John Wayne taught me how to fight.
My father taught me, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” He shrugged his freckly white shoulders.
“No,” I argued. “They shouldn’t say mean things to me.”
My mother turned her almond eyes to my father, her dark-olive face knit in concern. Because she had immigrated as an adult, her childhood experience was different, and so she deferred to his judgment.
“Say,” my father answered, “that you were born in this country and you’re American, just like they are. Tell those kids your dad is white.”
In second grade I was a little girl who played alone at recess. He was a little boy with brown hair, his puffy blue jacket contrasting with his pale complexion. The first time we had passed on the playground, his eyes lit up with such delight I thought I finally had a friend. The boy laughed gleefully, and from then on I had company every single recess.
He was from a different class so I didn’t know his name, but he was certain mine was either “Ching-ching-China,” or “Chink.” He would run up, pulling back his eyes while babbling in imitation of Asian languages, and shout, “Go back to your country!”
I tried, “I am not Chinese; I am Korean,” and “I was born in this country so this is my country,” but those arguments did nothing. I tried, “Go away,” or “You’re stupid,” and the boy would just retort, “Better stupid than a Gook.”
“Sticks and stones,” my father repeated each time I complained.
“Well, did you tell the teachers?”
I had. Several times. They only hushed me and sometimes walked away in the middle of my pleas. After all, it was 1992 and, according to my teachers, racism died in the 60s. Despite my efforts this little boy remained undeterred in his torment of me for several weeks—until the night I met John Wayne.
I had woke with a burning thirst an hour or two after bedtime and padded half asleep to the kitchen for a glass of water. The dark hall was cushioned with silence, and I was surprised by the glow of the television set in the living room and startled by the sound of a loud gunshot. A black-and-white John Wayne stood across from a crumpled figure, and with a derisive sneer, he barked, “Jackass.”
“Jackass.” The word filled my ears and tingled my brain with awe. “Jackass.” It was an entirely new word for me and I didn’t really know what it meant, but damn, did I like it. “Jackass.”
“Go to bed!” said my dad, suddenly spotting me.
I did, my eyes shining. I had a new weapon.
The next day at school I could not wait for the previously dreaded afternoon recess. I was excited to be called racial slurs. He reported as usual, poor little dummy, with his usual litany. I didn’t let him get very far. Legs spread in a crouch, both feet planted, and with a ricochet motion of my torso for the most sound projection, I bellowed in my best John Wayne impression: “JACK-AAAASSS!”
I was nervous. Maybe my weapon wouldn’t work. Would he know what a “jackass” was? I didn’t. Could you be hurt by a word you didn’t understand? Maybe the boy would simply laugh. Maybe he would say, “I know you are but what am I?”
He did none of those things. Instead his chubby cheeks scrunched and his face crumpled in an explosion of tears. Bawling and wailing, he fled.
Right to the teacher.
I was punished. I argued that he had been calling me names like “Ching-ching-China” for weeks, but the teachers spoke over me. I had used a cuss word. And cuss words were very very bad and only used by very very bad people. So bad my dad was called. He came to the school embarrassed and swore he had not taught me that term: it was the fault of John Wayne and would never happen again.
I was made to apologize to the little boy and sent home for the rest of the day. Whereupon I was sternly lectured by my father. “Swear words,” he said, “are always inappropriate.”
The boy returned next recess. “Ha ha! You got in trouble, Ching-ching-China! What are you going to do about it? You can’t swear at me!”
I didn’t. I walked away and he followed, sneering and taunting.
“Sticks and stones,” I thought desperately.
But I know now that my late father was wrong. Words do have power and force. Words carry ideas, and ideas are the ruling aspect of human existence.
Because despite what my father said, I had been broken.
Sarama Teague was born in Wisconsin, and is an alumni of Humboldt State University. She currently lives in the Pacific Northwest with her canine companion named Teddy. Her narratives fuse personal experiences with social commentaries. Her article, “Promote Voting Not Tyranny,” was published in the Times Standard in Humboldt, California, and “The Pyramid”, a short story, was adapted for stage and performed live at Dell’Arte International – School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, California.
All rights reserved, 2019.