By Coco McCracken
I needed to be an excellent driver. Anything to get ahead of the stereotype that being Chinese and a woman was a devastating combination on the road.
If it were just a couple of bullies in school who said they’d never get in a car with me for “fear of their lives,” I might have batted away the comments without bother. But this stereotype of being a terrible driver was embedded in so many aspects of my daily life, I believed it was true. I wondered if the cells in my body actually predetermined how well I reacted to something like a car swerving into my lane. I wondered if the slant of my eyes really did prevent me from parallel parking as well as my white classmates.
Depictions of incapable Asian women at the wheel became part of the narrative I was raised in. The myth even extended to other members of my family. My father, who was born in Hong Kong, cracked jokes all the time about my demographic’s low aptitude for driving motor vehicles. Whenever we passed a fender-bender, he’d quip, “Bet you a hundred bucks there’s a little old Chinese lady at the wheel!” My siblings and I always laughed back, craning our necks as we drove by. “Please be white. Please be male,” I’d pray. By the time I sat in my first driver’s ed class, I believed I was inherently less skilled at driving a car than my non-Asian classmates.
As a pre-teen, there was no other place I loved more for spending time with my father than the mall. My dad loved shopping, and I loved shopping with him. Even as other dads hung back and let their kids shop alone, my dad and I tackled stores together as a team. He would start the mission by declaring a theme: “It’s back to school! Let’s get some corduroy, and we have to hit Levi’s.” We’d park early and get a cup of hot chocolate or coffee to fuel the hours spent scouring the racks for the right styles and deals. Once we finished shopping, if it was late enough and the parking lot was clear, Dad would let me take the car for a spin around the empty parking spaces. One of his first lessons to me was how to properly do a “donut” in the snow. “If you can swerve out of trouble, you can do almost anything,” he would tell me. My father was an excellent driver.
Dad’s love of shopping ramped up on Boxing Day – Canada’s version of Black Friday. The crowds never bothered him. He loved the thrill of it all. For Dad, the hunt for a bargain was as exciting as Christmas itself.
The year before I took my driver’s test, I experienced an apocalyptic Boxing Day. A fresh blizzard had just dumped snow everywhere, and the thousands of cars pouring into the lot turned the winter wonderland into gray sludge. My dad’s Christmas spirit stayed intact while I frantically scanned the parking spaces for an open spot through the frosted passenger window. In his stoic way, Dad tapped his fingers on the wheel to an invisible beat. Our eyes darted around like meerkats searching for a safe hole to dive into. We neared the 20-minute mark before we finally found a space.
My dad let out a “Yahoooo!” and put his blinker on. While we waited for the car to back out of the space, our smiles wide, our excitement overpowering, we didn’t see the other car approaching. My dad turned toward the parking spot, but the other car slid in ahead of us. Our bodies tensed.
On any other day, my dad might have ignored the snub. He might have waxed poetic, saying something like, “Someone’s always leaving when you’re ready to arrive.” Dad’s Yoda-inspired one-liners were his way of getting teenage daughters through school, bullies, boys, and sometimes the combination of all three. But on this Boxing Day, Dad didn’t have any one-liners. On this day, he put the car in park and stormed out.
“Hey! Did you not see us? You took our spot!” His voice trembled with budding rage.
An elderly, sturdy white man stepped out into the cold. He turned his back to us to lock the driver’s side door. I wondered if offering him the spot as a sign of respect for his old age entered my dad’s mind, like it did mine for a split second. But the pelting blizzard reminded us that we had been looking for almost 30 minutes, and we were there first.
I wondered if he didn’t hear us, or was ignoring us on purpose. My dad is a strong presence. Against the white snow flurries, his tall frame and long black hair commanded the man to address us.
The white man finally said, “Maybe it’s you who can’t see!” He turned towards the mall, avoiding eye contact the entire time. We are familiar with the words spoken from strangers in that sideways manner. Kind words are said with eye contact, so we braced ourselves.
The man side-eyed my father for a moment. The wind picked up, whipping us, before the man said firmly, “Get out of my way, chink.”
In a millisecond, Dad jolted his body towards the man. I swung my arms forward and grabbed my dad at the wrist. The man chuckled, which hurt more than the slur had. He walked away, and my dad and I got back in the car. We found a spot a few minutes later.
I passed my driver’s ed test and received my learner’s permit the summer I turned 15. In college, I shuttled my friends around as much as possible. I felt streaks of pride whenever someone said I was a great driver, trying not to let it bother me that there was some surprise in their tone. My first car was a Jeep Grand Cherokee. To this day, I prefer to be in pickup trucks and large SUVs that compensate for feeling so small on the road. Even though I knew that fateful Boxing Day had nothing to do with our driving skills, after that I felt even further from “owning driving.” To desire such an intangible thing can make you question if your woes are even real to begin with.
What comes first: the truth or the stereotype? Am I a great driver because I was so determined not to be anything less? I wonder if the anger that my dad and I both buried inside ourselves wreaked a different kind of damage. After absorbing decades of microaggressions, how does one release it? I believe I directed my energy toward becoming an excellent driver. As for my father, well, he’s still the first person at the mall on Boxing Day, a smile on his face, ready to conquer another year.
Coco McCracken (she/her/hers) is a photographer & writer who lives in Portland with her daughter and husband. Born in Toronto, Canada, Coco has always been interested in writing about the intersectionality of place, race, and identity. She currently has a newsletter called Coco’s Echo, and is working on her first book.