Racism and a lack of imagination

The last summer of college I spent at home, I hostessed at a chain restaurant that is known in Ohio for serving breakfast all day.  Until that summer, I didn’t know that there were people on earth who ate more than one meal a day at the same restaurant. As it turns out, the usuals at this restaurant often took 2-3 meals a day there. They considered the waitstaff family, their usual tables were just extensions of their homes.

During one of my first shifts, the wait staff alerted me to one of the usuals. Val was pegged as “difficult.” I quickly learned what qualified Val as difficult. She came in every evening with her two children. She rarely ordered a meal for herself. She ordered kids’ meals and ate their leftovers. She sent food back that wasn’t to her satisfaction.

I learned that these were high crimes in restaurantville. There is an unwritten code of conduct for being a usual. It requires that one runs up a decent tab and doesn’t complain.

I also learned that the penalties for those who broke the code of conduct are just a little bit more severe if your waitstaff is all white and you’re aren’t white. And Val and her two children? Were black.

I was intimidated by Val. The first time I sat her, I learned my lesson. I started to lead her and her children, with kids’ menu packets in tow, toward the back of the restaurant. “Noooope nope no! Not sitting back there. Not sitting in the back of the bus.”

Got it. So I was not to sit Val in the back. But if you’ve ever made your living by playing Tetris with tables, you know that sometimes you can’t honor every request. You don’t want to slam certain waitstaffers with a fresh crop of tables all at once or there will be hell to pay. I began to perceive Val as a mosquito in the summer. She was always there, but if I protected myself, she wouldn’t bite.

The waitstaff groaned about Val in the breakroom. How the manager coddled her. How she tipped poorly. How she sent food back.

Val came in most nights with her children. I don’t know if she was married or divorced. Here is what I do remember about my personal encounters with her besides the mistake of seating her in the back: She was polite and quiet. She was always dressed in professional attire as though she was coming from work. She always had a paperback book with her and occasionally would sit reading it at her table while her children ate their meals.

One of the middle-aged hostesses once remarked, “Val is very well-educated.”

I remember wondering why Val was the only customer that whole summer I ever heard consistent complaints about, or about the fact that she was “very well-educated.”



Fifteen years later, I am sitting in my work clothes at a chain restaurant. I am sitting across from my two children, happily occupied by their kiddie menu crossword puzzles. I take the chance for the first time all day to open up a book for pleasure. My husband is not with us as he works most evenings. I am relieved to not have to cook and am reluctant to buy my children their own separate meals when I know I will be finishing their leftovers.


Fifteen years later and I am Val. Except I am not a usual and no one comments on my education level when I bust out my book at a restaurant. When I misplace my gift card, no one questions my intent or ability to pay. When I have to run and get my wallet in the car (long day), our waitress offers to watch my children. I am Val except I am white and therefore I can only fathom how Val felt.

Fifteen years will not absolve me, though. Why did it take me half of my life to understand a faithful patron who wanted what she paid for and who wanted to model for her children the service they should expect in a restaurant?

In other words, why did I lack imagination 15 years ago? Why did I have to wait fifteen years to experience a taste of what Val faced (and chose to face) each day?

The problem we have in dissolving the -isms that poison our lives is that we are lazy imaginaries. Because we are carnivores, we can’t imagine what might be difficult for vegetarians at barbecues. Because we never struggle to find shoes in our size, surely those who do are crybabies.  Inconvenience sparks us to change. Make my life difficult and I will modify my systems.

The difficulty in having a lack of difficulty is perhaps the definition of white privilege.

I pray for difficulties. I desire a better imagination. But most of all, I strive for a world where I don’t have to fathom any of this, because neither does Val.

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Multi-cultural Monday: Aziz Anzari is schooling me

I don’t know if it was better or worse to listen to the Fresh Air interview with Aziz Anzari and Alan Yang before I watched “Master of None,” but I did. I approached the show perhaps a little bit more cerebrally and a little bit more prepared for the gags than if I went in with fresh eyes and ears.

“Master of None” is somewhat of a broad comedy in that the character of Aziz Anzari orbits in a world that is pretty non-specific. Young single guy in the city. I believe this is quite intentional: he’s an American guy. Not an IT guy, doctor, or a convenience store owner as he points out again and again throughout the season. Just a guy trying to make it as an actor and navigating a world that still wants to type-cast Indian-American dudes into a limited set of occupations and personas.

Loverpants and I laughed and we laughed hard. We laughed the laughs of people who could identify so closely with the Asian parent representations. My husband, obviously, as the son of first generation immigrants from Asia, and I as their daughter-in-law.  I may not have been raised by parents who emigrated from Asia, but I am not immune. I relate to my in-laws as elders and want to know them and be known by them just as every kid wants of their parents.

The struggle for me, though, is checking where I am laughing the laugh of those who know – OR –  laughing the laugh of those who should know better.

Anzari tells Terri Gross of his chronic frustration with Indian-American actors who will effect an Indian accent just for a role. Anzari says it is one thing if the accent is genuine, but when it is put on like a mask, it is clearly for sport. It’s to amuse a mainstream white American audience, an audience that should know better. We should know now that accents from Western European countries are often esteemed as charming: England, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy. But the Vietnamese nail salon worker is endlessly entertaining, and the slapstick of Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles is something of a template for Asians in American movies–even 30+ years later.

K.C. Bailey/Netflix
K.C. Bailey/Netflix

Why are we charmed by certain accents and amused by others?  The easy way out would be explaining away the similarities in Romance and Germanic languages to American English.  But I think familiarity lends itself a measure of understanding. When we find someone familiar, we may open ourselves to learning more about their joys and their struggles.
Whereas if someone is unfamiliar, we may presuppose that we might not be able to understand their human experience.

It has taken me a long time to confront my own discomfort with unfamiliarity. Just because I am uncomfortable doesn’t mean something needs to be unknowable. Take learning Sanskrit-based languages. I don’t hear them or read them except in, say, a Thai Restaurant or in a foreign film. There are characters for some of these languages, letters for others. There are pronunciations that require my tongue to contort in formations that feel impossible. Learning Korean has been so damn hard. It’s just altogether unfamiliar and my brain is filled with all kinds of other trivia. So instead of pushing past this unfamiliarity, I am often happy to reside in a place where I can regard Korean as an unfamiliar unknowable. Thus I am free to laugh and poke fun from my vantage of the unfamiliar, unknowing, but I should know better.

Wwhat I know, more and more, thanks to Loverpants and Anzari and “Fresh Off the Boat” and Margaret Cho, et. al. is that I miss out on a great bunch of awesome people when I maroon myself on the Isle of the Unfamiliar. And that’s not a laughing matter.

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Multi-cultural Monday: Holidays + Disappointments

The first in a series on multi-cultural marriage/family

It wasn’t until I joined an online group of multi-cultural families that I realized I wasn’t alone. The pain I was harboring over holidays in my multi-cultural marriage was not isolated. So many marriages and families, whether they identify as multi-cultural or not, struggle especially around the holidays to incorporate traditions or build new ones that bring meaning to their lives. This is my experience in mourning and reinventing the holidays in a way that works for our family.

I was a new bride. It was our first Christmas together with my husband’s family. There wasn’t a Christmas tree at my in-law’s house much less a trace of holly. There wasn’t anything that qualified as a Christmas cookie or really anything sweet in supply. Presents weren’t a big deal, nor was having a decorative manger or singing Christmas carols or gathering with a big group of family and friends. These were the accoutrements of a holiday that I had come to love and look forward to with my own biological family, in spite of the pain of divorce and the loss of family members that had placed a strain on the holiday in the past.

My mother-in-law and me, riding to a Korean new year celebration at their church.
My mother-in-law and me, riding to a Korean new year celebration at their church.

We sat, my in-laws, my husband and me, on the floor of their living room on Christmas night, watching “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I went to get the pint of ice cream I had bought at CVS. I served a bowl to my father-in-law. “Why I can’t understand they talking?” asked my mother-in-law as she tried to follow the movie. “Because it’s pirate talk,” my husband explained. Why can’t I understand this Christmas, I thought. I feel like pirates have jacked my white Christmas. *** My in-laws immigrated from Korea to Canada in the late 1970s. Christmas in their post-war Korea was not about decorating or consumption. It was, like the rest of life, about survival. In my in-laws’ faith tradition, to which I had converted, Christmas is celebrated but not not as a “high holiday” as in other traditions. They were just happy to have their children home and to eat well and celebrate blessings.

The Lees and a Lee-to-Be***
I was angry, and I didn’t want to feel angry at Christmas, I told my husband. As a fixer, my husband asked me what I needed. (What I needed was an attitude adjustment, plain and simple, but I wasn’t ready to see that yet.) I wanted a tree and lights or just some simple marker that this was Christmas, I said. wreath.kendy.jpg

But of course, it wasn’t really about the tree. It wasn’t about the cookies or lights. It wasn’t about watching incomprehensible pirate movies on Christmas.

I just wanted to feel that I had not given up all of my traditions in order to be a part of this new family. 

I think a lot of us feel this way, even if our marriages/families are not cross-cultural. The totems, the traditions, the reminders of from whence we come are important to us. It’s not our job to impose these on others, but we get to bring strands and sprinkles of them into our new family. It’s our job to do so. Frustrating though it may be, it’s not our spouse’s job to know what tradition is important to maintain if we don’t share this with them, explain why it matters, and be willing to help institute it.

After ten years of marriage, my husband and I start thinking about the holidays, especially Christmas, around this time so we can look forward with anticipation rather than dread. We plan activities we can do with my in-laws, we think about the presents we’ll buy or the acts of service we can coordinate with our church to bring more cheer to the season. The goal is not to do a museum installation of my childhood Christmas at my in-laws’ house. The goal is to incorporate threads of my traditions with new moments that bring meaning to our family time which is a big fat Korean-Irish-Italian blessing in itself.

And you? Have you blended your childhood traditions with new ones in your marriage/family?

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