I’m Chinese. It’s an immediate and obvious identifier if we’re meeting face to face. My entire life, this has been my first impression and I am fine with that. I daresay that I’m proud of it. When I was married, I did not change my family name because my Chinese name had become such a part of my identity that I couldn’t imagine being called by any other. And nor did I want to be.
Most of the time, I don’t really think about my race. Actually, that’s not true at all. Painfully self-conscious at times, I would say that I think about my race about as much as I think about my face, and the impression it is giving people because it is a corporeal part of me. When well-meaning friends have told me, “Most of the time, I forget that you’re even Chinese,” it feels a little offensey. To me, it’s like they’re saying, hey, you know that unique and special snowflake hat that you wear? Yeah, I don’t even notice that.
The other time that my race is conspicuous to me occurs when I’m visiting a location that is less diverse than Big City Toronto where I live. Most of the time, I’m the one to point out and make a big deal of the fact that I’m the only non-white around. On a recent visit to Smalltown, Ontario, I did make myself the (flat) butt of many a joke about dry cleaners and masseuses, but it also made me recall a few not-so-funny occasions.
Growing up, I can remember a few schoolyard taunts of “Hey, Ching Chang Chong!” and many times being asked if I was Chinese or Japanese (because there are no other choices), but it never really bothered me. Even then I chalked it up to just kids not knowing better. I remember visiting New York City with my family and being addressed as Suzie Wong, or simply, “Conichiwa!”. Some guy told me to say hi to Emperor Hirohito. Again, shrugged off similar to how a redhead might after being called “Red”.
Then one day in university, while accompanying a friend to a government office, a woman very directly told me to “Go back to your own fucking country!”. My reaction was abject confusion. But, this is my country, I remember thinking. I was born here. Shocked into muteness, it was my Caucasian companion who delivered some choice words of rebuke to the woman. Me, I just didn’t know how to react.
Then a few years ago, while crossing the street in the neighbourhood where I now live, a man on the adjacent crosswalk yelled out, “Hey chink, you stink!”. Again, my reaction was complete brain freeze. Does he mean me, I thought. Clearly yes because there weren’t a lot of other people around, save my husband at the time, who is white. As I stared at the guy, watching him weave and stumble, clearly drunk, he repeated the taunt, “You stink, chink!” I honestly had no idea what to do or say, but felt like the outburst warranted some kind of reaction. My husband pulled me along, telling me to ignore the guy.
But how can you ignore something like that? I realize that in that moment, nothing could be done. And neither would it have been worth it. In fact, the audience for this blog will not be the one who could most benefit from a bit of education on the matter. So, what is the point?
As I think about my experiences with racism, and how my daughter will probably go through similar things, I realize that it’s not about race at all, but rather dealing with mean people in general. People are hurting and think that making other people hurt will help them feel better. This is what I’ll tell my kid to prepare her for the not-so-nice things she’ll face in this Big Bad World. My own ugly life experiences have been relatively easy as pie. Hers might be worse. What’s certain is that she’ll be facing some nastiness, as we all do. What’s important is that she knows how to deal and will come out kicking. And with jokes. Always jokes.
Originally posted November 12, 2012