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Monday, April 27, 2015

If Thor had a Hammer



When my son was two years old he was obsessed with stories. This went on for two more years. Every time we got into the car he would insist on having us tell a story. And it couldn't be just any story. He would lay out very specific parameters like, "Tell me a story about Superman and the Swamp Thing." This is harder than it sounds, especially when you're tired, which was most of the commute hours for me. For a while I tried to come up with good traditional swashbucklers for the kid, but after a while I started putting the heroes (or Transformers or whatever he asked for) into more mundane situations.

Typically these stories existed for as long as it took to tell them and then they were forgotten. For some reason T liked this one and I think she asked me to write it down. So I typed it up when I got to work and sent it to her. I just came across it again and I thought I'd share it, if for no other reason than so that you can share in the absurdity of what my commute was like for two solid years.

If Thor Had a Hammer:
A story made up in the car by Roberto Santiago  
Characters created by Marvel Comics 

"Once upon a time Thor and Captain America went camping with the rest of the Avengers and some of their kids and friends. It was like, their annual company retreat. 

So one night they're sitting around singing campfire songs. And they sang Kumbaya, and Little Bunny Foo Foo, and they were deciding what to sing next when Thor suggested "If I had a Hammer." And everyone kind of groaned because Thor ALWAYS suggests "If I had a Hammer." And Thor was like, "What, I'm Thor, hammers are kind of my thing."
So they went ahead and sang "If I Had a Hammer" which was fine except the beginning is kind of hard because Thor likes to hammer though the first verse. And Thor's a big strong guy and he hammers really hard and it scares the woodland creatures and drowns out the rest of the singers (which is a shame because the Scarlet Witch has a really beautiful singing voice). Then they got to the verse about "If I had a shield with a star on it, I'd deflect bullets in the morning, I'd throw it at bad guys in the evening, all over this land." At which point Captain America lunched into a tangential solo of "This Land is Your Land" because he's Captain America, and he can't help it, he gets really excited about having a shield and being named after his favorite country.

When the song was finished they asked if anyone had an idea for the next song and Thor suggested "John Henry was a Steel Driving Man." And the other Avengers were like, "Dude! That's another song about hammers!" And Thor was all, "What? I like hammers. They're kind of my thing." And everyone groaned again, but they went ahead and sang "John Henry was a Steel Driving Man" because they like Thor and it's a fine song, and even though it's the kind of thing you hate to love it's really become a tradition to sing a bunch of "hammer" songs on the company retreat.

The end

Friday, April 24, 2015

How I Became a Mexican by Chiori Santiago

This is one of my mother's most popular pieces. It was read aloud at her wake.

I can't find it online anywhere and I don't know where it was previously published. I'm putting it here for you all to enjoy. If a copyright issue comes up I'll take it down again, but I've done a lot of searches for it over the years and have come up empty.


My mother and Grandmother c.1975

         When I was eight years old, I arrived in California. Within a week, I was Mexican.           

         Before I was Mexican, I was Pakistani. My family had just come back to the U. S. after four years of world travel, including two years in Karachi, the capital city of Pakistan. I started school there. As far as I was concerned, I was a Pakistani, with all of the wonderful fluidity of the culture as enjoyed by Western ex-patriates in the late 1950s: Camel rides on the beach, four o'clock tea on the lawn, gooey jam tarts and curry dishes that exploded through the top of your head, my brother chattering with the nanny in Urdu, his first language. When we returned to America I missed terribly what I thought was my homeland. For a year I cried and begged my parents to end our visit to this bizarre country so we could return to Karachi.

Chiori c.1955
          Before I was Pakistani, I was part of the Census Bureau's complex multiracial nightmare (that's according to a headline in the San Francisco Examiner published at the time of the 2000 census). I was the taboo post-war baby of Yoshiko Tajiri and Chester Fuller Roberts Jr. My parents met in occupied Japan. My mom was the civilian editor of the Army newspaper, the Tokyo Stars and Stripes, and she was my dad's boss. My dad, a private first class, was a reporter and copy editor. The way my Mom tells it, they spent long hours putting the paper to bed, and eventually they followed suit.


Yoshiko and Chester
When they decided to get married, their commanding officer forbid the marriage on the grounds that American G.I.s weren't supposed to fraternize with Japanese civilians, overlooking the fact that my mother was an American citizen who'd grown up kicking butt in South Central Los Angeles. So when my mother got tired of waiting, she marched into the CO's office and threatened to kick his butt if he didn't approve her marriage, and he was so shocked by this metamorphosis of Madame Butterfly to Killer Bee that he gave in. My parents eventually moved to Chicago, where I was born and in due course, my two brothers and a sister.

         That's all by way of explaining that our becoming Mexicans in California was something of a surprise for everyone in my family. It didn't happen all at once. It was more of an evolution. It started with a question, the question that all happas know, the question that binds us all by a common thread. That question is:

"What are you?"

         When my brothers and I got to California and began hearing The Question on a regular basis, we would launch into this long explanation about our Italian great-grandmother and our Anglo pioneer grandfather and the relatives in Japan, as our mother had coached us. The questioner's eyes would glaze over and invariably they would stare down at us (because they were almost always grownups) and say firmly:  "You're not Japanese." Then they would tell us what they believed we were.

          Now, my Mom had been evacuated from California along with tens of thousands of other Japanese Americans during World War Two. She knew very well the sort of racism we could encounter on the liberal West Coast. One of her worst fears was that one day we would come home and ask:  "Mom, what's a Jap?"

She was completely unprepared when I came home and asked:  "Mom, what's a spic?"

Chiori c.1977
          This may be the most difficult aspect of interracial romance. You're brought together not by your differences but your commonalities, and let's face it, the whole proposition is easier than you've been led to believe. So you start to think, hey, we've built a bridge between cultures, and our children will reinforce that bridge, and we'll all link hands and cross that bridge into the 21st century, and you hear a John Williams overture swell in your head and you get all misty-eyed, you imagine little white children and little black children being judged not by the color of their skins and blah, blah.


            So that's cool. Then you wake up and boom! You have a houseful of little tiny people who are some other race that you never even imagined, like a bunch of illegal immigrants who've sneaked in and are squatting on your neatly defined racial territory. 

            In my case, I realized that my race had nothing to do with my DNA or with my parents’ ethnic histories. My race was defined by my face, which I guess is pretty obviously inscribed by the memory of my Klamath Indian ancestors and my Mediterranean great-grandma Mimi. Basically, I have "mestiza" written on my forehead.

            Viejitas yelled at me in the street when I couldn't respond to them in Spanish. As I got older, white people began to greet me with a "Como esta" and then proceed in broken English to ask for my delicious and authentic recipe for chili beans. My high school Spanish teacher accused me of taking the class for an easy A, because of course my family already spoke Spanish at home. In college, I tried to join the Asian Students Union but was rejected because, I was told, "race goes through your father's blood, so you're not Asian." Meanwhile, the La Raza Students Union kept asking if I was a vendida, a sell-out, because I wasn't a member. 

Chiori c.1983
         Finally, I gave in. Refusing to be bothered by identity confusion I became— Chicana! Viva la raza! I became an angry movimiento chica. And I had a lot to be angry about. After all, the minute I became Mexican, my IQ plummeted. Had I remained Asian, I would have been just another obedient college-bound student with Coke-bottle glasses. But as an official pocha, I instantly became slothful, unemployable and prone to passionate outbursts. On the plus side, I suddenly gained a sense of rhythm and was able to dance the mambo. 

            Maybe all these people knew something I didn't. After all, I am a daughter of the Nisei equivalent to La Malinche. (She was the indigena who guided Cortez's men on their conquest of the Aztecs, and gave birth to the first mestiza.) That heritage makes me suspicious to everyone of all my races. When navigating the multitude of racial boundaries in this country, I'm constantly asked for my passport. People really need to know to which tribe I pledge allegiance. Do I have a green card that lets me dance the Electric Slide or eat Sunday dinner in the basement of an AME church? Is my visa up to date for a taste of pansit or hourdomsamsee? Do I have the stamp of approval that allows me to partake of Passover or dance Tanko Bushi? And why can’t talk story be my second language? 

            I can't blame people, really. Hello young lovers, wherever you are---I am one of your kids, and we are your multiracial nightmare. Because we are as elusive as refugees under cover of darkness. We cross borders at will---shape shifters, category dodgers, screwing up the neatly laid-out subdivisions of your suburban census. 

Chiori and sons c.1990
            Personally, I don't believe in interracial dating, so I ended up with a guy just like me: an Italian Afro-Puerto Rican raised in an all-white section of Long Island. I mean, he grew up listening to so much Aerosmith and Abba that when we met I had to give him Latino lessons. We’ve raised a couple of kids who are basically the same race as Tiger Woods. I use chopsticks when I fry tostones, and when no one's looking, I pour tonkatsu sauce on the lechon con arroz blanco. 

Not long ago a friend of mine asked, "Y porque no hablas más español?" And I tried to explain, to give my old happa rap and to tell her that I only turned Mexican, I wasn't born this way.

            She looked at me as if I was crazy and said:  "Pero no, no, no puedo creer que eres japonesa, tu eres pura, pura latina." You're totally Latina. 

            I think, that's what love is. You're born into the world and sometimes, your family finds you. Thank god I became Mexican. When I became Mexican, I got a name, a point of reference and a sense of belonging. I got una familia that opened its arms and adopted me--no questions asked. 
-----------------------------------

You can read another of Chiori's pieces on ethnic identity here: "My Inner White Guy" by Chiori Santiago

Chiori was also featured in "The Global Me" you can read an excerpt about her HERE.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Unrequited Best Friend

Lou and her new BFF

Lou has had the same best friend for almost her entire life. She's been talking about this kid since the time she was able to talk and engage in cooperative play. She has gone as far as to declare that she will marry this other little girl, "if I can still find her when we're grown ups." The thing is, the few times I've seen them together at daycare this girl looks like she wants nothing to do with Lou. The people at daycare have told my wife that the two kids play together all the time. I wonder if what they're seeing is Lou following this girl around and assuming that's a friendship.

We've tried to nurture the relationship. We've left out contact information for the girl's parents, but they've never called. We met them once at pick up after Parent's Night Out and they kind of blew us off. Lou hasn't been to daycare in a few months now, and now that she's not full time she's not always in the same room as the other girl. Still, my wife and Lou made special trip down to the center just to drop off a birthday party invitation for her.

The invitation was somehow misplaced. We got an email from a parent saying that a kid we'd never heard of would be attending and thanking us for the invitation. This happened despite the invitation being addressed to Lou's best friend by name. T called the daycare to ask if they could leave a note for the bets friend's parents explaining what happened and hoping the kid could come to the party. We never heard back. This was the only friend Lou had invited.

The day of the party, as the guests arrived and the kids played Lou wandered around the house looking bummed. She kept saying she was fine, but after some prodding she finally asked, "When will she get here?" I had to explain again that we hadn't heard back from the kid's parents and that we didn't know if she was coming. Lou eventually came around but the first hour and a half of the party was a dud for her. It sucked. But it was the next few days that have been heart breaking.

It seems like Lou may have finally given up on this kid, which is fine. But she's been replacing her in the role of "best friend" with an assortment of characters that makes me want to scoop her up and hold her and tell her she's too young to be turning into Miss Havisham.

Her first replacement was Lentil, the cleft lip dog who has been sending her gifts as part of being in Lentil's fan club. She started talking about Lentil just like she had been talking about this girl from daycare. So yeah, Lentil is on the list for next year's birthday party. In some ways this mirrors her obsession with her previous "best friend," in that there's some relationship established, but it's not a real friendship. At least she had actually interacted with the little girl, she's only ever gotten letters from Lentil.

Her second declaration is the one that really got me. We were eating dinner on the deck when she declared that carpenter bees were her best friend because they would never sting her. She has continued with the bees for the last week. She also likes them because there are a lot of them so they're always around.

Oh honey sweetie baby. Oh my darling Lou Bean. You will start pre-K next year and hopefully you will meet some actual friends. Until then I hope that space in your heart will be filled by someone or something other than some bees.

Yesterday we found a carpenter bee limping around the basement play room. Lou's first reaction was to run upstairs screaming and crying. "But honey," I said, "that's your best friend." She replied that her brother's exclamation upon finding the bee was what scared her. My normal inclination is to kill things that enter my home. But I just read a meme the day before about nursing tired bees back to health using sugar water. And bees are important so I took the bee outside and gave it a spoon of sugar water. 

When I showed Lou she was thrilled to see her best friend eating. It was pretty cool. I'd never seen a bee's tongue before. Both kids got to have one of those cool at home educational experiences, and I got to be cool hero dad for ten minutes.

In the end the bee took some time to recoup, then it flew away. I learned later that it's probably rejoined its hive and that the lot of them are probably chewing through my floor joists. Now I'll have to Fredo the bees and hope daughter can find a human friend, and that she never ever finds out what I've done.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Moment You Know

I was the kid who wore keys on his belt and goggles and a cape to school for no reason other than wanting to


I don't know if I believe in life changing moments. Sure, there's moments that signify a change, like getting married or having a child. But those are generally planned out and expected, at least to some degree. There are certainly tragic moments that can change things. Losing a loved one comes to mind. I don't mean that either. I mean I don't know if I totally believe in some unexpected thunder bolt from on high life changing moment. But I do believe that there are times when you realize something about yourself that will stay with you forever. For me one of these moments came when I realized that I would always be the bullied, and never the bully.

I've written about bullying before. It was a constant part of my life. The moment came on a summer day. I believe it was a Wednesday. I don't actually know if it was Wednesday, but it was a day in the middle of a week of summer camp. I had been in some kind of confrontation at the morning activity and was probably bitching about it to one of my friends. I had been fending off bullies all week, which wouldn't have been enough to provide "a moment" if not for the context.

I was at computer camp.

Being bullied.

By nerds.

Kids who had chosen to come out to the woods to learn to code DOS an tell a turtle how to draw a dream catcher were threatening to kick my ass. (Cue Rainier Wolfcastle saying "It's not a comedy.")

It was on that day that I knew and understood deep within myself that I would never have the upper hand. I would never be a bully. Not because I was a nice guy, and not because I had gained some deep empathy from my own experiences, but simply because no one would ever be afraid of me.

OK, it's kind of a comedy.


Friday, April 17, 2015

These Kids Aren't the Kids I Expected

My mother's grandparents (top) and parents (bottom)

I had it all wrong. Well, I guess we had it all wrong, but that includes me.

When my wife and I got engaged we knew right away that we wanted to start having kids as soon as we were married. We spent our year-long engagement talking about our future family. Some of this discussion involved preparing T for being the white mother of tan babies. T is mostly of Irish descent, I am mixed with Puerto Rican (which is really a mix already), Japanese, and what my mother called "Euro Potpourri." We figured that the various darker sides my heritage would dominate our children's gene expression. We were wrong.

My father's parents

My son was born at 9 pounds and with blonde hair and blue eyes. All of a sudden I was the one who had to adjust to looking different than my son. I prepared my "I'm not the nanny" speech, with different versions of different lengths. It was an adjustment. It wasn't terrible, but it was an adjustment. My daughters have darker hair and look more Asian than my son, though the baby's eyes are still undeclared.

There have been a few mix ups over the years, though fewer than I expected. My wife tells me that other parents and people at day care have assumed that my kids have different fathers. There was the time at the ER when the doctor refused to start talking until he could determine why I was standing so close by. That was a weird one. He called out our name, T approached with Buddy in her arms, and I approached behind them with Lou in tow. The doctor kept looking away, then looking at me, then looking away again, but not saying anything. He finally made gesture to T that said, "what is going on? Who is that guy? Should I say something?" T told him who I was and you could see his shoulders relax and the red start to drain from his face.

For the most part it's been easy, but there are still things that catch me off guard. For example, St. Patrick's Day was never a big deal at my house. Sure, there were many years when my mom would make corned beef and cabbage, but at some point we found out my grandfather was part Scottish and only drank like he was Irish. I wore green to school, but that was mostly to avoid being pinched.

It's different now. Thanks to my wife St. Patrick's Day is now kind of a thing for us. This includes making special Irish themed shirts for the kids. I am all for cultural pride, but I'll admit that sending Buddy to school in that shirt made me uneasy. He goes to a predominantly African American school, like I did for many years. Even though I don't identify as white I was considered white by my classmates and I quickly learned to not do anything that highlighted my whiteness. I joked to my brother that I had sent Buddy to school in a "white power" t-shirt, and I worried a little about what he'd face. Nothing happened, which is what I should have expected.



But it's kindergarten and kids are more oblivious to some of this stuff when they're young. What happens as he gets older and everyone becomes more jaded? White people celebrating their culture doesn't bother me. But when it's my own kids I start to have worries that I didn't expect to have. Having the worries makes me uneasy because I feel like I shouldn't worry. I have no idea what I really think about this yet.

Over the years I've tried to keep the kids aware of their Japanese and Puerto Rican heritage because that's what I know, and because it's the side that I think they can most easily lose. I feel that if the just pass for white they'll be treated as white and they'll lose touch with the other components of our cultures.

I've also noticed that I've held on to some anachronistic parenting approaches that don't apply to my kids the way they did to my brother and I. For example, my mom bought my brother a light brown skinned baby doll so that he could have a doll that looked like him. I was thrilled when my cousin gave my daughter a similar doll. I have also felt compelled to color my princesses brown when we color together. I want my kids to see these representations even though they are much lighter than my brother or I.



Diversity is good for any kid, but I know that my motivations come from wanting to make sure they feel they are represented in their own play. I do this even though the things I'm exposing them to don't really look like them as much as they look like my brother or our cousins. So really it's that I want them to see me in their play. I'm not sure how I feel about this. I think it also goes back to me wanting to make sure they remember the parts of their heritage that I think they are most likely to lose if left to what the world tells them.

The world is becoming friendlier to mixed people. I think there's less pressure to identify as one thing. As much as I want them to identify like I identify, I know I need to embrace my kids' Irish side. (Even so, those shirts kind of freak me out.)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Beauty




I'm always several months behind the rest of the internet. Whatever is popular right now is going to circle back to me this summer at the earliest. Part of the reason for this is that I wait to see if something has any staying power. Other times I just get curious about that thing that everyone was talking about. For example, I just listened to "Thrift Shop" about a month ago.

Today I'm thinking about a conversation that the internet had about a year ago. It's about whether you should tell your daughter she's beautiful. I don't know if I have anything ground breaking to add, but I do feel like I have a perspective that I haven't seen in my reading on the topic. My daughter was born with a complete bilateral cleft lip and palate. Within a year she'd had surgeries to close both, but because the condition is complicated she is facing roughly five more surgeries between now and the age of nineteen.



The most obvious marker of her condition now, and likely as she gets older, is that she has scars on her upper lip where the cleft was sewn together. The surgeon did a great job, but with the skin being what it is there will always be a scar. It's noticeable and people ask about it. Sometimes they're nice, and sometimes they're not. Most of the questions are innocent interest. I don't know if I wish they would, or if I wish they wouldn't. What I do know is that she'll always have the scar.

So far, in her four years, it doesn't seem like it's had an effect on her ability to make friends. Maybe it has and I just don't know, but she's never mentioned any teasing.

I don't worry about her growing up and finding love. I am sure that she'll do just as well in that regard as any of us. I do worry about the time leading up to that. I worry about how she sees herself. I worry about how she'll handle the comments when they do come, which they will. I was called ugly a lot when I was kid. It really stuck with me. I worry that she'll face comments about her face, or about how she talks. I worry about how her self image will be shaped by other people. So I tell her she's beautiful.

I tell her this almost every day. It's not the only thing I tell her. I also tell her that she's a hard worker, and that she can accomplish anything if she works at it. I don't tell her she's smart, because I do believe in the dangers of that and how it impacts how kids face challenges. But I praise her for her efforts and her improvements. I love her artistic side. I love her compassion and her imagination. I tell her all of this.



I also tell her she's beautiful, because if she doesn't hear it from me, and she doesn't hear it when she turns up at school for the first time, will she ever really believe it? I know she may not grow up to be a model, but she's got good looking parents so I know she's got a good shot to be beautiful to someone the way my wife is beautiful to me (and me to my wife). But I want my daughter to believe it. I want her to internalize how beautiful she is. I don't want her to feel like she has to put up with any crap just because she feels like she's not like other girls.

I also know that my ability to really control or influence any of this is minimal. There's a better than zero chance that she won't believe me. All the other voices will drown me out and she'll do what may teenagers do at some point, she'll think I'm an idiot and that my words aren't as important or as informed as the rest of the world. Or she'll think I'm biased, or "Just saying that." I also know that self image is much more complicated than this one issue. And I know that if I raise her right in other ways the issue of looks won't loom as large for her as it does for me in my own head right now.

But I also think we do a disservice when we pretend looks don't matter. Sure, they don't matter in many ways, or shouldn't. As a society we tell people that looks don't matter and that if looks matter to you then you're shallow or cruel. Then we go out and do all the things that we do around beauty and celebrity and fashion. Looks matter. They matter to kids, and they matter to adults. I know this because I grew up always having the wrong clothes, or the wrong hair, and being called ugly. It affected me. It affected how I viewed myself, and how I interacted with the world. Maybe you think that makes me shallow, or weak. I don't think it does. I was raised to look past my exterior, and in some ways that came back to bite me. I don't want that for my little girl who is so interested in being a beautiful princess despite my efforts to steer her towards baseball and super heroes.

I'm not worried about her growing up and being shallow or self centered or lazy because she thinks her beauty is her most important quality. With her scars, I'm worried about the opposite. I'm worried that she'll grow up seeing herself the way the meanest and shallowest of her classmates tell her they see her. 

My daughter is beautiful. I know it. I want her to know it too.


Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Oh the Places You'll Sleep



This is the picture of marital bliss. Well, sort of. Of course I'd rather be spending entire nights in my own bed, and my wife would like to have me there too. But this isn't a picture of me in the dog house, it's just that my baby snores really loud.
I have always been a good sleeper. In fact, I'd say I'm a champ sleeper. I've slept all kinds of places. When I was a baby my mom took me to a party and set me down to sleep in the bedroom. When the party was over she went to get me, but I was gone. She panicked. She started searching frantically. And there I was, happily asleep under an enormous pile of coats. Several years later she brought me to a party at my aunt's house where the music was turned all the way up in the living room so it could be heard in the back yard. I fell asleep with my head between the speakers. At other times I have slept through earthquakes, a friend's bad acid trip that included the police coming to my house, and the newspaper guy throwing a paper through my closed bedroom window. Seriously, I can sleep almost anywhere, and through almost anything. However, like all legendary heroes I have one weakness: snoring. I cannot sleep through snoring. At all.

As a kid this weakness led me to leave sleepovers and walk home. As an adult it has led to a near inability to share a hotel room with anyone. I first learned this when I helped my step-father move across country. Each night I ended up wearing noise cancelling headphones and sleeping in the bathroom. Through this experience I learned that motel bathrooms get smaller as you travel west. In Arizona I had to sleep with my feet propped up on the toilet.

Over the years, on business trips or reffing trips I've slept in various non-bed parts of hotels. I've slept in hallways in Ft. Meyers, parking lots in Redding, and a balcony in Saranac, just to name a few.

My bed at a recent USA Rugby playoff.

As I grew older I figured this was a young man's problem. Once I got married I figured this was all behind me. After all, my wife only snores when she's in her third trimester, or immediately postpartum. My first two kids don't snore. 

My third is a whole other deal. She snores like a 45 year old man who's got 40 years of smoking under his belt. And she sleeps in my room. So now, after being on the couch for several weeks before she was born, I have been on the couch more nights than not for the last two months. While I'd prefer to be in bed, it's been fine. My wife gets to sleep, the baby gets to sleep, and I get to sleep. It's been fine. Right up until we took her on a short vacation. We ended up in a motel room, and I ended up in a familiar spot.

I tried pillows on the head. I tried ear plugs. But I remember vague facts from my undergraduate audiology class that talked about how some sounds don't really come through your ears. Some frequencies actually penetrate you skull, rendering ear protection useless. I'm pretty sure this is the case with snoring. So here I was.


On various occasions my wife has suggested that I have her be the one to move. But I was loathe to wake up my pregnant bread winner just to ask her to move to our questionably comfortable couch. Asking her to move these days would defeat the entire utility of having her and the baby in the same room. And there's no way I'm going to try to convince my beautiful giver-of-life to sleep on the floor of a motel bathroom. So I end up here, because I'm the dad, and honestly, I see her rest as being part of my responsibilities. If takes making a nest in yet another motel bathroom to get it done, so be it.