I borrowed the movie Moonlight because it won for Best Picture, and also because it looked so mysterious, so artsy. It was the account of a boy, in three stages, growing up poor, black, and gay in Miami. I was going to watch it that weekend, but mom got to it first.
I’m going to have to watch it on the computer, she said, taking the DVD, because of, well, you know who.
I asked who, and she gestured to my grandfather’s study, saying he wouldn’t be too keen on seeing black people on our TV. Yes, he’s racist, she said, and then laughed.
It hit me then how lucky I was to grow up in the U.S. My grandfather was born in the heart of China, at the beginning of WWII, before the Communist Party took over and Japanese were attacking the mainland. He grew, lived, and would have died in the People’s Republic of China, if my grandmother hadn’t died a few years ago, and he came to live with us.
As for myself, as long as I can remember, I always saw different colored heads in the classroom. There were the very blonde, the less blonde, various shades of brown, darkish brown, and the completely black haired, with different skin colors to match. My classmates were all different, and that was that. The politics of race didn’t hit me until my Chinese relatives found it more and more unacceptable I couldn’t speak Chinese, and I realized the firework-filled nights at my mom’s booth at Ethnic Expo came with a cost.
I don’t think my grandfather is a hateful person, if ironborn and strict, but his distrust of blacks made me deeply uncomfortable. I like to think of myself as a tolerant person, educated or at least attempting to be, but suddenly wondered if I would end up the same way growing up somewhere else. I worried what would happen if it was never normal, exciting, to see all kinds of different colors in one room. Even now, I doubt I am completely without racism, existing as another subscriber to the media.
Last year, I found myself talking about my country a lot, as everything the U.S. stands for has come into question. With recent events, supposedly old prejudices have returned to the air like an ancient disease. Our times have been compared to the ’60s. And to the extent I discuss with my peers about our nation’s future, you would think we had lost our taste for patriotism, or pride.
But the opposite is true. I still admire the country where I live, if not more than before. It is able to change, and willing to discuss. That free speech is a staple in our national society still amazes me. I do love its noble history, dramatic spirit, and willingness to do right. I can’t imagine my mom being able to divorce my dad in China, where domestic issues are still seen as private, not public, problems. That the American people are unrelaxed, that different groups clash, still points to a painful truth: the fact that we can hear each other’s suffering and allow it to affect us makes it possible to change.
In my opinion, there are still things we should change. Race is not the only issue. I’m lucky to grow up in a city ruled by riches, rewards, and loudly enforced political correctness, but not everybody does. I’m not as close to my heritage as many of my Chinese-American classmates. I'm scared for women in this country. And both my parents are still outraged by Muslims and gays, disproving all minorities are somehow friendly with each other.
But if there is any lasting feeling I have, it is, in the words of our last president, hope. We live in extraordinary times. But we also live in an extraordinary country.