A few weeks before meeting her I had learned a new lesson about white folks. As it turns out, in general, white folks don't like being referred to as white folks. They sometimes find it racist and at the very least it seems to be impolite. This was a big surprise for me because I had pretty much spent my whole life referring to groups of people by race. When I was little it was a way of helping me understand how I fit in culturally. White folks didn't use chopsticks at the table. I was different because I was Chinese. Chinese folks eat rice and speak Chinese and really, really, really like the color red. It wasn't a label that implied quality, just difference.
As I got older, it seemed natural to speak this way because it seemed like everyone around me spoke that way. My Korean friends joked about white people and their Korean music. I would overhear black kids in the hallway imitating the way "white people" talked. My Chinese friends and I referred to "Chinese parents" as a culture in it of itself, a phrase used to describe the often expected strictness, importance on musical ability, and academic success. My friend and I joked that Jewish people weren't really white, they were Chinese.
Looking back, I can now recognize that these comments were almost exclusively made by minorities/people of color. Looking back, I realize that they were never made in mixed company. I'm an idiot. How did it take me so long to realize this? Jokes that are funny to people of color are not funny to white people. And sometimes they even find them offensive.
I guess it's because white folks are raised to be scared to talk about differences. Our parents' generation was that of the "melting pot" and "color blind" philosophy. People were people. To recognize that people were different based on race was dangerous because you might be a racist. It was better to pretend or work to a point where race wasn't even noticed. And so that's the message, however explicit or implicit that was passed on to their children. [Clearly this is just a guess - my own attempt to understand. I wasn't raised white. I have no idea.]
On the other hand, those of us who fall in the category of "other" can't really ignore race and culture. In fact, I think it's learned/taught very early on, that paying attention to the rules of white folks is necessary to survival because they're the dominant culture.
For example, when I was six or so, I was playing at my friend's house and was invited to stay over for dinner. I helped set the table and the dinner seemed to be going fine. At this point I had already learned the differences in food and utensils. Chinese food was eaten with chopsticks. White people food was eaten with forks and knives and spoons. Towards the end of the meal, I got to the awkward point where there was just a few bites of food left on my plate. I tried to get my spoon to pick it up, but there wasn't enough leverage and I watched myself chase it around on my plate. The pieces were too small for a fork. I pondered what to do.
Throwing out the food was not an option. That would be wasteful. My dad had been very clear about that. So, though it seemed awkward, the plate was so big, I decided to lift the plate so that the edge was too my lips. We did that all the time at home with our bowls. In fact, it's how you eat rice with chopsticks. As soon as I got the plate to my lips, I realized that perhaps this had been the wrong decision. It was so heavy, that it was hard for me to maneuver my other hand to push the rest of the food into my mouth. And if that weren't enough of a hint, I heard my friend protest (I couldn't actually see her since the plate was so large and in my face), "She's putting the plate to her mouth! You can't do that!" Her mom quickly hushed her, "People are taught different manners."
Needless to say, I was embarrassed. I finished as quickly as I could. Then I tried to pretend that nothing had happened. We all did. I also worried that now they thought me and my family were uncultured and rude. I worried that she thought I had bad parents who hadn't taught me good manners. This seemed to be of special concern to me since many of the manners I had been taught revolved around how to interact with adults and how to show respect: "Did you go say hi and say 'a yi'?" "Make sure you thank 'shu shu' for that." Manners and respect seemed to be linked. Had I just disrespected my friend's mother? My host?
And so that's how I learned that white folks didn't put anything but cups and utensils to their mouths. I find it hard to believe that that's a racist statement. But I guess, then again, if it bothers white folks, it's not like I have to go around pointing it out.