Heart-breaking racism

Two days after the horrific shootings in Atlanta, in which six of the eight people murdered were women of Asian descent, I came face to face with anti-Asian discrimination right here in South Dakota – and Nebraska.

Know this: *I* was not the victim of racial hatred. I am a white woman of French, Irish and Russian descent. I have never faced racial discrimination in this country.

But the man who came to me for help, who walked up to me at the gas station at the Rosebud Casino, clutching a broken 2-inch hose from his semi? He faces it all the time. ALL. THE. TIME.

Even with his mask on, I could tell he was Vietnamese. There was something about his posture, about his looks, about his name, that told me that. 

The hose had split. The semi wouldn’t run any more. He couldn’t make it to Valentine, Nebraska, 8 miles south of the casino.

Would I help him?

Of course, I said. I can take you down there.

He wanted to pay for my gas. I told him I would be reimbursed by the church. He wanted to give me money. I told him I didn’t need any money to help him. He kept insisting. I told him a cup of coffee would suffice.

Off we went to Valentine, chatting along the way. He was driving from North Dakota back home to Texas. He had been a long-haul driver for 20 years. I thanked him for his hard work, especially during the pandemic, when he and all the other drivers kept us going. He seemed shocked to be thanked for doing what he does.

He came to this country in 1982, after escaping Vietnam (he didn’t use that word), and having to stop in Thailand and Hong Kong, among other countries. A couple in Washington state sponsored him to come to this country.

America, he said, was the greatest country in the world. Here people can work hard and be paid a decent wage. In his country, Vietnam? Women work 8 or 10 hours per day, and are paid only $4 or $5 a day for their hard work.

Then he said it: “You have saved my life.”

No, I told him. I’m just helping you. I can’t have you stranded on the Rosebud. We don’t have semi repair places here.

No, he replied. “You have saved my life.”

He asked how I knew he was Vietnamese. I told him I had worked with many Vietnamese in the past. He told me that even at the company for which he works – for the last 20 years – they still think he is Chinese. They ask him daily if he has brought coronavirus with him. They always call him Chinese. It hurts. He’s Vietnamese. Why couldn’t Americans realize the difference?

I told him I was sorry. I apologized for the hatred he faces. I told him I knew it hurt, and that it was wrong. We sat in silence for a few miles while we both thought about what he goes through every single day.

In Valentine, we stopped at the first auto parts store. My new friend needed 10 gallons of anti-freeze as well. The salesman helping him assured him that the jugs with red caps had the red anti-freeze in them. In fact, he insisted that was true. My new friend popped one open and poured a tiny amount in the cap: It was green. The salesman didn’t blink an eye. He didn’t seem to be very interested in actually talking to my new friend, and acted as though he couldn’t even understand him.

Another salesman went looking for the hose. I stood talking to the first salesman, and noticed that the anti-freeze jugs had new labels on them: AMERICAN cars (with the auto company names in smaller type) and ASIAN cars (with the corresponding manufacturers’ names). I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, especially just two days after the shootings in Atlanta. Those jugs used to be labeled DOMESTIC and FOREIGN. Or DOMESTIC and IMPORTS. Now? AMERICAN and ASIAN. Even though the majority of the cars listed (including the one I drive) was made in America, they are labeled ASIAN.

Wow, I said. That’s pretty racist.

What, the salesman asked.

I pointed out the printing on the jugs.

They are Asian, he said.

They are made in America. With a lot of American parts. By American workers.

The so-called American cars, I pointed out, are made in great part in Mexico and Canada.

The salesman didn’t see it. They’re Asian cars, he said.

No, I said, they really aren’t.

Well, we pay Asians for them, he said.

I just shook my head. He just walked away. 

I decided right then and there: I am crossing that store off my list of places to shop, and that brand of anti-freeze off will never go in any vehicle I own.

That store didn’t have the hose we needed. But they did have some of the anti-freeze (the red kind, not the green kind). My new friend bought six gallons there. The second salesman told me where to find the next store.

There, the salesman know me. And I know for a fact that they were kind because they know ME, the white woman who is the Episcopal priest on the Rosebud.

They didn’t have a hose either. But they directed us to another place, where trucks are repaired. They didn’t have the hose in stock, but told us where we could go to buy a hose with the correct angle in it, which would be too big, but it could be cut down to size. 

We said thank you, and got back in the car. Then the mechanic who had looked for a new hose came out with a used one. He had taken it from a different make of semi, but thought it would work. He had saved it, just in case someone could use it. But it was expensive, he said. One hundred dollars. It was way too long, but could be cut down. It might work, he said. After a few more back-and-forths, I asked my new friend if that would work for him. He said it would. Finally, the mechanic offered to sell it for cash. The price seemed high, but my new friend was in a bind. So he paid for it, right there in the parking lot.

Then my new friend asked me if I could find an ATM machine. On the way to the bank, I remembered that we still needed four more gallons of anti-freeze. Back to the second store we went.

They had more of the anti-freeze. My new friend asked them if it was the red kind. One of the salesman assured him it was. I told the salesman what had happened at the last store. He just shook his head – and then he opened a jug to show my friend that indeed, it was the red kind. It was obvious that he didn’t think he should have to do that … but I reminded him what had happened at the first store. Both salesman at the second store, on our second trip in, gave my new friend a look that said they didn’t think he knew what he was talking about. My heart was aching for him – he’s the professional truck driver. He knows what he’s talking about. Just because he doesn’t look like them doesn’t mean he isn’t as smart, if not a whole lot smarter, than them. 

More racism – a micro-aggression – that my new friend encounters every single day.

Going to the bank, he said, again, “You saved my life. No one has ever helped me like this. You take me several places, you help me a lot … no one has ever done this for me.”

I kept insisting: I was only helping a person in need. 

We repeated this conversation three more times.

At the bank, I parked and sent him to the ATM, so he could have privacy.

He came back to the car, and handed me $100. 

“You saved my life today,” he said again.

Really, I said, you don’t have to pay me. This is what I do – I help people. So keep your money and pay it forward. Help someone else on the road.

He insisted. I finally took the money, and told him I would help others with it.

We drove back to the casino. 

And repeated the conversation about life-saving a few more times.

I changed the subject, and asked about his family, about his wife and children, more about his life story. At the casino, we unloaded his anti-freeze and used hose.

Do you need help, I asked. I can hold the hose for you while you cut it.

No, he said, the knife is very sharp. I wouldn’t want you to be hurt.

If you need help, I can stay and help, I said.

No, I can do this, he replied. “You saved my life.”

My friend, I asked, can I say a prayer for you? 

Yes. He’s a Buddhist, so I said a prayer formed around his religion and mine. And gave him my phone number. And told him to call me if he needs more help.

As I drove off, listening to the news about a shooter in Atlanta who took eight lives and injured others, who says he has a sex addiction and was removing temptations, about whom a sheriff’s spokesman said had “had a bad day,” I mourned the fact that in this country, racism is alive and well, that Asian Americans are especially under attack, not just in the last year of coronavirus, but basically ever since the first Asian immigrants arrived, and that people of color everywhere in this country are hurt by it every single day.

My new friend is hurt by it … Every. Single. Day.

I don’t know why we divide people into skin color and nations of origin. It makes no sense to me. We are all beloved children of God. And God doesn’t care about skin color or nation of origin, or language. Because God, who created each of us, loves each of us.

This division, this bias, this hatred? It hurts.

Even me, a white woman, is hurt by it.

I said another prayer for my new friend, that he could get his semi fixed, and get home safely.

Then I took the money he gave me, and paid it forward for him, helping a man who needed food, and a mother who needed gas money to get her kids from a town an hour away. 

And I mourned again the fact that my new friend, on his long journey home, will face more discrimination and hatred along the way.

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About Lauren Stanley

All my life, it seems, I’ve been on mission. And it’s all my mother’s fault. You see, when I was a child, my mother was adamant: We were to help those in need, those who had less than we did. We were to speak for those who could not speak, feed those who had no food, give water to those who were thirsty.

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