The Front of the Bus

(Text of essay aired on Sunday Edition on CBC Radio in October 2008)

A summer Saturday afternoon.  We board the number 17 bus in Kitsilano, heading to Granville Island market after a busy morning of tee-ball.  I find an empty seat near the front, and haul my leggy, forty-five pound son onto my lap.  One of the laughing, chatting teenaged girls sitting up front with us graciously offers to stand, but I decline. I can see they want to be together.

A few stops later, a well-dressed, robust blonde woman in sunglasses, probably in her early sixties, comes aboard.  She’s clearly not happy that all the front seats are filled and makes a remark to that effect.  When the girl next to me offers up her seat, the woman turns her down, with a quick frown in my direction.  I realize that she actually doesn’t want to sit beside me.

“Just get all the Chinese off the bus!” the woman says just as an Asian man vacates his seat for her.  She looks around expectantly, as if everyone in the bus (other than my son and I, and the gentleman who relinquished his seat for her) will find this remark amusing. The girls —who are white– look at her, then at me, their eyes wide in shock.

Stunned, my mind races, trying to decide how to respond.  Although I’ve been raised to respect and defer to the elderly, I am horrified by what my young son has heard.  I brace myself, and then state as clearly and firmly as I can, “That was a racist remark.”  Nerves taut, heart pounding, I wait for her reaction, steeling myself for the worst.

“That’s right!” she smirks proudly, sitting down a few feet away in the seat vacated for her.  But she isn’t completely indifferent.  Obviously annoyed that I was uppity enough to actually talk back to her, she adds, with a derisive chuckle, “Better look out for your immigration papers, honey.”

I look the woman in the eye.  “You look out for your own immigration papers,” I say. “You don’t know anything about me.”

The woman stops smiling. I am not exactly the kind of “immigrant” she expected.

The girls shift in their seats.  They don’t look at either of us.  Maybe they wish I’d stop talking.  But I can’t and I won’t.

“It’s appalling you would say such things in front of a child,” I continue. “Appalling.” I turn away, hug my son closer and stare fixedly out the window.  I have no idea what will happen next. Should I say something more?  Should I try to convince her that we all have an equal right to ride public transit?  Cite the Charter of Rights? Start singing Oh Canada in French?

I can tell the woman is thinking hard.  I feel sick to my stomach, imagining what she might say back. Have I unnecessarily escalated a conflict?

The girls stop talking entirely.  My usually squirmy, chatty son is still and quiet too. The silence feels interminable.  But nothing more happens.  After a few stops, the woman gets up, walks past us to confer quietly with the bus driver about directions, then exits the bus.  The girls remain subdued.  My face burns, and my heart still hammers in my chest.  I hate conflict. I feel no triumph.

Finally, after a few more excruciating minutes, I ring the bell for my stop.  As my son and I make our way to the front door, it feels like we are walking in slow motion.  I can feel the girls’ eyes on my back.  I have no idea what they are thinking, what the driver or any of the other passengers have heard or thought. But I do know that I feel very much alone.

If this woman had made a remark of that kind about another kind of passenger, I would have spoken up. But no one in that bus feels the need to speak up for me or my son.

After the bus is gone, I kneel down to talk to my son. I’m still trembling. “Do you know what happened there on the bus?” I ask.  He shakes his head.  I try and explain what the woman did. And then what I did.   “Some people think that you should just ignore it when a person puts down other people. But that only makes that person think that everyone agrees with the put-down.  If something is wrong, you should say so. Be proud of who you are.” He seems to take it in.

But afterward I berate myself for not having said something stronger, better, to that woman on the bus. And then I worry that I’ve given my son a simplistic message, maybe even the wrong one.  What if it had been a group of teenaged boys who’d made the same remark?  Or a big man?  Or a drunk?  What if it had happened at night, or in a rougher part of town?  My instinct to protect my son and myself would probably have overtaken everything—I would have been silent.

If only the bus driver had said something, the girls had said something, or one of the other passengers. But no one did anything. Maybe they were as conflict-averse as I am.  And they weren’t the object of that woman’s cruel remark.  They weren’t Chinese.  They didn’t care about the history behind her words, nor feel the almost physical shock of them.  A good reason to expect them to step forward?  Or a better one not to put themselves out?

In the end, on that day, on a public bus in Vancouver, what hung in the air was the silence of the passengers. It came through to me just as loud and clear as the slur.