It happened 3 months ago. As my daughter and I exited the car and started walking toward the pool entrance, I heard it.
It was a strange thing to hear in the middle of our area of Atlanta, where people of Japanese descent make up only about 0.3% of the population.
“Konichiwa!” it came again. And then again.
I surveyed the area. A Black boy around 11-12 years old, sitting among a group of Black kids and chaperones in matching red YMCA T-shirts, was lobbing this word toward us from the other side of the chain-link fence with great amusement. I pretended not to notice, pretended to look for something in my pool bag as we continued to walk along the fence toward the front gate.
But the female chaperone who saw me wasn’t fooled. “Stop!” she snapped at the young boy. “She can hear you.” My heart sank.
Actually, my heart was pounding as we approached reception to check in. The group of YMCA campers was preparing to depart, and I had seconds to consider my options. I could let the whole thing go, or I could take a risk and address it head-on.
After weighing the cost of each decision, I walked over and introduced myself to the female counselor, Yolanda, who was bringing up the rear. She looked a bit taken aback at first, but when I asked her if she would be willing to introduce me to the child who had been yelling “konichiwa” at us, she said, “Sure,” and led me to the group of students and chaperones, probably about 12 people in all, now congregated outside the front gate.
“Where’s Tyrone?” she asked the group. One of the adult male counselors looked over and saw me with Yolanda. A knowing look spread across his face and he said, “Oh.” Several voices started calling for Tyrone, and then several sets of hands pushed him forward from the back of the group until he was standing right in front of me. All eyes were on us.
He looked mortified as I introduced myself to him. The top of his head was no higher than my nose, and he was staring at the ground.
“Were you the one yelling ‘konichiwa’ at us?” I asked him.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
Yolanda instructed him, “Look at her.” Very timidly, Tyrone looked up at me and made eye contact.
“Can I tell you how it made me feel and why?”
“I know. I’m sorry,” he said. He dropped his gaze again.
I continued, “‘Konichiwa’ means ‘hello’ in Japanese, but I’m not Japanese. I’m of Taiwanese descent, but I was born and raised in America, and my primary language is English. It’s important to learn to treat people with respect and not based only on the way they look.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry.”
I gently put my hand on his shoulder, smiled at him, and said, “It’s ok. I forgive you. I know you probably get treated a certain way sometimes just because of the way you look too. Take care, ok?”
As we walked back toward the pool, my daughter, who had only caught bits and pieces of the conversation, asked me, “What was that all about? Did he say a bad word?”
“No. ‘Konichiwa’ isn’t a bad word. It just means ‘hello’ in Japanese. And he was yelling it at us over and over.”
“Why was he doing that?”
“Because sometimes when people see an Asian person, they assume that person is from another country. Or they think that all Asian people are the same and speak all Asian languages – whether it’s Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or something else – even though we don’t.”
She frowned and said, “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“You’re right, it doesn’t make any sense.”
My daughter jumped into the pool, and I made my way over to one of the chairs. I concentrated on slowing my breathing and managing the residual effects of the adrenaline that was still coursing through my veins. My hands shook as I fumbled with my keys and my phone. I laid my head against the back of the chair and closed my eyes. I knew I was going to need to take it easy the rest of the day, but all things considered, that incident concluded on as positive a note as it could have.
There was a time I would have ignored the whole incident and – as the saying goes in Mandarin (a language I actually do speak) – eaten bitterness (吃苦). I would have dismissed him and the entire group he was a part of as people unworthy of my time and energy. In other words, I would have dealt with my pain by objectifying and, to some extent, dehumanizing them. In doing so, I would have missed seeing them.
But there’s a flip side to not seeing people: we prevent them from seeing us as well. When I looked into Tyrone’s face and he looked into mine, when he heard my voice and I heard his, we became real to one another. I was able to see him as a child who, like all children, need teaching, loving correction, and guidance from time to time. He was able to see that his uninformed actions hurt a fellow human being with feelings.
Another facet of this story is that I’ve been in active recovery – repentance, really – from anti-Black prejudice for the past 5 years, getting in touch with and dislodging subconscious beliefs in my own heart about Black inferiority. I had no idea how deep it ran until I entered true community with African Americans and other Black people in Atlanta. The virtuous opinion I previously had of myself as a fair-minded individual didn’t stand up very well under real-life testing. That virtue is something I’ve had to work toward through unabashed acknowledgment of whatever previously undiscovered ick bubbles to the surface.
When Tyrone was yelling “konichiwa” at my daughter and me, I was tempted to go to a dark place. I really was. In that moment, though, it was the relationships I have with my friends Jinaki, Chanequa, LaToya, and others, who are all raising sons, that anchored me in a healthier, love-filled space where Tyrone’s humanity and child status remained intact. The mutual love present in these friendships is what enabled me to approach Tyrone as I would have approached one of their sons. When I least expected it, that love multiplied itself into the world and redeemed what would otherwise have been just another damaging encounter.
Love won that day, proving itself to be more powerful than pain. It enabled Tyrone and me to see each other.