“Calm down,” said Courage, “You know what POI means.”
I threw her a raised eyebrow. Of course I knew what he meant. He had basically insulted my upbringing and called me a dumb racist heathen. But did he know what I meant?
I was more than polite; I was empathetic and kind and warm and tactful. All things my mother, who adhered to the same values, had thoughtfully beat into me.
When I was a kid, I threw a few temper tantrums at the usual places: Toys R’ Us, the circus, the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace Las Vegas, and consequently had some manners smacked into me in the restrooms.
Once, I gave a sullen glare to an auntie on my way out of Chinese school. I’d gotten a bad test score and knew mom would not be happy. Catching me glaring at the auntie made her even less happy and later that afternoon I learned: part of being my mother’s daughter was smiling and being pleasant to people even if inside I felt wretched.
When my parents had guests over for karaoke parties and potlucks and old Chinese people tomfoolery – which was often – my mother expected my brother and I to be out of our rooms when the guests arrived, ready and waiting by the front door all smiles, house slippers in hand.
Would you like some tea, Mrs. Chen?
Hi Mr. Liu! Long time no see! How’s your son/daughter/maltese doing? Dental school/MBA/second kidney surgery? Wonderful.
Ah Aunty Pang! It’s so good to see you again…Yes, I am still single.
When you’re young, these things seem like punishment and social drudgery. And they are…until they aren’t. Your parents’ friends notice and start praising your warm, bubbly demeanor and ability to hold not only interesting but also interested conversation with them, whose worlds are connected to yours only because they are your parents’ friends.
The grand takeaway from my upbringing, some subtler and less painful than others, to be not only polite but also generous with one’s personality, to have the right phrase for the right time, to know how to make talk both large and small, and to be genuine while doing so was, “Whoa, it makes me look and feel really good as a person,” and more important, “I like being liked.”
As a result, my parents’ friends loved me. My friends’ parents loved me. And the parents of all the guys I never dated but might have – well, they would have loved me too. Because it’s really hard not to.
And besides, wasn’t everyone a little racist? But you grow and, if you’re a regular human with heart and brains, discover your prejudices are flexible and ever-changing and sometimes directed at yourself and your own ethnicity, which occasionally clashes with traits tied to your nationality. You make friends with different people, even a few ________s and ________s and though sometimes you’re like, “Jesus, you’re so _____,” or “That’s such a ______ thing to do,” you still like them as people.
AND ANYWAY, who was he to admonish me about how to act? He who’d been advertised as offensive? He who had offended me on the first date and then again and again in little ways, up to the present moment? He who called poor people “Poors” and fat people “Fats” and his female friends “Bitches” and his girlfriend “Ho-bag” (okay so a lot of people call me “Ho-bag”, but still)?
Who was anyone to admonish anyone about decorum and decency? I had my own hesitations about him too, and how he might act when meeting my parents, most of them not unlike that one scene from that one terrible movie about repressed, submissive Chinese women stuck in bad marriages.
But I had been, up until that point, willing to bring him home without a single word of warning because I figured I was dating a.) a well-adjusted adult who b.) I really liked and who c.) would care enough to want to make a good impression and thus know how to conduct himself.
Apparently POI did not feel the same.
You’re not perfect either, buddy.
Had I said this aloud POI would have said in his irritating tone of reason, “We’re not talking about me, we’re talking about you.”
But I heard it anyway and slammed the last dish into the cabinet, hoping I hadn’t cracked it because I had only bought four and Ikea was really far away.
“Simmer down, simmer down,” POI said, leaning back into the folding chair (also from IKEA).
“Don’t tell me to simmer down!”
“I know you know how to behave, I’m just saying…my mom would not find any racist jokes amusing.”
This was back in early March, a full month away from our even broaching the subject and four months away from my actually meeting his parents.
Inside my head I continued to snarl at him.
You haven’t even INVITED me to meet your parents and you’re warning me how to behave? Thanks for the indefinite amount of time to practice acting like a non-bigot.
Which is to say, we worked it out.
Which is why I ended up sitting next to his mother in his parents’ cozy living room in the middle of a very pregnant pause.
I looked down at a fluffy white dog named Smoot but called Chicken sitting near my ankles, wondering not where my manners were but where in hell my brain had gone.
I did the thing I was not supposed to do.
I said something racist in front of his mother.