It happened sometime during my years in junior high. I still remember it being a dark and dreary day. (Talk about a hackneyed beginning. Please forgive. ;p) I forgot why our family was on the road, but I remember thinking that I didn’t want to be in the car anymore. What made things worse was that our family was hungry. Not hungry in the sense that we were starving as a family, but hungry because it was time for dinner. But even this type of hunger makes things unbearable for me and those within my “killzone”. (My wife learned this lesson early on, the hard way.)
Anyway, I remember finally stopping somewhere to eat dinner. My dad parked the car, and the rest of us quickly followed him into the restaurant shielding ourselves from the drizzle.
I’m not sure which restaurant it was, but I can still see vividly the entire encounter unfold before my mind’s eye. My dad is walking up to the long, well-lit counter, he places an order, and then pulls out his wallet to pay for the meal. After looking through his wallet, he pauses. Then he looks at the cashier, and explains that he doesn’t have cash, so he’s going to pay using credit. So far, nothing seems unusual or out of the ordinary. He pulls out his credit card, and holds it out for the cashier to take. But for some reason, the cashier doesn’t take it. She says something to my dad. His demeanor immediately changes. It’s clear he didn’t like what he was being told, so he starts talking rapidly (which is what he does when he’s upset), he begins raising his voice, and his face is turning redder with every passing word. I think I remember that at this point veins were starting to show in his neck and temples.
Seeing that he was getting nowhere, he demands to see the manager. I think the manager was already listening in on the exchange, so she pops out from the back in a matter of seconds. As if she’s unaware, she asks, “What seems to be the trouble, sir?”
My dad literally screams at her, “Why do I have to show you my ID to use my credit card?”
She explains calmly, but firmly, “Sir, we just need to see your ID.”
Flabbergasted, my dad yells so everyone in the restaurant could hear, “This is bullsh*t!” He then turns around, and tells us to follow him, and that we were going to eat somewhere else. While storming out, he loudly mumbles curses under his breath in Korean.
In terms of how I felt as this scene unfolded, I was mortified from the moment my dad started raising his voice. Every eye in the restaurant was on us. I didn’t understand why my dad was getting so upset. “Why couldn’t he just show the cashier his ID, and just get on with it?” At that age, I just thought my dad was making a big deal out of nothing; I thought he was just being temperamental because he was in a bad mood. And so I got angry at him for embarrassing me and our family, and for prolonging my hunger pains.
I believed this interpretation of the encounter all throughout junior high and high school whenever I revisited this memory. But one day in college, it dawned on me how wrong I had been. It took years of my own personal racist encounters for me to understand finally—they were asking for his ID because he was Asian. (I say Asian because they probably didn’t know he was Korean.) Basically, it was racial profiling, plain and simple: They thought he could be some immigrant using a stolen credit card to get a free meal, and far be it from them to be duped by a Chinese man and his “innocent” family.
I haven’t ventured to ask my folks about all the racism they experienced during the early years in the States. I hope to some day. But from the stories they’ve volunteered over the years, it’s clear to me that they had a regular diet of painful, racist encounters.
With all this experience, my dad learned to sniff out racist attitudes and actions almost instantly. One of the things I have to admit about him is that he actually has a finely tuned social radar. I’ve seen him in action many times. Not only can he read between the lines, but he can tell within a fraction of a second when a person’s emotions have changed even when the cues are extremely subtle. And he always adapts with wit, charm, self-deprecation, humor, engagement, or whatever it takes to reconnect or defuse the situation – he’s extremely savvy when it comes to managing interpersonal and business relationships. But one thing he will not overlook or manage is racism. When there is injustice directed at him or others, I’ve learned my dad will not stand idly by or mince his words. This was one of those times.
Nowadays, when I think back to that scene in the restaurant, I wish I had supported my dad. I wish I had stormed out of the restaurant with him. I wish instead of questioning him, I would have trusted him. I feel ashamed, actually, because when I think about it, I hung him out to dry. His only son didn’t have his back. I’m sure that made him feel even more alone. (One of the more insidious consequences of racism is loneliness.) But I’m also sure he understood that I was young, and that I would eventually come to understand. I’m thankful that I finally have.
By the way, I’m not writing about these racist encounters because I think they’re worse than what others have experienced. In fact, most of the racism I’ve experienced is probably relatively mild. Nor am I writing to get pity. I think part of the reason I write is because it’s therapeutic for me. But I also think it’s helpful to share personal stories as they have a humanizing effect on society in general. (If you’re new to this series, you can read the beginning half of the first post to get a sense of my intent behind the series.)
Two of my favorite books are Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, both written by Khaled Hosseini. (A Thousand Splendid Suns is the only book that’s made me weep.) While those books are fictional, they do approximate the lives of real people from Afghanistan. I’ve personally never viewed the people of that country as terrorists; however, they were also never more than an abstraction to me. In general, the media does a horrible job humanizing people from other countries, so I’ve never had a handle to grab onto to help me understand what they feel. All I’ve ever heard were stats, generalizations, distortions, et cetera. There was never a voice to cut through all the trash to connect me to the heart of an Afghan person. I’m thankful for Hosseini’s work because, for me, he did more for humanizing his people, for bringing to life their hopes and dreams and fears and struggles than anything I’ve read anywhere. And he did it simply by telling personal stories.
I am no where near Hosseini’s caliber as a storyteller, but I hope my personal stories help humanize not only Korean people, but people in general. My studies in anthropology, psychology and my travels have shown me that people all over the world are far more similar than they are different, and that includes those we demonize the most. (I actually gave a talk on this, if you’d like to listen.)