Around the World in Eighty Days

What a trip. England, Turkey, India, Africa, China, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia.

That’s not counting North America, where we hit Canada and Hawaii, trekked across western United States through the Midwest and Texas to the Eastern seaboard. We glimpsed Native American culture, the WASP world, New Zealand Maoris. We spoke with the daughter of a picture bride, a young Arab in North Africa, an American who chose life in an Indian ashram over the noise and ease of the States. We learned of the genocide of Armenians 100 years ago and the civil wars in Liberia, caught sight of the KKK.

flag-of-turkey_w725_h483I learned as much from the discussions as I did from the posts, more history than I did in a year of high school. I did not know “Tejanos are land-owning Mexicans who were farming and ranching before the Germans, Czechs, Irish, and Scottish settled in Texas. They speak with the same drawl the Caucasians do, but still get treated like border crossing migrants.” Mark, our American Gypsy, taught us so much.

PERCEPTION
Seems race is often the color others paint of us. Paul, not a blogger but a wonderful reader and writer, said to Sreejit, American in India:

flag-of-india_w725_h484I found it delightful that in America you are black and in India you are white. That is amazing and completely counter to conventional wisdom. It reminds me of an interview I watched with Barak Obama and his wife Michele before he was elected to the first term. The interviewer asked Barak what his response was to those who said he wasn’t really black, as one of his parents was white. Michelle jumped in and said he was black and if they needed any proof all they had to do was watch when Barak tried to wave down a taxi on a street curb. If there was a white man farther down the block, the taxi would go right past Barak and pick up the white man. That put an end to race questions. Michele is a lawyer and it shows: she picked an example that clearly showed that discrimination determined race.

White people in America told Sreejit he was white, blacks insisted he was black. And he wasn’t the only blogger on this journey to have been told what he was.

I said to Sreejit: That is something – plain funny and sad – how people kept imposing their own background on you. Projection? I’ve always said we see what we want to see. And you were chameleon enough, with enough black and enough white for others to pull you to themselves in the attempt to categorize you.

We see what we want to. Why? We fear what is OTHER. We fear the unfamiliar. It made them feel more comfortable to be able to identify with Sreejit.flag-of-australia_w725_h363

BELONGING
Julie, whose contribution did not make it into the race, shared some thoughts as an adoptive parent:

My husband and I are Caucasian; we adopted our daughter from China when she was ten months old. We are a mixed-raced family. This fact is both irrelevant on a day-to-day basis, and the thing that defines us. A while back, I read an article about a person who got in trouble for saying that she had forgotten that her adopted Chinese daughter was Chinese. I think what she was trying to say was that she simply thought of (let’s call her) Ann as “Ann.” Her “foreignness” was removed by familiarity, and she had for all intents and purposes blended into mainstream white America. Just an ordinary child, her child. And this is what offended people, the very denying of her ethnicity, the removal of her birthright of Chinese heritage and culture.

And while I don’t feel particularly inclined to join in the condemnation, I must say that I never forget that my daughter is Chinese, for that is part of her very essence. What I often forget is that there is anything out of the ordinary for a young Chinese girl to be parented by middle-age white parents.flag-of-china_w725_h479

Ann’s mother obviously meant she did not see her girl as being other. What does it mean to belong in this situation? To be full-blooded Chinese and part of a white family? What I hear from this mom is a deep acceptance of a child that did away with any self-consciousness about color. The way I might talk with a dear friend and, while appreciating the wisdom she brings to our relationship, forget she is old enough to be my mother. Because it feels natural, like we were meant to be together. Can we just say what we feel about race? Of course we can. And of course we can’t. I am so glad we didn’t have to worry about being politically correct in this series. Navigator echoed sentiments Jenni and Elizabeth had expressed: “Perhaps there is an unconscious luxury of being white.” I found the point-blank confession refreshing.

SELF-DEFINITION
Paul recently said to me, “When you started the Race series, you were obviously exploring asymmetry – how do we each create value in our lives given the different starting places and circumstances? Quite a few of the interviewees identified seeking commonness as the means of success. And yet if you looked deeper, they actually leveraged their unique personal circumstances to be successful.” Any thoughts? Many of our articulate writers felt race didn’t matter. flag-of-united-states-of-america_w725_h381I think it most certainly does but we need to clarify the not mattering. Race does not determine worth and should not affect opportunity. Sadly it does both these things in many places and where this happens, race should not matter. Can we instead take healthy pride in the culture of our lineage, and be neither overweening nor ashamed? My God made strawberries red and lemons yellow. And He delights in their color. Imagine strawberries looking to erase their ruby signature or trying hard not to be so red. Interestingly, every color of the farm fields and gardens offers its own irreplaceable nutrients. Why have I at times felt apologetic about being Korean? Why did I feel looking back at where I came from, talking about my past, would be a waste of your time – until you said otherwise? It was out of your response to my story that I gave myself permission to keep going with The Measure of a Woman. Remarkable that the immigrant tale would make its way up my Top 10, second only to my About which had over a year’s running start.

We had more than discussion and history lessons in our race around the world. There were personal history and conviction and fears. In my virtual travel around the globe, there wasn’t one tour guide of a contributor who has not opened these small Asian eyes. I’ve decided people who don’t travel or at least open themselves to cultures outside their own short themselves.

Sreejit put it well and sufficiently in reply to a comment: “I think the more we see of the world, the less we are stymied by race issues. But since most people don’t leave their own backyard, it is easy for stereotypes and prejudices to persist. Though I think the internet is also helping to break down the walls as well. The world is becoming a little smaller everyday.”flag-of-mauritania_w725_h483

I was nevertheless reminded in conversations with the Race participants who live in a far and different time zone just how grand our world is. Even instant email could not keep our long-distance exchange going at the pace I wanted. When I was up, my fellow writers were in bed. There is a sunrise every hour throughout this world. I am consumed by the affairs of my day but my light is someone’s darkness. We do well to grow a bigger heart.

At The Finish Line: Asian American In Thailand, Part 16

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I consider myself Asian American, or as I like to say, American Asian. The latter description came from digesting people’s perceptions of me. Depending on circumstances, I’m either too Asian or not Asian enough. I just go with Asian American because it’s the title folks are saddled with. It’s the convenient box I check. But I think Asian American means different things to different people. My father and his family made their way to the United States after fleeing China during the Cultural Revolution. My mother met my father during the Vietnam War when he was stationed with the US Air Force in Thailand. Interestingly, I was almost born in Thailand, but my mother boarded the plane nine months pregnant with me so I could be born in the US. Yeah, she’s crazy, but I’m thankful.

Six years later we returned to Thailand on family vacation. My father died in a motorbike accident. Our lives changed in ways I would never have imagined. My mother never remarried but stayed with her Caucasian boyfriend for pretty much my entire childhood. I refer to him as my step-dad, out of convenience. Like my mom, he was from a poor working-class family. When I got older I would jokingly refer to me and my family as “Asian white trash.” Now that I look back, there was something in that. It was never meant as self-deprecation but just my way of recognizing the uniqueness of my family.

My ethnic identity is important to me in as much as it gives me some sort of foothold. I’m part of a tribe, so to speak, but my ethnicity is also not that important in light of the experiences I’ve had. My experiences have left me to wonder what identity really is, and I’ve decided it is a fickle friend.

2) What was your first language? What did you grow up speaking with your parents, especially until your father passed? How much Thai do you understand and speak?Lani

Had my father lived I feel Chinese and Thai would have been taught us, but this is just a guess. My brother and I grew up surrounded by the Thai language but interestingly enough, Mom spoke English with us (even though hers is poor and has not really improved because she had many Thai friends in Hawaii). So I started learning when I arrived in Thailand about five years ago. I have functional Thai, but the goal is to be fluent.

3) 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 Chiang Rai, Thailand. Before that I was in Ecuador, Alabama, Southern California, Oregon, Hawaii, and Colorado. I was born and raised in Hawaii on the island of Oahu. My family moved to Barstow, California when I was around 12 years old. We were in the armpit of America for only 2-3 years, but they were formative years. It was the first time I was a minority, and I felt every bit different. It has seemed my identity would get redefined with each move. Like a potato, I can be cut up and served as fries, or be put in soup, stew, or curry. In other words, depending on the context (the dish, to stick with the analogy), I will be perceived accordingly. I’m still a potato though, you know?

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

Very diverse. It was a motley neighborhood due to the vast Asian population of Hawaii and the US military presence on the islands. But there was and still is racial tension, ironically enough. When I was growing up Caucasians often complained about feeling like outsiders and being called haole (Hawaiian for foreigners), especially when expletives accompanied the word. Can’t say that I blame them. Actually, I like to say that Hawaiian culture is a confrontational culture because there was a lot of fighting in the schools. It didn’t necessarily have to do with race, but all the races were involved. This isn’t to say we didn’t get along, because most of the time we did.

And then we moved to Barstow, California – a big change for me with no Asian kids around.  It was also the first time I was confined to the great indoors due to the harsh desert climate and environment. So I fell in love with books and writing during this period. When we returned to Hawaii I was a very different girl. I had become passionate about reading, writing and theatre. These are not “Hawaiian” qualities, like zeal for the beach or mall which back then were all that mattered.

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

After my father’s death I woke up from any kind of childhood dreaminess. I often heard how much I looked like my father, which made me feel I looked “very Chinese” and made me aware of my ethnicity. In fact, I actually resented it when anyone said it was my younger brother who looked like him because I had become proud to look so Chinese and take after my father. I was Daddy’s girl.

6) Do you consciously gravitate to certain company? Are you more comfortable, more at home around people of your own ethnicity?

I consciously gravitate towards outsiders or folks perceived as different. When I was 11, we had our first dark-skinned Black student at my elementary school. We had plenty of brown-skinned students, but no one looked like her. Nobody liked her, and for some reason I immediately made friends with her. I remained her friend even when my peers teased her. She eventually made new friends and left me behind.

I kind of marvel at my younger self. I certainly didn’t get that openness from my family. My mom was sometimes racist and judgmental against all races that were not Asian. Yet for some reason, my younger brother and I knew better and would usually respond by laughing. We didn’t take her seriously. Her remarks were so archaic. As far as being around people of my own ethnicity, there is a certain kind of comfort that comes with being with your own kind. I used to hate sticking out in any crowd. Then I came to enjoy it, and now, well, I like blending in. After all, I live in Thailand where I merge into the landscape.

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

No, it doesn’t work that way for me. With other Asian Americans I have met abroad there is a certain understanding we share for the similar experiences. Many expats form their own little communities. But most of my relationships are unique unto themselves. I also enjoy meaningful friendships across the ages (20s-70s) and with folks from around the world.

8) How much does racial affinity give you a sense of belonging compared to a shared faith or interest?

I actually feel a sense of belonging in many groups. This makes me easy to relate to or identify with, which is important to me as a teacher and a writer. Although I do think being Asian American helps me belong to the American and Asian communities readily.

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

It’s something I’m aware of, but these kinds of things ebb and flow. These days I don’t really have to make much of an effort because I’m an expat (and my Thai family is a few hours away). But here’s a quick example of what I mean. For my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training in Bangkok, my class consisted of a Mexican, Belgian, French, Cambodian, Filipino American, British-Thai, Indian, a third-culture kid (American raised in Brazil, China, and the Philippines). My trainers hailed from Australia, South Africa, and Romania. I’m still friends with and in contact with all of them but 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?

Moving around a lot has given my identity a few solid shakes. When I was living in Colorado, I had a Native American ask me, “What tribe?” I was shocked because I thought I looked so Asian. When I explained my ethnicity, he said, “Oh, I thought you were Najavo.” In Ecuador, I had a Bible thumper thrust the Good Book under my nose. He spoke in Spanish and the book was in Chinese. In Thailand, the people always try to guess my ethnicity. Japanese is a common answer, for the way I dress. Sometimes when I’m walking down the street, people speak to me in Chinese. Yesterday, a new friend asked if I was Korean. And since I teach English, I’ve made a game out of students’ guessing where I am from. So I think I’m just used to people thinking whatever they want to think about me depending on where I am. I can be outgoing or quiet. I think it helps that I like to make people laugh. There have also been times and places where I haven’t had friends and I’m okay with that, too.

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

I don’t know if it is fully possible, but I hope it is possible to be more compassionate and culturally sensitive.

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

These questions were hard to answer because HW obviously put some good old-fashioned thought into them! I guess it’s because we live with our ethnicity and race, that we don’t often try to explain to someone else who we are and the conditions that have shaped us. I also think that some of the questions (or the answers!) might make folks feel uncomfortable. Which is not a bad thing, I liked the challenge. Thank you.

Lani at Life, The Universe, and Lani

 

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 Ancestry.com 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 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.

LESSONS SOME OF US LEARNED
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

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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

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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.

 

 

The Race: Asian Australian, Part 10

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

I was born in Australia to very traditional Chinese-Malaysian parents. The word “Malaysian” refers to a nationality. There are predominantly three races living in Malaysia – Chinese, Malay and Indian. A very long time ago, the Chinese came and settled in Malaysia. My grandparents – and many generations before them – were born in Malaysia. My relatives and extended family don’t know where our ancestors originated. We don’t talk about Chinese history but the history of Malaysia. We’ve always considered ourselves Chinese people living in Malaysia. We don’t identify with China the country but with Chinese culture. Chinese Malaysian is similar to the term, say, Korean American.

Melbourne

Melbourne

When I was growing up in Melbourne, I always heard my parents speak Cantonese to one another. But when they spoke to my kiddy-self and chided me for running under the blazing sun and turning “ugly black”, it was always in English – with Cantonese words here and there. We celebrate the Chinese New Year every year. I always come home to rice and noodles on the table. In short, “Chineseness” has always been a part of my life. I would be naked without it.

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 lived in Melbourne until I was six. Then my family moved to Malaysia and later Singapore when I was ten. Throughout school in these countries, my classmates clamoured to sit with me during recess and went, “Mabel is from Australia. Australian! She is my friend!”. They thought I ate fish and chips and went to the beach all the time, which was far from the truth. It was as if being Australian came with “white privileges”, that being Aussie was “classy”. The Malaysian/Singaporean accent rubbed off on me a fair bit. I returned to Melbourne for university. Australians pointed out my accent, asking me “Where are you from?” every odd week. Thus, I’ve always felt too Asian to be Australian and too Australian to be Asian.

3) Is “Asian Australian” a fairly common designation?

Very common designation used of someone who holds Australian citizenship and is of Chinese/Vietnamese/Korean/Thai/etc. descent. I have met a lot of people who identify with this label.

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

My preschool classmates Down Under were mostly Caucasian. There were a few Caucasians and Eurasians amongst the countless Asians I went to school with in Malaysia and Singapore. My first language is English and I think and speak in this language. I talked with all my friends in English. Although I know basic Cantonese and am fluent in Malay, rarely did we talk to one another in these languages.

5) 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?

I was about six in preschool. One afternoon, I was sitting in class across one of my blonde, blue-eyed classmates who was a head taller than me. I always admired her – outgoing, confident and sporty. All the things I was Asian-stereotypically not good at but wanted to be. She looked at me condescendingly, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed. So fiercely, in fact, I was startled, thinking I had done something wrong. She demanded, “Why is your hair brown?”. I felt very small at that moment. I wanted to cry. Maybe this is why I sometimes still feel shy speaking to Caucasians today.

6) 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’ve always found it easier talking to those of Asian descent. Maybe there’s an underlying assumption that we’ll understand each other easily for the shared cultural values. That’s not to say I don’t like talking with people of other races. I do. When I meet someone, what they have to say about the topic of conversation piques my interest – given they’re from a different background, usually their opinions will differ from mine.

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

Of course there’s my family, and my closest friends are of Asian descent, those who have predominantly lived in Asia and/or Australia. Not too sure why this is so. Perhaps I’ve shied from others because of racism towards Asian Australians, which I’ve discussed here.

8) 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: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. 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?

Similar racial values or shared interests don’t usually play a part in encouraging me to feel a sense of connection to a group. I don’t see how we can’t feel a sense of belonging and feel comfortable if we’re with people who respect who we are, our values and what we do. I connect most easily with those who don’t judge me, say, based on my speech or dress. It’s their nonjudgmental attitude that makes me want to spend time with them. I like hanging with those who have strong opinions too and feel there’s something worth learning from determined minds.

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

At university and work, I mingle with people of different cultural backgrounds pretty much every day. Very frequently I’ve met classmates and colleagues who aren’t from around Australia but grew up in Asia with their first language being, say, Chinese or Vietnamese. I never had trouble conversing with them in English, though I admit there are times when I can’t understand some of their English-mangled sentences. When this happens, I politely ask them to repeat what they say and usually get their point. When I don’t, I change the subject as seamlessly as I can so that the conversation keeps going.

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

As an introvert, I have fearfully kept my mouth shut in front of Caucasian after experiencing racism in Melbourne. After six years back here, I realised part of the problem was because I held the impression Caucasians frowned upon my culture and who I am – a minority, an Asian Australian. A silly, narrow-minded thought; surely not everyone is like that. Today, I’ve learnt to love who I am and am more confident talking to people.

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

I thought responses to these questions would come easily. I was quite wrong. It was a struggle to put reflections of my past into words. Race is a sensitive issue. This exercise reminded me we’re all culturally different, a beautiful thing. We should never judge others but embrace who we are as individuals.

Mabel at Mabel Kwong on multiculturalism.

The Race: American in India, Part 7

1) How do you define yourself racially or ethnically and why is it important to you? Please tell us about the racial makeup of your family if you were adopted or come from a colorful family.

When I was a kid I just called myself black as that was what society taught, that if you’re part black then you’re all black. My father is African American, my mother European American. I thought that makes me all American, but people always wanted to know more, esp as I grew older. So in my teens I started to answer that I was half black and half white. Only as an adult, when the biracial tab was added to questionnaires did I start to identify with that.

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 grew up in Seattle, Washington (U.S.) where I experienced only subtle forms of racism. White kids if they liked me would say, “You’re not really black,” and black kids if they liked me would say, “You’re all black, man,” as if I didn’t know what I was; it tended to leave me feeling hurt and insecure. I moved to California when I was 19 where I started working and going to college. California was the first place I heard outright racist comments belted without shame.

Amritapuri Kitchen 9Because I’m mixed but have an Indian name and a beard, rather than thinking that I’m mixed people would just think that I was an immigrant. So at work I would often hear people talking about black coworkers, calling them lazy asses, and worse. And no matter how many times I would stand up and say that’s not right, people would quickly forget that I was black, having decided that I was something else, and repeat remarks they wouldn’t have otherwise said in front of me. I also received the comments people reserve for immigrants as some said to me, “You people come here and don’t even know the language!” Confused, I would answer, “What people? Me? But I’m from here!” “Sure you are, man,” they would laugh.

Now I live in India which is a different experience altogether. Here, everyone is shades of brown, and all are Indian so they reserve the color of black for really dark skinned, black people. So although I am as dark as many in India, because I am a foreigner and am not black by their standards, they call me white. I was raised as black and this goes against everything I grew up with. All this leaves me with the understanding that race is very much about what others perceive you as and has little to do with who or what you really are.

3) Why do you have an Indian name? What took you to India? Did you know any Indian (language)?

When I was 15 I met a saint from India, Amma, known as the Hugging Saint. The following year wanting to devote my life to her cause I asked her for a name and she gave me the name Sreejit. I immediately changed my legal name from Michael to Sreejit wanting to start my life anew with this idea of service to humanity that Amma espoused. Everyone started calling me Sreejit so I have lived many more years as Sreejit than Michael. I elaborate on the name change and my spiritual journey here. I have been traveling to India since 1992, working and living in Amma’s ashrams.

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

All of my schools were completely mixed with all races getting along fairly well during school hours. Seattle is a pretty laid back place compared to other cities, so it was only later that I really experienced the perils of diversity. Though among the older generations I heard very set opinions on the wrongs of race mixing, the kids my age were pretty decent.

5) 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. It could be a scene with strangers, the park, school, work. Could have been subtle feelings you recognized or a blatant attack of bigotry. If it was a season or chapter in your life, tell us the impact it had on your sense of self, confidence, or emotional development. Can you share a bit about the fear, loneliness, longing for acceptance?

As I said, there was never really a time when others were not trying to define for me what I was. And if they asked me, I often heard on the heels of my answer, “No you’re not, you’re really [fill in the blank]” when I started to say I’m half black half white. Then an old black person might get offended and say, “No, you’re just black man.” And when I would tell an older white person that I was mixed, “How awful that your parents could do that to you. You should speak out against such things.”

6) Why do you think those people imposed their own race on you? Why do you suppose they wanted to?

My generation is the one that was birthed by the hippies. Both my parents tried to make a more beautiful world than the one they grew up in. For that reason they didn’t talk much, when I was a child, about the horrors of racism, because they didn’t want me to grow up with the same prejudices that they grew up in. Whereas the generation before them was had very strong ideas on what is right and what is wrong with race mixing. There were still segregated eating areas when my parents were kids. Neither of my parents stayed in contact with their own fathers; my mother’s father disowned her for marrying a black man. So when I would talk with someone old enough to be my grandfather, as a kid I was coming in with a very free, there’s no right and wrong attitude, whereas they had a lifetime of education that told them it was better for everyone to stay in their place.

7)) 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 can be shy if I don’t know somebody, but I tend to get along with everybody. I grew up in a very international neighborhood where we would have Chinese New Year’s celebrations; I later worked with mostly Latinos and lived with mostly Indians. I feel comfortable with pretty much everybody.

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

All relationships are meaningful to me. That doesn’t mean that I fully give of myself to anybody. Most call me a loner but I get along with pretty much everybody.

9) 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: writers, homeschoolers, mothers, hobbyist, artists, colleagues, church. 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?

I tend to enjoy being around people of similar interest: the artists, musicians, dancers, and writers. These are the things that bring joy to my life. Though I can’t dance I love to watch it. I love to play and listen to music, watch theatre, love to read and to write.

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

No

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

I have always been “I am who I am”. Either you accept me or you don’t but I won’t change for your acceptance.

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

America has a very politically correct sense of handling situations, and even then people step on each other’s toes. But when you step out of America there is no such sense of pretending that you don’t notice the differences. Although people are becoming more accepting of others as our world is shrinking, I don’t see stereotypes and judgments fading anytime soon.

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

For many, race creates a sense of belonging, but I think the more the world begins to blend, the more the younger generations will be bound by things other than race, whether it be economics, interests, nationalities, locales, or religions. Still, the sense to divide and fit in seems to be a need that people look for and is sadly not fading anytime soon.

Sreejit in The Seeker’s Dungeon