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.
Prior to 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. California towns had their Chinatown, even if only a restaurant or 2 as remnants of what once were segregated Chinese ghettos. The Chinese, while on the right side during World War 2 were still often referred to as Chinamen or the more racial denigration term Chinks. Among the general population, however, there just weren’t that many except in San Francisco Chinatown. There were a few in every public school who drifted through unnoticed. Most still lived in a “Chinatown” and didn’t mix with others, their exposure to whites limited to chop-suey, served in their restaurant or perhaps a source of illegal firecrackers on Fourth of July. Almost all were Cantonese and short.
The Japanese, more numerous, were scattered among the white population after their WW 2 internment. Like the Chinese who worked hard, the Japanese worked even harder. They were obsessed with achievement; the kids took many of the academic honors in school. They never talked about their internment. 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, their inconspicuous manners and hard work, often in self-employment as cleaners or landscapers. Still, they were known as “Japs”.
Like the Japanese the Filipinos were scattered among the white population. There racial status was more ambiguous. Many were thought of as Mexicans or even as possibly Portuguese who were more numerous and who ranged in complexion from blond fair to black dark with no definite color line. They lacked a common pejorative racial designation reflecting their uncertain status.
Mexicans were the big race minority.
They consisted of 2 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), making them the true natives. A few, especially the poorer, were probably remnants of aboriginal Indians. The farm workers, 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, Chinese were often wealthy and some Hispanics had “old” money. While Portuguese often were referred to as “Portigies” they themselves used the term and were proud of it. The Italians, however, took offense at “Whop” and “Dago.”
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 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 abstaining from meat. Even in law there was a Catholic influence with common law reflecting the Catholic Spanish heritage not English.
For my generation race and religion were just not as big deals as they were for our parents and even for them their importance was waning. 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. For mixed religious marriages the big deals were the Protestant signing off to raise the children Catholic and separate grave sites in Catholic versus public cemeteries on death.
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 inter married with blond whites. Racial taboos were crumbling. I never experienced overt prejudice growing up. I was proud to be me, Asian and my marrying a white 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 by my marrying a white. Asians tended to be more race conscious than whites. Chinese tended not to even marry other Chinese not in their ethnic group. Dad, however, not only crossed an Asian racial divide with a Filipina wife, his dating white women crossed a lingering white racial cultural taboo. It was uncommon to see an Asian man with a white woman. His blithe comments about white devils didn’t mean he was concerned about my marrying one because he went out with white women. His indifference to my marrying a white reflected his acceptance of mixed race pairing.
Like Dad, I considered myself superior to others. 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 never felt uneasy being Asian until the Vietnam War. The war brought young veterans home who often carried a stigma about Asians or “gooks” as they said. They resented the South Vietnamese who they despised as weak and hated the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese who tried to kill them. Like Buster Crabbe, however, in the old serial, Flash Gordon, many were attracted to the seductive Asia stereotype of Princess Aura, Emperor Ming’s faux Asian daughter on the planet Mongo.
Many returning white Vietnam veterans made uninvited advances towards me. They approached boldly and tried to talk, even when I was pushing two kids in a stroller with wedding ring obvious to see. I didn’t perceive their advances as compliments.
I heard stories of dance floors in Asia filled with naked young Oriental girls ordered by the number worn on a necklace, the tag number their only attire. The war in Vietnam generated multitudes of desperate "boom-boom girls". To me the bold approaches were calls for my number, each a demeaning insult. My embarrassment and smile to get away seemed to encourage them as I assumed 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 rungs. 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 puts me a step below Filipinos who were the least racist. It was easiest for me to be friends with them. There were also a few Filipinas who married a soldier when he was stationed there.
My Mountain View girlfriends were white or Filipino married women, mostly older. They weren’t prejudiced. The white ones often made comments such as I was sultry and exotic, innocently but to me it was too close to Princess Aura or Asian “boom-boom” girl.
A common stereotype among them is I’m short in stature due to local Asians tendency of being short. Lumped into the short Asian category they were often surprised I am the taller standing next to them. A result of perceived stereotypes was I retained some of the self-esteem damage due to younger days “rent is due” panic, food stamp stigma, and sibling duck, bean pole and frog comments. My assumed inherent superiority foundation suffered insecurity even with marriage, children, home ownership and middle-class income.
I too, however, was guilty of stereotyping, even Asians. With the Vietnam War, Vietnamese began migrating to the US which turned into a torrent as the war became lost. Some were war brides; some former Vietnam government officials and some desperate boat people of unknown former status. They, in my prejudice, were responsible as a group for my elder brother’s death. Who were they? My stereotyping placed them as ex boom-boom girl, corrupt government official, army deserter, poor peasant; none with a respectable past.
After a few years of marriage, I joined a gourmet cooking group which rotated meals from member to member houses. The host prepared her version of a 3-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 2 groups after dinner. With a 2nd or perhaps 3rd glass of wine, one woman, our Mexican menu connection, asked the Vietnamese woman what the war was like.
“I not think about war. It best forgotten.”
Not taking the hint, another asked.
“Well what was 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. …It happen me, you too. …It, it, find out what you can do 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 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 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. K-Mart and Walmart shoppers, I try not to think I’m superior but I do. Overweight, a stereotype of those who lack self-control, who am I to say? I’ve tried to remove prejudice but it is so easy to assume haughty generalizations.
My confidence in being American, Asian returned from an unexpected source just after the Vietnamese woman blurted out.
“It’s, finding 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 instead of my walnut gathering scheme for a sewing machine. 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 a name on a Washington D. C. wall.
Mom and I were apprehensive how "gooks" would be received. We knew Rickie joked about telling his fellow soldiers he was GG (“good gook”) but knew 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. 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 none were abusive to us. Instead a few cried a tear or two thinking of their past, those killed and maimed and the meaningless of it all.
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 21-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. 7 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 3 sets of blank rounds almost simultaneously for 21 reports. The sharp barks of each 7 volleys echoed through the rows on rows of white gravestones. After the 21-gun salute taps was played by the bugler behind them accompanied to Mom’s and my sobbing. At taps completion the honor guard marched down near 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 length wise, then folding it triangularly over itself, as it diminished in size. Their finished product was a tri- fold 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 21-gun salute by firing 7 rifle volleys, 3 times started in the Civil War. One side would request permission to gather their dead off the battle field with a 7-shot volley. The other side, if in agreement, responded with their 7-shot volley. Once the dead were removed the 3rd volley was to conclude the agreement and start the killing again. Even the triangular flag folding has tradition. It is folded 13 times to acknowledge the original 13 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. Mom and I shed tears on the long drive home as Dad drove, me wedge between them in the old Buick. Mine were those of guilt for not appreciating Rickie enough, the older brother who protected me when young and for not understanding Mom's grief over losing him to eventually be a name engraved on a monument wall.
I learned I wasn’t just categorized as a "boom-boom" girl and if so, it was their problem, not mine. I was 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.