On Being An Alien

By Hannah Lee 

            Animal species adapted to protect itself from the unknown: it’s always Us or the Other.  So, animals explore with their world warily with long-range vision, acute hearing, and a fine sense of taste (e.g., toxic substances taste bitter).  Human beings have devised more sophisticated ways to assess the foreign, the unfamiliar.  The rare pioneers are the ones who journey to a new land, try a new food, or welcome strangers.  I get that.

           In a recent issue of the New York Times [10/11/2016] on the front page, an editor wrote about a disagreeable incident when a woman yelled at his family, from the safety of her car, to “go back to China.”  Yes, Michael Luo is Chinese-born; he graduated from Harvard and probably speaks and writes English better than the provocateur. He leads a team of reporters focused on investigations and long-form narratives. In 2016, his reporters were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in three categories: investigative reporting, local reporting and feature writing. Luo posted an open letter on the Times’s website and it sparked a tremendous outpouring of responses, mostly from Asian-Americans with their own stories of racial prejudice, both overt and subtle.  As a Chinese-American immigrant from Hong Kong, I, too, have my stories. 

           People fear that this country is changing, but the ship has already left the port: among today’s young people, nearly one-half are members of racial minorities [New Republic, 11/2014].  The world is a large place and we cannot keep our borders closed— not from people, not from technology or ideas, not from viruses or pathogens.  All but the Native Americans are immigrants to this new land.

            I approach the world with curiosity and wonder.  Whenever I travel by taxi, I look at the name tags, and I ask if the driver was born abroad.  If so, I ask what they like about America, their favorite foods, and if there’s a restaurant that serves their cuisine.  It’s fun and I broaden my knowledge of other cultures, other peoples.   At my work, I routinely ask people with unusual names, what is their ethnicity? Sometimes, I’m rebuffed, but often times, it leads to a small conversation about themselves.

            Each year, Jews are reminded to remember that they were once strangers in a strange land, in the Hagadah reading on Passover [Exodus 23:9].   (Actually, to be a Jew is to be a stranger, writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.)  It seems that Americans, all of foreign ancestry, need to keep in focus the poem of Emma Lazarus (inscribed on the base of the Statute of Liberty) to develop the empathy for the foreigner:

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

Until we are all free, we are none of us free.

 

 

 

 

 

Race Relations at Home

     By Hannah Lee

 It was with a heavy heart that I read the devastating cover article in the December issue of Philadelphia magazine, titled, “Racial Profiling on the Main Line.”  Steve Volk did an excellent job in reporting on the many incidents of black people being subjected to adverse scrutiny and manhandling– and not just by the police.  All this during a new century when we have our first mixed-race president in the White House.

I was oblivious to the experience of my black neighbors and I feel ashamed of my ignorance and apathy.  It’s not that as a Chinese American Orthodox Jew, I have not faced my share of bigotry and racial intolerance, but it’s not the same as what our black neighbors endure.  (Note: it was only relatively recently that Jews were considered “white” in this country.  Check out anthropologist Karen Brodkin’s 1998 book, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America.)

A while back, my daughter told me that we live in a Jewish bubble that has shielded us from the race dynamics of the Main Line.  I know that I do feel at home in this community after 25 years.  Not so the Friday family of the cover article whose twin sons encountered overt and subtle prejudice since arriving to the Main Line.  The family’s professional achievements and wealth have not shielded their vulnerable sons and I cry over what they’ve endured.

My beloved Rabbi Emeritus once told me that all the troubles of the world are reflected in our little community and we could all do God’s work of healing right here at home.  We can defend freedom and democracy all over the world, but have we ensured that our fellow Americans are able to live a life free of harassment for the color of their skin?  My daughter’s Anthropology textbook clearly states that race is no longer a valid scientific label, but merely a social construct.

Most wars throughout history have been about power: the once-powerful fighting to protect what they once had or the greedy for more of the same.  The U.S. Census Bureau has predicted that non-Hispanic whites will become the minority by 2043.  People used to privilege based on skin color will indeed face dwindling power and influence.   It is so sad that they cannot embrace our new multi-cultural identity, a cultural and racial “salad bowl.”

Note: Since writing the initial draft of this essay, I’ve been invited to serve on a community board on race relations.  I pray that I can help mitigate racism in my home.

Book Chat

As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  I wanted to identify a black perspective.  A friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.

I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?  My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation,  happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.

I attended a book discussion along with my friend who grew up in the South.  She found the novel realistic, and told me later that the others (all white women) did not appreciate the fact that though the overt theme of the book was racism, the same kind of prejudice and peer control exist in other times, other places, including our own.  I attempted to point out that the new theory on bully-behavior management, is not to address the bully directly, but to educate the silent majority, that they can take control of a situation by speaking up.  The queen bee, Hilly, from the novel could not have continued in her role, if the others did not let her do so.  However, most people were too afraid, ignorant, or blind to the racial divide in a society in which they had a comfortable perch.  I wonder if readers would become more conscious and sensitive to injustice around them?  I made a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a classic.  Did readers of the time immediately take to its message?

The film version, starring Emma Stone as the ingenue reporter, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, Viola Davis as her source, a black housekeeper named Aibileen Clark, and Bryce Dallas Howard as their nemesis, the controlling Hilly Holbrook, will open in the local cinemas on August 10th.

Sharing the Pain

This is not a polished essay, where I can report on something I’ve learned.  But, I’ve decided to write about an issue that troubles me.  As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  A Jewish friend who’d grown up in the South shared her experiences with me, including the memory of being called a “nigger lover” because she did not exhibit racist behavior.  But I also wanted to identify a black perspective.  Another friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the past 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.

I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?

My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation, happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.