Of self and racism

Heh if I were to break down that title, I would not quite know how to explain it but that it sounded nice–and I felt compelled to write a post about racism and myself…or specifically my experiences with racism and how that has shaped me and my reactions now. This comes of course, out of watching Jeremy Lin–and the growing (I hope) learning process of how the American media is handling a never-before true, American superstar of Asian decent.

Growing up, I was literally the only asian…period  or maybe one of two asians in an entire elementary school comprised of mainly Caucasian and Hispanic kids.(I would imagine in certain areas of Los Angeles or the Bay Area, you may be the only Chinese or Korean kid, but at least there were a number of other asians that looked somewhat similar)

I recall my first encounter with racism in kindergarten, though I did not yet understand what it was–just felt the strange mixture of shame and just yuckiness of when you are excluded because of something you are–and it is something you do not understand.  I used to play at recess with this white girl who was very nice. But she had a friend, a boy, who whenever he came around would make the classic gestures (yawn, yes yes pulling his eyes so that they were more slanted, barking out the every creative ching chong) –that would often just plain leave me confused…But it really hit me one day when he said, when pulling her away from playing with me, “you can’t play with her because she’s different from us.”  Then! Then it clicked. Oh…so I am different…and come to think of it, I guess I did look different didn’t I? Black hair, different shaped eyes…he was onto something…

Other incidences pepper my childhood–from neighborhood kids singing such lovely melodious tunes as “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees…” ringing our doorbell to bless us with such joyful songs after my mom opened the door and then run away.

By the time I reached highschool –I actually did not experience any racism really at all, even though I was still one of only a handful of asians–I had incorporated myself well socially into the primarily Caucasian school while interestingly maintaining my roots– (listening to asian music, going up to LA to hang out with my cousin/friends at asian cafes etc.). I felt a sense of pride in my ethnicity and I attribute that to my traveling to visit relatives in Taiwan several times starting in elementary school.

Traveling–ahh let me take a moment here to emphasize the importance of traveling to expand one’s mind: In 5th grade, I went to Taiwan for the first time. For the first time, I did not look like the minority. For the first time, I was surrounded by people who spoke Mandarin (on a side note, ironically hah I was an oddity to the natives there being from America). I remember the “take-home” message: There is a larger world out there, besides the bubble from which I came. And from this, I think a seed of contempt grew inside me: Contempt for those willfully ignorant who would choose to go out of their way, to purposefully say words that would degrade and insult another person whom they do not even know, just because of their race.

Case in point–when I returned from my trip to Taiwan, I will never forget the exhilarating feeling of talking back–my first “come back” to a racist comment. A boy was saying something to the effect of, in a derogatory manner/tone: “you’re chinese blah blah blah ” And to each statement he made, I responded with my “come-back,” which was an emphatic and defiant, SO? and then he would continue to say ” well you’re this and that” and I responded again SO? and then he just shut up…deflated, and walked away. That was my first glimpse of wow, what a great feeling it is to speak back. (I think my confidence was derived from the fact that there was a whole other multiple millions of my people on another continent and I was not alone in this world 😉

But that was not to be the case for several other occurrences that happened –these ones received disturbingly from Hispanic and African Americans.

Yes, I am disturbed especially by racist comments coming from these races because I stupidly think that hey, since they are a minority, maybe they could empathize with how it feels when people make insulting racist comments about you and so they, out of this shared adversity, wouldn’t themselves make the same exact kind of racist comments, in the same vicious tone, towards me right?

Nope–there always exists amazingly ignorant and stupid idiots in the world.  What gets me so worked up about such racist comments is the process of it: When you make an unprompted racist insult–You are choosing to say words to a stranger –really, going fully mother out of your way to engage a stranger–to insult them and joke at their expense all because? (drum roll please) Because gasp, they are of a different race than you! Not because they stepped on your shoe, killed your dog or punched you–no no no, just because I happened to stand nearby and happened to look different. For these people, who would initiate a racist dialogue out of nowhere–I have the utmost contempt and disgust.  In addition, people of races who have also undergone racism DARE to go out of their way to be base and mean to another less-vocal race for kicks? I am incredulous of this.

In all of those incidences when I was too shocked to retort anything, I just put my head down and tried to ignore the comments (as ALL or MOST Asians do –a la stereotypes and as a result, have probably contributed to the lazy racism that America has towards asians–and that lead to those ESPN headlines and fortune cookie ice creams). But all of those experiences seemed to have come to a head in my mid-twenties to now, my former quiet contempt crystallizing into happily sarcastic retorts (instead of fuming in my head “aww man I should’ve said this or that”).

Example 1: I recall coming out of a club in San Diego with girlfriends and coming upon a group of young African American males. Seeing me, one immediately felt compelled to imitate Bruce Lee’s “Wahh” sounds and say loudly, “look, there is Lucy Lu!”  The younger meek me, would have rolled my eyes, given a dirty look perhaps and walked on. But this wave of energy welled up out of me and I whirled around to face the genius young man in the face and spouted “Oh yea I’m f*** Lucy Lu, because all f***ing asians look alike –You bettah watch out before I kung fu yo’ ass!” (I also had kung fu-like actions to accompany my diatribe–ones that I like to think looked quite authentic due to brief stints taking kung fu class and karate).

The young man looked at me with a mixture of shock, awe and indeed…a bit of dawning respect, which was further evidenced by his next words “Wow…noones ever said that -hey whats your name?”

And on that I kept on walking, all the while laughing to myself.

Example 2: This is a favorite of mine–and I think especially relevant in light of the recent Ben & Jerry’s Fortune Cooke Ice Cream, as it pertains to food.

My dear friends Nutt and Mother sac and I went out to a nice lounge/club. As we were hanging out near the bar, an African American guy approached us. He seemed very nice and easy-going and was asking where we were from, or rather what was our ethnicity/race? We each replied differently, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese.

After enlightening him with our ancestry, I see a light dawn in his eyes, as if he has realized a great and amazing thing–and he proceeds to share this genius realization by saying, “Oh wow thats cool! You guys are all kind of like FRIED RICE”  (insert crickets chirping. I assume or rather, I presume to think he thought himself clever to comment on our “diverse” ethnic backgrounds and how since we are all hanging out together, just like the Chinese dish fried rice, we are the different ingredients…so say, i am shrimp, jenn is egg and keiko is the rice…or maybe i am the egg…)

Heh, again, the ole meek me would politely state “uhh…okayy..” and maybe smile or laugh it off.

Oh dear emboldening liquid, red bull and vodka, you are a liberator of pent-up come-backs.

Immediately after hearing his fried rice take on us, I rejoindered in with a magnanimous smile and a knife-like glint in my eyes, “OH!…I see, so that means you would be like fried chicken and watermelon right?”

His face fell and morphed from smugly amused with himself and his clever comment, to mortified seriousness–“Um…oh… I’m sorry, did I offend you?” he asked.

With my beatific smile ever pasted on my face, I brightly replied, “Oh no! What do you mean? I’m just saying the same thing you said, you know…So if we are Fried Rice cuz we’re different asians and all, then that means you must be fried chicken right?”

He apologized again and then siddled away. Ahh what a glorious feeling 🙂  Poor guy–I know he was not trying to be mean or malicious–but he falls into the category I name Lazy Racist or rather…a Non-Aware racist (i.e. it never truly crosses his mind that hes being racist but when the tables are flipped, only then does he realize how racist of a comment it is.)

And isn’t that what life in the bigger picture is all about? Learning how to relate and empathize with those OUTSIDE of your own bubble world, or learning to step into someone else’s shoes. I like to think so. And that is why I enjoy eating different foods and traveling–and meeting new people–all are unique opportunities to get a glimpse of something different than what you already know 🙂