Friday, October 30, 2009

Blending in

My trip back East has me looking at my California life with new eyes.  Memories of my childhood float in front of me like a theatrical scrim, showing images that contrast to my everyday life.

There are lots of things I miss about my childhood hometown.  The pace of life was slower, and I could walk or bike to a lot of places.  Living in sprawling California suburbia, there are fewer things in close proximitiy, and there are many more national chains and mall-spaces than I grew up with.

Some of that is the pace of the times, too.  I was allowed to wander in the afternoons much more freely than parents allow their kids today.  Even in my hometown, the school buses drop off directly in front of each child's home now, instead of at the corner bus stop just half a block away.  I remember waiting at that bus stop with dread when I was much younger.  The other kids used to tease me and call me racial slurs, until an older boy named Russell made them stop.  I was very sad when he moved away the following year--I had to fend for myself then.

As I got older, and made more friends, the bus stop was as good a recess--a place to hang out with friends and talk while waiting for the bus.

Part  of me wished I had that idyllic small town habitat for my kids.  It certainly felt safer and more community oriented than where we are now.  The pharmacist, priest, crosswalk lady, gas station attendant--everyone knew who everyone in town was.  You couldn't get away with anything, because they all knew your parents--but you were really safe as well.  "It takes a village to raise a child" and all that.

But I also remembered the estrangement I felt as the only Asian kid in my class.  There were maybe 5 Asian kids in the whole school.  Everyone knew who I was, and likewise I knew the Asian kids in the grade above and below me.  We gravitated toward each other, seeking safety in numbers...single digit though they were.  The same school had a similarly small number of black, or other ethnic groups.   Typical for a small town, and a large part of the reason I didn't move back.

When I went to college, and found that maybe 15-20% of the class was Asian, even if mostly foreign, it was a  relief to meet other people with a face like mine.  I realized how much of my personality had been shaped by this forced prominence.  I believe you find many minorities at both the top or the bottom of academic bell curves because to a degree, that conspicuousness forces you there.  I haven't read this full citation, but it seems there is academic research to back up my theory.  It is hard to blend into the middle when you are the "only" anything in a group.  You either fulfill people's stereotypes, or flout them completely.  There isn't room for "sort of" in extremes.

I realized I never wanted my children to deal with the pressures that I had growing up.  In some ways, it would have been easier for them, if they had faced such, since their mother would understand the issues.  On the other hand, my all white parents had the ability to approach the white majority on equal footing, so who knows.

I preferred to find a place where my children's race would not be such an issue.  I've found it.

1 comment:

  1. One of my best friends throughout high school was a first generation Japanese-American. I don't think we could pick out another Asian in the school. I remember her feeling so much an outcast. And I remember, too sharply, the assholes that would tease her. I was glad she made it West, too.


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