It’s this weird thing that my thoroughly continental childhood had a slight Asian flavor to it, although it’s not something I generally discuss. This influence is due to the fact that my grandparents lived in Manila and Macau during part of my childhood and sent me all sorts of fun things from that part of the world. This was at a time when Asia was still very far away from North America or Europe.
Here is a typical childhood photo of me in Paris extolling my like for Hong Kong, I believe the rest of the shirt features a panda. Natch.
It’s an interesting fixture of my childhood that may have normalized aspects of Asian culture for me so that I can relate to the experience of some of my friends who have a parent from that part of the world. We are “American” but then in our homes we have all of the furniture from overseas and holiday snaps of our grandmother in places we can’t readily identify. We grew up eating foods our friends wouldn’t recognize. And the smell of someone chewing wintergreen-flavored candy bringing back memories of liniment spread on a sore ankle.
I believe this photo is from my grandparents’ wedding anniversary, looking all dapper, the only white people in the restaurant.
Or random photos of my grandmother in her Hong Kong t-shirt learning how to dance in a local style — I believe she’s in Manila here.
Years earlier, vacationing with my mother and looking stylish in front of temples.
As a traveler myself, I admire the fortitude of people exploring an area not familiar to them. I appreciate the cultural trinkets and cross pollination. As a result of their adventures, I have a surprising number of things in my home decorated with dragons.
And somehow, more deeply in a way I didn’t realize, these Eastern adventures sensitized me to anti-Asian racism. Living in heavily Asian-influenced cities like Auckland, NZ, or Vancouver, BC, I have heard a surprising amount of anti-Asian racism. The same kindly Canadian or Kiwi who wouldn’t dream of slagging on any other group of people will complain that their city is “being overrun” or softly mutter “Asian driver” when tooling around our neighborhood. A white person might run them off the road but they’ll assume they’re a local, whereas you’re Asian no matter how many generations of your family have lived in a place. And, of course, they assume I share their fear of these foreign invaders.
My grandparents were well-heeled ex-pats and guests in these nations. I imagine many scenarios where they were lost and had to depend on the kindness of locals to guide them through confusing streets.
It isn’t just that I grew up practicing with chopsticks or surrounded by Asian art that makes me slightly more sensitive to this acceptable form of racism, but it surely helps. And then there are other times when it is far from subtle. I once rode the bus in Auckland and an elderly Japanese woman was lost and the driver gave her a hard time — accusing her of faking her confusion, “She knows what I’m saying. They always know what we’re saying. Sneaky devils.”
Because I’ve been the confused tourist myself, I am fluent in desperate pantomime and soon surmised the old lady wanted to reach the train station, the universal sound effect of “chugga-chugga, choo! choo!” helping us to mutual understanding. I helped her on her way and then got a further earful from the bus driver about how I’d been duped.
I asked the driver, in a rhetorical way, “You’ve never been lost on a bus in Tokyo, have you?”
I’ve been lost in Tokyo. With a toddler. And the kindness of patient strangers was most appreciated.
My eldest on a hot day in Tokyo.
Because I’ve been a newcomer, a foreigner, an outsider, I have sympathy for newcomers.
My grandmother and grandfather practicing their chopstick technique.
Here, my grandmother learning a new aspect of her artistic craft from a Chinese master of the ink wash. I wish she’d better labeled her photos so I could tell you his name or precisely where they were during these photos.
My family, of their time, were casually racist, too, of course. Saying how much they admire “those people” for their thrift and hard-working demeanor. But I think they are an adventurous family, willing to delve into other cultures and to admire them as often as generalizing them.
And all of this is to say that I did have a funny moment this week where my eldest was making a horror movie and wanted to play the “killer” dressed like a “China doll” as she had found this heavy silk shirt I have from my grandmother’s generous travels. I had to talk her out of her costume choice as the optics would have been… weird.
But I like the fact that her childhood is also tinged with Asian influences. And that she’s a global citizen.