I found myself crying as I heard different words hurled at me on the bus. Words such as “Chink,” “Jap,” and “Gook,” were used by the other kids because they thought it might hurt me. They probably didn’t know when and how the words originated (and I didn’t either for a long time), but in the fifth grade, I knew that these words were created by non-Asians to mock and hurt us. That was the fifth grade…
It was the first day of class and I was in first grade at an elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee. Right off the bat, I knew that I was in for a difficult time. Although my father was an English teacher in South Korea and had taught me a few phrases in English, I barely knew the language; however, I knew that whatever the white and black kids were saying to me while laughing weren’t words of welcome.
So I beat them up. That was what I used to do in Korea. I was always the shortest boy and in order to not be at the bottom of the social ladder, I used to fight anyone and everyone on the block who thought they could laugh at me or mock me. With time, I became a good fighter because I was ferocious and didn’t stop until the other boys ran away. Unfortunately, I wasn’t in Korea anymore and you weren’t allowed to beat up the other kids. I remember a time in which one boy was walking with his sister on the same side of the street that I was walking on with my mother. As we exchanged looks, the boy and his older sister quickly crossed to the other side of the street in order to avoid walking by me. I could see the look of fear on his face as he hurried to get away from me. I think my mom asked me why they did that and while I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember feeling quite smug inside. I got into a few more fights before my teacher complained to my parents and told them to make me stop fighting. With that began the erosion of my fighting spirit.
So here I was, the once ferocious fighter, on the bus, letting these elementary and middle school kids (all of whom I knew because I lived in a little town of 2,500) call me racial slurs. By that time, my mostly proud ferocious Korean spirit had disappeared. By that time, I knew I was different from everyone else. I didn’t hate myself, but I remember thinking that it would have been better to have been white than Asian. Not that I hated Asians or being Asian, but I felt that it would have been better to be like everyone else. At first, when the kids started to call me names, I just pretended that it didn’t phase me. Well, it was more than pretend because I thought I was tough and that names couldn’t hurt me. But when I started feeling the tears come down my face, I was surprised. My body was doing something I didn’t expect and something I had previously not allowed it to do. Boys don’t cry! I certainly didn’t cry. After I felt the tears roll down my face, I experienced the emotions that had caused them. Insecurity, sadness, isolation – I was feeling all these things as someone who was different in America in 1974. I just didn’t know I felt this way before. I didn’t know just how sad and lonely I felt until I was forced to face reality.
When I got off the bus, I went to my classroom and I put my head down and cried. I remember the teacher asking the other students what was wrong with me. I remember one of the students, a girl who had a funny last name (I think her name was Kim Fudge), trying to console me by saying she understood because kids made fun of her last name. While I’m sure the trauma that I experienced is the reason I don’t remember much else from that day, I do have a clear memory of seeing my little brother crying as he got off the bus as well. He had to watch all this happen to his older brother that he loved and looked up to.
Four years later, I hear from a student from my little brother’s six grade class that my little brother had gone through the same thing that had happened to me in the fifth grade. Some of his classmates had taunted him with racial slurs as well. I was so angry that my little brother, whom it was my job to protect, had gone through the same experience that I had endured a few years previously. I was so mad that I asked a friend to take me to the homes of the kids that had hurt my brother so that I could beat them up (I was 15 at the time and didn’t have a driver’s license let alone a car). While it made me angry at the time that my friend knew what had happened and refused to take me, I know now that it was probably better that he didn’t take me to beat up a few kids that were three years younger than me.
When my parents found out about what happened to my little brother, they quickly came to school and talked to the principal. The principal also told them about the incident that occurred to me a few years back and afterwards, my parents asked me why I never told them about what had happened.
I realize now that the reason I didn’t tell my parents about the name calling and many other challenges that I’ve gone through in life was because they taught me early on that boys do not cry about life’s difficulties. My parents raised me to be tough and I was embarrassed to let them see me so weak. Even now, as a grown-up, I cannot bring myself to share any hurt or pain that I have experienced when my mother asks me to share what is happening in my life. Whether I was being bullied by my co-workers or had a bad break-up with a girlfriend, I didn’t know how to tell my mother about these moments of hurting inside. This is how she raised me to be and I can’t help that.
Over the years, I sometimes think about that incident on the bus and I think that moment was the beginning of my vision quest. It is what has led me to look for myself when I went to college, to feel the anger at incidents like what happened to Vincent Chin, and to feel outrage time and time again at injustice. America is unsympathetic to the racism, hate crimes and xenophobia that is blatantly directed towards Asian/Pacific Islanders. I’ve had to work hard to claim my Asian American identity and I guess that is why it is so precious to me. Growing up in the Midwest, it would have been easy to be like many other Asian Americans, white-washed or accepting of the status quo, but I couldn’t let myself do that.
In order to understand myself better, I found books that helped me understand why I was the way I am (meaning how I fit into the broader context of American history and society as an Asian American) and I would devour the words from these books and embrace them as a religious person would their bible or holy words. One such book was Roots: An Asian American Reader, edited by Kim Tachiki and published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. It was published in 1971, but when I found it in 1987, it was still an amazing beacon for lost Asian Americans who were looking for a community to belong to. I still remember a humorous article by an Asian American female college student who wrote why she wouldn’t date Asian men (It seems humorous to me now but I don’t think I found it humorous back then). There were also stories by Asian Americans who held “revolutionary” ideas and I was strongly inspired and mesmerized by their strong words of defiance.
If I didn’t experience the racism and identity issues that I went through, I probably wouldn’t have followed the path that I am on now. I often tell people that I didn’t choose this path – who would want to lead a life filled with anger? However, my path has also led me to meet some amazing people like Yuri Kochiyama, Stewart Kwoh, Angela Oh, Susan Ahn Cuddy, and Sammy Lee as well as allowed me the opportunity to do some amazing things such as helping shape the Asian American student movement in the Midwest when I was a student.
So here I am today, the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Dispute Resolution Center, trying to shape race relations, not with protests, loud words, and violence like the younger me might have, but with dialogue and understanding. Although I think that there are times when you must speak up and speak loudly, sometimes it’s the soft words and patience that has the strongest impact..