One evening when I lived in Fargo, ND, I walked to a nearby gas station to purchase snacks to satisfy my evening munchies. Cheap cookies and pickle chips in hand, I returned to our apartment complex and walked past a group of male college students standing on a balcony. One of them bellowed down at me.
What he hollered wasn't an admiring whistle or a "hello," and it wasn't a crude, sexual remark. In hindsight, I almost wish it had been. He yelled something along the lines of "Ching chang ching chong," a sing-song, mishmash of sounds mocking an Asian language. I stopped and peered up at them, wondering if I had heard him correctly. The students nervously laughed.
"Are you f*****g serious?" I exclaimed, raising both of my hands into the air. One of the men shouted, "I'm sorry! My friend's an idiot." My face scrunched with hurt and I walked towards the front door, middle finger raised in the air with "I'm sorry's" following me into the building. I stormed into our apartment and angrily told my husband what happened.
"Let's go find them!" I shouted.
"And do what?" he asked.
"I don't know," I replied and paused before adding, "Make them feel really bad?"
Afterwards, I curled up on my bed and cried angry tears. Even though I'm almost 30-years-old, one would think I'd be immune to this by now.
Hardly so. It still hurts and it still makes me cry.
I grew up in the southern suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN. Although this area is known for its large number of Korean adoptees, we were more than outnumbered. I remember the first time someone mocked my Asian eyes at recess on the elementary school playground. A girl caught my attention because she was pulling the outsides of her eyelids into a grotesque squint. I looked around and wondered if she was referring to me and my stomach sank when I realized she was.
In middle school, a classmate compared my face to his smushed bag of potato chips and then he stole my lunch money. I pinched him as hard as I could, trying to hide my embarrassment. I left a red mark on his arm but it didn't make me feel any better. In fact, it only made me feel worse.
These early years were punctuated with the garden variety of schoolyard name calling, while high school incorporated teen hormones. Before my sophomore year of high school, I broke up with a classmate I had dated for a few weeks. He responded by sending me an email demanding I leave his country and added the United State's immigration policy should be restricted to ban people like me from entering the country. I quickly deleted it, though I regret that I never got to reply, "But, I'm adopted." Although I told a few of my classmates what happened, two dated him that same year. There must have been something enticing about the sweet smell of teen spirit and racism.
I'm not sure if this was better or worse than the men who seemed to pursue me just because I was Asian. Just last year, I found myself in an awkward situation at a party where an East Asian Studies major followed me around asking me questions about anime and kimchee. He tossed Korean phrases at me from across the table, even though informed him that I did not speak the language. Finally, he gave up and resignedly stated, "You're from here, aren't you." All I could do was nod.
When you're picked on or picked out, everyone guides you to take the "high road." They might allude to that sticks-and-stones saying that never made anyone feel anything except shame for feeling bad about feeling bad. Until recently, I responded by keeping my head down and walking away. "Just ignore them. Eventually, they'll go away," the grown-ups always said. I'm still waiting.
I'm not sure I took the highest road that other night when I responded to those college students on the balcony. My middle finger sign-off may have been overkill, but I don't regret finding my voice and saying something. As an adult, I've grown more accepting of the Asianness of my narrower eyes and broad nose bridge. I've stopped lightening my dark hair and using chemicals to make it curl. I'm finding it easier to take pride in my Korean heritage and forgive those who created lasting wounds. After all, I'd hate to be defined by the unkind things I've said and done during moments where I lacked the same self-awareness. Minority and majority, we've all been mocked and we've all perpetrated acts of unkindness.
The "ching chang ching chong's" and "Where are you from's?" may never stop, but hopefully, within the next 29 years, it will be easier to find the balance between hanging my head in shame and completely losing my s**t. I'll learn how to stay in the moment and respond to situations as they occur, rather than hours later. I'll channel the wit of my inner Liz Lemon and Chelsea Handler and hope that as I continue to find my voice, I'll do so with increasing grace.