ONCE, AS A CHILD RIDING in the back seat of the family station wagon, I told my mom that someone was following us. I’d seen spy movies on TV; I thought it would be fun to evade some imaginary bad guys. But she reacted with real fear, urging me to lie horizontal so I couldn’t be seen. It wasn’t until the garage door closed behind us that she allowed me to sit up. My cheeks were hot from where I’d pressed them against the car’s upholstery, and I was sweaty from the guilt of making her feel so afraid.
Like so many Asian American immigrants, my parents left everyone and everything they knew in Taiwan to build a better life for my brother and me. One of their biggest dreams was homeownership. They bought their first house in New Jersey and painted the siding red and white. Compared to the black and-white and brown-and-white Colonials in the area, it was an unusual choice, but my mom has always loved red. It’s also very auspicious in Chinese culture.
After living there for a few years, we moved to a bigger, beiger house in a different neighborhood. Then one day, before my mom could close the garage door, an angry man got out of his car, stamped up the driveway, and got in her face: “I just have a question for you. Why would you paint the house such a terrible color? It’s an eyesore for the neighborhood. Don’t you guys have any taste?” My mom paused and then recognized him as our former neighbor, who was complaining about our old house with the red trim. I remember him yelling at my dad for not mowing the lawn often enough or properly bagging fall leaves: racism masquerading as excessive neighborly concern.
This man had tracked down our new address to confront my mom in the middle of the workday, a time when she was home alone. He repeatedly asked her questions, growing more frustrated and agitated until she shakily went inside.
“Were you scared?” I asked my mom a few weeks ago.
“More confused,” she said. “Why would someone be so angry about a house color?”
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