Columnist Francie Lin: When a summer outing stirs up anxiety about prejudice

  • Steps leading to a swimming hole in Conway. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steps leading to a swimming hole in Conway. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A swimming hole in Conway. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steps leading to a swimming hole in Conway. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Steps leading up from a swimming hole in Conway. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS


For the Gazette
Published: 8/28/2020 1:10:44 PM

It so happens that the project of the summer has been finding places to swim. Before the public opening of Leeds’ Musante Beach in June, we were going there, approaching the beach as one approaches an undetonated bomb, worried about distance and masks and social opprobrium. Once Musante opened, however, we moved on to other sites.

A spot off the bike path in Leeds was lovely but crowded after lunch, and mornings there were too shady to make for good swimming. Chesterfield Gorge is practically a highway now, with people navigating the rocky trail along the river with strollers and dogs — too many people for me, even in pre-COVID times. There are a couple of spots along the Mill River that we frequent, but given how limited travel has been this summer, I wanted to find something farther afield.

So last week I piled the kids in the car and we went in search of a place in Conway that a friend had told us about.

This was a roaring hot day. My phone lost reception at a certain point, and I have zero sense of direction. As we bumped down a dirt road with private property signs posted every few feet, I saw three older women walking on the road toward us and rolled down the window. I asked them how to get to the swimming hole. They gave us directions, wished us a nice swim and continued on their way. A nice, neighborly interaction.

But as we clambered down the trail to the water, I felt weirdly down. It might have been the heat and humidity. It might have been the same general depression that’s been hanging over everyone’s head since March. But there was something specific about this particular funk, which, after a few hours of mulling, I finally put my finger on: The brief conversation on the road with the friendly women was what was bothering me.

Let’s rewind to the point where my car was bumping down the road. As we approached the ladies on the trail, I did something that, in pre-COVID, pre-Trump times, would not have even occurred to me: I looked at them and made a split-second judgment on what kind of white people these were.

Hostile? Friendly? Erstwhile liberal? I found myself scanning their appearance for any kind of hint: shapeless hemp clothing would have been a cer tain kind of sign; waved hair and orthopedic sneakers a different kind. Tattoos could go either way, depending.

I’m not proud of these flash stereotypes. If I’d been by myself, I might not have given it too much thought before rolling down the window, but my kids are young and pretty innocent. I don’t think they’ve ever thought of themselves as minorities, and I didn’t want a trip to a swimming hole to be the thing that made them suddenly look at themselves from the outside. (I wanted adolescent acne and being rejected by the popular kids to be the thing that made them look at themselves from the outside.)

So I did something that annoyed me, and still annoys me when I think about it now. My voice went up three octaves higher than its natural range, and I tilted my head and called out, “Oh excuse me! Is there by any chance a swimming area around here? I think we’re a little lost!”

Many women reading this will, I think, recognize this reflex: the sudden default to nice and harmless when faced with a potentially hostile stranger. In my case, the reflex is also exacerbated by a long history of being the child of socially awkward immigrants. I can’t tell you how many times, growing up in Utah, I felt the need to make up for my parents’ sharp edges.

“Thank you so much!!” I would say to waiters, practically screaming, as they set a basket of bread down on the table. “Have a nice day!” I would tell the cashiers at the supermarket winningly, after their friendly attempts at small talk were met with either silence or a gruff “Fine” that made it clear my parents thought such efforts were tiresome.

I don’t like writing about racial issues from a personal standpoint. Given my privileged position, I have never felt that the slights that have cropped up now and then in my dealings with America merited too much comment, especially given the inhuman treatment of Black people embedded in our violent, uneasy history.

My own mother never thought being Asian American was worthy of much thought. “Are you going to write about being Chinese?” she asked, with distaste, when I was writing my first novel. I did, maybe to spite her a little, but after that I vowed I would never touch the subject again.

But the current confluence of the coronavirus, racial tensions and Trump has changed that. For the first time in many years, I’ve been forced to sort through the whole Pandora’s box of feelings that I’ve generally avoided — forced to acknowledge that while I don’t fit neatly in any of the BIPOC categories, I’m also not white.

This obvious fact is something that my parents, of course, have known all along, and to their credit, conforming to the cultural norms of Salt Lake City was never their goal. What I saw as rudeness at social gatherings was just them nervously being who they were. Racial slights didn’t bother them, or at least the kind of defenses they mounted for themselves were so bulletproof it would have taken a real act of violence to pierce them.

“Oh, just tell him he’s uneducated,” my mom said when I complained that some classmate had made fun of my eyes. Uneducated was a serious insult in her lexicon. We didn’t have money, but my parents were educated, and in her mind, that was a magic talisman that somehow made you superior, so that whatever other people tried to do to you was not hurtful but pathetic.

For a long time, I envied her faith in educational superiority, because, like religion, it made you impervious to any kind of insult if you believed in it. Faith has its limits, though. After 9/11, someone called the police on my dad, who was just going for a walk around the neighborhood he’d lived in for nearly 30 years. Whoever called might have been uneducated, but that changed nothing about the potential for damage they were capable of inflicting.

Similarly, at the beginning of the pandemic, my sister, a doctor in San Francisco, noted that anti-Asian American sentiment was on the rise and that this made her worried and anxious. My mother again responded, “Oh, those people are just ignorant!” — as if fingering the cause was enough.

But that kind of magical thinking, besides being ineffective against any actual threat, has other drawbacks. In a summer full of grief, what bothers me as much as any threat of discrimination is that the hostility and suspicion toward Asian Americans that has been gathering in the ether has made me wary and suspicious right back.

Recently, I noticed that the Huntington Country Store had a website notice up about its “China coronavirus” hours. The dog-whistle racism inherent in that phrase has made a number of people angry. Calls have been made to the store, things were posted on Facebook, but the owners declined to make any changes.

I am not a big fan of mob justice. I have no interest in putting a small local store out of business. I thought, maybe the owners just haven’t met any Asian people before. Maybe if I actually went and talked to them, they might understand that their choice of words matters to others, whether or not they care personally.

So I went to Huntington. At the counter, I asked for the owner, introduced myself, asked if she had any plans to change the website. She asked what “group” I was with. She asked if I’d seen the business about their China coronavirus language on Facebook, and I said yes. At that point, she said something about how she didn’t have plans to change the website, she had to go back to work, and then she walked away. I called after her, “Can I just talk to you for a minute?” and the man with her cut in, “No, you can’t! And you can leave now!”

What I was going to say, if they’d let me, is that my friend’s young daughter, adopted from China, has had nasty stuff said to her about being Chinese since this whole quarantine began; that some of my Asian friends have been too scared to go out to buy groceries for fear of being harassed. I’d wanted to ask — because I am genuinely curious — why keeping those words on the website matters so much to them. I can’t believe it matters more to them than changing them would mean to us.

This non-encounter was ridiculous in many ways, but mostly because it was such a cliché. My husband, Steve, when I told him about it, shrugged and said, “What did you expect to happen?” But I am so tired of believing that no progress can be made in the understanding between people.

This feels like a loss of something greater than just the freedom to seek out a secret swimming hole or go into an old-timey general store without wondering if you’re going to be yelled at or kicked out. The mess of current events has robbed me of my capacity to extend the benefit of the doubt to others, and I may resent that more than anything. But showing up, even though I was turned away, repaired that loss a bit.

Conway Station is a lovely place to swim, by the way. Granted, the path down to the river is steep and treacherous, but it leads to a clear, wide pool with enough current from the upstream waterfall to clear away anxiety, if only for a little while. The kids grumbled and complained about the hike, but I told them the effort would be worth it. It always is.

Francie Lin is an editor and writer who has a complicated relationship with domestic life. She lives in Florence.

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