Called my girlfriend Nina to see if she would play hooky with me one recent Sunday afternoon. Alas, she’s off with her latest beau somewhere, no time for me. So I sit on the sidewalk outside Sweetwaters café downtown, soaking in the sunshine on this glorious spring day. My laptop sits unopened at my side.
Instead, I steal my friend Rich’s New York Times and I guiltily and gleefully read the entire thing, from arts all the way down to business and even, ugg, politics (which I generally try to avoid). Just one day to stop. One day to sit in the sunshine. One day to visit with all the friends who walk by – Kenji-san with his big brown dog; Diane with her latest middle-aged man from Match.com; Arthur with yet another joke from his old Jewish uncle. There is nothing like the beginning of spring in the Midwest.
A year ago about this time, when I was also bursting with spring, I ran into my girlfriend Vee on Main Street. “Hey girl!” she says after a big hug that nearly squeezes me inside-out, “You’re getting some color! Your freckles are coming out.”
Both my hands fly instinctively to cover my cheeks as I take a step sideways to duck into the shade. She looks pained, “What did I say?”
I catch myself in my reaction – “It’s a cultural thing” – and I explain how Asians prefer fair skin, to show that one is a scholar or rich person rather than a laborer, the opposite of America’s mainstream culture where a tan is desired because it indicates wealth and leisure. When I went to Taiwan when I was 19, people were shocked at how dark I was, in May, from just a few months of running around in the sunshine. I have been slathering on the sunscreen and hiding under hats ever since.
Then I realized, with horror, that I was telling this to an African American woman.
Then another horrifying realization, “I have freckles? But I thought only white people could have freckles.”
This year, an Asian American friend asks how come my son, Little Brother, is so much darker-skinned than his sisters (about the same time that Little Brother’s grandfather also asks how come all his pants have holes in the knees). I want to shout to them both: “He is a five-year-old boy! He is always running around outside!” Still, I want to protect him from needless criticism, so I begin to take more care with the sunscreen and I take him to Downtown Home and Garden to look for a hat.
Back outside Sweetwaters on the sidewalk at Washington and Ashley, an elderly African American man tips his bright red broad-brimmed hat at the ladies as he hops and jumps his big old white Cadillac in front of Grizzly Peak Brewery, classic blues music blaring. He is sooo cool, and I love watching him drive up and down Main Street every summer, a different Cadillac and a different hat every time. Even though I know this will result in some unintentional color in my cheeks, after which I will get both grief and compliments, this is where I need to be, out on the sidewalk, in the middle of it all.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and Hawaii. She is editor of IMDiversity.com Asian American Village and a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website or contact her by email at email@example.com.