Saturday, September 28, 2013

Always In My Way

I like to think I've outgrown a lot of bad habits. Poor reasoning, sloppy thinking, lazy shortcuts - I work on getting rid of these. But I'm like most of you; I'm not perfect, and humor is my weakness.

You have to be careful with humor. Even if you think you're "just kidding" you have to be careful that you're not hurting someone with it. Witness my earlier piece on my life in Korean school. That story is a prequel to the rest of this. Whether you read it or not, know this: I'm not a racist. I don't actually think poorly of Koreans - or Asians in general - and I don't tell these stories to disparage them. I tell them to teach about the danger of confirmation bias, and to make fun of myself.

So, when you read this and think, "Christ, what an asshole" - that's kind of my point.

It began on the Pacific Coast Highway in 1995. My lovely bride and I were just beginning our whirlwind romance, and we had stopped on a cliff side pull-out where there was a convenience store and a magnificent view of the ocean. We came back out to get in her Saturn and push on southward, but found that we were blocked in by a tour bus full of Asian tourists. There were several dozen of them standing as a group behind our car, with their bus (and the remarkable view) behind them. The driver was trying to take a picture of the group with each of their cameras. He must have had 30 or 40 cameras hanging on his arms, and he was working his way through all of them.

Just when we thought he was done, a few more cameras would be produced, and he would keep going - this happened more than once. We waited. We waited some more. Finally, Kate had a brilliant idea. She handed her own camera to the tour guide, and we stood next to the group and got our own photo out of the deal.

The group seemed confused... but did not take the hint.

Eventually they did disperse to go buy snacks, and we made our escape, laughing at the bemused expressions they gave us as we fled.

That might have been the end of it, but for the fact that I was still attending the Korean language school, and a day didn't pass without someone from Korea colliding with me in the hallway or driving by (usually in a Lexus, usually too close to me or my car). It sometimes seemed like they would aim for me - especially in the broad hallways of the school, where despite having plenty of room for four people to pass each other abreast I would find myself crowded against the wall by one of the teachers. Even when I flunked out of Korean school and started taking Russian, it seemed that everywhere I went, there were Asians in my way!

I commented on this to a few of my friends, and most of them laughed at me ("Christ, what an asshole!") ...but those closest to me noticed it, too. I'd be at the grocery store, and an oblivious Chinese woman would block me at every aisle with her shopping cart. I'd try to exit the freeway, and get cut off by a Korean in a minivan, and forced to take the next exit. It became a running joke - one that I tended to keep to myself, because, after all, I didn't want to seem racist.

But once you start seeing a pattern, you start looking for that pattern, and even my lovely bride started noticing.

Eventually, we left California and ended up in Maryland. One of our favorite things to do was to take our wee bairn out and push her around Washington DC in her stroller. On one particularly beautiful day, we headed for the Smithsonian Natural History Museum to see if the baby girl would enjoy looking at dinosaurs.  (She did!)

I remember it being pretty crowded, but there was one family that seemed to dog our steps around every corner. We ran into them several times, and tried to slow down so they'd get ahead of us.  They slowed down, too.  We pushed through the clot of them, and sped up to get away from them, and they kept pace, pushing us from behind. It was maddening. But we figured we'd lose track of them when the baby needed to be fed & changed, and we set up camp in the family restroom.

When we were done, a good 15 minutes had passed, and I went out to retrieve our stroller - only to walk straight into the lens of our shadow family's video camera.

Because I had heard them speaking Korean (I sucked at it, but I could identify it like a champ), I tried saying "excuse me" - "shi-leh hamnida" - but that didn't work. No one made eye contact (they seemed to think that would be rude) and they just bunched up around the cameraman, and became intensely interested in the woolly mammoth he was filming. I tried to maneuver behind them, to avoid being rude myself by walking in front of the camera - but they were kind of milling around and there always seemed to be an elbow or knee wherever I was trying to slide by - and no amount of "excuse me" in any language seemed to work.

My Korean teachers had impressed upon us the importance that manners have in their culture. Being mostly uncouth youths fresh out of the Midwest, we pestered them to teach us "bad words," and they always demurred, claiming that the worst thing you could say to any Korean would be to address them with the wrong verb construction, indicating that you thought you had a higher status than the person you were speaking to. That hadn't stopped us from looking up words that (we hoped) would express some of the important phrases that we frequently used on each other.

So, I decided to be rude, and finally pushed my way in front of Mr. Cameraman.  Naturally, he pressed forward so I found myself mouth-to-microphone with his camera, and I said what the rude, angry American wanted to say right into that microphone: "Jaji mog-ko"... which was my best attempt at "Eat a dick."

Now, as poor as my language skill was (and is) it's possible that this would mean nothing to him or his audience, but I like to imagine that they took that tape home to Korea with them, and invited all of their neighbors and relatives to a big "trip to America" movie night.  I like to imagine them all gathered in front of the largest TV Samsung made in 1997, and seating their most ancient, honored grandmother right up front. I fantasize that Mr. Cameraman says, "Honored grandmother, behold the woolly mammoth I filmed for you at the Natural History Museum" ...just as the mammoth on screen rumbles "Eat a dick" in a good ol' U.S. accent.

It is possible that I may have killed an old Korean lady in 1997, and I would never know it.

But it gets better.

Naturally, I don't keep these little stories to myself, and I have told them many times to my best of friends. So when my flamingo had a visit from his German friend, I somehow got drawn into telling them to her. We had a few laughs, and I explained that I don't really harbor any lasting resentment, but that I always seem to find Asians in my way - and to watch out if she visited DC.

As it happened, they did. And when they were reading one of the quotes set into the paving stones of the World War II Memorial, an odd thing happened.

They were standing in a relatively open space, obviously reading something on the ground, and an elderly Asian man walked up to them and stood in front of them, placing his feet on the square they were reading. They looked up at him, and he began shaking some kind of wooden clacking device - CLACK-A-CLACK-A-CLACK-A - as he stared right back at them.


"Excuse us, sir..."


"We were reading that!"

And a crowd gathered - most likely a tour group - pressing the two would-be readers off to the side. Everyone kept staring at them, as if they were the ones in the way, and while no one intentionally shoved them, they were nudged further and further away, until they decided to give up and head for less crowded territory.

Naturally, they thought of me. When our German friend told me about this adventure, I had to laugh.  "It looks like I passed my curse on to you!" I told her. "Confirmation bias - it's a terrible, terrible thing!" We all laughed, then, and thought nothing more about it... until she landed in Munich on her return trip home, and they started showing up everywhere. Blocking her way off the train, nudging her away from the baggage claim...

Of course, now that I've told you all of this, you're bound to start noticing it, too. There are 1 billion people in China alone, which means you've got a better than 1-in-7 chance that anyone you meet on this planet would fit the definition of "Asian," and now every time you see one of them, you're going to register the experience in the back of your head.  Even though you're probably cut off in traffic a hundred times a day, you'll only notice the Asians. Even though you're more likely to get bumped in the grocery store by old white people, you'll notice the Asians.

Just remember that it isn't their fault - it's my fault, and my curse. And even though I know it's my brain following it's own confirmation bias, I will continue to find #AsiansInMyWay. And to them I can only (and will only) say, "Excuse me."

Xin lôi.