Chapter 6: Our Louisiana Neighbors
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
When my family moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1990, we rented a house in a suburban neighborhood. Our neighbors were a typical WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) family—mother, father, and two blondish-redheaded daughters who were around my age. Everyone in their family always greeted us politely with their pleasant-sounding Southern accents and offered assistance whenever we needed it. I went over to their house to play quite often. They had the quintessential American home, complete with a swing set in the backyard, one of those miniature electric Barbie dream cars that you could drive, fancy family portraits everywhere, fine china in the dining room, and my favorite toy—Nintendo. In comparison, our rental house was barely furnished except for a few beds, some old couches, and a tiny television. Our neighbors were always very nice to us, and we enjoyed their hospitality during our vulnerable first year in America. We still continue to exchange holiday cards every year, long after my family moved away from Louisiana. However, these neighbors are not the focus of this chapter.
After a year of living in the rental house, my parents saved up enough money to put a down payment on a house located just a block away in the same neighborhood. We took our first big step towards the American Dream: owning a home. Our new neighbors, the Taylors, were a black family with a mother, father, son, and daughter. Their son was two years older than I, and their daughter was two years younger. From the time we moved in, and for the remaining three years that we lived in Baton Rouge, they were wonderful neighbors and became good family friends.
Although we greatly appreciated our previous neighbors' kindness and warmth, I sensed something subtly different in our new neighbors. Even though the Taylor family did not often perform typical acts of Southern hospitality such as baking cookies or inviting us over for afternoon tea, they showed their generosity in a more down-to-earth manner. For example, Mr. Taylor, who was semi-retired, offered to help fix things around our house, to provide us with practical advice, and to watch over me when my parents were out running errands. Mrs. Taylor worked just like my own mother, so she wasn't a stereotypical Southern housewife who milled around the house cooking, cleaning, and making everything look perfect. Whenever they went out of town on family vacations (which was much more frequently than my family ever did), they gave me the privilege (or the "responsibility," as they called it) of keeping the key to their house. They let me feed their goldfish and dog and pick up their mail and newspapers every day. Back then, I really believed that I was doing them a favor, but now I realize that they were actually doing me a huge favor by allowing me to play "grown-up" with these responsibilities, and more importantly, trusting me as their loyal friend.
I don't think that we could've asked for better neighbors. Living next door to the Taylors helped us to acculturate into American society. If we had lived next to a white family for the four years that we were in Louisiana, we might not have learned as much. Of course, we would have experienced the traditions of typical Southern life, but we would have never gotten so close at the personal level. Even though our former white neighbors were very kind to us, we always felt like guests receiving polite treatment. There was a lack of spontaneity in our interactions. Perhaps they subconsciously felt the need to be a bit more cautious about how they acted or what they said around us, for fear of sounding insensitive or politically incorrect. The cultural barrier between their well-established American family and my recent-immigrant family would have been tough to overcome.
Racial and cultural differences did not seem to form a barrier between my family and the Taylor family, though, probably because we both shared something in common: We were both minorities in our neighborhood. They were the only black family and we were the only Asian family on our block. Even though we came from vastly different backgrounds, we shared a unique bond as minorities. My family could discuss matters of race and culture with the Taylors more candidly than we could with our former white neighbors. We felt more at ease sharing our family history with them without the slightest fear that they might stereotype us as communists or job-stealing foreigners. They were genuinely interested in our immigrant stories, and likewise we enjoyed hearing about their experiences in America. I took it for granted at the time, but it is amazing to think back on just how close we were to those neighbors. Ever since we moved out of Louisiana, we have never even stepped foot inside one of our neighbors' homes. In fact, we don't even know most of their names.
The Taylors surely didn't mind that we appeared to be foreigners, but I had to be a bit more conscientious around my peers at school. One thing my mother repeatedly told me while we lived in Louisiana was for me to keep a low profile regarding my past. I didn't really understand why she didn't want me telling people about my family's experiences in China or Switzerland, but later I realized that it was for my own protection. She didn't want me to inadvertently make myself seem more like a foreigner than I already did just by looking like one. If I kept my mouth shut about my origins, then the other boys enjoyed talking to me about Nintendo games and playing with me as a friend. My peers in school and around the neighborhood definitely noticed that I looked different, but it probably didn't click for them that I was an "immigrant" or that I came from a "communist country," words which they had probably overheard adults muttering with negative undertones.
There were a handful of Asian kids in my elementary school classes at Grant and Davis. Fortunately, we were never publicly ostracized because we did not look white. Most of the time, I did not see or hear things that adults would typically characterize as racist. The worst it ever got was the white kids pulling their eyelids apart and squinting to simulate Asian slant-eyes, making mock kung fu noises and speaking with exaggerated accents, chanting broken-English "me Chinese, me like cheese ..." and related rhymes, and making Chinese cuts in the lunch line (which meant that they cut behind you instead of in front of you, though I still don't understand the connection to the Chinese).
At the time, I never felt too uncomfortable around these public displays of racial insensitivity since the white kids did not have mean-spirited tones in their voices. They performed these gestures to try to be funny or to attract attention, not to intentionally irritate the Asian kids. I could tell that they were just playing around—kids acting like silly kids. I never felt the urge to tell them to stop since I didn't want to alienate myself from the majority. After all, many of these kids were my friends. I desperately longed to maintain a secure place in a social group since my school experience was ideal most of the time.
For the most part, the white kids in my gifted and talented class never treated me any differently just because I was Chinese, and I didn't think that they treated the few black kids in our class much differently either. In fact, if anything, they were more sensitive about not making anti-black comments since everybody was aware that it was socially unacceptable to act prejudiced towards black people in America. Every American child must learn in school about slavery, segregation, and Dr. Martin Luther King. However, few Americans learned about the European colonization of Asia and the resulting exploitation and humiliation of the indigenous populations, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, or Japanese-American internment during World War II. The kids in my class wouldn't ever dare to pretend to be black slaves getting ordered around by their white masters just to make a joke, but they somehow felt that it was okay to squint their eyes and make "chee chong chang" sounds, mocking Asians in an equally derogatory manner.
I think that racism in modern-day America, and also in the rest of the world, quietly and insidiously passes itself from one generation to the next mostly through these kinds of subtle remarks and gestures rather than through well-publicized violent hate crimes. For example, if two groups have been fighting for centuries in some region of the world, then I doubt that little children from one group would learn from their parents to unconditionally love little children from the other group. Even though parents don't explicitly teach their kids to hate on the basis of group membership (and might even preach the ideals of tolerance), they are likely to inadvertently transmit negative views through their speech, behavior, and tone of voice whenever people of the opposing group are mentioned or seen in the media or on the streets. All it takes is for parents to make a few contemptuous looks, disapproving sighs, and scornful under-the-breath comments, and their kids will quickly read between the lines and become indoctrinated with prejudice.
Living next to the Taylor family allowed me to become more sensitive to race relations in the Deep South. Many middle-class white Americans have never invited a black person into their homes, even though they may say that they have "black" friends, emphasizing race gratuitously just for the sake of pointing out that they personally know people who are not white. When I told my friends that I went over to play with my neighbors, I never said that I went to play with my "black" neighbors. There was no logical reason why I should point out that my neighbors were black. I learned not to be racist through close interactions with people of various races, not just by listening to other people's lectures about racism being morally incorrect. I think that the best way to combat racism and other forms of prejudice is to get to know people as individuals and not merely as representatives of a particular group. We weren't neighbors with nameless, faceless "black" people when we lived in Louisiana; we were neighbors with the Taylor family.
The fence that separated our house from the Taylors' house was barely three feet tall, and it was one of those chain-link see-through fences with an easy-to-open gate that was never locked. Our two backyards were essentially one large piece of grass separated by this tiny fence. We always welcomed members of the Taylor family into our home and they always welcomed us into theirs. We even exchanged house keys for emergency purposes. Since my parents were often out of the house, they were grateful that we had such a good relationship with the Taylors and felt fortunate that there was always someone next door to watch over me in case of an emergency.
During the spring of 1994, three years after we moved next door to the Taylors, my family prepared to move to New York City. We put our home on the market, offering a fairly competitive price since we wanted to sell as quickly as possible with the fewest hassles. My parents put up a For Sale by Owner sign and first attempted to sell it by themselves. My father had just earned his MBA degree and knew a bit about real estate, so he figured that we shouldn't hire an agent for something which he believed that he could do by himself. Immigrant pragmatism. How hard could it be to sell our house? We were in a safe neighborhood, we had a big backyard with a basketball hoop and beautiful three hundred year-old trees, we kept the house free of strange smells, stains, and cracks, and we offered a reasonable price. My parents were optimistic, and rightly so, since several potential buyers who saw our house immediately expressed initial enthusiasm at making a purchase. Some even came back a second or third time, seemingly ready to close the deal, but nobody carried through with making an actual offer. After it had been on the market for more than two months, my parents grew anxious and disappointed; they could not figure out why people kept on canceling at the last minute without giving legitimate explanations.
My parents started to figure out the answer to this puzzle from one potential buyer who was a white working-class mechanic. He came over to tour our house twice, loving it more each time he saw it. Both of his visits were in the late mornings when all of the children in the neighborhood were at school and the parents were at work. The mechanic loved every aspect of the house, just like our previous potential buyers—the location, cleanliness, spaciousness, surrounding environment, and price. He told my mother that he would definitely make an offer after coming back one more time with his tools to check that the air conditioning and other mechanical systems within the house were in good working order.
The final time that he visited was in the late afternoon after he got off from work, not in the morning like his previous two trips had been. The Taylor children and I were playing in their backyard while Mr. Taylor was there fixing the kids' bicycles. While the mechanic was checking out the air conditioning unit in our backyard, my mother noticed that he caught a glimpse of the black family next door through the low three-foot see-through fence. He then abruptly left without finishing up his inspection. She recalled that he left with a smile and politely said goodbye but didn't seem to express the same level of enthusiasm about our house as he had done during his previous two trips. He didn't even mention whether he was going to put down an offer. My mother never heard from him again. This guy seemed to love everything about our house. Our air conditioning unit worked just fine. All it took was one look at the black family next door.
At that moment, my parents suddenly awoke to the reality of racial segregation. Numerous families had pulled out at the last minute after coming so close to giving an offer, but my parents never put the pieces together until they saw the mechanic's reaction upon seeing the Taylors' backyard. Many white people in the area had moved into the suburbs to escape the inner-city, a phenomenon known as white flight. Not only were these people uncomfortable with living next door to a black family, they likely believed that having black neighbors or living in a "mixed" neighborhood would eventually drive down the resale value of their home (which is, unfortunately, a real phenomenon). In retrospect, my parents now recall being seriously advised about the possible financial implications of moving next door to a black family when they were looking to buy that same home three years earlier, but they had just moved to America at the time and weren't aware of these race-related issues.
As June approached, my parents hired a real estate agent since they couldn't wait much longer. The agent's first suggestion was for us to erect a six-foot-tall wooden fence between our backyard and the Taylors'. He told my parents that people like to keep their homes private by building tall fences, but what he was really trying to convey was that potential buyers would not be as likely to see the Taylor family in their own backyard over a six-foot-tall fence. Without this subconscious racial cue to discourage buyers, there may be a higher chance for us to successfully sell the house faster and perhaps even at a slightly higher price.
Building that fence might have been the most practical thing to do to ensure a quick sale. However, I was proud that morality won over pragmatism in this particular situation. My parents simply could not bear the idea of building that fence, not because they were too frugal to spend money on the unnecessary but because they saw it as blatantly racist and insulting to the Taylor family and the friendship we had formed. If people did not want to move here because a black family lived next door, then it would be their loss. They decided to leave the fence alone and to just remain patient. My parents became frustrated seeing family after family come and go without much interest in making an offer, but fortunately, an LSU professor who was new to town eventually bought our home.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo