My friend’s son was upset.
That day, he was joking around with his friends in the crowded halls of his elementary school in Brooklyn, New York, when one of his friends insulted him. The really bad thing, one that immediately brought focus to the fact that my friend’s son – let’s call him Sam – is Black.
That name shocked Sam. Until that moment, he had been just a kid fooling around with his friends. From that moment on he became the Black Kid.
When my friend told me about Sam’s pain and confusion that evening, I immediately realized what had happened. This is the “record scratch” moment for me.
All children can go through something like this in one form or another, when their lives change drastically and heartbreakingly due to circumstances beyond their control. But if you grew up as a child in America and aren’t white, you’ve almost certainly experienced a certain version of the Record Scratch moment: one moment you’re just a kid, and the next you’re a person of color.
Yes, there are exceptions, like if you grew up in a community where almost everyone looked like you, or in a United Colors of Benetton ad. (Remember that?) I’m also not going to pretend that my experience as a Chinese-American was the same as the experience as a black man in the US.
But what I clearly remember from being the kid who doesn’t look like the other kids is how jarring it feels to discover that the other kids notice. That they think you are different.
So I explained to my friend, who is white (oh my god, are the three of us the United Colors of Benetton?!) that calling your race is pretty much a rite of passage for children of color in America.
It’s the moment you feel the heat of the spotlight and your perception of yourself is changed forever. My friends and family share notes on these record scratch moments when we talk about our experiences as a minority.
The summer between third and fourth grade, I became Asian at the swimming pool.
I was running around with a few other half-wild kids I had made friends with that day. We galloped around the pool, jumping in and climbing out and generally having a great time. I was about to shoot a cannon into the water when one of the older kids and his sister came up to me.
They came towards me grinning and giggling as if they had a secret. They were dazzling and incredibly blonde. They were happy with themselves; The joy on their faces would have looked positively Rockwellian at a carnival or in front of a Christmas tree. I had no idea what was coming. But I knew it something came.
The siblings narrowed their eyes, bared their upper front teeth, and bowed low at the waist while making praying hands. They let out a loud, drawn out “Konnichiwaaaaa” before running away cackling as I continued to stand there frozen And humiliated.
It wasn’t just that they mocked me for being Chinese with a Japanese word and reduced me to a generally nondescript Asian. I thought we were friends and then they made a joke of me.
As the record scratched, I had a disgusting double image of myself through her eyes. I was Louise, the kid who could swim like a whale really well. Then suddenly I was Louise the Asian.
I immediately wondered if Other people noticed that I was Asian. The other pool kids continued splashing around, but I wanted to get out of their sight. I questioned everything:
Do they like me less because I’m Asian?
Is it fun for her to be Asian? Am I the butt of the joke?
Do I need to protect myself? How?
My heart was racing, the world was shaking a little, and I walked, not running, to where I had thrown my towel on the hot concrete.
I wanted to be alone and think about who I was. Unfortunately, the Sweet Valley Terror Twins had other plans. They spent the afternoon committing what was essentially drive-by racism everywhere I went.
They ran over, bowed and shouted “Ah-so!” at me. (So many bows.) They scurried past, cocking the corners of their eyes and spouting “ching-chong” nonsense. The girl did something like a karate chop on me? Looking back, I’m amazed at the energy with which these two harassed me.
I left the pool that day feeling like an easy – and acceptable – target. None of the other children cared. My family wasn’t unsympathetic, but they weren’t surprised either. The drama in the swimming pool was nothing compared to what my immigrant mother, immigrant father, aunt and uncle had experienced. But for the first time, I became hyper-aware that I was Asian and that being Asian could feel unsafe.
Around this time, my family and I moved from Seattle to Dallas, where there was a whole new school, new kids, and a new culture. I began to find ways to be “less Asian.” Some of these ways were absurd. It hurt my heart to remember some of them.
I would walk around with my eyes open broad as possible, à la”A Clockwork Orange“I believe this would lessen my impact on the Asian face.” When my girlfriend and I went to the mall to take glamor shots, almost none of my glitzy cowgirl photos were usable because I insisted on keeping my eyes like that open as wide as possible when smiling, and the result was deeply disturbing.
I’ve made it a point to laugh loudest when someone makes “Chinese” or “Asian” jokes – if you know this tactic, you know. I embraced everything white. I refused to speak Cantonese, not a word. I avoided Chinese traditions, holidays and beliefs. (Except red packetsbut I put those crisp Lunar New Year dollars into the nightmare Delia’s or Abercrombie & Fitch that was popular with my white classmates.)
During those years, I naturally accepted that I was Asian, but I really hoped no one would notice. I practically purred when white friends “complimented” me and said, “It’s like you’re not even Asian!”
I try not to judge Little Louise too harshly. She grew up in a time when “representation” was not in the vocabulary. All she knew was that in most of the circles she entered, she was the only one who was her equal. She was just trying to get through.
I don’t bear the Asian shame anymore (unless that’s what you mean other A kind of Asian shame (like why I don’t own a house or don’t participate in the stock market), but the day I became Asian is still a part of me.
And I have hope for Sam. His Record Scratch incident (and the ones that followed) shocked him and changed him, but didn’t destabilize him. In ways big and small, Sam sometimes hurts, but he has defiantly embraced his black boy life in a way that would have impressed Little Louise.
Growing Louise would have been as horrified to hear it, as I’m sure Sam would have been, but I wish I could hold little Louise and tell her: Yes, it’s going to suck sometimes, but one day you’ll draw more power from your Chinese-American identity than the Pool Twins can ever take from you. One day you will look back and have compassion for these children instead of fearing them.
And also, I would say, You ARE really good at swimming like a whale. Nobody can take that away from you either.
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