Sunday, March 14, 2010

The South in black and white

So I last left you, dear readers, with the encounter I had with the veteran in a restaurant in Monteagle, TN. The next day we went to The University of the South so I could do some digging in their archives. Susan Choi's first novel The Foreign Student, is set in the early 1950s and depicts the life of a Korean foreign student who comes from war torn Korean through the auspices/generosity of the Episcopal Church to study at Sewanee. Choi, in an interview, says that her own father studied at Sewanee in this way. And it turns out that Sewanee has a tradition of offering scholarships and refuge to students from war-torn Asian nations since another alum, Clement Chen, also came to study at Sewanee from wartorn Shanghai right before it fell to Mao's communist forces in 1949. Chen went on to become an architect and donated funds for a building, Chen Hall, at Sewanee--which is now the official residence of the Vice-Chancellor.

[This is Clement Chen Hall, which opened in 1990]

And this is one of the things I've found, so far, in traveling around the South--that Asian Americans pop up in unexpected places and in unexpected ways.

But the truth is, for the most part, our travels have been largely a black and white affair. And what I mean by that is that we have seen very few non-black and non-white people in traveling from Sewanee to Memphis to Natchez to Mobile to Montgomery (where we currently are staying).

While we were in Memphis the Asian influence was felt mostly at the Belz Asian and Judaic Art Museum--and these, of course, were Asians depicted as art objects in paintings and sculptures and on pottery/ceramics.

[These are two lions/foo dogs that stand at the entrance to the museum]

A bit to my surprise, we didn't see any Asian tourists at Graceland

[This is the front of Graceland]

or on Beale Street

[This is Beale Street--probably looks better at night but we didn't venture out since there were thunderstorms the night we stayed]

And we saw no Asian Americans, save one young woman at a Starbucks.

We also were the only mixed-race couple that we saw on the entire trip. And what I mean is that everywhere we went, we did not see a lot of racial mixing. And I don't mean multiracial people, I mean that every time we sat down to a meal, every attraction we went to, every hotel that we stayed at (with the exception of Montgomery, and I'll get to that in a minute) we were the only people of two different races interacting socially with one another. In other words, we saw African Americans sitting and eating with other African Americans. And white Americans touring Graceland together and eating together. But we did not see mixed groups of black and whites hanging out. And even the few Asians or Asian Americans (we saw two tables at a rib joint in Memphis) were at tables to themselves. No mixed race America.

Which could have explained some of the looks we got. Southern Man commented on this early in our trip when we stopped at a McDonalds for lunch. When we left he asked if I had noticed all the people in the McDonalds staring at me. And I said yes and no. Yes, I had noticed them noticing me, but I hadn't registered it consciously because I've grown so accustomed to people looking at me in the South (even in my liberal college town) that I sometimes forget to realize that it's an odd thing. It was odd for Southern Man--and a bit of an education for him as well, I think, to be singled out the way we were--by looks mind you, no one said a peep to us, which he was preparing himself for. But I actually didn't think that would happen. I'm not sure why--I mean, I wouldn't be surprised if someone had uttered an epithet our way or discoursed about the scourge of miscegenation. But I think in this day and age, the brand of racism that you get is more subtle. It's in the non-smiling faces of people and hard looks and the general vibe of not quite feeling welcomed.

Although to be honest, we didn't even get that much of the above. I mean in some rest areas and gas stations, yes. And even walking in Montgomery last night, a woman was eyeballing us in a way that suggested she did not like what she saw. But generally folks, both black and white, have been pretty friendly--which may have to do with the places we've been traveling to--largely tourist areas and in the case of Memphis and Montgomery, cities that do see people from all over the world.

Well, maybe that's more Memphis than Montgomery, although it is in Montgomery at a Thai restaurant last night that we start to see evidence of a mixed race America. Outside our restaurant, two young college-aged men, one white and one black, who seemed to be friends, stroll by looking for a restaurant where they are supposed to meet up with friends. Two tables inside the restaurant have black and white patrons at one and black and South Asian patrons at another. And this morning, at breakfast, we see an inter-racial couple, black male and white female, which means we are not the only ones anymore.

And I have to say, it's nice not to be the only ones. It's great to see other races interacting and mixing. And I just wonder why it has taken this long on our trip to see such evidence of a mixed race America.


Jenn Mc said...

I live in the South and have seen some of what you are referring to. In my hometown we are made up of 1/3 AA, 1/3 NA, 1/3 CA. I'm so used to seeing different faces that when I went to grad school elsewhere it FREAKED ME OUT to see that many white people.

s-fizzle said...

I love reading about your research/road trip. It's really interersting. I get the question A LOT when I travel. I used to be sassy in my answers. The funny thing is I get it from everyone (not just white folks). I was asked that question a lot when I traveled to Egypt and Morocco. I guess everyone is trying to find out what kind of .

FB said...

You eat at McDonalds?

Jennifer said...

Hi everyone--thanks for your comments. It was a great road trip--very eye opening in many ways. And there are actually many really beautiful parts of the South--I mean, places where I'd think it'd be great to live, but I just know I'd never be comfortable living in either too rural an area and/or certainly as one of the only if the only Asian American (or person of color).

FB, yes on the road I eat at McDonalds. I find, esp. on long road trips in really unfamiliar places (ones that are rural) that McDonalds offers a familiarity and clean bathrooms that is, well, simply convenient! And I love the soft serve ice cream!