First published in The Stranger, Jan 24–30, 1995
This is a true story, which is to say, it is as factual as I can make it. These events really happened.
It is 1991, in Manhattan. I am standing on the Times Square subway platform, waiting to transfer to the uptown 1-train, which will take me to Columbia University, where I am studying to be a high school English teacher. A subway musician is playing “Amazing Grace” on a saxophone. After a few minutes wait, the train arrives and I get on.
There’s a seat available and I take it. The row is crowded and I have to sort of squeeze in between two people. I notice that the ungroomed homeless-looking white man to my right is making strange, though ostensibly jovial comments to the woman on the other side. He’s coming on to her, none too discreetly. I feel badly for her.
But then he notices me. He leans hard into my shoulder. I glance at him.
“Hey, don’t push me,” he says. “Young people today got no respect for their elders. Asshole.”
I know the City etiquette. I ignore him.
“Punk,” he says under his breath. “I was fightin’ for this country while you were still shittin’ in your pants.”
He looks me over. He seems to notice, for the first time, that I am Asian. He feigns a friendly tone, just as he had with the woman. “You know those Chinese restaurants. You just can’t trust ‘em. Just last week, Board of Health closed down another one. It was right there in The Post. Seems they’d been makin’ chop suey outa the neighborhood kitty cats. They opened up the freezer and whaddaya know? Morris the Cat. Seems Mr. Ching Chong was just having a little joke, huh?”
I look him in the eyes briefly, but steadily, to show him that I am not intimidated, and then I look away. This seems to infuriate him. From this point, his diatribe seems to pick up momentum with each new sentence. He riffs on the Chinese for a while, and then on the Koreans.
“…and the Koreans, they’re no fuckin’ better. Come back, fuckin’ Charlie’s got a grocery store. Taking away jobs from real Americans, the people who founded this goddamn country….”
Others are beginning to look at him, then at me. His face, only inches away from my ear, is totally focused upon mine. His eyes pull at mine, but I will not look at him. His breath and saliva fleck my cheek. Even with peripheral vision, I can see that his features are distorted with hatred.
On the topic of the Vietnamese, he seems to hit his stride.
“…now Pol Pot, there was a sweet guy. Hah? Mass murdered millions of his own people. He used to cut open a guy’s belly, pull out his intestines, and set the fucker on fire while his wife and children watched. This he would do to doctors, lawyers, leaders of the community. Vicious, sick fucks. And the shit they would do with bamboo would turn the stomach of any halfway civilized man or woman….”
What can I do? Sitting there under the steady stream of invective, I try to think, my reaction passing from annoyance to anger. It does not occur to me that this guy might be dangerous, that he might experience a Vietnam flashback and kill me thinking I’m a Viet Cong. Instead, I fleetingly imagine trying to reason with him, telling him that I was born in this country, that my parents were born here, that my Japanese-American father was awarded a purple heart during his service in the Korean War. But listening to him, I become angrier and angrier. I imagine catching this guy in the throat with a fist or elbow. I wish for a moment that I could press a .38 into this asshole’s ribs. I wish I could make him stop.
Maybe I could just leave. Get up and move to another car. No, I think, he’d take that as a victory. He’d have gotten to me; he’d have gotten a reaction. So I look at him again, my face hard but calm: “Have a pleasant day, sir.”
He doesn’t miss a beat or even take a breath before responding. “DROP DEAD,” he hisses. “You hear me? I’ll piss on your grave.” He’s even angrier.
I can feel my adrenaline flowing and my breath becoming faster, but I know that he is watching my every move, hoping to get a rise out of me. I begin to hum a melody very softly, much too quietly for him to hear over his own tirade, the subway musician’s Amazing Grace, just to keep my breathing steady and to give myself something else to listen to. I grew up in a culture in which anger was not considered an acceptable public behavior. So I know how to hide anger.
A tactic: I chuckle softly. He notices this, it makes him angrier, and his diatribe becomes even nastier. He redirects his invective toward the Japanese now, watching to see which thrust will draw blood.
“…now the Japanese are a whole different ball game. These are the smart ones. Fucked us at Pearl, and fucked us at the Patent Office. These guys are gonna take over the whole world. Very smart. Next thing you know, we’re all gonna be speaking Japanese. The president of the United States is gonna have to check with Japan before he dicks his wife. ‘Is it okay, Tojo? It’s been a month! I’m gettin’ kinda restless here!’” Chuckles from a couple of fellow passengers. “Yup,” he says, looking around at his audience. “Japanese. Velly smart. Big brains with little dicks. But you know who rebuilt that fuckin’ country, don’t you? You know who those people have to thank for their sushi bars and their geisha gash—Douglas fucking MACARTHUR!”
This—my silence—is the right course of action. He’s trying to make me mad. He’s trying to find out what my nationality is so that he can properly focus his poisonous language. I tune him out, but desperately wish I had a tape-recorder. I want to listen to this, examine it later, but I can’t afford to listen now. My anger is barely under control as it is. Even now, behind my amused smile and my humming, I want to swing my right elbow up and back, breaking the bones in his face.
Lessons I once thought useless come back to me. My father used to tell me: “Remember the bamboo and the oak tree.” The flexible bamboo bends in a high wind, but the rigid oak breaks. (“Yeah, dad, whatever.”) My Aikido sensei—my teacher—told me that nothing is as strong as a mirror. The founding principle of Aikido is not to meet an attacker with equal force, but to reflect the violence harmlessly away. Don’t block a punch, but step aside and let the attacker spend his energy fighting the empty air.
I think about anything except the man talking into the side of my head. I think about Martin Luther King, Jr. and nonviolent resistance. I think about the other non-Asians on the train and what they might be thinking. I think about the young black woman in Tower Records whom I overheard saying “…yeah, but I don’t consider Asians a minority,” the implication being that we do not experience racial prejudice, that we are the “whitest” of the non-whites.
Then his voice breaks through. This one sounds like a threat.
“You should all be lined up against a wall and killed. A forty-five against the back of the head—BOOM! Just like that. Sayonara, Sammy. One at a time. Every fucking one of you. And you know what? You know what? They should start with your family. Mom and dad, first in line, buddy.”
I wonder if anyone back in Hawai’i will believe this at all. Even if they do believe, it won’t seem real to them. The sickening ugliness of this man’s raw, inflamed hatred is so exaggerated that it’s almost beyond belief. He’s like a badly-written fictional character.
Now he’s telling me that in China, prisoners are shot in the head and the executioner picks up a bit of “gristle” from the prisoner’s blown-apart head and eats it. “Animals,” he says, his voice dripping with venom and disgust. “That’s all you are, animals. Living proof that dogs fucked monkeys.”
At 96th street, he gets out. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I think he looks and sounds frustrated, which perhaps means I have won. But he doesn’t stop talking until he is on his feet and out the subway door. His departure is like a great exhalation of toxic gas. The other passengers appear visibly relieved. I sigh and try to relax, but the muscles in my neck and stomach are tight and knotted. The woman who had been sitting to his right, looks over at me and shakes her head sympathetically. I try to manage a polite smile, but can’t. I feel like I’m going into shock. My head is light, and my hands are damp. The pupils in my eyes must be constricting because everything in the subway car looks black-and-white. I don’t want to pass out, but I don’t want to put my head between my knees in front of everyone. Not after my I-am-a-rock performance. So I just concentrate and breathe steadily to keep the oxygen in my blood.
I look at the floor and try to comprehend what has just happened.
I get out two stops later, at 110th street. Using the bank machine there, I realize that my hands are shaking.
Later, my African American friends tell me that they’ve had similar experiences. They sympathize, but it’s clear that this is not a big deal. This, to me, says volumes about their New York, about the world as they’ve experienced it, a world in which being the object of racial hatred is so commonplace as to be merely noted with dismay, a shaking of the head, and then to be shrugged off.
What kind of city is it in which a man can deliver a sustained invective to a total stranger for eleven or twelve minutes? And what makes me think he was crazy? He never seemed irrational or confused. In fact, in retrospect, I recognize that he was quite clever. I listened to him testing my patience, measuring my responses, trying to locate a vulnerable spot. He wasn’t irrational. He seemed to know exactly what he was doing. Perhaps I would be diminishing the sick truth if I said he was crazy. Perhaps the truth is that he is a hateful, hurtful, and sane racist—and he is not alone.
Perhaps the others on the train were behind me in spirit. Perhaps not. Except for the woman sitting on the other side of the racist, no one indicated support. Maybe they shared the man’s sentiments. At least one or two were amused at his wit, evidenced by their low chuckles; maybe they were silently cheering him on. The things the man said were not so bizarre as to be unfamiliar to me. They were the traditional racial stereotypes of Asians: the ghoulish Chinaman, the outsider taking away the jobs of “real Americans,” the sneaky Jap invader, the sexless Asian men, the Asian whores, the villainous Fu Manchu, and the less-fully-evolved “little brown men.” He was merely a manifestation of the anti-Asian hatred and ignorance simmering below the surface of much of America. And for every racist who introduces himself to me, I am sure there are a hundred who feel as he does, but who will not be as forthright.
Living in New York, I have heard unimaginably bigoted things said about Jews, women, Anglos, gays and African Americans, all spoken in confidential tones by people who would never say them to the faces of the people they secretly loathed. So I believe the same words spoken by the man on the uptown 1-train are said by ordinary people all over America, but in perfectly reasonable tones, over kitchen tables, in gas stations, in shopping malls, in city halls, and in schools.