Category Archives: Race

Small Confessions

Mr. X used the school’s PA system to call me from homeroom to the music room. I knew what it was about, but remained remarkably calm as I made my way down the hallways of our sad little school, the smell of damp and mothballs catching in the back of my throat.

[Confession: I had signed out one of the trumpets from the school’s collection over the weekend, and through a series of (then) hellish but ultimately (as in now) comedic events, managed to damage the instrument very badly.]

The music room was not, as I had expected, empty. There was a class in full swing and everyone went silent as I entered the room and found Mr. X standing in front of them, right next to the ruined horn. He’d propped it up in its case on a stool and opened the lid: a mangled metal mummy put on display for all to see.

[Confession: I was fully ready to cop to the damage I’d done. Had mentally prepared for it in the hallway. But something about Mr. X having the class ready in wait, as witness – something about the theatrics of the whole music room set up turned me around on that.]

“One thing you should know about me: I don’t get angry. I get even.” That was what he told every class at the beginning of the year. It was delivered as a joke, but not to be taken as such. Not entirely. Standing there, called out in front of the class (mostly kids I didn’t know, but I few I most definitely did), standing in front of the messed-up trumpet, in front of him, I now knew that for sure. It was hardly a joke.

[Confession: At first, I thought it was an extremely funny thing to say: “I don’t get angry. I get even.” That particular brand of sardonic humour was, like, so in back in the day.]

“Do you know what happened to this trumpet?” he asked, loudly, and without preamble. And of course I did because, not only had I done it (or rather, allowed it to happen), but my name was on the sign-out sheet for exactly one trumpet (though, to my great benefit, it had taken a day or two for that particular trumpet to make it back into class circulation).

The students whispered (“she did it!”). Some laughed.

“No,” I answered. “I don’t know.”

“Because it looks like someone’s beat the hell out of this thing.”

“Wasn’t me.”

The teaching assistant (some young guy whose name must have been something like “Allan”) held up the sign-out binder. “It says you signed out a trumpet.”

“I did.” No lie there.

I remember the silence that engulfed the room as Mr. X, Allan and I stood there (a trumpet is not the trumpet, is not that trumpet, is it?). As the class quieted and settled in to watch.

I learned a lot about silence that day.

[Confession: My bowels had turned to ice. I was so sure they had me and would have probably admitted everything had Mr. X not chosen to speak in the very next moment.]

“OK. You say no. You say you don’t know. Go back to class.” It was clearly an admonishment, a small victory via public humiliation. But I think: his as well as mine.

He remains the only non-white teacher I ever had growing up (this includes elementary, middle and high school). So it also felt like a betrayal.

[Confession: I stopped taking music after that semester, although I signed out the exact same trumpet, (after they’d fixed it), at least twice more before the end of term using, of course, the new sign-out sheet in which date, name, instrument and INSTRUMENT NUMBER were prominently listed.]

Mr. X never mentioned the trumpet to me again. I never paid for the damages or was (officially) labelled the culprit. The other students quickly tired of the intrigue and scandal (such as it was in our pathetic little ‘burg) and moved on to the next thing, whatever that was.

A few years later, when I learned he died, and that he’d been killed in a skiing accident, I remember thinking: No way.

[Confession: But what I said was, “Just like Sonny Bono.”]

Yes. Just like Sonny Bono. I confess, I said that. I confess, I could have done better. I confess, that if in this whole story there is any fault to find or blame to assign, it’s not to be found anywhere I can imagine.

 

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P.S. Fuck you, Allan.

 

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Filed under Death, Education, People, Race, School, THE PAST

The Intimidation Game

I don’t get put off by people so much as places, partially because so many are built with certain people in mind, for them to congregate, mingle and be alike.

It is a circuitous anxiety, as most are: I know that I am actually not trying to avoid any one place. I know this. But it is also the case that places built with certain people in mind must therefore exclude other people from the forefront of said mind. Must therefore consider them not quite people. Fancy places, exclusive places, everyday places in which life’s simmering tensions and pro forma injustices get played out in the most banal and outlandish ways.

Places – any place – that renders you lesser because of your very presence there. Places where everyone, theoretically, can belong. But not anyone.

See: That Philadelphia Starbucks.

See: My elementary school.

See: Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook (etcetera).

The trick, if there is one when it comes to these places, is to go with someone (preferably someone coded as the kind of person who is sought after in these kinds of places; someone who would be, rather than suspect, welcomed). Further, it is imperative that they go in first. At least, at first. A scout sent in to assess the situation, a decoy and then a port for which you become proxy then agent,* a literal human shield to dive behind to avoid or defy prying eyes and then, if need be, to sacrifice as you make your own backward escape out, away.

The sacrifice, of course, is mostly yours, not quite theirs. It is their privilege, after all.

I am not kidding. I have done this. I have lived it.

The other Thing to do is to avoid these places altogether, the idea being to starve them of your patronage. But when such places already exclude you, or work to do that in the myriad ways at their disposal to do so (by providing cold, cruel service, by inflating the cover, by labelling you “difficult” or “aggressive” at what they deem the slightest provocation), that seems a hollow victory, a rather shallow high ground.

I think maybe it is not so much a problem to be addressed, as undermined. You don’t have to avoid these places, since anyone can count as everyone, but you don’t have to go to them either for any other greater reason than because you want to. I mean not just you, and not just me. Anyone, anybody. Everyone.

Presence of mind is a place. It counts.

And if only it were just that easy.

 

 

 

 

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* Need it be said? You are always agent. For good or bad, yours or otherwise.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under People, Places, Politics, Race, Relationships

Noodle Soup

Ah, all the noodle soups I’ve had in my life! The hot, the savoury, the lukewarm and questionable.

When I’m feeling down, or bored, my thoughts often turn to noodle soup.

Where can I get some? Where must I go?

Beef Noodle Soup. Ramen. Phõ.

Oh, Phõ!

(Often pronounced, by some, in anguish, as a low, almost guttural, “P-OE” or “PO-HOE.” Sometimes “re-imagined” or “deconstructed” by others into a dish only very remotely resembling what could only very generously be called Phõ.)

I don’t begrudge them. It’s, frankly, not all that important (not really, not always). Just don’t mess the ingredients. More: don’t intrude on the scene expecting more than you give. Than you can give.

Don’t insist. You don’t even have to call it Phõ!

There’s more than enough for everyone, but not if you insist. Not in the way that you think.

(Trust me.)

The taste might be different each time, the experience. But not its standing. Consider the weight of the Thing, the ingress, the import. The majesty it imbues. Be mindful.

Do or do not do.

(Trust me.)

Some things in this world are not to be taken lightly.

Listen:

The broth is key.

The broth is life.

Trust.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Food, Philosophy, Race, Relationships

Regrets

Version .1

He was charming in the way that mayonnaise is appealing because of its apparent ubiquity in sandwiches (tuna, ham, chicken salad): agreeable enough as standard (or a standard, anyway). He told the new guy how he had talked to my mother on the phone, just the other day in fact.

“She’s a lovely woman,” he said, meaning my mother, looking me in the eye. He went on and on.

Except.

He never spoke to my mother. Or, to put it in better terms, my mother never spoke to him. Has never spoken to him. He spoke to Claudia’s mother. Claudia,* the only other Asian-Canadian woman who worked there. Claudia, who was not me, whose mother was not my mother. But, I guess, “a difference that makes no difference” (even when it does and especially when you’ve already committed yourself to the convenience, the ease and matter-of-factness that comes from it), right?

He smiled at me. I smiled back. I smile back.

He left and I didn’t have anything to say to myself after that.

Except. If only. But still.

Yeah.

 

Version .05

(It’s like stepping on live snails after the evening rains in the summer: the leaden air; the sudden crunching underfoot, the pop, the grinding of shell into sidewalk; the mess that cakes to the soles of your boot. The thought of what shouldn’t have happened, what could have been done. The damage, the waste, and what possible difference there could be separating the two).

 

Version .2

She spoke in quick clipped tones that shot out from the receiver as I held the phone against my ear. I didn’t want to be there. That’s not an excuse (and barely an explanation). She asked about paper lanterns (“Paper lanterns…paper lanterns…paper lanterns!”), whether we had any in stock and how many, what colour and what etc., etc., etc.

“Who was that?” called Mom from across the store, dusting shelves, merchandise, as always (as ever).

I told her, with my hand over the receiver, for cover. The phone dropped to the floor and I looked at it for a while before picking it up.

What difference did it make?

She came into the store later that day. A woman who looked very much like my mother, like me.

“I called earlier. The girl on the phone said I was ‘some white lady.'” She laughed.

“Oh! It was her!” Mom said, pointing, laughing, looking right through me, not nearly so cheerful. “You wanted lanterns.” It wasn’t a question.

I deserved it, the reprimand, the dismissal.

Except. If only. But still.

Of course.

 

 

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*Not real name.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Employment, People, Race, Relationships

Pet Shop Boy

 
There is a time and place for everything.

At the pet store, for example.

Feeding Ivan, our pet tarantula, means having to go to the pet store – a place that reminds me of a kind of low-grade zoo/high-end furniture store – every two weeks or so to buy 6 individual live crickets.

Her favourite.

It is not a lot. It’s something like $0.90 dropped into the bucket of a ba-zillion dollar industry.

I know what to do and say at the pet store to get my paltry 6 crickets as quickly as possible so I can get out of there as quickly as possible, and get on with my life:
 
1. Go directly to the register.

2. Repeat the line:

Do you sell individual live crickets? I only need six, but I’ll pay for the dozen.”
 
Pet stores almost always only sell live crickets by the dozen. The clerks are usually quite helpful and sometimes won’t even charge for the full dozen.

But the clerk at this particular store seemed to have fallen off the back of something…

  • A truck
  • An after school special
  • The last immediate century

…And right in front of my existence.

He refused to look up, his hands fumbling under the counter at something that I will imagine as not the crotch of his pants. He sighed heavily at the question and answered, all the while fumbling like it was the best thing since sliced bread and there was no tomorrow and like his life depended on it.

“Yeah,” he said, jutting a jiggling elbow to the back of the store, “just go to the back and ask the brown guy.”

Go to the back and ask the brown guy.

He said it like he said it all the time, everyday. He said that like it was the everyday, said like it wouldn’t leave me standing there, forgetting totally my mission to get out of the pet store as fast as I could and on with the rest of my life.

I stood there, not knowing how to react, something like a ba-zillion responses flashing in my mind. I stood there for so long he stopped fumbling.

We made eye contact.

And something clicked.

WHAT?”

For both of us.

MIIIIIIKE! Go ask Mike!”

Go ask Mike.

Who got me the crickets, all six, but charged me for the dozen.

When I returned to the register to pay, the clerk had disappeared – two bubbly teens working in his place now – had disappeared like some racist mirage. A false blip on an otherwise limitless horizon where people can congratulate themselves for voting Obama.

The Black President.

But as I left, crickets in hand, I saw him again.

In front of me, again, sitting in the food court.

Eating kettle chips.

As real as anything.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Filed under Animals, People, Pets, Race