Story and photo by Pete Shaw
When is a home a Home?
That is the central question at the heart of C Pam Zhang’s recent novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold. The book, which I recommend highly, was released shortly before the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic and Republican Donald Trump’s racializing of the virus. His rhetoric was predictably followed by an uptick of violence against people of Asian descent in the United States which two weeks ago led to 8 women of Asian descent being murdered by a young white man.
So this April 1, as with last year’s, I can’t bring myself to fool around.
Zhang’s query, laced with fragility, seems prescient. But then again, for non-white people in this country, that has always been the case, and with no intent to diminish the humanity of those 8 women, or the other nearly 3,800 people of Asian descent whom over the course of about the past year experienced racist incidents, the broad message of each of those racist acts is the same: This is not your home. You do not belong here.
Before moving along to issues of Home and place–these concepts of belonging–I should note that I understand that I write these words while sitting at a desk on the land that held the traditional village sites of the Multnomah, Kathlamet, Clackamas, bands of the Chinook, Tualatin Kalapuya, Molalla and many other Tribes who made their Homes along the Columbia River. This is their land.
The Stop Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Hate report (linked above) began its count at the date Republican president Donald Trump chose to racialize the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus.” And while that choice was notable for its ignorance, dereliction, and flat out appeal to white supremacy, it fit in well with the United States’ nearly 175 year history of racism against people of Asian descent.
That history includes: The Angell Treaty, the Page Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Pigtail Act, numerous acts of murderous violence against people of Asian descent, including the 1887 murders of 34 Chinese gold miners in eastern Oregon, the placing of people of Japanese descent into concentration camps during World War II, and the Chinese exclusion policy of NASA.
Then there is US foreign policy. The United States has invaded the Philippines, leveled North Korea, dropped 7.5 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, and dropped two atom bombs on Japan. It supported the brutal Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia.
The myth of the model minority remains a racial wedge employed by white supremacy, detrimental not just to those it contrasts against people of Asian descent in the US–particularly people of African descent–but also to people of Asian descent themselves.
For about the past quarter century, China has been the United States’ primary worry in relation to its global economic hegemony, and along with that comes predictable anti-China rhetoric. It is a stance that the Biden administration blithely continues, even as the President decries the increased violence against people of Asian descent in the US.
My better 99% calls this country Home, but over the course of the past year has been strongly told she is wrong in doing so. Like any person, her story is complex and rich. She is of Chinese descent, but was born in Vietnam. At four years old, she left that country as Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City, taken from her home under the cover of night, placed beneath a blanket in a jeep, and shuttled to the airport. After a few stops along the way, she arrived in San Francisco, California, a refugee from the havoc wrought by French and US imperialism. After a few years there with some of her extended family, her nuclear family moved a little further south to a suburb of San Jose. She, along with her parents and sibling, became US citizens in 1978.
Like any person with a complex and rich story, she has had a plethora of mundane experiences that over time have added up to great meaning. She went to public schools. She worked at Musicland, and one day rode on the back of a co-worker’s motorcycle. She loved eating McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwich, and every so often smiles as she thinks of perhaps one day biting into another one. She continues riding a bike, and while she no longer plays, she still enjoys watching volleyball. She has taken beginner piano class three times and plays ukulele. She is a wonderful painter who makes beautiful birthday and holiday cards for her folks, my father, and me.
She has had to navigate paths that I, as a white, nominally Christian man who was born in this country to people born in this country, have never had to tread. She is a loving, caring, compassionate, generous, and kind person. And when we go for walks and I feel her hand in mine, I know I am holding and sharing all this complex beauty, and more, of her humanity. I am grateful for that, for her.
Community, that sense that you belong to something, is important to me, and it is something I try to foster. I often think the most devastating result of capitalism is loneliness, the feeling that you have no community to which you belong, that you have no Home. When people enter my and my better 99%’s house, I want them to feel at Home. I want them to feel this is a place they belong and always will belong.
I was trained in history, and before I met my better 99%, I was well aware of the long and ugly history of racism directed against people of Asian descent. I have always tried–admittedly sometimes in clumsy, crude fashion–to make her feel at Home, to know that I will always be there for her. In the end, I think, I just wanted her to feel a sense of security. The security that comes with knowing Home.
We have been together now for almost 25 years. We have shared our lives and created our life for 25 years. We really can complete each other’s sentences.
One of my better 99%’s many great qualities is her wicked sense of humor. You need a good one to deal with me, for many reasons, and in a life partner it is probably essential. After all, I often tell her, with complete sincerity, that my purpose in this life is to make her laugh. I do it well, but I must give her a ton of credit for following my sense of humor wherever it may go. The world makes me cry enough, and sometimes there is no greater salve than someone with whom to laugh.
Some time ago we talked about the uptick in violence against people of Asian descent. I was worried for her, her family, our Friends of Asian descent, and all people of Asian descent.
For the first time in our relationship, she spoke with resignation. “I guess it’s going to happen to me at some point.”
I had nothing. She had no more. All we had in that moment was each other and somber silence.
No jokes. No fooling.