Out at a hipster bar this New Year’s Eve, an ironic antlered deer-head mounted to a wall and lights made from tin buckets hung from the ceiling, a friend and I leaned our backs to a wall long after the ringing in, well into the hours of sloppiness and stagger. He’d been eyeing a Korean girl across the room for ten minutes, his M. O. typical: white men like Asian women.
“What do you think about her?” he asked, being careful not to look in her direction.
I leaned close, pretended to laugh at a joke and finally took a look. She was thin and long-limbed, wearing a dress of layers of blue and black and orange lace and a paisley pattern beneath. She carried herself well, wasn’t visibly drunk like most everyone else, had a graceful neck from the small bones of clavicle to chin, and her long black hair swung about her bare shoulders in layers, and her dress was not too short but showed off a dancer’s muscular legs. She had a warm smile, one which she shot our way; she was certainly the prettiest girl in the room.
“She’s–attractive,” I said.
He shook his head, incredulous at my restraint. “She’s amazing!”
I shrugged. I’m thirty-three, often a bachelor, and have never once dated a woman of Asian background, though I’m half-Japanese. “I’m just not into Asian women,” I say, or, “Well, I see my mother, and I guess I’m inadequately Freudian,” or, “Well, I grew up around white girls, you know, the boy who wanted Barbie. ” Once, talking to a group of guys I play pool with, I went so far as to admit that because growing up I had never been able to get the pretty girl, being an Asian male, I always would want that girl, the one who would never give an Asian man the time of day. I was joking, but my friends, all white and perhaps uncomfortable with frank talk about race, were shocked at my bluntness, and a fellow who’s often a bit too straightforwardly sincere clapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hey, man, you’re only half-Asian—and you don’t even look that Asian!”
I looked at him. Did I need to explain that there wasn’t anything wrong with being Asian at all, or to say, hey, the point was that the pretty girl had it wrong for never wanting an Asian guy? Should I note the degree of my own ethnically ambiguous appearance as a half-Japanese-Hawaiian Russo-Polish Jew, how I’m short and my skin is just dark enough and my eyes turn down just subtly enough that though most Asian-Americans recognize it, many whites aren’t sure how to classify me? Should I note that depending on where I am I’ve been assumed to be Mexican, Chilean, Native Hawaiian, Native American, or how once, visiting Southern Spain, I was even mistaken for a local by another American tourist? Or should I affirm how it’s true enough that I’m attracted to blonde-haired and blue eyed girls, that evidently I have an Aryan ideal? Should I note the research that’s been done about mixed-race Asian Americans, how half-Asian men are an exception, so that Hollywood is comfortable casting half-Japanese Dean Cain as Superman even though Jet Li never so much as kisses the girl in “Romeo Must Die?” There had been too much to say, so as I often did, I had said nothing.
Now, I clapped my friend on the shoulder to urge him to go talk to the Korean girl. “Go get her!”
He took a deep breath, and as he strode toward her she stared directly at me and smiled.
Too bad, I thought, and turned away; she was attractive enough, for an Asian girl.
Moments later, I was surprised to find her behind me at the bar, her hand to my back. “It’s you I like,” she said with a hint of reproach. She slipped me her name and number in perfect Palmer’s cursive and told me I’d better call, leaned in to whisper it so I could feel her warm breath on my neck and smell her perfume, not too assertive a scent, floral and clean. Then she was through the doors with a blast of cold air. My friend who’d approached her was silently sullen, but the two other friends who’d been watching crowded about me, crowing, cajoling, asking me how long until I’d ask her out, why I hadn’t played a little less cool. I pictured her face, the roundness of it, the warm yellow hue of her skin, the sharp down-curve of her eyelids, and knew already I wouldn’t call; as I turned from them, I glimpsed my face in the steel of the espresso machine, features distorted, the roundness of my face and the curve of my eyes exaggerated, and saw why: I didn’t think she was beautiful.
The elementary school I started at in kindergarten, Washington Elementary, was nearly all white and fairly hard-scrabble, drawing families from the row of two-story section 8 apartments that lined the freeway separating Eugene from the blue-collar mill town of Springfield. The two cities bled together at an overpass, and small trailer-parks huddled in the shadow of the girded span, held in the spell of the whizz and thrum of passing cars. The kids from the trailer park and Section 8 apartments were easy enough to pick out, their clothes Goodwill and threadbare sometimes at the knees and elbows, their style some amalgamation of eighties rock and pop pre-hip-hop style, short jean-shorts and undershirts in the summer, something plaid or pullover in the winter. The middle-class white kids came with new and used Transformers and Thundercats lunchboxes and slap-on bracelets and coveralls new from Gap or old from Gap and Hyper-Color shirts and Converse hi-tops and all of them fluent in their parents and older brothers’ and sisters’ music, Queen and the Police and Madonna and Whitney and Michael. I’d heard of none of it, my strict and Spartan father insistent that my brother and I stay away from the television, be allowed to watch only intermittent Sesame Street on the grainy, seventies-era Toshiba with exterior knobs to change the two available channels locked in the back bedroom where my mother would retreat sometimes when he wasn’t home to watch Oprah.
The forbidden fruit of television made my brother Jeremy and I seek it out wherever we could find it outside the house. I became obsessed with He-man by way of watching an episode or two at the neighbor’s house, fell in love with his omnipotence and invulnerability, even as I despaired at my own skinny chest and short stature and hopelessly black hair, nothing like He-man’s blonde mane. When my parents found out, I lost the privilege of running free until I vowed not to watch it, to seek a less violent obsession. It was too late—already, I wanted to be undeniably heroic, tall and muscular blonde.
My parents had met in Hawaii, my father in medical school and my mother returned home out the far leeward end of Oahu after finishing college and abandoning her hippie-commune phase. She was pleased to find a man who could carry on a conversation, even if my father, whose hair and beard were all the same length, his head cloud of red-brown curls, didn’t know about financial aid and so was living in a tree-house he’d made behind the Honolulu dump and working nights as a janitor and driving a car which used a tin-can for a radiator-cap. When he finished residency in Long Beach, California, a few years later, they put everything in the back of their Honda and moved to Eugene, sight unseen, to start a life.
My parents were not precisely sure what a home in Oregon was supposed to consist of, or at least that was how it seemed to me, because the houses of my friends did not look like ours. Our place was a modest two-story in a wall of overgrown rhododendron bushes at the point the sidewalk ended on Sunshine Acres Drive. My mother’s Japanese-Hawaiian upbringing meant the front room was lined with shoes for the outside world. Inside, the walls were hung with fine art prints and Japanese calligraphy and pictures of my father’s curly-haired Jewish family and my mother’s yellow-skinned family, and each corner held planters of lilies and orchids and cacti, and the middle of the walls were filled with books and magazines, lined and stacked on shelves and piled high in the kitchen where most of the action happened.
My sole friend from the neighborhood, Justin, lived in the largest house on Sunshine Acres, a three-story colonial of spacious halls and furniture of dark leather and countertops of marble and paintings with frames that glittered with gilt inlay, each room like a show picture in a catalogue of life of a different age, and his mother was tall and blonde and statuesque and dressed each day in flowery, flowing dresses and matching necklaces and earrings of gold and pearl and diamond, as if she were another finely appointed feature of the mansion. Justin had video games and bb guns and knives, all of which I was forbidden, and he laughed when I didn’t know how to operate the controllers or aim a gun, how I held the knife awkwardly away from my body, afraid I might do something wrong with it.
The other home I often went to was one of the Section 8 units where a boy named Kelly lived with just his young mother who wore ripped, skin-tight jeans with steel-studded belts and kept her curls pulled back in a bandanna. She swore frequently, nearly always followed by laughter at things which didn’t seem humorous, as in, Fuck motherfucking Reagan, ha!, which made no sense to me because my parents never cursed except for when something bad happened suddenly and the words came by accident. This cursing was willful and enthusiastic and casual, and it scared me a little because it seemed to upend the rightful order of the adult world. The entire apartment reinforced my uneasiness, every square inch postered with rock stars I didn’t know and collages of women cut from the pictures of style magazines and calendars of tanned, shirtless men. I remember how Kelly and his mother both laughed long and hard at me when I said I’d never had Fruit Loops, that my father said they were nothing but empty sugar—and I remember not knowing how to protest when they insisted I had to have some just once, and poured a bowl with whole milk which I’d also never had because we solely drank skim, and sat together across from me at the counter watching me eat sinful bite after bite with burning cheeks as the milk turned orange in the bowl.
None of this was my parents’ fault. They were just not joiners, my father’s sole gesture toward moderating his own idiosyncrasies to pare his beard and hair down to a neat part and lean little toothbrush mustache that he still wears today. Most of the neighbors regarded us with suspicion, my mother’s round face and slanted eyes and smooth ivory skin (she stayed always out of the sun) permanent proof of her foreignness which was suspect no-matter how kind her smile was or how friendly she waved. And my father’s natural quietness and refusal to do normal things did nothing to bridge the social gap, for he did not watch sports or drink beer or ever work any less than seventy hours a week at his clinic or make any attempt to stop practicing the art of the Bokken, or wooden Japanese sword, shirtless in the driveway, his Kiii-aiii! echoing off the asphalt while people in passing cars slowed and stared.
We were nothing if not different, and I carried that awareness with me each day to school, a secret I kept as private as I could, but which was no further than my face.
To make things worse, I came to school in knee-high rubber boots with ill-fitting sweatpants that bore no corporate logos, and often I wore brightly colored tank-tops and Hawaiian shirts sent by my aunties from the Islands and all of these things combined with my shortness and the half-moon of my eyes and my brown-yellow skin and my large vocabulary made me impossibly weird, not right, an outsider, and the kids let me know in certain ways. I remember there being one other Asian student, who avoided me like the plague; I wonder if he realized that I would never have sought him out, that already, looking the mirror in the locked bathroom, I loathed my Asian face with its button nose, the dark hue of my skin. He got by, and because I had no choice and perhaps because I was stubborn and had a hatred of injustice and so refused to yield to the kids who tried to terrorize me, I became a pariah. I walked the long fence during recess each day alone, staring at the ground, searching for the flash and glint of obsidian in the gravel, black treasures which I kept in my pockets and stacked in the corner of my desk. If a bully approached, I walked faster; I kept my head down and ignored the taunts, Heyyy Shorty, Bruce Li, Bruce Lee, Hee-yah!, Hey slant-eyes, Ching-chong, China-man! though I heard them clear enough, and hated the kids who hollered at me almost as much as I hated myself for being vulnerable to their assault.
One day in first grade, a bully came for me again, the worst of them, a boy a couple years older and perhaps a foot taller with a mullet of brown hair and a leer constantly on his lips. He hounded me as I walked, trying and trying to get me to acknowledge him, and when he stepped in front of me and flicked my forehead with his index finger, I swung so hard it felt like I put my fist through his stomach, and he crumpled to the ground, writhing and moaning. When I showed no remorse in the principal’s office, my mother was called, but you couldn’t take the local girl from the islands: she told the principal that if I was being bullied, I was justified to swing away. The next year, in second grade, when a fifth-grade girl a full head taller who’d been after me for being so short, so ugly, so, ugh, ASIAN, grabbed me by the wrist and refused to let me pass, I threw her in the Aikido hold of Nikkyo my father had taught me in the martial arts lessons at the dojo where he taught. I sent her head-over-heels to the ground. I was asked to explain myself, and I remember shrugging, not knowing how to explain or wanting to repeat what she’d said; I mumbled something about her teasing me as the principal glowered and the girl’s parents carried on, demanding justice.
My folks were forced to transfer me to a small school across town in the hills where the wealthy lived, and there, for a few precious years, I wasn’t tormented. Unfortunately, it was too late– I had already learned that I was different, bore the self-loathing as a constant wariness. I kept to myself even as the kids at the alternative school were nice enough to me, asked me to their birthday parties and made a space for me at the cafeteria table. I knew deep down that I was still different, that if for now I was to be tolerated and put up with, it was an uncertain and cursory welcome. I still had the constant reminder of the neighborhood kids back home, who ran in a pack on BMX bikes and skateboards about the intersection up the street where I sometimes took a baseball bat and hit the fallen apples from the tree out in an adjacent yard, broke the whole fruit open through the force of my own arms. I’d toss up apple after apple while the pack of boys lingered, eyeing me with smirks, and their laughter as they came near or moved away rings in my ears even though now. Today, I am not so sure they were actually mocking me; perhaps they wished for a turn with the bat, though I never invited them. It is possible that they didn’t even notice me much of the time, that the torment was as much invented as actual. It didn’t matter– I was sure they were making fun of me, sure that what I imagined they said was the truth: Look at that little Asian motherfucker. Funny-looking, doesn’t say nothing, doesn’t know how. Kid doesn’t know nothing. And I didn’t know—had no idea how to ignore myself, my doubts, how to join. And so I kept a constant distance.
In sixth grade I started back at the neighborhood middle school, with the same kids I’d gone to elementary school with, and they hadn’t forgotten me. Today bullying has become a concern, public service announcements begging children to be kind, claiming that being nice is cool, but anyone who survives middle school knows the truth: being kind or fair or doing what is right isn’t the point. All that matters is not being seen as weak. I knew I couldn’t fit in, that I didn’t know how to, the brainy Asian kid, all four-foot ten of my pudginess, the kid who always had the right answer to the teacher’s questions and who didn’t know anything about the things the other kids talked about, rap music and pop stars and donkey punches and blowjobs. I was deadly afraid of being called out for my ignorance, until I saw a solution: I’d make myself so tough that nobody could say anything to me.
I joined the wrestling team, ran the bike path behind my house until my lungs burned, bought a cheap set of weights I kept hidden in the closet because my father said I was too young to pump iron. I kept silent in class as long as I could, and when I did open my mouth and the big words slipped out and I drew scorn, I learned to face it brazenly, with the sort of defiance I was able to back up because I’d become friends now with a couple of boys on the wrestling team, most all of them kids from the trailer park and the Section 8 housing, bigger boys, mean, but respecting already what was becoming clear, that through sheer force of will I was tougher on the mat than just about all of them. Between our seventh and eighth-grade year my friend Justin, who had been kicked out of public school and then Catholic school on his way to be being kicked out of high school, became a self-styled gangbanger and took me to TJ Maxx to try to make me a little less laughable, and I came back from the summer before eighth grade in baggy jeans and Sketcher flats and layered plaid shirts, and I didn’t lose a wrestling match the entire year and had high school coaches from all the local high schools recruiting me, and that was mostly that. I still felt my difference, but was mostly free from the danger of being picked on.
Of course, there was still the matter of girls. I remained outside the social circles of middle-school cool, didn’t speak to the pack of blonde and brunette girls who flirted with taller, smoother white boys in their boat shoes and Abercrombie cargo shorts. Those girls who in the course of their lives will never want an Asian man. The Asian man is doomed to dance awkwardly with Dwight Howard or to play the idiot sidekick or oddball, to be celebrated only for dancing poorly and singing a pop song that makes the Asian man the enduring symbol of unsexiness, to live always up to the call of Long Dong in “Sweet Sixteen,” who takes home the girl nobody wants with enthusiastic embrace: “Heyyyy, sexy girlfriend!” Once, I tried to approach the girl I had a crush on, one of the popular girls with strawberry-blonde, short-bobbed hair and lips always full and shiny with gloss, a girl who carried a designer handbag and already wore heels that gave her a too-adult sway as she walked. I watched her each day from the spot by the B-hall where I knew she’d pass. She had a little flip to her bangs that I found adorable, three freckles on her nose that I had memorized the location of, but all I really knew about her was her name, Lacey, and I was sure she didn’t know mine. One day I got up my courage and stepped in front of her as she neared, words of introduction poised on my lips, but her blue eyes looked through and past me as if I weren’t even there and I knew she wouldn’t see me otherwise no matter what I said and I retreated to my spot on the wall, and never tried again. There was no use pursuing the impossible, exposing oneself to the possibility of scorn. Trying, you could fail, so I quit.
I went to high school back across town, left middle school behind, but I kept to myself in class, walked the long, echoic halls with my eyes down, watching all the kids who seemed so easy in their own skin, who knew how to make noise. I was silent and solemn, a mushroom cloud of curly hair hovering about my head and a backpack as large as I was humped like a turtle shell on my back. I could have reinvented myself, become social, made friends and found a girlfriend; my own brother never let the taunts get to him, was never isolated, rebelled and partied, made friends and joined the crowd. I kept quiet and ignored everyone else, lifted weights until I’d laid flesh and vein over my little arms and chest and was armored with muscle. Girls admired the muscles, but I kept their admiration at a distance. I knew that as long as I stayed to myself, nothing could touch me.
I still live in Eugene, went away for a long time to college and beyond, ended up back here where the past is always near. Tonight I shoot pool with a guy named Jeff, who I remember well from Monroe even after all these years: he was the only boy shorter and slighter than me. Jeff was round-shouldered and mousy and quiet, from the trailer park. He wore sweat-shirts which fell nearly to his knees, his face deep in the shadow of hood as if to burrow deep enough to find safety. In my memories, he was always slinking away, retreating toward a corner.
When I ran into him the first time since middle school a year ago, I didn’t recognize him—now, Jeff’s five-eight and bearded and broad-shouldered, the finest bar pool player in the town, and it’s only in his over-polite manner that there’s a hint of the timid boy he’d been. He told me our eighth-grade language arts teacher made him ask me what to do when people teased me.
“What did I tell you?” I asked, amazed that an adult had imagined I possessed answers.
“You told me when somebody said something about my height, I should look them in the eye and say, ‘No shit, Sherlock. ’”
I winced. “You try it?”
He grimaced. “I did. Matt Walters stuffed me in a garbage can. ”
“Sorry about that. ”
“Well,” he said. “It worked for you. ”
I looked at him, heard the sincerity in his voice, and found myself wondering at how completely I’d managed to make everyone think I was fine. Adults had thought I knew what I was doing; little Jeff, not even Asian, just small and scared, had thought I was confident. They didn’t know the price of hiding from scorn, real and imagined. In the course of my entire life, I’ve let few people close enough to know me; even today, almost no-one understands me. Most of the suffering I’ve known didn’t come my way because of the unjust, racist world and how hard it is to be half-Asian—it was misery I made for myself, hiding in plain sight.
Still, I was lucky, I think. Thirty now, Jeff’s had a truly rough road: no father in the picture, two brothers downed by meth, no money for college. Last year, as he finished his Associates degree, Jeff worried he was taking on debt, that he’d end up back at the furniture store where he’d worked before he started school. He came to the pool table edgy, getting better as Pabsts and well-whiskey freed the accuracy of his eye. As the drink took he’d tense and clutch his hands to fists, pound his chest like a pathetic King Kong, and talk about finding a fight, the boy who’d been backed into corners wanting to be strong, and I’d talk him down. I didn’t mind– there’s rarely liquor enough in the bar to drown my carefulness, and looking after Jeff, I could ignore the imminent melancholy of another walk home through the rain-darkened streets.
Last spring, Jeff graduated and secured a job in computer networks with a company down the freeway. Up early to commute, he quit late nights at the bar. I set him up with a ballerina, and he’s become the sort of man she can respect— he quit smoking, laid off the whiskey even at home, started working out instead. Tonight his girlfriend’s away in New York with family, and there are no clutched fists, just the pleasure of the pool table on that rare night when the game is loose and easy, coming to us both in runs of six and seven and finally eight balls at a time, until Jeff has beat me enough times to know he still has his touch and closes his tab. Watching him leave, shoulders squared and head held high, there’s no retreat in him at all—he just has better places to be. There’s no-one left to look after except myself, and if little Jeff has found his way to happiness, I have no excuses left.
I go to the restroom, run the tap and splash cool water to my face and dry it with my sleeves and gaze at the man staring back in the mirror– all grown-up, but inside still the boy hitting apples, crossing his arms and standing apart. I’ve spent too much of my life walking the fence-lines alone, searching for the glint of obsidian in the dust. I examine my skin, a little sallow with winter, a fast yellow; my eyes the same long-lashed crescents as always, my moon face still the same shape as my mother’s, as the girl who’d given me her number. I take my phone and find the Korean girl’s number, Julie, hold the phone before me. I picture her, feel her hand on the small of my back, remember her scent, how she smiled at me. I think maybe, I might be ready to call.
Photo: Getty Images