I’ve never directly been a victim of racism. But, I’ve been a witness.
A couple of weeks ago I was hanging out with friends at an Asian fraternity house. That night we were celebrating the East Asian student organizations across campus, specifically Korean Americans, Chinese Americans, and Taiwanese Americans. It was your typical Saturday night. Friends. Dancing. Good ‘ol fun.
It was probably close to 1 a.m. when I was ready to say goodbye. Some of my friends had already left earlier and a couple were still sticking around, so I decided to walk home alone. It was only a few blocks away and I was sure I knew my way around.
As I was about to leave through the back door entrance, I saw a group of guys come in. Surprisingly, they seemed like white fraternity guys — a little bit of a shock considering that most of the people who come to asian frat parties are, well, asian.
I hid behind a fence and overheard them talk to two unidentified guys standing near the back.
“Hey man, you mind if we just fly by? We’ve only been here once”
“Yeah of course, man. Lots of asian chicks tonight!”
A rumble of “yeaaaaaah” and chuckles erupted on both ends — the kind of sound guys make when they mutually agree on something and suddenly go from “strangers” to “bros.”
As the group passed by me, one guy shouted, “Wooo asian chicks!” Another yelled, “I love you!”
I looked down. I couldn’t tell whether I was supposed to be flattered, embarrassed, or insulted. It was my first real encounter with “yellow fetish” — an idea that I knew vaguely existed but never fully made a concrete impression in my life.
Something about walking home alone at night hindered my sense of direction, and I took a wrong turn. I decided to retrace my path towards the frat house and start again. I was around 8 steps away from the back door entrance when I heard the words pierce the air:
“Ching chong Chinese baaaaaaaalls!”
Within seconds, the same group of white guys I saw earlier stumbled out of the back door. Some frantically ran down the street, snickering hysterically and punching each other on the shoulders as if to say, “good job.”
A couple of them stayed behind and kicked over a garbage bin. Then another. They kept laughing, a manic sort of laugh that made you feel chills instead of the desire to join in.
“Ching chong Chinese baaaaaaaalls! Ching chong Chinese baaaaaaaalls!”
No one saw me hiding behind a tree as I witnessed this moment. To be fair, I wasn’t that noticeable. It was dark, and I was silent, half due to being so shaken up and taken aback. The other half due to boiling anger.
I recoiled. Betrayed by the town and people I call home.
I can’t get that stupid sing-songy tune out of my head. Every word has its own rough punch.
Many of my Asian American friends can tell you the story of their first experience with racism. Typically it goes like this: “I remember when I was first called a _________.” Many words fill in the blank: chink, banana, ching chong, coin slot, dog eater, you name it.
I could never relate to this though. Having only lived in the United States from birth to 10-years-old, I can only remember the sweetness of my childhood. I remember proudly reciting the pledge of allegiance every morning, reading Junie B. Jones and the Magic Tree House series at the public library, playing on the monkey bars, and learning how to jump off the swings. The real tough memories started when I moved to South Korea for middle and high school. Eight years later though, I’m back home, ready to taste the sweetness of my American childhood into my American college.
Little did I know.
A series of “Why didn’t you -” and “What if -” questions from that moment antagonize me to this day. I repeat the words over and over again. Why didn’t I say something? What would have happened if I didn’t hide behind that tree? What are you supposed to do when you’re a witness?
Being angry about racial inequality is easy. Navigating, processing, and articulating race — that’s hard. It’s a conversation and process I don’t know how to undertake without stammering, fearful to offend. Where do you even start? Does it ever end?
People say that education is the answer to preventing situations like this. If we’re taught to understand issues like privilege, access, and opportunity, then we should know that it is courtesy not to joke about it. Yet, even at a renown institution like Northwestern (#12 university in the nation), we still face it.
While I’m thankful that this was my first time ever experiencing racism on campus, I can’t help but feel like I’m not the only one. Maybe we need to start a conversation about race. Maybe it’s a forum. Maybe it’s a gigantic Sustained Dialogue. I’m not sure what exactly needs to take form and place, but I think sharing these stories are a good first step. We can’t ignore it, and we can’t pretend shit like this doesn’t exist. So let’s talk about it.