John Wayne taught me to fight.
My father, however, taught me, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
I objected. “No! But it does hurt. He shouldn’t say mean things to me. I didn’t do anything to him.”
I collapsed my folded elbows on the table in a huff, my chin resting on crossed wrists, scowling. We sat around the small kitchen table that straddled the divide between the coarse yellow-brown carpet of the living room, and the beige vinyl of the alley kitchen, a single bulb lighting our faces from above.
My father shrugged his freckly white shoulders. “Tell those kids,” he answered, “that you were born in this country, and you’re American, just like they are. Tell them that your dad is white.”
My mother, her almond eyes trained patiently on my father’s as she waited for his decree, accepted his judgment with a nod. Because she had immigrated as an adult, her childhood experience was vastly different. She did not know to expect that her daughter would experience racism. Instead, she would ask, her dark-olive face knit with concern, if the other children teased me for being poor. Which they did—but that was the least of my worries being that the other low-income children also rejected me for my ethnicity.
“Tell them,” was her advice, “that your grandfather was great man. Rich. So rich he built a church! But war took his money. Tell them! Okay? Let them know!”
Tell them, said my mother, that under different circumstances you would have been something other than who you are—something more deserving of respect. Tell them, said my father, that the American half of you makes the other half palatable.
In second grade I was a little girl in black pigtails and plastic-framed glasses who played alone at recess. He was a little boy with brown hair and blue eyes, his puffy blue jacket contrasting with his pale complexion. The first time we had passed on the playground, his eyes lit up with such delight I thought I finally had a friend. The boy laughed gleefully, and from then on I had company every single afternoon recess.
He was from a different class so I didn’t know his name, but he was certain mine was either “Ching-ching-China,” or “Chink.” He would run up, pulling back his eyes while babbling in imitation of Asian languages, and shout, “Go back to your country!”
I tried, “I am not Chinese; I am Korean,” and “I was born in this country so this is my country,” but those arguments did nothing to undermine his complete confidence that I looked different, and those that look different do not belong here.
I tried, “Go away.”
To which he would respond, “You go away. Go away to your country.”
I tried, “You’re stupid.”
He would answer with, “I know you are, but what am I?”
This was an retort I could never use against him, since he wasn’t the Gook; I was. Instinctively, I knew that, “White boy!” would not be considered an insult.
“Sticks and stones,” my father repeated each time I complained.
I disagreed. “But he follows me the whole recess! I can’t make him stop, and he won’t leave me alone.”
“Well, did you tell the teachers?”
I had. Several times. They only hushed me and sometimes walked away in the middle of my pleas. After all, it was 1992 and, according to my teachers, racism died in the 60s.
“Well, sometimes you have to fight your own battles,” my father replied.
Sometimes, he meant, no one will care enough to come to your aid.
No matter what tactics I used, the little boy remain undeterred in his torment. Gradually, I stopped fighting and tried to continue with my recess activities. I slunk around the playground, swung on the swings, while my companion followed a few feet behind, shouting and making faces. I came to accept his constant taunting shadow as though he were my conscience on my shoulder—an internal voice who found everything about my heritage morally repulsive. This harassment went on for several weeks, until the night I met John Wayne.
It was an hour or two after bedtime and I had woken up with a burning thirst. I padded half-asleep down a dark hall cushioned with silence to the kitchen for a glass of water. The end of the hall ahead was lit with dancing blue light. I emerged into the living room and, startled by the crack of a loud gunshot, bumped into the kitchen table at my right. On the glowing television set, a black-and-white John Wayne stood across from a crumpled figure, and with a derisive sneer, he barked, “Jackass.”
“Jackass.” The word filled my ears and tingled my brain with awe. “Jackass.” It was an entirely new word for me, and I didn’t really know what it meant, but damn, did I like it.
“Go to bed!” said my dad, suddenly spotting me.
I did, my eyes shining. I had a new weapon.
The next day at school I could not wait for the previously dreaded afternoon recess. I was excited to be called racial slurs. He reported as usual, poor little dummy, with his usual litany. I didn’t let him get very far. With pigtails pointed steadily to the ground and eyes scrunched behind my glasses, I spread my legs in a crouch, planted both feet, and with a ricochet motion of my torso for the most sound projection, I bellowed in my best John Wayne impression: “JACK-AAAASSS!”
I was nervous: maybe my weapon wouldn’t work. Would he know what a “jackass” was? I didn’t. Could you be hurt by a word you didn’t understand? Maybe the boy would simply laugh. Maybe he would say, “I know you are but what am I?”
The boy’s chubby cheeks scrunched and his face crumpled in an explosion of tears.
I was shocked. He had never reacted like that before. For a moment, I was concerned that I had badly hurt him. But on the heels of those two emotions was triumph. The sensation of power filled my chest as, bawling and wailing, he fled.
Right to the teacher.
I was immediately surrounded by chastising women. Where before they had looked at me with indifference, now they looked at me with dark judgment. The feeling of power burst and sunk to the ground, coming to rest in a puddle at my feet.
I was punished. I argued that he had been calling me names like “Ching-ching-China” for weeks, but the teachers spoke over me. I had used a cuss word. And cuss words were very very bad and only used by very very bad people. So bad, my dad was called. He came to the school embarrassed and swore he had not taught me that term: it was the fault of John Wayne and would never happen again.
I was made to apologize to the little boy and sent home for the rest of the day. Whereupon I was sternly lectured by my father.
“Swear words,” he said, “are always inappropriate.”
“But what about, ‘sticks and stones’?” I asked, snotty and hoarse from the many hours of crying.
“Swear words don’t count,” he answered. “If you want people to like you, you have to be nice.”
“But I was nice!” I wailed.
The boy returned next recess. “Ha ha! You used a bad word and got in trouble, Ching-ching-China!”
I walked away and he followed, jeering and taunting.
“What are you going to do about it? Huh? Go back to your country?”
I knew now there was nothing I could do but accept his torment. “Sticks and stones.” I held to my father’s words with a desperate grip. “Sticks and stones.”
But underneath my father’s voice was another: a voice that was new, confused, and unsure. But despite its hesitancy, it spoke in a determined, loud whisper. As the boy and I tread across the playground, this internal conscience peered backwards over my shoulder and sneered,