I wondered now and then.
I'm not Japanese, Chinese, or Pinay, I'm mixed up Asian. Why didn't hubby marry a blond college girl?
Santa Clara Valley had very few blacks. It never experienced the black versus white racial animosity of other areas. There was racial prejudice, even historic racial segregation but for Asians and Mexicans. It’s hard to believe now but back then, there were relatively few Asians because they were excluded from immigration until 1962. There were no Koreans except an adopted orphan here and there and Vietnam’s location on a geography test would be a fail for college students.
Before 1962 California’s Asians were Japanese, Chinese and Filipinos, most of who were born in the USA or Hawaii. Hawaii was a tad foreign as it was not a state until 1959. Cities had their Chinatown, even if only a restaurant or two, as remnants of what once were segregated Chinese ghettos. The Chinese, while on the correct side during World War II, were still often referred to as Chinamen or Chinks. Among the general population, however, there just weren’t that many, except in San Francisco Chinatown. There were a few Chinese in public schools who drifted through unnoticed. Most still lived in a “Chinatown” and didn’t mix with others. Their exposure to whites was limited to serving chop-suey or perhaps a source of illegal firecrackers on the Fourth of July. Almost all were Cantonese and short.
The Japanese, more numerous, were scattered among the white population after their WW II internment which they never discussed. The Chinese worked hard; the Japanese worked even harder. They were obsessed with achievement. Their children took many of the academic honors in schools. They gained respect after their terrible treatment during the war due to heroics of the 442nd Regiment, the most decorated unit in the history of American warfare. Still, they were known as “Japs”.
Like the Japanese, the Filipinos were scattered among the white population. Their racial status was more ambiguous. Many were confused with Mexicans or possibly Portuguese. They lacked a common pejorative racial designation reflecting their uncertain status.
Mexicans were the largest racial minority.
They consisted of two groups, those who spoke English and considered themselves white regardless of skin color and those who spoke Mexican, were dark complexed and did farm work. Those who considered themselves white often could trace their ancestry back to Spanish days, even to land grants, (stolen from them by the 49’ers once the gold ran out), which made them the true natives. A few, especially the poorer, were probably remnants of aboriginal Indians.
The farmworker Mexicans, unlike today, also were usually born in the US, typically Texas or Arizona and followed migrant fruit picking harvests as a family.
There was white is right, racial prejudice but it was not dogmatic. A lot of brown and white intermingling occurred and there were brown minorities in positions of wealth and power which none thought odd. Japanese never asked for assistance, the Chinese were typically wealthy and some Hispanics had "old" money. While Portuguese often were referred to as "Portigies" they used the term themselves and were proud of it. The Italians, however, took offense at "Whop" and "Dago." Mexicans, Italians, and Portuguese ranged from fair to dark complexion with no definite color line. Blue eyes were scattered in all of them.
If there was a major minority population group, it was Catholics. They represented a broad racial range of Irish, Italians, Portuguese, Mexicans, and Filipinos as well as many Germans and the few Polish. Each Sunday they all paraded to the communion rail together at Mass and thought nothing of it. They were all part of the “Mystical Body of Christ”, per Catholic dogma, with no Church stigma over intermarriage. While a minority they had a major influence. In Santa Clara, the bells of the Carmelite Monastery rang the Angelus every day and public schools served no meat lunches on Fridays in deference to Catholics Friday meat abstinence. Even in law, there was a Catholic influence. California's community property law reflected the heritage of Catholic Spain.
For my generation, born after WW II, race and religion were just not as the big deals they were for our parents and even for them their importance was waning. Hispanic and white marriages had become common enough not to turn heads. Portuguese and Italians, some darker than a light-skinned mulatto, mixed freely and intermarried with blond whites. There already were a few Asian/white marriages but almost always an Asian woman married to a white man. Hubby and I, therefore, meet a norm of sorts.
Racial taboos were crumbling. For mixed religious marriages, the big deal was the non-Catholic signing off to raise the children Catholic and separate gravesites in Catholic versus public cemeteries on death.
I never experienced overt prejudice growing up. I was proud to be me, Asian-Catholic. My marriage to a white non-Catholic gave me pause but seemed normal enough. Race was something new arrivals worried about more than locals.
Dad, however, as a Chinese with a Filipina wife, passed a greater racial crossover than I. Asians tended to be more race-conscious than whites. Chinese tended not to even marry other Chinese outside their ethnic group. Dad crossed an Asian racial divide with a Filipina wife. His dating white women crossed a greater lingering white racial-cultural taboo. His blithe comments about white devils didn’t mean he was concerned about my marrying one. He went out with white women and considered himself superior to others.
Like Dad, I considered myself superior too. Dad’s supercilious attitude was more tenuous due to our financial situation but mine had a strong foundation based on school performance, work, savings, sewing, and cooking.
I didn’t feel uneasy being Asian until the Vietnam War. The war’s young veterans returning often carried a stigma against Asians or “gooks” as they said. They resented the South Vietnamese and hated the Viet Cong. Like Buster Crabbe, however, in the old serial, Flash Gordon, many were attracted to the seductive Asian stereotype of Princess Aura, Emperor Ming’s faux Asian daughter on the planet Mongo.
I heard stories of dance floors in Asia filled with naked young Oriental girls, ordered by the number worn on a necklace or bracelet, the tag number their only attire. The war in Vietnam generated multitudes of desperate "boom-boom girls".
Many Vietnam veterans made uninvited advances towards me. They approached boldly to talk, even when I was pushing two kids in a stroller with a wedding ring obvious to see. I didn't perceive their advances as compliments. To me, the bold approaches were calls for my number, each a demeaning insult. My embarrassment and smile to getaway encouraged them as they generalized me as another Oriental, cheap whore.
Asian men didn’t make unwanted advances but Asians, too, have degrading racial stereotypes with Filipino at the bottom of the Asian pecking rung. They know at first glance I’m not Japanese or Chinese. The Chinese may or may not recognize my being part Chinese but they know I am not all Chinese. They lump me in the uncertain category of mixed or Filipino, knowing also I was born in the US or entered very young solely by my stride and stance. My uncertain Oriental racial status put me a step below Filipino, who was the least racist. It was easiest for me to be friends with them. There were also a few Filipinas who married US military personnel when the husband was stationed there.
My Mountain View girlfriends were white or Filipino married women, mostly older. The white ones often made innocent comments I was sultry or exotic but to me, it was too close to Princess Aura or Asian "boom-boom” girl.
A common stereotype among them was I’m short in stature due to the local Asians' tendency of being short. If I stood next to them, they were often amazed I was as tall or taller than they. The stereotypes resulted in my retaining some of the self-esteem damage of younger days. My assumed, inherent superiority, suffered insecurity even with marriage, children, homeownership and middle-class income. Only my close friend from Notre Dame days, Julie, placed no stereotype tag on me.
I too, however, was guilty of stereotyping. When the torrent of Vietnamese immigrated to the US as the war became lost, at first, I tended to denigrate them. Many were former Vietnam government officials or military that I blamed indirectly for my elder brother’s death. The boat people or war brides were probably former “boom-boom girls.
It’s personal relationships that dispel racial stereotypes. Married, I’d joined a cooking group which rotated meals from member to member houses. The host prepared her version of a three-course gourmet meal which tended to be more of a gourmet wine fest for the women and a beer bust for the men. Always on the lookout for ethnic variations, a Vietnamese woman eventually was coaxed to join. She was a war bride with family, if any, left behind.
As usual, the men and women segregated into two groups after dinner. With a second or perhaps third glass of wine, one woman, our Mexican menu connection, asked the Vietnamese woman.
“Nhung, what was the war like?”
“I not think about war. It best forgotten.”
Not taking the hint, another asked.
"Well, what’s the worst you had to deal with? We’ve seen so many terrible things on TV. Were you ever afraid?”
A stupid question but we all stopped and stared for her answer. Cornered, she surveyed the group and stutter replied in her heavy accented English.
“Worst?... A terrible thing… You not want know.
“Well tell us, maybe we can help or understand.”
“You best not know. It happen me. It happen you too.”
“It’s okay Nhung, you can tell us.”
“It, it, find out what. It find you do. What you can do to live.”
Her last sentence a bit choked. She looked away and walked to her husband in the garage saying no more. We stood silent a wave of empathy swept me.
It’s true. One of life’s hells is learning what you’ll do to survive. While my “rent is due” background was inconsequential compared to her war, I comprehended better than the others present. The mind’s location, where you learn what you are capable of when life threatened, is best not visited. It’s better to deny as possible what you can or will do. It’s the hell the Kapos of Auschwitz faced.
I discarded my Vietnamese stereotyping and have tried to accept each as an individual, but one slips back so readily to this weakness. I try not to think I’m superior Walmart shoppers but I do. Overweight, it’s those who lack self-control. I’ve tried to remove prejudice but it is so easy to assume haughty generalizations.
My confidence in being American, Asian American returned from an unexpected source just after the Vietnamese woman blurted out.
“What you can do to live.”
Mom and Dad were invited to a reunion of sorts for Vietnam veterans in my oldest brother's army Brigade held at Fort Ord in Monterrey, California. Mom didn’t want to go to a reunion but did want to talk to those who knew Rickie, to know more about how he was killed instead of the Army's brief summary. Dad refused to go so I took Mom.
As we drove to Monterrey, again passing the walnut trees of Monterey Road, I reminisced about Rickie, killed when only 19, the older brother who protected me when I was his little sister as we moved about. Unlike Dad, he was responsible, had a paper route, picked fruit in the summer and helped Mom with chores and money pinches. Still, I hardly knew him, the three- and half-year difference in age between us a vast time gap when young. At 23, with two kids, now the eldest, I was elevated to the family responsible one. He was demoted to a picture in uniform on my parent's living room table, a folded flag propped up on the fireplace mantel and in 1982, a name on a Washington D. C. wall.
Mom and I were apprehensive about how "gooks" would be received. We knew Rickie joked about telling his fellow soldiers he was GG (“Good Gook”) but understood it was a joke of self-defense from the racial sting.
When we entered the conference room, however, we were greeted with open arms and as a Gold Star Mother, Mom had a special seat of respect with other unfortunate Gold Star moms. Each veteran on entering was met with the words.
“Welcome home soldier!”
This phrase was to offset the often unwelcomed; greeting they received after returning from their Vietnam service. They were a mix of white, Hispanic and black veterans. I was shocked how young the "men" appeared and thought how very young my brother was when sent to Vietnam to be killed. Later that night those who knew him got up and said a few kind words. No one talked politics, merits of the war or heroics just deference to our loss and their comradeship. While a few drank too much, some cried a tear thinking of those killed and maimed and the meaningless of it all, none were abusive to us, only supportive and respectful.
An officer, his lieutenant, came and spoke to Mom. He said Rickie honorably served his country, he was sorry he was killed in action defending it and we should be proud of his sacrifice. Rote words but to Mom, it helped her recover from the collapse she made when opening the front door and seeing the uniformed man who came to announce Rickie's death.
We were treated with dignity and respect by all. I was emotionally moved by the deference and kindness demonstrated to the "Gold Star Mothers" and me. We only learned there was an ambush, shooting, he was killed and his body medic-vacked to eventually show up for burial at Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno, California.
There, my family dressed up in black, a first for me to see Mom so with a veil. My parents, siblings and I, the only ones observing the service, were seated on the cemetery lawn under a little open white tent before Rickie” closed wooden casket with an American flag draped on it. A priest rose, said a few words and blessed the casket with holy water.
Earlier, a small army bus had arrived with soldiers from Monterrey’s Fort Ord. They were Rickie’s honor guard, assigned the duty of performing the ceremony of a twenty-one-gun salute, playing taps, folding the casket flag and presenting it to Mom. They stepped off the bus, walked single file between the graves and stationed themselves on a small knoll. Seven formed a line for the gun salute, their M-16s at their sides in parade rest stature. A bugler and the command Sargent stood behind them.
At a signal from the priest, The Honor Guard came alive at the command, “Present Arms.” They moved to the ready position, turned to the side with rifles across chests and at the Sargent’s command, “Ready, aim-fire,” fired off three sets of blank rounds almost simultaneously for twenty-one reports. The sharp barks of each seven volleys echoed through the rows on rows of white gravestones.
After the twenty-one-gun salute, the bugler behind them played taps, accompanied to Mom’s and my sobbing. At taps completion, the honor guard marched down near to the casket. Two stepped forward with white-gloved hands, gently lifted the flag from the coffin, shuffled sideways, brought the flag parallel to the ground, folded it briskly twice lengthwise, then folding it triangularly over itself, as it diminished in size. Their finished product was a trifold American flag showing only white stars on a blue background, the end tightly tucked into the fold.
The command Sergeant held the flag before my sobbing Mom, leaned forward on bended knee, and quietly offered the standard words of condolence.
“On behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation I wish to present you with this flag in appreciation for your son’s service."
She clutched the flag, pulled it to her black-clad bosom and sobbed uncontrollably to our discomfort, even the soldiers. A funeral ceremony is always sad, but taps and the presentation of the flag to my veiled Gold Star Mother was the saddest I’ve ever experienced. I didn’t understand the extent of Mom’s loss until much later.
I also learned later the twenty-one-gun salute by firing seven rifle volleys, three times started in the Civil War. One side would request permission to gather their dead off the battlefield with a seven-shot volley. The other side, if in agreement, responded with their seven-shot volley. Once the dead were removed the third volley was to conclude the agreement and start the killing again. Even the triangular flag folding has tradition. It is folded thirteen times to acknowledge the original thirteen colonies.
The casket was lowered. Rickie was gone, officially gone, never to be seen, joked with, protected by, hugged again, gone. The service was standard, too routine. We drove home, drained, empty, missing something, no missing everything, in silence. There were no big revelations at the reunion but having some who knew him and were with him when he was killed gave Mom a form of closure missing from the funeral service.
After the funeral, me wedged in the front seat between mom and Dad, the tears I shed were those of guilt for not appreciating Rickie enough. I still cry for the older brother who protected me, who became only a name engraved on a monument wall.
After the funeral and the reunion, my perspective of myself changed. I’m an American girl, as American as apple pie.
Author Notes: After older brother is dead she realizes how much she misses him and yet didn't appreciate him.