Sunday, May 29, 2011

Tourist in my own town: At the cemetery on Memorial Day

Memorial Day 2011: Vets scramble to take down the flags as rain begins to pour
Surely there's a smidgen of meaning left to Memorial Day other than barbecues and beer with the buddies. My husband and I didn't set out to find it this morning, but when we drove past the local cemetery and saw the flags lining the walks, we stopped to pay our respects.

The stillness was a better backdrop for the rows and rows of flags than any John Philip Sousa marching band song could have provided. Just when I raised the camera to capture the sight, cold rain began to pelt my glasses. I ducked under a tree, blinded and stranded temporarily.

A handful of older men moved quickly down the walk, observing flag protocol by protecting them from rain. There was something moving about how determined and dignified they were.

Acacia Cemetery is across the street from the city's Senior Center, a trivial oddity that my twisted brain noted when I first started teaching ballroom dance there. You can waltz into eternity without skipping a beat. How does it feel to be older, say in your 80s, and facing inevitable mortality? If I live to know the answer, I will be both lucky and unenviable.

I see the way an older couple can walk into a room and be practically invisible. It's the young, vibrant ones that catch everyone's attention. That supple skin, the flexible limbs, the taut core muscles, the full set of teeth. Are we afraid to be reminded of our own aging process? Is that why we seem dismissive of the old?

When the rain eased up I made a run for the car. The flag keepers and their tractor-size truck were lumbering toward us. It didn't seem like there'd be enough room on the pavement for both our vehicles.

"Back up, give them room," I frantically urged my husband as they got closer and closer.

He just sat there, deathly calm, saying nothing. My Filipino upbringing came bubbling to the surface—the compulsion to be accommodating, to not be an inconvenience, to put the good of the group before the good of the individual, to not disrespect my elders.

His Midwestern upbringing rooted him to the spot: to stand his ground, to claim his place, to expect equal if not deferential treatment.

The tractor began angling its nose off to the side to avoid us. Its driver looked my husband in the eye and gave him a nod as he drove past, one veteran to another. The men on foot grinned and walked around us.

Sigh. Hubby chided, "See, you were too self-conscious."
My protests went invalidated. But, I noted, if I'd been with another Asian fellow, those same men might've muttered to themselves, "Dang, can't count on these strangers to get out of the way."

How can you put yourself in another's shoes if you've never been anything but what you are? This country is his home turf; he has never been treated differently based on his appearance.

I, on the other hand, have been grappling this past week with the concept of respect—when to give it, expect it, demand it, being that I am not quite old, not quite American, and not yet dead.


  1. We're very glad that you're "not yet dead," Scrollwork. :) As for respect... I always try to give it. I know I deserve it. I don't bother demanding it. But, I don't always get it... Quiet dignity is something I had to learn. I grew up apologizing for everything as if I didn't deserve to express how I felt or be where I was. Or I'd become angry when blatantly disrespected -- still feeling unworthy. I was born in this country, but that didn't necessarily stop me from feeling out of place -- the only female in a room of men, the only black person in a room of (fill in the blank), etc... There's nothing wrong with standing your ground. And you might be pleasantly surprised when you hear no muttering at all. ;)

  2. I read that you've been busy writing a short story, Kenya. Nice!

    Quiet dignity. That reminds me of what a black man taught a friend of mine—"Be strong in your silence."

    It's the opposite for me. Thanks to the Suzie Wong submissive stereotype, my silence is often misinterpreted as consent. That is, consent to being shunted aside, even in an area in which I've spent 20 years establishing my expertise. More outspoken, brasher personalities have been stunned to discover that I don't like being blatantly disrespected, and when I do speak up I pick the sharpest words in my arsenal.

    It's the situations in between that complicate the decision for me. Stand my ground? But is it my ground or theirs?

  3. Ooooohhhh, there is so much to say about this, about your points on race and behavior. I'm like you (well of course, we're both Filipinos! haha!)...My husband, though Filipino too grew up here so he always calls my attention when he notices my shyness or tendency to be overly accommodating or that I'm just not as assertive as he would like me to be. I have always had issues with that but I am me. I don't think I can change much no matter how hard I try. Anyway, I'm reminded of something I wrote before when I was confronted with issues on race in relation to Noah and I will quote myself again ---"Navigate the world knowing that race matters but behave like it does not".

    And btw, yes, we are moving to TN mid summer...Thanks for your well wishes! (And do I just call you 'Scrollwork'...have always wondered if you preferred another name. :-)

  4. So, are you trying to say quiet dignity is a black thing, Scrollwork? And who told you about my short story?! ;D I think the ground is all of ours... And by qd, I didn't necessarily mean silence or to let someone roll over you. I just find more satisfaction from giving a poised, intelligent response to someone who might be disrespectful. Usually, the offending party won't bother me again because they seem to be looking for someone to validate their negative opinion, make them feel superior or engage in battle. I have bigger fish to fry. But, I'll admit -- in the past -- to giving a finger or two. ;)

  5. By the way, I didn't mean to imply that your sharpest words wouldn't be intelligent. Don't come after me. I come in peace! :D

  6. Joy, I'll answer to Scrollypolly if that's what you want to call me :D Yeah, I like to keep my online identity behind a gauzy curtain, just to stay one step ahead of the stalkers. Some perv sent me a friend request on FB yesterday, complete with a creepy message and a shriek-worthy picture of him.

    Anyway, that was a great quote! I ghostwrote speeches and opinion pieces for a black female boss for six years, and she pretty much lived by that, knowing the truth but rising above it. To do that, she's had to/I'll have to have selective amnesia about the experiences of being "put in our place"—like the time some woman, the wife of a political candidate I had profiled, wrote the editor of my newspaper to ask about me, "Where is she from?" And the time an older white man stared as my mom and aunt conversed in their dialect, then announced loudly to no one in particular, "We are becoming a nation of strangers." Upon which I spoke with my mom in English, and cast him a withering look.

    On being assertive—I actually had to take an Assertiveness Workshop at work! It's not something I would have learned on my own, I don't think. Then I went to personal counseling for more than a year, which helped immensely and made the lesson stick.

    Kenya, I found out about your short story writing on your website, girl! You sound surprised that someone read it ; ) You're right, I mistook QD to mean total silence. My bad. But don't worry, I didn't think what you wanted to be sure I knew you weren't implying (LOL). I'm gonna assign the acronym IF to my sharp non-verbal thrust: the Invisible Finger.

  7. Wow, I got p*ss*d reading the experiences you've gone through with some narrow-minded idiots. So sorry to hear that. Good thing you've gone through some courses on assertiveness! ;-) Scrollypolly it is! LOL!