“That’s for Pearl Harbor!”
I was hit hard with a thwack, right in the back of my head. I turned around. Next to a snowbank a few feet away, two blonde-haired boys were grinning triumphantly. These were the same boys who had been teasing me during the daily bus ride home over the past several weeks.
I kept walking and turned the corner, expecting them to go the other way. But they stayed right behind me and I quickened my pace. I could hear the clomp, clomp of their boots in the crunchy white snow. My breathing became harder and harder, as I fought off the bitter chill of the December air. I heard the boys shouting and laughing, calling me by my new nickname. “Mini Jap! Mini Jap!” When I finally reached home, I felt brave enough to turn my head. There they were — just a few steps away and flashing a glinty smile. They passed by me and kept walking, and soon all I could see was the back of their heads getting smaller and smaller in the distance. Fresh snowflakes began to float gently down around me, as I wiped my eyes and went toward the door.
Once inside, I gave my mother a full account of what had happened. She gasped as I mentioned the boys’ names. “I’m going to call his mother!” She was referring to M, whose mom she knew from church. I begged her not to. Sitting in the next room, my socks wet from the snow that had leaked through my boots, I listened as she cleared her throat and picked up the phone. I could feel my stomach churning and the familiar anger welling up inside.
That day was just another reminder of how much I hated being hafu. Half white, half yellow — as if that even made sense. I asked my Caucasian father why Asians were described as yellow. He shrugged his shoulders and said it was simply ignorance.
In the early years of elementary school, a few classmates would often ask with a straight face, “Do you speak China?,” to which I would usually reply: “No, just America.” At first I offered the retort rather sheepishly, but with practice my response became snappier. When I was seven, I made the mistake of saying my Japanese middle name in front of the class and telling everyone what it meant. “Tsuyuka, pronounced Tsoo-yoo-kah, means ‘the fragrance of dew.’” Our teacher, Mrs. Golibersuch, proclaimed it a beautiful name, but the last word in the translation provoked only titters among my classmates. I soon grew accustomed to a familiar taunt: “Chinese, Japanese … look at these!” The speaker, almost always a boy, would act out each part of the phrase by stretching the outer corners of his eyes up and then down, and finally pointing to his nipples.
I remember once standing up on the stage in the auditorium with my classmates. We were practicing a few songs for an all-school assembly. One had a refrain that went like this:
What color is God’s skin?
I said, what color is God’s skin?
It is black, brown, yellow,
It is red, it is white.
Everyone’s the same in the good Lord’s sight!
There we were, a motley collection of fidgety kids, elbowing each other in the chest as we lined up under the American flag and belted out those noble words. At one point I felt tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. I opened my mouth to sing, even as I struggled to keep myself from falling off the stage.
On a daily basis, I blamed myself for not having curly hair, for not being born with round blue eyes, for not being taller, and by junior high, for not being as chesty as the girls with the long Italian surnames. I would stand in the second floor bathroom of my parents’ house, comparing the reflection in the mirror with images of what I thought real American girls were supposed to look like. I wanted to be like Farrah, with her wild mane of wavy blonde hair.
One day, when I was in either first or second grade, my mother volunteered as a school lunchroom monitor. I chose a table in the corner farthest from the doorway. My head down, I sat munching on carrot sticks and pretended I hadn’t noticed her arrival. My guilty conscience finally got the better of me; I looked up, only to discover she was surrounded by some kids. To help pass the time, she had started doing origami with paper from home. There she was, folding yellow, green, and orange paper cranes as her circle of admirers grew.
Aware of her audience, she pulled out a white lace handkerchief and asked them if they wanted to play a game. Heads quickly nodded, so she slid the handkerchief back and forth in the space between her thumb and pointer-finger, daring someone to pull it out before she could clamp her thumb down. No one was fast enough — her hands were as nimble as they were elegant. She smiled and urged everyone to keep trying. Suddenly there was laughter and then a round of applause. One of the toughest boys in school — an eighth grader who used to threaten anyone who made fun of his braids — had snatched the handkerchief away after three tries.
Part of me wanted to walk over, reach up and pat him on the back, and say something like, “Well, I guess this makes us pals now.” But my mind fast-forwarded to 3 p.m., when the natural order of things would be restored. As it turned out, he made sure that no one in school ever teased me again, at least not when he was around.
It’s been more than forty years since these events occurred. It still amazes me how childhood experiences can shape our view of the world, and ourselves. Years after the snowball incident, I ended up taking M, no longer a pint-sized nemesis, as my date to a high school dance. I don’t know what happened to the boy who rose to my mother’s handkerchief challenge. Wherever he is, I certainly hope he’s doing well. I’ll always consider him one of my earliest heroes.
Originally published in Medium.