November 16, 2016. Exactly eight days after the election. I am in Ripon, Wisconsin to perform my one person show, Faces of America. In my show, I bring to light stories of the American experience, each one through a different ethnicity’s perspective. I had envisioned this particular performance as a celebration of our first female president, one brave enough to stand with undocumented immigrants and Muslim parents of war veterans at the DNC. Instead, I am nervous because it’s not just that my dream wasn’t realized, it’s that my worst nightmare had come true. So here I am, a brown girl in a blue state turned red. I am wearing the Safety Pin, the one we all jumped on as the movement to outwardly show that the wearer is a safe haven for anyone who needs them. It’s a feeble attempt, I realize this, but what else can I do? I’m grasping. I feel hopeless. I cried myself to sleep a week ago. This is all a fresh gash in my chest, and the proverbial blood on the white pantsuit I wore to the polls hasn’t even dried yet.
Tonight’s crowd at Ripon College is small and they are the agents of change, the members of cultural awareness clubs, the officers of inclusivity, yet throughout the performance, they are quiet. I realize it’s because they are the choir and they are tired of singing when no one is listening. I get it. I am too.
The big question after the show is, “How do we get white people to come to diversity events?” Now that the lights are up, I can see that my husband/production manager, Colin, is the only white person in the room. I don’t have a great answer for them. Here comes that hopeless feeling again.
After the show, Colin and I walk to the bar just down the road, and suddenly, we’re in the reverse situation. Here, I am the only not white person in the room. Now listen, I’ve travelled enough that this isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this. Ever been to Moses Lake, WA? I have. They greet you into town with a big white sign that says “Welcome, Hunters.” But even then, it didn’t feel like this. Tonight, in Trump’s America, it feels…different.
Colin and I grab our pints and find a dark area on the far side of the room. My radar is up. I’m trying to take a temperature of my surroundings. I am clocking everything. To our right, there’s a foursome, two men standing, two women sitting around a tall bar table. A Tattooed Muscle Man with thick arms, a backwards cap and a brisk walk comes through the door. They all look like they come here a lot. We do not.
Two pints later, from the four top, I hear a discussion about the election. I can’t quite hear full sentences, but it’s clear, they were at the very least anti-Hillary and at worst, pro-Trump. I know this because one woman says “Blame my husband, not me. I didn’t vote for him. But don’t worry, I didn’t vote for her either.”
I start to shake a little, turn to Colin and with an almost knee-jerk reaction, say “I think I need to go over there and talk to them.” He gives me a look like, are you serious?
“Uh…if you want to.”
I’m finding it hard to swallow, and my breath is getting very shallow.
So I sit back, because, what am I going to say to them anyway? And what if they get violent. First thought: “It’s okay. I’m not black.” If I was black, there would be no question, I would NOT go over there. I wouldn’t even come into this bar. I’m Asian-American, I’m female, I’m small. It’s a strange type of privilege. I don’t intimidate people…until I open my mouth, that is. But still, I am scared. I decide to stay put. Until.. I hear one of the men use the “N” word. I can’t even process the full sentence because some force pushes my ass up and out of my chair. Some Spirit moves my hand to pick up my beer, and walks my legs to straight over to their table. In seemingly lightning speed, I find myself sitting on a barstool with strangers in a strange land.
“Hi. Uh, I…uh, I hope you don’t mind that I interrupt you. Um, I heard you talking, about Trump and um, I wanted to talk to you. I want to talk about it, talk about why you voted for him. I want to understand. I really do, so I want to talk to you.” And then that Spirit takes over again, and freezes my tongue. I pause and say, “No. Wait. I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to talk. I want to listen. I just want to listen. I just want to listen to you.”
The guy looks at me like I’m some kind of alien, and I don’t blame him. I look at the woman, and she’s got a half smile on her face, like she’s surprised and excited by this.
“I’m Fran. What’s your name?” And for the life of me, I cannot remember his name, so let’s just call him Ian, because later I find out he’s Irish. I turn to the woman, I assume, his wife. Her name I remember, it’s Cory.
“What is that?” he points to my tattoo. “Some kind of tribal thing?”
“Sort of. Lots of things mixed in there, too.” I’m debating on whether I should share the entire meaning of my tattoo. Like, do I get into how the agave plants symbolize Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements based on Toltec wisdom; that the tree with seven leaves in the middle is an homage to my late sister who taught me about the seven chakras; that the ancient Filipino Baybayin lettering of breath, male, and female all put together, Bahala Na, means ‘leave it to God,’ but being an atheist, I take it to mean ‘leave it to the Universe.’ Do I tell him that the whole thing is based on a mandala for the Babaylans, the Filipino female shamans, community and spirit healers, and that this ink is my commitment to accept my role as one? That seems like a lot, maybe I’ll save all that for later. Except I can’t, because the Spirit won’t let me, and she wags my tongue to go through it all. Ian actually listens, smiles, and pulls up his sleeve to shows me his tattoo. So far, this all feels good to both of us. Common ground. Now I can proceed.
“Ian, please. Tell me, why did you vote for Trump?” I make every attempt to leave out any judgment and ask this in absolute earnest.
“If you could make $10,000 a month, you’d want that wouldn’t you?” he asks, matching me with total sincerity.
“Well, depends. What do I have to do to make that money?”
“It doesn’t matter, if you could make $10,000 a month, you’d want that wouldn’t you?”
“I gotta say, I’d need to first know what I’m doing for it.”
He angrily interjects, “Bullshit. Everyone wants to make $10,000 a month if they could.”
“Okay, okay, fine,” I acquiesce. “Fine. Let’s say, sure I want to make that. Are you saying Trump is going to get us all jobs that pay 10 grand a month?”
“He’s a business man. He has businesses. He’s built ‘em, he runs ‘em. That’s what I’m saying.”
“You’re right, he is a business man. And he does talk about jobs. I guess I’d like to know what his plan is, you know to get more jobs, and high paying ones like the – “
“Like the 10,000 a month. Yes. That’s what we all want.” Despite the slightly drunk slur, he’s serious about this. This isn’t drunk talk.
“But what’s his plan?” There’s a small beat of silence. I don’t feel victory that Ian can’t answer me. I feel sad that he wants so much to believe things will be better this way.
Then, I hear Cory’s voice for the first time since she said her name.
“He don’t got one. You know he don’t got no plan. He’s all talk.”
Well said, Cory. She then leans across the table, reaches for my chest and strokes the Safety Pin on my shirt.
“I like your pin,” she says with a gentle, child-like tone. “I know what it means. I know. And I like it.”
I think the Spirit gotten a hold of her too, but only momentarily, because Cory catches herself mid-stroke to say, “Oh, shit, sorry, I wasn’t trying to touch your tits or nothing. Just the pin. I like it.” She’s got a wry little smile on her face like she’s gotten away with something. All of it has gone over Ian’s head. He goes back to talking about jobs and how we need to make money. I bring up his use of the N word. He says it’s just a word and it doesn’t matter.
“But, Ian, it’s hurtful. It causes pain to a lot of people. It carries a lot of history. So if it’s just a word to you, maybe you could not use it?”
As I look at him, I see his pupils have gone to the far end of drunk, his words have way more slur.
“Oh you’re one of those. Those words people.” He’s bending at the waist, moving his head side to side, sticking his chin out. He starts to look like a schoolyard bully when they’ve run out of steam and start grasping at straws of derision. “How about retard? Hmm? You don’t like that word either, do you.”
And that’s when I’ve had it. I came to listen, I did not come to be abused. “Okay, Ian. Now you’re being mean to me just to be mean. Just to hurt me. So, I’m going to walk away now. Have a great rest of your night.”
I walk back to Colin, who’s been quietly sitting at our table, playing Panda Pop on his phone. I’m shaking. Hard. Almost as hard as when I was in labor and begged the nurses to bind my arms down.
Ian starts yelling from his table: “Retard. Nigger. You don’t like it? Retard.”
Ian doesn’t know this yet, but he’s awoken the sleeping Panda Pop playing giant. We all have our breaking points and buttons, and Ian just smacked right into Colin’s. Ian doesn’t know that Colin’s brother is mentally handicapped. A grand mal at 12 sent his brain back to 9 and at 54, it remains there. This goes deep. This gets personal.
Colin looks up from his phone and snarls, “Don’t use that word. You don’t have to use that fucking word.”
And Ian moves closer. Voices are raised, though Colin remains seated. Ian pulls up his sleeve to brandish a different tattoo than what he showed me earlier. “Ya see this? I’m Irish, I was born in Ireland. You don’t fuck with the Irish.”
Somehow, Colin keeps calm, and keeps playing his game. He doesn’t even look up when he says, “I’m Irish too, and the Irish would be ashamed of you right now.”
Oh, fuck. Is now when I pull out my phone and start recording in case something violent happens? Or if I record, will this all just escalate?
The waitress manages to come over and gets Ian to back off as she guides him back to his table. He keeps yelling things at us from where he is.
“I wanna go, Colin. I wanna go now,” I whisper through chattering teeth.
“Let me finish my drink first,” Colin replies, as though it was just another night at any old bar.
“Are you fucking kidding me? I want to get the fuck out of here.”
“Just sit for a second.”
Ian is still yelling when I see the Tattoed Muscle Man walk over to him. And now I’m thinking I’ll be taking Colin to the emergency room tonight.
Tattooed Muscle Man, who has been invisible to me since he walked in earlier. He points to Ian and loudly proclaims, “You….Need to shut the fuck up.” Wait a second. Is Tattoed Muscle Man on our side? He walks past Ian and Cory’s table, towards us.“And you two…” Shit, fuck, damn. Here it comes. “Have a good night.” He nods and walks out the door.
Tattooed Muscle Man has had a profound effect on the tension in the room. Or maybe it’s Cory who has been quietly talking to Ian.
Can we go yet?!
A much calmer Ian walks back to our table. This time, his hand is out, offering to shake Colin’s. Colin doesn’t say anything, just purses his lips together and nods. Ian barely acknowledges me, but now doesn’t really feel like the time to address his sexist tendencies. Baby steps. Colin accepts Ian’s olive branch and says “Buy you a drink?” After Ian nods, Colin offers him the empty chair. And they start talking. About Ireland. About how Ian doesn’t feel like he belongs here. About how poor his family back home is and he thought he could do better here. About how he wishes he could go back.
I’m still shell shocked, and I really need to pee, so I get up to go to the bathroom. On my way back, Cory steps in front of me. “Ya wanna go outside and smoke?”
“Oh, I don’t smoke anymore,” I say, almost apologetically.
She smiles. “Wanna come outside and stand with me while I smoke?”
I am an annoying ex-smoker who cannot stand the smell of cigarettes, but still, I say, “Sure.”
Her lips are tight, so she can hold onto the cigarette while lighting it. “You know, he don’t mean it, all that “N” word stuff. He don’t. My son’s half black. He’s 10. And Ian, he loves him. He loves him like he was his own boy. He don’t mean it.”
I want to believe her, the way she wants to believe herself. I can’t stop myself from asking her how words like that affect her son, whether or not they see it now. She tells me she’s never been outside of Wisconsin. She talks about California like it’s a dream world, and a place she’ll never experience. She can’t lose weight, she can’t quit smoking, she can’t get her daughter off meth. She says it’s all too hard. I ask her if she knows she’s worth the work. I tell her she deserves good things and a good life. I keep saying “You’re worth it.” She says no one’s ever told her she was worth anything. She says she thinks we were meant to meet each other. “Like, I don’t know, some kinda spirit or something made this happen. And it’s good you came here and not to Heavy Harry’s Bar. They the real conservatives there.” Good thing, indeed, Cory.
We stay outside for awhile. Sometimes the Spirit moves us to speak, sometimes to listen, sometimes to stay quiet. In the quiet moments, I start to feel that maybe, just maybe, there’s some hope left in me.