My daughter went shopping with my almost 80 year old mother two days ago at the mall. Her school year is over and my mother wanted to celebrate her granddaughter’s birthday with a shopping spree at our nearby mall. I worried most about my mother’s driving but expected that all would be well. I imagined that they would have a day of bonding and sharing. My heart warmed at the thought that my daughter would experience my mother without my filter and that my mother would have time with her beloved granddaughter.
My daughter calls me on their way back with reports of shopping, eating and this weird guy who kind of bothered them at Au Bon Pain, a mall eatery. I sit up in my seat holding my breath to hear what had happened. My daughter talks about this older Caucasian man, in a Patriot’s sweatshirt (my daughter is a sports kid), who came abruptly to the table my mother and daughter were sitting at and declared, “you guys are finished and you need to leave”. Both stunned, it took my mother a bit of time to respond, in her accented English that they were not yet finished. This gentleman barked back, “in this country people leave when they’re done eating. You’re done and you need to leave.” Unaware of my mother’s steel, he was clearly taken aback when my mother scowled back, “this is my country too and we’re not done.” You can imagine my horror as I heard my daughter nonchalantly report this incident to me. I had been through moments like this in my life, oftentimes witnessing my parents being abused by Caucasian Americans and so I was on high alert. This was racism in action. This was violence in action. And here they were, my 80 year old mom and my 12 year old daughter caught in this maelstrom. My daughter was aware and oblivious at the same time. So she continues with the story, that the man continued to harass them. But then, another female patron chimed in and told the man, “you can’t talk to other people like that”. He continued to bark on until the manager came over and told the man to leave. The gentleman stated again that my mother and daughter had finished eating and they needed to leave at which point the manager told him, “they are my guests and you’re the one who needs to leave”. This man’s wife tugs on him and pleads with him to leave, and he finally leaves the premises. My daughter reports that after he left, my mother leaned toward her and asked her, “did I scare you?” My daughter had never seen my mother that stern.
I’m sitting there on the other end of the phone stunned, nervous, sad and proud all at the same time. My mother has been a survivor all her life and while she may look like a old petite Asian woman, people who mess with her need to take caution. As she’s told me, “ I had to learn to become tough. Too many people had beaten on me throughout my life”. When my daughter returned home and we talked again about this incident, I told my daughter, with pride, that her “strong willed firey personality” is not a fluke, but a trait that has resided within generations of women in our family. My daughter smiled and I just sat and looked at her. One generation to another and another. My love radiated to hug her. She had come to experience the lineage of women in her family viscerally for the first time.
In the quiet by myself, I started to cry. The decades of feeling and being told, suggestively and literally that I didn’t belong came rushing back to me. People who made fun of our family for just walking down the street. Individuals who barked back at my parents for speaking with an accent when they ordered something. Schoolmates who picked on and abused my brother in the early years of our arrival. Friends who found it odd that I spoke another language at home. For so many years in my life, I’ve had to traverse this fine line of being myself and being accepted by the Caucasian American world, oftentimes with confusion and self-denigration. It all started to return to me. My mother, who has been in this country for 40 years, longer than anywhere else she had been in her life, at the age of 80, was told by some random man that she didn’t belong. She took care of herself. But I wish I had been there to defend her honor.
But as I was flooded with these feelings, I also was grateful for how things have changed for the better. My mother and daughter were not alone. A community of strangers came to their defense and took care of them and asked the gentleman, not my family, to leave. My daughter doesn’t carry my history and my story and thus, saw this as some crazy guy who wanted to pick on someone. Through our stories of my husband’s mother’s encounters with racism as an African-American woman and my parents’ struggle as immigrants, my daughter is not oblivious to the struggles of the past with regard to race. But she has a new narrative of belonging and empowerment. She is fully American and doesn’t carry the doubts I had carried throughout my life. So when I asked her yesterday, if she was okay about what happened at the mall, she said, “oh yeah mom, I’m fine.” And I believed her. The world will always have people who hate. But I know my daughter’s cognizance coupled with her radiance and strong core will hold her in good stead. One generation lights the torch and passes it to the next. From my mother to me and now to my daughter, she is meeting the world on her own terms. May she own all of who she is, with pride, self-acceptance and unconditional love.