I cast my first ever vote in a presidential election for Bob Dole in 1996. I mention this fact not as a point of pride, but, on the contrary, to assert as Benedict did in Much Ado about Nothing: “I am not as I have been.”
In 1996, I was but two years old in Baptist years, it being that long since I had walked down the aisle of the local Southern Baptist church supposedly longing for salvation. By 1996, the strain wasn’t yet showing, and I could somehow still imagine myself belonging in this particular world. A part of this little world was the emphasis upon personal responsibility, as you might imagine in a religious community that emphasized the individual rejection of sin and embrace of God–we were not our brothers’ keepers. And this accorded well with how I was raised by parents who both went through the military. “Don’t whine” was probably the number one commandment around our house.
I was also an inveterate news watcher. I don’t know to what extent my memory is accurate, or whether it has cobbled together a variety of cases into one narrative, but one news story which stands out to me from the 1990s is this: a group of black Secret Service agents went to a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant and sat there for about an hour while the waitress on staff made no bones about ignoring them, even as she served her white customers; they subsequently sued the franchise for racial discrimination. I remember also my mom being livid about this. “If they didn’t like the service, why didn’t they just get up and leave!” she said, and as I was then, I couldn’t help but agree with her sentiments.
Why linger around people who obviously don’t want you there?
Not so long after Bob Dole wasted my vote, I began a year abroad in Japan, studying on scholarship at Sophia University (Jochi Daigaku) smack dab in the middle of Tokyo. Going from the modest city of Jonesboro, Arkansas, surrounded by rice and cotton fields, to one of the most populous cities on the planet was culture shock enough, though it’s easy getting used to metropolitan life when you’re swigging down beer on someone else’s dime. (Thanks, Century Tube corporation, for funding my year of debauchery!) However, the real shock had to do with simply being me.
I’m a fairly nondescript white blonde guy, tall enough that people regularly asked me if I was on the basketball team but not freakishly tall; moreover, I was largely a shy boy growing up and had long since perfected the art becoming invisible in a group. So the real shock to the system was going from the comfort of my environs to a place where I could not blend in to save my life, to a place where I was whiter and taller than anyone around me, so that even my ability to parse the lingo a bit could not make me any less than a gaijin. Reading some of pop literature’s take on Japanese culture–James Clavell’s Shogun or Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun (terrible books, both)–prepared me for the fact that Japanese people would well regard me as a barbarian on first sight, and so I wasn’t terribly surprised when groups of older Japanese women, so short and prim, would cross the street if they saw me walking toward them on the sidewalk. Hell, I told myself, if I was but four feet tall and walking home at night, I might do the same.
Rather late in my year in Tokyo, I discovered the most interesting bar in Shinjuku, one of the posher districts of the city. It was called Mama’s Diner, which fact just reveals how much the Japanese are in love with English words and how little they understand just how those words should be properly used. (It’s their counterpart to our tattoo culture, revenge for all those fake Japanese symbols drawn on Americans’ flesh.) Now, I’ve eaten in many establishments called Mama’s Diner or some variant thereof, and this was nothing like them. For starters, the employers all wore tight black jumpsuits and dour expressions that seemed part of some competition in existentialist gloom. The tables were all irregularly shaped, the sort of thing that Picasso might have designed had he been a furniture maker. The dim lighting made this a serious place. But what we often debated was the soundtrack–we could never figure out whether we were hearing some postmodern composition being broadcast from the bar’s sound system or whether the doorbell was simply malfunctioning: doo-doo, dooooo-doo-doo, and so on, incessantly.
Not the most comfortable place to park yourself for a pint, but we went nonetheless because it had a nice, wide range of beers–even Tusker from Kenya, one of my new favorites. Not bad for a place called Mama’s Diner. The first few times I went there were with just one or two other folk, one of them always Japanese, However, one night, a few of us gaijin hanging in the dormitory were casting about for something to do, and when I raised the idea of venturing to Mama’s Diner, they all embraced it enthusiastically.
So the four of us ventured down to Shinjuku. At the door of Mama’s Diner, we were told that the bar was full and that we’d have to wait for a table. No problem at all–there was a bench just outside, and so we parked ourselves for what we imagined would be just a few minutes. Folks came out, but we were not fetched. And then, to our consternation, a group of Japanese folk showed up and were waved right in. The guy at the door didn’t forget about us–no, he looked right at us before he invited these nice people in. Well, we finally told ourselves, maybe they called ahead. Maybe they had reservations. And so we waited. And then more people showed up and were waved inside. Others exited. We tried to keep up hope as this happened again and again, and then finally the doorman came out to us, and we thought, yes, this is it, time for our beers. But instead, he told us that they would be closing soon (most Japanese bars close ridiculously early, some even before midnight), and they would not be able to serve us.
As I remember it, we walked home. We had waited so long that the trains stopped running. I remember most about that walk back to our dormitory the fact that we didn’t say all that much. I remember also the feeling of shame. And then my mind cast itself back to those black guys sitting in some Jack-in-the-Box restaurant waiting for an hour while their white waitress ignored their desire to be served. I don’t know why that particular news story had lodged itself in my brain, but there it was, and I knew why they had waited and not gone somewhere else, somewhere with better service. They had waited because they did not want to believe what they were experiencing. They had waited because they did not want to believe that the world was like it was, then and there.
Now, this is not to say that I had a sudden insight into the lives of African Americans and historical patterns of discrimination that have relegated them, and other minorities, to second-class citizenship. I cannot claim that. But what I can say was that I suddenly knew that I did not know. I had made assumptions about how citizens in a liberal polity in the twentieth century should operate but knew nothing about the reality of people’s experience, how these repeated microagressions, these little everyday acts that can’t be legislated against, could lead to a fundamental loss of dignity. We walked back to our dormitory in silence because to talk about what had happened, to rail against the doorman or the whole establishment of Mama’s Diner, would be to acknowledge that we were accounted less than people in someone’s eyes.
We do not know what we do not know, and so it is incumbent upon us to listen, really to listen, and not to dismiss something out of hand because what someone says might not fit into our little world. We do not know what we do not know, but if we human beings have a Great Commission which we must fulfill, it is to go ye therefore and listen to all the nations, for it is only by listening and taking seriously the experience of others that we can begin to understand.