When I was a kid, one of my mom's "embarrassing" stories was when my brother, then four years old, saw his first black person. He pointed (because, hey, he was four) and he said loudly, "Mommy, look! That boy is made of chocolate!"
Why should that story be embarrassing for my mother? Kids do this all the time. It shouldn't be embarrassing for the other kid or his mother either... we all know chocolate is beautiful.
But the story *is* because it *was* embarrassing, even if it shouldn't feel that way. Even if it was just a four year old kid asking a question and admiring someone beautiful.
The other side of that is one of my favorite stories from Korea. Really, I love this. It is effectively the same story, only it is coated in a liberal dose of innocence, outside the American system of expectations.
It was when we were in Ganghwa Korea. And not a lot of westerners go to Ganghwa. One of our local hosts even asked "Ganghwa? Why do you want to go there?" No worries, most Americans don't realize there is a Korea outside of Seoul and maybe that other city, Busan, which most people would likely translate as "Not-Seoul City." Ganghwa doesn't even have guide books in English. We were the only white people we saw there, and we only met one proficient English speaker. Quite a contrast to English-ready Seoul.
Along the way we met a little (and I do mean little, she couldn't have passed five feet if she were standing on a box) old (old enough to tell us she'd lost all of her children due to the Korean war) grandmother (which is what you call old ladies in Korea... and she was cute and grandmotherly). She spoke no English and we may have been the only non-military white people she'd ever seen. She certainly acted that way. She wanted to tell us everything about Ganghwa, but in Korean, which we didn't understand. "Follow me" I knew that Korean hand gesture. And she took my arm and was literally petting it. And thankfully at that moment the only proficient English speaker we met on the island appeared. I asked him what she was saying. He told me "she says your skin is really really white and she thinks its pretty."
She was telling me how white I am.
Thanks, I noticed.
But that's the thing. She didn't make me feel "different." A quick look around would make me know I was different. She acknowledged my "different" and said it was beautiful, and showed me that it was a curiosity to her, and that she liked me. She acknowledged my difference and made me feel welcome. Different is not the opposite of beautiful and it is not the opposite of welcome.We just think it is in America, where we're all so decidedly different from our neighbors and yet yearn so much to balance it with "sameness" that we fail to appreciate difference.
Asian friends in America would be rightly annoyed if all the white people around them wanted to touch their hair (trust me, my Asian son who has been kept a bit clueless about this little American tick often asks why so many people rumple his hair... they're being friendly, you're cute, etc. That's okay. Its all true. Other Asians like to rumple his hair too, its right at hand level. But if he only knew what other Asian kids know about touchy-feely hair lovers... Ignorance is bliss.) I might get tired of arm-petting if I lived on Ganghwa. But as a single encounter, I was charmed. Charm is good.
A friend posted a thing on transracial adoption and racism on facebook today. I started to reply, but will basically sum up here instead:
Transracial adoption definitely makes people think differently about race. And mostly what I have come to think about race in America is that it's messed up. Not because race relations themselves are so messed up, but because the culture as a whole has this sickness where we are so easily offended (or assume the other person to be) that we are afraid to talk openly with one another. And so instead of a relationship between races that says "I like you, what is it like to be you?" We mutter "I like you" and shuffle our feet and wander off and the other person doesn't feel very liked or welcomed at all. I wish we could regain an innocence about race, on both sides, that we need to have a productive conversation... alas, that does not seem to be available in America right now.
Both of the above stories are about innocence and appreciation... I wish we could recover that, but most of our efforts have gone towards stamping them out in the name of anti-racism. I probably shouldn't say "recover" because a country founded on slavery and racial injustice never had the quality to regain, but I do think each of us does have an inherent innocence, if we don't have it stamped out in the cradle, that we can recover, and maybe one by one heal some wounds.