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An Ode to an America in Which You Haven't Seen a Swastika

Dec 23, 2016
Ideas
R. O. Kwon is a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellow and the author of the forthcoming novel, Heroics.

Upon learning, in the days following the presidential election of 2016, that a bathroom wall in a public middle school in Maryland was vandalized with swastikas, you’re awake late at night, grieving, unable to sleep, and you find you have to get up. It’s urgent. You should sing, before it’s too late, in praise of the nation you’ve known.

Sing because you haven’t once sighted a swastika, not in this land you call home. Or, wait. No. You have. But it's always served to illustrate the historical: at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, for instance. In eighth grade, the class took a field trip there. One by one, giggling like the middle-school kids you were, you walked through a hall while recorded voices hissed slurs you barely recognized. Some you didn’t know at all. You’d never heard the word “gook” or “Jap.” It might as well have been a foreign language.

There’s also the time when, six years old, you got into a big fight on the playground with a friend, Carla, about God’s ethnic bona fides. You insisted He had to be Korean; Carla, whose parents had emigrated from La Paz, proclaimed God to be Bolivian. If you could, you’d explain to these fierce children that they’re both right, but so wrong. The girls reconciled: they stayed friends, in what you recall of the nation you’ve loved.

In this version of the United States, the one in which you still belong, you once attended a lunch at which a white friend, a woman, expressed trepidation about an upcoming trip to a foreign land. She didn’t want to be forced to hide behind a burka, she said. “No, the local expectation will be that you put on a hijab,” a second friend said. She sounded impatient, the distinction obvious. It was; it should have been. “Hijab,” the first woman said. She wasn’t insulted. To learn, she said the word again, practicing: “Hijab.”

Call up, too, the last time a white man talked to you about origins. It was on a crowded plane between New York and L.A.: first, he smiled. Not wishing to be hostile, you did, too. He asked if you were from Japan. “I live in San Francisco,” you said. “No, but what are you,” he asked, and you replied, standing firm, upon this soil of yours, “I grew up in L.A.” That’s all you said. But this is America, so the man had the grace to blush. “I didn’t mean to be racist,” he said; you’d have liked to believe him.

You tried to forgive him, as well, because this is the same U.S. where, during the wedding reception, your white husband gave a welcome toast he’d memorized in phonetic Korean. Thrown, then joyful, your parents cried. Half of the husband’s family prides itself on its Italian heritage, so you toasted them, in turn, with a benvenuti. In Italian, you kept going. They don’t speak a word of the language; despite this incidental fact, if not because of it, they wept, too. You have pictures to prove it, the tearful relatives all red-faced. Hold the photos close. You’ll need them: This isn’t a republic you’ve invented.

In the America to which you sing, friends invited you to a wedding they’d styled a bumblebee celebration: the bride Asian, the husband-to-be black. “Get it?” they said, delighted. To fit the theme, you bought them, as a wedding gift, knives with steel bees perched on thin handles. Delicate, wings folded, the insects looked so tranquil, like creatures here to stay.

You’ve gone to such a lot of weddings, celebrating love. Sing of the two friends, both women, who fretted that their upcoming nuptials might be controversial: because, they explained, they didn’t like cake! They intended to provide petits fours, instead. Would guests revolt? Your white, half-Italian husband, who’s wild about cake, who, in his pastry-crazed heart, truly believes people attend weddings to eat cake, blanched an extra shade of pale. You kicked his leg beneath the table. “That sounds perfect,” he said, still looking ill. The friends sighed, relieved. You went to the wedding, last fall. Both brides shared the stage for a joint father-daughter dance. The petits fours were splendid. You ate several; your husband, even more.

But while singing of, and to, this land, don’t idealize it. So much is broken. Lives keep being lost because of how people look, and whom they love. For what little it’s done, you’ve cried about the bloodshed, the obvious injustice. You’ve signed petitions, written to lawmakers. Donated cash. Hoped. Despaired. But, tonight, you’re not singing to gild the ugliness of all that’s failed: you’re trying to honor, in case you begin to forget, what was good.

So, sing, while you’re at it, about the time you had to skip a friend’s wedding because you’d promised to attend an event at a college in the South. It was your first trip to that town. Total strangers called you darling. It felt weird, but before long, you kind of enjoyed it. Then, one night, you came upon a building in flames. It had drawn a crowd. The building was a storied landmark; its name, Rebel’s Rest. People wept, and you started talking with a woman, a local, white resident. You asked what had started the fire. “They’re saying it’s an accident,” she said, her voice soft, lilting. You had to lean in to make out the words. “Oh, that’s too bad,” you said. “It sure is,” she said. “But with a tag like Rebel’s Rest—well, it might be time to let the old place go.” So, it did: burning down, Rebel’s Rest shifted into history. The following evening, out on a walk, you passed a trio chatting about the fire. They joked about what else the inferno might have disturbed, which college ghosts could be out roving. You stayed out late that night; you spotted no ghosts.

While you sing this ode, realize that, at first, you believed it to be a tribute to a past you’ve known. But that isn’t quite right. Think of the line you love from Emily Dickinson: “I sing as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—because I am afraid.” You’re like him, that alarmed child, though you’re not chilled by the ground itself, nor of what it contains. The dead don’t scare you. Ghosts tend not to rise. No, what frightens you are the living: sing because you’re afraid of what comes next, and you’ll want this help to get through the night.


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