Over the last month, it’s been hard to avoid reading stories about students who were bullied so relentlessly, made to feel so terrible about themselves, that they felt the only way out was to kill themselves. It seemed to be everywhere — on the news, in People, and in “Glee” where Kurt, the gay kid, keeps getting shoved into lockers by one of the jocks (who turns out to be a closeted homosexual himself). I’ve felt perhaps a deeper empathy than most because it brought me back to the days when I was bullied for being Japanese.
It was especially bad in the 7th and 8th grade. We had to wait about 45 minutes after school for the bus to pick us up for its second route. As I sat on the curb site, on average, every other day, some guy would come up to me, yell ‘Jap,’ ‘Nip,’ or ‘Tojo’ and try to pick a fight. He’d slap my head. Take away my glasses. Punch me. Anything to get me to fight back. I never did. Though I was seething with anger, I believed that if I won the fight that day, he’d only get more friends to beat me up the next day.
So I endured it. And when that bus finally arrived, I felt like a black man in the South. Most of the kids didn’t want to let me sit in their seats so I had to go to the back of the bus where the worst punks congregated. They took my glasses and bag and passed it around, all the while cussing me out with racial slurs and with such hatred in their eyes, I couldn’t understand. (One of the more “reasonable” punks told me “My father says the Japanese take all the good jobs.” That father worked with my Dad, who was surprised to hear of his view.)
When faced with this kind of hostility, you react in one of two ways: You let it make you feel small and ashamed of being who you are, or you fight back —even if it’s only mentally — and reaffirm who you are. So I became proud to be Japanese. “What,” they taunted me, “You going squeal to Matsui?!” That’s exactly what I did. I didn’t care what they called it. I felt it was my right to be free from harassment, and it was the school’s duty to protect me. I must’ve gone to the vice principal’s office two dozen times to report my tormenters. They seemed to leave me alone for a while, but there was always someone new to take their place.
Up until that point, I hadn’t been mindful of race. These punks forced the issue: If I was Japanese whom they obviously hated, what the hell were they? I told my mother the names of these bullies. She’d tell me: Portuguese, Hawaiian, Filipino.
So for years, I became prejudiced against those people. After all, in my school, I realized they were the ones who didn’t do well in class — didn’t even try to. All they did was hang around bathrooms, smoked, and harassed other people. What’s worse is, because I was picked on so many times, people I expected to support me questioned if I’d brought it upon myself —including my parents and the vice principal, probably both self-conscious about being Japanese. Matsui talked to some people around me who admitted I hadn’t done anything to deserve such treatment, but said I was sarcastic and had quite a mouth on me. Well, hell, excuse me for fighting back verbally!
Only David Little, my skinny haole friend, stood up for me. Once, he insisted on accompanying me to Matsui’s office and, with a red face that verged on tears, stared out intensely and said strongly, “You know, I’m tired of seeing him being picked on all the time!”
Every day was a battle to keep all the good that I’d experienced earlier (e.g. getting positive signs from girls I liked) separate in my mind from the confrontations I might have to endure in simply trying to get home. And one sometimes intruded into the other: In the 9th grade, I thought this pretty girl really liked me because whenever she came into my classroom during recess, she gave me the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen in my life. After a few months of getting my hopes up, I learned from a mutual friend that she only treated me nicely because she felt sorry for how I was always roughed up.
The ultimate insult: Pity.
In the school newspaper, I dedicated to her that hit by the Undisputed Truth—”Smiling Faces Sometimes Tell Lies.” I don’t think she got it; she kept smiling at me for a few more weeks.
Thanks God for pot. By the 9th grade, most of my tormentors-and potential new ones—started smoking weed, and it mellowed them out so much, they had no interest in attacking me. Although there were some incidents here and there and into high school, by and large, I didn’t feel my existence threatened on a daily basis.
When I went to Occidental College in Los Angeles, one of my mentors, Rico, was Filipino. I looked up to him, depended on his guidance to make sense of my new surroundings, and help me make important decisions. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. I realized Filipinos, Hawaiians, and Portuguese weren’t genetically prone to trouble. I just had a lousy neighborhood. Later, in my work with MANAA, I had to come to the defense of Filipinos, Hawaiians, and others. I’d like to think I emerged from my traumatic experiences relatively unscathed.
However, the first few months as a freshman at Oxy were hell. My crime was asking the football players on my floor (nicely) if they could keep it down after 11 p.m. because I had to wake up early for classes. After I’d gone to sleep, one of them would scare the living daylights out of me by screaming at a high-pitched voice and pounding on my door. They threw mustard bottles at it, even a hollow tile brick (which missed me by that much when I swung open the door at the first sound, determined to catch the culprits). Yet by day, they smiled at me and treated me as a friend. I didn’t want to see this sick, sadistic side of how some people could be.
On Dec. 7, 1980, as I sat down in a bathroom stall, I turned to my left and saw a drawing of Pearl Harbor being bombed. The message read: “Remember Pearl Harbor. Kill Guy.”
I honestly feared for my safety. My mother, who usually tried to not stir up any trouble, was so upset, she told me that if the Associate Dean of Students didn’t make things right to tell him she was going to pull me out of Oxy and tell all the newspapers about it. The man, a Latino who should’ve been a role model to people of his background, proved how co-opted he’d become by the system; he smiled and patiently told me, “Guy, we can’t do anything about these boys… because they come from good families. And they contribute money to the school.”
We should’ve sued the pants off the college. But it’s kind of hard to remain at an institution you’re suing. I didn’t want to be labeled a victim. And I wasn’t going to be pushed out. So I stayed. And somehow, things got better.
At my 20th college reunion in 2004, I was playing blackjack when I was approached by an old ghost. It was Jon, one of the ringleaders who’d always smiled at me during the day and joined the guys in attacking me at night. He looked at me with dead seriousness as if on a mission to deliver a message: “Guy, what we did—it was wrong! I hope you can accept my apology. But I’ll say it over and over again. It was wrong!”
I was shocked. It was like something you fantasize about—an old enemy coming around and asking for forgiveness. I asked why I was made a target. He shook his head, saying he didn’t know (I got the feeling he didn’t want to admit it was racism), and reiterated that it was wrong and that he was sorry. “I read an article you wrote…” he continued. I don’t know if it was some Counterpunch piece in the Los Angeles Times that chastised Fox for the Ms. Swan character on “Mad TV” or The Beat radio station for skits featuring Asians speaking with fake accents, or simply the questionnaire I’d filled out for the reunion booklet. “…You’re a good man.”
He supported my fight against racism?! I wanted to cry. We shook hands. I asked about his life and, for the first time, he smiled. The whole conversation didn’t last more than a minute. But I’ll remember it probably for the rest of my life. I’ll tell my children and my grandchildren. That given time, people can become good.
After one of my classmates asked me to write an article on my experience at the reunion, I wrote about Jon and his apology. Shortly after it was published in the Occidental Magazine, Jon emailed me: “I admire your ability to forgive and to seek personal growth from such an unfair and cruel memory, Guy. I didn’t know that I would see you at the reunion, but I’m very glad that I took the time to talk to you. Thank you for providing a great example to me and for being a kind and compassionate classmate.”
Friends encouraged me to build upon this and respond to him, ask my unresolved questions. But it was too soon. It was like a rape victim being contacted by the assailant no matter how repentant.
Five years later at my 25th reunion, Jon was there to greet me at another party. This time, he wore a big smile on his face. “Guy, you changed my life!” “I changed your life?!” I asked, as we both laughed. “I took my family to Manzanar!” “You took your family to Manzanar?! Jon, even I haven’t gone to Manzanar!” He wanted to teach his children about how this country had sometimes treated others unfairly. This time, he felt more comfortable offering, “When I was growing up, my parents said some things that made me feel we were better than others. I’m only one person, Guy,” but he was determined to break the cycle with his children.
I praised him, saying some people never grow or learn from their mistakes. “Something about you is different, Jon. You have to give yourself credit for that.” “Well, in many ways, I was being selfish, Guy.” Because if he hadn’t apologized that night, he would’ve had to carry that guilt that much longer. And it had been eating away at him.
We talked as long as we could until the emcee called everyone to attention to announce the winner of whatever silly contest he was presiding over. I told Jon about the ways Japanese Americans couldn’t win — how we were under suspicion from Americans for the bombing of Pearl Harbor and how Asian immigrants sometimes resented us for how Japan conquered their countries during World War II.
Before our conversation ended, I said, “Jon, five years ago you called me a good man. Let me return the favor: You’re a good man.”
After I helped form MANAA in 1992, I didn’t quite understand why I put so much energy into such a cause. I mean, there are a lot of people out there who’ll agree balancing media images of Asian Americans is worthy. But how many of them devote their lives to it and stay the course after 18 years? It took a while for me to realize it was those experiences in the 7th, 8th grade, and freshman year in college that “sealed my faith.” Because when you’re on the receiving end of racial attacks, you don’t forget it. You don’t forget the anger, the hostility, and most of all, the utter unfairness of it all — to be targeted for something you can’t (and shouldn’t want to) change. So I continue my work in getting the most influential people in television and motion pictures to be mindful of the hurt they cause when they continue to reduce Asian Americans to caricatures, how they belittle us, how they send the undeniable message to anyone watching that we aren’t worth crap and deserve to be treated that way. Just like those bullies did to me.
Because when we get to be heroes—not just villains and comic relief—Asian Americans become respected. And as people get closer to being able to see us as individuals who just happen to be of Asian descent, we make it a lot easier for kids to grow up—without fear for their safety nor tears into their dignity.
Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached by e-mail. Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.