Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Short Break and the USA Version of Welcome Wagon

I have many stories I want to share about Cuba. I wanted to write about meeting the Cuban Nikkei, but I've saved that for when I have some days. It will be long. It was the heart of our journey.

Suddenly my days became full. Fun side, Bettie Sing Luke is coming to buy apples, a craving she never shook after returning to her beloved Seattle from a ten year stint here in Eugene. Immediately following her visit is my youngest brother Marcus Amerman who's on his way from Santa Fe to do a residency in the Washington art institute for glass. Marcus is a remarkable artist and designer, and Buffalo Man, but that's another story. And soon after Marcus Winnemem Head Man Mark franco and his dad will take a much needed break from the tribal duties regarding the US government, now that the papers have been sent off, and hang out some in Eugene. Saturday Market! Cheap movies!

This onslaught of dear friends necessitated a major rehaul of rooms so that both rooms are bedrooms. The junk room is no more. The giftbags for future TK Cuba trips are in closets. (Yes, we are TK forever. Even if we cannot go I will always gather. Whenever I go into a store, my eyes are caught by potential omiage at a great price!) Washed laundry folded and put away. Piles sorted through, recycled or filed. Just in time!

The other part of the last few days circles around a situaation which I learned about only by accident. I've been a human rights commissioner for about five years. I recently resigned a year early and was attending my last meeting, a meeting which promised to be slow and short. In the casual conversation at the end of our meeting, one of the commissioners who is the city councilor liaison to the commission dropped a bomb. He said about three or four weeks before apparently there had been a terrible misunderstanding. A landlord called the police about a possible break in to one of his properties. This property often had people spending the night illegally. The police responded and peeked in the window. Sure enough, two guys in sleeping bags. The police knocked on the door. If you have ever had a visit by the police you know the knock. The door was opened by a young Chinese man. The councilor said they found out later that he was a Chinese international student, new to the US, very little practice with English. Of course, George said, the police knew no Chinese. The police officers ordered him to back up into the room (again, if you have ever been visited by the police you've heard it -- kind of like football players coming out of their huddle, only longer and with a gun behind it).

The student stood there and stared (we know why. He's in shock and doesn't speak English) and the police ordered him again, then put him to the floor and handcuffed him. They went further into the room and another Chinese man was now sitting up in his sleeping bag. The police ordered him to stand. He did not -- and now they know it is because he did not speak English well, he was awakened, and he was being yelled at by armed cops with his roommate handcuffed on the floor). Finally, he must have guessed and started to rise as he was ordered -- and the officer tazed him.

In this town our police chief defends adopting tazers after much debate assuring the public that they are only being used as an alternative to deadly force.

So a guy getting out of a sleeping bag -- as ordered -- his "accomplice" down and handcuffed, puts the fear of death into the officer. There is absolutely nothing more deadly than an Asian guy getting out of a sleeping bag, hair messed up, wakened from a sound sleep. Hundreds of volts were sent through his body, flopping, and finally he is subdued.

Then, as the paper the next day reported, the landlord hears the taze from the outside, and peeks in and "omigosh!" He recognizes the handcuffed guy as someone who came by to pick up keys that afternoon. He rushes in and tells the police, "There's been a horrible mistake. These are renters!"

The news article ends saying that the young students were given two month's free rent by the landlord. Tickles my heart.

When the city counselor finished telling us the story at the meeting he added, "It's public record. I'm surprised you haven't heard about it." He looked at me. " I think they're trying to do something about it. Get a translator. Apologize. I wonder why it wasn't brought up at the Police Commission. "

(You know, I can possibly answer each of those rhetorical questions. I haven't heard about it because tazer abuse is kept under wraps especially if the victim and the community he is seen as part of means nothing to the city. They don't care. It wasn't brought up at the police commission because the anti-tazer people whom the police see as enemy might hear about. Those pesky nay sayers are always at police commission and human rights commission meetings waiting for something like what just happened that night).

By then my face was hot. With as much calm as I could muster, as I blessed the councilor in my heart for letting us know, I said aloud, these young students are going to need more than a person with language facility. They need to get hooked up with people who will know what they're going through, not just speak their language. They need to feel safe. I have two names, David Tam and elder Ada Lee. Could you please let someone know to get in touch with them and hook them up with the youth.

That seems to be the hardest thing to accomplish for the city. A week later and still not done.

Human Rights Commission meetings are public. As commissioner my responsibility was to let people in my community know. First I called David Tam who is mentored by Ada our elder, first Asian to come to Eugene back in the Forties and supportive of every newcomer -- and Chinese. Theirs will be a private meeting, one on one with the students. Then I emailed the police chief and the auditor asking both of them for two meetings -- one with David and Ada and the other with a group from the Asian community. I emailed community activists from various Asian communities re-telling the story and asking if they would be interested in meeting with the Chief.

It is easier to mobilize the activists than to get a frigging message to the students because they are now surrounded. The morning paper headlined with their story. They now have counsel. The UO is understandably concerned. They have a huge agreement with China, teaching their youth sent to "safe Eugene"-- those who don't live in our skin may think it is a veritable oasis in America untouched by racism -- to learn English. Needless to say this story hit the Peking newspaper stands at the same time it hit the RG stands. The UO got the students a lawyer sooner than I could write this sentence. But again, has this institution gotten in touch with the community? APA students are off their radar -- (sarcastically said) they don't suffer from discrimination. In the Office of Institutional Diversity in Education, there is a vice provost, no less, of Native American Affairs, African American Affairs, Latino Affairs . . . . That's it. It is hard for the Asian voice to get into the UO.

The phone call I got today says the students are quite anxious and fearful. I finally got a phone number of the students' lawyer and relayed my message that if the students would like support from the Chinese community -- private, personal, familiar support, -- there are people here who are more than happy to be there for them who understand what they are going through.

You know, I don't know if David and Ada will ever get their message to the students. I truly don't. I know it is not David and Ada's style to continue to try to initiate their willingness to support the students. They won't butt in.

I know certain groups think they've got everything covered -- the police chief with his illusive translator, the landlord with his free rent, maybe even the advocate with the suit. But no one knows the inexplicable feeling of shame, the embarrassment of the public eye, the big "to do" when all they're trying to do is to study and to experience Oregon, the flashes of thoughts which came with the glare of the flashlight, the metallic click, the Tarzan shouting, the excruciating pain, the numb-brain for days -- "Where are we? Where in god's name did we come to?"

"Welcome to being Chinese in the USA."

The question remains: Are these two students going to be able to hook up with the America which each community fashions out of necessity, off the radar because we are perpetual strangers and therefore invisible, and underground because we are distinctly American Asians, and survivors.

The other of my emails to the activists started a wave of response which traveled up north for sure to Portland and connected us south with San Jose where a young SE Asian youth was tazed so badly that even professionals are saying "abuse." And distinctly USA, you can catch the assault and the screaming on YouTube. A letter has been shot out from one person signed by many, a meeting arranged for us to get together and hammer out what we will want to say to the Chief. Definitely, every city official I wrote to is most willing to meet with the group. a bit concerned because they have been told by many non-Asians that they screwed up.

But the young men. What of them? Not as "the issue" but as two students, far from their family and country, in a whirl of yellow leaves, rain, and a sea of white faces.

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"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.