BY MEG LEE CHIN
Life could have been idyllic in Pembroke if not for the rather random circumstances of my birth. I was a half-breed – a child of mixed race. Momma and Papa just happened to have come from opposite sides of the Earth. This was frowned upon on our little planet. Some believed I should not have been born. I could not understand why, because I didn’t feel any different from my friends or cousins.
“How am I different? What do they see?” I puzzled over this, as I peered into the mirror. Staring back at me were two eyes, one nose and a mouth – the exact same as what my cousins had.
But I was treated differently.
For some unfathomable reason I was singled out for the aggressions of puffed-up people. By “puffed-up” I do not mean that they were fat. Some were fat, some skinny, some young, some old, but all appeared to puff themselves up to look bigger when they saw me. The puffed-up people would appear out of nowhere. Often it happened when I walked home from school alone.
“Chinese girl! Chinese girl!”
Children pointed and laughed. They puffed themselves up.
This was the era of the Vietnam war. With my six year old “slanty eyes” I must have looked like the enemy. America was at war with a country where the people looked a lot like Momma, my sisters and I. I didn’t know what war was. But I knew it must have been pretty awful if it made people hate me for no reason.
In my world children were barbaric creatures who taunted me cruelly, so I relied on adults for sanctuary. Raising my hand and answering questions in the classroom was satisfying. I spoke out often and eagerly. But while outspoken in the classroom, I was hopelessly lost outside of it and afraid of other children.
Each day after school, I passed an ominous house. It had a grassy yard usually full of small fiendish children. These tiny devils took delight in my daily humiliations. No sooner did they see me, then they would be at the fence baying for blood. Their snout-like turned up freckled noses and expressions of sadistic glee greeted me daily with high pitched squeals and snorting taunts. They were the sort Mom would call “low class”.
After one particularly harrowing day, as I as braced myself for the usual onslaught, a grown up appeared. I nearly burst with joy at seeing her. I relaxed my pace, confident that as an adult she would put an end to the taunting. But my happiness soon came to a screeching halt.
Unlike the welcoming, kind face of my teacher, this woman’s face was scrunched up and tight. She puffed up her already robust body. Her blue eyes danced with ferocious joy. To my horror she joined the taunts of the jeering little animals.
My heart plunged from elated expectation into despair. I looked down at my feet. My eyes searched desperately for an escape but there was none. Resigned, I braced myself, took a deep breath and got ready to simply endure the humiliation. “Here we go again…” I said to myself. I fought back the tears with every inch of my will.
I smiled weakly hoping to appease their hostility and tried to look as non-threatening as possible. But this only seemed to heighten their glee and intensify the taunting. So I focused upon putting one foot in front of the other and did my best to keep my head high and otherwise appear “normal”. Each step was an eternity. Quietly I counted the steps away from danger and toward escape. Silently, I prayed no one I knew would come along. Being picked on was humiliating enough. I would have hated for anyone to see me too. I just wished it would all disappear.
As a sophisticated and worldly grown-up, I can now say the word “chink”. But back then the very sound of the word could reduce me to a ghost and leave me to wail quietly inside. The dark world I endured was too ugly to expose. So I hid my daily humiliations from everyone. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.
“How was you school today?” asked Momma. “Fine” I said changing the subject. “Momma must never know the truth” I warned myself. For there was nothing more heart-breaking than my Momma’s face when she was unhappy. Her dark eyes stared and blinked like ancient pools. Her palpable pain made the whole world seem to wilt. The weight of the air crushed your lungs. I could not bear the thought of hurting her.
Like most humans, I manufactured a happy image for myself. The story went like this; My name is “Margaret” and I am a miniature of my smart, beautiful Momma – not the horrible, ugly “chink” that the other children laugh at. Hence I pretended “the chink” didn’t exist. Racism was a painful and uncomfortable glitch in my otherwise happy universe.
My cousins must have quietly understood. To this day barely a word is said.
Later in life I would experience the ugliness of intolerance again. But in a strange twist of fate it would be not at the hands of racists but by those allegedly in the opposite camp.
These were educated liberal people who railed against those who disagreed with their world view. But despite their words there was no mistaking the puffed up bigotry. Hatred shines clearly through those twisted puffs of air known as “words”.
The onetime frontwoman for the all-female noise unit Crunch, Meg Lee Chin was also a member of the seminal industrial supergroup Pigface. Born in Taipei, Taiwan, her father was a US Air Force electronics engineer. Her mother was Taiwanese.