My first schoolyard fight occurred in the 7th grade during a lunch recess. I was attending Memorial Middle School at the time. The yard itself was rather large. As you can see in the picture, it included three softball/baseball fields, a large intervening field connecting the three diamonds and a blacktop. Clearly it was impossible for teachers to keep track of all the kids, and the students knew this. So, quite often, in hidden corners and far-off tree lines, kids would engage in make-out sessions, look at porn magazines (no internet/wifi back then) and so on. This is also why my first fight was able to break out and last as long as it did. (By the way, to orient yourselves as to the point of this series of posts, it might be helpful to read at least the first half of the first entry.)
I don’t recall exactly what had ensued prior to the moment that triggered the fight. I do remember that my buddies and I had exchanged some words with this other guy Tommy G.* and his two friends. Some curses were shouted, but the intent behind the words was mostly playful jabbing. However, as Tommy started walking away with his friends, he turned around, gave me the finger and started with the racial slurs. They were the typical ones. You know, the “ching chong, go back to China” type of thing.
When I saw the gestures and heard the words, I didn’t immediately see red. However, I was determined to let him know I wasn’t going to take something like that lying down. “This guy needs to know we Koreans aren’t a bunch of nervous, nerdy pushovers (as the stereotype went).” So I ran up to him, grabbed him, and put him in a headlock. He was bent over, facing the ground as I stood there trying to fend off his attempts to break the lock. After a few moments, I looked to my friends, and I started smiling and laughing, basically communicating, “Look at this idiot trying to mess with me.” But then, the friend to my left said to me, “I think you’re actually choking him. Maybe you should let him go?” I didn’t realize it until my friend told me, but my forearm had been pressing down on his throat blocking his ability to breathe. As I let go, I was about to apologize by saying, “Sorry man, I didn’t mean to choke you,” but I didn’t get the chance.
The moment he was free, he lunged at me with everything he had and knocked me to the ground. When I opened my eyes, Tommy was on top of me with his right fist raised. He looked beet red, and anger lit up his eyes. I could tell he wanted to pummel my face into a pulp. So I knew I had to get out from under him. Thankfully, he didn’t pin me properly, so I grabbed his shoulders and used my right leg to push as hard as I could into his stomach so that he flipped over my head.
We both got up quickly and started exchanging blows. (I don’t think any of them landed.) Almost immediately, a massive crowd of students formed around us shouting and screaming, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” While they were “kind” enough to give us enough space to keep fighting, what they didn’t realize was that they were hogging all the air. But this didn’t deter either of us. I tried a few round-house kicks to Tommy’s head (I had taken Tae Kwon Do for some time by then), but they were all glancing blows. However, the kicks did have the effect of creating some distance between us. So I used the time it would take him to close that gap to lean back and tell my friend to clear the crowd behind me. My plan was to get enough distance so I could give Tommy a flying side kick to the head. This was my best kick, and I felt reasonably confident that I could land it because it seemed like he was experiencing tunnel vision. The hope, of course, was to end the fight more quickly. My friend successfully cleared some open space, so I turned my back on Tommy and tried to walk quickly into the clearing. Unfortunately (or, fortunately), I wasn’t fast enough. He had caught up to me, grabbed me from behind, and started landing blows to the back of my head and neck. They didn’t hurt because by that time the both of us were utterly exhausted from the lack of oxygen in the fighting circle.
Thankfully, at this point, the teachers had finally broken into the crowd, and they pulled us apart. While we were being dragged away, my friend kept trying to get my attention. He looked at me with this really cheesy smile, and he was giving me two overly enthusiastic thumbs up like I had accomplished something great. It was actually a weird, fiendish look, like something out of the movie Gladiator where spectators’ eyes are glazed over with malicious joy because they just saw men kill each other. Disturbing. Also, I can’t believe crazy thoughts like doing a flying side kick to someone’s head occur in the minds of middle school kids! Thankfully, I didn’t get the opportunity to use it.
Anyway, while we were being escorted to the vice-principal’s office, for some reason I started sobbing. I think the intensity of the fight was too much, so my body just started reacting the only way it knew how to release the trauma. But it quickly subsided, and sanity and calm returned. When we got to the vice-principal, she just chastised us with words of disbelief and that she expected better from us, but she didn’t suspend us. While she was talking, I looked over at Tommy, and I saw that he was crying. I also noticed a dark, red mark in the middle of his neck. When I saw that mark, it dawned on me that I had in fact choked him pretty badly with that headlock, and I felt bad. After a few more words from the vice-principal, we were sent to the gym to participate in an assembly.
Believe it or not, a few weeks after this, Tommy and I became friends. By chance, I actually met his girlfriend Jennifer* in the library, and she was nice to me. I would say she was the first pretty, white girl to give me any type of attention during middle school. In fact, she said to me, “I heard you kicked my boyfriend’s ass.” (Actually, it was more of a draw, but that’s how the rumor mill relayed the story.) After that, Jennifer and I talked and joked around in the library for a bit, and she complimented me saying, “I think you’re a funny guy.”
To some, what I’m about to say might sound odd, but this encounter with Jennifer was a fairly significant milestone. You see, up to that point in my life, I had believed three things: one, that all Korean/Chinese/Japanese girls were ugly and inferior to white girls; two, that only white girls were pretty and desirable; three, that white girls did not like Korean boys. The net result, of course, was that white girls intimidated me. I literally never spoke to them willingly. So when Jennifer talked to me and complimented me, when she laughed and giggled at my antics at a pool party, and when she invited me to her graduation party the following year, I felt like I was on top of the world; like somehow I had been accepted; that I reached a new level in my social life.
What makes me sad when I think about how I perceived girls at that time is that racist experiences, in fact, had changed me. I remember distinct moments in elementary school and early junior high where I would be sitting in class thinking, “Korean girls are so ugly. I think white girls are so much prettier. I wish I was white.” By constantly being told we had slanted eyes, (gross) black hair, that we were quiet and nerdy, that we ate funny food and so on, I began to believe the lies. Overtly, I would say I was proud to be Korean, but deep down inside, I loathed myself and my race, especially the girls. (By the way, there was maybe one or two other Asian students in my elementary and middle schools, which made the feeling of isolation that much more intense.)
Thankfully, I got over most of my disgust with Asian girls by the mid to end of junior high. But it really wasn’t until college that I finally started to heal from this warped perception of myself and Asian women and from my being intimidated by white girls. But even then, when I met girls with the more “exotic” Asian features, they still had a repulsive effect on me. “Anglicized” Asian women still appealed to me more. They had big and lighter eyes, lighter hair, whiter skin, et cetera (like the anime character to the right; notice all the exaggerated Caucasian features which are considered desirable among many Asians even to this day). While some might write this off as personal taste, I firmly believe, at least for me, my warped “taste” had its roots in my early childhood experiences with racism.
As I grew into an adult, I found beautiful women that did not have “anglicized” features from every culture, and I was able to interact with all races and genders comfortably. But even today, the memories of the past are still clear as day. I don’t remember them with bitterness. But I do remember the effect they had on me, and my hope is that my children will not have to go through the developmental issues I had to face because of racism. However, I am not naive. I know they will experience being stereotyped at some level. So I will do the best I can to prepare them to face and to process these encounters with grace, faith, healthy perspective and confidence. What upsets me about how I handled racism in the past is that I would either let the racism lower me or I would try my best to fight the stereotype. In both instances, racism was dictating my options and actions. After years of struggle and as trite as this might sound, I have found the best way to live and to grow is just to love myself for who I am. I pray my children learn this lesson faster than I.
Anyway, let me finish the story about Tommy. After meeting Jennifer in the library, he and I met at a park, and we apologized to each other. He then invited me to his house. Over that summer we and a few other guys from school built a dirt track in his backyard where we raced r/c (radio controlled) cars.
The summer after the fight was a good summer. Actually, it was a great one. And Tommy was actually a pretty cool guy; he was much friendlier than I had imagined prior. Getting to know him that summer humanized him for me. I hope the same was true for him concerning me.
In the end, I think we came to a better understanding of each other, but we never actually got too close. In fact, I had a cautious skepticism about him even as I got to know him as a person. Every time I hung out with him, the thought that always crossed my mind was, “It was so easy for this guy to succumb to racial slurs. It was like second nature. I wonder what really goes on in the minds of white folks when they see people like me?” Ultimately, in my pubescent mind, I was asking, “Why are we so quick to stereotype, and why does it seem so fundamental to our nature?”
[By the way, this is the first time I’ve shared stories like this in any form or medium. Even my wife hasn’t heard these. So, she also is learning about them for the first time as I write these blogs. Lastly, while some of the details above might seem gratuitous, I included them for two reasons: one, for the sake of immersion; two, to keep your attention so you get to the more important points at the end of the blog. Everyone always likes to hear the juicy details of a fight. ;)]
*Names of people have been changed.