Sunday, November 6, 2016

I Belong Here

I woke this morning in the dark; I wish my kids understood the beauty of "falling back" for daylight savings time. My body left warmth on the sheets of my bed, my lungs breathed in some autumn chill, and I thought to myself, I belong here. It's the same autumn morning I woke to as a child, when my father, wearing a tie, would kiss me goodbye before going to work at Ford Motor Company, his silhouette appearing  and the hallway light drawing a long bright triangle into my dark room. This morning, my children ran through the hallway, creaking the 100-year-old floors, their feet bap-bap-bapping, echoing in our dear neighbor's hallway on the floor below. Our neighbor was still in bed, where she would remain for a couple more hours. She smiled sleepily at the bap-bap-bapping, in the way only an 89-year-old woman who misses her own great-grandchildren can. She heard my children's tiny feet, and I thought, I belong here.

My son and I took a walk to Lake Michigan, just 2 blocks from our home. The water sprayed against the large rocks as we made a loop along Promontory Point. It shot high into the air making a sparkling wall. "I see water!" my son said. It's the same water I swam in as a child, camping in Michigan state parks along the Great Lakes. It's the same water my college friends and I dipped our feet into, as we watched the sun set late on summer nights in Western Michigan. My son and I scrunched our noses as the lake misted our faces. I belong here.

Promontory Point, Hyde Park, Chicago
Earlier this year, in the summer, I spent a few hours on a warm day with my children on the beaches of St. Joseph, meeting a dear friend who was visiting her family in Grand Rapids. The sun kissed my skin the way it kissed the skin of those around me, it left it pink and warm and tender to touch. The fresh water splashed and wrapped around my daughter and me, and we squealed. I belonged here then. I belonged in the sun, the way the sand belongs between our toes, the way it settles in and remains in your pockets for days, in the rug of your car as seasons come and go. I belonged that way.

Late last Wednesday night, I held my breath and my heart beat faster with millions of fans in my city and around the world as the Chicago Cubs opened the 10th inning and it started to rain in Cleveland. When they won game 7, clinching the World Series, something inside me erupted with joy, just as the car horns, hooting, and singing outside our windows erupted with joy. And I felt, I belong here.

Recently, I walked down Michigan Avenue, leaving a voice lesson in the Fine Arts Building, the oldest place for musical study in the City of Chicago. I rode the rickety elevators. I belonged as I shook back and forth, watching the different floors go by quickly.

I walked down Michigan Avenue and watched as every person in front of me dodged the pamphleters and signature gatherers and petitioners and election ballot-ers and grassroots movement-ers. I watched them sway away, pretend to be on their phones, shake their heads sorry, I don't have time right now.

I slowed my walk, attempted to make eye contact with three different eager grassroots millennials ready to change the world. I smiled their way, I welcomed them with my body language.

"Do you have time for equal rights?"
"I do!" I practiced my cheery response.

But they don't talk to me. They raise their gazes above my head, to some potentially supportive ally behind me. I slow, I wait a moment. They don't talk to me. I didn't feel like I belonged then.

We went to our neighborhood farmers' market. I sat at a table eating a pizza. I wasn't looking at my phone, I'd left it in the car. My husband had brought our kids down the row to another stand for ice cream with sprinkles.

I was surrounded by tables of people, a young white college couple, a group of elderly black women, a black man and a white woman with their two children, and a lone white man in his twenties, dressed in black with painted nails, and me, an Asian-American woman, eating a pizza with an empty double stroller parked next to me.

A woman approached each table, with a flyer advertising her art show. "It's for art and social justice," she said; "there will be live jazz music," she said; "activities for kids," she said; "it's a free event," she said. She approached every table, to every person, to every single table, except mine. My best phone free-ing, pizza eating, eye contacting, didn't convince her that I was worth a flyer. The empty double stroller next to me didn't signal to her that I belonged here.

My face, like the faces of Michael Luo, Tiffany MartínezAdam Crapser, and Tammy Duckworth, signals to some that I don't belong.

Where do I belong?

Not in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, or Xiamen, where I trip over words, where my sun-tanned skin signals that I must be poor or uneducated. Not on the streets of Chicago's Chinatown, where, hugging my elbows into my body, grasping the broken handles of a shopping basket, I am jostled by Chinese folks both young and old. I hold my breath in the smaller circles of personal space, and the American in me feels violated by the jabs and nudges. I can't bring myself to offer a lower price than the one advertised. I say over and over in my mediocre Mandarin, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I use the phrase in an American way, like "excuse me, pardon me." But it doesn't translate. There is nothing to say in Mandarin when you bump into people in public. I don't belong here.

Do I belong in California, where I lived for seven years, where there are "more people like me"? More Asian Americans, both children of immigrants and those whose families have been here for three, four, five generations. They would ask about growing up in the Midwest. Were there other Asians in your town? Did you feel alone? I thought back to that first day in my freshman year in Kalamazoo, MI, when I walked into a vocal jazz ensemble rehearsal. I remember when someone giggled nervously because she thought I'd sing with an accent. I remember when I was told that singing might not be for me because wasn't it true that my parents would prefer I study something more academic. I remember when a music director said to me, "hey stand up, and open your eyes!" when I was already standing and my eyes were already open. And when I didn't laugh, "Lighten up, Lynnette, it's a joke." I remember a high school boyfriend's grandmother who thought I was "just ugly." And another boyfriend's dad who joked he should have ordered egg rolls before having me over.

I remember the people who said things that hurt and made me feel like I don't belong here. There are more than I could ever count or completely recall. Sometimes they were mentors, classmates, colleagues, friends that became like family. People say things that hurt me in California too. Where do I belong?

I belong here. I belong here in the Midwest, where my mother birthed me, where I grew up to be me. I belong in the Great Lakes that bathed me and that now bathe my children. I belong in the parks where my family went camping, in the rivers where we went canoeing. I belong in the cities where we helped build some houses, where we watched fireworks glowing over the water, where we helped served soup on Thanksgiving morning. I belong in the grass where we played soccer, where we burst water balloons, on the hills where we sledded, in the yards where we built snowmen and igloos, on the streets where we learned to ride our bikes. I belong here, my children belong here.

I will continue smiling as I walk down the street, as we American Midwesterners do. I will say good morning. I will thank those who tell me my English is good. If I have time, I will explain why my English is good. I was born in Dearborn. I will kindly respond in English to men who try to flirt by saying "konichiwa" or "ni hao." I will attempt to talk in mediocre Mandarin when I encounter a person who feels more comfortable speaking in Chinese. I'll continue planting my feet in this earth, stomping around, leaving parts of me where I go, because I belong here.

On Tuesday, I'm going to cast my ballot for the next President of the United States. I will vote because I belong here. My vote is one small step toward making this a place where fewer Americans have to feel like they do not belong. I belong here today, I will belong here tomorrow.

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