What Do You See and What Do You Really Want to Know?
All photos courtesy of Chris Chan Shim (@royyaldog on Instagram)
Do you want to skim the surface with idle chat as you size me up wondering where I’m from? Do you care that I have to check the “Other” box every single time! No frustration here. Nope. How much of this book – the biracial Asian, Christian, heterosexual female – do you really want to read? “In tackling a difficult book for the first time, read it through without ever stopping to look up or ponder the things you do not understand right away (36).” This might be a little difficult to do since I’m not much of a talker, partly because I’m a private person and my context of not being welcomed and wanted and blah blah blah in many circles has caused me to read the room/situation/person first.
Have you googled me in hopes that you can do some inspectional reading of the jacket cover and find out who has praised me and what social media accounts I participate in and what websites I might be present on? Don’t go there right now. You won’t find me. Sometimes I wonder if that’s an algorithm thing or if I am able to remain sleuth-like even in cyberspace. I’m always surprised by how many people go to my Instagram account and their first remark is, “You have over 10K followers!” What does that mean to you? Does it mean that you think I have some success with social media? Maybe. Maybe I don’t though. And so I digress, which is what can happen when reading the jacket only. To stay on course, it’s not just about skimming the table of contents and back cover or checking to see who wrote reviews. Although these are all good and these will help you decide whether to go further, they don’t always fit the crux of the problem or question you have. That being said, it is mandatory to google search me and browse my Facebook and Instagram account if you’re going to be able to see some of the Table of Contents.
Are you interested in reading my prologue so that you can decide whether a further conversation is necessary? When I speak with other mixed-race individuals, one of the common first questions a person will ask of them is either “Where are you from?” (so rude) or “What are you?” (so, so rude – I would add another “so” for emphasis, but I hope you get the idea). To which I often respond, “I’m human. What are you?” Cheeky, I know.
Understandably, we are all a difficult read and human beings are generally very curious. This is why I talk to people on the Tube in London knowing that I am breaking British etiquette and knowing that Jason Clark, Lead Mentor, is arm’s length away and probably cringing with all of his over 6-foot frame, laughing nervously.
Where is the compromise? How do you know if you want to buy the book if you don’t have some skimming conversation? Because, let’s face it, once you buy the book, especially for doctoral research, you should know that you want to read it analytically. Because there will be some expectation that once bought there will be some deep diving into that book.
Mixed-race individuals understand this on one level. So the real question is how do you graciously encounter the book without ripping the pages and spilling hot coffee/tea on the pages? “The difficulty becomes evident as soon as we examine the phrase “…two or more books on the same subject.” What do we mean by the “same subject” (301)? Mixed-race people often live amidst two very different cultures but are one person. Often, both sides of those cultures won’t engage because they are not “white” or “black” or “Mexican” or “[fill in the blank]” enough or “Korean” enough. This leads to long periods of loneliness – being the only book on the shelf that doesn’t get read, doesn’t get pulled off the shelf and never invited to tea or coffee. So forget the potential for having pages ripped or drink spilled upon the pages. This I know for sure, we no longer want to be classified under the one-drop rule (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-drop_rule), but people make snap judgments when they encounter others. They look at the cover and either become fearful or know that this book just isn’t for them.
In order to get to know a mixed-race person, one has to understand the dualities and complexities before entering into that conversation, BUT “…it is in a sense true that the identification of the subject matter must follow the reading, not precede it (305).” In other words, don’t judge a book by its cover. Confusing, yes?
Van Doren, Charles. How to Read a Book (A Touchstone Book) Touchstone. Kindle Edition.
11 responses to “What Do You See and What Do You Really Want to Know?”
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I can so hear your voice in this piece, and its strong and good and beautiful. Thank you for highlighting the complexities of interacting on face value with books and mixed-race people. If I am understanding you correctly, it is difficult and exhausting to live in such a dualistic reality, where if people ask questions about your identity, they come across insensitive, or if they choose to not even engage because they’ve already formed opinions, then that’s frustrating too. As I think through our time in London, our conversations, our readings, I wonder what are better ways to engage with humans, in general? And then specifically with mixed-race humans, especially if we want to honor them and learn from them? Like Adler does, are there questions you’d suggest people ask that would reveal curiosity more than quick, surface layer judgment? I honestly hate the question, “Where are you from?” because I have moved often and have discovered I am a sum of the places I have lived and the people I have experienced. I’d love to not only ask better questions, but suggest better questions to others, that would hopefully eliminate the uncomfortableness and insensitivity that comes with “judging a book by it’s cover.”
Long ago when I was dating, one of the questions I used to ask right off the bat was “what’s your favorite color?” It was always interesting to watch the facial expressions and hear the responses.
To be more serious though, I would say what would you ask someone who isn’t biracial or mixed-race or a person of color? Would you ask them what book they’re reading or what their favorite sport is? Why would the questions you ask me to be different than a fellow soccer mom or someone you’re meeting at the seminary for the first time?
And, trust me, I’m with you on the “where are you from?” question because I, too, moved every 5 years when I was growing up.
The bottom line on the questions is don’t look at a person that isn’t all white and think that they don’t have something in common with you. Find commonality. When I stayed with a family in Russia years ago, I was desperately trying to find commonality with the wife. Days went by and we made idle chatter until finally, it emerged and we had lots to talk about after that!
What is your favorite color? Mine is a deep red. Soccer is my favorite sport (as you know) and gluten-free, dairy-free is how I eat. I happen to believe that I was born wearing tennis shoes because I dislike wearing any other type of shoe unless it’s very hot.
I love your heart and willingness, my friend!
These questions are along the same line as those suggested by my friend who is single. The goal is to steer clear of the traditional conversation starters. Thanks for sharing some of your favs. It helps me to be more thoughtful when engaging with all humans:)
You wrote, “This might be a little difficult to do since I’m not much of a talker…” Books seem to offer the opportunity of learning to be a better listener. As we engage with books we love and those not so much we will be able see what might be better questions along the way.
“Books seem to offer the opportunity of learning to be a better listener.” Tell me more about this statement?
So often we settle for a shallow, surface-level experience of people. Maybe it’s because we don’t have the time (or want to take the time.) Maybe it’s because we’re unsure (and therefore afraid) of what we’ll find at the deeper level. Daring to go deeper is a matter of trust and trust must be earned and offered. I’m grateful to be have been invited into your circle of trust as we journey together. We are more than what others see or what we check in a box. We have much to learn from one another. Thanks for this post, Nancy.
Yes and yes! I do know that people are busy and don’t have the headspace to engage with something that is too much for them. I live in LA where it’s all about “me” and how they look and what they’re driving.
I do also agree that fear is a huge part of it. What if they say the wrong thing or do something that offends? I get that. I do my best to smile when needed to let people know that I’m not a scary person.
You’re definitely more than the book cover and, I too am thankful that we’re in the same little group together, learning, bumping into each other and holding each other up.
Blessings on the journey, my friend!
Nancy, powerful, powerful response to Adler’s work on books. What a powerful reminder that one can’t skim a person! Coupled with John’s post, this also reminds me to use observations and labels as conversation STARTERS, not short-cuts for knowing someone. I can see this post being the bedrock for your future project and writing.
For some reason, this statement — “What a powerful reminder that one can’t skim a person! — reminds me of how often we pass a homeless person on the street and make a snap judgment. We have all done it.
One year my husband and I made an effort to stop, acknowledge and have conversations. It was fascinating what we learned! We made friends with some of the “outside people” (that was a phrase that a woman taught me). She was a Christian and she felt like God wanted her to live outside. She corrected my language and said, “some people are meant to be inside and others are meant to be outside.”
Thanks for the encouragement,
Wow! Nancy on one hand the author of a book has usually one chance to unfold what he wants to say. Most readers never read a book through a second time. With people I am thankful that I get more than a single moment to unfold the complexities and deep value of an individual. Each encounter brings a greater appreciation and understanding of the person. It took me almost 30 years to wade through a life of disappointment and pain that covered the depth of wisdom and insight my dad had to offer. Though it wasn’t easy at times to wade through the dross in my dads life the gold and jewels I found were priceless.
You bring up an excellent point, which is something Darcy was touching on — so what questions do you think to bring value to a conversation with someone you have just met? How do you know that you might want to have a further conversation with them? In other words, aren’t their people that you have a single conversation with and say to yourself, “no thank you” and move on? Isn’t that like reading the title of the book and saying, “ummmm no.”
By the way, I agree that to cultivate deep friendship in order that each person(s) is comfortable to trust the other(s) it takes time. That was kind of my point. Often times people judge me by the shape of my eyes or the size of my body and don’t look past that. I get it from many people, including Koreans. I have been turned away from Korean establishments because I’m not Korean enough.
I’m sorry that you have had disappointment and pain in your life. What is your take away from that 30-year period?
Big, tall hugs to you!