Last weekend--I think it was last weekend, although which day last weekend I really couldn't say--my husband took the boys out while I got some much needed things done on my own. I really, really, really wanted to buy them something yummy to eat, like General Tso's chicken, for many reasons: I was busy, they don't really like my cooking all that much (sometimes I cook for my parents and the neighbors just to be appreciated), they really like food I buy, and (very importantly) I forgot to start the rice. I hate rice, and I wonder if this forgetting to start it is often a Freudian slip as if I think if I forget the rice often enough we won't have to eat it anymore. Of course, I forget everything all the time (ADHD and distractions), so maybe I just forget frequently because I have to do it frequently. Anyway, I tried calling the Asian place in the plaza across the highway from us. No answer. I called again. Still no answer. I called another five times. My heart fell.
"Do you just want to go down there and try?" my mom asked.
"No, not really," I said. I really hoped everything was okay down there. They're a new business, and I thought people liked them pretty well, but who comes out to where we live? And people in this area are pretty set in their ways. They want what they want when they want it and if not everyone all over the country does things the way they're done on this little patch of earth, well, it's the other 300 some million people in the US who are un-American. We have it covered.
In fact, even though I was born here, grew up here, and eventually moved back here, I have always been aware that I--the offspring of my Western-Ohio-raised parents, Republicans who were apparently not Catholic enough for our local parish and so, after the local priest declared both my sister and I illegitimate, became Protestant, whose mother doesn't like olive oil so much that she NEVER included it in our spaghetti sauce (sacrilege!) and who didn't think that every get together required a full sit down dinner, preferably with pasta and a salad--have never fit in here. Perhaps that's why my friends growing up were the ones no one ever talked to, were the African-Americans until more African-Americans came, were the Chinese and then the Koreans, were the ones who didn't speak English at home, or didn't celebrate mass--or worse yet Christmas. Maybe that's why I pray fervently for all the non-Irish/Italian non-Catholics (and their businesses) that I come across here. Because I really know what it's like to be non-Irish/Italian, non-Catholic here. And even though Derald Wing Sue may feel that we whites can just assimilate, let me tell you that in this little town, the locals know. I used to think that they could smell the absence of garlic, but, after marrying a Korean and eating just as much garlic as any of them, I can tell you this is not the case. It's something else. But the point is, they know. Or perhaps, I know.
But that's not my point either because as much as I really feel all of those things a whole lot and think about them on a daily basis because I am surrounded by kids who were cut with a different cookie cutter from different batter but just want to crumble like the little pizzelles that live here, I don't feel comfortable in those other settings either.
I didn't want to go sit down in the Asian place because it's dark (why are so many Asian restaurants dark? Although, I don't like any dark restaurants). The people never smile at me. Of course, having lived with a Korean-raised Korean husband for the past 12 years and having spent a fair portion of time in Korea and now having many other Asian friends, I know that many Asian cultures perceive people who smile indiscriminately or frequently as fools. My husband's family is particularly strict about this. But I have a hard time overcoming my knee-jerk reaction. If you don't smile at me, I feel disliked. I try hard to get over it; I really do. But it's not something that one easily gets over. And the place is cold. I don't do cold.
About ten minutes later, though, my husband called me.
"Can you call the pizza place across the highway? The big boy really wants a cheese pizza."
Once again I called. No answer. Five more tries. Still no answer.
I called my husband. "There's no answer down there. There was no answer at the Asian place either. I think the phone service in the plaza is down. I'll just go down, order, sit, and wait."
"You don't mind?"
"Not at all."
So I went down and did just that, without ever minding, even though those people were not nearly as kind to me as the people in the Asian place have been in the past. They made me wait an inordinately long time while they took friends before me even though I was in line first. My pizza was made out of order, and nobody gave me the time of day except the delivery boy that I sympathized with because a customer had yelled at him (my husband has had to put up with that, and no one deserves it). I had even paused at the door because of a display of police support. It's not that I don't support the police; it's just that most of the people who support the police treat me and my Asian-American family like traitors.
But I felt really comfortable there because this is what I'm used to. It was brightly lit. Friends go first. We don't need to talk to you if we don't know you. These are the rules I know.
Questions of race and racism are so much more about culture and familiarity than they ever are about other things.
To make that point, let me say that the Asian adoptees that I know who have grown up in this little town and the regions just beyond it flatly deny that they have ever been mistreated. These reactions are what they are used to. Most of the Asians I know who have moved into the area say that they are watched wherever they go and no one trusts them. The African-Americans I know who live here do not speak with me about race. Most of the non-Irish/Italian non-Catholics whites of the area recognize these issues and report flatly without malice that they have never belonged here, but for the most part, it's a great place to live and raise kids. Do we see discrimination? Sure. Is it done with malice? No. Can we live with it? Absolutely. Why? Because we don't perceive anywhere else as better.
Was it racist of me to buy pizza and not General Tso's chicken? To be honest, I don't think I'll ever know.