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Reader's view: An offhand conversation at a mall leads to a reconsideration of the impact of words.

I have lived in Portland my entire life. As such, I have been privileged in how I have had, for the most part, nothing but positivity directed toward the subject of my race.

In fact, on that day in late January when a stranger accosted me at the mall, I'd been commenting how happy I was to see Chinese New Year decorations everywhere.

"Are you worried about the coronavirus?" this woman asked out of nowhere in the middle of a store in Washington Square mall.

Was I what? Confused, I tried to get out of her way. I panicked for a few seconds as I tried to identify her, even as I responded that, no, I wasn't worried about the coronavirus — as far as I knew, there had been no cases to date in Oregon.

"Oh," she responded, almost disappointed. "I was just wondering because your people are spreading it everywhere."

I wish I had asked, "What do you mean, 'your people?'"

I wish I could have gathered myself enough to ask her what could have possibly possessed her to walk up to a girl distracted by shiny bracelets and accuse "her people" of spreading some disease. Selfishly, I wish I had made a scene.

I did none of those things. Instead, I'd looked at her, smiled and replied, "Well, there have been no cases in Oregon," and then fake coughed, making only superficial efforts to cover the cough as she cringed away from me.

While I felt some satisfaction from her discomfort, I still mostly felt like crying as I walked back to my friends.

I wonder now if she even realized that what she'd done — what she'd said — was wrong. After all, if she had been bold enough to approach a 15-year-old with a baby face, and accuse "my people" of "spreading around" a virus, who could say what else she was willing to accuse other people of?

Maybe she thought her comments would be a lead-up to appropriate conversations, though I cannot imagine any circumstance where those comments were appropriate. Maybe she had been intentionally rude. Maybe she just didn't think, and spent the rest of the day regretting her words, even as I tried to forget she'd said them.

I knew that I'd done nothing wrong. And yet I felt "dirty" throughout the rest of the day, carrying around the baggage of her words as if something was undeniably my fault. Besides those two minutes of my life, nothing eventful happened at the mall that day.

Here's the thing: I know that there has been much fear over the coronavirus pandemic. The event at the mall, as well as reading accounts of increased racism toward Asians, however, have made me realize that while fear of a deadly disease is understandable, those fears have allowed people to abandon civility in favor of stark racism and xenophobia.

Perhaps I was naive in not considering that people would turn against one another in fear and that their fear would bring out the worst versions of themselves.

I still believe, though, that we ought to try harder to not let this fear cripple ourselves or our empathy.

As Oregon schools close, events are canceled, and people self-quarantine, we must choose kindness. We owe it to one another to try.

Summer Tan, 15, lives in West Linn.


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