You could feel the air rushing out of her lungs and into your face if she was screaming at you.
“STOP CALLING ME A WHORE! I AM NOT A WHORE, YOU DIRTY N-GGER!”
No one, in fact, was calling her a whore.
“DON’T LIE TO ME, MOTHERF-CKER! I HEAR ALL OF YOU CALLING ME A WHORE! I HEARD IT, JUST NOW!”
Her best defense was a loud offense that included liberal use of racial and homophobic slurs. We winced and asked her to stop when the colorful epithets flew from her mouth. She glared at us, her face red and fists clenched.
Despite seeing her multiple times over the course of two years, she, up to that point, had never made any comments about my race. (I look obviously Asian.) Then, one day, with an audience of a dozen people:
“YOU CAN F-CKING GO TO HELL, DR. YANG, YOU F-CKING CHINK!”
As she stormed out of the building, I grinned and put my arms up in the air in victory.
It’s about time!
Some people immediately expressed their concerns (“I’m sorry she said that”; “Are you OK?”), the distress apparent on their faces.
“It’s OK,” I replied. “I consider it a badge of honor.”
“Yeah, but that still must hurt.”
I shrugged. I felt amused, not hurt. I didn’t need them to take care of me.
They, of course, had good intentions. There was just so much they didn’t know:
That one time when my parents and I were biking along a dry river bed. I was eight years old. Two young men, both white, began trailing us. They began to shout things at us that I didn’t understand. They didn’t seem friendly.
“Stay between your mom and me,” my dad instructed in Chinese.
“Don’t say anything back to them,” my mom added.
For the next half hour, they continued to follow us. They continued to shout things at us. They often laughed.
They followed us to the parking lot and continued to shout things at us as my parents loaded the bikes into the van. As my dad drove away, they threw something at the car.
That one time I was pleading again with my mother to leave the Girl Scout troop. I was nine years old.
“I don’t want to go anymore!” I said in English.
“No, you have to go. It’s a good activity and you learn how to get along with others,” she replied in Chinese.
“But I don’t fit in. I just don’t fit in!” in English.
“Of course you fit in. You go to school with the other girls, you know all of them, they’re all good kids –” in Chinese.
“That doesn’t matter. I don’t look like them, I don’t act like them, we don’t do the same things. I don’t like it. I don’t fit in!” in English.
“You don’t fit in,” my mother said in her thickly accented English. There were at least ten girls in the troop. I was the only person of color. Her face was no longer stern.
“OK,” she said. It’s a word that is used in both English and Chinese.
That one time when my parents and I were walking through a parking garage. It was a hot day and a convertible with its top down approached us. The group of white guys in the car shouted “KONNICHIWA!!!” at us; we could hear them laughing as they roared past.
“WE’RE NOT JAPANESE!” I shouted back. I was ten years old. My parents shushed me.
That one time when I used my fingers to briefly transform the Asian monolids of my eyes into something that resembled double eyelids.
That one time became multiple times over the course of several months. One day, I didn’t have to manipulate my eyelids anymore: My double eyelids remained stable. My eyelids sort of (but only sort of) looked like the eyelids of the girls in Teen Magazine.
I was twelve years old.
We all have ways in which we don’t fit in, in which we’re different. We all have also learned how to take care of ourselves when others antagonize us for being different. We wouldn’t be who we are today—for better or for worse—if we didn’t have those unpleasant experiences.
No, it didn’t hurt when she said the slur. Other things have hurt much more.
Maria Yang is a psychiatrist who blogs at her self-titled site, Maria Yang, MD.