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Boxes.

March 9, 2017

vietcong

On just one hand, I can count the number of times that our daughter, Grace, has experienced racism since entering into our family, almost seven years ago.

During the summer of 2010, she made the long trip from China to enter into our family – her forever family – here in America.  Since that time, she has had three direct encounters with racism that I can recall.

As an Asian girl living in a predominantly Caucasian community, I must say that the response to her entrance into our family and our community has been overwhelmingly good.  She has been lovingly welcomed by people from every facet of our lives (just as she should be), and we couldn’t be more grateful for that.

But, like I said, there have been a few moments of ugliness that I can recall.

One of those moments occurred when she was just two years old, shortly after she had been placed into our family.  It involved a young black male that we encountered on the north side of Indy.  I can remember how disappointing it was to hear a member of one minority group make a derogatory remark toward someone from another minority group.  One would think that this young man would be especially sympathetic to someone like Grace…a brown-skinned girl living among a sea of white-skinned folks.  One would think that he wouldn’t want to inflict the same treatment on her that (most likely) had been inflicted upon him at one time or another, due to his skin color. But, sadly, that wasn’t the case.  It totally bummed me out.

Another one of those ugly moments happened while Gracie was in kindergarten.  It involved a little boy from her class, and it took place on the playground.  He took note of her brown skin, commented on it, and forbade her to play on some of the playground equipment because of it.   Thankfully, her teacher (and her big brother, Jackson), made sure to confront the little boy and set things straight.

But, the moment of ugliness that I want to focus on today is one that occurred when she was about three years old.  Grace was walking beside me one day, holding my hand, as we entered into a busy restaurant.  An elderly gentlemen wearing a cap that said “Vietnam Veteran” was heading out as we were walking in.  Before I could stick out my hand and thank him for his service to our country (as I ALWAYS do when I encounter anyone who is wearing a hat or shirt indicating his/her military service), he looked down at Grace and said, “Well, lookie there.  A little Charlie.”

He walked right past us and headed out the door.  I did not extend my hand to him.  No handshake occurred.  I had stopped in my tracks, trying to process whether or not I had just heard what I thought I’d heard.  But, I knew that my ears hadn’t deceived me.  He had looked down at her, and called her a “little Charlie”.  In that moment, I can remember trying to recall what I knew about the Vietnam War.  My knowledge was, by no means, extensive.  But, I knew enough to conclude that what I had just heard come out of that man’s mouth was not kind.  I didn’t know exactly where the term “Charlie” had come from.  But, I knew it was a name that had been used to refer to Vietnamese soldiers during the war.

I looked down at Grace.  She had no idea what had just happened, or what she had just heard.  She was only three years old.  She was simply gazing around the restaurant, wondering where and when we would be seated so that she could fill her growling belly.

That afternoon, when I got home, I decided to find out exactly where the term “Charlie” had come from.  My discovery confirmed that the comment directed toward Grace earlier that day was derogatory.  Though it was once used as a military term, it wasn’t any longer. It was now used as a racial slur.

CHARLIE:  (Vietnam War Military Slang) Slang term once used by American troops as a shorthand term for Vietnamese guerrillas, derived from the verbal shorthand for “Victor Charlie”, the NATO phonetic alphabet for VC, the abbreviation for Viet Cong, a ruthless, communist, guerrilla force during the Vietnam War.

In the restaurant that day, a man had taken one look at my sweet, three-year-old daughter, and boxed her up in a matter of seconds.  He knew nothing about her.  He didn’t know that she was actually Chinese, not Vietnamese.  He saw her Asian features, and that was all he needed to throw her right into a box filled with the cruel Viet Cong soldiers he had encountered on Vietnam’s bloody soil, many years ago.  He took one glimpse at her face, and he saw the enemy.

That realization angered me.  But, truth be told, my primary reaction was one of sadness.

I had no idea what that old man experienced during his time spent on Vietnamese soil as a young man.  I can’t fathom the horror of all that he witnessed while he was over there.  With that in mind, I was slow to become angry at him.  With that in mind, I told myself to remember that hurt people hurt people.  People who are hurting are sometimes particularly good at hurting other people.  It doesn’t excuse their actions, by any means.  But, it is something to take into consideration before allowing ourselves to become consumed with anger.

The atrocities that occurred at the hands of the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War were unthinkable.  They were a vicious group of soldiers.  Was it fair for that war veteran to associate Grace with them?  My three-year-old daughter who (by the way) isn’t even Vietnamese?

No.  It wasn’t fair at all.  It was a sad association.  A ridiculous one.

Was it fair for him to instantly throw her into a box, simply because she happens to be someone who – when asked her ethnicity – places a check mark in the “Asian” box?

No. It wasn’t fair at all.  It was unjust for him to box her up like that.

Was it fair for him to categorize her, without getting to know her and the content of her character, simply because he may have had some terrible life experiences with Asian people in the past?

No.  It wasn’t fair at all.  It was an inexcusable categorization.

Right?

Hold that thought.

~~~~~

Four months ago, I stood in a polling booth.  I saw two names before me.  Two presidential candidates.  Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  (Sure, there were a couple of others…but, we all know that they had no shot, so the race was essentially between the two of them).

Full disclosure?  I didn’t like either one of them.  I considered neither of them to be role models for my children.  I couldn’t imagine myself ever saying to my two sons, “Hey, boys!  When you grow up, I want to you to be like Donald Trump!”  And I couldn’t imagine myself ever saying to my three daughters, “Hey, girls!  When you grow up, I want you to be like Hillary Clinton!”  No way.  Truth be told, I could have probably thrown a dart into a crowd and hit someone who would be a better role model for my children than either one of them.  Truth be told, both of them did their fair share of unfair boxing and labeling during their campaigns.  The only difference between the two of them, in that regard, is that Hillary chose to use baskets instead of boxes (i.e. throwing half of Trump’s supporters into what she called a “basket of deplorables”).

So, I had a tough decision to make.  But, I had concluded, days earlier, that I would head to the polls to vote for the lesser of two evils.  And I had concluded that, in my mind, the lesser happened to be Donald Trump.  The man who was at the bottom of my list of conservatives that I wanted to emerge from the primaries was my only option.  I wasn’t pleased.  But, I did feel confident that, in a head-to-head match-up with Hillary Clinton, he would be the better candidate to lead our country.

So, I checked the box by his name.  I did so because I wanted to vote against his opponent, not because I wanted to vote for him.  I didn’t vote for anyone that day.  I voted against someone.  And I wasn’t the only one who did.  Millions upon millions did the same.  Ultimately, the person that we voted against was defeated.

Upon hearing of the defeat, some of the voters (notice I just said “some”, not “all”) who had checked the box next to Hillary’s name started pulling out boxes, and throwing anyone and everyone who had checked the box next to Trump’s name into them.  They sealed those boxes, and slapped label after label upon them:

RACIST.  ANTI-IMMIGRANT.  SEXIST.  NAZI.  MISOGYNIST.  XENOPHOBE.  (Just to name a few.)

And if you happened to be a Christian who voted for Trump?  Whoa.  Watch out.

HYPOCRITE.  IGNORANT OF BIBLICAL COMMANDS.  NOT A TRUE FOLLOWER OF CHRIST.  POSSESSING EMPTY FAITH.  HATEFUL.  CLOSE-MINDED.  UNLOVING.

Those are some incredibly hurtful labels.

Who knew that by (hesitantly) checking a box in a polling booth that you could draw such criticism and condemnation upon yourself?  Who knew?  Especially when you didn’t want to check ANY of the boxes in the first place?

After months of hearing all of the false labeling that has been going on, I have come to the realization that I have a few friends who now look at me differently than they did before election day last year.  That bums me out.  Big time.

What I want for them to know is that I am the same person now as I was before I walked into the polling booth.  My heart was not transformed behind the curtain on that November morning.  I did not walk in as one person and come out as another.  I shouldn’t even have to say that.  But, I am.  I am saying it because I still love the people who have slapped labels on me.  I love them.  They are my friends.  Although I sometimes wonder if they would now refer to me as one of theirs.

My reaction to this boxing and labeling process has been strikingly similar to the reaction I had, years ago, when that old veteran decided to take one look at my sweet Gracie and box her up.  My reaction has been similar to the one I had as I watched him throw my daughter into the same box as the Viet Cong.  My reaction has – ultimately – been one of sadness.  And, just as I told myself after witnessing that old veteran’s hurtful actions toward Grace, I’ve had to tell myself the same thing – over and over again – since November of last year.

Hurt people hurt people.  Hurt people hurt people.  Hurt people hurt people.

People are hurting because their candidate lost.  So, they are – in turn – prone to hurting other people.  That thought has helped me process some of the things I’ve heard, read, and seen.  But, it’s still tough .  Regardless of whether or not your accuser is hurting, it’s still tough to have your character questioned. Regardless of whether or not your accuser is hurting, it’s still tough to have your faith in Christ mocked.   Regardless of whether or not your accuser is hurting, it’s still tough to take shots from others, fearing that they no longer see you for who you are. Regardless of whether or not your accuser is hurting, it’s still tough to watch as your reputation plummets within the hearts and minds of some of your loved ones, simply because of a box that you (hesitantly) checked on election day.

I begrudgingly chose a box.  Because of that choice, some have chosen to place me in a box.  And they’ve placed millions upon millions of other Americans in there with me.

People are being thrown into boxes, right and left, these days.  But, this is nothing new.  We’ve been doing it for centuries, and some of our boxing and labeling processes have been clearly worse than others.  I’m not going to pretend that the box I’ve been thrown into lately is nearly as damaging as some of the other boxes that are out there.  There are some terrible ones.  I’m not going to pretend to understand what it is like to be trapped inside of a box that is truly oppressive.  But, I do know how it feels to be misunderstood,  and misplaced inside of a box that bears some harsh labels.

Gracie was once labeled as a member of the Viet Cong because of the box that she happens to check in the ethnicity category.  I, along with many of my family members and friends, have been labeled as racists (among other things) because of the box that we happened to check in the presidential category.

Are either of those labels okay?  Are either of them acceptable?

We should be defined by the content of our character.  We should be defined by our service to others.  We should be defined by our beliefs, and how those beliefs translate into words and actions.  We should be defined by how we have chosen to live our lives.

Are some of the folks who voted for Donald Trump actually racists?  Misogynists?  Members of the KKK?  Cold and apathetic toward the plight of immigrants?  Xenophobic?  I’m sure that there are some.  I’m sure of it.  But, all of them?  Good grief.

To those of you who have had loved ones question who you really are, and loved ones who are trying to redefine who you are, based on a box that you checked in November, please remember this.  Reputation is what men and women think of you.  Character is what God knows of you.  Your character is what matters.  And God is the One who truly knows your character.  Be ultimately concerned with what He thinks of you, not what others think.

Though some might now look at you and see the face of the political candidate you voted for, remember that God looks at you and sees your face.  He sees you.  He sees your actions.  He hears your words.  He knows your heart.  Stay focused on that, and find joy in that.  I know that can be hard, though.  It can be pretty hard to ignore the accusations.

Last month I found myself scrolling through a continuous stream of comments on social media which essentially sent out the message that if you voted for Trump, then you must be someone who cares nothing about immigrants…and you must be someone who cares nothing about Jesus’ command to welcome strangers, and help those in need.

What the what?!?

In addition to caring deeply about the plight of immigrants, I also happen to be someone who flew to the other side of the world – twice – to bring two of them (a Chinese boy and a Chinese girl) into my family so that I could care for them.  Forever.  As their mother.  And my husband and I are now in the process of bringing another one into our family in the near future.  In addition to wanting immigrants to be welcomed into my country, I also happen to be someone who actually went through months and months of paperwork to make sure that two of them could not only become members of the U.S., but also members of my family.   And as I sit here writing this today, there is a stack of paperwork piling up next to me that, once completed, will allow us to welcome home a third.  So, hearing claims that my check mark in the “Trump box” indicates that I don’t care about immigrants, strangers, and those in need, has been pretty painful.  I have a particularly hard time swallowing and digesting those accusations.

Over these past several months, I’ve done what I always do when confronted with issues that arise in my life.  As a Christian, who views Jesus as the Author and Perfecter of my faith, I like to ask, “What would Jesus think of all this?   What would he say?   What would He do?  How would He respond?”

Sometimes those are really tough questions to ask…seeing as how He is sinless and perfect, while I am a sinner and far from perfect.  Sometimes it’s really hard for imperfect me, in this imperfect world, to be in tune with the heart and mind of my perfect Savior.  But, even my imperfect mind is able to grasp the meaning of the words found in I Samuel 16:7.

“The Lord sees not as man sees.  Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

Christ isn’t in the business of boxing people up according to what is seen.  He is more interested in the unseen.  He isn’t concerned with the surface.  He looks deeper, because He is concerned with the condition of our hearts.  He isn’t interested in the boxes that we check.  He is interested in the lives that we lead.  He isn’t interested in making sweeping generalizations that lead to accusations.  He is interested in individual accountability.

“I tell you that each and every one of you will have to give account to me on the day of judgment…” (Matthew 12:36)

Boxes.  Stereotypes.  Generalizations.  Labels.  Categorizations.

I think Jesus couldn’t care less about those things.

But, I also think He couldn’t care more about each and every one of us.

He knows each and every one of us.  He looks into each and every one of our hearts.  He looks past our nationalities, our political check marks, our gender, and our race.  Those things don’t matter.  What does matter is the condition of our hearts, our beliefs, our words, and our actions.

If those things are what matter to Him – the Author and Perfecter of my faith – then those are the things that should matter to me, too.  And, quite frankly, I believe that they are the things that should matter to us all.

~~~~~

A few months ago, I decided to throw caution to the wind, and take all five of my children out to have lunch at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants.  (By myself, people.  BY MYSELF.  I’m happy to report that the kids all behaved well, and I survived.)

As we were walking out of the restaurant, I saw a gentleman seated in a booth with his wife.  He was wearing a cap that said “Vietnam Veteran” on it, and along with the cap, he was also wearing a smile.  Per usual, when spotting a veteran, I took a few moments to thank him for his service to our country.  He bashfully said, “You’re welcome.”  He then went on to comment on how much he had enjoyed watching my children during their meal.  His wife chimed in and said that they had five children as well, and that she knew what it was like to have a large family.  She said, “Having kids is like eating a bag of potato chips.  Once you have one, you just have to have more!”  It gave me a good laugh.  And it was such a relief to hear something different than the usual “Wow!  You’ve got your hands full!” type of response from a stranger, upon seeing my large family. The gentleman was rather quiet.  But, he asked each and every one of the kids to tell him their names, and just kept smiling at them.  It was a beautiful interaction.  A blessed encounter with a stranger.

Compare and contrast that veteran’s interaction with my Asian children to the interaction that the other veteran had with my Gracie, years ago.  Both took place in restaurants.  Both involved veterans from the Vietnam War.  Both men had most likely been hurt deeply by their war experiences.  Both men probably had some awful memories involving Asian soldiers.  But, their reactions to seeing my Asian children were vastly different from one another.

One reacted with bitterness.  One reacted with kindness.

One reacted by boxing and labeling.  One reacted by engaging in a warm conversation and searching for common ground.

One reacted by allowing the hurts of his past to be the lens through which he saw my daughter.  One reacted by pushing the hurts of his past aside in order to see my daughter (and her Asian brother) through a fresh, new lens.

One reacted as if he was looking into the face of an enemy.  One reacted as if he was looking into the face of a friend.

Friends, the next time we find ourselves pulling out our boxes, let’s call to mind our gut reaction to the unfortunate encounter that Gracie had in that restaurant, years ago.  Let’s call to mind the vision of that veteran looking at her tiny, innocent face, and quietly referring to her as a “little Charlie”.

The next time we find ourselves in the boxing and labeling process, let’s think long and hard about what we’re doing.  Let’s be careful.  Because if we aren’t, we might one day discover that we have become no different than that man who threw out a racial slur upon seeing my daughter’s Asian eyes. If we aren’t careful, we might one day discover that we have become no different than that man who threw my daughter into a box full of Viet Cong soldiers.  If we aren’t careful, we might one day discover that we have become the type of person that we claim to despise.  If we aren’t careful, we might one day discover that we have spent way too much time and energy transforming the faces of our friends into the faces of our enemies.

Today, as I reflect back on Grace’s unfortunate encounter, years after it occurred, I can’t help but feel badly for that elderly veteran.  I can’t help but pity him.  Why?  Because he missed something that day, as he looked into my daughter’s eyes.

When he looked at her, in that bustling restaurant, the first thing he saw was the face of an enemy.

Sadly, in doing so, he failed to see what was actually there.

The face of a friend.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“We are not enemies, but friends.  

Though passion may have strained us,

it must not break our bonds of affection.”

(Abraham Lincoln)

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