A San Francisco Masquerade
It’s a beautiful morning, not a trace of fog, blue sky, warm sun, a perfect day for the goblins, zombies, and princesses giggling their way to the zoo entrance. I’m sitting on a low concrete wall, waiting for my own costumed grandson, curious to see what piece of his personality is going to unfold, safely hidden inside a disguise. The sound of waves crashing on the sand is a distant counterpoint to all the noise of family conversations and admonitions –“Watch for cars,” “Don’t hit your sister,” “I’m hungry.” The occasional shriek of a peacock punctuates the conversations.
“They’ve parked on Sloat,” I tell myself, knowing my son Phil’s thriftiness. It will be a wait, so I keep only half an eye on the incoming families, settled in to admire the many inventive costumes. There are surprisingly few robots, an easy outfit to put together. They have been replaced by too many walking dead, an even easier costume to make.
My daughter-in-law, Cai Binh, appears first, her back to me as she busily snaps photos of Phil and, oh my goodness, a very handsomely mounted knight, visor down, riding sedately beside his father.
“Hi, Grammy,” Sam, the knight, mutters as he rides past me, helmeted head pointed straight ahead.
He stops for the first of many princesses claiming a picture with a knight errant. She is a truly beautiful little girl, her tiara perched on a cloud of brown curls.
We make our way to the Lion Fountain, lost in the stream of children and their parents, none of whom are showing any interest in the animals. The giraffes nibble the hay bales dangling from the roof of their barn, equally oblivious to the humans. The monkeys are too busy chasing each other to care about Halloween. Penguin Island leads us to our destination.
I count eleven princesses lined up to have their picture taken with Sam, the only knight to be seen. One of them pets the horse. The knight is stoic, as only a knight can be, never raising his visor.
“He loves it,” Phil whispers. “It’s the perfect outfit for a very shy little boy.”
Cai Binh appears, taking a break from photographing everything in sight. “And tell Grammy how long it took for us to put this together,” she instructs her husband. Without waiting for an answer, she continues, “We were still working on the horse structure at midnight.”
As the three of us look at the result with satisfaction, the knight gallops up.
“They’re lining up for the parade past the judges,” he announces.
I see the three women judges standing on the other side of the lion fountain, a policewoman and two civilians; they are probably either zoo volunteers or Board members, all in their middle forties, busy chatting to each other, probably not about ‘best costume criteria’. The water in the fountain is turned off. I have an excellent seat.
“See you at the end of the parade,” I call out to Phil who is busy trying to catch up with Sam and Cai Binh as they make their way to the end of the line.
The event is clearly going to be a success. The children are elementary school age; the parents are all proud. Cai Binh is not the only compulsive photographer. I enjoy the parade. Being a princess is first choice for the younger girls. As the girls move towards ten years old, their choices are more idiosyncratic. My favorite is the perfect Barbie doll, stiff legs and all. The boys seem to favor warriors of one kind or another, Spider Man, the Hulk, one Superman. And the really young ones, kindergarten age, favor animals.
It’s not just because I am his grandmother that I think Sam’s knight is head and shoulders above most of the others. It truly is a creative and well done outfit. So when he doesn’t get third prize—goes to Barbie—and he doesn’t get second—goes to a very cute little chick, feathers covering every part of her but her face –and I don’t see Sam close to the winner’s circle, I am preparing to be disappointed.
“And where is our gallant knight?” calls out one of the judges.
Whew! He rides up, carefully avoiding all the parents and children crowding the judging area.
“Ah,” the policewoman chirps cheerfully as she bends towards Sam. “Will you lift your visor, gallant knight, so we can see your face?”
Sam obliges, a broad smile across his face.
“And where is the cute little chick,” one of the other two judges asks, turning away from Sam. “It’s time for pictures.”
The policewoman looks abashed. She pins a FIRST PRIZE medal on Sam’s shoulder, doesn’t bother asking him his name, and turns to her companions, dismissing Sam. They don’t take Sam’s picture.
Sam looks for his parents who are rushing up to hug him. I take a few pictures as he proudly sports his medal.
“We’re going up to the hay maze,” Cai Binh says.
“I’ll wait for you here,” I reply abstractly, automatically relying on their assumption that old ladies need to rest frequently.
They leave me, chattering happily among themselves about the first prize. The Lion Fountain edge is comfortable; the sun feels good; I am mentally uncomfortable, having for the first time over a long life personally experienced discrimination, or not.
My first thought. If I express my sense of outrage that zoo judges would prefer a picture of the “cute little chick”, Anglo to the core, to a picture of an Asian knight, the judges will be incredulous, Sam and his parents will be embarrassed, and I will feel like an oversensitive fool. But if I simmer quietly, I will feel as though I have betrayed whatever core principles I may possess.
I look around. For the first time I really see who is at the zoo. Not a single brown face; an Asian face here and there, astonishing in itself in a city with an enormous Asian population. I float, unconscious in a divided city, a city proud of its diversity, I guess proud of the fact that we don’t have to have anything to do with each other.
We walk down the hill to the Leaping Lemur Café. No one notices that I am still lost in thought.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in the United States in 1882. The National Origins Act of 1924 banned immigration from East Asia entirely.
About Kaaren Strauch Brown
click to read BIO
click to open a comment box