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Posted on Sun, Oct 3, 2010 : 6:12 a.m.

Only in the Midwest: Trying to line up stereotypes, cultural background, intuition and reality

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

fkwang trailabike.jpg

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 naïve 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 Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for 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 and her blog at She can be reached at



Thu, Jun 23, 2011 : 9:21 a.m.

Wow, i guess you are lucky Mrs.Wang. As an Chinese-American I've lived in the midwest for 10 years (NE) and has never had that kind of hopitality showered on me. Over here you hardly see any white American even sitting next to an Asian American. We are mostly ignored. But aside from that the midwest is such a great place! Quiet and less competitive. I like it here. lol. @DF Smith, I'm sorry since when can't a minority Asian woman voice her thoughts? Lighten' up! Great article :)


Mon, Oct 4, 2010 : 2:45 p.m.

This is a lovely essay about a kind stranger and how we're all trained to be afraid of each other. As a woman, I know I would be afraid if a strange man stopped and blocked my path while I was riding a bicycle. It's nice to know that sometimes strangers are kind. And it's also nice to know that I'm not the only person who'd feel fear. This balancing act--a reasonable sense of fear of strangers versus a desire to connect with fellow humans--is at the center of this essay. Brava, Frances, for tackling these issues with such grace and humor.


Mon, Oct 4, 2010 : noon

"(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.)" Haha...that is pretty funny.


Mon, Oct 4, 2010 : 8:48 a.m.

"... My Aunt Lily recently gave me a long lecture on how naïve 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.)" Yes, even as a native-born & raised American, I've long been aware of how people in this culture typically prefer to talk "around" daily issues, and that many will feel uncomfortable with anything resembling a direct approach. Addressing mutual concerns or interests head-on, even when done calmly and politely, may well be interpreted as a challenge or confrontation rather than an attempt at efficient resolution which takes into account all sides. Along these lines, it's long been postulated that the convention of "Southern hospitality" developed in the pre-Civil War years among whites as a means to cope with the daily social unpleasantries of their slave-based economy. ------------ "... 'what crazy thing white people might do...'  Uncalled for. Not infrequently, and often in the context of complaints against affirmative action, minorities will be told by the larger culture that discrimination is historically over & done with, and that it's high time for them to "just get over it" and move on. Yet, over and over, it seems that no one is more militantly hypersensitive to perceived bias than conservative whites whenever they detect even an appearance of reverse discrimination. Then again, maybe comments like the one quoted above merely intend to provoke.


Mon, Oct 4, 2010 : 7:05 a.m.

Wow, did we really not learn the lesson of Shirley Sharrod from earlier this summer? Are we seriously arguing that we do not carry racial biases or those that admit that they have do in an effort to eliminate them are wrong for doing so? What Ms Wang has done here, similar to what Ms Sharrod did this summer, is provide us with a window into her private thoughts and walked us through her own unpacking of bias based on race. A generous gift to us so we might have the courage to do the same. By publicly admitting bias for us to contemplate doesn't make her a bigot, it makes her a valuable voice in today's sound bite world. If you failed to get that message from Ms Sharrod or Ms Wang, I'm not sure if you are really paying attention... rulieg; are you purporting that there are no racial biases left in the US any longer OR maybe history is wrong and racial tensions and brutality based on race have been lets-pretend? Or maybe it's just that those that admit having initial race based apprehensions but then FOLLOW THROUGH to unpack them (lets not forget that she did that) are race-baiters? You're gonna need to take that up with quite a few researchers including the ones from the link below as well as millions of average Americans. Wishing that there were no racial tensions doesn't make them go away. What Ms Wang is offering us over time and lots of it, does.


Sun, Oct 3, 2010 : 7:41 p.m.

Verbal tap dancing, to diminish a bigoted remark, does not change reality.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Sun, Oct 3, 2010 : 7:29 p.m.

Yes, paraphrasing Maya Angelou in paragraph 3 who grew up in the segregated South and had to learn how and when to trust CaucasiansWhy are they being nice to her? What do they want? What do they mean? For me, of a different age and a different background, it was shocking to hear someone even have stereotypes of Caucasians. In my experience, Caucasians are often taken as blank slates upon which to write our impressions, whereas people of color come with a set of stereotypes and assumptions which have to be overcome first. Caucasians are the norm against which everyone elses differences are cast. By big city training in paragraph 2, all I meant was dont talk to strangers. Ms. Nelson got it exactly right. This article is not even about race, but the different ways in which we perceive and categorize people, how we read and misread people, and how we make sense of our experiences. It is about understanding Midwesterners, people who drive nice cars, older people, professional people, bicyclists, men, women, strangers, smooth talkers, etc. It is about wanting to understand and be understood, about knowing when it is safe to trust, about intuition lining up with reality. It is about little girls who wish they could be blond so that they could be beautiful, women who wish they could be 30 again, people who yearn to be normal (whatever that means). It is about a person who did a nice thing for a stranger not because he was a Midwesterner (there were lots of other Midwesterners driving down Green Road who did not stop to help) but because he was a nice person willing to act, and appreciating that generosity rather than simply attributing it to the Midwest.


Sun, Oct 3, 2010 : 5:28 p.m.

Ms. Nelson - If you reread the second paragraph, it it clear the author is not quoting or paraphrasing anyone, she was recalling her "old training". So, please do not, in caps especially, suggest the article be read before reacting. On the contrary, perhaps you should follow your own advice. Racism in any form is disgusting.


Sun, Oct 3, 2010 : 3:26 p.m.

@Elizabeth- just so you know, Frances, under the cover of multi-culturalism, has a habit of making uncalled for comments, based on stereotypes. For example, look at the stories she wrote around Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2009. As an Asian, I was disgusted by the sort of comments she made, denigrating the caucasian family members of her husband.

Elizabeth Nelson

Sun, Oct 3, 2010 : 2:21 p.m.

@ AlphaAlpha... stop to READ something before the knee-jerk reaction. She was quoting (or paraphrasing) Maya Angelou. Seems crazy to imagine that stereotypes and overly-broad assumptions might apply to whites, too? Those are only for MINORITIES, right? Good grief...! Cute story. A shame about the comments, ignore them...geez.


Sun, Oct 3, 2010 : 2:09 p.m.

"...what crazy thing white people might do..." Uncalled for.


Sun, Oct 3, 2010 : 1:54 p.m.

I'm going to write a story for it's going to be about how I was downtown and a black man came up to me, and I was scared of course because you never know what black people will do--I read that in a book somewhere. but it turns out that he was just trying to give me a $20 bill that had dropped out of my pocket. now I have learned an important lesson about black people and how they're not always trying to rob you. do you think my story would be published, as was the one above? should this writer get a medal for having her prejudices proved wrong? but of course, in a column called "Adventures in Multicultural Living," what can you expect...


Sun, Oct 3, 2010 : 12:13 p.m.

I hate to rain on your parade Frances but, from your description, the guy that fixed your bike was probably an engineer and wanted to fix your bike because it bother him to see something broken. Especially something that he could easily fix. His concern for you and your son were probably secondary.