blue collars, yellow collars

Standing in line for Subway, I look up at the menu. Originals, classics. $4.00, $4.50. Ham, turkey, chicken teriyaki–so many choices. What do I want…?

“What would you like?” asks the girl behind the counter shortly. I fumble, bad at making decisions. Turkey, I say. 6-inch on wheat. And zone out again. But maybe I wanted tuna…?

A few seconds later, I snap out of my reverie again. The girl ahead of me in line is talking very rapidly. Smiling, making conversation with the girl behind the counter like long-lost friends.

Yes, it’s my first year here, she says. The weather’s awesome now. It gets cold? I guess I’ll have to get used to it. That’s a nice shirt you’re wearing, where did you get it? Oh, I miss shopping!

… and so on, and so forth. I stare for a bit. Their conversation seems so natural, as if they’re bonding over the vegetables the girl behind the counter is dutifully folding into the sandwich. But somehow, I knew. The difference, the reason why she said nothing further than “what would you like?”, laid in the deep, beautiful mocha of their skin. Mine, a tanned yellow-brown, could not compare.

But no, something said inside my brain, that’s not PC! You can’t say that!

And yet, it was so apparent. There was a kinship between them somehow. Maybe they knew a mutual acquaintance. Maybe this wasn’t her first time to Subway–the chatty one to my right, that is. Or maybe they just saw something that they could relate to.

I’d felt it before. The lady at the dentist who went out of her way to help me when she found out I could understand Cantonese, who wanted to help me get my perfect smile when I didn’t even realize my teeth were out of order. The man at the card-swiping station at the dining hall last year who was overjoyed when I understood his “ni hao.” All those people who serve us, and who we look by–or even down upon–by virtue of their blue collars, seem somehow more apparent, more valuable as human beings, when we can connect over the color of our skin.

And is that so bad?

Any American with a hint of “good moral conscience” would condemn me. And indeed, I think it’s sad. I wish that I, too, had made conversation with the girl behind the counter. Maybe we could have been friends. On occasion, I look around at my closest friends, and though I love them, I still cringe on occasion when I realize just how insular we are.

It’s not anybody’s fault, exactly. It’s a common complaint here at Stanford; that the cultural houses, Okada, Ujamaa, Muwekma, Zapata, that they do more to divide than they do to unite. Perhaps it’s true. I’m guilty of it too, whenever I speak about how much I love being Asian. But on the other hand, that does give us solidarity. Being Chinese is part of who I am, as much as my love for Italian culture, or my interest in learning Japanese. Cultural diversity is, indeed, something to be valued, but so is cultural identity.

Where do we draw the line?

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