Since the pandemic, I haven’t taken my annual 4-day retreat where I get to be a hermit, stocked with food and drink, books and journals and live 100% in my own space. I relish the freedom to just be. I sleep, read in bed, write, cry, re-watch my favorite movies or YouTube clips on meditation and serenity. I have no schedule. I respond only to what I want to (not should) do. In these retreats, I reopen myself to the great beauty and the love that is abound in this world and it guides me on a path back to my whole and centered self.
This year, I chose a beautiful inn in a quaint New Hampshire town. The website looked beautiful and the Tripadvisor reviews were stellar. I looked forward to calm, peace and tranquility.
As I near the inn and take the windy and narrow local road that leads to the inn, I find myself hyperventilate and I have to calm myself back to ease. This idyllic New England town road is littered with homes branding the American flag. Immediately my defense goes up. The tranquil feel I had just a minute ago quickly dissipates to anxiety and dread of the self-defense I will need to muster up. I’m reminded that I am not welcome by some of these local residents.
As I park in the inn’s lot, I look around to make sure my surroundings are safe. After I settle into my room, I decide to not take a walk around the inn to the nearby beach until I have a better sense of my safety here. It’s day 4 and I still haven’t gone to the beach. The New Yorker in me would have gone out in Day 1. But I’m here to be tranquil and I simply don’t want to give energy to fear and anxiety during this trip. I don’t want to deal with “what may happen” that would ruin the purpose of this trip.
I’ve thought about walking to the nearby city that I’ve frequented often with my husband, which I know is super inclusive. But that’s an hour’s walk and a part of me just didn’t want to be on guard. What am I on guard for? Walking by people who won’t look at me or who scowl when they pass by me. I hold my breath every time a pick-up truck passes by because I’ve been denigrated by those drivers in the past whose truck brandished the American flag. If I’m accosted by someone, will I have a safe space to run to? Will someone come to my rescue? These are the things I think about before I decide to not take the one-hour walk. It would have been a beautiful walk.
It’s day 4. I haven’t yet gone to the beach. I haven’t gone on my walk. I’ve driven to the nearby city every day, in part to know that I belong somewhere and I can be safe just being me, walking on the streets.
This is the cost to my freedom as an Asian American in America. And even worse as a Chinese American nowadays with the increased messaging all around, about China’s threat to us. I don’t have the freedom to just chill, relax and be 100% who I am. I don’t have the privilege to not have to discern adeptly and make decisions on the basic everyday stuff, to assure that I can feel tranquil and safe in a quaint little town in New England. Disappointedly, I lost out on some beautiful experiences because of the fear of possible identity attack. It’s the America we now live in, where a person’s dislike for another’s identity becomes activated in physical aggression. In these identity-attacking moments, I know the perpetrators won’t care about my education, my Americanism or my love for America. They just see an Asian chick who doesn’t belong in their town. This is not a projected imagination by the way. I’ve been here before — the look, the scowl of a passing car driver, the unwelcoming words.
If you’re white and never have had to think about this, please understand this is what privilege means. This is the freedom you are luxuriated to experience that I never do. To just take a walk in an idyllic New England town, just walking and enjoying the quaint homes and nature around you, never having to hold your breath about possible aggression from the next passing car or the next passerby. For those of us who are identifiably not white, this is the freedom we rarely have as Americans in our country. How sad it makes me. How I wish it were different.
On a positive note, there was one house on the road flying a rainbow flag — just seeing that calmed me a bit. I thanked that family’s decision which made me feel safe and welcomed in this new town. It’s so true that an act of kindness is such an offering of love that is so palpable. I hope each of us can offer that kindness out there in the world, especially when see people who may feel out-of-place or unwelcomed in a particular situation. Smiling at a passerby. Making space on the sidewalk for our fellow pedestrian to pass by comfortably. Radiating love.
I guess, in the end, whether America stays divided, whether the US becomes a country of either you or me, is up to each of us. It’s our everyday small acts, the interpersonal decisions we make every day, that cumulatively, expresses to the world, who we really are.