Get Back on the Boat

When I think of school I am caught off guard by the multitude of racialized experiences that sent me daily preparing for battle.  I remember the kid that pushed me down in a bus and called me a nigger, stepping on my head as he walked over me and out the swinging doors.  I saw kids in seats all around me, oblivious to the behaviors of others because, back then, a push and a shove were common experiences for kids riding to and from home in yellow busses.  No one classified such incidences as bullying and frankly, no one really cared.  I knew that when I caught the eye of the bus driver as I was getting up.  He had seen the incident and did nothing.  Said nothing.  But he watched me as I got back up, gathered my things, and made my way out the door.  On the bus I knew I was on my own.

I remember walking down the halls in middle school and this kid, whose patriotism was apparent in the camouflage gear he wore, daily honored the military and his family’s service.  Even in the sixth grade he understood America’s loss in Vietnam, and it mixed in with loose strands of my ponytail as he uttered the word, “Charlie” every time I walked by.  Then came the Vietnam War movies, open wounds festering in titles such as “The Deer Hunter” in 1978, “Apocalypse Now” in 1979, “Platoon” in 1986 and “Full Metal Jacket” in 1987.  People loved that movie, “Full Metal Jacket.” Matthew Modine’s signature hair flop was still reminiscent of his role two years’ prior in “Vision Quest.” More importantly, lines from the movie became fodder for teenage language rebellion and movie quotes appeared daily in many late 80s conversations.  Stanley Kubrick’s sound bytes also made their way into 2 Live Crew lyrics as homemade kick boxes bumped bass tones and the phrase, “Me so horny.  Me love you long time” in parking lots made for high school students trying to out-blast one another.  The phrase stuck with me even after the kids had gone home, the music switched off, the bass still lingering.  It was replaced with enough males to repeat it to me as an invocation for me to respond.

School was where I learned that the red, classroom door that took off my fingertip in second grade caused less injury to me than the voices of others, intent on putting me in spaces that relegated me to identities I never wanted to claim: prostitute, enemy, other.  I can’t remember how many times fellow students told me to get back on the boat, making it clear that my presence was neither appreciated nor wanted.  I already struggled with that concept as an adoptee; I added that understanding to my experience in school as each day presented me with a need to defend myself from the degradation of others.

Copyright, Joie Norby Lê, Ph.D. From “Same Same but Different: The Self-Portraiture of a Vietnam War Adoptee and the Poststructural Language of Alterity” Photo: Mekong Delta, Viet Nam, 1999
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