Thursday, June 9, 2011

Color Commentary

          Good news from Columbus: festival season is here and thus far we’ve not been disappointed.  A few weekends ago we attended the Dragon Boat races downtown on the Scioto River.  They served as the kick-off to a week of Asian Festival events culminating in the actual Asian Festival weekend at none other than good old Franklin Park (site of the suspiciously-abandoned-stroller-by-the-duck-pond incident).  When I drove the boys by the park on the way to preschool that Friday morning we were excited to see all the tents up, getting ready for the festival.  I mean we were really excited.  Like the kind of excited you get when they set up the tent for your graduation or your wedding, which is to say: we felt they were setting up the festival tents expressly for us. 
          Because we love festivals.  By the end of the last summer every time we left the house Moon Boy asked,  “are we going to a festival?”  And usually the answer was “yes.”
          So the Asian Festival was fantastic.  For many reasons.  First: it was big.  Three stages, with acts every half hour, all day for two days.  Tons of great smelling food.  (I’m guessing it was great tasting food too, but I didn’t get to taste most of it, so I can only vouch for the smell.)  Rows and rows of vendors and demonstrations.  Second: it was just plain fun.  My favorite act was the Punjabi dancers, dressed in traditional garb, dancing to modern techno music, getting the crowd to gather in front of the stage and learn their steps which were not very difficult but a ton of fun and a great aerobic workout, especially with a thirty pound kid on your hip.
          Third: because of who was there. 
          I don’t know if  I’ve revealed as much on these pages, but for me, race is everything.  I’m always thinking about race.  In fact, everything I write could have a whole other storyline of “color commentary” running constantly through my brain.  But there’s so much to say that sometimes I have to leave all that out.   Like for example, in Birth Gender and the DMV, I didn’t say my first thought upon entering the DMV was about race.  See, there was a bank of about twenty registry workers, taking people out of the queue, doing all the things registry workers do, and more than half of them were African American.  And I was thinking how this is why we moved here, how there aren’t even this many African Americans in all of Portland, Maine, and how these are decent, if boring, jobs and that hopefully they will be able to keep their health insurance after Senate Bill Five passes.  And then I was thinking about my white privilege and their presumed straight privilege as they were conferring about my birth gender.  And then I was thinking despite tons of evidence to the contrary I have totally bought into the myth that black people don’t like gay people.  And then as I sighed and quietly played up my annoyance, I saw how I was leaning back on my whiteness.  How I was saying, sorry about that gender confusion and all but don’t forget: I’m white.  And then they gave me my license.
         Anyway, that’s me.  I’m always thinking about race.  So my favorite thing about the Asian festival was that there was no “normal” in the crowd.  I mean, if I were to tell you I met a new friend at the Asian festival you could make absolutely no assumptions about the race of my new friend based on probability and statistics.  I would say those in attendance were something close to equal parts Asian, black, and white, with a smaller set of Latinos.  And those performing were mostly Asian, of course, but not exclusively.  That was the brilliant thing.  This was a huge festival drawing acts from around the country and the world.  There was no onus on local Asian Americans to be the culture bearers, to be the experts in the various and broad aspects of Asian art and culture.  It was not their role to educate the rest of us about their lives.  That job was reserved for professional performers: people who devote themselves to the study of a particular kind of drumming or dance or instrument, who traveled from New York, London, Toronto, and Pittsburg to entertain and teach us. 
          One of my favorite moments of the Asian festival was when were walking back from the playground, through the artisan booths to the main stage, and we passed a table where two people were playing that ancient Asian game--you may have heard of it--it’s called “chess.”  One of players was a twenty-ish white man.  The other was a young black girl, maybe twelve years old.  They both looked possessed.  What am I saying, they both were possessed.  They were completely entranced, completely focused on the board, clearly thinking two, three, ten, fifteen moves ahead.  When we got to the table where they were playing, they were maybe a third of the way into the game with about ten people stopped to watch.  By the end of the game there were at least fifty of us circled around them: entranced by their entrancement.  And we were all people.  We were children, and parents, and teens, and elders, and young twenty somethings whom I resent for their carefree childless lifestyle.  We were white, and black, and Asian, and Latino.  Some of us knew something about chess, some of us couldn’t tell who won in the end.  Because there was no final buzzer.  No score board.  No king getting dramatically swept off the board.  Because the players didn’t need that.  They knew who had won, long before it happened.  And they were both so good-natured about it, so appreciative of the other’s prowess, that there was no emotional read on the outcome.  No way to tell the winner by his elation, or her disappointment.  We all stuck around there for a while after the game had ended, wanting more.  Wanting it to keep going.  So we could see the great magnitude of human potential as manifested in these two people’s highly functioning brains.
          But the most breathtaking moment for me came on the second day of the festival.  We returned Sunday afternoon.  The crowds were smaller and more intimate.  We went inside the Adventure Center (a field house of sorts) which was blissfully air-conditioned and were watching some kind of drumming demonstration when I saw, in the audience, a little Nepali boy who was the image of a child we know back in Portland.  The boy in the crowd was younger, less than two, probably about the age our friend was when we first met him.  Back when his parents adopted him, when he hadn’t learned to walk, or understand English, or trust that these people who were showering him with all this love would be the ones he could count on forever. 
          I watched the little boy for a while, more taken with him than the performance, remembering when he and Hot Shot were little toddlers together.  How little and cute they had been.  It was like having a visit with our old friend, watching this stranger across the crowd.  And then I thought to look around and identify his parents.  It was not hard.  He was sitting on his mother’s lap of course. I had just been so consumed with him that I hadn’t noticed her.  But there she was.  And beside her, his father.  And they took my breath away, those two people.  Here was this little child, such a striking resemblance to our little friend.  And here were his parents.  His birth parents.  This is what they looked like.  I tell you, it took my breath. 
          The truth is, there was a part of me that was shocked his parents were not white.  Weird, I know, because I’m not surprised when I meet black kids with black parents, even though my kids are black and I’m white.  I live in a neighborhood full of black kids with black parents.  I understand this to be the norm.  As are Nepali kids with Nepali parents.  But there was something about the likeness of this stranger to our little friend.  It was so striking.  Striking in a way we are used to ignoring in adoptive families.  Because there is no expectation that anyone will look like anyone else.  No time spent ogling over who has whose nose, or dimple, or overbite.  We exist together as a family without all that to define us.  But here was this kid looking so much like our little friend.  So many distinct aspects of his face rang so true.  And our little friend will never know his birth parents.  There is almost no chance he will ever so much as see a picture of them, and so these two people, birth parents of our little friend’s identical twin, they took my breath because they were, to me, like ghosts.  They were something I’m not supposed to see.  Something none of us ever expected to see.  But there they were.
          And immediately I was grieving.  Grieving for our friend and the life he doesn’t have.  Grieving for my own children and the life they will never have.  And I am not romanticizing that life.  There are reasons why people choose adoption.  I know that.  Often those reasons are complicated and include, at their root, things like systematic oppression (racism, classism, colonialism, sexism) but still, they are reasons.  Real live reasons that would have made for challenging lives at best.  So it’s not that I think our kids would have been, necessarily, better off with their birth parents.  Nothing so complex could ever be boiled down to an equation this simple.  But what I do know is, for better or for worse, it will never be theirs.  They will never get told a thousand times how much they look like their mother.  How they have her smile, or his cheekbones, or her hips, or his walk. And this?  This is just the tiniest part of the life that will never be theirs.  The life where they never have to wonder why? and what if? and do they love me?
          I looked at that family across the crowd, and I thought, this kid has something my kids will never have.  And he has no idea.
          And then, in a matter of seconds, it was over.  I was chasing Ankle Biter though a maze of tables, and helping Moon Boy keep himself from his intense urge to touch this ancient lute sort of thing.  And we were back to living.  Which is what you do, right?  You have a tense go ‘round about your birth gender and then you sit in front of a monitor and take your driver’s license test.  You look up at the annoyed white woman sighing all over your counter, you check her documents, you say, “fine, go ahead,” and then you help the next person in line.  You tell your friends that, yes that is your mom and yes she does have white skin because she is your adoptive mom (obviously!) and then you get back to your subtraction worksheet.
          The commentary keeps going.  And so do you.


  1. You are gonna love the Hot Times Festival, too.

  2. You're right Dawn, we LOVE Hot Times. We moved here a couple of weeks before it last Summer and we spent the weekend there. In fact I think the rest of the family went to an IFIF potluck while Sincere and I stayed on at Hot TImes because he was so captivated by all that great live music and dancing.

  3. I have become obbsessed with your blogs!! I have you save in my favorites and check back from time to time to see what is new! We are also transplants here from Pittsburgh PA.
    I like Columbus and its diversity, I also enjoy the fact Columbus is so gay friendly! Hope you and your family enjoy Pride weekend!