Go back to China
By Wyatt Hong
My wife and I are out on a stroll in Westwood Village in Los Angeles, walking arm in arm by Trader Joe's. She is pleading for a kiss, pulling at my arm, and I'm playing hard to get, just like I used to make my dog work for her snacks, and she only keeps at it because she knows she'll get it soon.
"Go back to China," a woman whispers just loud enough for us to hear.
"We're from Korea," my wife turns around and corrects the factual mistake. From the timbre of her voice, I can tell she's more stunned than anything else. At five feet three inches and 90-something pounds, my wife is a harmless angel. She is the type of doctor who says thank you to her patients, the type that holds things in and cries at home with her face on my arm.
I stop and politely ask the woman what she means. I ask her if she means to be racist, if she needs help dealing with her anger, if she's taken Psychology in college and knows what displacement means.
Nope, that is a lie. I tell her to go fuck herself.
"That felt good," my wife says, squeezing my arm an inch tighter. There's a small devil in her too I wonder if it's me who planted it. I give her the kiss, because I kind of need one too: this infantile yet universal need to know that someone in this world loves you. Meanwhile, I'm thinking what could've been a better comeback.
"Go back to your home. Wait, you don't have one! Haha!"
"It looks like you got lost. Do you need directions back to the psych hospital?"
This second one is a no-no, given that we're both doctors, and the last thing I want is for her to show up at my emergency room asking for morphine. Should I have ignored her? No, someone has to tell her, or else she'll go on spouting this shit.
I conclude that there is no good comeback. All I could do was to lower myself to her level, spitting fire against fire. But what if she were a six feet five inches dude instead, with an assault rifle?
That night, I am googling firearms.
You think you've built a strong enough wall around you. You've graduated from Stanford and Yale, become a doctor, recently bought a three-bedroom condo in West LA that you just need to fill with kids. You think you're pretty much set for life, and this homeless woman pisses on your wall.
And you find that your wall is made of salt.
I've been in the US for more than half my life. Most of that time, I was an international student on a visa. I never thought of myself as an immigrant. After all, an expat is more glamorous than an immigrant, and an exile more romantic. Home was Seoul, where I'd fly back for my summer, winter and sometimes spring vacations. My parents, my dog and my youngest brother all lived there. Like every Korean male citizen, I had taken two years off college to serve in the Korean Army. I told myself I'd return home once schooling was over it was just a matter of when.
My attitude both protected and prevented me from grappling with racism in America. I never liked being called Asian, my designated race here. To be honest, I don't feel much solidarity with Korean Americans, those faux-hawk wearing church boys compensating with their biceps. If I'm this harsh to my own blood, you can imagine my feelings about the Chinese and the Japanese. My feelings about Southeast Asia? Not far from what a redneck feels about Mexico.
Sorry, I sound like a racist fuck.
I've read a fair share of black writers, been always moved by their writing, but never to the point of action. The closest the Black Lives Matter movement touched me was when Lawrence Crosby, then a PhD student at Northwestern, got beat up by the police in 2015 for stealing what turned out to be his own car. Lawrence was my roommate for three months during my sophomore year at Stanford, just before I left school to enlist in the Korean Army. We had both been assigned to the hippiest co-op at Stanford off the housing waitlist we were the only two that didn't smoke pot. I liked Lawrence a tonne. The guy went to church every Sunday, prayed before going to bed every night. He had this ancient station wagon he'd driven from Kentucky or Georgia or wherever he was from, and we'd drive to In-N-Out when we were fed up with the nasty vegetarian food at the co-op.
It hurt to see him get beat up on video. I wrote a Facebook post about it, then erased it after seeing so many like it pop up in my News Feed.
I am your bystander.
By definition, a bystander is not responsible for the event. But the more you stand there, the more you become part of the cause. I can no longer claim innocence as I had as a 13-year-old headed to prep school in Massachusetts. In fact, thanks to my wife, I am now a permanent resident of the US (no, that's not why I married you, baby). One of my listed responsibilities as a Green Card holder is "to support the democratic form of government", which is kind of hard when I can't vote. They still tax me though, in the manner of their British predecessors. My tax paperwork now categorises me as a "resident alien" instead of a "non-resident alien", but an alien nonetheless.
I am an alien that pays taxes.
This past February, my wife got naturalised as a US citizen. I had accompanied her to the courthouse at Hartford, Connecticut, for her induction ceremony. This was not her first induction (she had rushed for two hot sororities: Phi Betta Kappa and Tau Beta Pi), but she hadn't won her place by merit this time. The process of getting a Green Card and applying for US citizenship had taken much persistence, money and, frankly, luck.
A black judge in imposing robes, who told us that she was half African American, half German, and a daughter of immigrants, gave an inspiring speech whose overarching message was "This (You-Know-Who) shall pass." The forum had inductees from over 30 countries. The judge took time carefully pronouncing their foreign names. When her name was called, my wife walked up the podium, shook the judge's hand and returned with a miniature Star-Spangled Banner and a letter bearing the menacing signature of Donald J. Trump.
"Wasn't she so cool? Maybe I should've gone to law school," my wife said afterwards at Shake Shack, a fitting place for the occasion. Being soft-spoken herself, she developed crushes on women who could hold the floor.
I tried imagining her in a judge's robe. Could be sexy, I thought.
"You can apply for citizenship in a few years too," she added.
"I don't think I will." I clawed at the crinkle-cut fries. The ceremony had taken the entire morning. "How does it feel to be American?"
"I mean, I still feel Korean. Anyways this way, it'll be easier for us to return to the States if we decide to go live in Korea for a few years."
By law, a Korean citizen cannot hold dual citizenship. Moments ago, as I listened to her pledge allegiance to the United States of America, I had told myself I would remain a Korean citizen for life. The brainwashing sessions during bootcamp had done their job. But I knew another, perhaps truer, reason for my stubbornness. It was pride: I could not accept being a second-class citizen. Despite all talk, America is the white man's land, and one only has to take a stroll inside The Yale Club on Vanderbilt and 53rd to realise this if one can get in, of course.
Many of my friends had left America for the same reason.
"How does it feel to be back?" I had asked James last year. We were having breakfast at Bouchon at The Venetian in Las Vegas, where we'd gathered from all over the world for a friend's bachelor party.
"It's nice. I actually had an offer to return to the New York office."
"Are you not going to?"
James had begun his career at a law firm in New York after graduating from Harvard Law. The H-1B visa lottery hadn't worked out for him, and he had been moved to the Singapore office until they could sort out his visa. But after years of working in Asia, he said he no longer felt like returning to New York.
"Sitting at tables where you're the only Asian guy, talking to your white partners at these parties, I always felt out of place. You're the outsider, of course. But in Asia, you can see yourself becoming them some day. You are actually part of the circle."
A few months later, I heard a similar thing from another friend who had begun his investment banking career in Hong Kong. We were at an upscale whiskey bar in Seoul. Somewhere like this in New York would be 90% white, and I'd be nervous inside that the bartender would shaft me to attend to the white jock that just walked in.
"It's nice to be treated well," he spoke with self-assurance, swirling his glass like a man certain of the laws that govern his world. "It matters, more so as you get older."
"How's the Laphroaig?" the bartender stopped to ask, gathering her breasts between her arms. "You're new here I haven't seen you before," she smiled at me.
Looking back, the heirs of Singapore and Hong Kong, all those real-life Nick Youngs who drove around campus in their convertibles, returned to Asia straight after graduation, and they will only step out from the shadows when their fathers die.
I cite the weather when asked, but another reason my wife and I moved to California was for its Asian population: "Strength in numbers" as the Golden State Warriors' motto goes. In May, we drove across the country, slept in near-empty hotels, ate in our car by gas stations. We had Zion National Park to ourselves. Las Vegas looked like a de Chirico painting with all its fountains stopped. The first thing we did once we arrived in Los Angeles was to get our California driver's licences.
"Bet it feels a lot different here than there," the black lady at the counter said as she scrutinised my Connecticut licence. She checked to see if anyone else were listening. "I'm more afraid of white people than the virus," she whispered. "He was just jogging!" The video of Ahmaud Arbery's shooting had gone viral earlier that week. "Did they harass you out there?" she asked.
"Sometimes." I recalled getting a few nihaos from the hobos on the New Haven Green.
"Did any black person harass you?" she asked cautiously.
"No." I lied to satisfy the woman. After all, I just wanted my driver's licence.
"Good." She proceeded to talk about the government inserting chips into black bodies, and I smiled as I nodded along.
A few days later, George Floyd was killed by the police. Sitting in our unfurnished living room, we watched an enraged crowd tear through Los Angeles. One news broadcaster compared the incident to the 1992 LA Riots, when Koreatown was destroyed by the mob. Abandoned by the police at the time, the Korean shop owners had to take up arms themselves. Bad news for the mob was that these men had all served in the Korean military, many of them during the Vietnam War. Photographs of Korean men in polo shirts chilling on rooftops with their rifles had earned them the memeable moniker: "Roof Koreans". Korean expat online forums, usually geared towards airline deals, were now erupting with debates between the Roof Koreans and the social justice warriors. Many confessed they did not know where to stand. More were silent.
As before, I remained a bystander, nestled behind the walls of my apartment during the curfew hours. At one point on TV, a palm tree caught fire. The cameraman zoomed in on the burning tree.
"For those joining us right now, that is a palm tree, burning, on Melrose Avenue," the broadcaster narrated for those who could not believe their eyes.
I just sat there, watching it burn.
Five months later: it is October. Drained after an overnight shift in the emergency room, I check the mail one morning to find the ballot: my wife's ballot, to be exact. Opening up the long pamphlet, I recognise the challenge of democracy it's impossible to make informed decisions on issues ranging widely from stem cell research to rent control. All I remember are the Uber ads on YouTube, chanting "Vote YES for Prop 22." The presidential ballot only takes up a thin column on the right. I thought Kanye West was joking about running for president he wasn't.
"Biden or Trump?" I ask my wife later that evening, a pen in my hand.
"Biden," she chooses. "Trump makes it okay for people to be mean. I hate mean people."
In all my time here, I have never watched a US election. I remember kids cheering for Obama my freshman year in college I didn't even know who he was running against. I went to bed early the night of the 2016 election. Though many of my friends panicked at Trump's victory, I was indifferent. It wasn't my country. But it is different this time. My wife has a horse in the race. Plus, I'm still sore from that woman telling me to go back to China, a word she probably learned from Trump.
As my luck would have it, during election week, I am assigned to work with firefighters an hour northeast of LA, just by the border of Kern County, aka Trump territory.
The day before the election, I pull into the back of the fire station in my all-electric Chevy Bolt and park it between two pick-up trucks. Men in T-shirts and cargo pants are pumping iron, washing the bright red engines, mopping the floor. I walk towards them, drawing air into my chest. They stare at me like I'm from a different planet.
"Hey gentlemen, I'm your ride-along for the week," I introduce myself.
"Welcome, Doc!" They give me firm handshakes. I take the cue and take my mask off. Like all men in uniform, they respect hierarchy and address me Doc despite my protests.
The day is pleasant. Working out with the guys and listening to the rumour mill over coffee, I begin thinking I should've been a fireman. They speak freely in front of me because they know they'll never see me again. They're kind people, or else they wouldn't jump into burning houses to save strangers.
"You from around here, Doc?" one asks.
This is a tough question for me to answer. I explain, in the fewest words possible, that I'm an alien who pays taxes. I follow this with the fact that I was a soldier in the Korean Army, fighting against communists in North Korea. Right on, they say. Right on.
The 911 calls are what you'd expect: fat old dudes with heart attacks, demented ladies falling in bathrooms, drunk hobos passed out on the streets.
"What are your thoughts on this whole Covid thing, Doc?" a medic asks me on our way back to the station. "I mean, are masks really gonna stop it at this point?"
I know the question is not a scientific but a political one. "I hate masks too," I begin and perform some verbal acrobatics on the fence of neutrality it's almost auto-pilot.
Fortunately, I'm off on election day, and I'm glued to the TV, constantly refreshing the election results on my phone. The thing is fucking close. My feet and hands are ice-cold just like when I watch StarCraft, but no winner is called that night. I check my phone each time I wake up in the middle of the night, but the electoral map remains the same.
I drive into the fire station the next morning to see the TV turned on to Fox News. Fuck me, I swear inside. During morning line-up, the Captain changes the channel to the Food Network for everyone's benefit.
"Fucking voter fraud, tearing up Republican ballots," a medic vents during the drive back from a call. "I'm sick of people labelling you racist whenever you express an opposing opinion sick of these teenage girls who never had to work a day of their lives marching for BLM and saying we should defund the police when they have no fucking clue how rough it is to be on scene. Also, take a fucking look! There are more Mexican women sheriffs than at Taco Bell "
"I think the media just makes it worse for both sides," the other medic says I sense an ally in him. "I have a buddy in Portland, so I ask him if Antifa's really burning up the entire city like they show on TV, and he's like 'No, it's like one fucking block. No one gives a fuck about them.'"
I listen quietly in the backseat. I hope we are almost at the station.
"You know when that Floyd guy got killed," the first medic says, looking at me in the rearview mirror, "A black man hanged himself in the park in front of our station. The next morning, people were banging on our engines, asking why there weren't cameras around the station, taking videos of us and threatening to shut our station down, saying that he was lynched then they found his suicide note."
"That shit was fucking crazy."
"Doc, I don't care which side of the fence you're on. What's your perspective on all this?"
Fuck me, I swear inside again. They wait for me to speak.
"I think I understand both sides " I begin, in the manner of a student called on in English class. I wonder if I should just spill my guts in the manner of a seppuku. "I think America is unique because people come from different places, and there's this whole baggage of slavery." I'm not sure where I'm going with this. "I've been more privileged that most people, but I'm also Asian, a minority here " I falter, and my verbal acrobatics take a bad turn into a contortionist's act. I stop talking and it's like my legs are still hanging out of the box where I've failed to stuff myself into.
We drive in silence the rest of the way to the station.
The electoral map remains unchanged by the end of the day. They say it may take several days for the winner to be decided, and even then, Trump may refuse to concede. I drive back to LA in the sunset, the sky turning pink over the desert hills of Santa Clarita Valley, and it is a beauty as sublime as the mountains of the Catskills and the cliffs of the Pacific Coast, and as foreign. America's beauty never was mine. It occurs to me that, perhaps, this is why I write. I have been a travel writer all my life.
"Go back to China." I recall the woman saying.
"I want to." I whisper to myself.
I want to. China suddenly takes on the shroud of Atlantis, some lost planet where I was born. I want to go home. But home is a place that no longer exists, as unreal as the murals of utopia in the subway stations of North Korea. I have come too far to go back.
That night, leading in Wisconsin and Michigan and projected to win Pennsylvania, Biden gives a speech. He speaks about bringing this nation together, about healing, and his words are like a ray of light in the dark room where I have shut myself. His words, crafted by speech writers to strike just the right political note, to win the maximum vote, bring tears to my alien eyes as I slowly rebuild my wall.QLRS Vol. 20 No.1 Jan 2021