I was born almost 24 years ago in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. I lived most of my life up till now in the snapshot of middle-America nicknamed the "Buckeye State". Two car garage. Large back yard. Trees practically made for climbing. Friendly neighbors.
I joined the cub scouts where I learned to tie knots and to "Be Prepared." I joined little league where I learned team spirit and that perhaps baseball wasn't the sport for me (I was a perpetual right fielder - I think we all know what that means.) My family and I sat down to dinner with each other at just about the same time, just about every day. My childhood summers were spent playing basketball in friends' driveways and running through sprinklers; winters involved lobbing snowballs and hoping (naively) for snow days. I woke up early Saturday mornings and plopped myself in front of the TV with a bowl of cereal because, back in those days, Saturday morning cartoons were still worth watching.
I said the Pledge of Allegiance every day at school and went to church every Sunday. I did my homework, earned good grades and always said my prayers.
Reaching adolescence I was fairly comfortable with my identity. I was fairly popular and well-liked at school, an amiable youth that always made people laugh. My parents said I was American. My upbringing, strikingly similar to that of most of my friends, told me I was American. The Constitution of the United States guaranteed that I was American (though I didn't learn that till a couple of years later.)
Imagine my shock the first time someone told me that I wasn't.
That's what they were saying, you see. My peers who slanted their eyes and flattened their noses when I passed; who chanted "ching chong! ching chong!" though my English was just as good as theirs or better. They were saying I was different. That, through some trick of family lineage, I was inherently inferior. That, though America and American life was all I knew, I did not belong here.
I was thirteen the first time someone called me "chink". Looking back I feel lucky to have made it that long. At the time my only protest was that I wasn't Chinese, I was Filipino, as if that mattered to them. I learned that for my tormentors the words "chink", "jap" and "gook" were all code for the same thing: misfit Asian who would always in all ways be less than them. And the real tragedy of the situation was after months and years of repeating this lie, they got me believing it too.
I scanned the others in my school and for the first time it mattered that no one looked like me. I searched first my neighborhood and then, in desperation, the television for a face that reflected my own. I began looking into the mirror every morning cursing my fate for being born a few shades too dark with facial features vaguely human but somehow strangely off. I deserved their mistreatment, I started to believe, their scorn. The idea that America and its highly touted Dream might not be meant for me fermented in my mind. Along with this came the disturbing realization that if I didn't belong here, I truly didn't belong anywhere.
It took me ten years and some truly amazing individuals to finally overcome the insecurity and self-hatred that grew from those poisonous seeds. I'm finally able to say I'm proud of the skin I was born in and of the cultural legacy I've inherited (both from my parents and from the society in which I grew up.) As a college graduate at the beginnings of "career" and "real life" I have not quite found my place but for the first time in a very long time I'm confident that there is indeed one for me here.
While who I am today is very different from that young and frightened kid that I was, at times it still feels like the world is the same. With saddening frequency I still run into the kind of ignorance and spite I faced in adolescence, steeped in the same exact language containing the same exact lie. Eliciting, perhaps surprisingly, the same exact pain.
Ethnic slurs and "ching-chong" chants mean today what they meant then: Asians are less. Asians are different. Asians are perpetual foreigners who will never truly be American. We are all immigrants, no matter how long we and our families have lived here. We eat strange food and we observe strange customs. We are not American.
I'm stronger now, and smarter. I've armored myself in perspective, in facts and in common sense. No amount of preparation or knowledge, however, seem to provide adequate defense against these epithets. Sometimes thrown so casually, these ghostly bullets quickly bypass all reasoned and logical barriers to strike at the flesh below. Shock pours from the wound, and horror. Amazement, confusion and so much rage stream out with abandon and it takes all of my wit and will to restrain my tightening fists. The hurt, by now so familiar, settles in later.