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.

alightcircledecentpeople3mpbaecker

The Story

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.)

alightcircledecentpeople2mpbaecker

Text and pictures by M.P. Baecker.

 

 

31 thoughts on “Decent People

  1. The Neils of this world are riding high right now–they’ve been given permission to be open about their ignorance and racism. I do believe that the moment will end–I only wish I knew how long it’ll be before that happens. In the meantime, we all need to be as public and as loud as we can in response, because you’re right, it’s when people who disagree don’t speak up that their permission to be horrible is confirmed. Credit to you for keeping the issue in the public eye.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your beautiful comment! I love what you wrote: “It’s when people who disagree don’t speak up that their permission to be horrible is confirmed.” We are seeing this continually that silence is seen as agreement or passivity. I really want to see an end to it in my lifetime! I often wonder if these things are generational cycles, that the grandchildren of immigrants/refugees forget about their ancestors’ struggle to simply be accepted and take their privileges for granted. It’s hard to appreciate things with no idea of more disadvantaged perspectives. Another big motivation to share my story! I hope others will as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think you’re onto something about generations. In the US, where I spent most of my life, I’ve seen that. My own aunt, the daughter of immigrants, was horrible about people speaking Spanish in public. When we (the cousins of my generation) challenged her about it, she argued that her parents never spoke Yiddish in public, only English. It made me want to tear my hair out. Or hers. It was such a bizarre, irrational thing, that I don’t remember any of us pulling it together to say, as we should have, “So what?” The way she put it, you’d think they were going out without clothes.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Last night I saw an episode of Mash (‘The Tooth Shall Set You Free’) in which the surgeons sussed out a racist Major. They had noticed that African Americans in his unit were all ending up dead or in their army hospital. The surgeons invited the Major to have drinks with them. One of the surgeons makes a few racial statements as bait. After some prodding, the Major said something about taking care of his own kind (similar to what N said). Some moments later, the Major confessed his view that the army hasn’t been the same since desegregation (similar to recent comments in the media that the “America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore”). Finally, the Major admits he just doesn’t want “them” around.

    We see a kind of racist reveal of othering couched in nostalgia couched in community preservation. When the racist Major is exposed, he swears he isn’t racist (denials heard in many cellphone videos taken in America). I have to wonder why they fear the label.
    The label “racist” still carries some sort of taboo— except for the far right, who wear it like a badge that indicates their community “pride.” Again we have a community pride or community preservation principle, which is cover for something that may be based in hate or fear or anxiety or general life dissatisfaction. Because of all the threats to average bigot, other-ed individuals are rarely the thing that is making their life dissatisfactory (e.g. you as an individual were no threat to N).

    They are many ways to improve a person’s life (edifying vocation, meaningful recreation, rich relationships, human-friendly spirituality), but each takes faith and dedication. It’s a lot easier to pin the blame on other-ed people and assume their deportation or death will be your life’s salve. As history shows, it is never the solution and it is never final.

    So the MASH surgeons get the racist Major to resign because it’s not just about ideological blindness, the Major was getting men killed! Other-ed people are getting killed, and the current political climate is the booze that is making people talk.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow! I absolutely love your entire comment! This would be in my comment “Hall of Fame”, This would be an excellent Post in and of itself!👏👏👏👏
      Everything you wrote is totally on the mark and I happen to be working on Part 2 with these things in mind! I am hoping to complete it today🙏!
      What you mentioned about the shame to be exposed as a racist, which most racist people have now, except for the most extreme ones, and the “couched” racism hiding beneath more acceptable ideas such as community/cultural pride is something I want to delve into because it has been and now more than ever a powerful vehicle continuing to victimize outsiders and vulnerable groups ad infinitum. As you said, the current political climate, as awful as it is, is exposing these things, complicated and pervasive. I see it as an opportunity to finally grapple with them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s a disheartening time, although I feel like it was inevitable. America’s wound needed air to be healed, because we know (and as your post shows) racism is prevalent and always has been. The bandaid has certainly been ripped off now. I believe good will prevail, although it will take some time. Thanks for sharing your story. I look forward to reading more.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love what you wrote! It certainly feels like that band-aid was covering a festering wound. Another person told me, “This is the landscape under the sea, it has been there all along.”

      I think for the good to win is the only way to prevail, as we have seen repeatedly throughout history, greatness at the expense of others is never a lasting or true greatness.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your experience is both chastening and catahrtic. It is my conviction that the perpetrators of such racist monstrosities are feeble and frail to the core. It is my prayer to the Gods that be to keep the brood of vermin away from you.

    Like

    • Thanks so much! I think you are absolutely right, such people are feeble and frail to the core, why else would they feel threatened by people simply existing and doing no harm to them?! I always found it strange how people like that don’t appreciate the simple gift of human kindness, I always greeted them kindly, decently and they still harassed me! I have experienced many different variations of this “vermin” throughout my life and now I feel strangely powerful at this time. Now, when I meet one, I immediately feel much bigger and stronger. My work and my prayers are for the vulnerable people who go through this and don’t have the strength.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pride in ignorance – that’s exactly what it is. And nowhere is it more rampant than in the US, unfortunately. This story brings back memories of lots of people I have known, and just truly can not understand. Very infuriating, but great post. Looking forward to part 2!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I’ve often heard from persons of color that they experience racism, but never have I heard a first person account so detailed. And while it has been said, and I agree, that it is not POC’s “job” to educate white ppl about racism, the work still needs doing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks so much! You make an excellent point. I sometimes get criticized by POC themselves who have an incentive to pretend racism or xenophobia doesn’t exist to prove they are peaceful and keeping the status quo. One woman, a Latina immigrant, told me that it really wasn’t her experience and I must be wrong. I understand that people may not have the same experience. But find it odd whenever anyone feels the need to deny such things happened to others such as myself. These attempts at “rewrites” are great fuel for me to write these stories!

      Like

  7. I can totally relate.
    I’ve had a few bad experiences in Germany too, one of the worst ones being when I was asked if I was German and spoke the language. The moment I learned it I knew I’d never have to justify for my accent and origin to anybody.
    Amazing read. Can’t wait for more.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love what you wrote “The moment I learned it I knew I’d never have to justify for my accent and origin to anybody.” You’re totally right! My husband feels the same way, people often ask him where his accent is from, sometimes they ask in a nice way to engage in a conversation, and sometimes it’s asked in a demeaning way and to try to get at insecurities–unfortunately for them, hilariously, if they try to do this to people like you and my husband, they always turn up empty! Because he isn’t ashamed of anything! Our unique qualities should be something we are proud of! 😂😂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Boy am I ever looking forward to the second half! 👏👏👏

    MP, half a world away from me I can tell, unequivocally, that you are one of the finest humans I’ve known. Your heart and mind, your capacity for understanding, is preternatural. N was a moron, or whatever the antonym is to the word “MP Baecker.” He was the exact opposite of everything that makes you special.

    Undoubtedly, he celebrated the day that clown won the White House. It was a mistake, but for him it was retribution. Validation.

    I know many who voted for him, and still would. To them, racism was extinguished before Barack Obama brought it back (their actual words). When they say Make America Great again they mean for people like N. For ignorant, white men, and those who will pander to them.

    I won’t. I won’t pander to the morons that think the world is flat. That it has no dimension, no depth. I won’t let anyone speak to you or anyone else that way. I’m with Lloyd. I like Lloyd.

    Thank you for continuing to tell your story. Not just for me or for N or even for you, but for everyone, everywhere, who needs to understand. They need to understand what Asimov said.

    “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

    It ain’t. Human ignorance is not as good as human knowledge. Hate cannot replace compassion. Walls cannot block out wisdom. We need open hearts and open minds and we need to exalt preternatural levels of understanding. Like yours.

    Good job, sister. You absolutely knock me off my feet and give me hope for humanity. Can’t wait for part two!

    Liked by 4 people

    • 😊😊 Goodness! I don’t think I can handle these kinds of compliments! I had to take a day to process this beautiful comment! 👏👏You must realize by now Tom that I have gone through A LOT of SHIT in my life and am not used to such positivity!!! That is, until now.

      I feel like I am in some sort of incubation/healing stage, where I have been given a more peaceful environment and lots of time to think. Will I finally grow some wings, or recreate the chaos I’m used to? I really hope the former, with help from my friends here, your amazing support and your tremendous insights!

      I really love that quote!!! As well as what you said, “Human ignorance is not as good as human knowledge.” These and the one from Kennedy that you mentioned earlier, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” It seems like a combination of those things is fueling the rage and divisiveness that we are experiencing now. I want to say that knowledge of history, especially the missteps, can help us find our foothold on shaky ground, but as you say knowledge is not valued by everyone. It is absolutely ridiculous to confuse the terms “elite” and “experts”, which I notice is a big part of this anti-intellectualism, if most doctors and scientists say that race is a made-up construct–they are not being “elitist”, they are stating facts, which are not the same as opinions. Obviously there is always objectivity and relativity to question, but at the level of scientific fact these are fine hairs, where at the level of Fox News pundits it’s fucking Elephants sitting on a dollhouse! Ugh!
      I’m still working on part two, looking forward myself to getting your thoughts on it! Thank you brother!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Not only are you growing wings, sister, you’re helping the rest of us spread ours. I can’t stress that enough. The chaos will come, in all our lives, the chaos will come. I was recently uprooted but stayed on my path. The country was shockingly uprooted but will find its path again, too. You just stay on course and know, no amount of chaos can disrupt the resolute.

        I don’t know who said that one. Maybe it’s an original by Tom. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I am deeply moved by this post and saddened that people like that exist.
    I am definitely a conservative with concerns about immigration but only when it comes to criminals and those seeking a handout.
    However, I am not nationalistic and I have had the pleasure of working with immigrants from all over the world and I have a ton of respect for anyone willing to work to better their lives.
    I live by the motto ” Never look down on a person unless you are helping them up.”
    Great post as always

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you so much! I really love that quote! I think it’s great when people don’t immediately assume that I or any other immigration advocates are pushing for “open borders”. I find it really scary that many of these arguments are reduced (by the media and by online trolls) into a zero sum game of either/or: either against refugees/immigrants, or you are for “open borders”. Although I experienced anti-immigrant harassment, I am definitely not for “open borders”, I know laws are important. However human rights shouldn’t vanish if the person doesn’t pose an actual threat to others, callous actions such as directly separating families, criminalizing people at the border (also done by other countries, not just the US), building the border wall is like applying a sledgehammer to reprogram an iPhone. There are other ways, more effective ways, to handle the problem in a multinational level. On a side note, my family is also strongly conservative, mostly Republican, and some of them even voted for Trump!

      Liked by 2 people

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