Sunday, August 11, 2013

Dear Crystal,

You'll probably never read this. I hope that one day this reaches you and you do. You probably don't even remember who I am. Honestly, I don't even remember if your name starts with a C or a K. But you're the one person in my life I never got to thank who deserves my genuine gratitude. And it eats away at me like a cancer because thank you's come a dime a dozen. It rolls off my tongue like a personal introduction. Thanks for taking my money and serving me. Thanks for the compliment. Thanks for your help. Thanks for driving. Thanks for spending time with me. Thanks for listening to me. Thanks for kissing me. Thanks for last night. Thanks for everything. And, of course, the occasional thanks for nothing. I say thank you so much, probably above the average of 5,000 per year, that those who know me should question my sincerity when I do say it. But I'll never forget what you did on my behalf on the first day of middle school in Virginia, the act to which I owe the thank you, because no one else, not a single soul, stepped up in a similar way to you in all of my three years there.

I remember it vividly. I moved to the city just one day before. No friends, no foes, didn't know nobody. We had a pep assembly that day, in large part to inculcate school spirit and introduce middle school to us incoming sixth graders, but the only new-blood to get 'hazed' would be me. Because I didn't know anyone and by nature was introverted, I sat alone high up in the nosebleed section of the bleechers. Before the band got going and the cheerleaders got cheering, three boys aggressively approached my position yelling out racial slurs and, when they arrived, pushed me around and continued their taunts. Fucking chink, youse go backa to China. Ching chongy ching chong. One got behind where I sat and put me in a choke-hold. That was the second time I cried in public, and right on cue, kids from the lower sections of the bleacher turned their heads and laughed. I remember looking at a teacher in the lower section, telekinetically crying for help, only to see a chuckle on her face.

Before that day, I never cursed in public, let alone directly at someone else. You'd probably laugh at this statement if we so much as even conversed today, because the one thing I utter more than thank you is an obscenity. I've got no fucking respect for goddamned social norms, pardon my French, s'il vous plait. But during that moment of that day that is now forever engraved in my memory, I managed to mutter a fuck you and to give them my middle finger while fighting the choke-hold and battling my tears. What the fuck did you just say to us? Do you want to fucking die? While this happened and everyone in the lower sections laughed at the entertaining skit, you intervened and told them to stop. Did you hear what he just said to us? He said 'fuck you,' so he deserves what's coming. You unflinchingly responded along the lines that they deserved the fuck you and that they'd better leave now. They listened and left with haste. I'm honestly tearing up as I'm writing this to you right now, because like I said, you were the only person in my entire three years who stood up for me, who stood up against racism while I experienced it. While it's pathetic that no one else came close to my assistance, I'm glad you came through because I know it was the unpopular option and put you on the spot that very moment in front of the entire section of the gym. Because we were in different classes, I don't even remember interacting with you for the rest of middle school, but I wish that we became friends and more importantly, I wish that I had the chance to tell you how much your brave act meant to me.

You see, the remainder of middle school was hell for me. It's funny, now that I live in the Pacific Northwest, I frequently encounter people who adamantly dismiss my experience living "in the South." They tell me that it's barely the South and that it's not really Confederate. I distinctly recall, in one of my initial weeks in Virginia, that one of the big news items was a cross burning in a black man's front yard. These Northwesterners are something else, I tell you. Mostly passive aggressive fucks, in contrast to the racists from our childhood state. To a degree, I appreciate the racist honesty of Virginians than the affected "anti-racist" mannerisms of Northwesterners. I would've been a confused motherfucker if I spent my whole life here, blind to institutional racism and forgiving of the occasional epithet.

Virginia genuinely fucked with my head. My neighborhood in Virginia taught me how to internalize racism to survive. Down my street lived a popular kid from our school, Josh O'Grady. If you don't remember his face, I'm sure you recall the name. He had his posse of cool kids constantly around him. There was Mike, who practiced WWF finishing moves on me. The Undertaker's Tombstone. The Stone Cold Stunner. I grew up loving the WWF, but once this kid turned it into my existential reality, I ceased watching it immediately. Then there was Geoff or Jeff. I was older than him by two years, but he used to kick my ass every day and push me into a berry bush afterwards. I now have a few good friends who love picking and eating wild berries at first sight, but they have no idea what these berries convey to me. Weakness and insecurity. Oh, and how about big Mason. He made up the chant that everyone on the block used to sing when they saw me. Veer-o, Queer-o, Where'd he get his ear-o? What the fuck did this even mean? Yet somehow, this nonsensical saying was something I embraced, like Aladdin's call for Genie, because I knew that beyond the hurt of the call lay the fact that I had a group of boys to hang out with that day. My friends were kids who called me chink. Moving to the Northwest, I heard every other epithet or stereotype for Asian except the word chink, which surprised me. Apparently there were limits to the racial jokes that the Northwest employed. But while in Virginia, I accepted being a chink, laughed along like Sambo (hey, that's me!), and hung out with the chink-callers when they accepted me as a tenth wheel.

My parents didn't help much either. I used to be angry at them for validating my response of internalizing racism. But, I realize like any immigrant trying to get by, they had to survive in this nightmare any way possible. I hated being Chinese though. We would be in Chinese restaurants in Virginia and I would tell them to speak in English. Fucking crazy. Shhh, be quiet; white people never talk this loud. Fuck, Crystal, I'm tearing up again recalling all of this because I'm ashamed. Josh O'Grady used to make fun of me for anything he could conjure up, including living in the worst house in the neighborhood. But because he was popular, I used to imitate him. He had this head nod thing he would do because of his asthmatic condition (if my memory holds up), and I would imitate his head nod gesture thinking it was cool. One evening, his father rings our doorbell. Both my parents answer. His father tells my parents that I was quoting Jewish racial epithets from a novel assigned to us by our English teacher. I believe the book was Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None and the epithets, whatever they were, were mild enough to be included in our seventh grade reading curriculum. His family was Jewish. I remember doing this as my only weapon to get back at my predator, and when I do this one thing, I get busted. My parents apologize on my behalf and tell me to apologize to Josh the very next morning at the bus stop. They explain to me that they worked so hard to foster a good relationship with the neighbors, which, by the way, is funny considering that they were never invited to any neighborhood events. But being the obedient kid I was, I apologize to him the very next morning. Asian supermarkets were a rarity in Virginia, and I remember we would get these special brand of Japanese rice crackers that I grew up on only when we visited my hometown of Toronto every few years or so. My parents gave away our remaining stash of Japanese rice crackers to the O'Grady's that next night.

This fucked up mentality of hating myself stayed with me through high school even when the geography changed to the "Asian friendly" Pacific Northwest. I remember during Christmastime of my freshman year of high school, an attractive girl from my French class, who was a junior then, gave me a teddy bear and told me she thought I was cute. I threw the teddy bear back at her and, instead of saying my customary thank you, I ran away from the situation knowing that I was ugly. Girls throughout my middle school in Virginia laughed at me to my face, often spreading rumors about another girl by accusing her of liking me. The ultimate diss. So throughout high school, I didn't ask anyone out and I shut others out. In my senior year high school yearbook, another attractive girl wrote that she had the biggest crush on me during her junior and senior years. And as I read it, I took it as some cruel, malicious joke transported from my past. Today, even as I've overcome a lot of my insecurities and self-deprecating internalizations, aspects from the past continue to haunt me.

We don't know each other, but I hope you get to read all this. You may never have thought about what my middle school experience was like or its extended impact, so here's that perspective. As a middle schooler, kids tend to run with the pack, but you broke from it. I don't know where you are or what you do, but I hope as hell that you still break from the pack and stand up for what's right. I'm all about breaking stereotypes now. Back then, you showed me that not everyone had to be racist in a racist society. Thank you, or rather your middle school self, for being who you were and being defiant in the situation.


1 comment:

  1. Damn! Thanks for sharing this difficult story from your past. You're internal and external journey to heal from racism, the internalization, and to fight back inspire me every day. The way you constantly challenge yourself to break through and SMASH all the SHIT that this capitalist, white supremacy piles on you is so inspiring. And thru all those horrible experiences in school, you remembered and thanked the one person who, in one instance, did the right thing and sided wit you against the racist, macho bullies. That's impressive in itself. i think i would've long forgotten any good things people did. i wish i were half the person you are...even if i disagree wit your assertions bout coaches. ;)