My Middle Name

The crowd was evenly split, half of them waving dollar bills while mockingly encouraging their chosen gladiator, Jeff. The other half doing the same, but chanting "Greasy! Greasy! Greasy!"

Greasy Lee. I didn't choose that name. It was bestowed by the 5th grade bully elite upon the chubby Asian kid who always happened to suffer bad hair days.

I glanced across the makeshift arena, which was nothing more than a clearing between two boulders and a tree stump in the woods behind the school. Jeff and I locked eyes. Not in aggression, but more in a desperate telepathic attempt to assure the other that we were doing this for our mutual survival.

I don't remember the fight. But I do remember sitting in math class afterwards, unable to write anything on the worksheet in front of me because my hand was trembling uncontrollably. I also remember the dozens of perfect red dots on Jeff's white polo shirt, which matched the missing skin on my middle knuckle.

There we were. The only two Asian kids in an otherwise white working class New England town, divided and conquered.

* * * *

When we first moved to the suburbs from the heart of Boston, it was every kid's dream come true. A sprawling ranch-style house with a huge playroom, a circular driveway for unhindered bike riding, and an immense backyard. Which meant I could get a dog. Summer was everything it was supposed to be.

Fall meant starting a new school, but I wasn't worried. I had switched schools a couple times before, and it always brought with it new friends. Also, this was the first time I was going to take a bus to school. Just like in the movies!

And the first few moments were just as I had pictured. As we drove up to the corner, I noticed a group of kids laughing, chatting and probably catching up, dressed in their shiny, new back-to-school best.

I said bye to my dad, jumped out of the car and made my way over to my new friends.

"Ching chong!"

"ah sooo!"

"Hey, chink!"

I sat by myself, at the back of the bus.

* * * *

Having grown up in a multi-cultural part of Boston, the only ethnic stereotyping I ever encountered was Bugs Bunny putting on a rice paddy hat every once in a while and bowing at Elmer Fudd. When you're 7, it's kind of funny. When it's not happening to you, it's kind of funny.

Moving to the suburbs in 4th grade taught me a lot about race. Namely, that it mattered. That when you're different, or your parents speak to you in a tongue no one else can understand, people are allowed to make fun of you. I mean, if you think about it, it is kind of funny when a girl walks up to you at recess, smiles and asks you:

"what do you call a fat Chinese kid?"

(smiling back) "What."

"A chunk."

And you learn to laugh along. With every karate chop, ching chong, buck toothed smile, and slant eye gesture they can throw at you.

You also learn to hate your race.

* * * *

"What's your middle name?"

"I don't have one."

* * * *

Eating by myself in the lunchroom had its advantages. On the occasional day when my mom would pack me a steamed bun, shrimp chips or something equally Asian, I could dine incognito, safe from ridicule.

* * * *

"If you don't practice your Chinese, you'll forget it," mom would remind me.

"If it means people forget I'm Chinese, I'll take it," I thought.

* * * *

Jeff didn't look Asian to me. Maybe it's because I'd never met anyone who was only half Asian. But he didn't make fun of me, so there was that. Having someone to sit next to on the school bus and eat lunch with is sometimes all you need to quell the stomachaches that well up before you walk out your front door each morning. Also, he had Atari.

We'd still get picked on, but when you travel in numbers, even if it's two, you take half the punishment.

* * * *

"Why aren't you wearing green?"

"I'm not Irish," I replied.

"Everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day," Chris threatened.

"I'm American, so I'm wearing blue," I countered.

I think the kids savored beating me up that day, more so than usual. American. How dare Greasy Lee say that? He eats shrimp chips.

* * * *

Jeff and I got into an argument one day. I don't remember about what. Probably something we would have gotten over the next day.

"Hey Greasy, I'm betting all my lunch money you can beat him up."

"Kick his ass, Greasy. I'm betting two dollars you can."

"We're setting up a fight for you at recess tomorrow. Don't be a pussy, Greasy."

I went to sleep that night, replaying in my head the right cross that Frankie taught me on the school bus. While sitting next to me.

* * * *

I was riding the school bus home one afternoon and grateful that I might make it through the day free of being teased. Two more stops. As I sat there, not really looking at anything or anyone, my gaze met Lenny's, one of the only Black kids in my town. We hesitated for a moment.

"What are you looking at, chink?"

"Fuck you, nigger."

* * * *

My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Cruickshanks was a World War II veteran. He "stormed Iwo Jima and killed Japs." His war stories were actually quite entertaining. He had a passion for them. Science? Not so much.

One day, we were learning about lighting, and how you're safest in a car during a lightning storm.

"Does anyone know why?" he asked the class.

"Because of the rubber tires," he answered for us.

I raised my hand. "Mr. Cruickshanks, that's actually not true. It's because electricity in its quest to be grounded travels around the metal frame of the car and into the ground. In order for the rubber to even be a factor in insulating you from electricity, it would have to be 3 miles thick." [I had actually just learned this at the Museum of Science.]

Mr Cruickshanks stopped writing on the board, turned around slowly and removed his glasses.

"Jim, go back to Shanghai."

* * * *

I studied hard that year, and worked harder than I ever worked. Because all I wanted was get into private school the next year. I didn't do it for the academic challenge. I didn't do it because it would set me up to go to an elite college. I didn't do it because I could reach my full potential. I did it so the teasing would stop. Turns out you can motivate an 11-year old, after all.

And after I made it in, the teasing did stop. I even took Chinese my junior and senior year.

* * * *

"What's your middle name?"

"Oh, it's just my Chinese name. You'll forget it once I tell you, so I'm not gonna bother."

* * * *

By the time college rolled around, I had practically forgotten all about 4th, 5th and 6th grade. I mean, I was doing people a favor not telling them my middle name. I didn't want them to be embarrassed if they mispronounced it, right?

* * * *

Around when Fury was born, I was chatting it up with some guys at work. Someone made a joke about Asians, but quickly apologized to me. A co-worker of mine jumped in.

"Jim? Come on, he's whiter than any of us white guys!"

That made me proud. Then a little bit disgusted.

* * * *

The other day, I was packing Fury's lunch.

"Dad, can you pack me some shrimp chips for snack?"

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. I want shrimp chips."

"Ok, but I don't want the other ki-- Ok, I'll pack you shrimp chips."

* * * *

My middle name is Ching-Kuo. And you can pronounce it just fine.

Copyright © 2007-2014, James Lin. All rights reserved.