I just finished reading American Dirt, a gripping tale of the plight of migrants coming to the United States. I couldn’t put it down, although I really wanted to avert my eyes. I would like to forget the horrors described in those pages. What I didn’t know, until halfway through the novel, is that the book is steeped in controversy. You see, the author, Jeanine Cummings, is not an immigrant herself. How dare she, then, write from the perspective of one? In her Author’s Note, Cummings pens this apology: “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”
Like Cummings, I suppose I am ill-equipped to write on the topic of racism and hatred. Although I am married to an immigrant, I have never endured snickers over my accent or been profiled—other than for being a frumpy, middle-aged woman (I get plenty of Botox flyers in the mail). And I never stood out amongst the other girls in the private prep school I attended.
However, I wanted to. I wanted to be my friend Erika.
She was wickedly smart, musically gifted, and universally respected. It never occurred to me (and I’m not sure it occurred to her either) that she might be the target of racism, as she and her siblings were the first Asian Americans in our private school bubble. At a time of unsurprising homogeneity in the south, Erika’s family was intriguing—so much so that the local newspaper ran a photo of the family hosting a Chinese New Year party.
Her immigrant parents were so accomplished that garden-variety racism seemed inconceivable. Erika’s father was a Vanderbilt physician who was a pioneer in his field, and her mother was an immaculately-coifed professional woman who made us girls believe we could do it all, and even entertain effortlessly.
The Mengs’ kitchen was always a cornucopia of scents, and if I planned it right, I could be at their house when dumplings were being made. Each year Erika gifted me homemade almond cookies in a Christmas tin. I never had the heart to tell her I detested almonds; my dad threatened me if I ever revealed our secret: that he alone devoured those tins.
When news broke out of the shootings of the Asian American women in Atlanta, I thought of the Meng family and the magnitude of their contributions to the sleepy Nashville hamlet of the 1970s. Despite been raised in the vanilla ubiquity of the south, I benefited in ways great and small from my friendship with the Mengs; I grew up understanding that differences were only skin deep, that a person was so much more than her race or ethnicity. Today, although the same lofty magnolias still shade those prep school campuses, diversity is celebrated. As the trees grew, so did we.
And yet, those Atlanta shootings suggest that the more things change, the more they stay the same. While we are celebrating our country’s first black Vice President, hatred and prejudice flourish in the heart of that 21 year old shooter. The shootings were not racially motivated, some suggest. So it was just a coincidence that the victims were Asian? Perhaps he was only targeting women. Small consolation that is.
In my life I have hated only a few people, but I found hate to be like the greediest flower: it needs to be nurtured. I’d like to say it’s my Christian values that finally forced me to forgive, but in actuality, I just became a weary gardener. My hatred became a burden I no longer wanted to bear. Until people everywhere surrender the hatred that was ingrained on them as a child, was allowed to thrive—until we all teach our children not to hate, how will our society ever progress?
We are approaching our fourteenth year without Erika. She died way too soon before her 45th birthday, quieting a tongue that spoke five or six languages, and a keen mind that made her a pioneer in her own field. It’s not just her intelligence I miss, although I see it as a loss for the world; rather I miss the fact that passing judgement just wasn’t in her repertoire. I yearn for her wackiness and her big heart. A year before she passed, Erika was boarding a plane for Berlin to attend a conference; while undergoing chemo she had more energy than I do on a good day. My dad had had open heart surgery that morning, and I received a breathless, staticky call from Erika: “I’m checking on your dad before I board my plane.”
Given all she was facing, what utter kindness and when I said as much, Erika waved it off. “Tell your dad I’ll make him some almond cookies when he’s better.”
So perhaps she did know our secret, after all. The great irony is that I now love almonds and would give anything for one of Erika’s cookies.
Before I could finish my thoughts on this blog, another senseless massacre shattered lives in Boulder. Motive is still unknown but does that matter? Mental illness, misinformation, lack of education, fear of someone different. All of these beget hate, and raw hatred pulls the trigger.
Thoughts and prayers. Thoughts. And. Prayers. But for me no words.
Just a deep, guttural longing for the gentle scent of almond in the air.