Paper Bag Treasure

We had recently moved to a better part of London to ensure that my brother and I could attend a decent school. Dad was a London cabbie, the kind that drove one of those large black London taxis in the era before the Uber invasion. He would usually drive off early in the morning and return home well after dark. After dinner, I remember that he and my mother would frequently close the frosted glass door to the kitchen and talk earnestly in hushed, worried tones. I sometimes sat silently at the top of the stairs, straining to catch any intelligible words that seeped through the kitchen door. When I did hear them, they usually had something to do with money: bank, bob, savings, tanner, tip, quid, fiver. The down payment on the house had exhausted my parents’ savings and the mortgage was a heavy burden, so my father’s tips determined our daily solvency.

These financial worries made a lasting impression on me. It was as if my new school, my new friends, the new house, all could disappear at a stroke. However, one evening my slipper fell down the stairs and as I skipped down to retrieve it, I felt a small lump under the carpet I had not noticed before. After carefully pulling out a flat package wrapped in a brown paper bag, I tore it open to find a thick wad of five pound notes, a king’s ransom to a seven-year-old boy with a vivid imagination and a penchant for adventure stories.

It was, I speculated, accidentally left there by the previous owners, maybe the proceeds of white slave trading. Or the sale of goods on the black market. A grin spread over my face and a glow suffused my body as I imagined the delight on my parents’ face when I announced that I had discovered a hidden treasure, the solution to our family’s problems.

I leapt to the floor and rushed into the kitchen breathless with excitement, screaming, “Look what I found!” and threw the paper bag onto the table. My mum and dad looked at the bag, looked at each other, looked at me, and then burst into laughter. The money was simply Dad’s earnings for the week, tucked away until he had time to go and deposit them in the bank.

I have never forgotten that things are not always what they seem and that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”. I also have never completely shaken off the fear of losing everything. It has shaped my life subtly in different ways. I regularly go backpacking in the wilderness for days on end, not only for solitude and enjoyment, but also to prove just how little I need to survive. I practice stoicism to inure myself against unforeseen losses, and try to arrange personal and business affairs to limit risk while still allowing for upside surprises. Sometimes I still sit on the stairs and listen.

Malcolm Greenhill at Malcolm’s Corner


The LIKE Epidemic

So if you can like help me figure out about when and where this linguistic virus like grew, I’d really appreciate it. People use this curious filler like all the time, even on news radio. I worry hearing moms talk like this; they depend on the word like every five syllables like oh my god. Their children start like picking up the like off the floor and mopping like every breath with it and the saddest part is like I’m not exaggerating.

So like is this originally like an American phenomenon? I really don’t mean to like offend anyone but like didn’t this start as a caricature of the blonde American Valley Girl*? I know East Coasters are also fond of their like. Did it sweep in from the West, fly over and spare the Midwest? Hit mostly like the major cities? Can older readers tell us if you like remember Americans talking this way like in the 50s or 60s? Hey readers like in the other parts of the world, have people like forgotten how to talk over there too? If the like virus does run amok there, is it like an airborne disease from the States or has it like grown from native soil?

As a linguist, I’ve been trying like hard to uncover the subconscious role of this filler. There must be like a rhyme and reason to the madness. Seems it like began with the strange substitute for the verb to say.

So he said, “I’m freezing!”  —-> So he’s like, “I’m freezing!”

How in the world did this like happen? Words take root, like have a purpose. This one’s got me. The filler doesn’t like seem to discriminate the part of speech that it wants to like introduce. We’ve like allowed a linguistic aberration, an unnecessity, to make its home in our speech like a five-headed monster that we’ve like taken in for a pet. Language takes the path of least resistance, will like look to save spit. It’s not supposed to grow weeds. Why is it that people like depend on this word? What is it they feel that they can’t quite like express without it? Why are we like wasting b r ea th?

This is like one of the serious posts on class and language like coming out of the Race Around the World.

*Wikipedia: Valley girl is a stereotype depicting a socio-economic class of white women characterized by the colloquial California English dialect Valleyspeak and vapid materialism. The term originally referred to an ever-increasing swell of semi-affluent and affluent middle-class and upper-middle class girls living in the early 1980s Los Angeles bedroom communities of the San Fernando Valley.

The Race: Australian in Singapore, Part 15

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you?

I’m Australian. I simultaneously know and can’t really explain what that means. I think it’s something about how we speak or dress, our body language, our sense of humour. It’s funny – I can often pick an Australian (of any ethnicity) from a crowd in a foreign place. Even from a photograph.

Bronwyn2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in Singapore (six years now, on and off), have lived in the UK, briefly in China. In China I was generically foreign. In Singapore and particularly the UK, Australians have a more defined role, not the role we play in Australia. In England, for example, I had to be The Straight-Talking Australian, which involved being much more blunt than I would ever have gotten away with back home. People relaxed when I was blunt, as if the world was turning as it should, whereas back home they probably would have felt like punching me in the face. Sometimes being foreign feels like a superpower – you’re allowed to break local etiquette. Of course, all it really means is you’re expected to stick by a different set of rules.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

Not all that diverse. Predominantly white, middle-class Australian, second or third generation, which was considered to be about as died-in-the-wool as you could get thirty odd years ago. There were a few people of different ethnicities, but it never seemed to be a big deal. The only time I remember it coming up was when a teacher spoke to some kids who were using a racial epithet as a nickname. All the kids, including the guy who’d acquired the nickname, seemed baffled and amused that anyone would find it insulting. He kept the nickname. “But that’s just my name, Miss,” he said. “It’s what everyone calls me.” And they went back to playing ball.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

When I was around five I asked mum if my cousin was “from another country”. I’d obviously noticed that our cousins didn’t look exactly like the average kid on our street, and someone must have told me people looked different in other countries. That was confusing since I’d played with my cousins all our lives and I was pretty sure they’d been born at the local hospital. My mother gave me a brief introduction to evolution and genetics coupled with a history of human exploration – pausing along the way to point out that our white skin was originally adapted for northern Europe – and then explained that my cousins had got their different skin colour from their Chinese father. Then I think she told me to put on a hat and reapply my suncream. That was pretty much that. As a sort of bonus, it explained why we always ate Chinese food when we were with them.

When I arrived in the UK as an adult, several people asked me if I was “true” Australian. When I said yes, they said they’d asked a lot of Australians and it turned out their grandparents or great grandparents were actually from somewhere else entirely. The first time I heard this I think I burst out laughing, because (remember) second or third generation was died-in-the-wool as far as I was concerned. When I told one person my full pedigree she proclaimed me British, and I replied to the effect that the British passport office saw things differently. But some Aboriginal Australians see things differently again, so I didn’t feel I could press the issue.

When I have to go there, they have to take me in. That’s the bottom line for me personally.

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

I’m definitely more at home with some people than others, and yes, they are often Australian. My jokes don’t fall flat (as often) and we understand the same cultural references.

That said, it’s not that I’ll automatically get on better with other Australians (or consciously gravitate towards them), it’s more that the probability I’ll feel comfortable with a randomly-chosen Australian seems to be higher than the probability I’ll feel comfortable with a randomly-chosen non-Australian. There’s a greater chance we’ll have an overlapping world view. I like to keep an open mind, though – the people we run into are not usually randomly-chosen in any case. On top of that, there’s a whole list of things some Australians do that make me cringe, from getting obnoxiously drunk (affably drunk is ok) to a certain kind of bonding ritual based mostly on whining.

6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

Yes, pretty much. I met my husband in high school – we were all pretty much from the same suburb, and then there’s my family.

7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Think about the groups you are part of. Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

Definitely shared faith or interest is of more importance than race. Class is a big factor, and education. I can relate to veterinary colleagues from other countries better than to people from my own country who live wholly differently. My colleagues and I share more similar day-to-day experiences by virtue of our similar jobs. I’m not sure it’s necessarily better this way, but at least education and class are things that can sometimes be chosen or changed.

8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

Not consciously. Singapore is a melting pot, and we end up crossing paths with a mixed bag of nationalities.

9) Optional. Children seem color-blind. How have you explained color and culture to your children or grandchildren as they got older? Did you ever have to handle a situation where they were a victim of racial slight or slur?

Five-year-olds are not colour-blind. Just in the past month, we’ve started having a lot of discussions about this. My eldest has come out with comments like “white kids should play with white kids and brown kids with brown kids” which is hilarious in a way, because ninety percent of the kids he plays with (including his best friends) are “brown”. I pointed this out to him and he had a quiet revelation. Obviously I didn’t immediately think it was hilarious. I had to collect myself, and I probably would have felt differently about it if he was part of the majority racial group where we live. Of course I’ve wondered where he picked up these attitudes, but he’s also come out with a whole slew of sexist comments as well, so I would say five-year-olds are equal-opportunity bigots. I don’t think it’s a coincidence he’s the exact same age I was when I first started asking about our cousins’ ethnicity. It’s as if he’s just starting to think about and figure out his wider community. He’s picking up on obvious differences, drawing conclusions and testing them against my reactions, and then throwing them out and starting again with new ones next week. It seems like a really important and delicate phase when it comes to his ideas about race, class, sex, etc, and I’ve been reading a lot of articles on the internet about it, which is no doubt a dubious approach. I vaguely recall my mother saying one of my cousins had some trouble in early primary school with racial slurs as well, although it must be said that I (and others) had our own troubles at that age for reasons entirely unrelated to race. Kids can be mean those first few years of school, and they’ll latch on to any excuse, though race is a particularly obvious one.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I’m not sure I’ve ever got a handle on that. I will adjust my accent and word choices, but that’s more aimed at being plain understood.

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

Our brains seem wired to make snap judgements on some basis. If it wasn’t race it would be dress or accent. I’m not sure it’s possible to entirely stop the profiling – it’s probably more realistic to cultivate a habit of friendliness no matter what and to continually check our first impressions.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

As time goes by, I think my identity as an Australian is weakening. I relate less to people back in the “old country” and more to those who share similar life experiences. To the extent that people stereotype me based on my race or ethnicity the conclusion they usually jump to is that I’m in some way privileged. This can be a bit frustrating if they’re trying to overcharge me or if they’re having trouble with what I’ve asked for instead of Stuff White People Like (ordering tea in Singapore can be a two-step process, where I have to first place my order, then affirm that I realise it’s “local” tea). But for the most part I get to make my own choices in peace. It’s easier not to focus on racial issues when this is the box you get put in.

Bronwyn at Journeys of the Fabulist

The Race: Caucasian in Oregon, Part 14

1 Whitney1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you?

An analysis of my DNA by shows that my ancestors came from Western Europe, Ireland, Scandinavia and Spain, which makes me about as Caucasian as one can be.  I find my ethnicity interesting from a historical perspective. On a personal level, I believe who we are as individuals is much more important than our ethnicity.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I live in Southern Oregon – northwestern United States – surrounded by national forests. I was raised in a small, rural town in Northern California. My first move was to University of California, Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60s. From there I moved to Liberia, West Africa where I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years. I returned to the US, taught briefly in an all-black school elementary school in Philadelphia, and then moved to Atlanta where I traveled throughout the Southern United States recruiting for Peace Corps. Finally I returned to California.

Growing up in a small town with conservative parents gave me moderately conservative – though not prejudiced – values. Berkeley radicalized my view of the world and introduced me to cultural diversity. The kid from Diamond Springs found himself sitting on the floor of the administration building, protesting University policies on student activism, singing “We Shall Overcome” with Joan Baez. Liberia further changed my perspective on race and ethnicity. First, race was not a significant issue; it simply faded away for me. Second, working closely with tribal people introduced me to a world outside western culture. I learned how dramatically our view of the world is impacted by the culture we are raised in. Finally, I became acutely aware of the negatives aspects of ethnocentrism. Americo-Liberians, ancestors of freed slaves from America, ruled Liberia and considered tribal people inferior, while the tribal people gave their primary loyalty to their tribe and considered people from other tribes inferior. A combination of Americo-Liberian politics and tribalism would lead to Liberia’s Civil Wars and the deaths of some 200,000 people. I’ve written on the tragedy of Liberia.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

It wasn’t. One elderly black woman and two Mexican-American families lived in Diamond Springs. The Mexican-American kids were among my best friends and I spent a lot of time in their homes. The student makeup of the high school and community college I attended weren’t significantly different.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity? Please describe the context or a moment when you noticed you were different in color or language.

The only real bigotry I personally experienced was when I was recruiting for Peace Corps at black colleges in the South in the 60s. Racial tensions still ran high. Black students disliked me for the color of my skin, not for what I believed in or had done. I regarded the experience as educational. I think it would be valuable for everyone to experience (briefly) what it feels like to be on the receiving end of prejudice.

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

Over the years I have developed my friendships mainly around my work, regardless of ethnicity. Everyone’s ‘people group’ has a degree of ethnocentrism built in. We could all use vaccination against stereotypical and prejudicial thinking, with booster shots along the way. Tribalism is alive and well.

6) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

A young man who worked for me in Liberia has been one of my closest friends ever since. Sam came from a small village where he was born in a mud hut. I helped pay for his high school expenses in Liberia. Later he would go on to obtain a Bachelor of Science degree from Brandeis University, a Master of Public Health from Loma Linda University, and an MD (Doctor of Medicine) in Liberia. We still talk frequently and he refers to himself as my son. My work as an environmental and public health advocate frequently involved developing close working relationships with people from various ethnic groups. Beyond that, my five closest friends, including my wife, are white.

7) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest?  Would you rather spend time with those who share your cultural food, tradition, and values or those who share your interest or mission? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

Shared interests, not racial affinity, drive my friendships. Among my closest friends are people who have fought beside me in environmental and public health battles, and joined me on the long distance backpacking and bicycling adventures I’ve led. I will say that the majority of the people I am close to share my values, including tolerance.

8) Do you consciously try to keep yourself or your family active in diverse circles?

If I had young children, I definitely would. Now I keep myself active in things that interest me. I might add that my blogging happily brings me into contact with a very diverse population from around the world.

9) Optional. Children seem color-blind. How have you explained color and culture to your children or grandchildren as they got older? Did you ever have to handle a situation where they were a victim of racial slight or slur?

When I married Peggy, her children were already in high school with broad cultural experiences under their belt, having lived in Panama, Germany and the Philippines. Both our children and their spouses have been great at introducing their children to cross-cultural opportunities.

10) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I confess to being something of a loner, the perfect wallflower. My siblings were older and with a challenging home environment, I spent a lot of time by myself when I was a child. I learned to like it. When other kids were off playing baseball, I was happily off in the woods with my dogs doing an inventory of the local skunk population. I once took off on my bicycle and spent six months by myself doing a 10,000 mile tour of the US and Canada. I would still rather stay home and read a good book than go to a social function. The only time I felt deeply out of place was my freshman year in high school when I spent a year refusing to look at girls, any girl, in the eye. I totally lacked confidence, something that stemmed from the conditions at home. I definitely was not part of the in-crowd. And I wanted to be. It was miserable. It took several years to recover. But I’ve spent most of my life doing things that required social interaction and acceptance: running organizations, organizing campaigns, working as a lobbyist, etc. These responsibilities have opened many doors, but the sense of being an outsider has never totally left me.

11) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

The world is something of a mess, right? We need the talents and abilities of everyone working together to make it better. Every time we limit a person’s potential because of race, creed, sex, sexual preference, age, or whatever, we all lose. I think we are taught prejudice and it is deeply embedded in all societies. I also think we naturally fear that which we don’t understand and in many ways we haven’t shed the tribal instincts we inherited. Our minds are hardwired to think in stereotypes. The more our world shrinks and the more our survival depends upon working together, the more important it becomes to shed racial stereotype and judgments.

12) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

We all need to search our souls on occasion to uncover our prejudices and to explore how they impact our judgment. Going out of our way to help people feel they belong is an act of kindness. But it is also pragmatic. Prejudice begets prejudice. While this exercise has focused on the ethnic side of prejudice, not judging or limiting people because of their sex, faith, sexual preference, age or religious beliefs is of equal importance. Making assumptions about someone because of these characteristics can be as harmful to our society as making assumptions about someone because of their ethnicity. For example, I may be ‘retired’ and a grandparent, but neither defines who I am or what I am capable of. Finally, we need to evaluate the institutions we are part of as well as ourselves. For example, does our church teach that women must defer to men, or that gay people are sinners, or that people of other religions or nonreligious people are somehow inferior? Or does it teach that we are all equal in the eyes of God? Exclusivity is an open door to prejudice. Likewise, what do we learn in our places of employment, schools, and the groups we belong to? We have an obligation to promote tolerance in our organizations and groups as much as we need to broaden our own views.

Curt at Wandering Through Time And Place

The Measure of a Woman

I don’t remember my mother ever having the cold or flu. She must’ve had her share, especially in the sharp New York winter. She remains healthy in my memory because she never took a day off, never took a nap, never complained. Not even when the needle flew off the Singer and disappeared into her finger. Between the waitressing years in New York, Mom sewed for the giant garment industry that Latino and Asian immigrants pinned their hopes on in the 70s and 80s. The heaps of cut fabric she brought home in the metal shopping cart they literally called homework. It enabled her to raise her kids and stay involved in my early schooling. Mom did everything fast. She would feed polyester rectangles through the machine and recruit me and my little brother to flip them into shirt collars. At two cents a piece, time was the enemy. She ate a lot of dust.

The older I grow, the smaller I feel in the shadow of my mother’s sacrificial silence. I grew up exasperated with Mom, but her threshold of patience in marriage and motherhood was a lot higher than mine. Thanks in part to the freedom of speech this beloved Land of the Free so fiercely protects, the culture of rights I am privileged to claim citizenship in. Thanks in part to a nature that still begs tempering. I need to be humble. Need to love. I worship a God who exchanged his rights for a cross.

MomKitchenI don’t have the patience and gentleness for my son that Mom had for me. How dare I draw myself up to her small frame in these comfortable shoes that cost more than what she ever spent on her own tired feet? It wasn’t just waitressing that her legs ached from. She stood hours in the kitchen over the traditional side dishes every meal called for. Did you know Korean food is misogynistic? When I dug up this picture of Mom, I was surprised at the poor quality of the photo. It had stuck in my head as a beautiful shot, one of my favorite of hers, because it shows her radiant slaving away in a hole with no ventilation in a tiny apartment. And then my grandmothers had it even harder. No appliances to keep up with the laundry for a family of eight or nine. My mother’s father passed away when Mom was three, leaving Grandma to flee on foot with six children when the communist North invaded Seoul three years later. My mother became the youngest in the family when her brother, three years old, died en route from the pneumonia they could not treat in the winter flight. They buried him on the road and this and the rest my grandmother endured with silent heartache and grace. If unassuming, unreserved sacrifice is the measure of greatness, surely greatness diminishes with each generation. Or is it just me? I am probably the weakest link in my line. No, I don’t believe all the women before me were virtuous, and I know of many among Mom’s generation who even abandoned their own. I’m talking of the times and culture. Though I may shoulder my hearty share of struggles, my days aren’t heavy with the desperation I sensed in Mom when I was a child. The small matter of war aside, she and the women before her had to push through resistance just to procure the basics. Korea was poorer then, and immigrant life tougher than the country that shut no door on me as I was growing up. Living seemed to have required more fortitude. There are things I do better than Mom did. Like many of us, I determined to be a different parent. But my savvy turns out to be simply a matter of knowledge and opportunity – from the education my mother paid for with her very self. I had set out to do better, but I now see that every success of mine is the dream she chased.

The Race: Chinese-Canadian, Part 13

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you?

Chinese-Canadian or Canadian-born Chinese. My partner is German-Canadian. We’ve been together over 20 yrs.

2) Where do you live? If you have ever moved, whether to another city or the other side of the world, please tell us when and where, and the ways the cultural differences between the places shaped or made you think about your identity.

I’m in Calgary, a city of over 1.3 million people in Alberta, a province of Canada. This city is a big contrast to Vancouver and Toronto where I also lived for over 30 years. These cities have higher proportions of Asian-Canadians who can be quite vocal. Calgary is still quite conservative in areas of social justice, which includes race relations. This means far more subdued self-expression. I grew up not far from Toronto: Waterloo had a German-Mennonite base which throws Canada’s largest Oktoberfest annual festival. I had German-Canadian classmates who proudly wore their dirndls and lederhosen during Oktoberfest week. I thought every city had traditional Mennonites, and discovered I was wrong when I moved to Toronto. I learned about local Mennonite history when I was 13, long before I learned about Chinese-Canadian history in my final year biketo-work-vancouver-fall2009in high school. Prior to that, the curriculum was still stuck in British colonial history and the French-Canadians. As I grew up, I noticed my loss of Chinese fluency; the kind of food I ate at home, which was not steak and potatoes; and a nonEuropean family history. It was a revelation when I moved to Toronto in my 20s and felt less conspicuous with more Asian faces in the crowd. I participated in Chinese-Canadian community events, amassed a book collection of Asian-Canadian and American authors, and volunteered for five years with Asianadian, a literary magazine that specialized in Asian-Canadian issues and experiences. I met and was inspired by other volunteer writers and organizers from various Toronto ethnocultural groups who had a strong bold voice. I left the magazine to volunteer for a national Chinese-Canadian organization on race relations and immigrant matters. In the 1980’s, the Chinese Canadian National Council was led by a few young, inspiring volunteer board members in law, medicine and social work. They are community leaders today in Toronto and through them, I learned to find my voice to speak up and be less afraid.

3) How diverse was the neighborhood and school you grew up in?

We were the only nonwhite family on the street, downtown. I grew up quite aware that less than 25 students out of 2,000 were of Asian descent in high school – 1/5 of them my siblings. Very few blacks and East Indians also when I was a teen.

4) When did you first become conscious of your race or ethnicity?

First day in kindergarten. I was shocked to discover I didn’t know any English. I had spoken only Toishanese, a dialect not very well known nowadays. During the first few months of school, some white boys threw stones at me, tried to trip me and called me “Jap”. I didn’t know why they were being cruel. For a few weeks, I had nightmares of being chased. The first three years of school, I received in-school English as a Second Language support, which added to the vague feeling of being an outsider. So I was very shy. The lack of confidence to speak and present before groups did not truly dissipate completely until I was well into my career – in my 30’s! I am quite different now than when I was in university. I realize that though I was born in Canada, my early years have helped me to empathize with the struggles of immigrants. Now I’m in reverse. My spoken Chinese has degraded so much that I cannot communicate in a deep, meaningful way with my mother. I did have some very good white friends even though they couldn’t completely understand the cross-cultural challenges since they did not have immigrant parents and bilingual communication problems at home.

5) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity? Have you observed a social or behavioral tendency in your own people group you would rather not perpetuate?

For the past three decades, I have gravitated to people who share my interests, activities and values rather than seek relationships primarily along ethnic-racial lines. Earlier in life, I did actively seek out some friendships within the comforts of ethnicity. I wanted to understand my own identity – what things unite us and distinguish us. The Chinese-Canadian communities in all the big cities where I’ve lived are huge and highly diverse. Metro Toronto alone has over 400,000 residents of Chinese descent. Their families no longer come from the same southern province my parents and other Chinese immigrants did from the 1800’s to early 1960’s.

As for preconceptions, you have the typical academic or technically oriented Asian-Canadian. I tell people my math skills are limited, borne out of sheer need for survival in jobs that require interpreting basic management data. What would you expect of an English literature university grad? I avoided math courses in my final year of high school. That’s when my parents realized I was not like my siblings who did have stronger mathematical skills and did their university degrees in the hard sciences. I was the teen who stuffed in as many art courses as possible in school, wrote poetry and loved literature. Most likely my creative tendencies are reflected in my blog. Obviously not all people within an ethnicity will fit the mold.

6) Tell us a little about your family, the generations who first came to America.

My great-grandfathers, coincidentally on both sides, worked in Canada and the U.S. for several years in the early 1900’s. They went back to their families in China when they could. The federal Chinese Immigration Act in North America barred Chinese men from bringing their wives and children to Canada and the U.S.. Both countries feared being run over by the Chinese and worried about job competition for whites. After building the national railroads for both countries, the only type of work the Chinese could get were in laundromats and restaurants. The law affected Chinese family structure and family.

Chinese-American and Chinese-Canadian soldiers and nurses died for Canada and the U.S. during WW II even though they could not vote at the time. Their allegiance and sacrifice turned Parliament in Canada and Congress, and the Chinese were eventually granted the right to vote – just a few years after my father immigrated to Canada. My mother was a picture bride. Met my father for the first time when she got off the plane in Toronto. They were married within a week. I’m the eldest of six. Two of my siblings married Caucasians.

7) Are your most meaningful relationships with people of your own ethnicity?

My most meaningful relationships are not restricted to my own ethnicity but certainly my family was instrumental in shaping my identity in my earlier years.

8) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest? Where do you feel the greatest ease and connection?

Racial likeness isn’t enough. I connect better if I shared a passion like cycling or art as well as cultural-life experiences like food, tradition and personal values. About 60% of my home meals are Asian-based though I stopped eating rice over five years ago to stave off Diabetes 2.  My circle of friends is moderately diverse. After spending time last week with a Japanese woman visiting our city, I realized that my closest, long-standing nonwhite friends were all of Chinese descent. So for the past five decades after living in big Canadian cities, I’ve never really known anyone well with family roots in Korea, Vietnam, etc. It’s all been just superficial, pleasant working relationships with others so far. But for me, friendships last because of happenstance, trust, empathy and the right vibe.

9) How did you set out to secure a sense of acceptance and belonging in social contexts, especially if you have faced hurtful experiences?

I found solo activities I enjoy which allow me to explore, destress, grow in skill, so that I wouldn’t depend on acceptance according to someone else’s standards. I first wanted to satisfy what I felt was right for myself. I tend to distance myself or just ignore others, often strangers, who have been hurtful or overly negative. It helps a lot to have a set of great friends who have known me a long time. Life is short and my energy is limited. I have also found solace in writing poetry and doing art on my own – creative channels and antidotes for loneliness.

10) Do you feel it is not fully possible or even imperative to shed all racial stereotypes and judgments?

I can shed my own judgments if I stop and reexamine my own biases and perceptions. I can’t say though that I’m conscientious enough.

11) What has struck you the most in working through this exercise? Any closing thoughts on race and identity you would like to share?

The write-up raised a curious point that I haven’t explored such a pertinent part of my life on my blog. I haven’t completely figured out if I want to spend time and energy on racism, stereotyping, cross-cultural conflicts and pain.  It has been a long journey in learning how to stand by my own identity and voice in the most authentic way. The journey is not over.

Is there mercy when there is hate and war in this world? Sometimes it means immigrating to a completely different country to lose personal biases or historic influences. Or it takes the 2nd, 3rd generation being raised by parents with healthier, more conscious attitudes. Since my parents did not directly experience the atrocities of the Japanese army in China, they don’t have the historic negativism toward the Japanese.


Jean at Cycle Write Blog

The Race Around the World: Behind the Scenes

So I’m taking a breather, slowing my pace, taking stock. Behind the unassuming titles in the series has been a lot of work. I have combed through the submissions and tapped some contributors for as many as six drafts for the clearest chronology and descriptions. I would not be surprised if my “Would you please clarify what you mean…” has pursued the poor writers into their dreams at night. The feedback on the Race has been overwhelming. I am deeply grateful for responses like K’lee’s from Obzervashunal:

“[You] touched upon something so universally potent, you have created something so unbelievably amazing here, a groundbreaking series. I know you feel it, but I hope you REALLY feel it. If this were a book I had the privilege of sampling, I don’t doubt I would buy it. It feels so GLOBALLY impactful. Thank you for taking this on!” Other awesome readers who also saw this project as an ebook forced me to consider it, and consider it from several angles I did. I’ve decided it’s not feasible. Even if I had the time to put a book together, the legalities, pricing, copyright present themselves a thicket I don’t have the wherewithal to cut through. You not only have embraced my vision of exploring what is unique and universal across cultures but have dreamed for me. And you pull me up to higher ground. I wish I had more than thanks for you.

I was also taken aback by the response on my own story. One reason writing is a challenge is that you’re so deeply in it. When you’re your own topic, objectivity is even harder, if not impossible. You just don’t see what others do. I was surprised by and appreciated how you took to the glimpse of my autobiography. What I, in turn, found interesting was observing you, my reader. Watching you graciously welcome guests, investing time in their stories, willing to broaden your mental horizon. My own perspectives are limited by my experiences, and so it’s been neat to see others find fascinating an opinion or event that happened not to hit me in any particular way.

I learned how ignorant I am. The back-and-forth with the contributors and readers taught me so much. I kept imagining Simpel Me (who wrote Part 5) was black just for the word Africa – until I added white in the title White in North Africa. I literally had to spell out what color he is to get it. Asian-Australian. Modern-day Lakota Indians. A reader mentioned Black Canadians. I hadn’t realized such groups existed. I also noticed that how we approach life and view ourself very much drive our view on race. It doesn’t go just the other way around, as the questions I’ve posed imply. Elizabeth, for instance, revealed that the fear of being hurt that she carried from old traumas impacted her relationships across racial lines. She, along with two other contributors, shares a bit about what the dialogue over her story did for her:

“Participating in the Race was a fascinating experience. I told my story somewhat hastily, truncating rich experiences and failing to articulate that appearance and accomplishment matter less to me than character and kindness. The responses were overwhelmingly supportive and encouraged me to now engage, rather than stand idly by in the face of intolerance and ignorance. It was during these rich exchanges with the readers that I realized the nebulous hostility I’d sensed from non-whites while growing up was due to this unwillingness on my part to engage and to my own perceptions, rather than reality.

Reading the other contributors was inspirational and daunting. Living as ex-pats, relating the divergent existences of being called a king one minute and living as one of the crowd in a big city the next, and following God’s response to intolerance are some of the highlights from this series for me. Thank you for including me on this journey, my passport and soul heavily stamped with broadened understanding and appreciation from my travels.”  The Race: American Cities, Part 4


Jenni says, “Firstly I’d like thank HW for coming up with this idea and having the tenacity to see it through. The editing and back and forth alone would have taken time as well as balancing the diplomatic knife edge of ‘suggestions’ about another’s writing style and format but I cannot argue with the results. Reading the stories from the Race so far has been fascinating and participating in it myself was a unique experience. It was so strange to put into words ideas that had been nebulous feelings rather than direct insight and having to delve into the whys and wherefores of the past and the role my ethnicity played in it was a more than a little humbling.

It is one thing to ‘know’ that one has been fortunate. It is another to see it baldly exposed with the obvious unfairness between my life and that of those who’ve not been as lucky. Humbling doesn’t really quite cover it – mortifying is probably closer to the truth. I think I would feel worse if I had not realized much of this years ago when I was reaching for ways to rebuild my world. While I had been aware of the doors my ethnicity and class opened for me, I had taken it for granted and not really looked at the why. Writing for the Race I was forced to put into words and so clarify to myself how being a WASP had impacted my life. When I went through my break/melt/shatter down all those years ago I had to rebuild my life all over again. In the process I realised that while the world in which I had always swum was ‘easy’ it wasn’t what I wanted or who I wanted to be, and thus I started to reach for the new and break down some of the ingrained attitudes and test my boundaries regarding how I saw the world and people in it. But it wasn’t until I participated in this project that I gave it ‘formal’ thought or clarified it in a way that could be explained to another.

The honesty in the different posts and the genuine interest and connection others made to my piece and the other participants made me glad that I had been as forthright as I had. I hope to continue to grow into my life and I think the lessons pulled from my subconscious during this task will be of great assistance in the future, giving me a kind of clarity I had lacked regarding the direction I am taking with my journey. Thank you for walking with me for part of the way.”  The Race: Down Under, Part 8


Shazza says, “I’m blown away that anyone cares. My story didn’t seem interesting to me. But I guess when you write it down, it does resonate because so many people have experienced some form of racism. Some of the stories really jumped out at me. I didn’t want to stop reading those. I wanted them to continue.

The dialog, feedback, and follow-up did make what I had to say more meaningful. This exercise opened up my narrow view of racism, and that’s the most exciting thing that happened. I must admit I’m a narcissist when it comes to racism, making it seem as if it only happens to black people for the most part. I know that is untrue, but sometimes I’m short-sighted in my thinking. So I’m glad I’ve been corrected with the bigger picture. I love the bigger picture. It’s so much better. Being in a box is bad, and you just opened mine up. Thank you for that, D!” The Race: Black Canadian in California, Part 9

It struck a chord in me that Elizabeth said being white is important to her and Shazza discovered she loved being black. Being unapologetic about your race. It is what I shared in my own storytelling, that I have come to feel more fully American and more fully Korean than in years past. I thoroughly appreciated Jenni’s humble acknowledgement of and appreciation for the way she’s considered color to have stacked life in her favor at times.

Your encouragement has been fuel for the road. The race continues, onward and upward.



We Underestimate The Human Brain

I couldn’t resist this post. Five-year-olds memorized facts in seven subject areas along with 1) the names of all the U.S. presidents 2) 24 verses of a chapter from the book of Ephesians and 3) enjoyed hands-on explorations in science, art, and music. Middle and high schoolers also wrote papers, redrew the map of the world from memory, analyzed text, and debated. These activities have kept the kids in our local homeschool community busy since the fall. I had to give you a glimpse of what some of this work looked like. My first grader loved every minute with our weekly small group. I have played the audios of songs and recitations almost every day the last eight months to drive them in nice and deep, and never has he tired of them.

Classical Conversations is a Christian version of the approach to education that draws its roots from the ancient Classical world. The Classical model takes its cue from the developing mind. We take advantage of the tremendous capacity for information the early years offer. We then encourage kids to draw relationships among the facts they’ve retained. Older teens integrate principles and articulate their reasoning. The students work hard. They even get a bit overwhelmed in transitioning between the levels as public schoolers moving on to high school do. But our students rise to the challenge and don’t see the memorization as such. It is doable, palatably apportioned week to week. As you can see, it’s fun.

The clips are from the cumulative memory work of 24 weeks that the students presented before family and friends two weeks ago. Turn up the volume for the indefinite pronouns rap:

The kids closed the event with the 204-point timeline of human history; here are the first 40 seconds. The hand motions include American Sign Language for tactile learners. Yes, the kids recited every word of the timeline you see listed. I think the best part is their enthusiasm in the learning.





Greatness, Part 7: In the Mouth of Slavery

I am mystified by the tenacious practice of slavery in history. What transpired in the American South is merely a page in the saga of human trafficking, traceable all the way from the 20th Century to 1700 BC when The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi distinguished between slave and free. The Hittites were among the ancient civilizations to keep slaves as did the influential Roman and Greek empires. Then came the prominent period of transatlantic human commerce. Spain and Portugal bought from Muslim traders North Africans to work the farms and mine the gold in the Central and South Americas they had conquered. When the “need” exceeded resources and enslaving the Indians in the New World wasn’t enough, the European countries went on to kidnap ordinary villagers out of West Africa. The Dutch joined in on the lucrative melee, followed by the British who kept their hand on Africa for over three hundred years. Which brings us well into the ironic dealings of America who had insisted on independence from her oppressive English mother.

So I watched Twelve Years a Slave and went blindly save the knowledge that the movie had earned critical acclaim and a string of award nominations. I didn’t go to do a review but to see what it might contribute to this series. The film added perspective and detail to the African-American story I was well familiar with. Twelve Years spotlights a quieter segment of American slave history, free blacks in the North who were kidnapped to the South into an unthinkable life. Based on the true story of Solomon Northrup, the movie not only goes no holds barred in the depiction of injustice but offers a stirring conceptualization of bondage. It is horrible to be born into a box, to know nothing from birth but that you are disposable, unsafe, and must buy with blood and sweat your right to breathe. But to have known freedom? To have enjoyed love and esteem, fine dress, house and land, opportunities to develop gifts; and one day find yourself literally thrown at the door to a life that denied your personhood, stripped you of your family, property, accomplishments, and name? It’s a dream you go crazy to wake from. I had not realized that blacks were actually never fully free in the North. You could believe your horizon as wide as anyone else’s but if you were dark, you laughed and worked possibly a marked man. Just like a West African.

The way a slaver inducted Northerners into the ways of the South was to beat them until their spirit, identity, humanity broke. The heartbeat of Solomon’s struggle is to hold onto his dignity and refuse despair. How long can you fight despair, especially when the majority of slaves born or kidnapped into the madness never made it out? How far will you go to survive? He sees a man who tries to defend a black woman from rape stabbed to death without second thought. Yes, Solomon learns to bow, call the white man Master, run when Master barks, hide how smart he is. A psychopathic plantation owner orders Solomon to lash a female slave who had left the premises to procure soap. Solomon reaches a point of paradigm shift. The need to live supersedes principle and loyalty. He has a wife and children he’s been praying to see again one day. He whips Patsy as long as he is required. Hearing her scream with the deep, bloody grooves running across her back in the next scene, we wish she had died.

The endless sky under which Solomon labors is his endless prison. When Solomon incredulously wakes from his bad dream and jumps on a carriage to be escorted back home toward the end of the film, you see the very air is different. He marvels. It is free air. I had planned to name this post Out of the Mouth of Slavery but decided to keep it a tribute to the millions of people around the world Solomon came to represent those twelve years deep in the mouth of hell. I take pause to acknowledge the desperate fight within the human spirit to maintain dignity and keep hope in view when darkness prevails. I recognize those who stood helpless as their wives were raped, children sold, and marshaled the strength to put one foot in front of the other. Great men, women, and little ones who triumphed over the assurance that their sun will never rise.