As of this May—national Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month—it’s been 14 years since I moved to Mississippi as a part of Teach For America, 12 years since I moved back out of the state.
I think about my time in the state often; I soon have a memoir about my experience coming out, after all. And it’s taken about all that time to realize just how much I was marked by my difference—a gold-skinned, half-Japanese Hawaiian, half Russo-Polish Jew in a land divided too often between black and white.
Mississippi was not an ordinary place to be half-Japanese. In the Delta, I was perpetually aware of the stares, the crawl of eyes always on me reminding me China-man, you do not belong here. Black people at the gas station and street corner, teenage boys leaned to the front of the Sunflower food store, white women in floral prints in line at the drive-in and passing in the aisles of the video store, men in the fitness club pumping iron, stopping mid-set to stare, resuming with a shake of their head. The feel of eyes walking the Wal-Mart parking lot, eyes at the Double Quick, eyes at the bank in line in the heat, sweat beading on my forehead and eyes taking in the sweat as something new, look, Asians sweat too, that man is sweating, his yellow skin sweats, look. I could feel eyes at night as I slept crawling along my neck, an aggregate gaze lingering inches off my ear. I simply wasn’t a part of the black-white binary—steeped in a history of violence and hierarchy. And perhaps I was lucky to be outside it.
After all, the White Citizen’s Council began in a house not three blocks from the house I rented. And while I could be Asian, Hispanic, perhaps Eskimo or Greek or some other unknown miscegenation, permanent foreign-ness no further than the quarter-moon of my eyes and my gold-brown skin, I was not black—and so consigned to a side of the tracks where opportunity and mobility were rare. Nobody knew what to make of me about town. A couple of children I encountered asked me if I was a “China-man”, pointing and exclaiming and chopping their arms about the air; in my head rose a question I’d once used to frame a panel about attitudes of minorities toward other minorities: What happens when the ‘other’ meets an/‘other’? I turned to the children and began speaking with a Monty Python British accent, thinking I was being clever, not yet recognizing the implications of such difference: there was no such thing as mixed-race Japanese American out here, no such place as Japan, let alone my mother’s Oahu or my father’s Buffalo and Bay Area.
Many whites I encountered, on the other hand, went out of their way to treat me with a sort of racist deference, to assure me they thought of me as practically being white before they alluded to stereotypes about Asians. They often approached to ask, ‘What are you?’ and didn’t seem pleased when replied, “Human. American, even.” They shook their head ruefully when I told them where I worked, as if to say, ‘You should’ve known better’. Sometimes, they spoke slowly to me, enunciating each word, assuming I might not be fluent in English. One white grocery store checker asked me, “How’s Mohammed’s business going down there,” imagining that Mohammed, Promise’s Persian pawn shop proprietor, must be related since neither of us were black or white.
The first day in town, the paunchy, silver-haired realtor gave a warning that I was to hear again and again in different iterations, every time in lowered, earnest voices that strained to ensure I recognize their sincerity and good intentions, that they were letting me in on the truth:
“We have heat and we have mosquitos, but we got nice enough folks here in Mississippi. There’s one thing to know about the Delta, though. There’s good blacks and bad blacks, and here all the good ones left for the city. What’s left—well. Y’all teachers best be careful.”
I nodded silently, my face expressionless, a reaction I often found myself forced into in the Delta– how was I to respond to this unsolicited, unabashedly racist advice? I did not know how to recognize boundaries, how to navigate between from my own undefined middle.
One refuge I found was a Chinese restaurant off the highway called “China-King Buffet.” The unlit, hand-painted sign was all that distinguished the plain square white building from the industrial uses of the identical row of buildings beside it; the windows out front were covered, and the first time I went I was a little scared of what I’d find inside. The space was vast, high-ceilinged and unpartitioned, so that the modest buffet which steamed constant clouds from the egg-flower soup tank looked comically small, and the old formica tables and cheap folding chairs seemed unreasonably distant from one another, each table its own solitary island even on nights when the tables were full, which usually they were not. There was a sense that it was a small operation striving to fill an overlarge space, an impression heightened by the attempt to fill the long walls with pictures of properly large scale: the entire rear wall was a twenty-foot by hundred foot color picture of the great wall of China receding into blue sky, splitting the restaurant in two down the middle, while on each adjoining wall hand-painted gold koi of monstrous proportions undulated across the otherwise empty space. One of the oddest features of the place was how on weekend nights the place often divided by race, with blacks on the left, on one side of the great wall, and whites on the other side; fittingly, I often ended up in the middle, directly beneath the great wall. In the furthest corner from the entrance was a desk and cash register and a single open door which was bright with the lights of the kitchen behind, and every time I entered a short, slight Chinese boy of fifteen or sixteen was perched on a stool beside the desk with a Chinese-language magazine or book in hand, and he would startle at the clang of the bells on the door and thrust the magazine under the desk and leap forward with a stack of menus, speaking broken, heavily-accented English: “Welcome. Help to the buffet if y’all like, please!”
The first time I went in, I looked over the buffet and knew it was for a Delta palate—everything was fried and thoroughly inauthentic for the Szechuan cuisine the menu claimed, shrimp and chicken and noodles and battered vegetables. When I called the boy over and asked to order off the menu, he brightened and nodded and said, “Oh yes, you are Asian!” When the steamed dumplings and buns came the platter was brought out by a small, kind-faced woman in an apron who I took to be the boy’s mother, and when she saw me her face lit up and she slid the steaming food in front of me and put her hand to my shoulder and motioned for the boy to come translate; through his translation, she indicated welcome for “Another Asian person!” and tried to hide her disappointment at my questionably Japanese origins, and said several times just how welcome I was; finally, she retreated to the kitchen and let me eat and I was delighted to find the food good, fresh and flavorful and not fried. When I finished, the boy brought with the check a giant plate of dessert from the buffet, lime jello with whipped cream and white-cake and pudding, which he indicated was on the house and which I tried to move around on the plate so as to appear to have enjoyed. And so the pattern became set—whether I came with a group of other TFA teachers or alone, there was always a complimentary plate of desert, and always a warm reception, the only place in the town where I was not the only slant-eyed, brown-skinned fellow.
Over time, in conversations with the boy, Hao, on quiet days, I found out a little more: the family had come over not long ago to a family restaurant in New Jersey, and when relatives who’d run this restaurant decided to leave they’d agreed to come take over with no idea about what being Chinese immigrants might mean in the deep rural South. Hao went to the public schools, to the high school; he told me, in his broken English with his over-pronounced syllables and troubled l’s and r’s, that he had no friends, that he wanted to return to Jersey or to China, that America was not as he’d thought it would be. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it was for him at the high school—I knew from my experience of the streets the pointed fingers and the laughter, the taunts of China-man, China-man, show us some Kung Fu!
One day when I came on a quiet afternoon the Hao’s face lit up when I entered. He called out “Hey! I got something for you!” and gestured for me to find a seat, then he hurried back to the kitchen; moments later, the music, which had been new country, went silent, and then there was a crackle and first quiet and then at ear-splitting volume, the first notes of flute, and for a moment I didn’t recognize it and then I did: a vintage recording of “Sakura,” the cherry blossom song, that most common Japanese folk song so often used when teaching about Japan. I nearly burst into laughter, then restrained myself. Who knew where Hao had found the CD here, in a town without a record store—it certainly must have taken some effort.
Hao walked out of the back with a proud grin, the flute notes echoing loud from wall to wall, and called over the clamor, “I got this for you. Do you like it?”
I told him I loved it, that it was everything I missed, and he nodded and nodded, beaming, imagining he’d returned home to me in a way that he himself must have longed for so acutely—a reminder of who he was, where he’d come from, that made him feel for a moment he had a place in the world.
This is part of a series called My Mississippi, in which Mississippians are invited to share narrative essays about their experiences in and relationship to the state of Mississippi. If you are interested in sharing your Mississippi story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.