Reacting to Racism as an Asian-American; or the Virtues of Scrapple

“What’s scrapple?”

I was hanging out with a small group of guys in the seniors’ lobby, where people would be between classes and during lunch. I was a high school senior, 17 years old, born in Bloomington, Indiana, raised in the suburbs of Maryland. I suppose my unassuming question jolted the heart and soul of the young man to whom I posed it.

“You’ve never had scrapple? How have you never had scrapple? You’re not American if you haven’t had scrapple.” He walked away, probably distracted by a slice of pizza. I doubt he realized the effect his reaction had; he very well may have forgotten about his comment as soon as he walked off.

I was taken aback. First I was confused. Is scrapple really that big of a deal? I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I hadn’t had this apparently landmark dish of the country I was so proud of. I mean, I secretly rooted for the USA over South Korea in the 2002 Men’s World Cup a few years before. How had I never had scrapple? What had my parents been withholding from me this whole time?

But that quickly turned into skepticism. How big of a deal was scrapple if I’d never heard of it? I ate chicken wings, pizza, and burgers all the time. What the hell was scrapple?

And why did he add the part about not being American? What did he mean? Did he even realize what he said? I got angry. I sat there, probably half-listening to the conversation my classmates were having around me. I tried to think of comebacks. He was long gone, but part of me wanted to walk back up to him and confront him, to get him good with a witty comeback or diss. Yeah, that would show him.

I kept playing it out in my head. I would go up and say, “What’s so American about it? Sounds gross.” Or I would go the other route: “Yeah, you think that’s American? Have you ever had Korean barbeque or Korean stew? That’s just as American, to try the different dishes of our immigrants. That’s what being American is, you ignorant F**K. Who the f**k do you think you are? I was born here. I’m smarter than you. I’m probably scoring better on the SATs than you. I know more about Harper Lee, JD Salinger, Fitzgerald, Hemingway than you. I’m getting better grades than you. I know more about American movies than you. I know more about the NFL than you. So who the f**k is more American?” Sure, some of those were petty thoughts. But it was hard not to feel petty with my identity under attack.

I never approached him though… it didn’t seem worth the effort. I didn’t know him well. He was a tall, preppy white guy who had joined our private all-guys school a year or two before. He was the kind of unimpressive rich screw-up who had transferred from another private school where he couldn’t hack it. The kind of kid who failed upward. That may have been the only time we’d even had a conversation, so it didn’t seem worth talking to him again.

I never addressed it. But apparently I still think about it. And I’ve been thinking about it again lately.

— — — — — — — — —

First, outrage arose recently over a racist Fox News Chinatown segment, which was followed by a great Daily Show rebuttal by Ronny Chieng that went viral. Of course, the correspondent on Fox wasn’t reprimanded. He gave a weak apology and wasn’t fired, but the outrage was heard.

Then, the New York Times piece about a man being told to “Go back to China” struck a chord for sure, leading to a collection of reader responses about similar experiences. In the midst of these pieces, I was reminded of the scrapple story.

It can be confusing to process these experiences. Recently, I’ve talked to several Asian friends about racist experiences they’ve faced growing up, and it’s led me to contemplate why we didn’t talk at length about these things before.

I used to assume it wasn’t worth bringing up. It was a minor offense, but it wasn’t THAT egregious. It was just a dumb, ignorant person’s mistake. That’s all. I would think about the more severe offenses that people of various ethnicities suffer, whether it be racial slurs or violence. I didn’t think it was a big enough deal to complain about.

— — — — — — — — —

On the Fourth of July after my senior year of high school, I walked over with some friends to a country club in Baltimore for a fireworks show. There were no guards stopping people from going in and the gates were wide open, with tons of people walking in and out. We were standing around waiting for the fireworks when an employee in a golf cart drove up so recklessly that I thought he might run one of us over. He jumped out of his golf cart and yelled at us that we couldn’t be there. We weren’t members. He was getting in our faces, telling us that he would call security or get the police if we didn’t leave right away. So we left.

Our group, about 15 of us, was entirely Korean-American. I was so taken aback by this guy’s rudeness and abrasiveness. I wanted to yell back at him, to tell him that we wanted to speak to his manager. I wanted to ask why he wasn’t checking to see if all the white people walking around were members as well. Did some angry old white dude tell him that he had to kick us out? Did he just think it was so blatant that we weren’t members that he had to cleanse the grounds of our yellow skin?

I left fuming. I didn’t do any of the things I wish I did. The next day, I thought about writing a letter to the Baltimore Sun, or calling or emailing the country club and filing a formal complaint. I didn’t. One thought that did cross my mind was that it wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. We weren’t even members, after all. “Matt,” I asked myself, “Are you just mad because it happened to you? What about all the worse things that have happened to other people of color? You didn’t speak up then. You’re just pissed because you missed out on fireworks.” So I didn’t do anything.

— — — — — — — — —

I wish I had done something in both of those incidents. I didn’t have the understanding then to know how to address those issues. And even though these weren’t earth-shattering incidents, they were ones worth addressing or contemplating more. When I was younger, my generation learned from our parents, who were mostly immigrants (at least in my home state of Maryland) with other priorities like learning English, finding jobs, meeting friends, and making sure their children got good grades. Our parents didn’t focus much on these issues, and neither did we. We focused on getting by. And with the immigrant experience, there were factors like the language barrier or the lack of connections in community, media, or politics.

But I think the Asian voice has grown more proactive in recent years. Now there are opportunities to speak up more. There are voices like Angry Asian Man, Constance Wu in Hollywood, Ronny Chieng on the Daily Show as a correspondent, or the buzz around the NYTimes pieces. Social media helps. For all of the faults laid at the feet of social media, it is powerful. Solidarity and communication online helps people to not feel so alone in their hurt.

There’s still lots of room to grow. SNL still has to make a joke acknowledging that they don’t have an Asian cast member to play an Asian debate moderator from our Presidential election cycle. The political voices of Asians are still lacking. Our community is still learning how to demonstrate solidarity for other groups, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

But I’m encouraged by Asian voices who are willing to share their past struggles and how experiences with racism have led to them not feeling completely American, despite living in the US their whole lives. The more that people — both Asians and non-Asians — discuss this, the more at home we can feel. And the more united we can be as different groups: different, but together.

I have hope that we’ll gradually figure it out. Even if I still haven’t figured out what the hell scrapple is.