Last weekend, I took a road trip with my dad to Texas. It was Chinese New Year and my dad wanted to visit his brother in Houston, and see my cousin in Dallas along the way. I hadn't ever been to Texas before and it had been years since I'd seen my relatives, so I decided to go with him. We left on Friday morning, just half an hour after I posted Divided. It was a little surreal, to be going on a road trip--a quintessential American experience--as Trump signed an executive order banning Muslim immigrants and refugees from entering the country. I was agitated from the news and not sure of what we would witness as we cut through red America. But I buckled my seat belt and we hit the road.
An hour south from my apartment in KCMO, the urban sprawl gave way to vast prairie. I had never seen a place so big and empty. There weren't any buildings or houses, hardly even a fence or a radio tower. The highway cut between hills, and at 75 mph gave the illusion that we were passing through a strange ocean, one that was made of tall, yellow grass instead of water.
I wondered what it would be like to grow up in that landscape. And, maybe, I began to feel a little empathy for the people who I so deeply disagree with. As we drove down I-35, we passed exits for towns nested in farmland and wilderness, where the communities are homogeneous and tourists don't bother to visit. I began to understand how it could be easy to think of this country as yours.
Out there, where you are the only person, it kind of is.
There weren't any rest stops at first, but my dad pulled off the highway so we could use the restroom and the first place he found was a church. A single-story, mid-century building with wood paneled exterior and a bunch of SUVs in their unpaved parking lot. I told my dad, "I don't know if we can use their bathroom."
He said, "Of course we can use their bathroom, it's a church."
This kind of response was typical of my dad. I've never once see him hesitate to ask if he had a question or if he needed to borrow something or if he needed help from someone. Even if it was an imposition or not customary. He understood that the worst that could happen was someone would say no. But when I was growing up, his brazen, unapologetic impulse to ask was embarrassing. He already looked different from everyone elses' dads. He didn't have a conventional job. When he spoke, his voice was loud and he mixed up basic English--verb tenses and gender pronouns. I was ashamed of these differences when I was a kid. All I wanted was to be normal, and when he acted this way--doing whatever he wanted even if it wasn't what people expected--it was like he wasn't even trying to fit in. I would get mad at him, and dismayed by my attitude, he would argue back.
It took me a long time to learn to not pick fights with my father--just as long as it took for me to learn that being different wasn't a bad thing.
When I went inside, the woman in the office said of course and pointed to the restroom at the end of the hall--but I wasn't sure if it was because I smiled extra wide or said please extra courteously, so much that I felt like I was apologizing.
I wasn't sure she would be as kind to my dad.
It hasn't been lost on any of us that we are different in the Midwest.
Even when my brother came to visit Kansas City, he said, "I feel like people are looking at me when I go places here. Like they're sizing me up. Trying to figure out what I am."
I knew what he meant.
My dad told me when he first arrived in Missouri, he would go jogging along the road in his new neighborhood. He would feel self-conscious as he passed people sitting in their cars. White people and good ol boys, sitting at the intersection, watching the Chinese guy running as they waited for the light to turn green. My dad said for weeks, they would look at him and he would look back. Then one day, he decided to wave. And they waved back to him, too.
During our road trip, he told me about what it was like growing up in Taiwan. His mother's first husband was a pilot in Chiang-Kai Shek's air force, so they ended up living at the military base. When American G.I.'s wandered through, the kids in the neighborhood would follow these tall, skinny white men, because it was so uncommon to see someone who wasn't Chinese. I was familiar with this kind of homogeneity from living in Japan. In the U.S., you don't think twice if you pass by a white person in the street. But in Japan, even a brunette stood out in a crowd.
He pointed out that, as a kung fu teacher, he had students from all walks of life. He ran his school for over thirty years, and had former students living in every region of the country.
"People respect me," he said. "They accept me."
It hurt me to say it, but I told him, "Yeah, but you also didn't challenge their idea of who a Chinese man is. You were the kung fu teacher, you fit the stereotype. It would have been different, if you were doing something else."
As we drove from across state lines, stopping for bathroom breaks and coffee refills and tuna sandwiches, we talked about how there were different versions of America. The evidence was in the landscape--it's easy to look at photos of these horizons and assume this country is flat and uneventful, but when you pay attention to the details, you see that the lolling prairie in Kansas is different from the terse fields in Oklahoma; that the red soil in Oklahoma is different from the flat ranches in Texas. I had noticed something similar as I was driving from Massachusetts to Missouri: the trees in Pennsylvania were different from the trees in Ohio; the farmland flanking the highway in Indiana was different from the farmland flanking that same highway in Illinois.
I still haven't gone on a coast-to-coast road trip yet, but I've learned from the trips that I have taken that you can drive four hours in any direction in our country and you will arrive somewhere entirely different from where you started. And it's not just the landscape that changes, but the culture, too. The Missouri drawl is different from a heavy Texas accent. Everyone in this country feels justified in their own regional pride; every place brings offers something to the rest of the nation. I spent a lot of the car ride wondering what can we do to convince each other that we are great because of our diversity, that it is something that we should embrace--not fear.
The closer we got to Houston, the more cars filtered onto the highways, the more diverse the other customers became at the rest stops. My dad and I stopped being the only minorities when we pulled up at the gas stations. I would check my phone every time we stopped, and my social media feeds were filled with people saying Happy Lunar New Year and pictures of bright red roosters.
When I was younger, Chinese New Year was my favorite holiday. Not just because of the festive meals at my grandmother's apartment and the red envelopes. But my parents and their students would lead lion dances all over the city--and they would come to my elementary school. I would join them in the school gym to do a kung fu show for all of my classmates, and it was one of the few days in the school year when I didn't feel bad for being different. My mom would play the big, wooden drum and my dad would tell the other kids about how the drum "woke up" the lion, how the lion scared away evil spirits. He would run into the audience as the lion, and my classmates would laugh and scream and walk away from the assembly telling me, "Your family is so cool!" And for the rest of the afternoon I would feel like I was accepted, even though that feeling was usually forgotten by the time I arrived at school the next day.
It wasn't lost on me that being able to celebrate our cultural heritage had become a privilege this year; that as people were exchanging the many variations of Happy New Year in Chinese--Xin Nian Kuai Le or Gong Xi Fa Cai or Gong Hay Fat Choy--and giving their kids red envelopes filled with money, there were people that were being turned away at airports as they were seeking refuge or taking new jobs or just trying to get home to their loved ones. It wasn't lost on me that, if history had been a little bit different, it could have just as easily been my family who was being barred out of the country.
And, with Trump agitating China, there's nothing saying that isn't still possible.
As we visited my relatives, I thought about our journey; how each generation has integrated a little bit more than the one before it, how I never questioned that my life would always be easier than my Nai Nai's life.
I thought about the things that we do that were so basic you can't even call them American: raising children and creating homes; setting financial goals or advancing in our careers; taking care of our parents and our grandparents as they get older.
But I also took note of the things that I didn't think twice about that native born families may not be accustomed to: the way certain traditions, like the shoes by the door or the chopsticks in the utensil caddy, carry over into your adopted culture. The way conversations move between English to Chinese and back again, effortlessly, like breathing.
I sat with my relatives and wished that I could take a snap shot, and show the rest of the country what it was like to live in my version of America.