Race rarely occurs to me.
I grew up in Southern California in a melting pot of a city called Moreno Valley, a town nestled between three hills where all sorts of ethnicities and races intermingled. Throughout high school and into college—what some may consider the most influential time in a person’s life—I was one of a colorful group of close friends and good acquaintances. Together, we were Caucasian, Russian, Black, German, Panamanian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, East Indian, and Japanese, all either immediate descendants of immigrant parents or offspring of distant immigrant ancestors we’d never know. There was little left unshared between us, and loving jabs were made at one another about what failed stereotypes we were, like the burly half-German fellow who couldn’t hold his liquor, or our Mexican friend’s strange hatred of refried beans, or how I didn’t match up to the stereotypical, A-type, 4.0+ GPA personality of Asians with my off-kilter, non-studious, and obviously lacking 3.8 or lower.
I loved this group of friends and, quite honestly, sometimes I pine for them. So it’s really no surprise that when I envisioned my anthropomorphic comic strip Le Mieux (translated “The Best” from French) in early 2013, the main characters I created reflected that wonderful variety of persons I experienced during my coming-of-age. That is, that they would be of many backgrounds, furs, colors, and personalities.
About the Cast
First, there’s Le Mieux himself, a cat with something of an identity crisis. He’s a barn cat from Ohio, though he believes himself to be of French descent and strives to be an artist of particular note. He isn’t the brightest kitten in the bunch – and suffers for it – but he’s loyal to his friends and loves them through and through (even despite his name, which means “The Best”), a characteristic atypical of the typecast selfish “jerk” cat who only cares about himself.
Then there’s Bunny, Mieux’s best friend and housemate, a white rabbit whose owner has misidentified as a female. As a result of the confusion, Bunny suffers a pink food bowl and was, for a time, being enlisted by Mieux to participate in an Easter pageant under his given name, Miss Bun-Bun. Bunny is not your typical loveable rabbit, either. In fact, his intentional bad behavior has given his owner’s mother leporiphobia.
But, even though Bunny pretends to hate everyone and act the part of the cynical grump, he’s actually quite pleased with his situation and friends, as is evidenced when he binkies or runs to the defense of Mieux during a sibling rivalry.
The third in the main character trio is Phil the Raccoon, who broke into the house in April 2014 and has yet to leave. Phil has a voracious appetite that includes everything he can get his paws on. A drifter, he comes and goes as he pleases, taking what he wishes when he wishes without fear, the result of his street cred and a bear friend named Merv. He likes causing disruption and leaving a mess behind, to the chagrin of a slightly OCD Bunny. But, don’t be fooled: this varmint is oddly well cultured, demonstrating his depth in a spot-on impression of Mona Lisa during Mieux’s DaVinci auditions.
Finally, there’s the trio of ladies who cause the boys some heartache: La Gata, Tiger, and Cotton. Plainly named, La Gata is Spanish for “[female] cat”, and she’s a Latina kitten full of spunk and the unwilling target of Phil’s endless, inter-species affection. Tiger, a Siamese who lives next door, bears a name tag written in Chinese character; she’s smart, sophisticated, soft spoken, and her mere presence tongue-ties poor Mieux. Finally, Cotton is of no particular descent: she’s just a run-of-the-mill, brown rabbit with an oversized—dare we say permed?—tail who is too simple-minded to understand that Bunny adores her.
So this is the Le Mieux cast: a sextet of animals with few similarities between them, except that they all have fur and some share a species (though none a subspecies!). Though their differences never go unnoticed these critters simply don’t care, very much like my group of friends in high school. It’s only true friends who can poke fun while maintaining–nay, growing–their relationship through the hilarity.
Effecting the Change We Want Through Laughter
Today, I live in southern Minnesota. It’s a far cry from melting pot SoCal and it’s easy for me to forget that the 4,000-plus population rural town I live in is only a few percentage points away from being 100% white (95% white, according to a 2010 census). Like I said, race rarely occurs to me, so I get thrown when other people notice it and ask me what my racial background is; I actually have to stop and remember that I look different. That I, my genes, come from a different place.
And the moment I have this epiphany can be awkward for me and is often uninterestingly disappointing for my inquirer, since I neither speak Vietnamese nor know much about my mother’s culture and birthplace. I break the ice by shrugging a shoulder and smiling, maybe even cracking a joke about how I’m just a California girl who got lost in Minnesota. It works. People smile. We both move on to more interesting things. Like the weather. And why the hell I came from California to Minnesota.
I figure the laughing has to start with somebody, so why not with me?
A Funny, Funny Rainbow
I created Le Mieux to spread joy. It was natural and near instinctive for me to create a mammalian cast as diverse as our multi-racial and multi-cultural world because that’s how I see it. Unfortunately, that’s not how everyone sees it and we—those of us who see a rainbow of skin tones when we look outside—should walk accordingly and empathetically. Yes: empathetically. Just think: How sad is it for someone to live in fear and worry that there are people out there who are—*gulp* —different?
I’m not so naïve to think xenophobia isn’t a real thing. It very well is and exists with varying shades of opacity and, depending on its impenetrability, can have anywhere from mild to very scary results. But to be afraid of others’ fear only accentuates and multiplies the trouble, thereby emphasizing our differences through a lens of discomfort, awkwardness, insult, and injury. How will racial and cultural divides ever be erased if we keep highlighting them with negative reactions, with frustration, anger, disgust of our own?
Ironically, in a sense writing about racial divides highlights the trouble, too. So, what are we, the people conscientiously trying to bridge the rift, left to do? We are faced with a social conundrum.
Let’s laugh about it.
I’ve heard it said that music is a global language that unites us. However, I must disagree. Fights have erupted over music; generations have been divided over it and cultures separated by it. Music is a powerful tool, yes, but it is not as universal as laughter. Laughter is contagious. Laugh and the world – even those who don’t understand us–truly will laugh with us.
So, please: Make fun of my Asian-ness. I do! I once very unintentionally said “flied lice” in front of my all-white in-laws while ordering fried rice at a Chinese restaurant in Washington, D.C. (and said it to a very Chinese waitress). Humiliating, yes, but I’ve long since learned to accept my quirks even in the most awkward and culturally sensitive moments. I’ve found that embracing the humor in our differences breaks the ice, whatever the divide—race, social stature, political orientation, religion, you name it—thereby allowing us to move past our contrasts onto bigger things, like just being human.
I fully accept that “my Asian sometimes comes out” when I least expect it, and that’s perfectly okay.
In fact, it’s pretty darn hilarious.
Jessica Woken is a full time freelance writer living in Minnesota where she owns Mountain Owl Ink, LLC. She crafts blogs, content, articles about healthy living and fiction. Another passion of Jessica’s is illustration. She specializes in non-human characters with a classically cartoon-y feel. Biggest contracted project was STORYBOOK ILLUSTRATIONS for Snuggleberry Baby’s bedding collections (www.snuggleberrybaby.com); the latest is a LOGO DESIGN for Sally Dixon Creations (Australia), completed January 2016. The current, big, ongoing personal project in this arena is my weekly ‘Le Mieux’ comic strip. Le Mieux can be adored by visiting his very own blog.