Monday, August 03, 2009

Multicultural in Seattle

Nguyen’s novel showed me a lot about what it might have been like to be on the other side of some of those fleeting friendships I had with Vietnamese kids growing up in Seattle. It got me remembering the first wave of Southeast Asian immigration to our city.

At the far end of our block in Seattle, on our side of the street, there was a modern ranch house, high atop an ivy-covered hill. Two gay men lived there, with a pool and a solarium full of birdcages with mechanical birds. My parents were proud to be square, but they were—and are—kind, tolerant people. Where others might, in those days, have kept their children away from the queeny gay men down the block, we went there from time to time and thought of them as friends. My sister and I sat in the solarium during their drunken Christmas parties, sipping spiked eggnog and listening to the songs of the mechanical birds.

Across the street from them was a beautiful brick Tudor house, usually vacant, and owned by the Episcopal Church. Next to that, a vacant lot. The vacant lot—really, a very meticulously tended lawn with a cluster of trees in the center and a short hill, perfect for rolling down--belonged to the third house in, but we called it “Green Grass Grows” and it was our favorite place to play. Sometimes, the caretaker would come and yell at us, but as long as we didn’t wreck the grass too badly, he tolerated us.

This was Capitol Hill in the 70s: houses from 1905 up against modern ranches, all rendered affordable because of a Boeing bust and white flight.

In 1975, I was 8, and the church (or someone in the church) sponsored a Vietnamese family: the family’s mom had worked in the American Embassy, spoke fluent French and English, and was, naturally, among the first to have to leave. (In my mind, I picture them on the top of the embassy roof, fleeing by helicopter, but that’s just dimly remembered news footage. Still, there was an intense sense of emergency to their story.) They had four children, our age and younger. Those children, living next door to our play spot, the vacant lot, became our friends. We taught them tag and learned not to play t.v. tag with them till they’d learned some t.v. shows.

We went to their house sometimes, and sometimes—though rarely—they came to ours. This was a fragile neighborhood friendship, made harder by the Do’s pride and dislocation, by language and cultural barriers, but the gay men across the street were shocked. They took my mother aside: “Why don’t you send your children to the private school? I can’t believe you send them to that public school with all those C---ks, N----s, and J---s.”

My mom told me what he’d said because she had to explain why we were not friends any more: it wasn’t homophobia that kept us from the gay men’s house, it was her rejection of their extreme racism.

That was a mind-blowing lesson of girlhood.

1 comment:

Cam said...

A wonderfully written post, Anne. I just read your 3 most recent posts and have now added "Short Girls" to my list. Lots to ponder over, I think.