Seattle, a multicultural haven compared to Latvia (and the Baltics generally), did not prepare me, to what degree I could feel like a racial minority. In Latvia, non-whites make up less than half percent of the population, and it was obvious. I was walking around a sea of white people sticking out like a brown thumb—it was a little bit unnerving.
One of my favorite things to do when I'm on tour is to get some late night drinking in at a local bar (surprise!). When bar hoping, I will often choose the next bar based on bartender recommendation—it's crazy where one can end up. I find the bar to be a special place where honest and unfiltered expressions of humanity (albeit aided by a handy truth serum) take place, and witnessing that is incredible. Some people like to go sight-seeing in a foreign country, I want to get to know the people there and get a sense of their concerns, attitudes, and desires.
The day was winding down and I thought I'd give my roommate a few hours head start on sleeping—my snoring is no match for even the most trained sleeper and I very much like this person. I decided to head to the bar and a man (who's name I cannot remember), already a few drinks in, approached me with a somewhat aggressive posture and started ranting, in a very broken incoherent way, about how he hates multiculturalism and how it's not working in the USA or in Europe, and that Asians are taking all the jobs. Needless to say, I did not feel welcome and it felt personal. I, however, did not engage, but just kept listening, asked him a few questions, and kept drinking. I literally just smiled, nodded, listened, and laughed with him when he made a joke. By the end of the end of the night, the man I was worried might punch me for being Asian, put his arm around me and said, "you know, you're okay."
I look back on that moment and realize that my life growing up in Seattle had a million micro encounters just like this one (though not as threatening). My experience at Eckstein Middle School in the 90s was one of self segregation—everyone generally hung out with those in the same race, but we were encouraged, through band, academics, and after school activities to mingle with others outside our social circle. I can now fully appreciate the value, though the lens of my encounter with Latvian man, of how important that was. When someone in the Asian gangster circle teaches a White nerd how to dance, when an Asian nerd helps the White jock with homework, when a Black vocal jazz singer and a White guy burst out in uncontrollable laughter, there are a million tiny bridges being built that lead to a world where the 'other' doesn't exist, and that everyone is living in the same world, with their own concerns and desires. I wish this could be a starting point from where we can start bridging our racial divide. I was recently invited to a teacher POC-only happy hour (which I did not attend) and was saddened to see that our institutions are encouraging the formation of groups by race and identity—safe spaces. While I disagree with this approach (but respect those that find these spaces valuable), I will continue to do my part, irregardless of your race and identity, to drink with you, listen to you, argue with you, laugh with you, and show you that there is no 'other' here, just us.