Outtake from last year's Christmas card photo: Would you let us be YOUR neighbors?
My last name is Gong, but I’m not Asian.
I think this probably confuses people the first time they meet me; nurses scanning the waiting room for “Mrs. Gong” tend to overlook me, and many people repeat “GONG?” upon learning my last name, as if they must have misunderstood.
That doesn’t bother me one bit, honestly, because I spent the first two decades of my life saddled with the maiden name “Cinquegrana,” courtesy of my Italian father. I can’t claim to have married my husband for his last name, but its lone syllable was a definite selling point.
My last name is Gong, of course, because I married a Chinese-American man. We were married in Manhattan, which is 48% White. We had three half-Chinese children, all born in Oakland, California, which is 35% White. Then we moved to Middlebury, Vermont, which is 86% White – and that figure, from the 2010 census, includes the Middlebury College student body. According to the same census, the state of Vermont is 96% White. That makes Vermont the whitest state in the nation.
I’m not usually aware that our little family is adding racial diversity to the whitest state (although I will occasionally realize that my husband is the only Asian in a room, or that my daughters are in a small minority of brunettes at their preschool). That’s due in part to the fact that I’m the whitest member of our family, so I’m arguably the most comfortable in this setting. It’s probably also because we live in Middlebury, where the aforementioned college attracts a great diversity of students and faculty -- enough to make it 10% more diverse than the rest of the state.
But I think it’s more than that; I think the fact that our multi-racial family is so comfortable here says something special about Vermont. It’s funny, but those awkward moments when nurses look over my head as they call “Mrs. Gong?” and people squint at me quizzically when I say my last name – those moments all happened in Manhattan and the Bay Area. Here, our family has been warmly welcomed by fellow Vermont transplants and fourth generation Vermonters alike. I can only describe the experience of my family, of course, but never once has anybody in Vermont commented on our name or our race.
How is that possible, in such a remarkably UN-diverse place? It could be that there are so few Chinese people in Vermont, nobody expects “Gong” to be attached to an Asian – it’s just not in their frame of reference.
But I give Vermonters more credit than that. My own theory is that Vermonters pass so little racial judgment because most Vermonters live in small towns. Living in a small town, you learn a lot about diversity. Not racial diversity, per se, but PEOPLE diversity. Simply put: Everybody is a little weird. Your neighbors may be Chinese, or they may have ten rusted-out pickup trucks in their yard, or they may cover their walls with antlers, or they may breed llamas. (Actually, after 18 months in Vermont, I no longer find any of those things weird). My point is, everybody’s got something. And it’s a lot harder to hide your something in a small town, where you see the same people every day.
This is where I believe the legendary Vermont reticence – some would call it “chilliness” – comes in. I’ve found most Vermonters to be quite friendly, but they do set boundaries. I wouldn’t label this “chilliness” so much as “respect.” If you plan to live for decades within the same small community, you’d best learn to respect people, to allow space for their weirdness.
Last month, my husband and I had the enormous pleasure of attending Mike Sommers’s one-man show, Vermont Boy in West Oakland, at the Town Hall Theater. Sommers, who grew up in Middlebury, performed a hilarious and moving monologue about his experience moving from Vermont to a primarily black neighborhood in West Oakland, California – not far from where we used to live.
At one point, Sommers’s Oakland neighbor asked him if he was uncomfortable being the only “white boy” on the block. Sommers replied something along the lines of: “I’m a Vermont boy; I’m uncomfortable around everybody. I look at white people, and all I see are city folk.”
In other words, to live in Vermont is to be weird, plain and simple. Vermonters live in the least diverse, most rural state in the union. Perhaps it’s this deep-seated knowledge of their own weirdness that makes Vermonters so tolerant of difference, diversity….weirdness, in others. Everybody’s got something.
Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, three young daughters, one soon-to-be-puppy (coming next week!) — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.