"Who wants to hold a real Civil War musket?"
Saturday night, I took the kids to a one man play by a Civil War reenactor. After the performance, he invited all the children up front to take turns holding a real Confederate musket.
I sat in my chair and watched as one by one, Nathan and Julia took their turns, and then came back to join me. Finally, only Katherine and Wenxin were left waiting in the big group of home schooled kids. Then it happened. As I watched, Wenxin went from relaxed, engaged, hands outstretched to take his turn holding the musket -- like any normal boy about to get the chance to hold a real weapon -- to rigid, alone in the crowd, standing at attention with arms pressed firmly at his sides. He averted his eyes to the ground as big, silent tears dripped from his chin.
For a moment he remained frozen, glued to the floor while all the other kids clamored around him, completely unaware of his distress. Then suddenly, Wenxin broke away and marched over to me. Eyes still on the ground, he stood ramrod straight.
"I don't want to hold the musket. I want to go home. I want to go home now."
All my questions. . . and attempts at comforting. . . and offers to go back and wait for another turn with him, were met with downcast eyes and stony silence. I was getting nowhere.
Finally, I asked Katherine if she knew what happened.
"Mom, I don't know. . . surely he didn't mean it. . . but it really looked like the man skipped Wenxin on purpose. . . He let everyone else have a turn, and when he got to Wenxin, Wenxin held out his hands, and the man pulled the musket away and gave it to another kid."
I hope she was wrong. I really do. There was a mob of kids, all wanting a chance to hold the musket. It would be so easy to skip over one in the confusion. And yet, I wondered. Did this man see an Asian kid and not want him to touch his prized antique gun? His piece of American history?
Let me say, that from the bottom of my heart, I do not think that's what happened. But it's the first time in two years it even crossed my mind that someone might discriminate against Wenxin because of his race, and for what it's worth, it was not a good feeling.
The bigger thing I wondered about was this standing at attention, eyes down thing. I've noticed that Wenxin does this from time to time. He does it when he thinks he's in trouble, especially if he knows he's guilty. He snaps to attention, averts his eyes, and tries not to cry. He looks like he's trying to be brave in the face of certain punishment. He also does it when he's embarrassed and feels foolish. And when he does this, he won't let me comfort him. It's like it's just him against the world. He puts on a brave face, stands at attention and just waits for what's coming.
At least that's what it looks like to me. I imagine him in the orphanage, lined up with other little boys after someone has been naughty. He looks down, trying not to call attention to himself, and come what may, he determines to look tough.
Outside Wenxin's Orphanage
Maybe it's not even orphanage behavior. It could be cultural -- a Chinese thing. But I do know that our kids who grew up in orphanages did whatever it took to survive. And sometimes the very same behaviors that made them survivors in that situation, make it difficult for them to adjust to life in their adoptive families. Manipulation, grabbing, lying, hoarding -- all may have been tactics that helped our kids survive. Instead of proving they are bad kids, these actions may actually prove they are resourceful and strong. And with patient guidance, they may be able to use their resourcefulness and strength to learn the new skills they need to live in a family. I've seen it happen with Wenxin.
In retrospect, we all made too big of a deal of the musket thing. As I tried to comfort Wenxin, Nathan ran back up front and informed the man that his little brother had been overlooked and was crying. Nathan ran back to tell Wenxin that if he'd just go back up front, he'd get another chance.
"I'm not going up there again."
Then on the way out, I stopped at the book table to buy a book for Nathan, and the man's wife mentioned the musket, and someone shared the situation with her.
"Just a minute," she said, as she ran back into the auditorium.
"Oh Wenxin. You know she's getting the musket. Please hold it for Mama when she comes back."
"I'm not touching it."
So when the lady came back, musket in hand, I was the one who held it. I oohed and aahed and asked a few questions. I'm pretty sure Wenxin never took his eyes off the ground. He didn't give the musket the honor of even one little glance. As soon as possible, I ushered all five of us out the door, feeling a little like I'd just been in a Civil War battle myself.
I wish I could have a do-over of that evening. (Wouldn't it be nice if grown-ups got do-overs?) This is what I'd say:
"Wenxin. I can see you are disappointed. Would you like for me to go back with you and help you get a chance to hold the musket, or would you like to skip it and go home?"
Short and sweet. Minimal drama. Simple choices.
I'm certain he would have chosen to go home. And that would have been OK. We made this into a much bigger deal than it needed to be. Hopefully, I'll do better next time.
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