Once when I was in fourth grade, Tally McMasters came up to me and asked:
“Are you Chinese?”
I was waiting for my turn at double dutch. “No,” I said, eyeing the line.
“Are you Japanese?” she asked, peering at me intently.
“No,” I said, again. The line was getting shorter. I glanced at her face and saw confusion. She’d run out of options.
“Well, then.” Tally jammed her hands against her hips. “Are you Norwegian?”
I was one of two Asian kids at Sacred Heart Elementary School. Sally Wu was Chinese. Everyone knew what that was. Everyone liked chop suey and sweet and sour pork. And everyone liked that joke: ‘my mother is Chinese, my father is Japanese and I’m in-between.” Pulling the corners of their round blue eyes up, then down, then one of each, making a diagonal slant across their faces.
My mother made me beautiful lunches then, packed in a Hello Kitty doshirak box. A puffy heap of white rice, surrounded by tiny mounds of side dishes that glistened like jewels. Glossy anchovies, candied in soy sauce and sugar, freckled with toasted sesame seeds; crisp bean sprouts with vibrant, yellow heads; grassy watercress, steamed bright green; a perfect stack of roasted seaweed, shiny with sesame oil and sprinkled with salt; a juicy Asian pear, cut into precise quarters.
“What’s that?” Suzy Lawson stood, pointing.
“It’s my lunch,” I said, covering it with my right arm, like I’d covered my math test earlier.
“It looks weird,” she said. Suzy was mean and popular and never talked to me. Everyone was either afraid of her or envied her or some combination of both. Lacy Stevens and Jennifer Lewis dressed just like her in Guess jeans with zippered ankles and wore glittery, jelly bracelets but they weren’t as pretty. You always knew that Suzy was the best girl.
“Hey, guys.” Suzy’s voice got loud and the din of the lunchroom stopped to listen. “Look at the new girl’s weird lunch.”
The scraping of chairs against linoleum and the squeaking of sneakers as a crowd gathered around my table in the corner.
“Ew, look, you can see their eyes! Disgusting! What are those things, worms? Look, they have yellow heads! Seaweed? Oh, ew, seaweed feels like alien slime on your legs! Oh my god, the smell. C’mere, smell this!”
Fingers poked and prodded at my lunch, over my protecting arms. The tiny, perfect compartments were extracted as they crowded in, spilling and grabbing at my lunch. I tried to get away but the table was surrounded, the laughing and jeering continuing until nothing was left. The rice was smashed onto the table, anchovies dumped on the floor, seaweed scattered like a deck of cards. Through a blur of tears, I packed up the doshirak, the small, geometric containers empty now. One of my Twin Stars chopsticks was missing.
Over the weekend, I asked my mother to pack me SpaghettiO’s and Oreo cookies for my school lunch. Puzzled, she asked, “don’t you like your bahp? I saw your doshirak was empty.” I pulled away from her stroking hand on my hair.
“No,” I said, a new note of irritation in my voice. “I hate it. I want a normal lunch.”
I’d never spoken to my mother that way. On Monday morning, I opened my book bag at the bottom of the stairs. My SpaghettiO’s were in a plaid Thermos and a stack of six Oreos was nestled in Saran Wrap. There was also, hidden under a napkin, a small container of anchovies. I crumpled the plain brown bag closed, slung my book bag on my back and walked to the bus stop.
When I was a kid, there was this show called Stand-Up Spotlight on VH-1. Rosie O’Donnell was the host, before she had her own show, before she came out. Then she wore dresses that showed her legs and her hair was permed and feathered. The nineties were early and still recovering from an eighties hangover.
I wasn’t actually allowed to watch VH-1 though it would have been worse had I been watching MTV. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV at all on weekdays and certainly not in the afternoon when I was alone, sent home early from school to practice. To this day, I’m not sure what my parents had to do to make it okay for me to skip school. It probably didn’t hurt that I was a good student; quiet, Asian. I was getting straight A’s, so what could they say, really.
Robert F. Wagner Junior High School, P.S. 167, was on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, on East 76th Street, just ten blocks south of our apartment. Back then, 86th Street was a kind of DMZ, the demarcation line between uniformed doorman buildings and the projects. One time I was walking home from school and these two boys came up behind me. One of them snatched my report card out of my hand, his jeans almost down to his knees they were hanging so low.
Whistling, he said, ‘shit man, look at this girl’s fucking grades.’ The other boy peered over his shoulder and said ‘damn,’ as he took his baseball cap off to turn it around. I stood frozen and scared, the crowds of people on the sidewalk curving around us like ants around a stone. But I was invisible to them, just ‘this girl’, until the one who’d taken it handed the white card back to me. Only then did he look me up and down, making eye contact just once, with a short nod. His eyes were chestnut brown and in them, I saw something. Maybe it was respect, I don’t know. I do know that in that moment, I wasn’t really a girl to him, just a brain. So they threw me back.
And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming…
That particular afternoon, Rosie O’Donnell stood on the small stage, the black curtain behind her strung up with white holiday lights, even though it wasn’t Christmas. It was a cheap set but the logo on the corner of the screen shone like a spotlight. ‘Welcome now to the stage, a very funny woman. You’ll be hearing more from her after this, I’m sure. Put your hands together for Margaret….Cho!’
I was only half watching – my hand aloft between my mouth and the bowl of rice I was having for lunch, my chopsticks holding some of the myulchee that my mother had made – until I heard Rosie say, Cho. A Korean name. The last name of the first boy I ever had a crush on.
Now, Rosie had my full attention.
I watched as she left the stage, handing the mic over to a Korean woman wearing a dark blue dress. She was ordinary looking, almost plain. But to me, she could have been a unicorn in our living room that was how startling it was to see an Asian woman on TV. Not just Asian, but Korean. Like me.
And she sounded like me, too. Back then, I was always a little surprised to hear an Asian adult speak unaccented English, since all around me adults spoke English with a heavy coating of some Asian flavor. Whether it was my Japanese violin teacher’s swallowed consonants, the hard staccato of the Chinatown kids in AP Calculus or the guttural lilt of Konglish spoken at home, I rarely heard an Asian adult who sounded like me.
For the next seven minutes, I was enthralled. This was early Margaret Cho without swear words, raunch or detailed descriptions of athletic sex, which suited me fine. The high I felt from watching her was one of recognition. I wasn’t alone. There were others out there. Like me.
One joke I remember was when she told this story about growing up in San Francisco and sneaking out to a club and getting caught. I watched her monolid eyes widen in horror as she transformed into her mother, exclaiming loudly that ‘you cannot go to da clubs! That is where, you know, you get da, you know, da drugs! And da pots! and da COCAINES!’
I felt a mix of guilt and glee as I identified with her. Not with the details – I was maybe fourteen then and wouldn’t have known where to find a ‘club’ even if I’d had any desire in my goody-goody heart – but the pluralization of nouns was something my parents did, too. The endless errors in my parents’ English put my teeth on edge even as I wanted to protect them from the world.
As immigrants, my parents experienced mini-humiliations almost on a daily basis. The A&P grocery clerk that pretended not to understand my mom’s request for a price check on the family-sized Fruit Loops; the United Airlines gate agent who sneered and over-enunciated when she told my dad we couldn’t sit together, raising her voice like he was deaf; the Lincoln Center ushers who rolled their eyes and cackled at each other, saying ‘I can’t even deal’ as they yanked the Yo-Yo Ma tickets out of our hands, taking for granted that we wouldn’t understand. But I understood and they cut me, even as I also wished my parents were different. Wished them better.
Being Asian in America is a peculiar experience. One can argue that all racisms have their own particular flavor. That the experience of racial discrimination differs from race to race. The underlying drive of racism is to oust, shame and eliminate that which is different. The motivation is to erase the quirks and particularities of different cultures and races in the interest of creating a dull, smooth homogeneity.
In my experiences of racism, the cuts are small and insidious.
Asians in America are the prototypical ‘model minority’. We are smart and studious. We are good at math. We are quiet and docile. Louis CK jokes about his relief when an Asian doctor enters the examination room and we laugh. We are obedient. We are bad at sports. We are blind followers of authority. We lack creativity.
The racism occurs in tiny, daily abrasions.
“You wear a sunhat? Oh, how cute. That’s how you Oriental women keep your skin so perfect and porcelain. That’s why you never age.” It’s a humid, August afternoon in Vermont and we’re sitting on the porch, sipping gin and tonics. He’s a friend and he uses the term ‘Oriental’ with some irony, smearing the t, to rhyme with ‘kennel’. But I can feel the jeer underneath the ‘just kidding’ snicker, even as I laugh weakly and adjust the brim of my hat. I watch the lime float in my drink and I boil a little hotter underneath the afternoon sun. In silence.
“You know what? You’re actually really smart. I had no idea. You do this quiet, sweet Asian girl thing and hide who you truly are.” This time the friend is white, an artist, the mother of a bi-racial child. In the plush candlelit confines of this downtown social club, the insult here is, once again, framed by what seems like a compliment – you are smart. But if ever there was a backhanded compliment, here it is. It feels like getting slapped, knuckle-side up.
In one misguided Dear Abby-esque swoop, this woman insults my intelligence, gender and race, in less than thirty seconds. And of course the question I long to spit back at her is, why are these things mutually exclusive? Why does my demeanor – perhaps understated, perhaps subdued – negate the possibility of intelligence? I like being quiet. I like my softness. I like my gentleness. I like my girliness.
I like my Asian-ness.
If there is an error in perception, that these things cannot co-exist with big words and actual opinions, why does she present this seeming contradiction as a problem on my part? This paradox is a product of her own narrow-minded perceptions and yet she drapes it over me, dressing me in robes of deception and cunning. To her, I am the wily geisha, the shrewd dragon lady.
I keep these thoughts to myself and clink martini glasses with her, even as I file away this abrasion in my mind, throwing another log on the proverbial fire of my feelings of injustice.
Why stay silent, you may ask?
I ask that, too.
Injustices can happen on such a microscopic level. One hesitates to point them out because, by doing so, one risks pulling the skin open, creating a gaping wound where before there was only a paper cut. Because what if I’m wrong? What if I’m just being crazy?
But then again, there is death by a thousand cuts.
Because if I were to, say, jump up in indignation at either of these people, it draws into the light the complicated peculiarities of racism towards Asians.
The slippery quality of insults sandwiched between compliments.
Both would likely consider what they said to me as praise, approval. Compliments. What’s your problem? Because, let’s face it, Asians are successful. We are socially and economically prosperous. We work hard and have made the system work for us. To complain about racism can be tough because we do not necessarily experience the same disadvantages that other minorities experience. We are well-educated, well-employed, middle to upper class. We marry interracially, make beautiful Amerasian babies, live in white neighborhoods without resistance.
So what more could these Orientals – gooks, chinks, slant-eyes – possibly want?
There is a disdain, a looking down upon Asians. We achieve and over-achieve and yet we are not equal because we are a threat in the unspoken competition that is ongoing. A wrestle for the top prize with a very real, worthy opponent. But, we have to be perfect. And when we’re perfect, we’re TOO perfect. We are conformist and boring, just a bunch of automatons. All look same.
In my toolbox, there are at least two Asian jokes that I tell to counter my social anxiety. I tell them well – both about Asian businessmen with a penchant for flipping their l’s and r’s – and they are funny. They succeed in getting a roaring response, without fail. I do an exceptional Asian accent and I enjoy telling them. I have had more than one first date tell me that I am not like ‘normal Asian girls.’ This is said to me admiringly, as he wipes away tears of laughter.
These jokes are my way in. A way towards social acceptance.
And yet. Again.
I worry about contributing to the Asian stereotype. Just as I worried and felt guilty even as I laughed at Margaret Cho’s imitation of her mother. Because it was funny and it was true and I felt finally, finally, seen as the child of Korean immigrants, living in the in-between space of old country and new.
But how to also convey the tenderness and affection I felt for Margaret Cho and her mother upon hearing that joke? Doing that accent was a way of acknowledging a difference. Acknowledging the struggle contained within that accent that holds our real love for our mothers.
When my mother speaks English, she adds articles and pluralizes her nouns and confuses idioms and blurs her subjects and verbs. But she is also a doctor and a mother and a wife and a daughter. She is a great cook. She is smart as a whip, so smart she’s never kept a calendar in all the years I’ve known her because she remembers everything her family has to do every day; dates, phone numbers, addresses. She is fiercely loyal and she loves me every day like I am the only thing that matters.
When she was twenty-five, she came to this country alone, with five hundred dollars hidden in the handle of a vanity mirror. She learned to speak English by leaving her television on all day and night, listening to advertising jingles for Tide detergent and Wrigley’s chewing gum. And she cried every night for six months, wondering if she would ever see her family again, even though she was the one who ran away.
Her accented English has a flavor all its own. And hearing Margaret Cho imitate her own mother made me feel less alone in loving my mother in the full glory of her incorrectness.
One of the few stories my mother tells of her youth is about medical school, when a fellow student grabbed her hand at a picnic, stroked it and said he needed to marry the girl who belonged to such soft, white hands.
My mother’s skin is rougher now. Eczema bubbles up and peels back the skin on her still small, still girlish hands. She wears disposable plastic gloves that make a crinkling sound when she mixes the kimchee in a stainless steel bowl. The kitchen lights are on even though the afternoon sun streams in from the window. The Manhattan skyline beckons, so near yet so far from where we are here in New Jersey. I sit at the marble countertop, my own hands folded neatly in my lap.
“How did you know that Daddy was the one?” I ask, staring out the window at a ferry crossing the Hudson, a frothy trail of white foam streaming behind it.
“The one what?” she asks, turning the bowl around as she stirs the cabbage and red pepper paste into a bright red mound, lovingly massaging the fiery mixture between the cool leaves.
“The one you would marry,” I clarify.
She sniffs and pauses to push her glasses up on her nose with the back of her wrist. Her hands are still now.
“I guess I felt safe with him. Something about him made me think I could rely on him. We used to talk on the phone every night. Once, I decided to hang up on him. I wanted to see if he would call back or not.”
She looks down at the bowl and continues her mixing. The kimchee makes a moist sound, like someone opening their mouth to speak. I’ve learned to be patient through my mother’s silences but when she turns the steel bowl on the marble a third time, I ask if my father called back.
“Yes, he did,” she says, her head bent over the bowl again. “When he asked me what happened I just told him that we’d gotten cut off somehow. But on our second date, he asked me to marry him and I said yes.”
Startled, I watch her face and ask again, how she knew.
“The first time I went to your father’s apartment, I opened the refrigerator and all I found was an old onion and a box of baking soda. Did I tell you he weighed less than 120 pounds when we met? He denies it but it’s true. He never really gained weight after the war. He’s a real doongboh now – a real fatty.” She snorts and turns to scoop the kimchee into the glass jar waiting in the kitchen sink. “He weighs about 145 pounds. He even has a little belly,” she says, a little proud.
I move to help hold the jar still and watch her nestle the cabbage leaves into place. I rotate the jar as she tamps down the kimchee. The smell of garlic and vinegar makes me sneeze. When she’s done, I turn the lid on top with my clean hands.
“Why do you think Daddy won’t let me move out?” I watch my mother’s hands slow as I ask this. She pulls the gloves off, revealing her small, peeling hands, a Band-aid wrapped around her index finger.
“Your father is bohsoojuhgeen, very conservative. I think he’s never gotten over growing up poor and a refugee during Yoogeeuh, the Korean War. He has strange ideas about how to keep you safe. He believes that saving money and leaving it to you is safer. He’s wrong, he’s being stupid.” Her voice is rising now and her knuckles are clenched. I look up to see her eyes blinking fast behind her glasses.
And then, there is a look on her face that is new to me. One of sorrow and shame and determination. It breaks something in me and I start to cry. I hate crying in front of my mother. She is a Pusan woman, she is moodduddukheh, stoic. The Pusan people are strong and deep, like the sea they live and breathe beside. I know she hates when I cry, too, so I duck my head, the tears falling silently into my lap.
To my surprise, I feel my mother’s hands cover mine and I look up. Her face is turned away from me, looking out at the Manhattan skyscrapers and the ferry that is crossing to the other side. It’s been perhaps fifteen years since I last felt my mother’s hands. They feel both foreign and familiar. The shape is the same but they’re not nearly as smooth as in my memories, when she pushed back my bangs to check for fever or when she held the back of her hand to my cheek to see if I was cold.
We sit in silence, watching the ferry continue its crossing.