I’ve heard variations on this theme for what feels like my whole life. The blank in the title has ranged from China, Japan, Korea, to Hong Kong – and once, incredibly, even Burma. I still don’t know how an ignorant white boy in the Houston burbs, who at the time couldn’t even name the states bordering Texas, knew about Myanmar.
My first memory of hearing this is first grade, right around the time I realized that white boys would pick fights with me simply because of my ethnicity. A related memory is the “a-ha” light bulb moment I had at age 7, when I discovered that if you keep punching, even if you’ve been hurt, you’ll win. Maybe not with the teachers or administrators, but I got into progressively fewer fights each year, until we moved to Texas.
Two months ago, I was watching the news because I feel incomplete without constant heartburn. The scene was a Donald Trump rally, and one of his supporters in the background yelled it, presumably at either a reporter or a protestor. You only have to hear it directed at you once, at age 5, to have a heightened awareness of that hurtful sentence four decades later. It was unmistakable, though, and I froze. To my dismay and horror, not a single talking head noticed. I scanned social media, switched channels, and … nothing, nichts, nada. I don’t even know if it was a live or taped video of a Trump rally, don’t know its location, so YouTube wasn’t an option.
Then it happened again, this time at a playground. I was off that day, and took my kids to a playground closer to my in-laws’ neighborhood than mine. The heat and humidity weren’t nearly as oppressive as they had been, the sun was out – a perfect summer day. He was about six feet tall, white, with dark hair and a mustache. A red Trump hat looked like a sundae’s cherry atop his small head and pear-shaped body. We nodded at each other, the silent solidarity of two dads watching their kids at a playground. I noticed that he’d look in my direction occasionally, but I paid no attention. I tend to keep to myself at the playground. I much prefer to watch my kids play, not engaging with parents I don’t know. Not so Mr. Trump Hat, who found a kindred political spirit in one of the mothers there.
Their conversation, audible from eight to ten feet away, was about what I expected. Immigrants bad, homosexuality deviant, all lives matter, a word salad like a misfiring car engine – it was like when Oswald Bates conjured words from thin air simply because they were multi-syllabic. My kids had wisely stayed away from Trump Hat’s son, who seemed to have problems with playing too rough, and cursing every time he fell. Then Trump Hat crossed a red line. He made some comment about “don’t know why we just don’t nuke those sand n—-rs.” My tweet storm about it begins here.
My sudden rage at that instant clouds my memory, but I said something like, “Hey, man, watch your language. My kids are here too and they don’t need to hear that.”
“What the fuck is it to you?” Trump Hat started walking closer to me, apparently thinking I would shrink away from confrontation. Sorry, but very few unarmed people physically intimidate me, let alone someone who looks like 150 pounds of chewed bubble gum. I kept looking over at my kids, who thankfully were oblivious to the fact that their old man was about to – what, get into a fistfight at the playground? Trump Hat replied that this is a free country, he had a right to his opinion, neither of which statement I’d ever disagree with, but then came the zinger. “If you don’t like it, why don’t you go back to fuckin’ China or wherever the fuck you’re from?”
“Seriously, man? You want everyone here to know how ignorant and stupid you are right now?” His recent compatriot quickly gathered up her kids and left. One other dad I knew peripherally from this park, another minority veteran, but with horrible taste in moto-themed Marine Corps hats, came up. I couldn’t help but laugh at how ludicrous this entire scene was. I was determined to not hit the guy. I didn’t want to be arrested over something as ridiculous as this. I was afraid, though not for my own safety; rather, I was afraid that if I hit Trump Hat, I might not want to stop. I knew that if I got into my first fight in 13 years, the release would be nothing less than exhilarating; I also knew I didn’t want to disappoint my children, who would very likely see their father get arrested for aggravated battery.
“I’ll knock your chink ass from here to Brooklyn.” I asked, with what, his belly? I called for my kids, told them we were going to a different playground, this one was dirty. In the few seconds it took for them to run over to me, I told Trump Hat, if he wanted to throw down, now was his chance, but I’d also beat him bloody in front of his son. Suffice it to say, my quiet angry voice works better than yelling or other histrionics. With that, he backed off, I gave the Marine veteran a wordless fist bump, and we left the playground unmolested. I badly wanted a cigarette and half a bottle of Jameson right then and there. A glass of wine when we got home would have to suffice. At the next playground, adjacent to my son’s school, the kids found instant playmates. They were black, Asian, white, and Hispanic – an elementary school version of a Benneton ad, and this made me inordinately happy.
Discrimination doesn’t just exist, it’s learned. Parents’ actions and words have remarkable effects on their children, it’s not as if the son of a Klan member would suddenly decide to work for the SPLC. I felt sorry for Trump Hat’s son, not just because one day his old man will run into someone with far less forbearance than me. But because that boy will grow up hating minorities, inheriting his father’s racism, only to possibly and suddenly wonder why society is leaving his family’s views behind. Or sadder yet, the son will grow up hating himself as a closeted gay man because his old man has no use for anyone not straight and cis-gender.
What truly terrifies me is not the prospect of another attack by one or two would-be jihadists who are more Laurel and Hardy than Khalid Sheikh Muhammad. What scares the bejezus out of me is the racism that had been rightfully driven underground, its mainstream voices muted, but now has found widespread acceptance again. It’s the attitudes of men like Trump Hat, or this wonderful human being, or these extras from a possible Deliverance remake. As satisfying as it may be to reply in kind with vitriol, if not a fist to the throat, I keep in mind Dr. King’s words. In particular, I’m amazed at how far short I fall from this passage: “Using grace, humor and intelligence, confront the other party with a list of injustices and a plan for addressing and resolving these injustices. Look for what is positive in every action and statement the opposition makes. Do not seek to humiliate the opponent but to call forth the good in the opponent.” If you follow me on Twitter, this is not quite how I approach it, but it does make me feel better to read words to which I might aspire.