Thursday, March 11, 2010

Small town talk

My intent, during this road/research trip I'm making around "The South" was to blog about it every night. But I have been pretty tired the last few nights--long nights driving and then long days of sight seeing and information gathering. So I'm a bit delayed in my narrative, but that's OK--I don't need to share every single detail on this blog about what I'm doing!

But I did want to share a bit about our time in Sewanee, TN. I went there, or rather that area, to do research at The University of the South in Sewanee, TN--an old and revered liberal arts college of the south, as its name clearly implies. There really isn't any place to stay in Sewanee itself, so Southern Man and I made our way to a lovely bed and breakfast inn in Cowan, TN, The Franklin-Pearson Hotel, run by Jared Pearson -- this is a picture of him:

And here are two photos of the interior of the inn:

When we got to the inn we were tired (over 8 hours in the car), hungry, and a bit cranky. Or maybe this was just me. Jared directed us to a restaurant, High Point, in nearby Monteagle. I wish I brought my camera because the house that the restaurant was in was a beautiful old stone house, apparently financed by money from Al Capone--he used the house as part of his boot legging operations! So there are apparently all these hidden entrances and trap doors and false walls--at least that's what the brochure to the house said.

Now the thing about small towns in the South is that people love to talk to you. For example, Jared, our innkeeper, told us all about the politics of the town-gown divide between the University of the South and the local communities (something quite common in many small town college communities). And our waiter at the restaurant told us all bout the history of the restaurant. And while I was doing research in the archives, Southern Man went to a coffeeshop where he met local residents and the owner of the cafe who also shared all sorts of stories with him about Sewanee and the surrounding area. This is part of what it's like to travel in small towns in the South. People like talking to you.

And for the most part, I've grown accustomed to this. My natural demeanor whenever I travel, whether on an airplane or by car, is to put on a polite face but one that suggests I am not interested in conversation or small chit chat. Because especially when you are on an airplane, you DO NOT want to get trapped next to the woman who is going to talk to you the entire flight across the continental U.S. about her mother issues (this happened to me once) or about the guy who is trying to hit on you and who actually keeps bothering you, even when you have your laptop up and your headphones on (again, another true story).

But after living in "The South" for a few years, I've learned that this is part of the culture of many communities here--and after all, when in Rome.

However, and this was why I ended with the essay I wrote in the previous post, no matter where I am, I'm never comfortable with a conversation that begins with this opening salvo:

"What part of Asia are you from?"

At the end of our dinner (which was quite good--I had scallops and Southern Man had a NY strip and we ended the evening with creme brulee--YUM) when Southern Man went to the restroom, an older gentleman who had been sitting with his wife (she also was not at the table when he broached me) asked me "What part of Asia are you from?"

Now, I should tell you that the room that we were in was the size of a small dining room and there were only half a dozen tables in it, and during our meal there was only one other occupied table--the one with this older white couple--they looked to be in their late 60s. It was clear that they were listening to our conversation, because at a certain point when we talked about what we were going to be doing when we got to Memphis, the woman chimed in and said, "Oh we're from Memphis! It's lovely--you should go in May!" Southern Man thanked her--I didn't even make eye contact with her, I mean, we were in the middle of a conversation and the entrees hadn't come yet and I didn't want to open the door for having to talk to this couple all night long (they seemed the type who would invite you to join them at their table and we were both at 4-tops).

Anyway, this OWM (older white male) asks me the question that I dread--the variant of "Where are you from/what are you"--because that's really what he wants to know--he wants to know what I am. Because since he's been eavesdropping on our conversation all night, he would have picked up on the fact that I have no discernible accent and since I talked about my research and was working out with Southern Man the different components of my class at Southern U., it should have also been clear that I was not a visiting foreign professor.

So I looked at him, unblinkingly, and asked him to repeat the question--I was really stalling for time because I wasn't sure how I wanted to answer him--it was late, dinner was over--we were waiting for the check. He repeated the question--admitted that he had been listening to our previous conversation (I had been talking about my grandfather and his life in China earlier, as well as the research that a friend of mine is doing in Cambodia around issues of the tribunals for the former Khmer Rouge and the killing fields), and he wanted to know whether I was from Asia.

I think a quick glance at me would tell you that I appear to be Asian and probably Asian American. Again, he didn't want to know about whether I was from Asia--there was another motivation behind his line of inquiry--and perhaps, in hindsight, my 6th sense also told me this from non-verbal cues--his absolute confidence in how he posed the question--his assumption that it was OK to talk to me and ask me this question.

So I told him that I was from California and that I consider myself to be Californian. He then moved on to asking me where my parents are from--he wasn't phased by me putting him off. And I said that my mother was from Jamaica--which was actually the wrong tactical move to make because I kid you not, his eyes LIT UP and he leaned in towards me and squinted and said

"I never would have guessed by looking at you!"

At this point his wife had rejoined him, and I realized my error in trying to throw him off--that it was only going to reinforce his exoticization of me and my family, so I said,

"No, you wouldn't probably because she's Chinese Jamaican."

At this point I was hoping he would drop it and leave me alone--I was not smiling and clearly not enjoying out tete-a-tete. But that's the thing about white privilege--it means that those actively employing it--and I would put this OWM in that category--don't care about what YOU want--he only cared about what HE wanted to get out of the conversation.

And what he wanted to demonstrate to me, and perhaps to remind his wife was that he had traveled all over Asia, including Cambodia -- yes, he had heard us talking about Cambodia, he said--and then he proceeded to list ALL OF THE ASIAN COUNTRIES that he had been to and that he had been to Cambodia DURING THE WAR WHEN HE WAS IN THE MARINES.


This was now THE WORST because not only was I accosted by an OWM but it turns out that he's a Veteran of the war in Viet Nam and he wants to regale me with bombing stories of Cambodia and to tell me about all the Asian countries he went back to visit over the war (he said that specifically--that he went back to Asia after the war to see what had happened to it after he left).

Now, I am not trying to diss veterans. I'm sure this man has his share of PTSD stories and that there is a genuine interest that he has in Asia since he has a connection to it that is unique.

However, I don't need to be part of his therapy and I certainly didn't want to hear his stories or to be the conduit for launching into what he was doing in Asia, during and then years after the war.

Luckily Southern Man came back and we quickly left the restaurant. And Southern Man asked me why I didn't turn the tables and ask him and his wife where they were from--but the truth is, these people wouldn't have gotten the sarcasm--I would have had to have been really direct and said, "why aren't you asking my white partner where he is from--why are you focusing on where I'm from?" and as confrontational and direct as I can be, I really just wanted a nice dinner out after a long day of driving and didn't feel like having to deal with having to educate the older white couple about their white privilege. But it does give me some food for thought and it does make me wonder next time I'm asked this question and it starts to head into the territory of "look at all the Asian countries I've been to!" whether I won't flip the conversation around to the real motivation behind why I'm being asked this question or whether I won't just simply speak my truth and tell my interlocutor that s/he is making me feel like an orientalized object and I don't want to continue talking with them anymore because I'm not feeling comfortable with their line of questioning.

Which brings up an interesting question for all of us: when we are faced with this kind of weird racial crap, why don't we get more aggressive?


Simone said...

I just discovered your blog today and have spent quite awhile reading old posts. I've never before "met" anyone who got as bent out of shape about being asked "What are you?" as I do. I'm so relieved to learn that it's not just me!

I use some of the same tactics you do - I'm a California girl! I'm from America, where are you from?! But lately I've been thinking about challenging the asker with something along the lines of "You just met me, you don't get to ask me questions about my pedigree!" But so far it's just a thought...

Anyway, here is my own latest rant on the topic, if you are interested.

david said...

When dealt with this kind of weird racial crap we don't become more aggressive because it would be disrespectful. We weren't raised to confront every line of questioning with an aggressive reaction because that could put us in a bad position.

Things can go south really fast. When I get asked those kind of questions, not the type of racial questions, but inquisitive questions I get annoyed and irritated.

I don't become aggressive because one; It's extremely likely that I wont see that person again and two; it's not polite. Also, inquisitive questions come with the territory.

You visited a "Small-ville" type town where everybody knows everyone. When newcomers come along the people of "Small-ville" take notice. I would take it with a grain of salt and dismiss this person as an eavesdropping person.

This is just my two cents. This will probably be, I'm guessing, the least hostile reaction to what happened.

Jennifer Imazeki said...

I know that for me, the aggressiveness of my response tends to correlate with how much I believe the person "should" know better. For example, if I were to get that sort of question in California (which actually hasn't happened in years) or in an academic setting, I would definitely respond with either sarcasm or outright confrontation. But when I was living in Wisconsin (where I got these sorts of questions/comments routinely), I felt like people were just ignorant so I tended to respond more politely. I'd still try to make it clear to them that they were being racist, usually by going on a long ramble, preempting all the racist things I knew they were wondering (i.e., me: "I'm from California" Them: "No, I mean where are you from *originally*" Me (all in one breath): "I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area, my parents AND grandparents were born in the Bay Area, my great-grandparents came here from Japan, and no, I don't speak Japanese, and my parents don't speak Japanese either, and no, I've never been to Japan and don't know anyone there. Why do you ask?" I would always say these things with a smile, and then change the subject...

Anonymous said...

Which brings up an interesting question for all of us: when we are faced with this kind of weird racial crap, why don't we get more aggressive?

I've just never found space to become aggressive. Either I do not feel safe enough to openly express my anger - whether it's a fear for my physical safety (rare) or my emotional safety (common) - or I do feel safe, but recognize that aggression would be counter-productive to the conversation that appears to be necessary. My (white, male) boss says weird racist crap from time to time, our clients say weird racist crap frequently, and there's just nothing I can do about it because the power imbalance is so grossly tilted against me that I feel like I would be risking my job to even (politely) point out that shit shouldn't fly. My (white, male) friend says weird racist crap, and as frustrating and angry-making as it may be, I don't have the space to become aggressive because that will shut down whatever conversation might come of it - I'm too aware that the (perceived) tone of an argument is just as important for its reception as the argument itself, and I don't want to be dismissed as the Angry Asian Woman.

I think too that the perception of our anger or even just our feelings as invalidating is one that keeps many of us from fully expressing that - one more tool that privilege allows its wielders is being shielded from the true brunt of our emotions, including our fury, our despair, our pain. There's a gendered aspect to it in that emotions in our society are already devalued (in contrast to the rational, thinking masculine, emotions are irrational, feeling feminine) that becomes exponentially more difficult when other oppressions are cobbled together on top of it.

Thus the kyriarchy plays on ...

Jennifer said...

Hi everyone,
Thanks for your comments. I think what was particularly disturbing to me was the way in which this guys privilege just really blinded him to everything (and everyone) around him. My verbal and facial cues should have told him to stop talking to me--actually, my whole body language should have suggested to him that I wasn't open to having him engage me. But one of the ways white privilege, and I'd add male privilege, operates is the assumption that white men get to control the conversation, everyone else (or their feelings) be damned.

And I think all of you made good points about why we don't engage in a more forceful or aggressive manner--certainly I appreciate what saraspeaking noted in terms of safety--that should be the primary thing that we keep in mind.

But I'd say that in this particular instance, I wasn't worried for my safety--I think I just wanted to be "polite" or "nice" but honestly if I had been rude to him, the worse thing that would have happened was that this guy would have made some rude (or further racist) comment towards me. But maybe my own rudeness towards him would give him pause and teach him a lesson, that perhaps he shouldn't be asking these kinds of questions to random strangers.

Anyway, thanks for commenting everyone!

The CLAMShack: said...

I have to say, that when you were telling your story of what happened..I immediately thought of my dad. He has six kids 4 of whom are adopted, 2 black, 1 American Indian (me) and 1 Korean. He loves to talk to people, ESPECIALLY people of color. Not because he is trying to be rude or nosey, but simply because he finds the diversity in our world all together beautiful and amazing. And he has amazing people skills, that he can talk to anyone! It is one of his most endearing qualities. He is also a vietnam vet, and I don't believe he would ever be so crass and disrespectful to re-tell stories of bombs dropping. (that's bad) But he has traveled all over the world, and he doesn't just go to look and see the sights, he goes to engage with the people, to learn all that he can. If the two of you ever end up in the same small town, and he has the opportunity to talk to you, he will. And he would be devastated to find out that he had offended you. But he'd probably still be glad that he got to talk to you. He would be just as excited to talk to the young kids hanging out on the corner, or the old man sitting behind the desk at a store. I myself, have been in situations where people want to know where I am from, and what country i come from, and I enjoy speaking to them. I figure as long as someone is willing to have a conversation to find more about me, i'm open to it. I'd rather that than if they were to walk a WIDE circle around me, or act as if they are suspicious or scared of talking to the "brown girl". I find that far more offensive and more along the lines of "weird racial crap". Just my two cents...

Jennifer said...

Hi Colby Family,
Thanks for offering a different perspective on this situation. I would certainly not have liked to have offended your father, but I suspect, given your description, that it would have played out differently if your father had been the one to be eavesdropping on my conversation. Like perhaps he would offer an apology by way of introducing himself.

I can tell you that the couple in question were not from Monteagle--they were from Memphis. And I think a lot can be conveyed through body language, both mine and the OWM's. And mine definitely said BACK OFF, I'm TIRED and DON'T WANT TO TALK TO YOU, and quite frankly (and perhaps here is where we will have to agree to disagree) I often find that white men, no matter how well intentioned, don't often pick up on this cue from women, especially women of color. And that's a clear sign of privilege--of being white and male. And so even someone as nice as your Dad, if he were to engage me when I'm giving off these signals, well I think it's my right not to speak to him and my right not to be polite if I choose not to be polite. I think that's where I chafe most against Southern culture are the gendered expectations that somehow I have to play the part of the "good girl." And sometimes I just don't want to talk to you and may, in fact, want to be rude about it, especially if I feel, as OWM was doing, that he wasn't showing much respect for me.