The First Sting of Racism
Perhaps years of rocking me to sleep and answering my cries in the night had truly blinded my parents to our racial differences. Outsiders, however, were always eager to point them out. As my brother and I stood alongside three or four neighborhood kids waiting to start our first day of kindergarten, a busload of older students passed, and many hung out the window pointing to our group and yelled, "Chinese cherries! Look at the Chinese cherries!" Several boys pulled the corners of their eyes toward their temples to form "Chink eyes." They laughed and asked us what we had in our lunchboxes, chop suey?
I looked at the children around me. They were the same kids I had played hide-and-seek with ever since I had learned to walk. I didn't see any Chinese people. I craned my neck, and asked my playmates where the Chinese people were. As they began to snicker, my brother's face twisted in painful awareness. "Dottie, they're talking about us," he said. "We're the Chinese people."
I looked back at him in disbelief. We were not Chinese. We were Italians born in Korea, living in California. I vowed to ask my mother all about this when I got home. When the bus came, I purposely sat in the front so I could see my face in the driver's mirror. Relieved, I saw the same features that had stared back at me when I brushed my teeth that morning. When school was over, I came home and asked my mother what those kids had been talking about.
Her response was unsettling. She breathed a long sigh and said gently, "Well, honey, you and your brother do have sort of an Asian look, like many Chinese and Japanese people. This is something people are going to say to you for a long time."