I, Too, Sing America

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?  

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