Changing the Story

Saturday evening found me in the city of Paterson, NJ. Paterson is one of those small northeastern cities that has been struggling for so long that it is easy to forget that it was once a thriving, growing, prosperous community and a beautiful city.

In any case, I was there, and in one of its less beautiful corners: a Chinese take-out place. If you live in the U.S., you are probably familiar with this sort of restaurant; a small storefront in an aging block of very small businesses, a counter with a stack of disposable menus and a can holding pencils. There’s one metal table with two chairs, and no decoration on the walls; over the counter, an illuminated menu with pictures of plated food. Behind the counter, the open kitchen area extends all the way to the back wall. The smell and sizzle of hot peanut oil fill the building.

Six Asian people were working behind the counter. Two were at the counter, dealing with customers, packing orders, answering phones. Two were at the fryers, preparing food, one hand holding a wok, and shaking it to mix the contents, the other hand dipping a ladle. Two were at the back, preparing ingredients for the cooks. I didn’t see the child right away.

In front of the counter, I joined six people lined up across it. My friend, who is seriously disabled, rested, sitting on the window sill, his head hanging. Since all of the customers were black, except my friend and I, who are white, the population of this store was quite diverse, although not exactly representative.

When the store was at its busiest, a two-year old boy came hurrying toward the front on stubby legs, carrying a plastic bag of cut-up chicken that was almost as big as he was. The woman from the counter took the chicken from him, and led him back to the back of the kitchen. I was thinking that toddlers don’t belong in commercial kitchens; I may not have been the only person with that thought.

The woman resumed her work. The little boy ran toward the counter again; every eye on my side of the counter was on him. He stopped, and smiled back at us. Then he turned to his left and made a beeline to the deep fryer. Seven people drew fourteen lungs full of peanut oil-scented air. As the small hand reached up to grasp the handle of the fryer basket, seven voices gave warning in perfect unison, shaking the building to its foundation. The child was snatched up and carried to the back f the store.

Now, I have heard it said that, on some level, everything that happens in America is actually about race, every story is about race, or at least ethnicity. I think that, allowing for hyperbole, that statement holds a lot of truth. Even when we don’t have a bare, greasy counter to separate us, we are always aware of race and ethnicity, and are always assigning meaning to them. Just twenty minutes before we entered this store and story, my friend and I were approached by a black man who was as old, short, and skinny as we are, falling all over himself, tripping on his tongue as he hurried to assure us he meant us no harm, didn’t intend to rob us, was only there to beg money to buy dinner for his wife and himself. That’s how we are.

So, if this story started out being about race, ethnicity, and barriers, both real and imagined, when a small Asian hand reached toward a deep-fryer, and six black voices and one white voice shook the foundation, the story changed. Then, it was about Something Entirely Different.

(Please watch this short video from One.org.)

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