Category Archives: East Tennessee

The Holidays

Today, as I pulled into the post office and mailed my father and his wife’s package, I had a sinking feeling.  I wanted to be mailing a package to my mother.

As those who have read my blog before know, she passed away just after the holidays in 2001.

During my errands, my car brought me to an Arby’s.  I hadn’t eaten there in years.

My fondest memory of Arby’s was a winter’s day in the mid-1980s.  As the South does when snow is predicted, my county high school canceled classes for the day. My younger sister, a city schooler, had class.  So, it was a Mama and me day!

She drove us to downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. We walked around her old haunts.  She told me stories of her best friend, Service Merchandise and the days courting my father. She took me to Arby’s where we ate French Dips and curly fries, then washed them down with Dr. Pepper, her favorite soft drink.

So today, I did the same.  I ordered my French Dip, curly fries and Dr. Pepper. I sat in a corner, quietly cried and wrote this:

Dear Mom.  Today, my car took me to Arby’s as I remembered one of the most precious days I had with you. High school was out because of the threat of snow, but Angela had school.  We drove to downtown Knoxville where you showed me your old haunts. We had French Dips and curly fries. The holidays are hard when my thoughts rest on your memory. I love and miss you, Mama.

Advertisements

Tomorrow marks the day …

Tomorrow is my birthday … or rather the day that the Korean government gave me as a birthday. On my first birthday, one of the most important of a young Korean baby’s life, I spent it with my foster parents. They were college professors, according to my mother. The man took my photograph to commemorate the day.

According to my Korean friend, the baby is presented with four things: a pencil, a string, chopsticks and money. Which item the child chooses determines her future. A pencil indicates a scholar, the string indicates a long life, the chopsticks insure that the child never will go hungry, and the money indicates a child who will prosper. I have no idea what I chose that day, but I’m still waiting to find out!

Many birthdays followed.  Here you see my first birthday celebrated with my parents in Puerto Rico; I was two.

My next birthday, my third, was spent with my mother’s family in Tennessee. My father was stationed in Vietnam. I recall sending him a taping where I just said, “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” My grandmother and my mother made it the most special of days despite my father’s absence.

Each year, my mother worked very hard to make November 15th the most memorable of all. She succeeded. This was one where she made my wishes come true with a cake she fashioned with dancing ballerinas around it.

As I turned six, my mother had been hospitalized for some time. She was carrying my little sister, a pregnancy that the doctors had told her might not make it to term. My father made the best of it and bought me a cake. He also fashioned a sign on posterboard for me. I remember visiting my mother in the hospital, she quickly gave me a wrapped present in the cafeteria. As I left, I remember looking longingly up at her hospital room window from the pavement below. She would tell me later that she cried that evening as she watched my little purple coat wave and walk away.

The next year was a big one. We had just moved to Lawton, Oklahoma. I had made a few friends, but it really was a party for our family. My mother spent late nights cutting the letters for the signage out of pieces of construction paper.

I became older, and birthdays passed. There was my 8th pictured here.

And then … I hit nine. We had once again moved. This time we moved to Tennessee, my mother’s birthplace.

This was a monumental birthday for me, because I started wondering more about myself and my background. Having been a military brat until this point, I had been surrounded by diversity. In Tennessee, it was difficult being a lone Asian in a small, rural Appalachian town. I looked more and more at the paperwork my parents had received, and I realized that I was different in another way. The day I had always celebrated as my birthday, may not have been my birthday after all.

When I had been turned into the police station, I had no papers with me. I was taken to a doctor, where my approximate age was determined. Then, the government gave me a birth date, the middle of November, as an estimated birthday.

So, every year, I wonder if November 15th is in fact my birthday, or if I could have been born on the same day as my sister, the 20th, or on the 11th, or the 17th or so on.

I know nothing about the circumstances of my birth. This never entered my mind until I had given birth to my children. Now, I do wonder at times if my birth was easy for my birth mother, if I was born early in the morning after a long night of labor, or born late in the day after many hours of daylight labor. Was I her first child? Or was I a subsequent one whose labor lasted only a short time?

While I am content with my life now, I still have unanswered questions. But I know that the answers make little difference in the person I am today.

The rich birthday celebrations that I have had were celebrations of not only my birth, but celebrations of my place in a loving family.

You all are good at math, right?

How many times have I heard that comment? I heard it in grade school, high school, college and even now, as an adult. I shouldn’t be offended. In college, my math prof asked me if I wanted to major in math. So that means I’m good at math, right?

But, I didn’t become a mathematician. No, I became a designer. Not a CAD person or an engineer. A graphic designer to be exact. Seems a bit far fetched from a mathematician, although I do some crazy math to figure out decimal figures of fractions for layouts, or conversions from points to picas to inches.

It would seem from my experience that Asians must be “good at math.” My Taiwanese friend, however, says she is hopeless at math. [And yes, she is.]

What do appearances say about us? As one who is often mistaken for something else, I think we all use our sense of experience, be it personal experience or learned experience from our parents, to evaluate new acquaintances. Do we feel more comfortable when we feel that we know something ahead of time? It would appear that our experience in something comforts us. But are we that predictable?

Society and the media think so and feel the need to compartmentalize. Researchers, too, are notorious for it. [See an example in the post Mistaken Identity.] But the lines have blurred. Despite this, race categories are becoming essential in the US election. Emphasis of one heritage over another appeals to certain groups. When will the race factor just not matter? When will gender not matter?

When will we take an individual for his or her own merits, and not the merits of a particular race or gender?

“Yer not from roun’ here, are ya?”

My family made one of our few treks to Tennessee this holiday season. After being on the road for a few hours, we made our usual stop at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. As I checked out, the cashier asked, “Where are you traveling to?”

I said, “Tennessee.”

“Where are you from?” was the reply.

“Oh, Virginia.”

This short conversation got me thinking. How did she know I was traveling? I know that most Cracker Barrels host the interstate traveler. I worked for Cracker Barrel for many years through high school and college. But even in my native East Tennessee home, I often get this question, “Yer not from roun’ here, are ya?” My reply is always the same, “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I grew up around here.”

I grew up loving overcooked veggies like fried okra, “kilt (aka killed)” lettuce and spring onions, canned green beans, chitlins, and pintos and ham hocks. I love my cousin’s decaf sweetened iced tea and her apple stack cake. But these loves are not evident when a stranger sees me. I appear as a stranger, an outsider. However, my heart still dwells in the rural hills of East Tennessee.

My Asian friends at times will remind me of my looks and my strange dichotomy. Recently, we were driving from D.C. and became lost. My husband, knowing the back roads of Virginia well, directed us out of the rural route and onto the main highway.

On our journey down the back roads, my friends mentioned a fear of breaking down in the rural area. “What if we have a flat tire?” they asked. Our cell phones weren’t getting a good reception, so I said I’d just approach a home and ask for help. Their reply was that I wasn’t a white male, but an Asian female. Did I really want to do that. From my upbringing, I realized that I was thinking in terms of my relatives and how they would help us if I approached their homes. But it was true that I didn’t appear to be from “roun’ here.”

My son is now learning that he is not a true white male. He is struggling with his identity. Classmates and strangers are calling him “Chinese boy” in a derogatory way. We live in a city that is quite diverse and yet, he is still faced with the cruelty and ignorance I faced in rural Tennessee. My husband and I have come up with this description of who he is … Anglo Korean Latino American. We explained what they all meant to him and if someone continued to harass him, to say, “Just Google it.”

In some respects, I feel a need to get back to my roots and understand what motivates people. My parents always explained to me that criticism has its roots in insecurity. We don’t know the true struggles of those around us.

While I was home, I met with an old high school friend. She now teaches high school English in Tennessee. She relayed a story to me of an eighteen year old in her class. His classmates learned that he had no proper bed. He had slept on the floor of his grandparents’ home since he was fourteen. His previous bed had broken, and they did not have the money to replace it. So, he just slept on the floor for four years.

The students in his class were so moved by his need that they all chipped in and bought him a bed for Christmas this year. Kindness goes a long way.

Though we may have different skin color, different facial features, different backgrounds, we all understand emotions in the same way. We all feel hurt, sadness, happiness and joy. And we all appreciate kindness and acceptance.