Saturday, May 21, 2011

Racism and Crab

Racism is never clear. Moving. Confusing. Using misdirection and sarcasm to skillfully fool its target.

I’m joking, it says…don’t take it so seriously…accept it.

So you do.

Even half accepting it, you’ve already betrayed yourself because maybe you didn’t get the joke and you’re too timid or confused to ask why is it funny? What is the clever come back to clear up the air? What do you say? So you laugh along. You’re cool about it. You play the game. Probably a misunderstanding, really. This person’s a friend. It didn’t happen.

But it did happen.

All too quickly, unexpectedly. You’re caught off guard. And its too late, you’ve already let the moment pass. A library card, with a fresh new entry and date.

He wanted to catch up with us before our big move to Costa Rica. He’d invited us to visit and stay with him down in Mexico. He was in the Bay Area for a week. We saw ourselves in his big house, drinking margaritas, living the ideal life, la pura vida. Settling in a little before heading further to Costa Rica. How generous the invitation. He was sent by his company to start an office in Guadalajara a year ago. A new engineering campus. Back when we first met, he was still living in a modest one-bedroom apartment in Menlo Park. But now, with new success, people change.

We’re at a favorite Vietnamese restaurant in the inner sunset in the city.

“Mai, you order for all of us!”

“What do you like to eat?” The lemming asks.

“Anything you like. In Mexico we don’t have many Asian restaurants. How about crab, although it’s not Vietnamese.” He looks at the menu.

“Actually it is. We eat it in our family for special occasions. It’s expensive. So we eat it rarely. We can have some if you’re like.”

“Expensive? It’s $10 at Safeway.”

There’s a pile of frozen crab, their bodies limp like corpses on ice. Non-descript shoppers are queuing up, filling their baskets with the reduced price special.

“Well, my mom gets it at a Chinese supermarket. It’s expensive there." I see the tank of water, crabs dancing from side to side avoiding the green net that wants to claim its next victim."Anyway, I don’t know why. We can order it if you like.”

I haven’t stepped into a Chinese supermarket for a decade. These days I know more about carbs then crab. Why this sudden need to defend it as a Vietnamese dish?

He’s on his third cup of tea. Gulping down the yellow liquid, putting it into his mouth. Every second, something goes into the mouth. 

The spring rolls arrive and he’s immediately dipped one into the brown nuoc cham sauce. Watching Jabba the Hut, he’s tossing the rolls back into the cave, swallowing, not bothering to chew. Did I overlook the lack of eating etiquette these last four years?

“So, I’ve been thinking, when we’re down in Mexico, I would love to cook a meal for all of us. I would love to do it for you and Cecila.”

“Oh, we have a cook. Maybe you can teach her a few Asian dishes. That would be nice.”

Long pause.

“Uh, well, it’s been a while since I’ve cooked any Vietnamese. Well, I leave it to my mom, she’s really the best. But it’s been a while. I wasn’t thinking of Vietnamese, although maybe, well, anything, I don’t know. I can, I don’t know….bake some bread?”

He pops another roll and burps out air.

Was it not only three months ago, I proudly showed off my homemade yeast, told him how I started to bake bread again? At our Spanish tapas and paella party, inspired by Barcelona, didn't he stand along side me, helping me make the much loved churros for the churros y chocolate. Where did that person go?

“Uh, umm, so……you’re friend Pierre is really nice. We can’t wait to meet him.”

“Oh, I can ask Pierre to cook creole! That would be quite tasty.”

“Is he from Louisiana?” I ask gingerly, not knowing why I’m asking this question.

“No creole is a taaaaataaaterm you use to describe French food made from the locals. He was born on an island off of Africa.”

“Oh, interesting.”

“Are both your parents Vietnamese?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Really? You don’t have the, you know…..eyes." He places his fingers on the edges of his eyes and pushes them to create the slant.…."Oh, I’m just joking,” he laughs, waving his hand in front of me, sucking down more tea with the other.

I’m twenty-one again with a boyfriend at the time, inside a café lounge area at Santa Clara University. He's telling a joke and does the slanted eyes with the ching chong voice. He stretches his eyes even tighter to exaggerate the slant…I start laughing, coming in closer, leaning into it, his face. Underneath the table, my right leg is raised high, ready to drive down the dagger, the point of my three-inch heel, striking hard, right into his foot, piercing the dough. He’s screaming in pain. Hopping around…everyone’s staring. I smile wide, victorious.

My eyes now find a hiding pace on my plate.

The conversation swerves clumsily like a car driven by someone who’s had too much to drink. A hazard to anyone close by.

Next stop. Spanish slang, double meanings, sexual innuendo bichos, chi chi, I have no idea where things are heading, but it feels eerie like I’m some sort of a doll, it’s hair brushed too harshly.

“So in Mexico they’ll call you Chinita. I mean they call me Huuuuerito, blondie. They’ll say hey Huerito. You just need to accept it. It’s Chinita this, Chinita that, for everything even if you’re Vietnamese.”

I find out later that huerito or guerito actually means little white boy.

“And Chinita? What does it mean exactly?”

“Chhhhachhhachina girl.” His stutter becomes more pronounced. “It’s a tttaaattaaterm of endearment. You’ll get used to it.”

I start to laugh nervously. I have no clue what to say next. Like perhaps, NO ONE, NO FUCKING NO ONE CALLS ME CHINA GIRL!



I say…. FUCK!

I reach for my beer.

The husband seeing the horror on my face quickly tries another maneuver.

“We just came back from France.” He changes the topic.

“Oh great. They just opened a French bakery in Guadalajara. Some one from the town moved to France and learned to bake there and they moved back. It’s really nice.”

“Um, our trip was nice. We had great weather. Lots of sun…..We both got a great tans….”

FUCK ME! No skin talk!

“Mai is a pro at getting tans.”

Here it comes. The roller coaster dips down. Everyone is screaming. I feel the sickness rise up my belly into my throat.

I put on an attempt at my best fake smile. “Yeah, it only takes a couple of minutes. I get dark easily.”

“Oh in that case they’ll call you Negrita!” He laughs at the husband.

Our eyes lose their last specks of glow.

The crab finally arrives. Jabba sucks the legs and scoops the sautéed bed of onions with his fingers.

“Are you going to be working?” He keeps the question among males.

“Well, we don’t know. Maybe."

“You can use my office. When are you arriving? You should get the iPad and have the data plan, that way you can use it as a GPS. You both are welcome to stay as long as you like." 

“Not sure when we’ll be there or the exact date. It depends if we stop along the way.” The husband responds firmly.

“That’s very generous of you. But we don’t want to be any trouble. We might also look into renting a place of our own.” I finally chime in.

“How much do you have in your savings?”

I’m on a cyclo in Hanoi watching the husband taking pictures of the ancient colonial city by night. He’s enjoying himself inside another bike. Meanwhile, my driver can’t wait to tell me about his eleven year old daughter, the money he needs for her education, how hard life is... so, so hard and miserable. Can you help me out, sister? How much does a pound of pork cost in the US? How much money do you make?

For dessert, there’s more iPad propaganda topped off with the repeated question of the night, when will we arrive? What is our exact date?

At 8:50 PM, I call it a night. We make our adieus leaving Jabba to shop for a shower squeegee at a hardware store on Irving.


How do you make sense of the dinner? Like examining the contents of a treasured box and discovering a gigantic piece of rotting gum. Do you clean it out or throw it away and get another one? Maybe living in Mexico with its cultural idiosyncrasies where people often rely on others to do their chores, the role of gender and class, status, elitism and hereditary, appearances, maybe he’s lost serious touch with who he once was in the Bay Area.

Stanford education+powerful job at multinational company+living in Mexico with large house and cook=Jabba the Hut? Who would have guessed?

I can’t sleep that night. My ego plays devil’s advocate.

Well, he probably had an off night. Must have been a case of lost in translation. Maybe because of the language thing. Switching from Spanish to English. And how about what is culturally accepted in Mexico might not be culturally accepted here in the Bay Area?

Perhaps, but he is fluent in English, has lived in the Bay Area for many years. He even went to Vietnam for his honeymoon. Did I mention Stanford grad and works for a multinational company where HR policies are known to be up the ying yang. If he said those things here in a work setting, he would be fired or sued for discrimination. So, that whole cultural relativism doesn’t seem to fly. And what was up with the whole cook comment and teaching her Asian dishes?

Well, most racist just think their racist thoughts and don’t say it. If you just say what you think, and say it freely, it gives the other person an opportunity to say something back. Right? Better to air it out?

It’s one thing to have an open discussion where there is active listening, give and take and the goal is to achieve a common understanding. It’s an entirely different matter when its one sided and the person starts unconsciously dumping on the other person without any consideration for the other's feelings or perspective. Where's the love, the courtesy? Like the saying goes, if it isn’t nice, don’t say it at all. 

Maybe you were just PMSing or something.

Nope. It’s not for another week.

You’re a hypocrite, everyone has racist thoughts and judges others by their looks at some point. Even you!

Yeah, but it’s ok to have thoughts. Even if they are crummy and judging ones. Maybe these thoughts were passed down from generations back. To then transmit and communicate it, even if it is culturally accepted, even if it ends in ito or ita, a term of endearment, is still a form of bullying! Even if the intentions are coming from a good place. Sharing it is still inappropriate, when it reduces the other person into an object. It’s like chronic complaining or worrying, or road rage, passing it on and on, until it’s unconscious. That’s just insane!

Tired with my own internal debate, I eventually drift to sleep.

I see a beautiful woman. She’s tall. Blonde. Gretta Garbo. She’s so lovely. She smiles at me and then, slaps me. Hard. I slap her back and then start kicking and yelling. The more I hit her, the bigger and bigger, she gets. And she hits me back. Punching and slapping, punching, holding me down. It gets more violent and black and shadowy and bleak.

I’m exhausted.

The more I give my power, the bigger she becomes. The more futile the fighting. I stop giving her my power.

I just stop.


Instead of blaming Jabba, what if I just accept him, thank him? For reminding me of the values that are truly important to me. Rather than being angry, passing on that fear, arrogance, bullying, carrying forth its energy, why not stop judging people, or even myself for that matter. How about kindness and compassion? How about NOT forgetting the daily practice of treating others the way you want to be treated. The golden rule?

Good point, the golden rule! Buddha himself believed and practiced it; Jesus, Ghandi, Mandela, Mother Theresa, Rev Zoe, all those badass black belts of truth and love.

But maybe I’m not as courageous, resilient even. I'm just a lemming with a soft underbelly, vulnerable; who does get hurt.

Then. What if Jabba were here, right now, is there anything you would like to say?

Namaste, motherfucker!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

By William Ernest Henley


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