Kill It With Fire

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So, the other day, I posted this on the Book of Face:

“I say this with all affection….but. you know you’re in the Midwest when an older white gentleman sidles up next to you and asks you how long you’ve been in the States and if you need help reading the menu. Actually, I’m from MN and Panera prints a freakin’ small menu that’s hard to read, but thanks anyway, dude. You have a nice smile, so I’ll forgive you.”

Here’s the extended version:

I’m in Madison, here to visit my husband’s grandmother for Mother’s Day. Panera sandwiches sound better than nursing home food, so I head over to pick up dinner for us both.

I walk in from the rain (real rain, not Oregon rain) and try to read the poorly designed menu. Quickly, major headache ensues, so I grab the print menu. Alas, there are so many different typefaces and colors that at first I feel like I’m trying to decipher Korean hangeul (someone in the design department over there needs to learn the rule of use less than three typefaces at a time). As I’m squinting my way through what I think is the panini list, said older gentleman comes up and asks, “Did you just get here?”

Huh? Did he not see me just walk in the door two seconds ago?

My pause then invites him to inquire thoughtfully, “Do you need help reading the menu?”

Even after nearly 30 years of having this EXACT. SAME. CONVERSATION. I am stunned. Suddenly everything is in slow-mo and I feel very stupid. I’m trying to figure out what is happening and he interprets my crinkled brow to mean that he should speak…more…slowly. And louder.

“We. Get. A LOT. Of International People. Here in MADISON.”

Oh, right. This conversation. Forehead smack.

And then, before I can draw upon the 30 page long imaginary list of witty quips I’ve developed (nearly a page per year!), my mother’s influence kicks in and I instinctually retreat to MN Nice Mode. Breathe deep. Smile.

“Oh!!” Laugh, laugh, wave my hands. “Noo, no, I’m from Minnesohdah. Just here visiting my Grandma, ya know.” The accent escapes, unbidden, despite the fact that I haven’t lived here in 12 years.

Embarrassing laughter on his part, from which he quite adeptly recovers with “Ah, well, ya never know these days. Like I said, we get a lot of you international folks here in Madison and this is just what we do–we’re nice to you and we love to help out.”

You international folks. Oh, lordy. Yup, I’m home again.

So, here’s the deal. I’m sure every adoptee blog has a post on this topic. It’s a common meet and greet topic at adoptee events. We have contests for the most asinine comments we’ve had to endure. My FB wall was covered with the requisite ugh’s, blah’s, and WTF’s?! A few adoptees who were like, “I hear ya, sistah,” and “Yup. The other day at Target, I was asked how to make rice.”

And then there was the friend who wrote, “I’ll say the same thing I told my Chinese-American friend who got something similar in Cleveland yesterday…KILL IT WITH FIRE.”

Don’t we all know that feeling of “If only I’d said…” And you would think, after nearly 30 years of putting up with this conversation that I would be an expert in the quick retorts, the seamless flow into something both sweet and sassy at the same time. Lord knows that 30 page list (ok, it’s a list in my head) has some funny stuff on it.

I mean how else does a 12 year-old deal with that bus driver on the 23 line who was there every Saturday for her weekly library run? I’d be dropping my quarters in the slot (ah, those were the days) and he’d give me a good look-over and ask, “Where you from?”

“I was born in Korea but raised here.” “Wow, you speak English really good.”

In my head: “Yup, that’s what happens when it’s your native language, jerk. Also, it’s about the same as when you asked me last week.” Out loud: “Um, thanks…?”

Sometimes, I even got to hear how he was a Vietnam vet, and wouldn’t he be damned, I kinda looked Vietnamese! Those slanty eyes…For real, people, I’m not making this shit up.

So yeah, sometimes, when I think about it, the idea of kill it with fire sounds so, incredibly satisfying. Rawr! I speak grammatically correct English, asshole!

But as much as I would love to channel my inner dragon and breathe fire, it just never comes out right at that moment. Chalk it up to my MN Nice upbringing, or my generally non-confrontational personality…but even after all these years, more often than not, I am stunned into silence. The words rise up from deep within the belly cauldron, but die on my tongue, evaporating into an awkward moment that leaves me feeling like a failure for not doing my part to eradicate ignorance.

And then I have to wonder, maybe it’s a self-defense mechanism? If I were to “kill it with fire” every time it happened, I’m not sure I could maintain that energy. I think I would just get burnt out. Literally. It’s why I go silent on this blog for months at a time. It’s exhausting to constantly be educating folks about how it’s possible to be brown AND American at the same time, yo!

So here’s what I do instead. I write about it. I talk about it with my friends and the adults I know considering adoption or who are raising bi-racial children. I talk about it with my doula colleagues and my soon-to-be midwifery colleagues. I let it burn slow and steady rather than a single, eruptive blast. Sometimes it feels like the flame is almost dying, in fact.

But it’s in there.

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