my 9-year-old doesn’t know what “chinky” means.
i discovered this just a few weeks ago, while driving somewhere, recounting a story about a friend who inadvertently called me chinky when she interrupted.
“i don’t get it.”
“do you know what a chink is?”
then the other day, we were with a group of kids from her school and a little first-grade boy asked her out of the blue, curiously, “hey, are you korean?”
i was kind of surprised. “how do you know if she’s korean?”
he was all matter-of-fact. “i can tell. i know what koreans look like.”
now maybe it’s because she goes to a super racially and ethnically diverse school where the kids are actually nice to each other. or maybe it’s because it IS a whole new america. but i marvel at the difference between this and my elementary school years, in the same town, when it was always funny to “ching chong sho wah” at every asian kid, and being asian meant you were chinese or japanese (even though there are very few japanese americans in the dc area), and the best comeback i had for being called a “chink” was “hey… i’m korean!” this stuff happened on a fairly regular basis. not always out of malice, but definitely out of ignorance.
by the time i was in college, i got all angry asian activist. i got all spoken word angry asian activist. in fact, i just googled my old self and pulled this piece from someone’s blog, which they typed out from the book it was published in (and i know it was typed out because it had typos)…
At first glance, they looked at my face and prepared themselves in advance
For what kind of person I am, an Asian.
I watched them uncomfortably guess my “original” nation.
Chinese? Japanese? Malaysian?
This is the overplayed scenario like the replayed songs on the radio,
Over and over like there ain’t no end to it yo.
Since the first day of school I heard it.
Ching chong chinaman, chinky winky twinky
DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISHEE?
From the first moment I felt it.
Can you really see through those eyes?
Oh how cute, two oriental girls. Are you twins?
I listened to their ignorant remakes as their sharp words pierced my heart.
I allowed them to form my identity and tell me who I was.
Bruce Lee, Michelle Kwan, Yan can cook and so can you!
Because pigeonholed, it was all I was told.
Aren’t you gonna be a doctor?
All Asians are good at science right?
So now you’re thinking,
“What? Things like that don’t happen to me. I hear no evil, I see no evil.”
You tell me you don’t know what it means to be Asian,
born and raised in a white nation, you’re third generation,
“I’ve never seen discrimination.”
I’ve read about Hitler and his evils of intended entire elimination of Jews.
I’ve heard about Rosa Parks with the blacks-at-the-back-of-the-bus laws — to obey, she refused.
But me…I’ve never seen discrimination, never felt racial humiliation, never experienced segregation.
So you know you’re Asian if you leave your shoes at the front door.
That’s your definition of tradition. You consider yourself Asian on this one condition!
I am who I am, I be who I be,
People will see me for me and award me for ability,
Praise me for attending ivy league,
Hire me for working so hard, so hopefully,
Holding onto a vision of my future reality…
What if they fire me?
Look at Dr. Wen Ho Lee —
Maybe innocent, found unguilty,
Targeted unfairly cause of his ethnicity.
“You know dem Chinese. They’re either restaurant owners or spies.”
I despise the lies seen in society’s eyes.
See, even though
I am who I am and I be who I be
People can’t see me for me.
That’s the reality.
Can you hear the evil? Can you see the evil?
The sugarcane harvesters, sweatshop workers, picture brides, interned Japanese Americans…all the immigrants who came with high hopes seeking liberty stretching from sea to shining sea, singing my country tis of thee, sowing seed of strife in hopes of a better life…sacrifices and sweat, sacrifices and sweat, sacrifices and sweat…
These people faced persecution in the form of piercing painful prejudices pointing at them at every place…political pariahs, unable to speak their piece, unable to speak peace.
That is why I get offended when you ask me where I’m really from.
That is why I fight for justice while obstacles continue to come.
That is why I call myself Asian American.
I am who I am, I be who I be
See me for me,
Then you’ll get the reality.
despite my angry asianness, despite my full awareness of the uncomfortably skewed trends in interracial relationships, the dynamics of exploitation, marginalization, and otherness… i fell in love and married a white guy (a military guy, no less, just to make sure we fit another strong stereotype!) and had beautiful biracial babies. we’re doing our best to raise our babies to be proud of their histories steeped in shepherd’s pie and kimchi but to also appreciate all the pho, curried chickpeas, french fries, pancakes, poutine, platanos, and hummus that this world has to offer.
but because of this hypermindfulness about stereotypes and prejudices, i sometimes find myself annoyed when good upstanding people are shocked, just shocked, and flabbergasted!, over whoever has made the most recent racist remark in the news. not saying that those comments shouldn’t ever be called out, but i am saying that these problems run deeper than the words that are muttered flippantly under one’s breath while miked.
i tend to think that most everyone holds prejudiced views based on the human inclination to categorize people into buckets. whether it’s “fat girls always” this or “asian guys are so annoying when they” that, or one of my personal faves, “i always wanted a gay best friend!!!! we can go shopping and follow fashion trends together!!!,” the degrees of annoying harmfulness can vary, but even the “positive” stereotypes are never really a good thing.
still, for me, it’s more important that systems and institutions keep people’s personal views in check than for people to never think an ill-informed thought. because the ill-informed thoughts are many.
i know some would disagree with me, and in an ideal world, every person AND every system would be color-blind, gender-blind, all-ism-blind and nonjudgmental. but i’ve long ago accepted that this isn’t an ideal world, and i’ve long ago come to the conclusion that the most important battle is for change and protections to be institutionalized, essentially giving up on the hearts and minds of individuals.
maybe that is ignorant of me.
when i first heard a newscaster declare that president obama’s election in 2008 signified the start of a “postracial america,” i practically snorted out loud. were they really trying to suggest that suddenly we’re over it — our country’s long history of discrimination, slavery, hate, and judgyness? don’t get me wrong. electing our first african american (and biracial) president was a huge milestone. but it didn’t signify the end of racism or the start of postracial anything.
what it did signify was progress.
and what my daughter’s little anecdotal experience signifies is progress.
maybe there is hope for america after all.