just talk?
As if talking was the only solution. As if all sides were equally responsible for creating divisions. As if listening was always possible while still clinging to intolerance, superiority, or hate.
(to be continued)
This is a two-part story, I am looking forward to sharing the second half with you soon. (Previous versions of this story had the names written as initials, which I have now changed as first names only for stylistic reasons.)
Text and pictures by M.P. Baecker.