Only in the Midwest: Trying to line up stereotypes, cultural background, intuition and reality
Biking to soccer practice with my son, Little Brother
photo courtesy of my daughter Margot
My son and I were biking on our cool blue and gold Trail-a-Bike down Green Road on our way to soccer practice Thursday evening, when a tall, trim, gray-haired, nicely dressed, 50-ish gentleman in a shiny black BMW pulled over in front of us and waved at us to stop.
My first reaction came out of my old big city training, “Who is this crazy old white guy and what is he trying to do to us? Kidnap us? Dismember us?”
(I have been reading Maya Angelou and she cannot help worrying about what crazy thing white people might do next, her experience finds them completely unpredictable.)
It was a busy street and we were out in the open (and he was blocking my path) so I figured no harm in stopping to see what he wanted. I did not want to be rude. I could always bike away to safety faster than he could turn his car around.
Turns out there was something seriously wrong with our Trail-a-Bike that I could not see. He noticed it while driving behind us, debated whether to stop and then decided to pull over. I could not get over the amazement that anyone would bother to stop. Once we diagnosed the problem, I realized we needed an Allen wrench, so it would probably have to wait until I got home. But no! He had an Allen wrench in his car. He explained that he always carries his mountain bike in his trunk. He must have spent at least 20 minutes with us on the side of the road fixing our bike. He even made us ride around Bennett’s parking lot to make sure everything was working OK before letting us go.
My son shouted, “Thanks, Mister!” and I laughed at how 1950s that sounded.
Days later, I remain stunned that a stranger could be so kind to a young mother and one small boy. I never even asked his name.
Only in the Midwest, I suppose.
No. The cultural answer is too easy, and discredits the nice man who came to our rescue expecting nothing in return. There are (a few) mean people in the Midwest, too, and nice people in New York.
Maybe it was just him.
I love the line by George Clooney’s character in "Up in the Air." He says, “I’m like my mother. I stereotype, it’s faster.”
The challenge is learning to distinguish between the stereotype and the real person underneath so as not to see people through the shimmer of a stereotypical lens but to be able to interpret and account for that lens. And to be able to appreciate the nuances and colors of difference. Canadians, for example, are stereotyped as so nice and polite; yet they can still break one’s heart, but so nicely one does not even realize it. My Aunt Lily recently gave me a long lecture on how naÃ¯ve I am to trust all the sweet things smooth-talking Americans tell me. “Americans” know how to talk, and I need to learn their language. (She did not mean English.)
Yet there are moments when I simply want to believe it is possible to see and be seen by another, to just be people, “normal people,” where things are not so complicated and my intuition lines up with reality. The mainstream takes this for granted, as they are the ones who define “normal.” I marvel at how precious and rare these sorts of simple and straightforward moments are.
Thanks, Mister. You do not know it, but you did more than fix my bike.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang has been away for the summer working on a book project but now resumes her thrice-weekly column, Adventures in Multicultural Living, looking at how our lives are lived with, between and amongst the many different cultures and peoples in our communities.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of IMDiversity.com Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for AnnArbor.com and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at franceskaihwawang.com and her blog at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.