The first time I ever stole something I was 5 years old. I didn’t even know I was stealing at the time. My mother had taken me to one of the wholesale stores near 32nd Street, in Koreatown. It’s where she bought frilly Korean bows and hair clips for me in wholesale quantities growing up, imported straight from Korea. There was never a day in my childhood that I did not have some barrette or headband with little birds or butterflies, or other tiny creatures of wildlife, adorning my hair.
But on that one particular day, as I waited for my mother to pay for seven dozen new hair accessories, I noticed on the floor a little plastic bumble bee that had fallen off a headband nearby. It was covered in yellow and black sequins and glitter. I picked up the little bumble bee, saving it right before it was swept up by a store employee. It would have gone right into the trash had I not saved it!
My mother and I went off to lunch, and at some point during the meal I fished my little bumble bee out of my pocket and began to play with it.
“Nothing,” I answered my mother quickly. I wouldn’t have lied had it not sounded like an accusation!
My mother eventually confiscated my new toy, but then she gave it right back. I thought I’d won the battle, but then she marched me back to the store from whence it came. She explained to the store owner that I had taken something from their store without asking, and that I was there to return it. But I didn’t steal anything, I shouted in my head. But I felt ashamed. I handed the bee over to the owner.
“Oh but this is trash!” cried the owner in Korean, laughing.
My mother maintained that stealing trash was was still stealing. I had not asked permission to take it and therefore it was stealing. There was no grey area for my mother, just black and white, or black and yellow in this case. The bumble bee.
Both the store owner and I thought my mother was crazy. I realize now that my mother was right, in the end. I never asked anyone if I could have that little trashy bumble bee. It was the principle!
That was then.
This is now…
Yesterday I went to a baby fair alone, without Noah or Davy. Davy had gone to pick up my iPhone from the repair shop, and he’d taken Noah with him so I could quickly make the rounds at the baby fair before their return. Baby fairs, or babybeurs in Dutch, are basically swap meets but strictly for baby clothes and products. There are so many different beurs and markts (markets) going on, on any given weekend, that Belgium is basically one huge swap meet of a country!
So there I was in the very small and homogeous farming town of Kluizen yesterday, looking like I was on my way to a winter funeral in L.A with a little fur, a little Prada, and some suede ankle boots…
I’d just snatched up some long-sleeve shirts for Noah, and for a steal. The shirts still had tags on them so I was quite pleased with my purchase. I was enjoying all my conversations in Dutch here and there as I shopped. I liked flexing my language muscles without Davy around.
I knelt by another table to fold away the shirts I’d just bought, into my bag. I was about to move on to the next room of baby goods, when I was stopped. A woman’s hand gripped my forearm. She was the vendor whose table I’d knelt in front of. There were boxes of her children’s clothes she was selling, right where I’d been kneeling, and she asked me in Dutch if I’d taken anything from her box.
“Wablief?!” is what I asked the lady vendor.
Wablief is Dutch for what/huh/Whatchoo talkin’ bout Willis? It’s pronounced “wah-bleef” and it’s one of my favorite words in the language.
The lady vendor then repeated herself, louder, and by then everyone in the room was staring at us, in anticipation. For her, it was probably a mix of her own prejudices and jealousy over my tiny feet. I noticed her feet were huge. I couldn’t help it.
I told her in my best Dutch, “I took nothing. You don’t have to ask me again. Look in my bag.”
I’d opened my bag for her, and everyone else, to see. There were lots of sympathetic faces around me but it didn’t help. I felt like I was 5 years old again! Tears welled up in my eyes but I blinked them back. I swallowed the lump of humiliation in my throat. I wanted to run out of there and wait for Davy outside, but it was freezing out and I had no phone! I couldn’t even call him to hurry, and I couldn’t even tweet about it! I felt so alone.
I rarely feel outnumbered “because I’m Asian” because I don’t go around thinking about it consciously, but then some days it’s brought to my attention like yesterday. But my pride was intact and I continued shopping. I even had a cup of coffee at the refreshment stand. I looked fine.
When Davy finally arrived I told him there was nothing left to buy at the baby fair and we left. He was psyched to avoid the chaos inside and we drove off. He handed me my phone and I took it quietly. Davy knew my reunion with my iPhone should have been a bigger deal and he asked me what was wrong. I launched into the story, crying, while all the adrenaline drained from my body. Davy wanted to turn the car around and give the lady vendor hell, but I stopped him.
I’m not into Davy fighting my battles anyway, and I didn’t want the people of Kluizen to remember “that” couple on their gossip train. And I didn’t want Kluizen thinking I was anything but a well-dressed and gracious Asian woman who was falsely accused of stealing by a beast with big feet. It’s better than being called the crazy screaming anything. That never help.
Then this morning Davy saw that there was a babybeurs happening in our own town. We had nothing to do and so we went to check it out. And who did I see as soon as I walked into the fair? Big Foot from the day before! Apparently she’s a regular on the baby fair circuit.
I gasped. I couldn’t even help it. There she was.
She looked at me, and she saw I was not alone this time. She looked away quickly and never looked my way again.
But Davy had seen my mouth hanging open and he’d followed my gaze.
“She’s here? That’s her?”
I didn’t answer him at first but he knew it. He started to walk over to her with steam coming out of his ears. I stopped him. We went in the other direction. Noah found a set of wooden puzzles he wanted, and we made our rounds until we go to the front door again.
Davy and I discussed possibly stopping by “that” stall to say something, but we didn’t in the end. The fact of the matter is, I am a minority here and as such, shit happens. I stand out, which means Davy and Noah do too. How we stand out is what matters.
Short-term it would have been great to shame that sasquatch but long-term, I have to raise a family and live amongst her and other big feet like her. I’m okay with walking away from a fight I know I’d win, if it might make someone think differently about what they already assume. I hope that sasquatch realizes I didn’t destroy her, on principle, although I could have.
At least I have a good story to tell my mother on Skype tonight.
I’m sure we’ll reminisce about the stupid bumble bee…