Monday, October 20, 2008

My Mother and Obama

I went to see my mother and stepfather the other day. For the last eight months, my mother has been rooting for a Barack Obama presidency. My stepfather is a lifelong Republican who still gets calls from the McCain campaign. If my mother gets to the phone first, she tells them that my stepfather has decided to vote Obama-Biden. While she was always reasonably tolerant, my mother grew up with a certain level of discomfort about black people. My parents believed in and supported Martin Luther King. They thought my mother’s brother Nelson, the family beatnik, was out of bounds in talking up Malcolm X, but they saw the Civil Rights movement in practical terms. It meant that Asians would benefit as well. They, however, drew the line at the dating and marriage thing. One time when I was about fifteen, before I dated anyone, I mentioned the possibility that I wouldn’t eliminate marrying someone just because she was black. My parents yelled at me for three hours and accused me of having someone in mind. Not that long ago, our older daughter brought home an African-American boyfriend and my mother kept questioning me about it. “Is she sure she wants to do this, it makes life harder? People don’t say this stuff to your face you know.”

In that context, my mother’s fervent support of Barack is pretty remarkable. In fact, the only other politicians she ever got excited about were John and Robert Kennedy. It seems to matter to her that Obama talks about the future. When I ask her what it is about the guy, she always says it’s his speeches. She longs for someone who can inspire the country.

My mother recently found out that I’d been going to Japanese restaurants and ordering Oyako Donburi. , a traditional dish of chicken, eggs, and onions served over rice. She then taught herself to make the dish for my next visit home. My stepfather’s Japanese so he’s rather liked this. He talks about his mother made it many years ago. I never met my stepfather’s mother, but I always think of the elderly woman with the severely bent back who used to come to family gatherings as his mother (she was actually his former mother in law). In the meantime, my wife (who isn’t Asian) and I seem to have settled on making Indian food our home cuisine on those rare occasions when we cook together. Last week, it was okrah with chopped tomatoes, eggplant with coriander, and aloo gobi.

I wound up sitting at dinner with my mother suddenly turned Japanese talking about how hard it actually is to make Donburi properly. For an everyday dish, it sure looked it. My stepfather talked about how they used to have a simplified version for breakfast and every now and then my mother would insist on breaking off bits of dried seaweed on top of our bowls and offering us some sort of fish sauce that seemed to be part of her version of the dish as the rice started to outlast whatever mixture went on top. In between, I looked at all the realtors signs piled up in her backyard. Mom has a thing about realtors using her corner for their open house signs. If they don’t ask permission, she grabs the sign and sticks it in her yard. While I kind of agree with her, I do worry that if we ever have to sell her house that all the local real estate agents will boycott open houses.

Whenever the conversation would stop, I realized that I could always bring up Obama and get my mother talking. To be accurate, I’m the one who doesn’t talk much. Mom’s current fear is her version of the Bradley effect. She insists that some people tell her that they just won’t vote for a black man for president. I just respond, “Well, it’s looking pretty good so far, but you never know.”

Just after dinner, CNN broadcasted the Al Smith Dinner speeches the day after the debate. Mom and my stepdad headed out the their 42” plasma television and watched as John McCain made funny. Mom’s first comment was, “Wow, this was a John McCain, I could have voted for.” She went on to mention that he seemed genuinely humble, generous in his praise of Obama, and suddenly a lot less mean than he’d been in the debate on Wednesday night. Bill Maher was doing commentary for Larry King, so I had to explain who Bill Maher was a couple times. Obama was equally funny and it struck me that instead of doing three straight debates where the two candidates repeat the same talking points, maybe they should do at least one that just happens to be a “roast”. In a saner place, it would make sense to make sure that we have leaders with some kind of perspective. The only awkward moment seemed to be when John McCain suggested that Hillary Clinton was secretly rooting for him. The camera cut to Hillary and she was laughing, but it felt like one of those reminders that Senator McCain really doesn’t realize how far “right” he’s swung his campaign and what’s that meant for the people who once actually liked the guy, ( that’s the people who didn’t read that article in the Rolling Stone).

My mom was born in 1930 and she’s now 78 years old. I often forget that she grew up in a pretty bleak time (FDR fireside chats) both nationally and for San Francisco Chinatown( where her family lived) . These are better times than that, but every day the news lately has had all these reminders that we might be headed back there. As I grew up, I was lucky to have parents who insisted that I get the best possible opportunities. Part of that was that I went to private schools and went away for high school so that I’d get chances I wouldn’t have had just staying in Sacramento. Where Obama went to Punahou, Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard Law School, my own education consisted of different schools but a remarkably similar trajectory. We even both spent some time doing community work. In fact, I had a tie to the Annenberg initiative as a foot soldier. It was part of a family belief that you got these opportunities to help not just yourself but those around you. We’ve never talked about it, but my mom probably sees Obama’s family as having imbued him with the same respect for education and community service that she encouraged in her own family (my mom had 2 years of college herself and is generous on a personal level, but not in any organized form). The “race” thing has stopped mattering for her. I think she likes to think the best thing about her country is that lives like Obama’s are possible and even preferable to the generational privilege of McCain-Bush and that we have a chance to affirm that in November.



At 10/20/2008 03:20:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

You're my Obama Chancelucky!

I love that your mom tells the campaigners that your stepdad's switched. I don't know if they do it here but all the political parties offer people a ride to the polling station if they need it. Some like to call up the party they're not voting for, make them pick them up, vote the way they planned anyway and then get a lift home. Your mom might pull a stunt like that I'm guessing.

Nice post.

At 10/20/2008 03:21:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

do it there, that's what I meant to say, not do it here.

At 10/20/2008 05:03:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Both my mother and my daughter seem to have a passion for "tricking" people. My daughter's favorite movies always seem to be about con-artists (Matchstick Men, Catch Me if you Can, Paper Moon, Heartbreakers). When she's out in the retail world, my mother's always looking for different schemes that will give her maximum value for her dollars.

Obviously, the gene skipped a generation or something :}

At 10/20/2008 08:06:00 PM, Blogger MagicBunnySlippers said...

Mmm... aloo gobi! It's cute that your mom roots for Obama. My dad (who used to be Republican) was really, really rooting for Hillary. I couldn't believe it. I don't think he's warmed up to Obama just yet.

At 10/21/2008 10:53:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

nice to have you back. I"m sort of amazed that a lifelong Republican would warm up to Hillary, but not Obama. It's always struck me that there was much more anger at Hillary than just about anyone on the Republican side.

At 10/22/2008 05:39:00 AM, Blogger Marianne said...

I absolutely love this post because you were dead on about the Asian/Black thing. My mother-in-law refuses to set foot in Oakland because there are "too many negroes." My mother can't stand my niece's boyfriend because he is African American. When I told her I was supporting Obama, she was so contemptuous all she could manage was: Hmmph! Go and vote for your "little" Obama.

Racism is alive and well: let's just look at ourselves! (How interesting that your parents yelled at you for three hours!)

At 10/23/2008 04:38:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I swear, it wasn't all that interesting. It was mostly just sort of weird. I was talking about an abstract situation....they were absolutely convinced that I had someone in mind.

At 10/23/2008 06:34:00 PM, Blogger cotedetexas said...

I can't wait for the elections to be over. My marraige may not survive!

very very funny comment. Yes, I get gifts all the time! unreal!!!

At 11/02/2008 08:16:00 PM, Blogger Marianne said...

Oh, I know YOU were talking about an abstract situation -- that's what makes the whole situation so funny !!!

Go, Obama!

At 11/03/2008 03:14:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

well one more day until the election's over, though maybe not so true in 2000. Come to think of it, I did get a gift once from a reader. Someone sent me a CD (the music kind, not the kind with all the zeroes at the end and the name of a financial institution).

That's what was especially frustrating. If I'd had a girlfriend at that age, the argument might have been worth it. Instead I got to be a lonely teenager getting attacked by his parents for saying that he wouldn't reject the possibility of dating or marrying someone just based on race. They were really terrified. I think because we were living at my grandfather's at the time.

It's weird to think that my mom wound up marrying a Japanese man after my dad died and that I married someone who wasn't Asian in the end anyway, though my wife's not black.

She might be nervous about my stepdaughter dating a black man, because she's so close to and such an influence on our younger one.
Still, this same woman now tells me ever time we speak how she wants Obama to be President. It's all kind of remarkable.


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