In the bad old days, where racism is concerned, even though they frequently wore white hoods to cover up their faces, we knew exactly who our enemies were. In public, they were unafraid to call us “Nigger” and all its equivalents–“Chink,” “Jap,” “Gook,” “Flip,” “Spic,” “Wop,” “Kike,” “Polack,” ad nauseam. Then came the Age of Political Correctness. The white hoods disappeared from view, and the racial slurs went into hiding.
With the election of President Obama, we briefly fooled ourselves into thinking that this was, indeed, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. It’s now clear, however, that we’ve been hoodwinked, and the hateful epithets and images are back, uglier than ever. In some quarters, they are even worn and displayed proudly, as badges of honor, shows of patriotism, signalling a call to action, perhaps even a licence to kill. Aquarius never felt more like Armaggedon.
I grew up with overt racism in the Philippines. Being Chinese, belonging to the wealthier middle class, I was taught to distrust the Filipinos, whom we all referred to as “primitive dogs.” The Filipinos, in turn, taunted us with a sing-song chant which I can still hear inside my head, over half a century later. Intsik beho, tulo laway! which I can only roughly translate as Chinky workhorse, saliva drooling! Odd as this may sound, I did not know the meaning of racism until I saw the movie adaptation of South Pacific in 1958. After I heard the anger, the pain and the outrage as sung by John Kerr in the song “You’ve Got To Be Taught,” I would never be the same again. I began to dream about what life might be like in “the Land of the Free, the Home of the Brave.” But it would take another ten years before I could finally leave for the United States.
In all honesty, I cannot say that I have ever been discriminated against, overtly, here in America, not the way I see and hear stories about how other People of Color continue to be treated in certain parts of these United States, not just by the ignorant and the ill-educated, but also by people who really ought to know better, some of them our own elected State Representatives and Members of Congress, all of whom claim to be right-thinking and right-minded Christians. Is this why they are called The Religious Right? What’s wrong with these people? Have they never seen South Pacific on stage? In the movies? On television?
There’s discrimination, and then there’s discrimination. Some subtle, some not so subtle. I remember Luci Tapahonso, a senior colleague of Navajo descent at the University of Kansas, telling me about salespeople following her vigilantly in department stores, suspicious that she might be a shoplifter. She also talked about a particular grocery store in town where she was frequently informed by cashiers who probably meant well, that she might want to “check out the week-old fruits and vegetables in the back of the store because they are cheaper.”
After Luci told me about these embarrassing encounters, I recalled that I too had had a peculiar experience at this same grocery store. It had happened a while back. As I remember it, on that particular occasion, there were a couple of people ahead of me at the checkout line. While waiting my turn in line, I picked up a copy of TV Guide which was on display near the checkout counter. As I was leafing through the magazine, the young cashier, who looked like she might have been one of my students, suddenly yelled at me. “Are you going to buy that magazine, or are you just going to stand there and read it for free?” Everyone heard her, and now everyone was looking at me. I mumbled an apology and quickly put the magazine back on the rack. I could have abandoned the groceries in my cart but I didn’t. When my turn came, I paid my bill in silence and left the store in silence. Driving home, and for a couple of hours afterwards, I seethed. Why didn’t I throw the magazine in the stupid cashier’s face? Why didn’t I demand to see the manager and insist that the employee be fired for her rudeness to a customer who had been shopping in that store for years? And then, of course, I found myself wondering if the Caucasian cashier would have treated me the same way had I been white and comely, not yellow and cowardly. But, the moment had passed, and now I’ll never know.
When CONPERSONAS, my first play, won the National Student Playwriting Award of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival in 1976, the prize included representation by the William Morris Agency in New York, the best in the business. Biff Liff, my agent, said he was happy CONPERSONAS had won the award, but that he would have a hard time marketing the play because it was much too “intellectual.” He said I should capitalize on, and write about, my own unique Asian background. That particular scenario, he said, he could sell. He mentioned Frank Chin, whose plays Chickencoop Chinaman (1971) and The Year of the Dragon (1974) had been produced successfully in New York, and whose book Aiiieeeee: An Anthology of Asian American Writers (1974) had also just been published. I told Biff Liff that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as an “ethnic” writer, that I was already hard at work on two other plays, neither of which drew from my own unique Asian background. He urged me no further and, shortly after that, we had a predictable parting of ways.
Although I have no regrets about the chronology or the subject matter of my plays to date, I must admit, grudgingly, that Biff Liff was a visionary of sorts. In the same year that I rejected his offer to market my ethnicity, Maxine Hong Kingston burst onto the scene with The Woman Warrior, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction in 1976; followed by China Men, which was given the National Book Award in 1981. Then came the plays of David Henry Hwang, among them M Butterfly in 1988; and the novels of Amy Tan, starting with The Joy Luck Club in 1989. And, of course, the movies of Ang Lee were waiting in the wings.
What’s interesting about Ang Lee is that he made three wonderful movies about Chinese Americans—Pushing Hands (1992), The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)—before he broke into the mainstream with Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Brokeback Mountain (2005), etc. I am a great admirer of his work, and I sometimes wonder what might have happened to my own career had I taken Biff Liff’s suggestion and written MOTHER TONGUE first, the one and only play which draws almost completely on my own unique Asian background; and which, ironically enough, is also my most-produced play to date. Is MOTHER TONGUE really a better play than CONPERSONAS or CHAMBERS or HOMERICA or FLESH FLASH AND FRANK HARRIS? Or are audiences more willing to embrace MOTHER TONGUE because it’s an Asian-American play by an Asian-American playwright?
Is racial profiling “bad” when the profile is meant to be complimentary and flattering? In America, Asians are frequently referred to as “the model minority” because we are quiet, we don’t complain, we are non-threatening sexually, we are conservative and vote mostly Republican, we are studious and hard-working, we all excel in math and calculus. After all, didn’t we invent the abacus? I don’t mind it when people seem surprised that, at K.U., I’m teaching English literature and creative writing instead of anything dealing with numbers. Go figure.
There are in fact four other Asian-Americans at K.U. who are in the arts, not the sciences. Unfortunately, three of them are now retired—Roger Shimomura and Norman Gee from the Visual Arts Department, and Andrew Tsubaki from the Theatre Department. Pok-Chi Lau in the Design Department and I are the only ones left. Although the five of us look nothing alike, in town as well as on campus, we are frequently mistaken for one another. I guess it just comes with the territory. And so, in class, at the beginning of each semester, I always jokingly tell my students that it will take me a while to identify them all properly, because “all white people look alike to me.”
But, sometimes it’s hard to laugh things away. I remember a dinner party I gave at home some years ago, when another senior colleague from my department ooh’d and ahh’d over a dish which I had prepared. “What is it?” she gushed between happy mouthfuls. “Ratatouille,” I said, and offered to share my own special recipe with her. “Ratatouille!” she shrieked merrily. “What are you doing in French territory? You should stick to soy sauce!”
For many years, first as a Graduate Teaching Assistant and then as a part-time Lecturer, I was allowed to teach only Freshman Composition and Intro to Drama at K.U. Meanwhile, on my own time, I had written and published about half a dozen short stories, many of which went on to win major literary awards in the Philippines. Also, I had now written a number of plays which were getting modest productions Off Broadway in New York.
And then it came to pass. Sometime in the mid-1980s, when the English Department decided to hire a full-time tenure-track creative-writing person, and a national search was being conducted, I asked the Chair of the Department if I should apply for the job. He seemed surprised by my question and, after a while, he said, “Why, yes, of course, by all means, apply. You’re about as qualified as anyone else. Besides, it would really make Affirmative Action happy!”
I did apply, but I didn’t get the job, not once but twice. Apparently, the pool of applicants was so impressive, the administration gave the Department permission to hire not one but two creative writers, one male and one female, both of them Caucasian. I have no idea if my application was ever taken seriously. I only know that my application was never formally acknowledged, and that I was never actually interviewed by the search committee. But, I’m sure Affirmative Action was really “happy” that I too had applied for the job.
Four years later, when the Provost at K.U. was genuinely dismayed by the lack of People of Color within the faculty, and was determined to do something about it , word went out that any Person of Color who was “qualified” and who was “already around” can bypass a national search, and can be brought in as a Direct Minority Hire. And that, to make a long story short, was how I finally came on board in 1989 as a full-time faculty member at the University of Kansas. Shortly after that, I had a startling encounter with a junior colleague in the department, another creative writer who, like me, had been slaving away for years as a part-time lecturer; but who, unlike me, was Caucasian. She stopped me one day in the hallway and said bitterly, “All things being equal, I may be the right gender, but the color of my skin is wrong, and the shape of my eyes is wrong.”
And now, of course, Affirmative Action is viewed with great suspicion by many in this country. There is much talk of “reverse discrimination.” It may or may not be amusing, depending on whether you are on the inside looking out, or on the outside looking in. Filipinos who continue to revere their colonial masters are said to be “coconuts, brown on the outside, but white inside.” And among many Asian-Americans, those who are perceived as erasing what makes them unique while they are busy embracing the mainstream, are said to be “bananas, yellow on the outside, but white inside.” Those apples in the Garden of Eden…the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil…what color were they?