One of the things that bothered me most living in Taiwan was the lack of diversity. It immediately struck me that everyone there was relatively the same size, same shape, same style, same hair-color, eye-color; I remember one exact moment, standing on the subway platform thinking “There are NO black people here,” and of all the alienating factors, that may have been what made me miss home the most.
I had heard people say the hardest step of culture shock is the final one, when you come back to your native culture, and I can say that returning to the USA after a full year was indeed the most surreal part of my entire expat experience; it wasn’t as intense and as disorienting as my first days and weeks in Asia, but it was weirder and maybe more disturbing because I was seeing my home through new eyes, as a tourist—the very familiar turned upside-down and made strange.
I arrived in Kentucky in the early afternoon and wanted to wait until the evening to sleep; to keep me awake my mom asked me “What’s the first thing you want to do?” and I said “Take me to Whole Foods!” I used to loathe all the big parking lots here, but have since changed to think there is nothing more beautiful than one-stop shopping in big box stores with no harassing sales clerks—than pushing your big cart of stuff to your big car parked near the door and then driving home to unload it within feet of your front door. God bless America!
We actually went to Target first and I’ll never forget how truly (no better word to use) shocked I was when we checked out. Literally within a five-foot radius of me, in Target, in Middle-America, was the most diverse pocket of people I had ever seen: there was a fat, bald man behind me with a long red beard, there was a black woman in front of me with gray hair, there was a tall, blond cashier girl; in the next aisle over was a dark, Persian-looking man with bushy eyebrows; next to me was my little brunette mom. I thought I was in the Star Wars bar.
(As a bit of an aside, you know how Americans often say all Asian people look alike? I had become so used to seeing Asian faces everyday that when I came back to the USA that first summer, I swear all white people looked alike to me. Everywhere I went, I was like “Who is that?” “I know that guy!” I grabbed a woman’s arm in the grocery who I swore was my friend Maggie.)
Here in America, this great melting pot of the world, diversity remains both our greatest strength and greatest weakness. What is interesting is that you could say the same thing about Asia and its lack of diversity. Asia can never out-create, out-innovate the West, but the West can never run systems as efficiently as does the East, where (in rich Asia) the majority is literally 95% of a given population. Taiwan, Japan, and Korea are peaceful places because there aren’t enough differences of opinion or competing factions to make waves in the mainstream.
I came of age during the Bush Jr. years and lost my innocence (my naivety?) on 9/11. It bothered me that no one questioned the connection to or reasoning behind the Iraq war; it disturbed me to see the ‘with us or against us’ mentality sweeping the country. It was the first time in my life that I independently studied US history and I was devastated to learn how much I had been lied to; the history lessons of my childhood seemed like fairy tales. I was never anti-American but I grew extremely pessimistic and jaded.
It was living abroad that made me love America again. Those first few weeks in Taiwan were eye-opening in regards to how much other countries love our culture: every shop I walked past was blaring Lady Gaga; people were mourning Michael Jackson; at every school and monument young people danced to American hip-hop for hours with no idea what the lyrics said or meant; everyone wore blue jeans; everyone loved basketball. It made me proud.
A lot of Asian people I talked to identified with Obama as the first non-white person to be president of the USA. I was gone for his presidency, and mostly unaware of the backlash, hatred and animosity happening there. From the outside, like my Taiwanese friends, I saw Obama as a symbol of some corner being turned in America, as the beginning of something new, something forever changed, which also made me proud.
In case you missed it: “Let Me Look in the White Mirror: A Letter to James Baldwin after Charlottesville”
Moving back for the Trump election and all the surrounding discord was a harsh reality check for me, to say the least. Every day, the news bombarded me with information of racism, white-privilege, police brutality, murder, nationalism, hatred… I held my lines internally (spiritually and emotionally) because what I saw on TV was not at all my reality. In Louisville, Kentucky, and elsewhere I traveled, my reality is and has been peaceful, harmonious, beautiful. Every day I see different races holding doors for each other, interacting with kindness, respect, common decency.
I am not unaware of the racism in this culture; I can clearly see the institutional effects and the fragmentation of black families. I have read in depth about the lost generation (from my generation) of black men (1.5 million, or one-in-six who should be in society today) missing. Of all of America’s ills, this one—the privatized prison industry, the totally disproportionate mass-incarceration rates compared to other industrialized countries—disturbs me most, because these are our own people; this is the mother eating her own children.
Bill Clinton was one of the lies that broke my heart. I remember how happy everyone was during his presidency, in contrast to the Reagan/Bush years; I saw him kiss a black baby and play his saxophone for Arsenio; I liked to think of him as the first black president. But his real legacy is the 3-strike legislation, the privatized-prison boom, and the lost generation of black and Latino men—the most despicable things (in my opinion) that America has done in my lifetime. It’s corporate genocide, period.
Still, beyond all that, in my life in the USA, I don’t remember ever actually seeing racism, not in public. I’ve heard racist remarks, jokes, ideologies, but always behind closed doors. When I was teaching international students at WKU, we had Saudi women walking the streets of Bowling Green wearing hijabs in the height of Bush Jr.’s fear-monger politics, and no one ever really bothered them or said anything. I felt that spoke volumes about Kentucky and the state of the modern world.
And here’s where I have struggled with the issue. In America, where we celebrate freedom of speech, if someone wants to be racist on their own front porch, is that not their right? It’s a free country. My neighbor, an 88-year-old woman who still goes to the grocery, still works in her yard, still engages life (a woman who reminds me so much of my grandmother, a woman I really want to like), from time to time expresses racist sentiments to me: she doesn’t see her granddaughter anymore because she married a black man, etc…
Before I had thought “She’s my elder; she comes from a different time; if she wants to be hateful and miserable, that’s her choice,” because honestly I didn’t feel invested enough to address that with her. The problem with that position (I’ve come to realize) is, those racist sentiments do not remain on that porch. Recently, in my front yard, I mentioned to her that I might buy my parents’ house after they move, and she said something along the lines of ‘It’s a pretty nice neighborhood except for all the blacks moving in.’
I really saw her in that moment, in her pain; and instead of being angry I actually wanted to give her a hug. And it was from that place I said “Yea, you know my brother is half black and he has a lot of problems because of that. People yell at him and say rude things when he walks down the street, and it makes me sad because he’s really the nicest guy you could ever meet.” I didn’t make it about her; I opened myself up and in doing so let her know that that thinking is a problem, if only for me and my brother.
And that’s how it has to start. If you really want to ease the hatred and suffering in the world, start by eliminating it from your own heart. Hate begets hate; the muscle becomes stronger in proportion to the weight it is tasked to resist. Do you think it will help anything to punch a neo-Nazi in the face? No, because in that act, you become the Nazi and strengthen the very thing you are fighting. Happiness and hatred cannot simultaneously exist—they are completely different forms of energy. The information of hate cannot enter into a loving person; the loving person reflects it back, becoming the mirror, and until you can make another person examine themselves (their beliefs and actions), nothing will change.
Whether or not you are able to persuade your neighbor is nothing compared to keeping that love in your heart. You have to believe, deeply and unflinchingly, that the world is a good place and that it’s trending for the better—and you have to be a part of that trend. Look at the statistics: worldwide access to clean drinking water, internet access, the number of democratically-elected governments, infant survival rates are all skyrocketing; extreme poverty, the number of undernourished people, deaths from war are free-falling. I’ve seen my grandfather’s WWII pictures from concentration camps; I’ve seen pictures of lynchings in the south from 100 years ago where thousands of people gathered in the crowd. Obviously, there is much work to be done but things are much better now.
The alt-right phenomenon is waking people up, people like me, of generation x and y, who have hitherto really never been challenged, who never needed an MLK or Muhammad Ali. My hero growing up was Michael Jordan, another lie as it turned out. MJ will be remembered only as a great athlete, whereas Ali was a humanitarian first, and his athletic feats are now a footnote in the history of who he was and what he did. What we see every day on the news is sickening and disheartening, but this is also the first time in my life that people in power, people in politics have began to speak out against institutionalized racism and the prison industry, and that is progress, no matter what the cost.
I often think about MLK and his notion of soul force; I try to embody that ideal as much as possible. He was a man on the forefront of racism and bigotry 1000 times greater than what we are seeing today, yet he never embodied that hate. He attacked the ignorance, not the person, and that is what we all should try to do. Could you hug a white supremacist? Could you put yourself in their shoes? Maybe not, but understand that the real enemy is the anger, the frustration, the lack of love.
What were all these men doing in Charlottesville on a Friday night? Obviously not dating. Girls typically don’t go for neo-Nazis and a lot of the men there are probably sexually frustrated, to begin with. Where else do we have large populations of men without women? Jail, and Neo-Nazism is absolutely another byproduct of our sick prison society, where racial lines matter most, and where these types of ideologies are allowed to fester, apart from the greater community. Men in jail have nothing—no hope, no way out, and so are most vulnerable to influence, to false family, false love.
Could you do as Jesus did? Could you love your enemy as you love your friend? It’s a powerful ideal and an even more powerful act. The point is, once you become love energy, then outside, whether friend or foe, doesn’t change that. Find your own happiness, embody it, spread it around, leave its footprints wherever you go. Talk to people, bring people together, teach the kids, speak up for those without voices, help someone in need. These are simple, small acts with monumental ramifications; and if you can put aside the anger, the hatred, and hold love in your heart, your efforts then become magnified and multiplied beyond measure.
Andrew Crenshaw lived in Taiwan for 7 years, studying traditional medicine, language, philosophy, religion and spirituality. Professionally, he has taught composition, TESOL and general-education English at National Taiwan University, National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, National Taipei University of the Arts, University of Louisville, Jefferson Community and Technical College, and Western Kentucky University. He is currently working for Jefferson County Public Schools in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.