It turns out that I didn’t have a head cold. It was just my brain leaking out of my head! I’m kidding, it really was a head cold, and I had a hell of a time trying to keep it from turning into bronchitis. But I’m feeling better now, even though my nose is still stuffy and when I talk I sound like a meth addict robbing a drugstore armed only with a kazoo, or a lovesick toucan with two marbles in its beak calling after its mate, or a starving elephant with a sinus infection trying forlornly to get a zoo keeper’s attention. It’s not pretty!

One thing that helped me a lot while I was convalescing was Pi Pa Gao (枇杷膏, pa gāo), my favorite peppermint candy flavored herbal cough syrup. Oh, Pi Pa Gao, I love you. Here is this awesome photo I found of a giant Pi Pa Gao bottle on a Web site called 404notfound.com:

I I can’t even imagine what I would do if I saw a giant Pi Pa Gao bottle lumbering down the street. Probably hug it. Or run after it with a sledgehammer and a bucket.

While I was sick, I had a lot of time to let my mind roam all over the place, and one of the things I thought about was how if you are a minority of any kind, you find out really quickly what the limits of people’s imaginations are.

For example, I have this conversation pretty often:

Random person: What country are you from?

Me: I’m American.

Random person: But you look Asian.

Me: I’m of Taiwanese descent.

Random person: But you have an American accent when you speak Mandarin.

Me: I’m American.

Random person: Oh. [Confused silence as the wheels in their brain start to churn before grinding to a halt due to a build up of rust]

The thing about interactions like that is that they usually entail the other person telling me stuff about myself as if I’ll be totally surprised to find out that I have an accent when I speak Mandarin or that I’m Asian. Sometimes I wonder if I should respond with something equally obvious like “you are not naked” or “you have a face.”

Or take this following conversation I once had in a cafe:

Random person: Your English is so good!

Me: I’m American. I was born and grew up in the US.

Random person: Your English is so good!

Me: That’s because I was born and grew up in America.

Random person: Your English is so good!

Me: That’s because I’m American. In fact, I’m here to study Chinese.

Random person: Your English is so good!

Me: Yes, because in America we usually speak English.

Random person: Your English is so good!

Me: …

Literally, that is how the conversation went down. She didn’t say anything else besides “your English is so good!”

I had another weird experience recently in which I overheard someone ask someone else if I can understand Mandarin. What made this so very odd was that not only had she seen me speaking Mandarin with several people, but I’d actually had a short but totally normal conversation with her in [drum roll] Mandarin! I have no idea what was going in her head. Then again, she’d been staring at me all evening with big, dilated glassy eyes, so maybe she was high. In which case, shame on her for not sharing! I’m kidding.

Usually stuff like this would make me wonder how awful my Mandarin really is, but I’ve heard many tape recordings of myself, and I have not been fired from my reporting job yet, so I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume it’s fine. I could take an accent eradication class, but then I wouldn’t sound so exotic and that would break my heart. And most interactions I have with people here go swimmingly. Whenever I write one of these rant-y blog entries, I’m afraid people will read them and make a generalization about Taiwanese people, which would be hugely unfair.

The reason I think about stuff like this a lot is because it constantly surprises me how limited people’s imaginations can be — and how easy it is for somebody’s prejudices to completely warp their perception of reality. Take people who think gay people shouldn’t be allowed to work with or even have children because they will turn those kids gay, even though it’s clear that the vast majority of gay people were raised by and taught by straight people. People who think like that crack me up, because they don’t see that according to their crazy “logic,” it’s actually straight people who turn gay people gay. At the same time, however, it truly terrifies me how willing they are to run screaming in the face of reason in order to hold onto their nonsensical and bizarre notion.

The idea of how powerful a grip prejudice holds over the minds of otherwise reasonable people has always interested me. “Gone With the Wind” and the Little House series have numbered among my favorite books since I was very young. Sometimes when I mention this to people, they’ll respond with “oooh, but those books are racist!” as if I should only read books that reflect an idealized version of the world. One of the reasons I reread “GWTW,” however, is because the mental and emotional machinations that the main characters put themselves through in order to convince themselves that their slaves enjoyed being slaves fascinates me. When I first read the Little House books, I developed an extreme dislike of Laura’s Ma because of the things she said about Indians in “The Little House on the Prairie” and other books (such as the time she agreed with another character’s statement that the only good Indian is a dead Indian).

In fact, I was very surprised to find out that the character of Ma was not meant to be an unsympathetic one when I reread the books as an adult — quite the opposite. I had a very black-and-white view of her when I was younger: Ma said racist things about Indians, racists are hateful people, so Ma was a hateful person. But now I feel that Laura Ingalls Wilder made it clear in her books that her family constantly struggled to reconcile the image they (and their fellow white settlers) had of Indians as bloodthirsty savages after encounters with individuals forced them to acknowledge the humanity in what they had previously seen as a homogeneous, war-whooping mass. Ma was the most unwavering in her views, but even she showed some flexibility when prompted by members of her family.

The Little House novels helped me come to terms with the idea that just because someone is prejudiced, bigoted or racist does not mean I should automatically dismiss them as stupid, lazy or evil. It just means they have trouble thinking. Maybe they believe they have more to gain — the alleviation of anxiety, a sense of order in the world, for instance — by holding on to their beliefs, no matter how dumb it makes them look. (But sometimes they are just assholes who don’t want to bother themselves with the admittedly oh-so-irksome idea that the way things are aren’t always the way you think they should be.)

I don’t mean to imply that I don’t think I have any prejudices of my own by writing this. I am just stuffed to the brim with classist notions and sweeping generalizations about people based on circumstances that are largely out of their control. I do like to think, however, that I have the wherewithal to recognize my prejudices for what they are, instead of burdening other people with them.

Part of this has to do with my upbringing and some experiences I had when I was growing up. When I was about 8 or 9, I answered a phone call from a woman with a heavy accent. When my mom asked me who it was, I replied, “some woman with a funny accent who’s looking for you.” My mom looked at me and said, very seriously, “Kai-lin. I have a funny accent.” That really struck me. Because my parents are fluent in English and because we rarely experienced overt racism, I’d never thought that maybe my parents had been on the receiving end of ignorant remarks like the one I’d made.

Around the same time, a pair of identical twins entered my class at school. They were very pale and wore sunglasses and baseball hats all the time. I immediately thought they were weird and whispered to my best friend about what freaks I thought they were for dressing the way they did all the time and how I was sure their parents were complete lunatics who probably also fed them funny. Well, it turned out that those kids had albinism and wore their hats and glasses for protection from the sun. My teacher told my fourth grade class about this and once again I felt like a totally ignorant asshole for jumping to conclusions and making a witless remark.

Or take my first impression of my fiance, for instance. When I saw Ron’s horn-rimmed eyeglasses and his nicely fitted suede jacket, I assumed that he was probably really smart and also probably a hipster who liked to go around gentrifying neighborhoods while listening to the Decemberists on his iPod. When I heard he’d gone to Georgetown and an exclusive prep school and traveled abroad extensively, I assumed that he came from a well-off, WASP-y family. As I got to know him better, I found out that Ron’s tuition had been paid for with a government stipend because his father was killed while serving in the Air Force, and the money he’d spent traveling was money he’d saved from years of working at his family’s convenience store in a rough neighborhood in south Dallas, where his duties included sweeping syringes off of the sidewalk. I mean, it’s not like I would have bounced up to Ron and said “I bet you’re rich and full of white privilege, aren’t you? And you’re a hipster! Thanks for pricing me out of Williamsburg, you rich hipster bastard!” but if I did, I would have felt, once again, like an ignorant asshole. And I would not be marrying my best friend in six weeks. I don’t know who I’d be marrying instead. Probably a giant bottle of Pi Pa Gao.

Anyway, my point is that there is something to be gained from censoring your stupidity and prejudice. Trust me, I should know.