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.

 

 

 

 

 

Movie Chat: The Help

I went to an afternoon showing of The Help with my daughter (who was clueless) and my friend Susie (who has her own stories to tell).  The movie would be a disappointment to fans of the book, but it’s visually very lovely.  It telescoped many events, dropped some complicated incidents, and softened (for me) the emotional impact of the human tragedy.  It has some fantastic performances from lesser-known actors, both black and white, and a breakthrough serious role for Emma Stone as Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan.

My complaints?  Skeeter is too beautiful for her role as a young woman whose mother despairs of her ever getting married and her curls are managed by modern mousse.  The queen bee, Hilly Holbrook, as played by Bryce Dallas Howard (Ron Howard’s daughter) is too beautiful and svelte, compared to the description in the novel.  Constantine, Skeeter’s nursemaid is too old, but wonderfully acted by Cicely Tyson.  The “white trash” bride Celia Foote is not vulgar enough in the fancy ballroom scene.  And Elaine Stein, the Jewish New York editor, is too smooth-faced and attractive (I imagined her being more masculine and angular).

Furthermore, Constantine’s daughter, Lulabelle, is too dark, in a confusing switch from the novel, in which she was considered “too high yellow,” (meaning, looking white) to stay in the South, so Constantine sent her up North in Chicago to be raised in an orphanage.  She grew up empowered by the Black Panther movement, returns to visit her mother, and brazenly walks into a meeting of the Daughters of the American Revolution at the Phelan plantation as if she’s a member or guest.  Her mother is abruptly fired after 29 years of employment and having raised Skeeter.

The messiness of politics and political campaigns was dropped.

But, most crucial was the decision to end the movie before the novel does.

Spoiler alert: The viewer does not know that Skeeter’s mother does die of cancer, so she’s released to move to New York to take the job at Harper & Row offered by Elaine Stein.  And she arranges for Aibileen Clark to take over her column on housekeeping tips, a racial breakthrough in publishing.  The novel is more hopeful, but the film leaves the viewer in suspense about their future.

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.

Ethnic Irony

By Hannah Lee

In our relatively enlightened times, it is the heedless individual who utters a blatant pejorative term, be it a racial, sexist, or any other challenging aspect of life.  We have sensitized ears and it is unseemly to appear prejudiced.  There is even an attempt to erase past grievances in the misguided campaign to replace the word, “nigger,” with “slave” in Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, although the climax of the story would be lost on the reader when the character of the black man, Jim, realizes that he’s been free all along.  Good teaching requires putting history and culture into context with all its flawed and malignant chronicles.

There is a companion shadow world of indirect slurs, in which terms are coined with the negative traits attributed to a particular ethnic group.  Amongst linguists, this usage is called “ironyms,” a compound word representing “lexicalized irony.”  Researching this sordid aspect of language development, I came across the fairly unfamiliar terms of Dutch courage (bravado under intoxication), Welsh rabbit (a cheese dish made without meat), and Irish twins (siblings born within the same year).   The more familiar ones in contemporary usage are notably all about monetary use: to gyp (cheat) someone, to welsh (renege) on a bet, and to jew someone down (bargain hard).  The terms incorporating Chinese— Chinese ace, Chinese anthem, Chinese cigarette, Chinese fire drill, Chinese handball, Chinese landing, Chinese puzzle, and Chinese whispers— all connote items or events that are confused, disorganized, or difficult to understand, according to the British usage of the adjective during World War I.

I have long known that Chinese checkers were not really Chinese, but I have since learned that it is a game developed in Germany, whose original name referred to its star-shaped game board.  When the Pressman company introduced it in the United States in 1928, they initially called it Hop-Ching checkers, later settling on Chinese checkers, presumably to refer to the erratic hopping allowed of the gaming pieces.  Other usages of ethnic terminology are maybe less benign, but you could be sure no Frenchman would call his fried potatoes, French fries, (derived from the presumed custom of poor French-speaking Belgians who served fried potatoes instead of fried fish when the rivers were frozen) nor would a Dane refer to the breakfast pastry as a Danish (in actuality, of Austrian origin).

As an immigrant to the United States, I did not encounter Chinese auctions until I came into the Orthodox Jewish community.  It seems to be a popular low-cost fundraiser amongst churches and synagogues.  Not Chinese and not even an auction, it is a lottery in which the bidder purchases tickets for specific prizes within different categories.  It has become my campaign to lobby against its usage, but by the time I hear of such events, the organizers have already spent money on the publicity and are loathe to change the wording.  It’s inconceivable to me that any organization would allow itself to be perceived as prejudiced these days.  Prejudice when it becomes commonplace is even more insidious, because well-meaning people become complicit.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/533/ethnic-irony