I had my most appalling experience with racism at the DMV, in the attempt to earn my driver's permit.
As an Asian-American, I'm used to the everyday, smaller instances that are more an annoyance than an obstacle, from the strangers thinking that it is acceptable to say "Konichiwa" to me in the library to the businessman on the train asking me where I'm from. "Around here," I answered quizzically. "I know, you don't have an accent, but really," he stressed. "Like in Asia."
Upsetting incidents of racism have been present my entire life. I vividly recall an instance in New York City three or four years ago; my family and I were being regular tourists, walking on the broad streets host to the international community that New York City boasts. My father pushed the stroller with my little sister, who was still a toddler, chattering at all the new and exciting sights. All of a sudden, an old man passing in the opposite direction shot us a hateful look. "Go back to China where you come from!" he yelled.
But those are minor hassles.
This past spring, my mother and I visited the DMV five times in the month before I was granted my driver's permit. Every time, the DMV demand some new piece of paperwork not mentioned before and not required on the sheet -- a VISA, an EAD card, a AOS paper, a clearer date. Granted, once was because I failed my permit test, but the other four were strictly squeezed from bureaucratic excesses.
These stringent requirements were even more shocking in contrast with the boy in front of me in line the first time -- a blond, blue-eyed, "All-American" boy named Lucas, from a preparatory school in the area. He and his sports-jersey-wearing father were quintessentially, or I suppose, stereotypically, "American." The DMV officials joked around with and spoke conversationally to the father and son pair. Lucas even left necessary documents at home, but all the DMV officials did was laugh and say, "We got you covered, man." The same incident with us prompted stern looks and condescending shrugs. "We can't let you through without seeing all of your paperwork."
When our turn came the last time, my mother again stated our purpose to the official at the desk, in her accented English and imperfect grammar. Gone were the smiles and good cheer. Drew, the official responsible for our case, made a point of speaking exaggeratedly slowly and clearly as if we were imbeciles. My mother tried to make jokes and conversation. But given her limited English skills, his response was merely snide, as if to say, "Don't you know anything about America?" He refused to answer any questions from me, treating me with such condescension that I felt, after 14 years of residence, I was still an outsider in America. When my mother asked him a question, Drew sighed exasperatedly, and said, "So many questions from you two girls."
My mother is a grown woman, with a successful career and multiple post-graduate degrees, I thought to myself. It is not acceptable to refer to her in demeaning terms like that, reminiscent of the use of the word "boy" to refer to African-Americans back in a time of pervasive racism. My blood boiled, but my permit and independence and freedom, in essence, was in the hands of this man. I could do nothing. I bit my lip and ground my teeth, resigned to my weakness -- and said nothing.
I got my permit in the end, after a month of meaningless errands. But even as we returned victorious, I was left with an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness, not in the hands of fate or God, but in the hands of my fellow men. As we drove home, my mother oblivious to what had just transpired and me brooding at our own weakness as I gazed out the window, I thought over prejudice, racism, discrimination, and sank into a stupor of helplessness.
America is a nation of immigrants, the great "melting pot," I thought. Shouldn't Asian-Americans be a vital and indispensable ingredient, whether we are newly immigrated or second generation, whether we speak grammatical or broken English? So why weren't we treated with respect? What does this mean about the ability of any immigrant with a different race or ethnicity to succeed in America?
But just as I wanted to give up, I remembered the ending to the story of the xenophobic man in New York City, who had yelled for us to leave the country. That bright sunny day in New York City, as my family looked at each other in hurt and bewilderment, a young Caucasian woman in her 30s, holding the hand of a small child, tapped my mother on the shoulder. "I'm so sorry about that man," she said sympathetically, "America isn't like that."
She was right, I came to realize. Sometimes, it's hard to remember. But the real America isn't like that.
I am an American. A Chinese-American, an Asian-American, an immigrant-American (as most of us are). Yes, racism exists in America, and it will be something I deal with for the rest of my life, but I know something that old man in New York City didn't: the real America's power lies in its diversity; in its strength and acceptance.
And I'm proud to be a part of that.