Life story

A Day at the Gardner Museum

As Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month wraps up this month, I want to share a story that I’ve only told a handful of close friends because I get so emotionally riled up whenever I talk about it…

My mom and I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston on a cloudy Saturday afternoon in April. This one-of-a-kind museum displays all the antique furniture, artwork, letters, and collections by Isabelle Stuart Gardner, a wealthy socialite in the late 1800s-early 1900s with solid connections with people in the arts and literature world. In fact, she hired some architect to bring her vision of a three-story Venetian building to life, including a gorgeous indoor garden. She used her social status to establish a vibrant, cultural spot in Boston that continues to flourish today.

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Because of the small physical space within the rooms and hallways, the museum enforces a strict rule toward visitors to keep their hands, jackets, and/or bags to themselves. Otherwise, such items could knock down and potentially ruin the treasured displays. Unlike most art museums where there’s lots of open space within and between displays, the Gardner Museum is basically like entering the private world of a rich white woman.

Earlier on the ground floor, a museum guard had warned my mom to carry her bag over her shoulders so as not to swing it around and break something. We made our way to the third floor, looking around in awe by all the things Gardner acquired and preserved throughout her life.

My mom had been carrying her jacket and bag on her arm until a big museum guard of (presumably) Eastern European descent, “Lily”, told her to put the bag over her shoulder. Using minimal words and mostly gestures, Lily showed her how carrying a bag on the arm could increase the risk for damage. My mom understood and did as instructed, while keeping her jacket on her arm.

We walked through the hallway and entered another room, where another guard instructed my mom to wrap her jacket around her waist. My mom was a little confused since she was already asked to put her bag over her shoulder. Of course, Lily happened to walk by during this interaction and lightly interjected, “Oh, I already told her before, she means well.”

Lily told my mom to wrap the jacket around her waist, and then turned her head to me.

“Are you her daughter? Can you tell her she needs to wrap the jacket around her waist? I’m trying to tell her but she doesn’t understand English.”

I immediately shot back, “Excuse me, you never told my mom about the jacket. You only mentioned the bag.”

We exchanged a few more words and at this point my blood started boiling. How dare she assume that my mom didn’t understand English. Lily had only one job as a museum guard: be clear with the rules to visitors, not be a condescending scum about it.

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How I felt when Lily disrespected my mom

Frustrated, we took our grievance to the museum security supervisor, a gentle but assertive Algerian man.

After we explained our complaint and identified the guard, he called over Lily, who acted oblivious about the whole situation. We went to the basement of the museum and he mediated our conflict. My mom and I told Lily that she disrespected and humiliated us in front of everyone, to which Lily claimed only three of us were present to hear the conversation. Lily kept defending herself, trying to get away with it, saying that she’s never received that complaint in her two years of working at the museum until that day.

Nonetheless, Lily gave a half-hearted apology and left. The security supervisor profusely apologized on her behalf and told us she would be dismissed from her job if a similar situation occurs again.

More than a month has passed since this incident. I can’t help but think about the hardship that my mom endured as a Japanese immigrant who knew little to no English when she first arrived to the states in the 90s. The conscious decision she made to leave her homeland for a better life in the states, for me and my older brother to thrive. I can’t help but think about all the other revolutionary immigrant women and moms who came before me.

Here’s to the women who restart their lives on foreign soil, the women who constantly give their love and energy through their labor without expecting anything in return, the women who fight for racial and social justice in their communities.

Lily most likely has gotten away with saying “You don’t understand English” to other visitors who come from all over the world, from places where English is not their native language. As Asian Americans, we’re so often stereotyped as quiet, submissive, and complicit to the system. Mind you, this system has excluded Chinese immigrants from entering the country (see Chinese Exclusion Act 1892), arranged internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, forcibly separated families through US intervention in their homelands, among countless other cruelties. With the rise of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments today, these patterns of exclusion and misunderstanding will only tear people apart… unless we do something about it.

But I digress. I simply could not let this woman get away with her remark, belittling my mother’s non-native language ability– another small reminder that America is not her home.

As the daughter of an immigrant, I refuse to remain silent.

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