My Chinese-America: A Meditation on Mobility by Allen Gee


I recently resigned from being the faculty advisor for the Georgia College Bass Fishing team because of a heavy workload.  The sixteen anglers on the team are white Southerners.  I boasted about having the best rednecks in Georgia on the water.  We were ranked 7th in the nation out of over two hundred and fifty teams.  This May the Boat U.S. Collegiate Fishing Championships will be on Pickwick Lake in Alabama.  I would wager a million dollars that I would have been the only Asian-American coach there.


One of my uncles leases a trailer on the Kenai Peninsula for summer salmon fishing.  I will visit him if I fly north next year to fish with my longtime friend, the poet Derick Burleson who teaches at the University of Alaska, in Fairbanks.  Due to a feud, my uncle and I did not speak for several years, but we resumed talking last fall for our family’s sake.


In 1972 our family traveled cross country in a Chevrolet station wagon with no air-conditioning.  Beyond Fredonia, Arizona we stopped at the edge of the Grand Canyon; as I peered out over the northern rim my eyes strained but couldn’t discern the opposite side.  I was ten-years-old and believe that this was my first experience with the sublime; the distance gave me a sense of the limitlessness of America.

Driving south on Rt. 30 in 1992 I felt saddened by the abundance of tarpaper shacks and poor towns, and then I encountered a huge resplendent billboard proclaiming the nearby town of Hope as President Bill Clinton’s birthplace.  I was struck by the sense of disparity that can be found within America, judging it to be shameful, and now we have the Occupy Wall Street movement as if my Arkansas experience was a premonition.



After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, half of my paternal grandfather’s brothers and sisters remained in California.  The joke within the Gee family was that the less intelligent stayed while the smarter ones headed to New York.  In 1994 with Hollywood production, comedian Margaret Cho attempted to launch All American Girl.  This would have been the first Asian-American series on network television.  Cho is not Chinese-American, but I was rooting for an Asian sister.  In the 1980s, Asian-American serial killer Charles Ng was arrested, under suspicion of having killed up to 25 women in northern California.  He is, to borrow the term from a cool website, a disgrasian.



In 1999 I adopted a blonde, blue-eyed teenager.  When she had been a toddler, I had helped to raise her while dating her single mother.  In 2004 when my adopted daughter turned eighteen, I flew her to Denver to meet her biological father who had not seen her since she was an infant.  My daughter asked, Aren’t you afraid you’ll lose me?  I suppose she thought that blood ties and race—his being white, while I am Asian—might draw her more toward him, but my reply was a cool, calm, I don’t think so.



I had a girlfriend in college who was from East Granby, CT.  While I was visiting her there, we were having sex when her father knocked on the door asking loudly why she was playing one of his jazz records, a Bill Evans album, but he did not barge into the room.  The next day to be blissfully alone we went hiking in the woods.



In 1984 Shien Biau Woo was elected Lieutenant Governor of Delaware.  By doing so he became one of the highest ranking Chinese-American public office holders in the nation.  In 2000 A Magazine ranked him the 6th of the 25 Most Influential Asian-Americans.  Unfortunately, until then, I had never heard of him.



For years my wife’s family has vacationed on St. George Island.  My parents began flying down to stay also.  In the town of Apalachicola my mother favors the oysters that are brought in fresh from Apalachicola Bay.  I like to run my Carolina Skiff and fish for speckled trout with my father-in-law.  I drove to Julia Mae’s restaurant in Carabelle once and—because he is family—bought my father-in-law three coconut pies.  I would like to retire in Florida because of the fishing and the food and the climate.



I live in Milledgeville where Asians are 1.5% of the population.  After having been here for eight years, there is still the feeling of living in exile.  This year The Chin Chen’s, a new sitcom, is being produced in Atlanta; maybe it will be the first steadily running Asian-American show since All American Girl was quickly cancelled.  My wife’s family is from Atlanta; her grandfather was Bobby Lee Dodd, a legendary football coach at Georgia Tech, named for General Robert E. Lee.  My wife gave birth two years ago to our daughter, Willa Margie Dodd Gee.  We would have named a son Carter Bobby Dodd Gee.  That I could be born in the North, migrate to the South, and perhaps have a son named for a Confederate general strikes me as astonishing and uniquely American.



The Asian slang name in Hawaii for whites is haole.  Asians can make it difficult for whites to live on the islands; I wouldn’t want to be part of a cruel Asian majority.  In the Hawaii Five-O television series that ran from 1968 to 1980, Steve McGarret played by Jack Lord, and Danny Williams played by Tim O’Kelly, held center stage above Chin Ho Kelly played by Kam Fong.  In the new Hawaii Five-O that debuted in 2010, Steve McGarret is played by Alex O’Loughlin, and Danny Williams is played by Scott Caan.  Chin Ho Kelley is played by Daniel Dae Kim, and the one addition is Kono Kalakaua played by Grace Park.  So now two white men are above an Asian man and an Asian woman who happens to be very attractive.  Progress?  Not as long as Asians remain subordinate.



In 1870 over four-thousand Chinese lived in Idaho, constituting over thirty percent of the state’s population.  The most well-known Chinese-American Idaho pioneer was Polly Bemis, born Lalu Nathoy in China.  She and her husband, Charlie Bemis helped settle the rugged territory of Idaho along the Salmon River, and despite early anti-miscegenation laws, the Bemis’ were married by a white judge who was married to a Native-American.  I have read that inter-racial marriage laws were still on the books in South Carolina in 1998, and in Alabama in 2000.  The Polly Bemis cabin is listed on the register of national historic landmarks; I would like very much to see it.



One of my cousins works for American Airlines.  On September 11, 2001, she said quick goodbyes to fellow flight attendants at Logan Airport.  Some were bound for Los Angeles on Flight #11 on a Boeing 767.  My cousin normally flew that route but that morning drew a flight to Seattle.  Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked Flight #11, and at 8:46 a.m. crashed the Boeing 767 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  My Uncle George believed that my cousin, his daughter, was on Flight #11.  Upon hearing that she had been on another flight he dropped to his knees and wept.  My cousin still flies for American.  My adopted daughter judged that her biological father tried too hard to act youthful, taking her to a bar although she was only eighteen.  Since she still wanted me, as I predicted, to be her primary father, I have visited her regularly in Chicago where she’s in graduate school.  If I happen to find myself alone, I like to explore the Chicago Institute of Art, intrigued by Georgia O’Keefe’s murals that speak of vast spaces, but I am equally drawn to Joseph Cornell’s miniaturist boxes.



My older brother attended the University of Indiana’s renowned graduate program in music where he studied with Camilla Williams, the first African-American to receive a regular contract with a major American opera company; in 1946 she made her debut with the New York City Opera singing the title role in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.  My brother visits her in Bloomington whenever possible, as if she is part of our family.



I studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop from 1987 to 1989.  One morning before a football game, members of a Latino fraternity congregated on the porch of their house, appearing strong, rugged, proud, no doubt at odds with the prevalent whiteness of the Midwest, all too conscious of the constant stigma of their otherness.  They saw me, a fellow person of color walking by, and gave silent nods of respect.  In 1991 twenty-eight-year-old astronomy and physics student Gang Lu killed four Iowa faculty members, one student, and seriously wounded another student before committing suicide.  Lu was infuriated because his dissertation did not receive the prestigious D.C. Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize.  One of my mentors remarked that academia is now Asian turf, in the same way that African-Americans get street credibility.



In Kansas a state trooper pulled me over on a remote highway claiming that I hadn’t used my turn signal to change lanes.  He interrogated me and requested to search my vehicle, suspecting I was running drugs because of my TX license plates.  When the trooper searched through my books from the University of Houston library system, and next my running clothes, his jaw clenched furiously over his not finding anything.  I mocked him, telling him—in the style of an old television commercial showing a frying egg—that my brain was not on drugs, and that my best friend from high school is a state trooper.  We stood beside my truck in the middle of vast Kansas farmland, reluctance dominating the trooper’s eyes as he told me without any apology that I should be on my way.



I drove my wife once to a literary festival in Bowling Green to support her first book tour.  I rarely feel leisurely and often speculate about how much of an immigrant’s work ethic has been instilled in me by my parents.  But after the festival like typical tourists my wife and I visited Mammoth Cave.  There was a moment when the tour guide asked for every light source to be extinguished.  My wife held my hand and we stood there silently amidst thirty other people in the cave’s darkness, like all of us were trying to be considerate of something larger than ourselves.  I have since asked myself, how elusive is the ideal for America of freedom for all?  Is this ideal too much to be upheld?



On October 17th in 1992, Yoshiro Hattori, a sixteen-year-old exchange student, was on his way to a Halloween Party in Baton Rouge.  He walked up a driveway to ask for directions and was shot and killed by Rodney Peairs, who believed Hattori was trespassing with criminal intent.  At first police declined to press charges, but after intervention by the governor and the New Orleans Japanese consul, Peairs was charged with manslaughter.  He was acquitted but later found liable in civil court.  This sort of incident leaves a region with a violent scar, making many Asians wonder if we should ever go there.  But in the spring of 2000 on the way to the New Orleans Museum of Art, I met and shared a taxi with a woman who is now my wife.



In the early nineteen-thirties my grandfather rode by train up from New York City and vacationed along the coast at Kennebunkport and Old Orchard Beach.  Everyone else was white.  How did he feel entering a hotel lobby or a restaurant?  Ordering a lobster or taking a swim?  My grandfather once told my father, “America is too big for Chinese to stay only in Chinatown.”  He left behind black and white photographs of his trips to Maine; he looks like a young tiger, dressed in a suit, cradling a hat in one hand, his face bold, defiant, recklessness gleaming in his eyes.



In 1991 I attended a wedding on Chesapeake Bay.  During the ceremony, for that small space of time, as a Baptist preacher and a Rabbi wed two of my friends, the world felt moving and harmonious.  The following day friends of the bride hosted a crab feast at the edge of a great swath of lawn, and one’s eyes could catch glimpses of the water in the distance—of light refracting off waves.  In the hosts’ home, I encountered Remington sculptures of horses, cowboys, and Native Americans.  Wealth and patriotism seemed intertwined.  I wondered if, as a minority in America, I would ever be able to feel such a deep openly-expressed love of country.



In 1981 during my freshman year of college while courting an intelligent green-eyed brunette, we travelled to Fanueil Hall Marketplace in Boston.  She had already kissed me more than once, but that day a fraternity pledge ran towards us, claiming he had to kiss thirty women for his initiation.  Before the young woman I was with could object, the pledge was forcing a kiss.  She told him to stop, and when I pushed him away, he glared at me with the hatred of privilege and entitlement, an expression that said he had a right to her, but who did I think I was?  Once you have encountered an expression like this, you never forget it.


My brother and I met last year in Detroit to watch the Lions play the Vikings because it was supposed to be the quarterback Brett Favre’s last game.  We were warned by the concierge at our hotel not to walk on the nearby streets at night; motor city’s automobile economy has been ailing, so crime rates are high.  I thought of how the American road trip—which I had lived for as a teenager—was becoming a behavior of the past.  We lived frivolously back then, as if oil and gasoline were inexhaustible.  What is worse?  What should remain the same?  Still, I hoped for better times for Detroit.



For several years I have joked with the African-American poet Sean Hill about flying up and going ice fishing with him in Bemidji, Minnesota.  I learned while growing up to ice fish on lakes in the Adirondacks where the ice becomes more than four feet thick.  That I could be an Asian-American teaching an African-American how to ice fish in a state first settled by Dakota, Ojibwa, and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) tribes, with claims of early Norse exploration, yet that was later inhabited by the French, strikes me as a uniquely American occurrence that should be celebrated or mourned with a whiskey flask.

Allen Gee is a 2013 Literary Awards Program Finalist. A Meditation on Mobility is an excerpt from his book, My Chinese-America, to be published by SFWP in 2015.

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