Clueless

There should be a complete idiot’s guide to commonly used terms and slang. The book “Black Rednecks and White Liberals” by Thomas Sowell really makes this guide more necessary than ever, for me at least. What is a redneck, a liberal, a conservative, a Quaker, a Methodist, an abolitionist, a New Englander etc.? I vaguely know the answers, but if you ask me to tell if a person is born into, converted into, or grow up to, move into an area to be worthy of the terms, I have no idea.

The author assumes that all his readers understand the terms in his books. Even if I don’t know who exactly are black rednecks and white liberals, I can feel that the title is trying to say something that is directly against the well known stereotypes of certain kind.

Some of the things that the author says ring true, at least to me. I used to know N, who’s from Jamaica (the country) and currently live in Jamaica, Queens of New York City. He is very soft spoken, polite to a fault, and meticulous. He doesn’t fit in any of the stereotypes, just like me, who doesn’t fit in the Asian stereotypes. I used to know a Lebanese guy whose relatives are doing business all over Middle East and North Africa. When the author talks about black Caribbeans, Lebanese, I can envision the people I’ve met. Sometimes I feel so lucky that being an immigrant, going to school and living in the area of great diversity, I’ve met so many different people, knowing their little quirks and idiosyncrasies, hearing their stories of growing up in South Africa, Bulgaria, Jamaica, Brazil, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Turkey. I only regret that I didn’t talk with them more when I had the chance and didn’t ask for more anecdotes.

]There’s a chapter about Germans and I remember an incident happened many years ago when I was in graduate school somewhere in Pennsylvania. We were five Asian graduate students from Asia, all girls, who met at the cafeteria from time to time. One day we heard that one of the girls, H, was arrested by the police. We had to pool our money together to bail her out. I can’t remember the exact sum anymore, but it was not much. And then she had to go to court to see a judge, who would rule on her case. This is the first time that I encountered the words “plaintiff” and “defendant” outside of a book or a TV drama. It transpired that H had been living with a graduate student from Germany for half a year. She didn’t tell us, probably because the Asian community here is so conservative that women don’t usually reveal their boyfriends until they have been quite steady with each other. Obviously the two had been quarreling about the cleanness and tidiness ever since they moved in together. Finally one day their conflict escalated from verbal fights to physical battle. The German called police afterwards to accuse H of slapping him; the police came; H was taken away and thrown in jail.

We were all very indignant about what happened. From an Asian point of view, calling police on a friend or an acquaintance is very uncool, or even downright criminal. None of us understood the American culture very much, and we were very puzzled that the Americans–the professors and other students–in the department, when hearing the news, didn’t think of it as anything serious. We thought we would rally the whole department and get the dean to rescue H and recuperate H’s reputation back to normal, but the Americans just smiled, shrugged their shoulders, and considered there’s nothing there to be rescued or recuperated.

The judge finally presided on the case, which was dismissed as being without merit. Poor H had to live for a week on the couches of her friends because the arrest came with a restraining order to forbid her to go back to their shared apartment. Finally after the ruling, H was allowed to go back to get her things. We all accompanied her and we planned to shout some insults at the German guy, calling him a Nazi, a Fascist, a racist. I also looked up how to pronounce “mysophobia” and “germophobia”, and intended to add them to the pile of accusations.

The German, let’s call him G, was very calm and he even smiled at us. Can you believe that? He called the police and violated the cardinal rule of friendship and trust. Now he could smile at us as if nothing had happened. He was well prepared with a two-page “treaty” he wanted to sign with H. He didn’t want H to move out since there are several months lease they needed to fulfill; he called police only because he was afraid that H was going to call the police herself. He only wanted to use his preemptive strike to balance H’s possible stress call to police.

We were all stunned. We told him that H would never call police on friends, and we Asians will bash each other’s brain out first before we even think of police, and he is very wicked to think that H is as wicked as he is. G couldn’t understand what we were talking about. He is as oblivious to our Asian merits as to his own wickedness. We tried to reason with him to make him understand, but to no avail.

The worst is that H agreed to stay. We finally had to give up and leave H to the peril of her own decision. When we came out, we were quite crestfallen. I said we forgot to shout at him. Someone suggested that we should write a note filled with curse words, but we couldn’t find a piece of paper or a pen in any of our bags. We were confused. Somehow we all felt that the concept of justice, decency, respect, fairness is interpreted differently from what we had been accustomed to. How different? We didn’t know and couldn’t articulate. But we knew that our long held notions are not comprehended by G or other people in the department.

“If she is reconciled with him, will she tell him all those things we said about him? I mean he will hate us I am sure.” One of us said.

We all agreed.

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