He approached my minivan as we were sitting at a red light, watching construction trucks cross the intersection.
I rolled the window down, assuming he was a foreman directing traffic.
“You don’t have to leave twenty feet! If you’d pull up I could get around!” he shouted and then stomped off.
“YOU CAN BE NICE ABOUT IT!” I yelled back, as I let my foot off the brake — just a little.
In the rear-view window, I watched his white van squeeze by me and cut through the dry cleaner’s parking lot to make a right turn.
“Did you really say that?” a little voice from the backseat asked.
YES I DID.
Sometimes I worry that one of my kids gets pushed around. Nothing big, but I’ve watched, silently, and heard other boys say things that are not nice, and my son shrugs it off. It’s what we teach from an early age. In the sandbox, if another kid snags your shovel, it’s okay… let’s share. In the classroom, kids are taught to walk away from conflict. But sometimes we need to teach them to stand up for themselves.
Three times in the recent months, Amy Tan’s essay “Mother Tongue” has come up… in conversation, in writing. This is not a newly published piece, and when things come up three times (it’s a symbolic number), I usually take it as a sign to pay attention. Last night, as I was mentally replaying the incident at the stoplight, I decided to pull out my copy of Tan’s memoir “The Opposite of Fate” and re-read that essay.
“Mother Tongue” deals with the broken English spoken by Tan’s Chinese immigrant mother, and how in certain circumstances, she subconsciously reverts to that patois. The rhythm and the logic of her mother’s speech, Tan reflects, has shaped her own speech patterns and her worldview.
I lie in bed awake, wondering how my children will remember hearing my voice and seeing my actions. I blame myself for both my childrens’ passivity and their outbursts. What have I modelled that causes them to behave in this way? What did my own mother model that causes me to behave in the way that I do?
Another essay in Tan’s memoir, “The Language of Discretion”, discusses the concept that Americans have this perception of Asians as being quiet and polite, while the Chinese that Tan knows are brash and blunt. And how their politeness is merely an elaborate comedy of manners (“Here, you take the last scallop!” “No, you!”) that allows them to assert themselves, in a socially acceptable way. In situations where those formalities are not required, Asians can haggle and argue in a way that is uncomfortable to American sensibilities. It can appear unrefined, especially when language difficulties are added into the mix. There are times when I want to complain or defend myself. But I don’t. Perhaps it’s out of a fear of looking uncouth. And I don’t know how to say something without embarassing myself. So I don’t say anything.
I don’t want to be like that. And even more so, I don’t want my kids to be like that.
As I related the story of the intersection to my husband, he joked that I should have thrown the car in reverse.
“That’s just being a jerk,” I countered. I don’t want to teach my kids that two wrongs make a right. I also don’t want to teach them that ignoring a wrong makes it go away.
In the flash of a second where I had to react to that guy at my window, I had the half-conscious thought that I needed to say something. If I had been alone, I might have just pulled foward and seethed silently. And I didn’t want my kids to see that.
While we finished our drive home, I explained to my kids, “Yes, I said that. If someone does something bad to you, it’s perfectly okay to tell them they aren’t treating you right.”
My example may not be perfect, but at least it’s something.