SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2009 Personal Memory Ethnographies
It was in first grade (1994) when I met Thomas, and to a certain degree that was the year my world view was altered on the basis of race. Nothing particularly racist or prejudicial came from my interaction with Thomas; however I must admit that a certain stereotype was engrained into the back of my mind. Thomas was an incredibly gifted student in our class; while the rest of us were still learning very basic addition he was already multiplying and dividing double digits and learning course matter reserved for fourth graders. Thomas was also the only Asian in the class. Naturally then, the link a lot of us made was that Asians are this “super” race of geniuses and Thomas was our ambassador to this world. Perhaps it is for these reasons that I don’t remember Thomas having any particular friends; he was socially ostracized. If it wasn’t for his incredibly undeniable mind power, it was because of his genetic traits, neither of which he had any real control over. I can remember one particular instance where he revealed to me that he liked to play football; I found this somehow hard to grasp. In my mind I hadn’t ascribed him any attributes outside of being ‘the smart Asian kid’, as if he were some kind of robot and not a ‘normal’ child like I considered myself. After this I was able to connect with him on another level rather than treating him as an exhibit at a museum.
I remember in my first grade class, the feeling of not quite fitting in. I was the youngest kid in class, having been promoted from kindergarten about halfway through the school year. Being the “new kid”, I quickly found myself at the center of attention for a classroom of curious students. This was especially obvious when we were practicing mathematical equations. Since I was working at a bit more advanced level, the teacher had a separate lesson plan/assignments for me, a fact which clearly intrigued my classmates. To them I wasn’t another child in class; I was simply the circus entertainment. A shining example of this was when this boy, Michael, asked me what I liked to do when I’m not at school. I told him that I did have a passion for playing football. He just stared at me for a minute with the most confused expression on his face, at which point he was able to muster out the simple response “Really?” It was almost as if my enjoyment of a shared American pastime was as difficult for him to comprehend as the math problems that lay unanswered before him. I couldn’t get mad at him though, because more than anyone else he was genuinely trying to understand who I was. Perhaps my Asian appearance had him thinking I was more of a ninja than a quarterback. Whatever the reasoning was, when we made it out onto the field, I let my talent eliminate any doubt from his mind that I truly was an all American boy, ready to apply a serious tackle when necessary.
The bright green shirt that was in the background now lies firmly in the front of my mind. It was a bright green Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles shirt, worn by a classmate present at the time I spoke with Thomas. In retrospect there is a certain level of irony: I viewed Thomas as a sort of ninja rather than a football playing American kid, the shirt was just a blatant reminder of this. This was in the beginning stages of globalization, and most of us children were not used to Japanese corporate influence.
Looking back, it’s very intriguing to know that I was witnessing a change in the societal makeup of the US, and for that matter the world. The opening of diplomatic relations between West and East opened our real and imagined borders to nearly a third of mankind. Along with the mass flow of refugees into America, the global tectonic plates of power were indeed shifting to the Asian side of the pacific. From Toyota to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, our culture was subtly being infiltrated by the dragon economies of the East. In retrospect, Thomas probably wasn’t the first Asian I interacted with, far from it. The bottle I used to drink milk out of as a baby, the television which brought me entertainment and a myriad of other contraptions I take for granted are produced far beyond the shores of my country, putting me into direct contact with the fruits of another’s labor. For years America had been the world’s largest creditor nation, often producing large surpluses on the back of our impressive manufacturing sector. Times had changed. Asian cultures have a deep emphasis on education and thrifty saving, a recipe which has helped catapult their respective economies to among the largest on earth. Thomas to me represented a microcosm of this inevitable change: he was the one kid in the class excelling at every subject, while the rest of his American classmates stared in wonder as if he was a fluke. As a privileged white male I must have admittedly found it difficult to believe that I was no longer the “big kid on the block”.
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