by Wells Chen
Several years ago, I met a little girl in an after school program at the elementary school near my high school in Manhattan. She was in the fourth or fifth grade, as were the other children in the program. She first came to my attention when the other kids began teasing her and calling her names; I heard "Chink' among other words, some of which I've been called during my life, and others I never imagined existed. That is partly the reason why I remember her today, even though I never knew her name. The other kids were from various backgrounds; there were Latino, black and white children. They told us, the tutors, that the Asian girl would not say "what she was.' At the time I was as curious as those kids; I wanted to know what she was. That I didn't understand the gravity of the situation, is the other part of the reason that I remember that girl. I asked her if she was Chinese, as the kids presumed; I even asked, "What are you?' The girl was silent to my questioning as well. I didn't know why she didn't answer, but I realize now that she knew why. If she had said she was Korean, or Laotian, the kids would think up new names to call her. She had no choice, but to say nothing. When I was in the seventh grade, I almost punched a kid for calling me names. He called me "Chink" and "Chinaman," and made faces by moving his eyelids with his fingers while making sounds with his voice. He did this nearly every day at lunch; he also said things about my mother and pulled my hair from across the lunch table. One day something inside told me that was enough: I rose out of my seat. When he rose to meet my challenge all I could do was slap him in the face, when what I really wanted to do was take all of his taunting and jeering and send it back through his face with my fist. Years after that incident, one of the only regrets I still harbored was that of not punching Charlie Gardella. I wanted to go back and respond to everything I had taken, not only from him, but from all the other kids who constantly commented on my appearance and culture. Inside me was an unspeakable anger from being humiliated, and the frustration of never being able to do anything about it. The teacher in charge of the cafeteria pulled the two of us into an office afterwards. He asked me why I slapped that kid; all I could say was "he said things about my mother." He said things about my mother-that was all I could say, when what I really needed to say was that Charlie was saying slurs about my appearance, insulting my ethnicity, my heritage, physically hurting me and making fun of my mother. These were things I didn't know how to say and didn't think would be understood. No one taught me that it was important or even right to voice my unsaid thoughts. I did say something once to a girl in my homeroom class who liked calling me "Chinaman;" I said one word-bigot-the only thing I could think to say. I had learned from a television program, Different Strokes., that bigot was what people were called who treated Willis and Arnold badly because they were black. The girl in my homeroom said, "I'm not a bigot." Maybe I used the word wrong, or maybe she had no idea that it was wrong to make fun of an Asian person. If I did use the word incorrectly, it was only because I didn't know how to respond to someone calling me "Chink." No one ever said it was wrong to call an Asian American a "Chink"-no one on TV, no one in school. So when I was in that cafeteria in the eighth grade, I didn't punch that kid who angered me because I feared punishment. It was because I couldn't defend my actions. When I think about the young Asian girl in the elementary school, I wonder if the same events would have been allowed to happen if the child was black. No child at that school would have ever been heard saying the word "nigger' a second time. That child would be sat down by a teacher and told the meaning of the word. The Asian girl had no such help from teachers or me. This forces me to think of my own consciousness of being Chinese American and Asian American. How was I to become aware of issues affecting Asian Americans? No classes in my high school talked of the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States; there was no mention of laws excluding Asians immigrants from US citizenship. I learned of holocausts in Armenia and Nazi Germany, but wasn't until after I left high school that I heard of the Nanking Massacre. At age nine or ten, that little girl had no choice but to remain silent. During my time as a college student at MIT, I've made a great effort to explore the implications of my culture and race in the context of my home, the United States. I have struggled through an institution of higher learning, lacking the classes and mechanisms to help me and others in this effort. When I sat down at a study desk on campus once, I saw carved into the wood the message "All Asians Should Die;" recently a poster put up by an Asian group on campus was defaced with the word "Clones." Seeing these things makes me as angry as I was when I heard slurs when I was thirteen years old. It has been a long time since anyone has called me "Michael Chang," let alone "Bruce" or "Chinaman," but now I'm told anonymously that I shouldn't be allowed to live because I am Asian. I am told I am indistinguishable from other Asians. Are these attitudes becoming less of a problem, or are they simply becoming less visible? I look toward the time when I no longer will be a college student and wonder how I will encounter racism and xenophobia. What forms will it take and will I be able to discern it with any security? Will I have any means of addressing these problems? When I look back on the places I have been-grade school, junior high, high school, college-will those environments show signs of improvement or will they look the same? Will other Asian Americans who experience similar situations be able to say and do something?