The morning my grandfather died is a tattoo on my brain. We’d been in Hong Kong for about four months. I was seven; my brother was three. My Dad called from the United States and gave us the bad news. I knew the moment I heard his voice that Papee died.
We cried. Papee and I were close. I used to ride with him in his huge pickup all over the Texas Panhandle as he delivered mattresses. When I was about five, he paid me a dollar if I wouldn’t talk for an hour. I was a pretty talkative kid.
After we got the news, Mom decided we needed to get out of the house for a bit. In the lobby, my brother and I got water from the fountain thing. (I liked watching the bubbles and drinking from the little cone-shaped cups.) Flora, the receptionist, knew something was wrong.
“What happened?” Dismay filled her face. If we were unhappy, Flora was unhappy.
“My Papee died.” The words caught sideways in my throat.
She came out from behind her desk and hugged us. Mom filled her in on the details.
Grief makes people say crazy things. The next thing out of my mouth shocked everyone. “I hate Hong Kong. I hate Chinese people.”
“But Paul,” Mom said. “Flora is Chinese.”
“Flora is not Chinese,” I shot back. “She’s my friend.”
I didn’t understand why that made Mom and Flora cry more, or why Flora hugged me so tightly. Now, I look back and recognize what moved them, a simple truth expressed by a child in a moment of grief.
Friendship trumps everything. True friendship transcends race and religion. Friendship recognizes the person and ignores the trappings. Friendship makes strangers, human.
Hong Kong, Malaysia, India and Singapore were my homes. I graduated from the Singapore American School. This year, I celebrated Chinese New Year with my friends and family. It’s part of who I am. I’m not sure you could find a Texan more proud of his Asian roots.
My multi-cultural childhood taught me three things:
- We tie negative events that happen in our life to the people and places surrounding us. I didn’t hate Hong Kong or Chinese people. I hated the fact that I wouldn’t be able to ride in Papee’s truck ever again.
- Friendship humanizes people. Flora wasn’t a race, she was a person. All the grief in the world couldn’t change that fact.
- We have to outweigh negative experiences with positive ones. I had some pretty rough experiences overseas. I experienced other’s anger at Americans, especially when we entered the first Gulf War. But my parents made sure that the positive memories outweighed the negative ones – 100 to 1. These memories are my talisman against hatred. Always.
If we want to change the world, we have to stop seeing color or creed and start seeing friends.