One on One: Ignoring my Asian friend’s question – a big mistake

Published 9:45 am Saturday, April 10, 2021

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By D.G. Martin

A few years ago, I ignored a friend’s question about whether there was a risk of violence to Asians in North Carolina.

That was a mistake.

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My friend, Don Mar, grew up in the Chinese community in San Francisco and has lived in the Bay area all his life.

I met him more than 60 years ago when he and I were working a summer jobs at a Green Giant pea cannery in eastern Washington state.

He was Chinese American and we shared a Presbyterian connection. He was very nice and talkative. So, we hit it off.

He told me that, if I ever came to San Francisco, I should look him up and he would show me around.

“Just go to the Chinese YMCA,” he said, “and tell them you are looking for me, and they will track me down.”

Sure enough, when I got to San Francisco on my hitchhiking trip back to North Carolina, I found my way to the Chinese Y and asked if they would help me get in touch with Mar.

Thirty minutes later Mar was there to show me around the Y, then Chinatown and the other San Francisco sights. With a group of his Chinese American fellow students at the University of California in Berkeley, I got a good look at that campus long before it erupted in protests a few years later.

A never-to-be forgotten highlight was a big meal with the group at a Chinese restaurant, where Mar took charge and, using the Chinese dialect he learned as a boy, ordered bountiful and delicious dishes that his friends and I enjoyed while we talked and laughed.

It was the summer of Willie McCovey’s debut with the San Francisco Giants. I remember the sights of young Chinese boys walking along with portable radios close to their ears listening to the game and showing the excitement that McCovey brought to the city.

Mar and I have stayed in touch. He brought his wife to stay with us at Myrtle Beach in the 1970s. I have spent nights at their home in Oakland.

The internet has made it easier for us to stay in touch. When his email about the risks of violence to Asians in North Carolina came, I owed him a prompt and honest response.

Why didn’t I answer?

“We don’t have any problems with Asians,” I thought. “We have big racial problems, but they are mostly between whites and blacks.”

The Siamese twins who settled in Wilkes County and then Surry in the 1800s were treated as honorary whites. So was Charlie Soong, the Chinese cabin boy who was educated at Trinity College (later Duke University) and sent back to China as a Methodist missionary. In China, he became wealthy and influential.

When I visit our state’s college campuses, I see Asian faces everywhere, busily mingling with other students. I read about the success of such students and contributions they have made in business, medicine and education.

The doors are open for Asians, I thought. The welcome mat is out.

How wrong I was.

The killings of Asians in and near Atlanta a few weeks ago unleashed other stories of discrimination and dangers they face.

One report that caught my attention came from former UNC-Chapel Hill basketball player Kane Ma. In 2019 he was assaulted by three attackers who taunted him with, “You gonna try some kung-fu on us?”

Kane Ma recovered from his serious injuries. But his experience demonstrates the same terrible feelings of hatred that have traditionally motivated violence against blacks in North Carolina also plague Asians.

For me, it is time to answer Don Mar’s email and acknowledge the challenges and dangers Asians face.

And to promise to work to alleviate them.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.