The Asian reporter. (Portland, Or.) 1991-current, January 19, 2015, Page Page 7, Image 7

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January 19, 2015
“And there can be no
great disappointment,”
the Reverend Dr. Martin
Luther King Jr. told us
soon after our familia
arrived here, “where
there is not great love.”
n Polo
Ferguson, an American
dreamer’s road there
am a New American. Like all immi-
grant families, ours adapted quickly
to the core American ethos about
working hard and earning success.
Adjusting ourselves around that other core
American cultural construct, Race — code
for the awfulness simmering just beneath
settled white and black America — was a
lot harder.
To put it plain: Until the morning our
two uneasy host communities settle the
bitter lock of America’s excruciating family
fight, it will be simply impossible for us to
live in peace here. We’ll never be free to
pour our shameless optimism into our new
neighborhoods. Race so distorts this robust
Our city’s 70 or so ambitious immigrant
communities are dazed every next time
this shallowly sequestered issue erupts
into episodes abbreviated into “Watts,” or
into “Rodney King,” or now into
“Ferguson.” Code for so much pain. So
much uniquely American sorrow.
So what follows is an earnest new-
comer’s best try at sorting it out. Jatentu
(of course) it is an outsider’s observations,
even since Frenchman Alexis de
Tocqueville, we have added up to 200 years
of off-key observations. But that’s what
happens when you’re handed code instead
of shared sheet music.
So let me try, just try a perspective that’s
a bit less bitter and much less likely to so
paralyze our otherwise inspiring nation.
Our family is from a 3,000-mile archi-
pelago of episodically angry volcanoes and
hungry seas. Geographers call it the
Pacific “Ring of Fire.” For us, code for 4,000
years of anxious adaptation to unstable
tectonic plates. Not so long ago, the
nascent Indonesian nation shoved our
ethnic minority community out to sea. It
was an era of excesses characteristic of
every new state that has contained
communal humiliation and rage until that
fateful afternoon those guys governing
suddenly lose their grip on it, and on us.
The United States generously gave our
family refuge. Terima kasih banjak, we
offer our love, in gratitude to you.
2014 and the Ferguson Code
2014 ended with America settled into
tense white and black geographies.
Morning and evening news report a
country as edgy as our old world.
Back there, on our Indonesian archipel-
ago, families duck and pray every next
time our earth heaves up a killer quake.
Everyone stops cold, waiting and weeping
over which baby boy, which elegant
grandma, will our suddenly hungry ocean
sweep away. Back there, a lot like right
here, we believe we can do nothing about
our world’s perpetual simmering or her
occasional tantrumming. So, with each
next “Krakatoa” (code for killer volcano)
like with each next “Ferguson,” we duck,
we pray, until it passes. Then we go back to
business as usual.
During America’s chaotic 1960s, our
family walked single file off an iron
steamer into Hoboken. We quickly
boarded a slow train for Salem, Oregon.
The next three decades of CBS news
taught us about “Watts,” about “Rodney
King (code for Watts II),” and about “OJ”
(the dizzying opposite of Watts).
We learned there are in fact, two codes.
One for each side of each next catastrophic
episode. To our white neighbors, “Watts”
meant fear. For African America “Watts”
was despair. For Side A, “OJ” means
stunned disbelief; for Side B, it was
barbershop cheers.
In our neighborhoods, we observed two
totally different societal and spiritual
daily lives in the buildup, in the blowup,
then in the cleanup of each next explosive
episode. And how each side coded that.
I’ve really tried to stay clear of it. I really
have. Because love of family, because love
of the land nurturing us, because our
Creator’s Love, are so cultural core for us.
Because love’s the opposite of bitterness.
But because our brown New American
numbers have made our invisibility less
likely, I’ve been obliged to get into the thick
of it. Our crew of community elders and
civic activists has lawyered the sometimes
instructive and destructive intersections
between ethnic-stream and mainstream
America, since the Reagan 1980s. We work
our state’s system of blind laws and
excessive order — a regime numbing both
its administrators and its recipients. A
world of grinding tectonics and intermit-
tent upheavals.
Here’s how our numbing happens: I’m
waiting patiently to pick up pretrial
discovery at the Washington County D.A.’s
office. Attorneys ahead and behind me are
getting served. The harried counter lady
finally makes eye contact, but she sees me
as her printer repairman. “The Xerox’s
back here,” she says, leading me there.
“Umm, I’m defense counsel,” I say when
we arrive.
“Oh,” she says.
I leave saying nothing. I know I should
hold her eyes a long moment and let her
see how much this hurts our ancestors and
our elders. How she harms our proud, our
selfless and so wounded Pop.
Here’s how dehumanizing happens: In
courtrooms of jurisdictions not used to
lawyers like me, judicial assistants
mistake me for their next case interpreter.
“I’m defense counsel,” I say.
“Oh,” they say.
Then — instead of directly addressing
these guys’ humanity, by explaining how
their seeing me wrong so disrespects
people I love, to say nothing of the $80,000
I still owe for law school — I let out a long
hot breath, like our grinding tectonic
plates underfoot do back home. And I avoid
further eye contact.
I abbreviate it all with “This is what
happens when you arrive dressed well,
same as Xerox techs or court interpreters
do.” It’s a code. It gets me the heck out of
there, before I do a “Krakatoa.” The fallout
of which, will surely land on defendants
going home to families not as educated or
empowered as mine. Jatentu (for sure).
That handy abbreviation worked well
until one April morning, when one of those
suddenly explosive American moments
erupted under me. It was only a matter of
It’s Sunday morning, and I’m sitting
curbside, driver-side window open,
listening to NPR’s “Car Talk” guys.
I turn my eyes, just my eyes, way left. A
young cop is crouched low, gun drawn. Her
face is contorted; her entire being is
Dr. Benjamin Spock (left) and Reverend Dr. Martin Lu-
ther King Jr. (right) march in a parade on State Street
in Chicago on March 25, 1967. (AP Photo)
dangerously escalated. Her weapon hums
three meters from my head. She sees
deadly danger in me. And she’s acting on it.
To be clear — because moments like
these require some clarity — I was only
guessing at what she was seeing. I didn’t
know. I did know, though, what my son’s
best friend’s (white) mom was thinking of
me, as she and our boys pulled up to that
same curb, as I’m handcuffed facedown on
wet asphalt. I also knew what our elderly
neighbors, peering out their apartment
windows, were likewise believing about
me. About my boy. About our elders and
ancestors — all of us the color of our
beloved homeland’s verdant soil.
Today, what that angry officer saw in
me, I still don’t know. In the weeks
following, no one would say. Not her, not
her sergeant, not his precinct commander,
not our police bureau’s downtown execs.
After a year of asking, I gave up asking. I
concluded that the Code was enough.
Between black and white codes
Until Ferguson, until 2014, I believed I
was beyond needing to hear honest
accountings from downtown judicial
officers, from their neighborhood law
enforcers, and from the residents they’re
sworn to protect. But now, I can’t let it go.
Brown America’s rapidly expanding zip
code, the one between white and black
geographies, cannot have this core
American construct so paralyze us too.
Contributing to it will be the ruin of our
shared nation.
Since Ferguson, while riding morning
TriMets and while waiting at Starbucks,
I’ve been snooping on Portlanders talking
about Ferguson — that is, about the
sudden tragic deaths of two unarmed black
men and a black boy. I am learning more by
listening than by asking questions.
From folks racially identifying with
those officers using lethal force in
Ferguson, in New York, and in Cleveland,
I’m hearing a deep longing to be right. To
be affirmed, as good people. A most human
need. Unhappily, if we stick to America’s
Race code, those on Side A need societal
confirmation that Side B therefore be
wrong. Our species’ neocortical wiring
requires this symmetry. So does the Code.
Regrettably, Ferguson and New York
grand juries returned these reassurances.
They’ve reported that those white police-
men correctly assessed, then properly
acted on, these black men. Side A acted
within the law and by implication Side B
did not. The Code is affirmed.
Now, though many downtown bus-ride
and coffee-line versions of these two grand
juries’ findings that I’ve snooped into, are
wildly inaccurate, what matters most for
my unscientific rendering is that folks are
moving into a soothing societal summary
that this particular black teen and this
particular black dad were doing something
wrong enough to result in their deaths.
Indeed, we’re settling into a national
conclusion that this episode of African-
American suffering need not move white
America. The Code is holding.
On bus lines and in checkouts some
distance from our city’s vigorous main-
stream, you cannot duck mothers’ sor-
rowing. You cannot avoid fathers’ fears for
their boys. I am overcome by teenagers’
turmoil. Their pain is ancestral and famil-
ial and deeply personal. Their outrage is
fresh. This communal bitterness — is
The Code is working. It’s handling
mainstream anxiety, it’s burying African-
America’s betrayal. While America’s news
cycle moves on, the Code is killing us.
Finishing this family fight
For those of us not yet conditioned into
either version of the Code, it’s hard to live
with how well this abbreviation is
managing our mainstream’s anxiety that
something awful is happening. And that
this awfulness is enforced workday-in and
workday-out in neighborhoods across
town. Indeed, that this numbing regime is
benefitting those they love.
And, exactly like our Indonesian fami-
lies living on our precious little planet’s
edgiest real estate, it’s easy to understand
middle-class America’s belief that nothing
can be done about this status quo.
As a dreamy newcomer, let me suggest
that our more settled neighbors are sur-
rendering way too much national love and
treasury on this core cultural institution.
The Code is paralyzing our compassion
and it’s killing our creativity, the two
attributes that have always earned
America great respect, everywhere.
What’s more, I suspect that folks on busses
and in Starbucks already know how to fix
We know how to fix it — because “it” is
us. Everyone knows what a family fight is.
Family fighters are intimately tied by old
regrets and new revenge. We are
combatants over the betrayal of love; our
episodic eruptions keep our fight fresh.
“And there can be no great disappoint-
ment,” the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther
King Jr. said soon after our familia arrived
here, “where there is not great love.”
No other social order, as much as family,
understands so intrinsically how to return
us to the tender origins of our affection.
Family knows how to return us to our
hearts and bones, before each was broken.
And if, rather than seeking self-affirming
narratives from government or media, we
might simply let ourselves feel these black
mothers’ unbearable pain. And weep with
them. If we would just once not numb our
hearts against those inconsolable kids who
lost their only dad. If we would instead,
share ourselves for that entire long
moment, you and me will surely rec-
ognize our shared sorrow. And our shared
In that pause, instead of separate codes
choking us, common cause could open us.
In a moment free of guilt or rage,
compassion could kick in. Then creativity,
that American attribute most awed by our
wobbly little world, would allow us to do
what we do best — remake ourselves.
Compassion and creativity. Trust in this,
then trust in that.
To manager Antonio of Mall 205’s Denny’s diner,
and to the honorable Ong Van and energetic Son
Van of Pho Van restaurant, three generous faces
and two generations of entrepreneurial Portlanders —
1,000 thank yous for your cinnamon pancakes and
endless hot coffees, for your fragrant noodle soups
and crazy caphesuanong (rocket-fuel Viet coffee),
while I worked through this long difficult essay.
Your staffs and their families make America proud.
-- Polo