The Permanence of Memory

They call me a dirty chink and a gook, using the tips of their forefingers to slant their eyes upward while speaking to me in the tones of an Asian language. Ching chong choooww, and they laugh and laugh. One wants to spit on me, and I can see the saliva forming in his smooth, white cheeks as he puckers his lips to deliver the blow. He decides against it and spats on the ground instead. “Go back to China or wherever you’re from, chink.”

“Get back on the boat,” they yell from the end of the cul-de-sac, their chins lifted in defiance, middle fingers raised up at me despite being with other friends. “Go back where you come from. You don’t belong here.”

Not one incident. So many. I’ve lost count. On school busses, on playgrounds, walking down the street, in stores. People don’t want me here, and I know that. I knew that every year since I was old enough to know that those names, those phrases, were meant to draw lines in the sand. You come to realize that the border always exists—imagined or real—the dividing line between outside and inside a constant threshold to belonging you will never cross. We have no place, really, in any country. We are refugees and immigrants—people of color—constantly negotiating our place in a nation that needs us and hates us all at once. We are visitors, interlopers, outsiders. I’ve lived here nearly 46 years, became naturalized at age 3, earned 4 degrees, pay taxes, and I’m still not always welcome in a place that defined itself by taking over sovereign nations—they themselves immigrants. It’s been a long while since someone sang to me the song made popular by “Lady and the Tramp” or imitated Jerry Lewis’s Asian caricature in front of me on the playground. Still, I’m hyper aware. Sometimes a look is all that’s needed—a loaded silence hanging over me while pumping gas in the wrong part of town, the confederate flag stickered proudly on the back of a truck, the news of the day bringing in stories of more people inhumanely detained. The line is always there. It’s not just my imagination. Go back where you come from still chases me down streets and slides and memories.    

Photo Credit: Mike Frailey   

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