When I moved to Charlottesville almost twenty years ago, I found love.
I’ve lived in many places in my life – from a small town in Pennsylvania, where I felt like an alien to New York City, where I felt invisible. For those five years in Manhattan, that invisibility was a blessed relief. I felt comfortable there, because I could try as hard as I wanted to look different, to be different, and it wouldn’t matter. There would always be people who were more outrageous, more outlandish than I could ever possibly be. No one looked at me anyway, because no one made eye contact under any circumstances. I loved that I could disappear into the crowd.
I would have happily stayed in New York, but Charlottesville is where my husband found his job, and so that’s where we were headed. All I knew of Charlottesville was that it was a small southern town, and that it was the home of the University of Virginia. I was cagey about the move. I knew there weren’t many Asian people there, and I feared that once again I would know that feeling of profound alienation I thought I had left behind for good when my family moved away from Pennsylvania.
My first couple of weeks in Charlottesville were disconcerting. I walked around my neighborhood puzzled by the fact that people I passed on the street and even people driving past in cars would wave to me and smile. I honestly felt I might be losing my mind. I would rack my brains trying to remember where I’d met these people, kicking myself for my terrible memory. It took me some time to realize that I had never met them at all. I was living in a town that was so friendly – complete strangers would wave to me as if they knew me and wished me well. I lost my shield of invisibility, but when people looked at me, they didn’t see how I was different, they just saw me. For the very first time in my life, it felt like I was home.
The kindness went beyond these niceties. Our neighbor Dr. B seemed to epitomize to us the generosity of spirit we found in Charlottesville. He put up a bluebird house and planted tomatoes for us as a neighborly gesture before he even met us…He baked us cookies and brought us peaches and apples from the orchard and helped us rake our endless mountains of leaves. In our community, every time a baby is born, or someone is ill or grieving, a casserole brigade roars into action. Every day I feel grateful that my children have been nurtured and cherished by a wide circle of good people. As for me, I have become a better person for having lived here in Charlottesville, where love is shown as a matter of course, in big gestures and small kindnesses – with spontaneity and genuine warmth.
This love is reflected in our community’s politics too. Our town hosts nonprofit organizations like the Building Goodness Foundation, which builds homes for people here and abroad. We have our own branch of the International Rescue Committee and welcome and embrace the refugees who resettle here. Today I went to our world class hospital and received excellent, compassionate care from a young doctor whose name had a zillion unfamiliar, foreign-sounding syllables. I saw this message hanging in the room:
We are nothing, if not earnest do-gooders. Recently, our city council voted to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from its prominent downtown location, because it memorializes an immoral and outdated ideology. The fact that this action has made Charlottesville a rallying point for slavering, jabbering, unevolved hate mongers scuttling into our town to spew evil, makes me sick to the core. It is disheartening and exhausting, but we will not be overtaken by the darkness. We will continue to work for peace, justice, and reconciliation. Long after their tiki torches have burned out and they’ve crawled back to their own holes, we will remain in our own beloved community to shine our lights. The only people who will never find a home here or in the civilized world are those who stand on the side of prejudice and hatred. Charlottesville is about love.