You are forty years old when your mother, white, first asks if you’ve experienced racism. There is a pause, perhaps a sigh. Of course, memories come to the surface. At first, they are just monosyllabic words: Chink. Gook. Jap.
The words are seemingly innocuous as a child, for both sides do not know the full weight of each utterance thrown and caught, how the words are an approximation always meant to divide you and them.
But the words become strung together. They become sentences, imperatives. The voices say, “Go back to China.” There is often spittle. Sometimes even spit, directly aimed at you. The voices say again, “Go back to China.” They say, louder, “Dog eater! Go back! Go back to where ever it is you came from.”
Because. Because. Because.
You are not American. Despite living in this country for nearly four decades, adopted at three, and with an Anglican name, it is still your body that denies you the ease of navigation, the privilege of existence in the country, of not always being asked, “Where are you from?” as if you must be from someplace else and not here, not America.
Because. Because. Because.
You do not look American. Just look on TV, and in magazines, and in advertisements. Look at your heroes, your teachers and coaches. Look at your classmates. Recall the first time someone expressed the slant eye gesture at you, asked. “Can you even see?” And your parents. What did they say? Ignore them. We love you. God loves you.
But the words transform into the more physical. First, they are veiled threats. Gestures and feints. Their breath and fingers in your face. A shove into the lockers, an accident someone says. Then again. More feints, of course. They want a reaction. Always. And you, the inscrutable Asian. Other. Passive and quiet. Grinner and bearer.
And someone laughs. Because it is always a joke. Because you are nothing but a shell of a person to them. A punching bag. Dog eater. Asexual. Whatever caricature or stereotype that might exist, that is always meant to divide you and them.
“Be careful,” your basketball coach says. “This one knows karate. His parents own a drycleaner. He might just eat your dog, or cat.” And, of course, everyone laughs, even if they do not understand. Boys will be boys, after all. Sticks and stones. “It was just a joke,” they say later. “Can’t you take a joke?”
At the all-boys Catholic high school, the bully will slam his fist into your locker, demand your math homework. When he fails, he will threaten you more. “You think this is funny? You think you’re fucking clever giving me the wrong answers?”
Because. Because. Because.
You should be smarter, or at least smarter in the classes everyone assumes you should be. Math and science whiz. ESL. Why else are you here? For the Jesuit education. For enlightenment. To maintain the familial Catholic tradition. And when you asked the principal about it, the words and taunts thrown. Ignore them. This, too, shall pass.
At the public school, you are somehow simultaneously placed into an Honors English class and an ESL class despite your Anglican name. Someone eventually asks, “What are you doing here?” And you still do not know how to explain your name and body, the incongruencies, how, decisions are still based upon your ethnicity on a form.
And in college, too. Somehow, even in such a large auditorium, the tone is unmistakable if not friendlier. No fists against a locker. No imperatives. But, still. “Hey, let me see your homework for a minute,” as if you somehow know everything that involves a math equation, numbers. You, the English major.
At the grocery store you work in, it is always, “Where are you from?” And then, North or South Korea. Sometimes they say, “You speak such good English. How long have you been here? And you must be studying engineering, mathematics.” Never the humanities.
In your early thirties, you are on the Metro in DC when you suddenly do not realize where you are. Someone says, “I’m sorry,” though only the sarcasm in the tone registers. “Sorry for what?” you want to say, staring at a book by your feet. Another man says, “He just hit you. He really hit you! Do you want me to call the police?” But you do not respond because you’re focused on whose book is on the ground before the door closes and the man who hit you vanishes and you finally realize it is your book. That words have become physical.
In Portland, two young white males with shaved heads and black bomber jackets pull up as you wait to cross the road. “Hey,” one of them shouts, and your heartrate increases. Do not look at them, you tell yourself. Do not engage. It is what they want. A lifetime of advice. Grin and bear it.
But it is hard. You wonder what the shaved heads and black bomber jackets signify. You know Oregon was founded as a white utopia. Still, you ignore the familiar words: Chink. Gook. Jap. And, of course, you know what he wants, where this is headed. You’ve practiced this your entire life. “Hey, Chinese motherfucker. I’m talking to you. Hey, ching chong. Hey! Hey, motherfucker. Hey! You Chinese piece of fucking shit. I’m talking to you. Hey! Look at me! Hey!
He is half way out of the car, and he keeps screaming at you. He is all spittle and rage, all curses and threats, a strange, palpable anger directed at you: someone at a crosswalk. You wonder for a moment what would happen if you turned to look at them. No words. But merely an acknowledgement of the situation. Would they stop, embarrassed. Would they then laugh and simply drive away, all shits and giggles. Boys will be boys.
But then you wonder about the gun situation in Oregon. You remember the man who hit you on the head so hard on the DC Metro that you didn’t know where you were. You wonder if these young white boys have weapons in the car, a baseball bat or a taser. You wonder just how far they are willing to push; how far they are willing to go?
In graduate school, you are seemingly safe in books; it is a quiet and safe endeavor. But you realize everyone who teaches, everyone you read, everyone you engage with is so astoundingly white. Of course, they sometimes talk about race and racism, as if it is a seminar only topic and not encompassing life outside the classroom, as if it is something that can be continued with next week in the same controlled environment.
Your white mother is still waiting for a response. She is only asking because of the Atlanta Spa Shooting, because of the unrest in Portland where you are returning, because there is no avoiding the news cycle during the pandemic, the collective voice of Asian Americans in the country, even if racism has been a life-long experience in America, the country where you were adopted “for the sake of your sound growth,” or so your adoption papers have noted.
And then, another family member, a realization, and an email exchange. An acknowledgement of gaslighting you as a child, of somehow believing racism only existed between blacks and whites.
Your white mother, of course, is still waiting for a response to her question. Perhaps she believes she somehow protected you from the world, believes that you will say, simply and easily, “No.” That somehow, her love, the utterance of those words—“I love you”—were always enough.
But you utter another monosyllabic word that carries the weight and force of all the racism, at least what surfaces in that singular moment, that communicates simply what you’ve experienced in this country since you’ve landed in it and which your mother does not know or perhaps does not want to confront.
Mark L. Keats was born in Korea and raised in Maryland. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland and a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from Texas Tech University. He has received fellowships from Kundiman, The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and Artist Trust.