Chinese Fire Drill: Thoughts on Racism

by Lani Valapone Cox

The thing about being Asian in North America is no one thinks you’re subjected to any kind of racism. We’re not brown enough so no one is the wiser. I imagine some white people tiptoe around black folks in an effort not to offend or say anything that might be construed as racist. Well, I can assure you that white folks don’t make that kind of effort around us.

It’s almost as if they just know, a kind of assumption – an arrogance that makes no sense. There is little awareness of the words flying out of their mouths. I’d rather you tiptoe than boldly saunter. I’d rather you ask than assume. And I’d rather you not tell me you like Thai food when I tell you I’m part Thai.

For some fascinating reason people who find out that I’m part Thai respond by saying, “Oh, I love Thai food.” I never quite know how to respond. Would that be like meeting an Italian and saying, “I love pasta. My favorite dish is spaghetti.” Or meeting a black person “I love rap music.” Or a Jewish person “I cried during Schindler’s List.” If someone could please tell me a creative and clever way to respond to this, because I would love to know. I love sushi but I don’t tell my Japanese friends that I do or that I find the spicy tuna roll delish.

So just know that when you tell me you love Thai food – on the outside I put on my pleasant face – blank, mildly surprised and sweet. On the inside I just scrunched up my face like you farted. You just let a social faux pas rip – it happens occasionally and I’ll just ignore it because laughing or admonishing you would be considered inappropriate and ineffective.

I think part of the reason Asians aren’t known for being picked on has to do with the fact that we don’t make a big fuss about it. It’s as if hardship brings the best out in us. We accept it as a way of life. Therefore, racism becomes one of life’s trials. This is not to say that we don’t mind or care, it’s just we move through it and shrug it off like a chill in the air. We shiver, we complain, we stomp our feet and either head indoors or put on a heavy jacket.

We are the silent minority – under represented in the media from television, radio, and print media to the big screen, and of course we are nowhere to be found in government. Although every once in awhile Hawaii elects an Asian who represents the majority population of the Islands. We are the working masses. But it is erroneous to think that we do not command the personality to be out there shaking hands like a good politician or acting in movies or modeling on the cover of major magazines.

I hate how all “backwards” things are considered Chinese, like a Chinese jump rope is essentially a large elastic loop, or my favorite: the old Chinese fire drill. Ah, there’s nothing like sprinting out of a idling car to change places with the other passengers for no apparent reason. But we don’t make a fuss – when was the last time you heard an Asian complain about these types of things? Besides me.

This quality, this martyr-ism, this flair for the quiet dramatics or what others like call ‘passive aggressive’ is just our way of dealing with it. Hey we have our immature moments too.

I remember one particular time when I was in Hawaii, I was at one of my auntie’s birthday party. (In Thai culture every friend of my mom’s was considered an Auntie or an Uncle. I had to refer to them as such and that was how they were referenced Uncle Ron, Auntie Pat, etc.)

Aunt Kay’s husband hosted a surprise birthday party. The guests were a mix of Caucasians (her husband’s friends) and Thais (Thoy’s friends). When my mom and I arrived some of the guests had already been drinking. The white women.

I sat down on the couch with the other Thai women who were busy chatting away. I can’t speak Thai but as a child who grew up listening to this language I understand undertones. I understand body language and I sensed what the Thai women were talking about were the tipsy white women.

I leaned over onto my mom, “What are you guys talking about?”

“Those women,” she whispered back. Her eyes looked across the coffee table at the Caucasian women giggling and flailing their arms about as seen on drunken people everywhere around the globe.

“Oh, I know.”

The Thai women were excitedly talking amongst themselves and then erupting into laughter. I could tell they were being a little nasty.

“Mom!” I accused her; to me they were being fairly obvious in their disdain.

“No shame.” She stopped laughing enough to talk to me. “White women have no shame. We don’t do like that.”

Always a lesson – I rolled my eyes. Oh yes you do. But I had to admit I enjoyed sitting between these two worlds. I enjoyed the knowledge that I had. And I was glad not to be sitting on the other side of the table.

One of the husband’s was rescuing his drunken wife. The Thai women all smiled and waved, “Good bye” and other false pleasantries.

You see, in Thai culture appearances count. I’m sure other Asian cultures are like that. I guess that’s why you won’t ever see us making a fuss about racism or discrimination. We won’t let you see us when we’re down. If the mask should fall we’ll pick it up and put it back on.

There were a few instances in my adult life when I was accused of being “hard to read” or unemotional. At first I was confused. I always thought I was one of those people who wore my feelings on my face. But my first teaching mentor would suddenly stop in mid-sentence to say, “I find you so hard to read.” She would search my face looking for Buddha knows what.

At another job in Oregon my boss would mention the same thing. We would be in her office, door closed. I was probably being lectured then she would stop and say, “I never read your expression. I can’t tell if you’re happy or sad.”

“I’m fine.” I would respond then follow it up with a tiny smile.

Since this happened during my teaching days and again at this job I asked Brad, “Am I hard to read?”

“What do you mean?”

“Can you read my facial expressions? Today Denise told me she has a hard time reading my face.”

“No. I can usually tell what you’re feeling.”

“I thought so.”

I began to consider that the two worst jobs I’ve ever had had this ‘unreadable’ facial expression thingy between them. I began to realize that both people and places had probably the least amount of exposure to Asian culture and people. And that’s okay – those incidences just highlighted the fact that we were never able to communicate effectively.

When I was getting my first and only tattoo I didn’t cry or complain or yell. I guess others have because my tattoo artist “Gramps” (as he was called) told me, “You’re like a Japanese Samurai. You take the pain well.”

Between clinched teeth and watching him dab the blood off of my shoulder and said, “Thank you.”

Lani Valapone Cox is a first generation American currently living in Chiang Mai Thailand where she is subsisting on poetry, music and wicked awesome food. Notable jobs of sunsets past include: archaeologist, pizza maker and Waldorf teacher.

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