One morning, when I was 12, I stood waiting for my school bus at the bottom of the hill where Granalta Circle meets Kemp Lane. It was a crisp Maryland morning, still early enough to see the white fog of breath and the gray sheath of morning dew across the street. I was alone at the bus stop each morning as the oldest kid in the neighborhood (there were only 4 of us), and I usually just stood there fidgeting in my Redskins Starter jacket, pushing my glasses tight up against my face. This was the only method for keeping my glasses in place on my fat, flat, Asian face.
My fat, flat, Asian face.
I wasn’t aware of any of this at the time, my fatness or flat facedness or Asianness. Well, not in a self-conscious way, anyway. I knew I was different, but I was just a goofyass kid. I had scored some major cool points in 6th grade by writing an original horror story about a family that had their limbs cut off and stuffed into pizza boxes and delivered to their relatives as free pizza (because, hey, who doesn’t love free pizza?). Not only was I writing for an audience, I was also performing quite a bit in the classroom. I once received a written referral citing my creation of “250 paper missiles and other spitball projectiles positioned in a threatening way to fellow students.” Another time I was made to sit out in the hall during science class because I kept pointing to an empty chair next to me and telling my friends to “come shit over here.” I once spent an entire math class miming as “Michael Jackson in a Box” from my desk at the back of the room.
And that morning, waiting for the bus at the bottom of Granalta Circle, I was just another goofyass 7th grader waiting for the bus. The bus was a crazy place. My middle school shared a parking lot with my high school and so, the district thought it only made sense to pack petrified 11 year olds alongside 19 year old redneck ‘super seniors’ who’d had their driver’s license revoked for conducting ‘hillbilly drive bys’ with their BB guns, all in one yellow school bus. This is all true. And for the fifth year in a row, I was the only non-white person on the bus.
When the bus finally arrived that morning, I climbed aboard and found it unusually quiet, even for a Monday. Our bus driver, Mehrle DuVall, usually had country radio playing in the background, but he was in no mood that morning. I quickly surveyed the scene: the eighth grade girls doing their hair up front, as usual; the 6th graders huddled three to a seat hugging their clarinets; the high school couples dry humping at 6:47 in the morning; and the aforementioned super senior rednecks in the last three rows. I usually sat with my friend Colin somewhere in the teens, but that morning, I saw Colin’s pale arm shoot up and wave me to the last row - he had been accepted by the rednecks! My face lit up as I made my way back; there was always unspeakably awesome mischief taking place beyond row 25, or at the very least, candy.
I sat down next to Colin and kept quiet. I had no idea how he got the invite back there, but I wasn’t gonna blow it. I fidgeted some more with my jacket - it kept puffing up in the middle, and I cleaned my glasses with the Redskins shirt I had on underneath (we had just beaten the Giants on Sunday). I still couldn’t help but wonder what Colin had done to move up (back?) the social ladder so fast. After silent deliberation, I decided it was the condom-as-a-skullcap bit he did on Friday that put him over the top. Yep, condom as a skullcap, it’s exactly what it sounds like. The hicks LOVED that.
So there I was, wedged into row 28 with my knees up against the back of row 27, listening to Alpha Redneck talk about how he was building a wall of beer (“burrr”) cans in his shed. He had fresh welts on his face and arms; apparently from a game of paintball war he plays with his brothers except instead of paintballs, they shoot copperhead BBs at each other. “Paintball is fer pussies,” he said. He looked hungover.
The bus hit the wavy part of Shookstown Road and Alpha Redneck slowly turned his neck a full 90 degrees to stare straight at me while keeping his shoulders awkwardly square with the seat. I avoided eye contact at first, but flashed a bashful smile and raised my eyebrows.
"What’re you doin back here (‘hurrr’)?” he asked.
I just shrugged, unable to speak as my mouth was suddenly deathly dry.
"This bus is white man only, don’t you know?"
His tone was obnoxious and laced with a hint of sarcasm beneath it. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not, he always sounded like that. Like Stifler making the jerk off gesture.
And suddenly, before I could respond, he said it: “no Chinks allowed.”
I gave a nervous chuckle and looked away. I was scared and I immediately sensed my brain trying to process the situation. The only thing I could surmise was that I had somehow never known the meaning of the word “Chink” until now. Why did I think it applied to Mexican people? Was it ‘Chico’ that I was confusing it with? Chicano, maybe? Wasn’t A.C. Slater Chicano? Is ‘Chink’ supposed to imply that I’m Chinese? He knows I’m not Chinese, he’s asked me before. In fact, just last week he kept referring to me as ‘Koreanese.’ I distinctly remember not knowing how to feel because I had no idea what the intended effect was. Is he joking? Is he gonna pick me up by the collar of my puffy Starter jacket with his huge, hay-bucking hands and kick my Koreanese ass? I knew it wasn’t the “N word,” but I knew it was derogatory. At least, I thought it was meant to be derogatory. No one had ever called me that before. Could Alpha Redneck really be that unabashedly racist and stupid?
So I just chuckled. That’s all I could do. Chuckle like a harmless, cowardly, little Chink. Chinks don’t fight back. Chinks act like they didn’t just hear that word come out of your mouth. Chinks sit there and chuckle, quietly. Stupid, scared, little Chink.
Alpha Redneck looked right between my eyes, at my fat, flat, Asian face and he said, “yeeaaah I thought so.”
Then, suddenly, he shot up like a prairie dog and pointed to the window, “Holy shiet! Look at that buck! Thas at least a 10 pointer right thurr!”
I was saved by a fucking deer. Durrrrrr.
Almost 18 years later, I think back to that morning and what it meant. I remember wanting to cry in the moment, but not because it hurt me; I just didn’t know what to do with it. Maybe it was the impetus for my fascination with words and my irreverence towards race. Maybe it was the day I started classifying everyone in the world as either “stupid motherfuckers who don’t know what they’re doing and saying” or “cool people.” Maybe it was just another one of a billion odd and wonderful things that happened to me in Frederick, MD.
Last week, ESPN.com went with the headline, “Chink in the Armor,” when the Knicks lost and Jeremy Lin had a bad game. I chuckled. It was the first time I’d heard the word since 7th grade. The first time I recall, anyway. I wasn’t offended. In fact, my first instinct was to laugh my ass off. And when my wife heard about it the next morning, I told her I was certain the writer made an honest mistake as “Chink in the Armor” has become a rather boring, but common idiom in the American sports vernacular. (I swear this was my reaction! My wife will vouch for it! PLEASE BELIEVE ME!!) Anyway, over the next few days, the requisite media shitstorm invaded my internet universe and even conjured up some of Jay Caspian Kang’s best writing. I still chuckle at the whole thing.
I’m not 12 anymore and I don’t chuckle because I’m scared or confused. I chuckle now because I think a headline featuring an Asian basketball star that says “Chink in the Armor” is a pretty damn funny mistake to make. It’s better than a chuckle, in fact, it’s worth a full-throated laugh. Of course it’s not ok. Of course he should be fired. Of course we shouldn’t teach our children such words or values. Of course it’s hurtful and ignorant. Of course. But we’d all get on so much better if we’d just accept that racism happens. Yes, we’ve come a long way and we’ve all evolved so much in the last 20 billion years (Eminem! Obama! Tiger! Lenny Kravitz! Larry Bird! Jeremy Lin! ALF!!), but stupid racist shit still happens and it always will. Do you know why? Because there will always be somebody dumb enough to be ignorant or hateful, or both. There will always be stupid motherfuckers who don’t know what they’re doing or saying.
But there doesn’t always have to be somebody on the other side being offended by them.
In the case of words, victims are voluntary. They called him Chink. So what? Give em the finger and move on. It is beneath us, all of it: the chatter, the fight, the “one step forward, two steps back” essays. I’m more offended by the amount of time and credence given to the word than the actual word itself. It wasn’t wanton (wonton?) discrimination. Jeremy Lin wasn’t denied the right to vote or told to use the Yellows Only bathroom. It was just a stupid word. Laugh it off and move on. Just laugh because it’s all so absurd, especially in this day and age. Laugh, and it loses its power. Laugh, not because you approve, but because it’s so stupidly wrong that anyone who attempts to hurt you with such words looks utterly stupid and wrong. Laugh, and make it “Chinks in the Armhair.” Laugh, and it loses its power. Laugh, and we become bulletproof. Laugh, and we shore up the chinks in the armor.