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.
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.