Back in our Boston days, early in our courtship, my husband took me to Dim Sum in Chinatown. I had not yet experienced this authentic Chinese brunch and watched while J. waved over carts heaped with bamboo steamer baskets and lidded metal dishes. I listened while his voice, once familiar, wrapped around the soft sonics of Mandarin, asked and answered questions from a side of him I could never know. His queries were answered with nods and rapid-fire Chinese, lids lifted from the dishes about which they had clearly communicated. A cloud of steam rose before my husband’s face. He looked for a moment like the images I’d seen of mountains in remote China: an alien landscape, mysterious, shrouded in mist, unlike anything I’d seen before.
I had no clear preconceptions about Asians before I met my husband, but perhaps this illustrates what I have heard him, in rare moments, drop into our conversations — this perception he holds that Asians are invisible. From the first time I saw him, I was drawn to his singular appearance: the way his irises, so black, make you feel as if you are falling into a well, the way his eyelids look as if they’re expertly lined with jet-black eyeliner, the perfect dark arch of his eyebrows, his soft full lips so unlike my own. To me, there was nothing common about him.
But, what happened that day in Chinatown lent fuel to his perception of invisibility. Just before we sat down to our first Dim Sum together, we had waited in a long line that extended out the door, down the steps onto Beech St., then wrapped halfway around the gritty block. I left J. in line to go inside to use the restroom. While looking for him when I returned, I walked past him in both directions, twice—until he grabbed my arm.
“Oh! I didn’t see you,” I said
“We all look alike,” J. dead-panned, really without any sort of a laugh.
I sensed the pain behind his comment, even though I didn’t then know him well. This was one of the first times I felt the truth of another race’s experience. The memory of that day has stayed with me over twenty years later. I find myself cataloging these instances that stand out— when it is evident that we are from two distinct races, two very different cultures.
Our differences play out in myriad ways. When our oldest son, now 22, comes home for a visit, he walks around the house, snapping his fingers and whistling. While I see joy and comfort in these mannerisms (as well as the ghost of my late father who did these same things), my husband sees a display of idiosyncrasy, a weakness that makes one stand out.
“People will get the wrong impression of you,” my husband warns. “They’ll think you’re a lax person.”
As soon as my son’s hand goes to his hair while he’s making a point, my husband stops him: “People will think you’re insecure. You have to always be aware of these habits. Get rid of them.”
After my initial reaction, which is to think that my husband is too controlling, I stop to think about all the ways we have been taught differently. In my Caucasian upbringing, correcting a child for whistling or finger-snapping never happened (it would have been considered charming); in my husband’s Chinese childhood, parental directives on the minutia of behavior were omnipresent. Lest the reader incorrectly surmises that I am married to a harsh man, let me say that my husband tells our sons at every opportunity how much he loves them; he also hugs and kisses them daily, while I struggle to remember to do this. Do these differences have anything to do with culture, or are they behaviors specific to our particular families? Or, is my husband’s experience more directed by being a first-generation immigrant, striving to blend in, while mine is the more relaxed atmosphere of a fourth-generation family? I am not sure, but I know there are many lessons in this for me.
A Buddhist friend once told me that our relationships in this lifetime teach us what we need to learn for our next incarnation. I like the idea of this philosophy. I try (not always successfully) to look at our differences before I judge my husband. His experiences of feeling “other’ make me more aware of how culturally insensitive I can be. I wish to stay conscious of the different forces that influence another person’s behavior.
In this polarized social climate, many people of color feel a sharpening of their sense of “otherness.” My husband told me a story about something that happened at a work lunch this past year. While seated in the dining room with a group of Caucasian professionals, the discussion turned to their impressions concerning what they believe are the advantages that people of color receive, like in college admissions, for example. My husband, who considers himself a person of color, steamed silently while these co-workers continued with their loud musings, even as other POC bused dishes within earshot of their table; the co-workers talked about them as if they weren’t there. For him, this was a typical example of how white men (they were all men) ignore the existence (and experiences) of POC, effectively dehumanizing them.
Poets use their craft to witness the world around them. Part of writing poetry is to shine a light on complexity. I may not fully understand my husband’s cultural background, but I can write about my own experience interacting with it — I hope with empathy and without judgment. In the poem at the top of this essay, I hope I do just that: witness the mystery of difference.