The doors slid open to another frost covered morning as I left work. I took a deep breath and shivered as the crisp air invaded my lungs. In contrast, the sky defied the dead cold with its deep red and orange streaks. Mesmerized by the flaming sky, I stood in the doorway for a moment taking time to absorb the world outside.
The morning breeze carried a mixture of odors, the most distinguishable being of car exhaust and frying chicken. The adjacent streets echoed with the hum, squeak and whine of the early rush to get somewhere. I was in no hurry but was content to let life flow around me like flood waters around a tree.
As the sun rose higher, the warm hues reflected off of the still frozen dew enveloping everything in the color of warmth. It had been a long time since I’d stopped to enjoy a sunrise.
“What are you doing?” a co-worker approached, “Go home.”
“I will,” I smiled, “Just taking time to remember that life can still be beautiful.”
“Okaaaaay, spit it out,” he joked, “What did you take?”
“Look you,” I turned my head to glare at him, “can you not drag me out of my happy place today?”
He laughed, “Let me guess. It’s a Zen thing, right? You got some feng shui thing going on?”
I raised a fist and shifted my weight, “Wanna die, white boy?”
“Oh gawd,” he exclaimed in mock terror covering his head with his arms, “She’s whipping out the kung fu! Don’t hurt me, ninja girl!”
“I will stab you in the face, you pale piece of shit, ” I replied through my teeth in a low, threatening tone.
We paused to exchange the most menacing looks we could muster before he cracked a smile and assaulted me with a bear hug.
“See you tonight,” he said as he walked away.
“See you,” I replied.
“Get some sleep today!” he yelled over his shoulder, “You busted your ass last night.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said and began to make my way to the car.
Sitting down in my car made me realize how tired I really was and suddenly, I couldn’t wait to get back to the apartment. People from the day shift were still sifting in, and a few waved as I drove away. Some of them looked exhausted even though they’d were just beginning their day. Maybe it was the look of working too long in a job one didn’t really enjoy. Would I look like that in a few years? Would I even be there in a few years?
I was still a baby in the eyes of the old timers. Only just recently completing my first year, I had seen so many come and go. It was hard to believe a few had stayed for as long as they had. Some I knew had been there for a decade or more. I could no longer imagine living in one state for that long, much less working in the same job – especially one that required so much physical exertion.
I wondered how long my body would put up with the way I abused it. Sometimes, it was like going to the gym and working out for eight hours. The plus side was that I’d whipped myself into shape in less than six months. It was like getting paid to lose weight and tone up.
The pace at night could be grueling and hectic or just plain blah. It was a joke among some of us that the night would either bore us to sleep or drive us to the point of collapse. Either way, we ended up unconscious and drooling. Some of us seemed to thrive on the chaos, the pressure and the push to exceed our limits.
We all bitched and moaned, but for some, the complaining was a perk. After spending two decades as a stay-at-home wife and mother (the last three of those trying unsuccessfully to maneuver myself into a job), being able to talk and complain about work felt good. I drew a weird kind of satisfaction out it.
Quite a few of my coworkers were at least half my age. They were younger and had more energy reserves which forced me to drive myself even harder just to keep up. It was easy to get discouraged, but I was determined to keep pace and excel if possible.
The social dynamic posed its own kind of challenges. Not only was I the old geezer in the bunch, but I was the only Asian woman. I was more than familiar with the scenario, but wondered how I’d adapt to it being in a work situation. The group I worked with came from varied backgrounds, a few of them being a bit rough around the edges. Most were good people that I genuinely liked , but there just wasn’t room for the suburban, stay-at-home-mom I’d become.
It was also a joke among some of us that the last thing you wanted to do was show weakness or let each other know the one thing that really makes you mad. It would be the one thing we’d all pick on with very few exceptions. We tested each other and quickly learned individual limits. We pretty much knew who we could and couldn’t badger. It was done in good humor, but there were times it could go too far. I’d been yelled at and done my own share of yelling over jokes being taken past the limits of tolerance.
The previous exchange is a prime example of where they focused their attention when it came to me. The first time it happened, I was furious. A co-worker made a crack about Asian drivers which sent me into a rant about Asian stereotypes. I might as well have lit up a huge, red, neon sign that said, “PUSH THIS BUTTON!” Luckily, one of the guys I’d befriended suggested I fight back.
“Don’t get mad,” he advised, “Give it back to them. They can take it. It’s the way it works here.”
One might wonder why I didn’t just go straight to management and complain. I could have, but what would that have gotten me other than further alienating myself from the group? Besides, I wanted to handle things on my own terms which I’m glad I did for two reasons. The first being that it took a while, but I had to learn to distinguish between an intentional jibe and a statement made out of genuine ignorance/prejudice. They are the same to me. The second being that I also had to learn their teasing was their way of showing their acceptance.
That’s not to say there wasn’t racism at work. Where ever there is diversity, there is at least some measure of racism and prejudice. It seems to be a human thing from everything I’ve experienced. My goal at the time was not to let any of it hold me back from doing what I needed to do at work, but it was in the back of my mind. I did everything possible not to be seen as the old, fragile Asian lady.
I learned to be near ruthless in verbal volleys and as a last resort, use physical force as part of my arsenal. One morning as I was leaving work, I surprised myself when one of the guys referred to me as the “kung fu chic” as he was walking away. Not willing to let it go, I walked up behind him intending to act as if I were going to kick him in the face.
“I’ll show you kung fu,” I said as I came up from behind and slightly to the side of him. I swung my leg into the air and was surprised when I felt my foot come into contact with his face.
“What the hell!” he exclaimed, putting up a hand to cover his eye, “Did you just kick me in my face from behind my back?”
“Ooops,” I laughed, “I think I overshot that a little.”
Honestly, I hadn’t meant to really hit him, but it didn’t seem to matter. By the next day, people were asking me about it.
“You do know you’re just perpetuating the stereotype, right?” said one of my friends.
“Probably,” I laughed, “but it shut him up, didn’t it?”
It did for a while, but never for long. From that moment on, we all had something else to joke. The poor guy wasn’t the last to get an up close and personal introduction to my foot.
Adaptation 101 – Sometimes, you just have to own it.
I know there are problems with playing with the stereotypes, but this particular group of coworkers are people I’ve befriended. I’ve grown close to a few of them, and we have an unspoken understanding. When it comes down to it, we know we can count on each other for support. But who knows? Maybe I’ll look back later and think, “Ugh, I was awful.” It wouldn’t be the first time.
The whole experience makes me wonder if I’d had the same tools and the nerve to confront and deflect racism and prejudice as a child, might I have fared better? I can never really know, but some part of me thinks so. Back then, everything pointed to something being wrong with me, and I felt helpless to “fix” myself.
Not white enough. Not Asian enough. Not pretty enough. Not tough enough. Not smart enough. Not tall enough. Not nice enough. Not happy enough. Not American enough. Not *insert family last name* enough. Bye, bye self-esteem, and it was all downhill from there. I saw everything through that perspective.
It took my descent straight to the the bottom of self-hate hell in order for me to realize that sometimes something was wrong with other people. I wish I’d understood that the first half of my life. If I had, maybe the loss I’d experienced as a result of my adoption would have stopped at my birth parents and my culture. Instead, it flowed into my adult life and into those of my children in ways I’d never even considered.
But I suppose that’s a subject for another day…