After two months of travelling separately in China, my 15-year-old friend and I, an 18-year-old, decided to reunite uptown, where we planned to eat dinner and share stories and a cold dessert somewhere. Athens, as usual, was warm and homey that evening, at least for a while.
We were walking on East State Street toward Della Zona when a young, thin, blonde but balding Caucasian man with glasses drove by on the other side of the road in a bright red sedan.
"Ching chong!" he screamed out his window as he passed us.
My friend and I awkwardly laughed it off, more to comfort ourselves than each other. Della Zona was closed, and instead we took a stroll through the picturesque Near East Side neighborhood. But as we walked, the same red car approached us, slowing nearly to a stop as he passed, and then speedily exited the neighborhood. Though my friend and I dodged in and out of the neighborhood trying to avoid him, the man tracked us down two more times that night in this menacing, slow fashion.
It was the second time I had been publicly singled out for my race in Athens. The first time, I was humiliated, and didn't even tell my parents because I didn't want them to feel ashamed. This time, I simply shrugged it off.
But Ohio Valley Summer Theater's performance of "Ragtime!" which I saw on Community Night a few days later, changed my mind. One of the play's subplots centers around a black man named Coalhouse Walker who, angered by the racist treatment he's suffered, terrorizes the city before being pacified by Booker T. Washington and then killed by city police.
Though my incident certainly can't compare to the tragic case of Coalhouse Walker, the play made me think later that night, "Why am I not angrier?"
After all, I imagine being publically called "ching chong" feels the same as being called "nigger." Both words are demeaning and victimizing, targeting the racist's perceived "flaws" of each race: the "unattractive" Chinese accent, and the "inferior" dark skin of blacks. Yet the taboo "n-word" seems to be on a completely different level of racism than "ching chong."
Say "nigger" and horrific images of teeth-baring police dogs and white hoods come to mind. Say "ching chong," and I picture a squinty-eyed Chinese man with a queue feeding fortune cookies to his pet panda. Viewed from an American cultural perspective, there's just so much more history associated with one than with the other.
Or is there? Jim Crow Laws in many states prohibited the marriage between whites and Asians, predominantly Mongolians and Malays, but in some states including all of the "yellow race." In California, most racist legislation targeted Asians, mainly any "native of China."
In San Francisco, Chinese children were not allowed to attend school with Caucasians from 1859 to 1971. There, students were not allowed to speak Chinese. In the early 1890s, Chinese San Franciscans were also required to live in one area of the city and carry at all times a "certificate of residence," or else be jailed.
The list goes on in California, and these laws ring alarming bells of more publicized, uglier times in domestic and international history. But though Asians' history of violence in the West may seem less violent, I think the intent of the racists and the pain felt by the victims is equal to that involved in black history. After all, if all people are created equal, then all racism must be created equal as well.
But the Chinese Americans' story is largely unread, much of it not even recorded. I don't blame Caucasians; I blame myself.
Chinese in the U.S. are known as the "model minority" because our crime rates are low, because we are academically and professionally ambitious, and most importantly, we are not very politically active. When harassed, we tend to take a Booker T. Washington stance (perhaps resulting in the lack of violence in our history), and look at what good that did for Coalhouse?
In fact, look what good that did for my friend and me? All we wanted was a cold drink from Della Zona, and instead we ended up trekking all over town fleeing some creep because doing something like yelling "Ching chong!" at and then stalking Chinese girls has never had consequences before.
A 2008 New York Times article on model minorities writes, "The report quotes the opening to W. E. B. Du Bois's 1903 classic 'The Souls of Black Folk' — 'How does it feel to be a problem?' — and says that for Asian-Americans, seen as the 'good minority that seeks advancement through quiet diligence in study and work and by not making waves,' the question is, 'How does it feel to be a solution?'"
Problem? Solution? Who says? Not me. I see minorities who stand up for their right to be treated decently as model minorities, not problems. I certainly don't see myself as a solution. But it's all about prospective, I suppose. The Caucasians must have been pretty crappy minorities to the Native Americans back in the day.
But it's never too late to become a solution. To the man in the red car, I say, next time think twice before you shout racial slurs at a "foreigner." That petite Chinese girl might just be an American journalist, hungering for a story and finding her meal in you.