They say you build a thick hide the more you endure. I still feel soft inside, though the metal armor I’ve slowly wrapped around my identity continues to dent and ding with the passing of time. I suppose that’s the nature of armor. The moment you put it on, its usefulness is in absorbing the blows. And there have been many.
8TH GRADE: Part 1
W e leave from an assembly, one of those where they pack every grade into a single auditorium. The stage had been flanked by two flags, one stating “End Prejudice” while the other states, “Tolerance.”
As we pour out into the hallways, a group ahead of us talk, laughing to one another in that conspiratory manner kids tend to do. I think, initially, nothing of it, as they are children more or less like I am, and being so we like to conspire even if about silly things.
They keep looking back, though, and that unsettles me. The one suddenly calls out, nodding towards me while shouting:
“What are you looking at, chink?”
TWO YEARS AFTER COLLEGE
I’m walking my sister to her car and we pass by a bar tucked between the two main streets. A group of college-aged guys are standing off to the side of the red entrance door.
“Look at that yellow ass,” one calls out.
“Think she’ll give me a happy ending for a dollar?” heckles another.
This creates enough inertia for a myriad of racist misogyny to pour forth from their mocking. And so, I hand my sister the keys, tell her to get into the car. She walks off crying as I turn around to ask:
“Do you fucking want to go? Right. Now.”
“What are you going to do?” asks the one guy, booze and buds boosting his confidence.
Let go, I tell myself. I unclench my fists, walk to the car, get in, and drive us home listening to my sister sob the entire way.
We’re sitting in our usual spots amongst long tables lined up in rows, one after the other. I am trying to eat quickly. We’re no longer given our daily two 15 minute breaks and the half-hour outdoor recesses anymore. That was elementary school and we are becoming adults. Eat fast enough and I could use the rest of lunch time to venture out into a small, four-walled courtyard to see the sky for a few minutes.
“School is preparing our patterns for real life,” I muse, when suddenly, I realize I’m being given another type of life lesson today.
“Go back to your huts and find some stray dog to eat,” says a kid who thinks I’ve taken his seat.
I mumble some passive aggressive remark, put my head down closer to my food, try to block out my friends’ and classmates’ attempts at laughing off the awkwardness.
JUNIOR YEAR OF COLLEGE IN NEW ZEALAND: Part 1
August: I’m playing beer pong with my roommate and future life-long friend. We are losing. We’ve lost several shots and we have one cup left on our side.
Our opponents, other Americans, take their shot. It’s clean. We lose the round.
“White is right, bitches.”
I look at my half-Black-half-Samoan friend and he says to me: “It’s all right, Philly.”
I leave the party.
JUNIOR YEAR OF COLLEGE IN NEW ZEALAND: Part 2
October: We’re at a Halloween Party with my closest friends and we’ve invited some of the other Americans to join us.
I’m dressed as Nightwing in my self-made costume and I recall being happy, as happy as I always am when I’m with my new-found family.
There is a knock on the door and beer-pong walks in.
“The party is here!” he shouts.
Then he points to me and says, “Why’s that dude, Batman? Take that shit off. I’ll be Batman. Batman’s white.”
I see red. I move to sprint straight for his solar plexus. My 6-foot-7 roommate cuts me off, scoops me up, and talks me down.
“Let’s go,” he says.
As he walks me back to my room, I look back, leaving all of my friends behind.
FOUR YEARS AGO
I’m drilling form work, sweat dripping down my back. I’ve spent six years in an attempt to develop proficiency in what is commonly considered an obsolete practice. Despite the effort, my self doubt questions when I will build enough skill to be considered good at martial arts.
“It’s not fair. Phil’s a natural at this because he’s Asian,” my training partner says to the group.
The words stir unrest inside myself and I cannot articulate why. Have I not been working as hard and striving as hard as the others to get to where I am today?
But in that instant I am reminded my ethnicity defines me more than the merit of my work.
We’re wrapping up our composition class, having read a piece on Waldon, Thoreau and Transcendentalism.
Two of my classmates come over to my desk.
“____ wants to ask you a question.”
“Sure,” I say.
“Why do they call you Viet-man-nese? Or why Chinese, Japanese, or Korean? You are all the same.”
That sting when the strike strikes hard enough to resonate through the armor, sliding between the layers of steel where no armor exists. But what else am I to do? I can be punctured by the words of ignorance, but cannot react with the instinct of fight — less I seem savage and uncultured—nor can I fly less I seem overly sensitive and strange.
“We are not the same. We have similarities, but we aren’t the same.”
“Well then why do you all look the same? Why do you all speak the same? And why are you all small, the same?”
“Can you tell the difference between someone who is Irish, German, Spanish, Italian, French, or American?”
“Why yes, of course.”
“And what if I asked you why they aren’t all called the same thing? Why can’t I call you European, or someone from there American? Why?”
“Because we’re different, dude. We have different languages, we live in different countries.”
What else am I to say?
“Asians; we have similarities, we are similar. But we are also different.”
I leave it at that.
8th GRADE: Part 2
Chink. Something in my countenance must have changed.
“What are you looking at, chink?”
Or maybe they notice something about my best friend’s reaction to their heckle and that flips the switch.
Whatever it is, they bolt. And I bolt too. I do not know what is going through my head, but here we are moving, weaving through throngs of kids, zipping past everyone to the next large artery in the hallway.
I kick out his back leg and he’s falling to the ground. I grab his shirt and then look at him, look through him to the white of his eyes. I smell his fear and think to myself: And now what?
Do I describe the uncertainty and frailty I’m feeling for not being like him? Do I hit him and cry and scream and tell him he shouldn’t say to anyone else what he just said to me? Do I call out to my adult self and ask for words I don’t have the capacity to understand or say at this time?
I release my grip, look at my friend by my side, and instead say, “Let’s go.”
Grade school. Grad school. Last year. Last month. Last week. I can keep going. Instances here and there, small moments so seemingly docile they get buried with the larger issues while painted over by the happier ones. And that’s the overt stuff.
Deeper still are the subversive things, things my bones tell me don’t feel quite right. Those times when I have to politely accept being whitesplained that “preferences” are a real thing. Those moments at work when the research comes back substantiating that we should only market our products to white communities because the demographics show they have more money to spend than “other populations.”
Those times when I politely ignore the ignorance of someone defending their racism alongside their character. Those moments where I’m told “no hard feelings” when I look about and see myself in a sea of white supremacy, where within their next breath I am told “I don’t see color” as some sort of allied absolution.
How can we see color when its significance has been bleached by those who would rather dance than deal with the dirty laundry lying dormant upon our feet? All of those times where I betray myself by being polite to create a semblance of peace and quiet.
But peace for whom?
Quiet for what?
Quiet for what, when I hear my own silence screaming, echoing sirens within my armored soul?
I can keep going, but then what?
How many more chinks can I take before I’ll have no armor left?