So I’m sitting at the library, getting my internet fix, and when I sit down to plug in my laptop there’s an Asian guy to my right. It’s quiet in the library, and we sit in comfortable silence for a while, both of us absorbed in whatever’s on our screens. After ten or fifteen minutes, out of the blue, he says, “That Indian guy can’t stop staring at me.”
It’s obvious that he’s directing his comment to me, since he’s turned in my direction, but I feel like he must have made a mistake. Or maybe I heard him wrong. All I know is that I feel like the tone of his comment raised a quiet kind of rage in me; there’s something wrong.
“Excuse me?” I venture, my voice low in respect for our surroundings.
“That Indian guy can’t stop staring at me.” He motions behind me, but when I turn to see what he’s talking about, there isn’t anyone staring at him. I nod kindly to him and return my attention to my computer, but he continues talking. “I don’t know what it is. These Indian people, these brown people, black people – they just don’t know how to stop staring.”
It’s obvious now that he expects me to commiserate and agree, to bond with him because we’re both Asian. I cock my head to the side and furrow my brow. Can this really be happening?
“They just can’t stop staring,” he continues. “You know, in other parts of the country, Upstate, or out west or whatever, there are more white people that black and brown people. Here, there are all brown and black people. I mean, when I moved to New York, there were more white people than black people, then in the 80s all the white people evacuated…” Evacuated, I think. He really used the word evacuated. As if all the white people had found out about some impending disaster, and left the minorities to deal with imminent death and destruction.
I let my mind wander as he continues with his racist rant. He’s talking about the neighborhood, about how it used to be predominantly Irish and Italian, and how it’s now “overrun with Indians, Guyanese, Jamaicans”, etc. I think about what he’s saying, and it’s not entirely untrue. When my family and I moved into this neighborhood 20 years ago, there were definitely less West Indians living here. We’ve seen the evolution of the neighborhood and learned to enjoy the changes: more curry and roti chops, better music blaring out of car speakers, etc… But this guy’s words. He’s talking about a certain kind of people staring at him. He’s singling out a race of people for simply being here. So what about his words make me uncomfortable? Why are there bells and whistles going off in my head, telling me that these are negative comments?
“… You hear these stories about two black kids on a bus who start a fight, and what was it about? It’s because one kid looked at the other kid wrong.” He catches my expression and changes his course. “Maybe it’s hip hop,” he says. “The hip hop culture makes people that way.”
“The hip hop culture is my culture,” I say without batting a lash. He nods, his eyes clouding in disappointment. He knows: that there is no bond between us. That there never will be, if this is all he has to work with.
He asks if I mind people staring at me, and for a moment I want to tell him about the fact that I was only 1 of 7 Asians in my entire graduating junior high school class of, maybe, 500 students; I want to tell him about how, wherever I went while I was growing up, guys used the words “chinky” or “china” to call me, either as a put-down or as a cat call; I want to tell him about the time that a school bus full of kids passed me on my way home, hurling Asian epithets. And I want to tell him that I never looked down on these people because of any difference of our bodies, but instead pitied them because of the differences of our personalities. Their ignorance stopped them from radiating the beauty that I know they had.
Instead, I tell him that I’ve never had any race-related problems, and I politely turn back to my computer. I type in the URL for my blog and wonder why I didn’t stand on my soap box, as I’m so wont to do. Is this another change due to my impending motherhood, I’m thinking, and he cuts into my thoughts: “You’re Filipino, right?”
“So, that means you’re, like, half Asian and half Mexican?”
“No,” I say, my annoyance with him only now coming through. “It means that I’m Filipino. As in, from the Philippines.”
He laughs. “I dated a Filipino woman not too long ago, out in California.”
I smile curtly and avert my eyes. He’s telling me about how old he is, how much traveling he’s done, what he enjoys doing in his free time, and I shake my head. “That Indian guy won’t stop staring at me” was supposed to be his opening line to kick game.