Are We There Yet?

I imagine my father as a small boy, sitting on stone steps. Chin in hand, he glares at the dry towel and swim trunks he’s thrown beside him. The façade of the Hayward Plunge, a public swimming pool near his Oakland, California home, stands in harsh rebuke. How dare you, it seems to say, Chinese aren’t allowed. Not until the end of the month. An hour earlier he’d tried to push his way in with his crowd of friends—all white friends from Cleveland Elementary—but was pulled aside. Not you, they’d told him, pointing at the door. Even if he had told them that he was a fourth-generation American—the truth—it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Later he would know that “Yellow Day” was the next to last day of the month. The last day of the month was “Black Day.” When the last black swimmer exited The Plunge, the pool was drained and scrubbed, then refilled with freshly chlorinated water, ready for a month of “White Days.”

His friends should be done in an hour, maybe two. Shading his eyes from the California sun, he studies the traffic along Mission Boulevard. There’s a brand new 1940 model Cadillac just like his father’s. There’s the bus for the Cleveland Heights neighborhood, the route they need to take home. He memorizes the bus numbers that stop here. After three Cleveland Heights buses pass, he starts to sweat, black hair hot to the touch.

When his friends finally emerge—wet hair combed into blonde and brunette rooster-tails, chlorine smell in the damp of their towels, loud boasts about who can hold his breath the longest—he brushes off his pants and falls in line. When the bus arrives, he sits silent on the ride back to their neighborhood.

*     *     *

As the mellow strains of “Crystal Blue Persuasion” wafted from my clock radio—always tuned to KFRC, the Bay Area’s rock station—I closed my bedroom door and pushed aside the heap of dresses on my bed. I’m such a dork, I thought, I’ve got nothing to wear to my first high school dance! I fingered a homemade white polyester number, the one with the zipper that I’d accidentally sewed shut, snipped open, and resewed three times that summer. Mom had helped me pick the pattern, its modest V-neckline and long puffy sleeves perfect for church. And that was the best of the lot. All my other dresses—A-lines, shirtwaists, and shapeless shifts—had hems at the knee, the proper length for the Lutheran parochial school which, in 1969, I’d just graduated from.

When the last black swimmer exited The Plunge, the pool was drained and scrubbed, then refilled with freshly chlorinated water, ready for a month of “White Days.”

My best option—indeed, my only option—was the green-and-cream herringbone wool jumper with a high-necked Victorian blouse I’d just received for my thirteenth birthday. The deep U of the jumper dipped beneath my bustline, accentuating my small breasts. Its hemline struck mid-thigh, six inches above the knee. Although the blouse and jumper were school clothes, they were far more fashionable than anything else in my closet. I pulled on my blouse and jumper, rolling up my slip so it wouldn’t hang below the hemline. Instead of cabled knee socks, I slid on cream-colored fishnet tights, carefully leaving three inches at the toes and folding them under before sliding on my boots. I hated when my toes got strangled in the fishnet holes.

Dad looked up from his medical journal, peering at me through thick black-rimmed glasses as my heels clicked across our family room’s wood parquet floor. He took it all in: the faintest blue eyeshadow, the thread of eyeliner behind my black cat-eye glasses. The slight curl at the bottom of my waist-length hair. The cream-colored fishnets tucked into white go-go boots.

“Where are you going?” he barked, his crew-cut as severe as his expression. His face held no hint of a smile.

I recoiled at the unexpected heat in his voice. I tried to be nonchalant, enunciating clearly around the new metal braces on my teeth, but my voice trembled. “Umm… there’s a dance tonight. It’s Friday.”

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” His face was still unreadable, but there was an edge I couldn’t quite name.

Because I just met some new friends and they’re counting on me, I wanted to say. I swelled with pride. Two weeks into my freshman year, I’d already found a group of girls I could look for at “our spot” on the lawn at lunchtime. With them, it was easy to fit in. They’d just graduated from Holy Ghost; I’d graduated from Prince of Peace. We shared the parochial cloak of penance and guilt. From them I got a quick lesson on Catholic strictures: school uniforms, cruel nuns, and Stations of the Cross. I told them about my seventh grade teacher, mimed how he’d hurl erasers at misbehaving students. We all laughed with relief that those days were over.

I was especially glad of their attention. For five years, from fourth through eighth grade, I’d been virtually friendless, unexpected fallout from our move to the milk-white California Bay Area suburbs. Mom insisted that my brother and I attend a Lutheran parochial school, as she had years ago in Oakland. Not only were we the only minorities in a sea of Germans, we were also forever the “new” kids. I was an impossible interloper, an awkward Chinese girl with buck teeth and turquoise cat-eye glasses, already a year and a half younger than my fourth grade classmates when word got out that they wanted to skip me another grade. No one invited me over. Mom shrugged, saying only, “Well, maybe it’s your fault you don’t have any friends.”

But now everything could change. Instead of thirteen kids, there were over 500 in my freshman class. I was ready to remake myself, I had something to prove. No one knew I was so young. I steadied myself; I wasn’t used to defying Dad.

“Because I thought it’d be fun! I haven’t been to a dance before.” Before he could object, I assured him, “Oh, and I’m getting a ride there and back, so that’s taken care of.” I was proud that I’d thought ahead. I knew better than to inconvenience him or Mom with my plans.

Dad’s shoulders slumped as he shook his head. But why? Was he upset that he wasn’t going to win this argument? Was he distressed at my new assertiveness? Did he think I was too young to be out with boys?

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” he repeated, but now his tone had turned bitter. What he said next shocked me. “Because no white boy is going to ask you to dance.”

*     *     *

Almost forty years later, as I readied my late parents’ house for sale, I came across a thick tattered file marked, in my mother’s hand, simply “Castlewood.” An odd unease fluttered in my chest. Castlewood Country Club, originally built as a residence for the Hearst family in the dry heat of the Pleasanton foothills, was at that time the premier country club in the East Bay, boasting two golf courses and two clubhouses. My parents had joined the club in 1970; my wedding reception was held there in 1984.

But there was something wrong, the stink of a story passed down. Mom must have told me, because Dad wouldn’t have. He could pretend—and hope—that none of life’s disappointments would touch me, if only he could keep them to himself. But his war with Castlewood, and with himself, remained a scourge.

“Why do you want to go to a dance?” he repeated. “Because no white boy is going to ask you to dance.”

When we moved to California in 1964, Dad took up golf. At first my brother and I laughed—wasn’t golf an old man’s sport? But for Dad, a young doctor with a new private practice, it became a vital link. Not only was it a personal challenge, it was the perfect vehicle to socialize with colleagues. The theory was simple: if you like someone, you’ll refer work to them. Businessmen and businesswomen have used this tactic—golf, Rotary, community fundraisers—for years.

By 1966, Dad was playing golf twice a week. Most Sunday mornings he’d be on the links with his doctor friends, returning home tired and happy, tan lines on his arms. He’d mix himself a drink and press himself into his easy chair. Other times he was more circumspect. Four hours on a golf course told you much about a man. “I won’t play with him again,” Dad said one afternoon. “He cheats. And if you cheat at golf, you cheat at everything.”

Often Dad was invited to Castlewood Country Club, rounding out a foursome of doctors. But there was a hitch: as a guest there wasn’t a way to reciprocate. “Your money’s no good here,” his friends would joke, reaching for the bar bill, the lunch bill, the greens fees silently slipped onto their tabs. Dad felt uncomfortable, used to paying his own way and more. His friends enthusiastically sponsored him, so he applied for membership.

Castlewood turned him down. The day it happened, Mom took me aside. “He was blackballed,” she whispered.

Blackballed. Two years later, when I defied our Lutheran-Missouri Synod pastor and joined the Rainbow Girls, a Masonic youth organization, I finally understood the term. We cast secret ballots. When a prospective member’s name was called, one by one we’d silently file past a small wooden box where we’d pick a white ball for yes, a black ball for no, roll it down the box’s chute, hear it land with a dull thud. After everyone had voted, our leader, our Worthy Advisor, would pull out a little drawer at the bottom of the box and could immediately see if the vote was unanimous. Any black ball was grounds for rejection.

Dad was stunned and humiliated. His friends were outraged. In the file marked “Castlewood” I found letters they wrote, signed by dozens of colleagues, asking the club to reverse its decision. He’s a stalwart member of the community, they wrote. He’s of the highest moral character. There is no reason to exclude him from the Castlewood community.

The club turned him down again.

When I looked at the date on the Castlewood letterhead, I felt a chill. Dad had received his second denial in September 1969, days before my high school dance.

*     *     *

In the end, Dad was right. No one asked me to dance.

In a turn of poetic justice, the Castlewood Clubhouse, the gracious Hacienda built by Phoebe Hearst, had burned to the ground on August 24, 1969. Dad’s rejection letter had slipped out quietly just before the flames began.

*     *     *

Six months later, in early 1970, Castlewood sent Dad an invitation. “Please join our club,” they said. “It’s the premier golf course in the area.” Dad was furious. “No way,” he declared.

I can see Mom now, sitting at the kitchen table, smoke curling from the cigarette in her outstretched fingers. How to approach this? On the one hand, being members of a premier country club would be the culmination of a dream for Dad and her. Isn’t that the height of assimilation? Also, they’d be paving another inroad for the Chinese community, setting a precedent, making it easier for the next family. Two strokes for pragmatism over idealism. But on the other hand, isn’t the club just using them to help rebuild the clubhouse? Bringing them on as members, and then slapping them with a capital assessment? It was so transparent—the “I’ll be your best friend if…” bribe. But who wants to be part of a club that rejected them twice?

Mom finally decided, the voice of reason. “You like the course. Your friends play there,” she told Dad, citing the two most salient points in her favor. “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.”

*     *     *

Why join a club that rejected you twice? Nowadays, people don’t get it. Even my twenty-four-year-old son, Bryce.

In the warm light of our Seattle kitchen, Bryce, arms folded over his chest, grimaces. Absurdly, a huge cow face is visible on his thrift store T-shirt, its bucolic stare in stark contrast to Bryce, whose eyes darken. He leans against the counter, now cleared of dinner dishes, although the familiar scent of black bean prawns in lobster sauce hangs in the air. He tucks a shoulder length strand of reddish-brown hair behind his ear. Folds his arms closed again.

“How could Goong-Goong do that? Doesn’t he have any pride?” I’m glad that my father, long gone, can’t hear this accusation. Pride—of his heritage, of his integrity—was something Dad had in spades.

I try to explain using my mother’s reasoning, and at first it sounds hopelessly quaint. Bryce shakes his head, regards his tattered sneakers, and it’s obvious he’s not buying it. In 2016, what inroads do Chinese still have to make?

Why join a club that rejected you twice? Nowadays, people don’t get it.

He doesn’t get that in 1969 America, any progress toward acceptance was seen as a victory.

What could possibly justify my parents’ decision? Bryce and I posit circumstances. What if those who blackballed Dad were outed as racist, and enough other members banded together to offer Dad a membership?

“Okay,” he says evenly, “but those people will still be around, snubbing him.”

“But they lost. And he doesn’t need them, he has his own friends. Goong-Goong’s essentially saying, ‘I made it, I’m here.’ By joining, he’s sort of shoving it in their faces.”

His mood brightens as he nods, a sly grin—just like my father’s—rimming his lips. “Yeah, kind of an ‘up yours!’” Bryce eases up his six-foot two-inch frame and reaches into the refrigerator for the carton of guava juice that I know is his favorite. As he pours a glass, he turns thoughtful. “And if they saw him hanging out with his white doctor friends, maybe they’d be less apt to see him as ‘other.’”

This is our point of mutuality, where I know we have to come. At this age, defiance becomes him, the cloak of impermeability between young adulthood’s earnest twenties and realist thirties. Although he doesn’t know it yet, the diffusion of layers is gradual and, in most cases, silent. When I crossed the Rubicon to adulthood, did the ends suddenly justify the means?

I’m reminded of what my brother recently revealed to me—When you wanted to join the Rainbow Girls, Dad called his Mason friends and made sure you wouldn’t get blackballed. Dad, behind the scenes, making sure I wouldn’t suffer the humiliation that he faced. Trying to make it easier for me and the following generations, and letting us think we did it on our own.

But in today’s modern era, there’s still a question in the back of my mind: Would I press to join a club, an organization, perhaps even an executive team, that’s rejected me twice? Would I be able to rationalize it away, the fox with the grapes?

What would be worth bowing for?

Bryce drains his glass and again stands adamant, intensity smoldering. Now his voice brims with authority, and although I listen hard for the subtle equivocation that my female cousins and I often layer into our voices—well, here’s my opinion, but I’ll understand if you have a different one—I hear none of that. For us, adopting a “saving face” strategy was, and still is, a double-edged sword. Within my family, that nuance allows everyone’s dignity to remain intact. But out in corporate America, it smacks of indecision, or even worse, weakness. Breaking that habit took me twenty years.

“Okay, maybe it was okay for them, but I’d say ‘screw it,’” he concludes. “You don’t want me, I don’t want you.”

It’s an eye-roll of a statement, but—to my surprise—I’m shot with envy. That note of surety in his voice—is it just the bravado of youth? Is it simply a man’s truth in a man’s world? Why should I feel threatened that he, a sixth-generation American, has allowed himself the luxury of letting idealism trump pragmatism? I smile ruefully and shake my head. Is that just his white half talking?

Because by my choice—and a roll of the genetic dice—people look at my son and think, “American.” With his height, titian hair, and a name that bears no witness to his Chinese heritage, he passes for white. No one will call him “chink.” No one will expect him to be quiet and passive, to defer to others in the room. No one will ask, “Where are you from?” with any expectation of an answer outside the United States. With his lifetime immersion into twenty-first century America, all his cultural references are grounded deeply here.

Shouldn’t I be happy for him that his inner cultural identity matches his outer? On our family’s five-generation journey toward cultural acceptance—from laundryman to gambler to Army pilot to doctor to engineer—are we there yet?

With a start I feel the heavy drape of his arm around my shoulders, hear the jingle of car keys in his hand. He’s heading to a music gig, ready to end this standoff. With a gentle pat on my bicep, his unspoken, “Are we good?” is asked and answered. As I lean into his cotton warmth, my frown disappears and my mom persona returns, the one that forgives him everything.

I slip out from under his arm so he can make a graceful exit, and he turns toward me with a lopsided smile. “I’ll be back later tonight,” he says, and I reply as I always do, “So I’ll leave the light on for you.” He nods, our silent contract—to watch out for each other—complete.

He steps into the cool of the night with a singular ease. As I close the door I finally feel the truth of his reassuring pat on my arm. For him there’s no air lock, no threshold change, no cloak of whiteness between out and in. What he inherited from my father was a square chin and towering height. I’m glad of what he didn’t inherit: that hulking, leaden chip on his shoulder.

Amber WongAmber Wong is an environmental engineer who enjoys life’s ironies, like being an engineer who writes. A fifth-generation American, she explores how the statics of culture—ethnicity, gender, even one’s profession—bend the dynamics of modern-day America. Winner of The Writer’s Connection essay contest, her work has also appeared in Slippery Elm, We Came to Say: A Collection of Memoir, We Came Back to Say, and seattletimes.com. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford University.