My friend’s son was upset.
That day, he’d been goofing around with his buds in the crowded halls of his elementary school in Brooklyn, New York, when one of his friends called him a name. The real bad one, one that immediately put the focus on the fact that my friend’s son ― let’s call him Sam ― is Black.
Being called this name shocked Sam. Up until that moment, he’d just been a kid being a goofball with his pals. After that moment, he became The Black Kid.
That night, when my friend was recounting Sam’s hurt and bewilderment to me, I immediately recognized what had happened. It’s what I’ve come to think of as the Record Scratch moment.
All kids can go through this in one form or another, when their lives drastically, heartbreakingly change due to circumstances outside their control. But if you were a kid growing up in America and you’re not white, you almost certainly experienced a particular version of the Record Scratch moment: One moment you’re just a kid, and the next you are a Person of Color.
Yes, there are exceptions, like if you grew up in a community where almost everyone looked like you, or in a United Colors of Benetton ad. (Remember those?) I’m also not going to pretend that my experience of growing up Chinese American was the same as growing up Black in America.
But what I do remember clearly about being the kid who doesn’t look like the other kids is how jarring it feels to discover that the other kids notice it. That they consider you different.
So I explained to my friend, who is white (oh my God, are we three the United Colors of Benetton?!), that having your race called out is pretty much a rite of passage for kids of color in America.
It’s The Moment when you feel the heat of the spotlight on you and your self-perception is forever altered. My friends and family compare notes on these Record Scratch moments when we talk about our experiences of being minorities.
I became Asian at the swimming pool the summer between third and fourth grades.
I was running around with a bunch of other semi-feral kids I had befriended for the day. We were galloping around the pool, jumping in and climbing out and generally having a great time. I was about to cannonball into the water when one of the older kids and his sister approached me.
They walked up to me smirking, giggling, like they had a secret. They were blindingly, hilariously blond. They were pleased with themselves; the glee on their faces would have looked downright Rockwellian at a carnival or in front of a Christmas tree. I had no idea what was coming. But I knew something was coming.
The siblings squinted their eyes, bucked out their top front teeth, and bowed deeply at the waist while making prayer hands. They let out a loud, elongated “Konnichiwaaaaa” before running away cackling, as I continued to stand there, now frozen and humiliated.
I felt exposed.
It wasn’t just that they mocked me with a Japanese word when I am Chinese, reducing me to a general nondescript Asian. It was that I thought we were friends, and then they reduced me to a joke.
When the record scratched, I had a nauseating double vision of myself through their eyes. I had been Louise, the kid who was really good at swimming like a whale. Then, suddenly, I was Louise the Asian.
I immediately wondered if other people noticed I was Asian. The other pool kids continued to splash around, but I wanted out of their gaze. I questioned everything:
How do they see me?
Do they like me less for being Asian?
Is being Asian funny to them? Am I the butt of the joke?
Do I need to protect myself? How?
My heart raced, the world tilted a little, and I walked, not ran, to where I’d dumped my towel on the hot concrete.
I wanted to be alone to think about who I was. Unfortunately, the Sweet Valley Terror Twins had other plans. They spent the afternoon committing what was essentially drive-by racism wherever I went.
They’d run over, bow and yell “Ah-so!” at me. (So much bowing.) They’d scurry past, pulling up the corners of their eyes while spouting “ching-chong” nonsense. The girl did, like, a karate chop thing at me? In retrospect, I’m flabbergasted at the energy these two put into harassing me.
I left the pool that day feeling like an easy ― and acceptable ― target. None of the other kids cared. My family was not unsympathetic, but also not surprised. Swimming-pool drama was nothing compared to what my immigrant mom, dad, auntie and uncle had experienced. But for the first time, I became hyper-aware that I was Asian, and that being Asian could feel unsafe.
Around this time, my family and I moved from Seattle to Dallas, where there was a whole new school to contend with, new kids, a new culture. I began constructing ways to be “less Asian.” Some of these ways were absurd. Some of them hurt my heart to remember.
I would walk around with my eyes open as wide as possible, à la ”A Clockwork Orange,” believing this would lessen my Asian Face Impact. When my friend and I went to do Glamour Shots at the mall, almost none of my sparkly cowgirl photos were usable, because I insisted on opening my eyes as wide as they would go while smiling, and the result was deeply unsettling.
I made it a point to laugh the loudest when anyone made “Chinese” or “Asian” jokes ― if you know this tactic, you know. I embraced all things white. I refused to speak Cantonese, not a word. I avoided Chinese traditions, holidays, beliefs. (Except red packets, but I put those crisp Lunar New Year dollars toward whatever Delia’s or Abercrombie & Fitch nightmare was popular with my white classmates.)
During these years, I obviously accepted that I was Asian, but I really hoped nobody would notice. I’d practically purr when white friends would “compliment” me by telling me, “It’s like you’re not even Asian!”
I try not to judge Little Louise too harshly. She was growing up in a time when “representation” wasn’t in the vocabulary. All she knew was that in most circles she entered, she was the only one like her there. She was just trying to get by.
I don’t carry the Asian Shame anymore (unless you mean that other kind of Asian Shame, like why I don’t own a house or play the stock market), but the day I became Asian is still a part of me.
And I have hope for Sam. His Record Scratch incident (and subsequent others) shook him and changed him, but did not derail him. In ways great and small, Sam hurts sometimes, but he has defiantly embraced his Black Boy Life in a way that would have awed Little Louise.
Adolescent Louise would have been as horrified to hear it as I’m sure Sam would be, but I wish I could hold Little Louise close and tell her: Yeah, it’s going to suck a lot sometimes, but one day you will draw more strength from your Chinese American identity than the Pool Twins can ever take from you. One day you’ll look back and pity those kids instead of fearing them.
And also, I’d say, you ARE really good at swimming like a whale. Nobody can take that away from you, either.