While I did not do much learning about the gastrointestinal system, I did make sure to broaden my horizons in other areas. They say that the best way to truly learn new vocabulary words is to use them. So in the spirit of this, I shall continue to cement this weekend's lesson by way of this blog:
Similar to our Wetback situation in the United States, what to do about the Boatpeople is a controversial topic in Australian politics.
Proving that educational moments come in places beyond the classroom, I learned this new vocabulary word at a party that I went to a few days ago. Birthdays, desserts, and drinks, oh my! And then ignorance reared its ugly head. This always happens. I think some people believe that I go around looking for arguments and that I provoke them. Certainly, some of the eyes that were rolling during the conversation indicated to me that this might be the case. But honestly, I don't even know how we got there.
Somehow the topic of racism was jokingly raised. The next thing I knew, I could feel the conversation escalating. The group had somehow started shifting from party-jokey-jokey conversation where everyone was involved to we-are-arguing-but-trying-to-remain-friendly-and-pretend-its-still-a-fun-time exchange between two people.
I was told that while there might be racism against Asian people some places, there are also places where that isn't a problem. A shining example of that is Australia.
Time out. So what do you do? You can't just let a comment like that go, but how do you proceed with this conversation in a setting of fun without making things angry or awkward? It's a topic that I often discuss with my girlfriend. In the past I've tried to just nip it in the bud and then move on. In cases where someone uses a word like “gay” to mean “stupid” it's simple. “Please don't use that word that way. I think it's demeaning to queer people.” Sometimes that works, but then once someone got defensive and argued back with me and then it was angry and awkward. Plus, it's not a good strategy for missteps that are a bit more complicated.
Then there's the gentle white people approach of trying to ask questions to point out inconsistencies or stereotyping: “Oh that's interesting. You could tell that he went to community college just by looking at him?” But then sometimes they're so obtuse that the point is lost completely. In this case I was given a detailed description of how you can tell a Michigan student from a Washtenaw County Community College student by appearances alone. Yet another learning moment.
Sometimes if it has really pissed me off, I just say something equally as mean later.
Boatpeople just need to go back to their own country.
In this case I tried to take the deferent approach without backing down. I recognized that though I had never lived in Australia, I had only visited for a few weeks, there were things that I noticed there that seemed to say otherwise. I cited the national politician that ran on the platform of “stopping the Asian Invasion.” I was rebutted that they weren't elected. (Maybe we were thinking of different people but the politician I was talking about was elected to office.) I pointed out that though most stores close in Australia by 8 or 9, there are a handful of stores that are open late or all night. They're staffed solely by Asian people. And while there might seem to be a bunch of Asian people running around in suits in Sydney, what about all the Asian people who work the labor jobs that are more invisible to people like us? And then she said, “Oh, you mean the boatpeople?”
I was shocked into silence. After a moment I guess I switched strategies and just tried to point out the absurdity of what was just said. “There's a word for it? You have a word that everybody recognizes in common usage?” It was explained to me that boatpeople were “the illegals.” If I had a bit more presence of mind I might have been able to say something like, “You're right. We have a word similar to boatpeople in the States. It's wetbacks and it's for Mexican people. But just like you guys, there isn't any racism against Mexicans here.”
I actually can't totally remember how the conversation ended. I think people were laughing. I tried to say something more but it was clear that I was being seen as having a stick up my butt. And it passed with me feeling like my point had not come across and feeling like everyone thought I was jerk.
Less than 24 hours later I was sitting in a bar with a different group of friends and was told while he was shaking his head, “I'm all for ethic food, but Traditional Chinese food smells.” No one said anything. I don't know if anyone even realized how awful a statement it was. If anyone did, no one came to my rescue. And I was tired of this and angry; it was so close on the heels of the night before and the last thing I wanted was another lose-lose situation where I had to chose between letting hurtful things slide or knowing that everyone was wishing that I would just shut up.
So then I didn't say anything. But then it I couldn't control the hurt and anger. Before I could even think about it, later, randomly in the conversation I snapped back an insult that was supposed to point out his whiteness, but also mistakenly insulted his girlfriend. Though I felt remorse for the collateral damage, it seemed impossible to unpack everything that had happened in any reasonable way. And so for the rest of the night she didn't smile at me and I didn't know what to do.
Boatpeople are irrationally mean and angry people that are prone to randomly insult white people at bars when everyone else is just trying to enjoy themselves.
There. I've used it three times now. Consider it learned.