Nothing too horrible, at least in terms of my own self-sabotage, happened on my second full day in Fairbanks. However, I did manage to encounter a hateful, blatantly xenophobic urban legend.
On the morning of Wednesday, March 23, 2016, I visited the Museum of the North on the University of Alaska campus. The museum was perched atop a plateau of sorts, and when I was leaving, I realized that I could see Denali and Mt. McKinley on the horizon, so I snapped a few photos.
Then, I biked back to Terri’s place on my snow-tired noble steed. From there, the lady beside whom I’d sat on the flight to Fairbanks, who we will call Plane Lady, and her friend, who we will call Friend Lady, picked me up in Friend Lady’s car to go on a touristy adventure. We drove first to North Pole—a tiny town where Christmas doesn’t end—and got some selfies with Santa Claus. Then, we went to Chena Hot Springs Resort.
As we pulled into the parking lot at the hot springs, I was looking out the window, watching people cross the lot with their bathing suits and towels. When we got closer, I realized that every single person walking towards the entrance of the resort appeared to be Asian or of Asian descent. Having come from Oakland, I’d learned to remove racial and ethnic categorization from my people-watching thoughts, but this was difficult to ignore—I didn’t see a single non-Asian person. I looked around to confirm this observation, and wondered if my new friends had noticed. When I glanced toward the front seat, I found Friend Lady eyeing me curiously in the rearview mirror.
“You’re wondering why there are so many Chinese,” she said smugly.
The statement was so innocently tasteless that I was temporarily stunned. All I managed to do in response was to raise my eyebrows.
Plane Lady giggled and turned around in the passenger seat to look at me through the headrest. “Oh, you’re going to love this,” she said. She looked like a kid, but I’m pretty sure she was about the same age as my mother.
I still didn’t know what to say. I didn’t like the direction this was going.
“So,” Friend Lady began, “the Chinese have this belief that…” She trailed off and looked at her friend. Plane Lady returned the look, and they both snorted into a bout of childish laughter.
I couldn’t help the sliver of a smile that crept across my face. Watching two middle-aged ladies guffaw at some unspoken joke was entertaining. But I was still uneasy—I had a feeling they were about to make a crack at another culture’s beliefs.
“They believe,” Plane Lady said as she caught her breath, but her friend snorted again and they both erupted into another fit of laughter. “Stop!” Plane Lady groaned between chuckles, slapping her friend on the thigh. “Stop it, just tell the damn story, I can’t do it.”
Finally, after a few deep breaths, her friend said, “They believe that if they conceive under the Northern Lights, they’ll have a baby boy.”
They both stared at me through the radio silence, faces quivering as they struggled to hold their composure. I realized that they were waiting for me to react. Thinking quickly but unable to dislodge the mass of disbelief clogging my thoughts, I went with a monotone, ambiguous “wow.”
This was apparently the cue they’d been waiting for because they immediately erupted into hysterics again. Honestly, I don’t remember what all was said after that, I just remember forcing a little bit of laughter to satiate their apparent hunger for reaction.
At the time, I tried to ignore this brazen disrespect. Looking back on it now, though, I can’t dismiss the moral flaws associated with this legend. Even if my new “friends” weren’t flat-out xenophobes or ethnocentrics, by simply recounting and laughing at the legend, they were perpetuating a climate of insolence towards Asian people. As far as I can tell, no Chinese legend appears to celebrate or encourage lovemaking under the Northern Lights for the benefit of the children conceived thereunder. The blasé assertation that this was a Chinese belief implies naïveté, or possibly a lack of care for which Asian culture the legend truly belongs to. Maybe Plane Lady and Friend Lady had heard that it was a Chinese legend from someone else, and they were just regurgitating what they’d been told, but that just shifts the blame up a level. The point is, there’s no telling where the story got twisted, but that is the nature of urban legends, is it not? They say that “good” legends hold a grain or two of truth—in this case, that grain comprised of a long-held belief in Japanese culture—not Chinese—that conceiving a child underneath the Northern Lights will bestow the child with good looks, luck, and fortune. It appears to have been popularized by the 1990s American show about a fictional town in Alaska called Northern Exposure.
Perhaps that is where the legend began its metamorphosis from an innocent cultural truth into a multi-faceted display of the natural tendencies of human groups to ostracize, stereotype, and condemn whatever doesn’t agree with their norms.
For more information and to see my sources, check out the links below.