I made a New Year's resolution to finally acknowledge a kindness someone paid me nearly two decades ago, when I felt like I was at my smallest. All these years, I had never let him know how much that single display of decency stuck with me. It was time to fix that.
Into my mid-20s, I was working at my first reporting gig out of college. A sense of adventure and curiosity brought me to the daily newspaper in Lexington, Ky. The culture of the Bluegrass State seemed planets away from my suburban Chicago upbringing, and I became enamored of everything from country roads to sweet tea.
One thing I did not care for was the overt racism, but I'll get to that in a minute.
In 2003, I set out to write a narrative feature about a Kentucky drag competition through the eyes of one of the contestants. She let me backstage as she underwent a metamorphosis that entailed feathers, glitter, pantyhose and grit.
Before the show began, I scooted back to my seat while a Mary J. Blige tune revved up the crowd. The house lights dimmed, and my reporter's notebook and I were ready to experience the show.
But not long after the curtain lifted, a prominent local drag queen who was emceeing the event noticed me in the crowd. I was the only Asian face in the club, and that gave Chelsea, the host, fresh comic material. She started roasting me with a stream of "ching-chong" taunts that countless Asian American kids of my generation had to endure.
Except I wasn't one of those kids. Until my time in Kentucky, I had been cocooned in the protection of my community. My hometown mayor was Asian American. Most of my closest friends were Asian American. In high school and at college, we didn't have important campaigns like #StopAsianHate or #VeryAsian, but I benefited from the strength of our numbers, which normalized us.
In Kentucky, however, my Asian identity was the only thing some people saw. On a downtown sidewalk, teenage boys ridiculed me for my race. While I was in a diner to gather local reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks, a white grandmother told me she remembered Pearl Harbor, pausing to stare me down with hardened, suspicious eyes. Message understood.
Even in less charged moments, like when I picked up my clothes from the dry cleaners, people would feel the need to compliment my English.
"Oh, so you was born here?" said the woman behind the counter, bemused and not at all aware that I spoke better English than she did.
Maybe it was the cumulative weight of all of those incidents that had me shrinking in my chair in the nightclub, a tear rolling down my check, while what felt like the entire room laughed at me for several minutes. While drag shows are known for biting commentary and playful insults, these barbs felt like they were coming from a place of deep prejudice.
That could have been the end to this memory. But a day or two after the performance, I checked my e-mail and was both mortified and touched by a message topping my inbox.
Marc, the boyfriend of a co-worker, Scott, copied me on an e-mail he sent to Chelsea, calling out her behavior. Marc described her jokes as racist and shameful. I remember that the e-mail was longer than a few sentences because I had to scroll down to get to the end. He wrote that the LGBTQ community was often the target of bigotry and discrimination — how could she turn around and hurl that same kind of insensitivity toward me?
I don't think I ever responded to Marc because I was embarrassed by it all. I mean, I had my feelings hurt at a drag show. Far worse indignities have harmed people of color in this country. It alarmed me how a few unimaginatively racist punchlines could sting so much.
But Marc's e-mail made me realize that I was not in the wrong. Chelsea was.
After I moved away, I stayed in touch with Scott and Marc but mostly through brief exchanges on social media. Recently, I reached out to them because for nearly half my life I've wanted to know: Why did Marc show up for me, someone he barely knew? Did he even remember it?
In a Teams call, he told me he did recall the incident, but the details were fuzzy. We couldn't piece together how he even found out about it. He was 37 at the time, working as an attorney. He said he had no memory of Chelsea ever responding to his e-mail, which he had written on his AOL account, meaning the message was long gone by now.
"Honestly, I don't remember what was written," he said, but thought back on where he was in his life at the time.
"I hadn't been out for an incredibly long time then, only six or seven years," he added. "There was a lot being filtered through that mind-set."
In those days, he was fascinated by drag and attended as many shows as he could, though he wasn't at the club with me that night. Those performances were a safe space for Marc and Scott, and it hadn't occurred to them that it might be unwelcoming for someone like me.
And Marc's "soft heart," as Scott likes to call it, compels him stand up for people in ways he might not even remember.
"You're not picketing or really visible in your activism," Scott said to Marc. "I feel like you felt this was the right thing to do. And it was nothing to fire off an e-mail. You're not going to burn down a house or egg them, but you felt you needed to take action in a small way. And I think it's those small actions that add up to a lot."
So much has changed since Marc took that small action. In 2015, he and Scott became the first gay couple in their county to get married, just hours after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.
By that time, they had been a couple for 16 years and were raising a daughter together. They needed to be legally married so that Scott could apply to be her parent, even though he was as much her dad as Marc was. The law hadn't seen them as equal.
I've changed, too. I often think back to the time someone I hardly knew stood up for me when it mattered most. The way Marc looked out for me has emboldened me to speak up for others, even though sometimes it feels awkward and the words don't come out perfectly.
So about 18 years behind schedule, I finally said thanks to Marc. Not just for being my ally, but for doing the right thing, and showing me up close what it can look like.
Small actions can be meaningful. They can stay with a person forever.