“My dad killed people like you,” Bobby Jones yelled.
My five-year-old body twisted into a tight knot. Heat in my stomach travel up my chest and settled in my throat. I kept my head down, blinked hard, and watched the ground—one saddle shoe, then the other, moving me in measured slow motion to kindergarten.
I didn’t know what it meant to be killed. Didn’t know anyone who had died, hadn’t seen death on television, and hadn’t even lost a goldfish. But every day, Bobby waited at the bottom of the hill to taunt and follow me to school. As much as I wanted to run, I knew I’d get caught. Bobby was bigger and older than I was. So I listened to the calming sound of gravel underfoot and said nothing, my throat burning, my pace quickening.
Before school one day, my friend Peggy linked arms with me as we walked to school. “This” she said, holding up five fingers, “means we’ve been alive for five years.”
“What’s a year?” I asked.
Later, I learned there were 365 days in a year, that in 1942 America and Japan were at war, that 120,000 Japanese Americans were put into concentration camps, and Bobby’s dad really killed people like me.
But in 1960, as I walked to kindergarten, I didn’t understand this. I just knew whenever I saw Bobby Jones, my throat burned and my voice disappeared.
“Bobby doesn’t know any better,” Mom said, pursing her lips and shaking her head. She handed me a freshly made rice ball wrapped in seaweed. As the steaming grains warmed my fingertips, she enveloped me in her arms whispering, “You are safe, Honey. Don’t worry. You are safe.”
She read me books about bullies, trying to help me get through my day. She taught me to say, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But they did.
I found the greatest consolation when my mother gave me a new word: “Ig-nor-ant.” I’d never heard such a long, smart, and powerful word before. When I said it aloud, I breathed more easily. It meant that Bobby Jones didn’t understand. He was mean because he hadn’t learned any other way to be. Mom didn’t tell me that we’d moved into a neighborhood after the covenant that restricted people of color was made illegal. She didn’t mention that the previous owners of our house knocked on everyone’s door on our street to ask if it would be okay if our family moved in, nor did she say that the new neighbors across Ballinger Way woke up one morning with a cross burning on their lawn.
Not long after learning my new word, I headed off to school with Peggy and braced myself as usual, seeing Bobby Jones waiting at the bottom of the hill. His body towered behind me, stepping on the heels of my shoes. We quickened our pace. But then I got the nerve and turned to face Bobby: “Ig-nor-ant! You are ig-nor-ant, ” I shouted into his sneer. “It means you don’t understand. You haven’t learned any other way!”
Shaking, I noticed this big word hit him with its multi-syllable zing. It was like saying, “Abracadabra,” stunning him with its magical, grown up sound, his blue eyes wide, his mouth agape. I turned and walked—one step and then the other—my heart pounding, the rocks crunching, leaving Bobby further and further behind until we rounded the bend out of sight. Then I took off running, my legs flying, knowing Bobby couldn’t catch me, knowing that this, at last, was my liberation from being killed: words.
I used this word more and more after that. When kids pulled the edges of their eyes into slants saying, “Ching-chong-chinaman. How do you see out of those tiny slits?!” I’d say, “You’re ignorant! You haven’t been taught any other way to think!”
But day after day, year after year, ignorance prevailed with words like, “Go back where you came from!” “Slant eyes! “What’s that stuff you’re eating?!”
I grew accustomed to grown ups asking, “Where did you come from?”
“I was born here.”
“But, where did your parents’ come from?”
“They were born here, too.”
“But, where did your grandparents come from?”
Then I told them they came from Japan, a place neither my parents, nor I had ever visited. Pretty soon I got used to saying, “I was born here, my parents were born here, but my grandparents came from Japan.” This became my adjusted way of listening and responding to my classmates, their parents, and my teachers.
Once when I was twelve years old, my sister and I went to the housewares department at the Bon Marche to look for an anniversary gift for our parents. I remember going to the cashier and asking if she could point me to a special platter for appetizers. We planned to make “Pigs in a Blanket” out of Bisquick and serve it on a new platter.
“Did you just come from China?” she asked.
I glared. “No, we were born here.”
The cashier looked surprised and added, “I mean, did you just come from the chinaware department?”
Looking back, I understand my readiness to be defensive. Now, years later, I realize I am still afraid of being killed. Sometimes, without warning, a racist comment is hurled out-of-the-blue, “Go back where you came from!” For a split second, I am ready to run. But where would I go? America is where I’m from. It’s where my parents were born. It’s where my children were born. In the midst of this comment, I feel trapped, spinning in others’ ignorance over and over again.
Comments like these jolt me out of my familiar life with family and friends, eating the foods we love, speaking together without concern. I notice the weariness on our eyes, patience thin in the midst of others’ hate. We’ve all grown up afraid—our only crime being born who we are.
While raising my children, I remember hearing their classmates say similar words other kids used to say to me, “Where did you come from? How do you see out of those tiny slits?” When my daughter came home in tears one day, saying that her classmates made fun of the rice balls I’d put in her lunch, I was shocked. Her classmates were from well-educated, well-traveled families. Rice and toasted seaweed were not that uncommon.
We used to pick fresh seaweed at Alki Beach close to the water’s edge. There the nori was cleaner, billowing up like jellyfish, their silkiness distinct to the touch. As people walked by, some asked if I had clams under the seaweed. I told them no, we ate the nori seasoned with soy sauce and sugar.
“Just don’t pack that kind of food in her lunch,” one mother said when I shared that my daughter was being teased.
I couldn’t say a word after that.
Instead, I talked to my daughter’s teachers, told them how hard it was for her to be taunted for eating the food she loved. I asked if I could show her class and their parents how to make rice balls by salting their wet palms, pressing the warm grains into a ball, and covering the soft rice in a blanket of seaweed. Very soon, almost every kid in class came to school with rice balls and nori.
Now twenty-five years later, I can find sushi at Safeway. I used to think it only took time to become comfortable with something different and not kill it off. But a few weeks ago, while my grown daughter was walking her dog near her apartment, a man watering his yard suddenly turned his hose on her, shouting, “Go back where you came from!”
Still wet and shaking, she sobbed into the phone, telling me how scared she was. I wanted to shout at this guy, “You are ignorant! You are hateful because you haven’t been taught any other way!” But then I realized, I am only repeating the words I learned in kindergarten.