This story is by Phoebe Del Rosario and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
In grade school she would have weekly fights with boys who would say her Asian face made them throw up. Her teacher never believed the fights ever happened especially since it was the boys who complained about a girl. It was the first time she was physically punched for being Asian. Alone in her fight, she was afraid of more retaliation. She said nothing and the teacher turned a blind eye.
In music club she was the only one who could play the piano. A year later the music teacher and another student sought her out. Finding her alone the teacher scolded her, “Someone told me that you didn’t want to be in the club and that you didn’t want to play the piano anymore. Why didn’t you tell me? Why did I have to find out from someone else? That’s not a nice thing you did.” She loved being in the music club, she loved playing piano, she loved performing. Hurt and the injustice of the accusations kept her silent.
“Were you born in America or at home?”
“I was born in America.”
“Oh, but you’re still Asian. You look like one.”
For the school play she was told she couldn’t play the princess because she was Asian. Five weeks later, she stood in front of a crowd of parents and teachers schooling them as the friar instead. Being a model student meant the lines of acceptability were blurred, but still present.
In her new school, she was expected to excel like all the other Asians. She needed to know all about Japanese, Chinese, and Korean cultures otherwise she wasn’t really Asian. Having grown up the only Asian in her school and community, there were limits to her knowledge. Like a weed amongst a perfectly arranged flowerbed, she once again became a single eyesore needing to be pluck lest more like her appear.
“Do you speak the language?”
“No not really.”
“Oh, then you’re not really one of us.”
In college the expectation was to be with your own kind. She went to a smaller college and that meant people who looked like her. In the summers she attended larger universities and ‘your own kind’ depended on how you defined it. The possibility of not being tied down to a race gave her unrestrained hope. She fed on it like nectar.
“What do you usually eat?”
“Pasta, maybe a burger, or salad if I want to feel healthy.”
“So you don’t eat our food?”
“Oh, then you’re more American.”
“I’ve always been American.”
Travel and exploration of her world both local and distant opened her mind to both the good and bad of having her face. Dialogues and exchanges of opinions and views burst forth like a bloom in Spring signaling a new season of possibility.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from here.”
“No, where are you from?”
“What’s your nationality?”
“My nationality is American.”
“You know what I mean.”
“My ethnic background is Filipino.”
“That’s right. Do you like living in America?”
“I’ve lived in California all my life.”
As a working adult, the dialogue hadn’t changed. Attempts to update the conversation were met with resistance. “Oh, you’re one of those people.” Forcing down the urge to speak out against the ignorance and intolerance only builds the resentment of needing the job, but it must be done – always.
“It was so disgusting. I suppose it’s a cultural thing. It makes me gag thinking about what he did. So gross.”
“So you’re calling a cultural thing disgusting?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“One person is not the spokesperson for an entire culture.”
Back in mid-March 2020, while waiting for a coffee in a crowded coffee shop, a new form of the same dialogue had emerged. A group of teenagers turned to mock a family of Asians standing behind them.
“Get your chink-coronavirus outta here! We don’t have your bat food here.” The group giggled, high-fiving themselves for knowing about the bats. The Asian family looked uncomfortable but stood their ground and waited quietly to order food and coffee.
“What, you don’t speak Engrrish?” the teenagers mocked some more. “Wah-wah-chee-chee-chong.” The teenagers laughed loudly.
She took a step towards them, displeased and eager to tell them off for their racist comments.
“Don’t talk to them like that,” she said with an unexpected intensity.
“Mind your own business dwarf.”
“I might be short, but you’re being racist. You need to stop.”
“Fuck you bitch.”
“Yes, let’s resort to name calling. There’s no reason to be like this.”
“I don’t need no reason to speak my truth.”
“Yo, dude just leave the bitch alone,” his friend said, “she’ll probably get her ass raped for being a dumb bitch.”
“Can we at least try to understand each other and get along,” she said frustrated.
“Sure ho, once you and your ugly chink people go back to where they came from.”
“I was born here!”
“Don’t look like it to me.”
“Why are you like this?”
“Because you fuckers are takin’ over my hood and I’m tired of all the ching-chong everywhere.”
“How can you-”
“SHUT THE FUCK UP BITCH! I’M TIRED OF YOU!”
She fell to the ground clutching her face. It was hot and wet. Dizzy thoughts tried to pull her back to the present, to the coffee shop, to the family being abused. But the pain kept her on the floor, the pain urged her to get up, the pain told her what happened was wrong.
The entire room was in an uproar. Shouting, yelling, screaming. Shoes scuffled on the tiled floor, fabric ripped and teared, children cried. A pause, then running until the sounds became distant. Car doors slammed, tires screeched, and all that was left was sobbing and sirens.
They didn’t find the teenagers involved, but as regulars they were bound to show up again. She was told a few of the patrons stepped in as soon as she was hit. No serious injuries, just a shake up of nerves and a stand for justice. It fed her hope.
She could never be limited to playing nice to ignorance and intolerance again. How could she? Allowing those constraints would restrain growth and understanding. She knew now she wasn’t alone in those beliefs and that made her spirit stronger. One day people will rise-up like a wave of unending fortitude and the fighting will stop, acceptance will be normal, and racism will be a word used less and less over time. And with that single-minded thought we can become stronger, greater, and nobler together. It can be achieved. Not in a day, not in a year, but by individuals in boundless pursuit.