Whether one believes coincidences are actually meaningful messages from a higher power, or are merely coinciding incidents, it’s hard to deny the impact they can have. In my life, impactful coincidences tend to happen at the library.
My oldest daughter will be ten next month. She is required to check out one nonfiction book from the library each week in order to get the four fiction books of her choice. Her latest nonfiction choice was Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain by Russell Freedman. Because my daughter came to the U.S. from China at the age of three, I expected this book would make some kind of impact on her, so I read it too.
Actually, my daughter almost read it to me, interrupting household conversations from her place on the couch every few minutes with angry interjections about outrages in her book.
Mama, did you know some whites helped hide the Chinese [when an angry mob rampaged through San Francisco in 1871]?
Mama, did you know Chinese couldn’t marry whites? [This one was particularly egregious; all but one of her current crushes are white.]
And, having grown up in Arizona, the one that made the strongest impression on me:
The Geary Act of 1892 required all persons of Chinese descent, including native-born citizens, to carry photo identification cards proving their lawful presence in the United States. [We never learn, do we?]
Each quote was accompanied by her opinion of the whites who perpetrated the injustice and what she would like to do to them, or would have done if she had been there.
When I read the book myself, I was impressed with how much Chinese-American history Freedman fit into a 64-page large-print picture book. The language was simple and accessible, but the facts were laid bare in all their ugliness. Discriminatory laws were detailed, mob violence fatalities counted, detainee suicides acknowledged. Quotes from immigrants who had been held at Angel Island described the humiliation and fear felt by Chinese who had come seeking their American dream. Photographs and lines from poems scratched into the walls of the detention center made the experience feel even more real.
I was glad that Freedman didn’t pull any punches for his young audience, and I was proud of my daughter’s warrior woman response. She didn’t think of the immigrants as “them.” She identified with the poor farmers who left her birth country under such different circumstances from her own. But she did not internalize the hatred they experienced. Instead, she was ready to travel back in time and beat some sense into the thick white skulls that treated her countrymen so unfairly.
I, on the other hand, was shamed and saddened. I was ashamed of a heritage of hatred against people like the one I love most in the world. I was saddened that the story I grew up with, the story of a nation based on liberty and justice for all, was mere marketing designed to mask a history of brutality and oppression.
The same day, I checked out a picture book called Shi-shi-etko by Nicola I. Campbell, because I liked the cover art and assumed it would have some kind of multicultural educational value based on the title. It was the story of a First Nations little girl in her last days with her family before being sent to government-mandated boarding school.
She won’t see her parents for many months or even years, she will lose her traditional name, and she will be forced to speak English – a language she doesn’t know.
I paused, unable to read as a series of thoughts took my breath away: My oldest daughter, who has not seen her foster family since the day before she met me in 2007, was once also forced to speak a language she didn’t know. In less time than it takes to read these words, my mind replayed our futile efforts to preserve her knowledge of Mandarin; gave an undirected prayer of gratitude for our choice to keep her Chinese name; cringed in acknowledgement of the 2005 exhibition on adoption at the Wing Luke museum in which angry young Asian-Americans called out the colonialist roots of international adoption.
The introduction to Shi-shi-etko said children were required to leave their families
as young as four, although generally between the ages of five and six
Like her sister reading Angel Island, my five-year-old daughter reacted in defiance, resolutely stating that she would refuse to go. I read the next sentence
Parents were put in jail if they didn’t send their children to these schools.
My daughter stood with arms crossed as I read on. She only deigned to look at the pictures near the end, when Shi-shi-etko buries her memories under the fir tree for safe-keeping as she is about to board the cattle truck that will take her away from her family.
It’s enough to make an atheist believe in original sin. There seems to be something inherent in humanity that makes us incapable of treating each other properly. I can’t shake the line from People of the Book,
somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize ‘the other’ – it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society.
Why can’t we get past the idea of ‘the other’ when we are actually all the same?
In college, I stopped eating meat after reading in my Ecology textbook that field mice share about 85 percent of their protein-coding DNA with humans. After that, mammals in general just seemed like too close relatives for dinner purposes. I can’t say that my dietary decision made any difference besides restricting my options at restaurants. There certainly doesn’t seem to be more compassion in the world, or even in myself, now than twenty years ago.
These two picture books coinciding in my life brought “man’s inhumanity to man” to the forefront for me this week. They made me want to write better and about more things that matter, although I’m not really sure that literature actually makes a difference. Is there more compassion in the world now than there was when the printing press was invented?
In his workshop at Iceland Writers Retreat, James Scudamore said, “Literature asks questions.” In that case, this is a literary post. I don’t have any answers. I just know that the lilacs are blooming in my yard, and the soil is presenting new gifts every day. The snow is melting in the mountains in Washington, and the fjords in Iceland lose none of their stark grandeur in spring. It’s a beautiful world if we’d just let each other enjoy it.