Okay, let’s get real. I’ve been on an epic quest to find my inner Miss Dignified Ease for a long time because, well – Who doesn’t want to be a superior (wo)man? But it’s been kind of elusive. Not in the way peace, safety, happiness, and basic human decency are to the characters in “The Walking Dead,” but more in a “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” sort of way, like when King Arthur encounters the French soldier who taunts him from the top of a castle:
“I blow my nose at you so-called Arthur King, you and all your silly English conniggets! Pthththt…. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries. Now go away or I shall taunt you a second time.”
As a kid, I felt neither superior nor ordinary. As a teen, I was rarely at ease. And even into adulthood, my ongoing reach for a sense of “dignifiedness” was like trying to buy something with Monopoly money. Feelings of dignity, ease, and dignified ease were a rare currency, since, as an American-born child of Taiwanese immigrants, my baseline sense of existence felt like an inseparable chocolate-vanilla swirl of conspicuousness and invisibility.
I envied my white American counterparts for their easy confidence, their comfort in their own skin. Oh, and also for their amazing hair. My homemade haircuts were a bit more rustic. I was fascinated by their sense of ownership of the space around them. They didn’t feel the need to know my name the way my neurotic self felt obligated to know not only their names, but also their stories, their petty annoyances, and the things that ingratiated them. I studied them the way I studied for tests, as if at any moment, I would be called upon to produce facts that were essential for a decent grade. Because you know, I’m Asian, and that’s what we do, right? I wanted to be one of them. If I had known about bucket lists back then, “become a white person” would have been on it.
But I could no more become one of them than manage to look elegant in a dress tailored to fit Scarlett Johansson’s body. I was reminded of the impossibility whenever one of them snickered at my parents’ broken English, or asked me, “How do you say that in Chinese?” I felt my head hit the bamboo ceiling as early as seventh grade when eighth grader Patrick Jameson* called my 2 best friends at the time, Kathy and Lauren, “chinks” and stalkers as they walked by his house one Saturday on the way back from a neighborhood errand. Refusing to be diminished on Patrick’s terms, Kathy harnessed her inner Angry Asian Woman and retorted, “I’m Japanese. I’m a Jap, not a Chink. Get your racial slurs straight, you idiot.” Pretty good for a seventh grader. Poor Kathy had been nursing a crush on him, but needless to say, the encounter snuffed out her affections the way you might expect Yao Ming’s court shoe to squash a cockroach.
When the girls told me on Monday what had happened over the weekend, it was like finding out my name had been added to a burn book that I didn’t even know existed. Justified or not, whatever hope I might have had about blending in with or being accepted by the cool white kids evaporated. In its place, a nagging, self-conscious paranoia settled in that continually made me wonder if “chink” was how they all saw us.
*not his real name