Monday, February 04, 2008

Remembering Racial Moments

I call them Racial Moments because, like most mixed-race folks, I don't tend to think about race all day long. Of course, I do right now because of my film, chapbook, upcoming musical, t-shirts, and comic strip all involving biracial issues. But, under normal circumstances, much like the average mono-racial person, I'm just me. Having made that clear, I do confess to experiencing, now and then, a Racial Moment--a memory of something significant that's steeped in race.

At a meeting this evening, conducted by an arts organization promising to fund worthy projects, I was casually taking notes on how to apply for artists' grants when one of the speakers walked in. I recognized him as a local filmmaker who, upon being introduced to me in the past, had promptly turned his face. Although he is one of my mother's people, I felt that he may have been showing his disapproval of her choice in a mate by ignoring me, the result of that union. I'll never know because I never asked him.

But if that is the case, this man would be shocked to learn that not only did my mother, a first-generation Japanese woman, marry a black American soldier, but later, when he divorced her, paired up with a Caucasian air force retiree. Clearly, my mother holds no animosity towards any racial group. But neither is she unique among so-called Japanese war brides. In fact, I remember growing up on military bases after World War II when many of our neighbors were Japanese and German women married to both black and white American soldiers. Additionally, many of the folks in our 'hood were Filipinos, Puerto Ricans and Mexicans--all who joined the U.S. military in a move towards American citizenship. It was an idyllic, multicultural time when no one ever asked, "What are you?"

But, back to my mother. I remember the times when she and her Japanese girlfriends would stay up all night while their men were "in the field". The soldiers were sometimes away for days, training outdoors somewhere. Meanwhile, these seemingly delicate women would gather at one lady's house and, while sipping whiskey or green tea, smoke cigarettes and play hanafuda--a Japanese game using tiny, colorful cards. If Emiko was there with her front gold tooth and permed hair, we'd eventually hear her raspy voice yelling at her two half-black boys, "Stee-bee! Lay-mon!" Although their names were Stevie and Raymond, it was the best she could muster. Her pre-teen boys were always fighting and forcing poor Emiko to shout at regular intervals, "Lee-bee lone, I say!" It was her attempt at telling them, "Leave him alone, I'm telling you." Like his father, Stevie was tall and large-boned while his younger brother, Raymond, was frail and light-skinned. I always liked Emiko. For some unknown reason, she often wore a Chinese dress (if you know anything about China, Japan and WWII, you'd be puzzled, too). Even though Emiko gave off a vibe that said she could take down a sumo wrestler, her heart was tender. I felt sorry for her because of her bad boys. Sometimes I think she wished she had two gentle girls like my mother's, but I don't think she was ever sorry that her children were half-black.

But that's how it was with my mother's friends. Those Japanese ladies were so blase about their mixed-race children. They might've fussed over their nappy heads, but they were never derogatory or demeaning in their speech or actions towards them. They loved their children no matter how much their skin or facial features differed from their own. My mother didn't look at me or my sister with repulsion and think, "Yuk! What's up with their hair?" Of course, she had some difficulty in managing our locks, and I do recall her being distressed whenever we wanted to leave it loose in what she referred to as "making hair so bushy". But her remarks were never directed towards us with any sense of racial superiority.

Which brings me back to that filmmaker. Some would venture that when Asian American men see mixed-race Asian children that aren't theirs, it may remind them that their women are mating with men of other races in droves. The last time I checked, out-marriage rates among Japanese American women were at 80%. And, if the Asian man is not an American, there may be some residue of resentment--a reminder that their side lost the war and their women became the spoils. As horrible as it sounds, the reality is that women often become brides of their enemies because their own homes are so devastated, leaving them with no choice but to start all over in the winner's country.

But memories can never be destroyed. And, I will always cherish mine of sneaking into the dining room to watch my mother and her Japanese girlfriends play hanafuda. While billows of cigarette smoke hovered over them, they'd munch crunchy osenbe and speak in rapid-fire Japanese, all the while loudly laughing and slapping those cards down on the towel-covered table. Every once in awhile, a mixed kid with dark brown skin or straight, blondish hair would enter the room whining about something, and the mother would casually reach out to comfort her child.

Your Hip Hapa,

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