The High & the Low

Rocking the Boat

Taking on stereotypes one paddle stroke at a time

Illustration: Illustration by Michael Witte

The question is this: is a stereotype bad if the traits it advances are good? I’ve been polling some of my more enlightened friends, and we’ve been forced to conclude that the answer is still yes. If, for example, you are of Chinese descent and, therefore, generally assumed to be pretty damn smart, wouldn’t you prefer that people think of you as intelligent because you, yourself, as an individual, are, in fact, intelligent? I mean, if you’re smart simply by default—by dint of the fact that you happen to be Chinese—you personally don’t get all that much credit.

It’s not a problem I run into. White Southerners don’t get the smart thing too much, even if we also happen to write for a living. My good friend and colleague Roy Blount, Jr., says folks are forever telling him stuff like, “Well, of course you’re a writer, you’re from the South, you people are natural storytellers.” It irritates him. I know how he feels. When the cocktail hour rolls around, my hosts invariably assume that my DNA requires a big slug of bourbon. I drink Scotch. So as generalities go, I have to say that I think I’d prefer being automatically characterized as a natural-born sharp-as-a-tack type rather than a yarn-spinning, corn-pone-munching bourbon swiller who, while we’re at it, cannot dance. (And who might just also be the sort of person traditionally and regionally inclined to stereotype people of other races and ethnicities.)

The question arose in August when the first ever Dragon Boat Festival was held in my hometown of Greenville, Mississippi. In China, the festival is an actual national holiday. But it has since been co-opted by cities across America, especially by those like Greenville that are located on a body of water on which dragon boat teams can race. John Cox III, our stalwart mayor, had been pushing for the festival ever since taking office two years earlier, as a way to honor the contributions Chinese Americans have made to our local culture. This makes more sense than it might seem. Mississippi has long been home to more Chinese Americans than any other state in the South, and when I was growing up, more than 90 percent of them were in the Mississippi Delta.

The first immigrants turned up around 1870 directly from Sze Yap, in southern China, as recruits of white planters, who were hedging their bets with replacement labor, lest the newly freed slave population take their emancipation a little too seriously. Others made their way east from California while building the transcontinental railroad, and they stuck around to help build the levees. Either way, upon arrival they were not much interested in field labor—or in the rudimentary shacks built to house them. In what might be described as an early sharp-witted move, they turned instead to the grocery store trade, establishing themselves in African American neighborhoods, catering to a population who had until recently been “paid” in goods like flour or cornmeal from the plantation commissary and who now had (a little) cash to buy their own groceries.

During my childhood, there were still well over a dozen Chinese stores in town—including Min Sang, Toi Roi, Bing’s, Ting’s, and Joe Gow Nue Nos. 1 and 2—as well as an enormous and enormously popular Chinese restaurant called How Joy. These days, a lot of the population has left the Delta for other parts of the state or beyond (two of my classmates, for example, went off to Stanford and MIT), but lots of folks came back for the festival, which included a delicious six-course banquet the night before the race.

Anyway, I am all for honoring the Chinese and supporting the mayor, and I happened to be home when Howard Brent, the father of my lifelong friend Jessica and one of my personal heroes, said he would sponsor a team if we would get one together. So we gathered a group, named ourselves the Drag Queens, and assembled racing uniforms consisting of hot pink wigs, dangling earrings, and various other accessories including sequined berets and flower-bedecked headbands for the men and women alike. Our theme also enabled me to put to use the leopard-print bra headpiece I made myself when I rode in the Mardi Gras Muses parade, a topper that would be the envy of any real live drag queen—and one so fetching that none other than my former Vogue colleague André Leon Talley suggested I wear it to a luncheon at Manhattan’s La Grenouille. But I digress.

We were pumped. It’s hard not to be when Howard is your benefactor. He is a man who gets excited by pretty much everything. Growing up, I spent the night in the Brent house more times than I can count, but Jessica and her siblings and I rarely got a full night’s sleep. Howard was forever yanking us out of bed: “Y’all get up, let’s play the guit-tar”; “Y’all get up, there’s a rodeo in Monroe.” His enthusiasm is invariably infectious, and his family has been in the towboat business for generations, so he was a natural to go on the local radio to promote the fest.

After some amusing and semi-sexist innuendo about the importance of getting your strokes in sync and your rhythm right (which, I found out, happens to be true), Howard got around to talking about his classmates at Greenville High: “I graduated with Paul Chu Lin and Shirley Wong. I used to try and sit by them, see, because the Chinese were real smart, but they wouldn’t let me copy off their papers. So I had to go and find another dumb son of a gun like me to copy off of.” He went on to say that sponsorships benefited the Chinese American Cultural Alliance (CACA) scholarship fund and other worthy causes, and that “folks need to write some checks, because we need some more boats out there. They’re beautiful. Got a dragon on the front.”

Now, you could not find anyone more well intentioned than Howard if you looked hard. Plus, he was really mostly talking about two classmates whose individual smarts he had seen for himself. Also, now that I’ve been a dragon boat competitor myself, I can back up this particular stereotype with some actual statistics. For example, the number of Chinese American teams came to exactly one, and it was sponsored by CACA, which sorta had to do it.

The day I turned up for practice at the appointed hour of 11:00 a.m., it was about ninety-eight degrees with no shade in sight. My teammates demonstrated their own good sense by being almost entirely absent. There were five of us, plus two employees of Harlow’s casino hotel who had missed their own practice (and who, after all, were being paid to be part of their company’s team) and an unsuspecting acquaintance we pressed into duty after he made the mistake of walking his dog within our line of sight. I had on my usual uniform of black pants, black shirt, and black ballet flats because I’d erroneously figured “practice” would consist of eyeballing the boat (a terrifyingly narrow vessel) and maybe testing my grip on the oar. Instead, a very stern woman with a crew cut (who was among the coaches who fly around the country to supervise these races) got us out on the water and forced us to paddle away—very badly and not remotely in sync—for a full hour. Back on shore, one of our group dropped to his knees on the cobblestoned embankment; another threw up. This did not bode well, but on the day of the race, we managed to come in at a respectable fourteenth out of twenty in the first trial and thirteenth in the second.

A team of typically competitive cardiologists came in first, but they didn’t seem to have nearly as much fun as we did. Our viewing tent featured a bar complete with Southsides (in keeping with the regatta spirit of things), plus platters of tasty snacks like pimento cheese sandwiches, the enjoyment of which was aided by the fact that we didn’t have to stay in fighting (and relatively sober) shape for the finals. In retrospect, I’m a tiny bit bitter that we didn’t win for best team spirit, because we certainly had it, but we are not giving up. Next year, we’re planning a Polynesian theme so we can keep the wigs and add grass skirts—and mai tais, of course.

On my way back to New Orleans, I drove past the small metropolis of Louise, Mississippi, where Hoover Lee still owns and operates his store, Lee Hong. Hoover was mayor of Louise for eighteen years, during which time he visited Reagan in the White House, and he was an alderman for six years before that. His sons Stan and Tim pretty much run the operation now, but Hoover and his wife still live in the house he built in the back, and he still makes his superlative (and secret) Hoover Sauce, which is excellent on wild game and a key ingredient in my friend Hank Burdine’s tasty duck poppers.

Anyway, when I stopped in to replenish my sauce stock, I reflected on the fact that when I was a kid, Hoover’s store, like most of the rest of the Delta Chinese groceries, still sold live chickens in cages. Which leads me to one of my father’s favorite stories, about a stunt pilot named Gaston Hunter (pronounced “Gastone”). Well into the 1960s, the Delta played host to frequent weekend air shows. Apparently Gaston had seen a rather more accomplished pilot whose act consisted of throwing a trained hawk out the open window of his plane. The hawk would glide through the air beautifully, executing a few loop de loops, and when the pilot landed, the hawk would come light on his wrist. Gaston did not have a trained hawk; instead he stopped at what was then called (really, really politically incorrectly) “the China-man’s store” and bought himself a rooster, which are not renowned for their flying abilities in the first place and which at any rate had clipped wings. As he was executing his last big move, he threw out the rooster, which, naturally, went into a long, sickening spiral, one that makes me cringe to think about, even now, and it hit the ground with a big splat. Gaston was so embarrassed he didn’t land and flew all the way to Memphis instead.

And here’s where we might possibly have evidence of another stereotype that could just be more or less accurate. There’s a reason, after all, that everybody laughs at those “Hey y’all, watch this” jokes. Because we know that in the hands of some of our, um, more redneck brethren, the equivalent of a rooster is going to land at our feet.