Read an ExcerptASIAN AMERICAN X
An Intersection of 21st Century Asian American Voices
The University of Michigan Press
Copyright © 2004
University of Michigan
All right reserved.
Chapter One Label Us Angry
It hurts to know that the most painful and shocking event of my life happened in part because of my race-something I can never change. On October 23, 1998, my friend and I experienced what would forever change our perceptions of our hometown and society in general.
We both attended elementary, middle, and high school in the quiet, prosperous, seemingly sophisticated college town of Palo Alto. In the third grade, we happily sang "It's a Small World," holding hands with the children of professors, graduate students, and professionals of the area, oblivious to our diversity in race, culture, or experience. Our small world grew larger as we progressed through the school system, each year learning more about what made us different from each other. But on that October evening, the world grew too large for us to handle.
Carlos and I were ready for a night out with the boys. It was his seventeenth birthday, and we were about to celebrate at the pool hall. I pulled out of the Safeway driveway as a speeding driver delivered a jolting honk. I followed him out, speeding to catch up with him, my immediate anger getting the better of me.
We lined up at the stoplight, and the passenger, a young white man dressed for the evening, rolled down his window; I followed. He looked irritated.
"He wasn't honking at you, you stupid fuck!"
His words slapped me across the face. I opened my stunned mouth, only to deliver an empty breath, so I gave him my middle finger until I could return some angry words. He grimaced and reached under his seat to pull out a bottle of mace, spraying it directly in my face, barely missing Carlos, who witnessed the bizarre scene in shock. It burned.
"Take that you fucking lowlifes! Stupid chinks!"
Carlos instinctively bolted out the door at those words. He started pounding the white guy without a second thought, with a new anger he had never known or felt before. Pssssht! The white guy hit Carlos point blank in the face with the mace. He screamed; tires squealed; "fuck you's" were exchanged.
We spent the next ten minutes half-blind, clutching our eyes in the burning pain, cursing in raging anger that made us forget for moments the intense, throbbing fire on our faces. I crawled out of my car to follow Carlos's screams and curses, opening my eyes to the still, spectating traffic surrounding us. I stumbled to the sidewalk, where Carlos pounded the ground and recalled the words of the white guy. We needed water.
I stumbled further to a nearby house that had lights in the living room. I doorbelled frantically, but nobody answered. I appealed to the traffic for help. They just watched, forming a new route around my car to continue about their evening. The mucous membranes in our sinuses cut loose, and we spit every few seconds to sustain our gasping breaths. After nearly five minutes of appeals, a kind woman stopped to call the cops and give us water to quench the burning.
The cops came within minutes with advice for dealing with the mace. We tried to identify the car and the white guy who had sprayed us, and they sent out the obligatory all points bulletin. They questioned us soon after, asking if we were in a gang. I returned a blank stare with a silent "no." Apparently, two Filipino teenagers finding trouble on a Friday evening raised suspicions of a new Filipino gang in Palo Alto-yeah, all five of us.
I often ask myself if it would have been different had I been driving a BMW and dressed in an ironed polo shirt and slacks, like a typical Palo Alto kid. Maybe then the white guy would not have been afraid and called us lowlifes and chinks. I don't think so. He wasn't afraid of us; he initiated the curses and maced us from a safe distance. He reached out to hurt us because he was having a bad day and we looked different.
That night was our first encounter with overt racism that stems from a hatred of difference. We hadn't seen it through the smiles and happy songs of elementary school or the isolated cliques of middle and high school, but now we knew it was there. We hadn't seen it through the clean-cut, sophisticated facade of the Palo Alto white guy, but now we knew it was there. The "lowlife," "chink," and "gangster" labels made us different, marginalizing us from the town we called home.
Those labels made us angry, but we hesitated to project that anger. At first, we didn't tell anyone except our closest friends, afraid our parents would find out and react irrationally by locking us in our rooms to keep us away from trouble. But then we realized that the trouble had found us, and we decided to voice our anger.
We wrote an anonymous article in the school newspaper narrating the incident and the underlying racism that had come to surface. We noted that the incident wasn't purely racial, or a hate crime, but proof that racist tendencies still exist, even in open-minded suburban towns like Palo Alto. Parents, students, and teachers were shocked, maybe because they knew the truth in what we were saying. Many asked if it was Carlos and me who had been maced, but I responded, "Does it matter? What matters is that some people in this town still can't accept diversity. It's sad." We confronted the community with an issue previously reserved for hypothetical classroom discussions and brought it into the open. It was the least we could do to release our anger and expose its roots, hoping for a change in those who chose to label us.
After the article, Carlos and I took different routes. I continued with my studies, complying with my regimen of high school classes and activities as my anger subsided. I tried to lay the incident aside, having exposed it and promoted self-inspection and possible change in others through writing. Carlos remained angry. Why not? He got a face full of mace and racist labels for his seventeenth birthday. He alienated himself from the white majority and returned the mean gestures of the white guy to the yuppie congregation of Palo Alto. He became an outsider. Whenever someone would look at him funny, he would stare back, sometimes too harshly.
On the day after finals, he was making his way through the front parking lot of school when a parent looked at him funny. He stared back. The parent called him a punk. Carlos exploded. He cursed and gestured all he could at the father, and when he sped away in his Suburban, Carlos followed. Carlos couldn't keep up with the Suburban, so he took a quarter from his pocket and threw it at the back window, shattering it to pieces. Carlos ran away when the cops came to school.
Within two days, students had identified Carlos as the perpetrator, and he was suspended from school as the father called his lawyer, indicting Carlos of "assault with the intent to hurt." Weeks passed until a court hearing, and Carlos attended anger management counseling, but he was still angry-angry that he was being tried over throwing a quarter and that once again "the white guys were winning." His mother scraped up the little money she had to spare to afford him a lawyer for the trial, but there was no contesting the father's accusations. Carlos was sentenced to a night in juvenile hall and two hundred hours of community service over some angry words and throwing a quarter. He became a convicted felon.
He had learned once again that he couldn't win against the labels thrown at him, the labels that hurt him more than the mace or the night in juvy, and so he became more of an outsider. In both cases, the labels distanced us from the "normal" Palo Altans: white, clean-cut, wealthy. That division didn't always exist, however; it was created by the generalizations "normal" Palo Altans made through labels. To them, we looked like lowlifes, chinks, gangsters, and punks. In truth, we were two Filipino Americans headed toward Stanford and Berkeley, living in a town that swiftly disowned us with four reckless labels after raising us for ten years. Label us angry.
Jeremiah Torres is from Palo Alto, California, and studies symbolic systems at Stanford University.
Chapter Two 1984
What I remember most vividly about the party is the colors.
I could not have been more than five years old-in fact, I was definitely five because I remember jumping off of my father's lap when he began yelling and pointing at the television, shocked beyond belief at the horrific images of mass executions of Sikhs following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984. Sikhs, a religious group marked visually by their turbans and beards, were targeted in numerous riots across Delhi because Gandhi had been assassinated by previously loyal Sikh bodyguards. I remember much of my father's anger and frustration during that year-the year that the Delhi he knew collapsed under the twin threats of India's second Partition and the advent of terrorism in Punjab, our homeland.
The colors on the television set were both conveniently foreign and eerily familiar. Above all, shockingly frightening. I had never seen the bright red that I saw spilling out of a murdered Sikh sprawled facedown in a dusty Delhi street. The dark blue of his cloth turban, now unraveled beside him, lay somewhere between the sky blue of the Smurfs that I knew and the deep blue of deep sea trenches that threatened to swallow me when I examined pictures of the ocean. The camera suddenly zoomed in on the face of one man who, exhausted, backed away from the Sikh man that he had helped to beat to death. I remember the color of his eyes: a strange, possessed yellow, immediately reminding me of the time I took too many B-vitamin tablets (the chewy, fruit-flavored Flintstones kind) and urinated a thick, deep yellow fluid. I had known only comfortable colors: the fluffy pink of my bedroom, the inviting gray of my cat, the soft black of my mother's hair.
I looked desperately for any sort of familiarity in the room. But the room, full of only my father's friends (who were necessarily male, in keeping with the unspoken Indian tradition of segregating guests by gender at large gatherings), was unfamiliar to all my senses: sight, sound, touch. I grabbed my father's arm and pulled at it, exclaiming, "Daddy! Daddy! I want apple juice!" His arm was strangely cold, and he yanked it away from me, murmuring "Choop karo!" to silence me. Usually, I would get some reaction from another uncle in the room when I acted cute, but this time not even my tinny child's voice could unglue the pairs of eyes in the room from the television. I saw the dark brown eyes of my father's friends lighten slightly as tears welled up and were promptly blinked away. A teardrop flickered in the dim yellow light as it fell from Gurdeep ji. I watched it drop to the lush brown carpet, memorizing its exact location.
I left the room quietly, stumbling over my first salwar kameez, a Punjabi dress with baggy trousers and a long, elaborately decorated top that extended like a nightgown to my stubby knees. My grandmother had recently brought the outfit as a present for me when she came to visit and to take care of my brother and me so that my mother could resume her medical residency. It shone a light purple, covered with multicolored sequins in elaborate Gujarati patterns throughout.
A Punjabi girl in Gujarati colors. I was many Indias, all at once. A different India (which I never understood) was a room away, on an old television set.
I made my way through my auntie's kitchen, following a familiar path to the tiny refrigerator in her garage where she kept cold Cokes and Sprites for me to enjoy. As I weaved through an assorted bunch of aunties scrambling to prepare pulao, sabzis, and dal for dinner, I found myself stopping just to look at their saris. Some Kashmiri, golden-blue silk shining brightly despite the dimness of the overhead lighting. Some very Rajasthani, with prominent red and green patterns reminding me of pictures of Rajput princes I had seen adorned with very authoritative colors. Some South Indian varieties, made of cotton in light, feminine colors. Lavenders, pastel greens, blues.
And some truly Punjabi. Like my mother's. The image of her hunching over a steaming pot of pulao, her long hair draped like a curtain over her slightly plump form, never leaves me. I remember her sari so clearly: a bright, regal purple splashed with dots of yellow, green, magenta. It gleamed in the dim light, drawing attention to the curve of her hips and the slight part of her back and stomach that was visible beneath her choli and the paloo of the sari itself. Even though I only looked at her briefly, I remember the wonder with which I gazed at the part of her stomach I could see. It was something I had never before seen. Her skin there, truly an amalgamation of our Punjabi-AfghaniCentralAsian history, was two shades lighter than the rest of her, layered in two slight folds that reminded me of the doughy aata she used to make chapatis. Two beads of sweat dropped from her forehead onto the part of her sari nearest to her stomach, startling me out of my gaze. As she wiped her forehead, I caught a glimpse of her choli, stained with sweat and fragrant with the scent of garam masala, cumin, salt, and haldi, combined with okra and onions.
A PunjabiAfghaniCentralAsian in a spotted sari in Indiana. Many lands at once.
After grabbing my Coke, I wandered around the house until dinnertime, when I was too afraid to eat because I did not want to disturb the beautiful appearance of the carefully prepared and garnished food. Usually, at home, my mother would prepare my dinner plate for me, forcing me to eat the quantities of dal, chapatis, and sabzis that she found appropriate for a growing girl. I was appalled at the luxury of choosing my own food and portion sizes. It was an unexpected freedom. I carefully dug the serving spoon into the corners of the okra, matter paneer, and rajma that were not covered with sprigs of parsley garnish.
At dinner, the men were surprisingly quiet while the women chatted excitedly about moving (one of the aunties had gotten a new job in Florida and was leaving soon), news from relatives, and marriage alliances for their older daughters. I listened eagerly, interested especially in how they switched back and forth between Punjabi and English. I never understood why. All of a sudden, Gurdeep ji screamed, "Shut up!"
The table fell silent. I had no idea what had happened, or why. The colors and fragrance of my food seemed to fade into one big black and white scentless mass. The background-the people, the food, the table, the place-vanished, leaving only Gurdeep ji and his angry eyes gazing around.
"Do you know what has happened? DO YOU?"
Gurdeep ji shouted as if nobody was there. I did not look up.
"They have taken our country. They have destroyed my home. YOUR home. Do you not know? Do you not care?" He made no mention of who "they" were. Or where his "home" was. I had always assumed it was at 467 Lakewood Avenue, number four, right down the block from us. Flecks of sabzi stuck to his long black beard, interspersing it with tiny red globs full of masalas. His lips trembled beneath his beard.
Gurdeep ji got up and left the table. I remember him slamming down his barely used fork before leaving, and looking at it long after he had left as if I might find some explanation, or some words, left on its pokey ends. His napkin crumpled in his empty seat, stained with his fingerprints made with the sauces of the vegetable dishes he had eaten with his hands. We always ate with our hands, using forks and knives only to get at a few remaining peas, some isolated onions. And even then, we used utensils reluctantly. I miss that freedom of gathering around tables with elders and eating with my hands while they coached me on proper technique to pick up and consume rice topped with spiced yogurt. Gurdeep ji was the one who taught me best, showing me how to eat with my hands without spilling on myself or my napkin. Years later, when I would run from my second-grade class at lunch because I was being teased for eating my rice and yogurt with my hands, I would want so badly to find him, to run to him for comfort and bury myself in his beard. Now, as I heard him collect his shoes and coat and close the front door, I wished that I could run to him, to tell him that nobody was going to destroy his home because if they did I would get angry at them.
Excerpted from ASIAN AMERICAN X
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