As the mom of a tween-aged son, I can never predict what words are going to come out of his mouth next. Even so, I was taken aback when we were having our routine pre-bedtime conversation and he made this unexpected statement: “Mom, I need to tell you something. Someone made a racist comment at me today.”
Racist. It was the first time I’d ever heard him or any of my three boys utter the word. Although our family had often discussed issues of race and culture in our house, including our own Korean ethnic heritage, we had never done so as a result of any direct race-related barbs. But now my son explained that one of his fellow Little League teammates had used the phrase “ching chong chang” as a joke. Then, after my son tried to explain the inappropriateness of the phrase, the teammate responded by ramping up his use of the phrase, then recruiting another teammate to join in and follow suit.
My son concluded with words that pierced me through: “Sometimes I wish I weren’t Asian. I wish I were more American.”
This from the boy who had been born in the heartland of the U.S., in a tiny Iowan farm town, surrounded by cornfields, cow herds, and the descendants of Dutch immigrants. I had wanted to believe that it didn’t matter if our ancestors came from Korea rather than the Netherlands, that we were all united as Americans together. But my family was the only one to cause heads to turn whenever we walked down the street or through the grocery store aisles. You don’t belong here, the curious stares implied. Where did you come from?