By Mitch Kim
Today I want to let John Steinbeck speak for me. I have referred to this scene from East of Eden repeatedly as a way to love and honor one another in our differences. Samuel Hamilton embodies magnanimity as he engages a stereotypically Chinese man, Lee, who speaks pidgin English with a long ponytail down his back.
“What’s your name?” Samuel asked pleasantly.
“Lee. Got more name. Lee papa family name. Call Lee.”
“I’ve read quite a lot about China. You born in China?”
“No. Born here.”
Samuel was quiet a long time while the buggy lurched down the wheel track toward the dusty valley. “Lee,” he said at last, “I mean no disrespect , but I’ve never been able to figure why you people still talk pidgin when an illiterate baboon from the black bogs of Ireland, with a head full of Gaelic and a tongue like a potato, learns to talk a poor grade of English in ten years.”
Lee grinned. “Me talk Chinese talk,” he said.
“Well I guess you have your reasons. And it’s not my affair. I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe it.”
Lee looked at him and the brown eyes under their rounded upper lids seemed to open and deepen until they weren’t foreign any more but man’s eyes, warm with understanding.
Lee chuckled. “It’s more than a convenience,” he said. “It’s even more than self-protection. Mostly we have to use it to be understood at all.”
Samuel showed no sign of having observed any change. “I can understand the first two. But the third escapes me. . . .“
Lee said, “Pidgin they expect, and pidgin they’ll listen to. But English from me they don’t listen to, and so they don’t understand it.”
“Can that be possible? How do I understand you?”
“That’s why I’m talking to you. You are one of the rare people who can separate your observation from your preconception. You see what is, where most people see what they expect.” (1)
Samuel Hamilton demonstrates a salutary magnanimity in this conversation with a person from another background.
What lessons can we draw from Samuel Hamilton’s engagement with Lee? First he “read quite a lot about China.” He did not force Lee to speak on behalf of all Chinese people; he was independently curious. It often is exhausting for one member of any group to speak on behalf of the entire group; however when we independently expand our understanding of the story of another people, then we can better understand the particularity of that individual story in light of the larger issues. I’ve read recently books on the South Asian and African-American experiences as well as broadening my understanding of questions on gender and same sex attraction. Secondly Samuel Hamilton separated observation from preconception; he listened carefully and asked probing questions to understand Lee’s particular experience. Similarly as I read more widely I can listen more carefully and understand more fully when I already have a broader framework.
For Wellspring, I hope and pray that we might honor and love one another in our differences.
1. John Steinbeck, East of Eden (New York: Penguin, 1952), 160–161.