On Saturday, November 7th, 2020, four days after election day, all of the major news outlets called the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden. During the previous four days, which for many voters had felt like four years, the electorate had been obsessively listening to the radio, watching the news, and checking their smartphones for updates. When my husband Alex came into the kitchen to heat up water for tea at mid-morning as he has done each day since he started working from home, I had exchanged wide-eyed looks with him in the midst of the 118th, 119th, and 120th home schooling sessions I’d facilitated for our first grader since mid-March, when COVID-19 exploded in the United States (but who’s counting). I beamed the same thought to Alex day after day as our biracial son laboriously read aloud from a book about wrinkle-faced bats. When will we know?
I had spent long minutes staring at the webpage that the Associated Press established for the 2020 U.S. election results. It depicted a map of the 50 states that were a patchwork of azure and cardinal red for states that had already been called for Biden or Trump and cornflower blue and salmon pink for states where one candidate or the other was leading the count. In the top left corner, a green dot blinked next to the word Live. I watched the green dot, glanced down at the map to see if the pale colors of Nevada, Georgia, North Carolina, or Pennsylvania had deepened, and flicked my eyes back up to the green dot. Back and forth. One morning as I stared at my phone screen, the state of Nevada intensified to dark blue, and my breath caught the way it does when I glimpse a shooting star in the night sky over the high Sierra.
That Saturday morning, I awoke in Oakland, California to a clear blue sky and the news that Pennsylvania had been called for Biden, putting him over the threshold of minimum electoral votes to win the presidency. The wait was over. From the sinuous streets around Lake Merritt down the hill from my house to the rainbow crosswalks of the Castro in San Francisco, residents were dancing on the streets and waving at the honking cars that drove past. From the towering coast redwoods in Muir Woods to the “spaceship” campus of Apple, Inc., people were breathing deep and smiling behind their masks. I felt like a helium balloon released from the grip of a clutching, sweaty hand.
The San Francisco Bay Area is home to seven of the ten most Democratic counties in California. Here, in the deepest blue region of a blue state that has gone for the Democratic candidate in the last eight presidential elections, a region where eight out of ten voters cast their ballots for Biden, most residents were feeling relief and optimism for the first time since Trump was elected four years ago. It was safe to assume that when you saw a fellow parent at the monthly, socially distanced, masked, fourth grade get-together and declared I finally see a light at the end of the tunnel, they were observing the same glimmer.
On the morning the news outlets called the election for Biden, I sat on the edge of my bed in rumpled pajamas and exchanged a string of text messages with members of my writing group, all of whom had been enrolled in an MFA program with me at San Francisco State University. Two of them sent haikus they had written in honor of the day. I simultaneously responded to messages from a group of fellow Bay Area mothers, each of whom were parenting children ranging from preschool age to fourth grade and had been navigating the perils of childcare closures and distance learning for eight months with no end in sight until now. One of them sent a gif of Kamala Harris, with her smooth brown skin and sparkling eyes, laughing under a waterfall of pastel confetti. Smiling, I watched it loop. It never got old.
I also exchanged messages with a small group of friends who hailed from the same rural Western Michigan town as I did – Fremont, Michigan. Chad, my childhood neighbor with whom I used to walk to elementary school, picking up gleaming brown horse chestnuts that we stashed in the metal pencil trays of our desks, and who now lived in San Francisco, sent a gif of Carlton Banks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air sashaying in a red leather jacket. Julie, my best friend from first grade to senior year, with whom I learned to juggle in my front yard one long, hot summer afternoon and who now lived in Berkeley, sent a gif of Munchkins celebrating the death of the Wicked Witch of the East. Cara, my high school cross country teammate who sported a spiral permed bob for most of freshman and sophomore year and now taught English language learners in Colorado, sent a video by the Twitter user @terinewyork showing a string of notable Democratic officials dancing behind podiums and in the halls of the Capitol Building, set to the mix Lose Yo Job by DJ Suede and DJ iMarkkeyz. Kathy, my middle school and high school track teammate with whom I would sing Closer to Fine by the Indigo Girls to lift our spirits when a race didn’t go our way and now taught college-level English composition in Holland, Michigan, sent a screenshot of an Instagram post from @AGirlHasNoPres that said A Black woman gets to evict a white supremacist from the house that was built by slaves.
The five of us from my hometown now exchanging gleeful messages from disparate regions of the country hadn’t lived in Fremont since high school. But we were still bound by the ties that come from graduating with the people you remembered acting out superhero plays with capes made of taped together construction paper in the first grade. We had spent twelve years in classes together and shared the same memories of our classmate peeing her pants in third grade because she didn’t want to interrupt Mrs. Presler to ask to use the bathroom and our high school German teacher barking questions at us in German. Wie heisst du? In 1989, we were together in that teacher’s classroom when we watched television footage of East and West Germans joining together atop the Berlin wall and felt history happening.
We also shared a sense of homegrown pride. Our battleground home state of Michigan had gone for Biden earlier in the week. We could wear our Smitten with the Mitten shirts and University of Michigan caps with genuine pleasure. We could think of our peninsula state, embraced on three sides by the shimmering Great Lakes, with a warm glow.
On that Saturday morning in my home county of Newaygo, however, the scene was flipped. Newaygo County has voted for the Republican candidate in every presidential election since the turn of the 20th century with only two exceptions: in 1964 just over half of the county voted for Lyndon B. Johnson of the Democratic Party, and in 1912 just under half of the county went for Teddy Roosevelt of the Progressive Party.
For over a hundred and twenty years, the county has voted Republican by an average margin of 30%. In the current election, however, the margin was 40% – a peak that hasn’t been topped since 1952, when the World War II five-star general and Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower ran against Adlai Stevenson – and the 70% of voters there who cast ballots for Trump this November were not feeling celebratory.
In fact, according to Julie’s older sister Jessica, who moved to New York as a young woman and had two children there before moving back to Fremont several years ago, the atmosphere in our hometown had been increasingly tense since the coronavirus raised its spiky head in the United States. Although there were fewer than 50 reported cases of COVID-19 in the entire county from March to mid-May, the town had been held to the wide-reaching executive orders that Governor Whitmer had issued from the state capitol in mid-March that limited indoor assemblages of more than 50 people, canceled in-person instruction at schools, restricted visitors at health care and senior living facilities, postponed non-essential medical and dental procedures, and effectively closed down dine-in restaurants, bars, theaters, libraries, and fitness centers. Inside the state’s Capitol in Lansing two hours away, the now infamous armed demonstrations that protested Governor Whitmer’s shelter-at-home order had taken place in late April, when the total cases in the state had just crested 40,000.
Another friend whose wife owns a clothing boutique in Fremont says people in the area felt the pinch. Small business owners weighed the seemingly slim possibility of contracting the virus on one hand against the very real likelihood of going out of business on the other. In late May, without the backing of city officials or input from local businesses, an activist group called Stand Up Michigan organized a “Freedom Festival” in the nearby town of Newaygo expressly to resist Governor Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders. Almost five hundred people from across the state descending on the rural town and its population of 2,000 to shop and patronize restaurants. While Detroit’s Metro Times reported that some business owners refused to participate in an event they feared would expose their town to increased health risks, Fox 17 in Western Michigan noted that others were grateful for the support.
By the end of August, the number of known cases in Newaygo County was nearing 300, but only one death had been reported. The vast majority of cases and deaths were happening on the other side of the state in Wayne County, Oakland County, and Macomb County – the urban centers surrounding Detroit. The closest coronavirus hot spot to Fremont was Kent County, where I used to do my back-to-school shopping as a high schooler, but the City of Grand Rapids that anchors the county is an hour’s drive away and feels like another world.
At the same time, in an unpredictable but somehow unsurprising chain of events, the public health response to the virus in Michigan and elsewhere in the nation became mired in Trump’s reelection campaign. Either you were with Trump, in which case you dismissed COVID-19 as a mostly harmless virus – agreeing with him that it was nothing for anyone to get worked up about, and it was simply a matter of waiting for it to disappear on its own – or you were against him. In the Republican bastion where I was raised, pro-Trump lawn signs and flags went up around town. A local farmer parked a white semi-trailer at the side of the road in a field a few miles south of City Hall. On both sides of the trailer where oncoming traffic from both directions could clearly see them hung full-sized banners. Trump 2020. Promises Made. Promises Kept. At night, large spotlights illuminated the words.
Signage in the grocery stores and gas stations required customers to wear masks, but the rules were not enforced. Those who chose not to wear masks strode around with defiant expressions, seeming to dare passersby to take issue with them. And sometimes, they instigated exchanges. Jessica shared a recent encounter she’d had while grocery shopping with her friend in town.
“We were both in masks. And a lady in a wheelchair in the produce section who wasn’t wearing a mask called Kori a freak!” Through the phone line came the throaty chuckle that I used to hear in the halls of my high school whenever I passed one of her classrooms.
Fremont is a town with a lot of trees, churches, and families with blond hair, blue eyes, and Dutch last names. It is surrounded on all sides by acres of corn fields and dairy farms. There are blueberry fields south of town and apple and cherry orchards beyond those. Half an hour’s drive to the west are the broad, pale sand beaches and lapping waves of Lake Michigan, whose 430-mile shoreline is marked by fifty lighthouses that help guide ships transporting iron ore, coal, limestone, farm products, and steel throughout the region.
During the entirety of my childhood, the Gerber Products Company was a locally owned, nationally recognized baby food company headquartered in town. The company’s general offices, research facilities, and one of its three baby food plants were located a mile south of my house, close to the center of town. The Gerber family lived on the same road as us, about two miles north, past the Country Club, wooded lanes, and open pastures lined with goldenrod where chestnut horses grazed. A son and daughter from the Gerber family, just a couple generations removed from the original founders of the company, were in the same years of high school as my older sister and brother. As a freshman in high school, I sometimes saw the daughter – tall, with her blond hair always perfectly feathered – moving through the halls.
The company was more than just an employer. It was a way of life. The year I graduated from high school, the company commanded 70% of the national baby food market and had net revenues of over $1 billion annually. It purchased raw ingredients from dozens of farms located within a hundred mile radius of my town (including the one sporting the Trump banners on the semi-trailer in the recent election), hired truck drivers to distribute its products, employed hundreds of local residents to work in the baby food production plant, and attracted food scientists, chemists, industrial engineers, and finance folks – including my father, who worked for the company’s Vice President and Treasurer – from all over the nation and in some cases, other countries.
Every now and then, I went to work with my dad on weekends. In the mostly empty parking lot, he’d park our car – often an American-made vehicle that had been retired from the company’s fleet, offered at a discount to company employees – and usher me through the long corridors between endless cubicles. While my father did paperwork, I wandered from desk to desk, each one graced with his Caucasian co-workers’ family pictures, the teenage daughters with their feathered hair and big glasses, the sons with starched collars peeking over crewneck sweaters, the mothers in plaid shirts, and the fathers in tweed sport jackets. My siblings and I passed through those same corridors at the annual Christmas party that the company threw for the children of the hundreds of parents who worked at the local plant, research labs, and business offices. We queued up to collect an individually wrapped gift from the mountains of presents that were separated into age groups, and as we edged forward, overheating in our winter coats and itchy hats, we kept our eyes fixed on the towering piles that were like a desert mirage for children from a family like mine that rarely spent money on toys.
With this juggernaut of strained peas attracting cosmopolitan executives, employing townspeople, and acting as a benefactor for community organizations, educational initiatives, and services including a local hospital, the regional economy and quality of life was fairly good. In fact, when I was a kid, folks in town claimed that Fremont had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the nation, which is saying something for a place that was an endless drive away from the closest Ponderosa Steakhouse. When I left for college in 1990, over sixty percent of the town’s employed residents held professional positions or worked in support of the professionals, about fifteen percent worked blue collar jobs like those at the baby food plant, and the unemployment rate was just under six percent.
At that time, the average household size in Fremont was 2.3 people and the median household income was a bit over $25,000 annually (three times the federal poverty level for a family of two, which was about $8,500 that year). The upper cap for a family of two to receive reduced price school lunches was an annual income of about $15,600, so the family of a child from an average household in my hometown would have made too much money to qualify that year.
My ethnically Chinese family moved to Fremont from the Philippines in 1976, when I was three. We were the only non-mixed Asian family in town when we first arrived. The 1980 U.S Census indicated that 0.5% of the population in my hometown identified as other than white. In actual numbers, this meant that only seventeen people living within the city limits of a town of almost four thousand people considered themselves non-white, and five of those non-white people were my parents, my older siblings, and me. This percentage crept up to 1% by the time I graduated from high school ten years later.
Soon after we arrived in the United States, my parents had decided to speak only English to us because they believed this would help us acclimate. By the time I started kindergarten, English was my primary language. Although I still understood our Chinese dialect of Hokkien when my grandmother spoke to me, my own vocabulary had been reduced to counting to ten, singing Jesus Loves Me, and the simplest of phrases. It’s time to eat. This is good food. I’m full. I don’t know.
There was never an explicit discussion at home about integrating with the wider community, but whether through necessity, desire, or a child’s sheer adaptability, I assimilated quickly. In my home, we ate steamed white rice at every dinner instead of potatoes and my father counted under his breath in Chinese when he did simple math, but outside the house I had roles in school plays and musicals, sang in church choir, played the clarinet in band, went to birthday parties, made salt dough Christmas ornaments at my church’s holiday bazaar, marched in parades under the blazing sun on Memorial Day and July 4th, and huffed around the soft asphalt track and over the knotted roots of our cross country trails with the rest of my teammates.
Moreover, we were welcomed into the community. Our fellow church members invited us into their homes, and we invited them into ours. We developed customs together – admiring the towering Christmas tree in our family friend’s two-story A-frame house on Second Lake, exchanging small gifts, and meeting one another’s extended families when they visited our town. The pace in the town was slow and easy, and there was enough time for everything and everyone. It was a mutual appreciation society characterized by leisurely visits, laughter, snacks, and I believe genuine respect.
Growing up in Fremont was a bit like living in a Norman Rockwell painting. The town is sprinkled with ponds and lakes, and from 1955 to the turn of the century, the Ramshorn Country Club maintained a members’ only restaurant and golf course on a piece of land between Second and Third Lakes. It was half a mile from my house, up a curving road that wound through a string of lakes bordered by water lilies and cattails. When my brother was in middle school, he often borrowed a canoe from our friend with the A-frame house, paddled across the lake to the small channel that ran through the golf course, and collected golf balls that had been hit into the water. Then he nestled them in egg cartons that he got from my mother and sold them back to the golfers who had lost them in the first place.
Main Street had a Gay 1890’s theme, and the buildings followed zoning rules that lent an atmosphere of historic brick charm to the four block downtown strip. At the end of July, an annual festival called Old Fashioned Days brought tilt-a-whirl and salt-n-pepper shaker rides with flashing neon lights to the city park in the center of town, sidewalk sales from the merchants on Main Street, a spelling bee on a stage set up across the street from the carnival rides, and a penny scramble in a giant pile of sawdust under the sole stoplight in town. The merchants made change for the lip gloss, clogs, and wallets they sold off the racks lining the street while wearing ankle-length, bell-shaped dresses with puffed sleeves or morning coats with bowler hats.
As a child there, I felt safe. I could ride my bike anywhere I wanted, with whomever I pleased. I spent a lot of time in trees. The buzzing of cicadas echoed in the forests all summer long.
At the sole high school in town, which drew kids from within the town and the unincorporated areas surrounding the city, there was a smidgen more pigment. A few adopted brown students here, a few biracial students there, plus a dusting of Latinx students. Some people of color who were in school with me at the time say they felt alienated and even ostracized, while others don’t recall any instances of bullying at all. In my experience, coming through several years after my sister and brother had paved the way, if you did what all the other kids did like playing sports, going to Friday night basketball games, and toilet papering teachers’ houses (as opposed to, say, wearing a conical hat and distributing pot stickers on your birthday), you were accepted. As Jessica-of-the-husky-laugh said recently to two biracial classmates – one with a Dominican father and another with an Egyptian father – “I thought you were just white with a tan.”
I recall only three incidents from my childhood when I was overtly targeted because of my ethnicity. In third grade, a student who wasn’t in my class pulled the corners of his eyes up into slants and pretended to speak Chinese to me on the playground. In fourth grade, my reading teacher urged me to say something in Chinese for the whole class (as the other students stared at me, I lied and said I didn’t know any – she should have made the request to that student on the playground from the year before). When I was a junior in high school, a freshman boy pretended to speak Chinese to me whenever I passed him in the halls (some old shtick). And each time, I was surprised. Almost as if I’d thought everyone had forgotten I was Asian. Or maybe I was the one who’d forgotten.
For better or worse, my fellow students gave the impression that they were colorblind to my contrasts, and this was far preferable to me than the alternative: singling me out because of them. At that time, in that place, the seamless assimilation was comforting to me. It was similar to what every teenager probably experienced, but the stakes felt even higher when I wore some of my differences on the outside. Diluting my ethnicity in the sea of alabaster skin and freckles was a matter of survival.
My childhood peers’ unquestioning acceptance is both endearing and disconcerting to me now. With an established set of close friends and a broader circle of chums from my sports teams, I felt a real sense of belonging. No one asked me about my family’s culture or customs, and some part of me was probably relieved about that. Despite the fact that a fundamental part of my identity was largely unrecognized and ignored, I didn’t know it could be any other way. When I started college at MIT, where 30% of the students were Asian, I joked that I was a banana. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.
It was only in college, where I made friends who had grown up speaking Chinese at home, could trace the origin of their surnames, knew how to use chopsticks, and were utterly American, that I realized what I’d been missing. A chance to let it all out. To compare immigration stories. To go for dim sum and say yes to everything, even the chicken feet. To realize for the first time that Asian boys had their own cool, sleek beauty. To accept a bowl of steamed white rice that someone had made in a tiny rice cooker in their dorm room, inhale the delicate fragrance of home, and exhale the same sentiment. I miss rice. To be recognized before even speaking a word.
It’s possible my friends from Fremont didn’t want to pry. But now I think that asking questions is a sign of friendship. Proof of interest. Because how can you really know, if you don’t ask? Then again, perhaps they simply didn’t know how. There wasn’t much vocabulary for it at the time.
A biracial friend from Fremont whose mother is a Filipina was once working at the local D&W grocery store in high school when a white man asked him about his background. When my friend told the man he was Filipino, the man asked, “Did you used to be Japanese?” My friend’s interpretation at the time was that the man thought he might be an offshoot of the Japanese occupation of the Philippine Islands during World War II but couldn’t find the words that weren’t common in Fremont then and probably still aren’t now. Are you ethnically Japanese?
His younger sister Karen was once herded into a photo with her white father and my Asian mother by a well-intentioned (of course, Caucasian) mother of a classmate before our class trip to Germany. She assumed they were part of the same family and would want a photograph to commemorate the start of our adventure. The woman’s odds were pretty good – Karen’s Filipina mom and my ethnically Chinese one from the Philippines were the only two Filipinas in town. She had a fifty percent chance of getting it right. The shutter on her camera clicked before Karen realized what was happening.
Karen jokes, “I should have said, ‘That’s nice. Now would you like me to get my mom for a picture?’”
Maybe if we’d been bold enough to inform the woman of her error, she would have learned something about us and about herself. But we didn’t. We should have.
My Caucasian husband and I are raising our own bi-racial children in Oakland, California. Its population of over 433,000 is a mosaic of people and cultures. Only 28% of city residents identify as Caucasian, and the other 311,000 residents are people of color. Since birth, my kids have been surrounded by children of all cultures, heard languages from every corner of the world, and been awash in Spanish, Chinese, Filipino, Indian, and Persian accents issuing from their childcare providers, teachers, and parents and grandparents of their friends. Not to mention their own grandparents on my side. I deeply appreciate that it’s normal to be a minority here. In fact, despite the fact that 40% of the students at my children’s elementary school are people of color, some parents – including me – still worry that it is too white because it doesn’t reflect the overall demographics of our city.
Even though our city is a paragon of diversity, I find myself asserting my children’s Chinese identity every chance I get. We celebrate the Lunar New Year every year, and they know they’ve hit the jackpot when the red envelopes appear. They attend a summer camp called Hip Wah that teaches them how to speak Mandarin, play classic Chinese instruments, perform a lion dance, and cook Chinese food. During her elementary school’s diversity festival, my daughter and five of her fellow Asian classmates wore red silk cheongsams and performed a traditional fan dance for their entire school. When one of my kids is sick or in pain from a trip to the orthodontist, I cook rice porridge with ginger and scallions. If they leave meat on a drumstick, I tell them, “You’re eating chicken like a white person.” They know I expect to see the bone cleaned all the way down to the cartilage.
Why do I insist on reminding them? Am I reacting, decades later, to having my own Asian identity hidden from and invisible to others as a child? Is it because I fear my kids will lose touch with their history or want to disguise it?
Anyway, it’s unlikely to happen. When my daughter was very young, she once declared that she was “half Chinese and half Snow White.” Maybe she didn’t get the white part exactly right, but I was satisfied. My goal for myself and my kids isn’t assimilation now. It is to be seen for all of who and what we are, and still be accepted.
Since my childhood, the demographics of Fremont have changed. Although the total population has remained fairly constant at four thousand, in the 2010 Census, just under 6% of the residents identified as either non-white or multi-racial. This represents a jump of over two hundred people of color since my family’s first census in 1980. In addition, the American Communities Survey (ACS) indicated that educational attainment at the high school level among residents over twenty-five years of age had improved from a little more than 80% in 1990 to 92% by 2018, and post-secondary education had held steady with about 23% of townspeople holding a college bachelor’s degree or higher.
At the same time, the town has declined in terms of economic prosperity. In 1994, four years after I left town, a Swiss pharmaceuticals company acquired Gerber Products Company. A dozen years after that, the Swiss food company Nestle bought Gerber from the pharmaceuticals company. The following year, Nestle accepted a 15-year tax break that represented an estimated $15.2 million in foregone property tax revenues to the city and county as an inducement to maintain the workforce in the town and continued investment in the local facility. In September 2020, twelve years into the first agreement, Nestle accepted yet another tax incentive that would reduce its tax bill by another $6.5 million over the next ten years, in return for investing in new product lines for freeze dried snacks in the local manufacturing plant. Whereas Gerber’s executives once lived in town with their families, its current leadership gives orders from Florham Park, New Jersey.
It seems that the loyalty to the local workforce that my hometown enjoyed when the company was owned by a family with deep roots in the community is no longer a given. The days when the town could rest easy with over a thousand stable jobs at Gerber’s Fremont site and a robust tax base to pay for filling potholes, replacing trees in Arboretum Park, and repairing the HVAC at City Hall are over. Now there are tradeoffs. As for the Gerber family that lived down the road from mine, its members are scattered from Florida to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Although the ACS showed the unemployment rate in Fremont was lower in 2018 than it was when I finished high school, the employment mix has shifted. Fewer employed residents (less than half) hold professional positions or work in support of professionals, and more (about twenty-five percent) work blue collar jobs like construction and manufacturing.
In 2018, Fremont’s median household size was still hovering around two persons and the median household income was about $35,000 (only twice the federal poverty level for a family of two, which was about $16,500). In the current school year, 62% of the public school students in town meet the requirements to receive free or reduced price meals, which means their families have incomes at or below 185% of the federal poverty level.
Many former classmates from my 140-person graduating class still live in Western Michigan and a fair number remain in our hometown. But I rarely see them when I go back to Fremont, which is usually once a year around my father’s birthday at the beginning of August. Mostly, I do what I did when I lived there. Look out the living room window at the lush green trees at the park entrance across the street from my parents’ house. Read books in my old room. Eat dinner in the kitchen with my parents in the mellowing summer light. Go for a run in the dark past my old elementary school, beyond the baby food factory with its tall stacks billowing white steam, and to the end of the former apple orchard. Listen to the croaking of frogs and singing of crickets. Wait for something good to happen. It feels like putting on an old letter jacket. It’s familiar, but there’s a reason you left it behind in your parents’ hall closet. It’s not really you anymore.
The last time I saw most of them was five summers ago at our 25th high school reunion, which was held in a refurbished church that is now the private residence of one of our fellow classmates. We gathered in front of the white building, some of us sitting on the steps and others standing in front of large double wooden doors. We pressed together, shoulder to shoulder with former friends, archnemeses, teammates, and competitors. I can name every person in the photo.
At the time, Obama was serving his seventh year in office, and no one talked about politics at the reunion. I stood in the back garden with former bandmates under leafy trees and spent a bit of time with a classmate who used to wear parachute pants and a large plastic clock hanging from a chain around his neck in high school. He told me he’d had a crush on me in sixth grade and was tongue-tied on an entire bus ride home from a field trip when I sat next to him. When night fell, I sat on the front steps with someone who had brought me to her church’s day camp one summer during elementary school. When I think of your house, she said, I still see your grandmother sitting at the kitchen table. My eyes filled. I hadn’t known that pieces of people I loved took up residence in other people’s heads. Later that evening, I spent half an hour talking with our former salutatorian, now a police officer with the Allegan County Sherriff’s Department, about the joys and pitfalls of starting families in our late 30’s. We agreed that the exhaustion of chasing after preschoolers in our early forties was worth the years of freedom that came before kids.
We were supposed to have our 30th reunion this past July at the same old church where we gathered five years ago. At the time, there were only about 90 active COVID-19 cases in Newaygo County, but we agreed via an informal Facebook poll to postpone it to next summer anyway. Now, four months later, the number of cases in the county has grown to almost 1,100, with roughly 50 new cases reported on the day of this writing alone. The hospitals are full.
The Fremont City Hall is now closed to the public through the end of the year, as is the Congregational church my family attended when I was a child. Nonetheless, Jim Rynberg – the Mayor of Fremont since 2004 and the director of my church’s Christmas pageant the year I played a ladybug – still goes to work at his City Hall office every day, and he arranged flowers on the church alter for Thanksgiving. Their fragrance filled the soaring space for no one. Instead, a video of the display was shared with congregants.
I don’t know if the change in demographics, education, relative prosperity, or public health and safety have significantly affected how townspeople feel about themselves, each other, or the world beyond. The fact is that overall, Fremont always has been and probably always will be conservative. That seems to be a reliable constant.
But the atmosphere has altered. Politics has taken over conversations between friends there. Phone conversations are cut short. Small, biting comments are tossed around on the basketball court during the Tuesday morning pickup games at the high school. A small jab here, one there, and another after that. They build.
On Facebook, over the tumultuous weeks and months leading up to the election, some of my former classmates had posted photographs and memes that made it clear which candidate they supported. One who had been in my honors math classes from sixth grade algebra through AP calculus, posted statistics from the CDC about the coronavirus survival rate. I’d find these figures more encouraging if the transmission rate weren’t so high, I commented. As it is, even with these survival rates, over 200,000 of our fellow Americans have died in the last seven months. That’s 67 World Trade Center attacks. It’s more than the total number of Americans killed in the fifteen years of the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The poster responded, It depends on how you look at it – I prefer to see it as good news, and later unfriended me. I was surprised and a little stung. Had my factual observations really offended him? Did our years of trading wallet-sized school photos and teasing each other in class count for nothing?
Another, the wife of the police officer with whom I had commiserated during our class reunion, reposted a dim photo of trunks with one highlighted in a streak of blue. Overlaid in all white caps was a message: If you are rooting for the death of cops, remove yourself from my page, we are not friends. No exit speech needed. Just leave!! I wondered if any of her friends, Facebook or otherwise, were the type to actually root for the death of police officers or if – feeling defensive and protective of my classmate in uniform – she was conflating support for defunding the police with actual death wishes.
A third classmate who had played the part of Superman in that first grade play and was the quarterback of the football team our senior year, posted a caption that read TRUMP 2020!!! over a photo of a black baseball cap that was embroidered with Veteran U.S. Army in yellow thread.
Disagreements over the pandemic and politics, now inextricably linked, have led to the dissolution of some relationships. Jessica’s close-knit group of lifelong local friends are all Democrats, and every one of them has lost friends or family members over one or both issues. One of her friends was uninvited to Thanksgiving dinner with her in-laws.
Be careful, I texted my mother on the Saturday that the election was called for Biden. She has been a Fremont resident for 45 years, a U.S. citizen since 1980, and still lives in my childhood home. Despite having lived in the United States for over half of her life, she still speaks English with a warm Filipino accent and negotiates for every service she receives, from mowing the lawn to resurfacing the asphalt on her driveway. Earlier in the fall, she had seen a car with a Confederate flag enter the large, forested park across the street from the house. There are a lot of disappointed people in Fremont today.
She used to bump into acquaintances or former classmates of mine or my siblings’ frequently at the grocery store, post office, and pharmacy. In the years following our graduation from high school, they’d call out her name – Mrs. Guy?– and my mother would get all the news. When she got home, she’d call and fill me in about how this person was getting remarried, or how that person had gone bald.
But it’s been a long time, and Fremont has become a town of strangers. She doesn’t recognize anyone at the store anymore. A lot of her old friends have moved or passed away. So I worry about the faceless people with their Confederate flags driving past her house. I imagine them doing to her, what I saw the armed protestors doing to the guards at the Michigan State Capitol on my phone screen. A red-faced, bearded man, his unmasked face poised inches away from her pale, soft one. His mouth open, roaring. His eyes blazing. In the parking lot of the grocery store. On a sidewalk outside the pharmacy. At City Hall when she is paying her water bill. My mom is so small now. How will she protect herself? Would anyone come to her defense?
She is now the grandmother sitting at the kitchen table, but with all of her children and grandchildren living across the country in California, none of her grandchildren’s friends will form a memory of seeing her there. In fact, no one at all sees her there. Mired in this pandemic, everyone is supposed to stay in their own homes. In so many ways, we are discouraged from bridging the space between one another, and it breaks my heart.
Despite the change in the air, Jessica says she still loves living in Fremont. It is still full of small town folks, she says. Other than the mask issue, everyone is still really nice. People are kind. They say hi when they pass you on the sidewalk.
“Everything will go back to normal,” she says.
Maybe she is right, and people mostly treat others as they ever did in real life. Perhaps what has changed is the way people interact in secret. The world is bigger for everyone these days. Our smart phones and computers bring its beauty, color, and noise right into our homes. But it’s a double-edged sword. It also brings close the ugliness, anger, and fear.
Protected behind our screens, we post and repost provocative memes, links to articles, and bold statements, not only on our own pages but on others’. It’s akin to walking up to someone you haven’t seen in thirty years and instead of asking about their parents or kids, thrusting a newspaper in their face and telling them not only what you think of it, but also what you think of people who do or don’t agree with it. And then for good measure, you roll up the newspaper and smack their noses with it.
It’s human nature, that urge to circle the wagons and turn things into an us versus them scenario. It’s also seemingly damage-free when “they” are a faceless mass instead of people you might run into at the library or during school drop-off. We don’t know the tone or gestures they hang on our words. We can’t see them turn and walk away. Not until we realize we’ve been unfriended on Facebook.
And neither side has a monopoly on pitchforks and torches. If you break out in hives at the idea that a huge swath of Americans don’t believe the coronavirus exists regardless of the increasing death toll and some polls show that 70 percent of Republicans don’t believe the presidential election results are valid despite an overwhelming lack of evidence to support their opinion, try this one on for size: on a phone app that specializes in conspiracy theories, my teenage niece came across a rumor that Barron Trump is actually the love child of Ivanka Trump and her father, Donald Trump.
It’s a breakdown of the old, kind ways, ushered in by the advent of social media, alternative news stations, and changed social norms. A perfect storm of a proliferation of information sources at our fingertips ranging from credible to pure poppycock, the increasing ability of anyone to say anything and have their words be amplified ad nauseum, social media that relentlessly analyzes what floats your boat and continues feeding you more of the same, and our increasing isolation, both physical and psychological. We now have the ability to turn our brains into echo chambers for our own beliefs.
“There’s no mixing,” says my sister, reflecting on the effects of the pandemic. In addition to being an immigrant, Democrat, and fellow resident of the San Francisco Bay Area now, she graduated from West Point and was deployed as an officer in the Gulf War in the early 90s. Like every person in the United States, she’s not someone you can paint with a broad brush. “You can’t go to church and be nice to people. You can’t even go to church without people thinking you’re a right-wing nut anymore. You live in your computer.”
And by you, she means us. All of us.
My question is this: who is the real us? Is it people who could grow up in vastly disparate households, rambling farmhouses, 1-bedroom trailers, two-story colonials, and tidy ranch style homes, and still go to school and play on the same sports teams and wear the same uniforms? People whose parents – Republican and Democrat and Progressive and Independent – could stand next to one another in the weathered wooden stands, cheering as one?
Or is the real us the angry, sarcastic, desperate people we reveal on social media? The ones with eyes narrowed at other people’s posts, looking for a reason to pounce? Were we just hiding under social niceties, back when we still had to talk to people face to face?
Which one is the mask and which is the face under the mask?
A few days after the election was called, as I walked with my children past the chained, empty playground of the elementary school they’ve attended since beginning kindergarten, my daughter said longingly, “I miss playing on the play structure.” She is a fourth grader this year, and she regrets every missed day at her beloved school.
“Maybe by next fall, you’ll be back at school with all of your friends and teachers,” I said. “And this year will be like a bad dream.”
“Next year!” she said in disbelief. A year to a child is like a dog year. Endless.
“Or sooner, if the gods help,” suggested my 7-year-old son, who is twenty months into an obsession with all things Greek and mythical. We approached a woman transferring bags out of her car in her driveway, pulled our masks up over our noses and mouths, and gave her a wide berth.
“Although probably not,” he added, his voice muffled behind the cloth. “They have other things on their hands. God problems.”
Two highly effective COVID-19 vaccines were announced in the weeks following the election, and big pharma is optimistic that by next summer, these vaccines will be widely available across the nation. Though we may eventually be protected from the physical ravages of the virus, I wonder whether we can recover from the psychological scars that have divided us online and in person. My fellow honors math classmate who disagreed with me over how to interpret the COVID-19 survival rates might be at our next reunion. I’m curious if the unfriending was only virtual or also in reality.
As for me, I deleted the Facebook app from my phone in order to hinder ambushing and being ambushed. I’m going to try to do more of my living in the real world, or as close to it as I can get, where people are three dimensional and complex – not just pixels on a screen, a headline in bold, or a sound-bite from the news. Where I can offer others the same grace those in my rural hometown once offered to me and my family. Friendship. Acceptance. But also a touch of curiosity, because I want to see people anew. And I want to let them see me.
Most of us wear masks of one kind or another. Some of our masks helped us survive when we were too young and vulnerable to show all of ourselves. Some of us wear them in front of our families. In front of ourselves. At this threshold between old and new, past and present, and memory and reality, each of us has a choice. Which face do we want to reveal? Will we allow others to see us for what we are? Sad, scared, lonely, black, brown, white, hopeful, flawed, proud, and beautiful.
For the sake of all the good that may come from being able to meet face-to-face and just be nice to people, I hope that I will be able to travel home next summer. My classmates and I could sit together on the front steps of a white church. As the dusk darkens to night, we might draw in the sweet, humid Midwestern air that holds the faint scent of newly mown grass and breathe out together. Perhaps we will reminisce about the time one of us almost choked on a butterscotch candy in our 7th grade algebra class or how we made the freshmen march barefoot into the St. Joseph River during band camp. We may ask a simple question. How are you?
It’s the way new friendships begin.
Ann Guy is a writer and recovering engineer in lockdown with her husband and two young children in Oakland, CA. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction in 2020 and her MA in English with Creative Writing in Fiction in 2018 from San Francisco State University, where she received a Distinguished Graduate Award from both programs. Her writing has appeared in Motherwell. She is currently working on a memoir about identity, loss, and resilience.