A long time ago a Thai woman I knew in Denver gave me a couple yards of white silk with a subtle pattern of bamboo leaves worked into it. It was beautiful, white, shimmery. I carried it around for 30+ years and finally I gave it to my neighbor here in Monte Vista because she sews. She’s making a blouse out of it.
She said it was too much, too big a present, but I explained it wasn’t a present. It was something I would never do anything with, and it would just end up at a thrift store. Not long ago we were wandering around Del Norte seeing what there was to see, and she looked for buttons for the blouse. Selection of anything (except maybe mountains, potato varieties and livestock) is not always great here in the San Luis Valley, and she found a close proximation to the ideal buttons. She asked me what I thought and to my (everlasting?) surprise I had an opinion. “They should be plain mother-of-pearl.”
“I know,” she said, “but they don’t have any. Maybe I’ll find some later.”
I thought about the story of that material. In 1983, back from China, homesick for China, I was living in a large and beautiful apartment (now a condo that goes for 1/2 million dollars) in Capital Hill in Denver with my ex and my brother. It was awful. My brother had bottomed out after his wife ran off with a pimp taking their daughter, and I’d rescued him. My ex was working, but wouldn’t be for long, and it was clear he was not wild about me. “So many good looking women out there and here I am, stuck with you.” I didn’t want to be there, I didn’t want to be in that life, I wanted to be back in China, but I had come home because the ex had hepatitis and couldn’t recover in China. All for the marriage, right?
Not long after we’d returned, we went to the first annual Festival of Asian Arts and Culture that was being held at the Denver Botanic Gardens. It was beautiful. It was sponsored by the Asian Pacific Development Center which was a mental health facility specifically treating Asian immigrants. At that time, many of them were Vietnamese, Cambodians and Hmong with severe PTSD. The festival was put on by the various Asian cultural groups in the city. There was dancing and music representing each culture, along with food, arts and crafts.
Little did I know as I sat in the audience, enjoying the show and feeling even more homesick for China, that I would be the coordinator of the Second Annual Festival of Arts and Culture. It was a fantastic experience — an immense challenge. The festival ran for two weeks with national performances every night. That alone made it an enormous undertaking. I fell into the job because I’d volunteered at the Asian Pacific Development Center as a fundraiser. The director — a half-Japanese/half-white psychologist — had brought me in after I’d written them about my experiences in China, how homesick I was for China, and how much I wanted to help. I’d written that if my homesickness was just a micron of what displaced Asians were feeling, I’d be a good fit. Very, very few Americans at that time had been to China and that gave me a way in.
At first I was regarded with suspicion — I was the only white person there. All the psychologists, office workers and members of the board were Asian. Gossip is one of the ways things are accomplished in every Asian culture, so I knew there was a LOT of background chatter about me and my motives. Finally, everyone saw that I was just a guileless person with no agenda at all, who just wanted to help. It turned out that there was a place that could only be filled by a white person with a love for Asia.
The Asian cultural groups did not get along with each other. I was a neutral party. It worked well. Through that experience I saw that whatever it means to be “white,” it also means to be “blank.” I spent hours on the phone listening to the Japanese trash talk the Chinese, the Chinese trash talk the Thai, etc. in a great a circle of gossip and mistrust. The Thai woman was president of the board and she did not trash talk anyone. Her mother had come to America, ended up in Denver and opened Denver’s first Thai restaurant. In a dinner there with only this woman and my husband, I was told how the whole maladjusted Asian community worked. “You have to help us,” she said. “No one else can, you see we believe in the Center and we want the Festival to work, but we don’t get along with each other.” I shouldered the yoke of the Festival and enjoyed every single minute of it. It was one of my life’s greatest experiences.
The festival was a huge success that year. It was beautiful and inspiring and fun — and it still happens in Denver. Afterward, I was then offered my dream job by an organization I’d worked for before as a volunteer teacher, but because the marriage mattered and the ex had gotten a job in California I didn’t take it. The Thai woman (Patty) invited us to the restaurant for dinner one more time and there she gave me two pieces of Thai silk from which I could make a Thai costume. One of the pieces was lost to time, the other is across the street from me here in Monte Vista made into a blouse by my neighbor who came to America from Australia a long time ago.