Reclaiming 5 Ugly Letters
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because, unfortunately, we all knew kids like Jeff.
The first time someone called me a chink, I was 11 and in love. His name was Jeff. He had sandy hair, green eyes and a smile that made grown women blush. He was a star player in our local Pop Warner football league. If you were lucky enough to wear his letterman jacket for a day, that meant you probably made out with him behind the cubbies and maybe let him get to second base.
I’d been secretly crushing on him for years. So when our teachers ordered him to the front of the class one day and sat him at a desk facing mine, I couldn’t believe my luck. I could smell the Doublemint gum on his breath. Summer had just ended and his hair was full of gold. He sat down.
“The fuck you looking at, Chink?”
He pulled his eyelids back and said, “Ah-SO!” His friends laughed, pretended to fall off their chairs.
Thus began the Get-the-Chink campaign of 1981, led by Jeff and waged by nearly the entire sixth grade in Middletown, New Jersey. I had known Jeff and the other kids since first grade. Some of them had been my friends. But it was as if suddenly they realized that in our nearly all-white school, in our nearly all-white town, I was the only Asian kid — hence fresh meat for bullying.
“Hey, Chinky! Nice floods. Where’s the flood?”
“Did you bring dog meat for lunch again, Chink?”
“Ching-chong, ching-chong! What did I just say, Chink?”
They tried to make me do karate by kicking me. They placed tacks on my chair. People had shouted “Learn to drive, Chink!” at my dad, usually before giving him the finger. The thing is, no one had ever said the word to me before. When Jeff said it, it was as if he had laser beams in his eyes that could reveal to everyone how ugly and despicable I was because I was Chinese. To think I had just started liking being Chinese.
I had skipped most of fifth grade because my parents sent me to Taiwan. They wanted me, their only daughter, an ABC (American Born Chinese), to live there, get to know my extended family, study Chinese and learn “what it means to be Chinese.” I loved living in Taipei; my relatives, especially my cousins; the noisy streets; the food; the night markets. I loved that everyone looked like me. In Taiwan, they put me in third grade. I wore a school uniform. I didn’t mind. I made new friends. I didn’t want to come home.
Back in New Jersey, that first day of sixth grade, my teachers introduced me as “Sharline, who just returned from Taiwan.” No one welcomed me back. Not even my friends. I was the new kid. A foreigner. A FOB. Those first weeks I couldn’t remember how to speak English, couldn’t write. My father helped me with essays. This was around the time Jeff called me a chink. Every day after school I would go home and cry. One day, my mother caught me.
My mother: Zen me le?
Me: The kids at school call me names.
My mother: Shenme names?
Me: They called me chink.
My mother: You know what that means?
Me: It means I’m Chinese.
My mother: So? You are Chinese. Why should you feel bad?
I didn’t have an answer.
That year I spent hours alone with my poodle Charlie watching lots of TV. I would lose myself, wishing I was one of those happy white people on The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, The Facts of Life. One day a new kid showed up: Larry Ganguly, a Southeast Asian Indian boy. He was dark and chubby, and he stuttered. At first they crucified him. Called him the N-word. Made whooping noises because they thought he was Native American.
Just as Jeff was about to call me “Chink,” I grabbed my milk carton and threw it.
I was no longer at the bottom. But then Larry proved to be good at basketball, so Jeff and his boys took him in. One day Larry turned to me and said, “Shut up, Chink, or I’ll kick your ass after school!” That’s when I knew I was back in the gutter. On Mischief Night someone had soaked a roll of toilet paper in gasoline, lit it on fire and threw it into the pine trees lining our house. If it weren’t for the firefighters, our house would’ve burned to the ground.
After that, I snapped one day during lunch. Just as Jeff was about to call me “Chink,” I grabbed my milk carton and threw it. He fell over, soaked, and landed on his pinky. His friends rushed over.
“Oh my God, Sharline just did kung fu on him!”
“She broke his pinky, look!”
The teacher sent him to the principal’s office, and for a second I felt high.
By middle school, Jeff moved away. I was placed in the honors track and never shared a class with those kids again. For years, I couldn’t think back on sixth grade too closely. But a few weeks ago, I watched the first episode of Fresh Off the Boat — a sitcom about parents from Taiwan and their American-born son’s struggles with racism in a nearly all-white school in Orlando. I heard the word “chink” on primetime TV for the first time, and all my memories returned.
Watching that scene made me feel as if an invisible part of my life had finally been made visible.
Yes, the “chink scene” in Fresh Off the Boat is problematic in its own ways. Even though a white boy calls Eddie Huang “Ying Ming” and says his noodles smell “nasty,” it’s the school’s only black kid, Walter, who ends up calling Eddie a chink for the first time. “You’re at the bottom now,” he says. Walter then becomes the show’s sole object of violence as Eddie, a rabid hip-hop fan who wears T-shirts with black men on them, proceeds to kick Walter’s ass. Still, for a moment, watching that scene made me feel as if an invisible part of my life had finally been made visible.
Maybe somewhere out there is a 45-year-old Jeff who watched that episode, too, maybe with his own kid. Maybe it triggered a memory in him. Maybe not. All I know is, in the real world, Asian American kids still get picked on for being Asian. I like to think that the show helps them feel a little less alone. Like it does for the 11-year-old who still lives inside me.
This story was modified from an earlier version.