Saturday, July 5, 2008
This blog and my posts are young, yet, but I felt that it was important that I have some all-positive posts thrown in as often as possible because I have a tendency to focus on and criticize all that's wrong without acknowledging - enough - all that's right (I also tend to write long sentences).
So, in that light, I want to celebrate a wonderfully, positively mixed 24 hours that began on the evening of July 3rd and went on through last night.
My July 3rd evening began with me hanging out with some folks: my mixed (black/white) friend and two of her friends (a black woman, and a white man). I'm not going to go into a lot of detail there, but it was a good time, in general, but it also stood out as a nice combination of races just having a good time in mostly-white (and more-than-that-segregated) Portland. I also got a chance to bond with T. about how - since South Africa has now made Chinese folks legally "black"* - we now had the same background and should be able to understand each other and connect much more. We pondered the new strength blacks and Chinese alike would now have as one single identity (and more, but I digress).
Anyway, I then slipped away from that group to head to an Open Mic** where I was going to make my debut (secretly, because my friend and the other woman are a professional spoken-word duo, and I didn't feel ready for them to watch me this first time, just in case I fell flat).
So a quick explanation: I dabble in some hip hop and spoken word for my own personal entertainment (and therapeutic release), and so I had determined that it was finally time to bring it public (I've been doing this for quite a while, but never for a large, public audience). So there's a venue here in Portland (so far, the ONLY one I've found) that does a weekly Open Mic that sort of caters to the political, more colorful folks of this town. It's probably the only place here where the performers are pre-dominantly people of color (and - I would add, with bias - talented), and it thus has a much more welcoming feel for me. I scouted out the scene a few times in advance before signing on to perform, but I finally felt ready.
Now, the emcee had already told me that I was probably going to go first. That wasn't the best news, because - usually - when the first person goes, a lot of people haven't shown up yet, and the energy is a bit dead. So I planned to start with a lighter, tongue-in-cheek piece about "nobody listening," and then to drop some fire after I had their attention. The second piece was one I had done for some people before - basically a tribute to my Chinese side, while touching on the "mixed" experience.
So I'm all set, a little bit nervous, got in some last-second practicing, when I walk in the door. And, heading in before me was this whole group of people (looked like a family) that were clearly Asian (to some degree), and I couldn't help but feel good about my luck that they'd be in the audience when I went (not so many Asian audience members, usually). And, better yet, that group ended up sitting right up front, so that they would be the people I could see best during my performance.
My luck held out even stronger when the host for the night ended up arriving late - meaning by the time we actually started, the place was almost full, and I was going to have myself an AUDIENCE.
So I got up there and did my thing. I was wearing my China national team soccer jersey (for obvious reasons), and - before I even started - I got a "CHIN-A!" cheer from the front row. Things were looking good. My first piece was relatively well-received (got the little chuckles I was looking for), and then I laid into them with my fire.
And - holy sh$$ - did it go over. The whole crowd was listening as I spoke, cheering at certain parts - it felt GOOD. And then, as I finished off my little climb to the climax (a litany of Asian stereotypes that don't pertain to me, ending with "but I'm STILL Chinese") everybody just went nuts (especially the first row). People yelling, clapping (apparently, some stood up, but I couldn't see that). I mean - CRAZY. It felt so damn good. And, as I walked off the stage, the group in the front grabbed me and told me that EVERYBODY in that row (about 10 of them) was mixed. Absolutely perfect.
I was finished, but it wasn't over, either. Because, a couple acts after me, one of the regulars (a guy, "Don Juan," who I knew was Asian, but didn't generally mention that in his poetry) got up there and - saying I had inspired him - spit fire, as well - with his own piece blasting Asian stereotypes and our "role" in society. Needless to say, we all went crazy for that one, too. And then - after THAT - one of the mixed ladies of the front row got up to sing and blew the top off the whole place. I mean, she had the most soulful, amazing voice I have heard live in a LONG time - and the host acknowledged the same when she was finished.
It was like "Asian Pride Night" in Portland. And - damn - did it feel good. Hell - just to even know that there were that many other mixed folks IN Portland, let alone to have them hear me do my thing and then rock the house afterwards.
And then - about 24 hours later - was the 4th of July fireworks display. For brevity's sake, I'll just get to the point: all of Portland, downtown. Not just all of white Portland. Not just all of middle-class Portland. ALL of Portland. Every race, from poor to rich and everything in between. Families. Kids. Old. Young. All downtown to watch the fireworks.
As I said before - Portland is a very white town. It's also very segregated, so even though there ARE people of color in Portland, they don't exactly mix in large numbers. If there are a bunch of people of color around, that probably means you're in an area where there are few white folks. Or if there are a lot of Asian folks, few black or Latin@. You get the picture.
But last night, waiting by the river for the fireworks - EVERYBODY. In one place. All mixed up and excited. All equally eager with anticipation. Kids of all colors (I saw a lot of mixed ones, as well) running around, getting impatient for the show. And when that show came - DAMN. It was one for the ages - a great display. And - better yet - everybody in that huge crowd around me had the same happy expression on their faces. Awe. Joy. Innocence. Excitement. Nobody there was thinking about race or stereotypes or prejudice for those 15-20 minutes. They were just giving in to their child-like wonder and joy as they universally appreciated brightly-colored explosions*** in the sky above Portland.
And that's when I had one of those cheesy, Hallmark moments when I thought to myself, "America just isn't THAT bad." No, we're not a "melting pot." Portland will go back to how it has been starting today. But last night happened. And I don't think it could happen like that in many other places in the world. And the night before happened - where I could get political and spit fire at "the establishment" to applause, without any threat of censure or arrest.
Portland is mostly white - but it isn't ALL white. And this country can have its issues - but there is a lot right. And, for that, I hope everybody had a very happy Independence Day.
I know I did.
* I shall likely post in the future about what it will mean for the world that Chinese is the new black (in South Africa).
** For anybody in the Northwest (or headed here someday), the Open Mic is called "Harlem Nights" and happens every night at the Ohm, in downtown Portland. Click on the link above to learn more.
*** Fireworks, as we all know, were created by the Chinese - so that felt like some nice cross-over, as well.