I never considered myself as a person of color. I don’t define a person as white, black, brown, or even yellow. I think of a person as being a decent human being.
I grew up in multicultural Hawaii. I had classmates who were Hawaiian, Japanese, German, Chinese, and Filipino. I ate hamburgers, sauerkraut, sushi, and pinakbet. I grew up celebrating Chinese New Year, Christmas, and the Fourth of July.
I’ve never thought of myself as being in the minority or the majority. In Hawaii, everyone is a minority. There is no outright majority in the Aloha State.
So imagine this college kid in 1992. I was about to embark on a trip to Maryville, Tennessee. I was sent as a summer missionary through University of Hawaii Hilo’s chapter of the Baptist Student Union. My job was to assist Broadway Baptist Church in Maryville to start a cultural exchange between members of the church and the Japanese community.
Toyota had just opened a car plant in Maryville, and they were sending their employees and their families from Japan to Tennessee. Since I was a Japanese Studies major, my director recommended me to her superiors in Honolulu.
Working with members of Broadway Baptist and the Japanese community in Maryville was challenging. But it was also rewarding. Toward the end of my mission we had two exchanges between the women of the church and the Japanese women. The Americans taught the Japanese how to make hush puppies, and the Japanese taught the Americans how to make traditional bookmarks.
But that’s not the reason I’m writing this. The day before I was scheduled to leave Knoxville to return home, I had to purchase lip balm. In those days, travelers’ checks were commonly used. I went to the local Walgreens and found what I wanted.
The clerk, a Caucasian woman about my age, looked very bored. She didn’t acknowledge her customers as they paid for their items. No friendly greetings. Not even a “hello.” When I approached, she didn’t even look at me as I signed and presented my check to her.
“You have an I.D?”
I dug out my wallet from the bottom of my bag, took out my rainbow-colored Hawaii driver’s license, and handed it over to her. Immediately the woman’s face lit up like a Christmas tree and she finally looked at me.
“You’re from Hawaii?” she asked excitedly.
I was dumbfounded. “Uh, yeah,” I replied.
“No wonder your English is so good!”
I left that store not exactly sure of just what happened. I just had to shake my head and laugh at the woman’s naivete.
Sometime later, I told a friend about my encounter with this woman in Maryville.
“Perhaps she thought you were Mexican,” my friend joked.
Mexican? I thought. I’m of Chinese and Filipino descent. My mother’s parents are from the Philippines and my father’s parents are from China. How can I be mistaken for a Mexican?
Then I looked at my skin; brown with a tinge of yellow.
In his “I Have A Dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Before I showed her my license, that woman could only see my skin. Only after I presented my Hawaii driver’s license did she see that I am an American. I walked out of the store feeling like a foreigner in my own country.
The members of Broadway Baptist Church treated me as a decent human being. The Japanese women treated me as a decent human being. I found it ironic that I was working to build a bridge between my fellow Americans and a group of people who were definitely living in a foreign country. But this young woman made me feel like a foreigner in my own country.
So here is what defines me. My name is Jada Pauline Rufo. I am a writer and illustrator. I’m also dedicated to protecting my community. I’m loyal to my friends and family. But I will also fiercely fight for what I believe to be right. Instead of judging me by my skin I ask to be judged by what I am able to contribute to my community because that’s what defines the content of my character and that’s what makes me a decent human being.
Jada Tan Rufo is the author of Banana Girl: An Asian American Woman’s Life in China and The Zone. She currently lives on the Big Island. Amazon author page: amazon.com/author/jadatanrufo