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Bitter in the Mouth

Excerpted from the novel Bitter in the Mouth


Since leaving Boiling Springs, I was often asked by complete strangers what it was like to grow up being Asian in the South. You mean what was it like to grow up looking Asian in the South, I would say back to them with the southern accent that had revealed to them the particulars of my biography. My tweaking of their question often left them perplexed or annoyed, as if I were playing some irritating semantic game with them. For me, pointing out to them the difference between “being” and “looking” was the beginning, the middle, and the end of my answer. I would rarely offer them more.

I was still taken aback, startled, I suppose, that it was the outside of me that so readily defined me as not being from here (New Haven, New York, New World) nor there (the South). How could I explain to them that from the age of seven to eighteen, there was nothing Asian about me except my body, which I had willed away and few in Boiling Springs seemed to see anyway.

If Boiling Springs had been a larger town, it wouldn’t have been possible. But Boiling Springs wasn’t. The dwindling population there was small and insular enough to behave as one microorganism. These were the adults of Boiling Springs. (Their children, as children always do, had other ideas.) More specifically, these were the white men and women of Boiling Springs. My schoolteachers, until the time I was in high school, were white women. My schoolbus drivers from elementary school to middle school were old white men who had retired from some other job. My father’s colleagues from his law firm were all middle-aged white men. DeAnne’s friends were all middle-aged white women. Iris and Baby Harper seemed only to have each other.

There was, of course, a parallel adult world in my hometown that I came into contact with, but only in passing. These black men and women knew of me too, especially the women. When DeAnne would take me with her to the Piggly Wiggly or to Hudson’s department store, the women who worked there looked at me with eyes that always made me uncomfortable. These women actually saw me, and what they wondered about me—why one of my own hadn’t taken me in—made their hearts tender. The lunch ladies, with their hairnets and their plastic smocks, looked at me the same way. As did my father’s secretary who lived on Goforth Road. The school janitors, the old men who pumped gas into my family’s car, the middle-aged ones who cut our lawn before and after Bobby, the mailman. I learned early on not to meet their eyes, dark and deep as a river. If I saw them, I would have to see myself. I didn’t want a mirror. I wanted a blank slate.

The word must have come down from the pulpits. The Southern Baptists, the Episcopalians, and the small band of Catholics were all in on the pact. They vowed to make themselves color-blind on my behalf. That didn’t happen. What did happen was that I became a blind spot in their otherwise 20–20 field of vision. They heard my voice—it helped that I came to them already speaking English with a southern accent, which was the best and only clue that I had about my whereabouts before Boiling Springs—but they learned never to see me. It was an act of selective blindness that was meant to protect me from them, or perhaps it was the other way around. They knew that if they saw my face they would fixate on my eyes, which some would claim were almond-shaped and others would describe as mere slits. If they saw my hair, they would marvel at how straight and shiny it was or that it was limp and the color of tar. If they saw my skin, they would understand why they basked their bodies in the heat of the southern sun, though some would ask themselves how DeAnne could ever be sure that I was washed and clean. If they saw my unformed breasts, the twigs that were my arms and legs, the hands and feet small enough to fit inside their mouths, how many of the men would remember the young female bodies that they bought by the half hour while wearing their country’s uniform in the Philippines, Thailand, South Korea, or South Vietnam? Complicit, because they would rather not know the answer to that question, the mothers and sisters and wives of these men looked right through me as well. Instead of invisibility, Boiling Springs made an open secret of me. I was the town’s pariah, but no one was allowed to tell me so. In Boiling Springs, I was never Scout. I was Boo Radley, not hidden away but in plain sight.

The children of Boiling Springs had their own idea of how to welcome me to town. They were never fooled by my new name. “Linda Hammerick” was a mask only until I said, “Here.” Then they would turn around and silently mouth “Chink” or “Jap” or “Gook” at me, so that our teacher wouldn’t hear. Clever monsters, my classmates were, though not original. I had come to the blue and gray ranch house with those epithets already in me, yet another clue of where I had been before. As in the adult realm, the children’s behavior toward me was dictated by some accord deep within them that I didn’t understand until much later in our lives. The black girls in my class never called me a name other than “Linda.” They knew that the other names were meant to insult me, to punch holes into me, and make me fall down.

I understood, without really understanding, that “Chink” and “Jap” and “Gook” were intimately connected to how the children saw my body. I knew because of the gestures that accompanied these words. At recess, when fewer teachers were around, my classmates would pull up the outer corners of their eyes for “Chink” and pull down the corners for “Jap.” Precise and systematic, these children were. There was also a rhyme that they recited that intertwined foreignness with an unclean and sexualized body.

Chinese, Japanese
Dirty knees,
Look at these!

Their choreography, albeit communicative, was also pedestrian. They accompanied the second line of their rhyme with fingers pointed at their knees, and with the last line they used their small hands to pull out two tents from their shirts, at the loci of their own nonexistent breasts. Martha Graham, they were not either. But with what glee would they perform this for me.

Bravo, my little children. Who taught you these words? I had to figure it out for myself—because no one in my family ever told me—that your parents must have been your teachers. You, their darling little parrots, had become the mouthpieces for all that these men and women couldn’t say aloud to me or to Thomas or DeAnne or Iris or Baby Harper but were free to say in front of their own children within the high walls of their own houses. If I hadn’t come to Boiling Springs, whom would you have said these words to? You would have had to save up all the “Japs,” “Chinks,” and “Gooks” until another unsuspecting stranger came to town or when you grew up and ventured to metropolitan Raleigh or Charlotte or even farther afield for a job. When hard-pressed, you might have even used these words against a Cherokee, a Lumbee, or a Croatan. But there was no need to misapply the words in that way, because when I came to Boiling Springs the diversity drought was over. What joy I must have given you so early on in your lives. When you think back on your childhood, you must think fondly of me.

High school changed everything. What had begun as an untoward, heightened interest in my physical presence rapidly dissipated into a kind of non-seeing, the kind that their parents had professed to strive for but never achieved. I had no role to play within the romances, the dramas, and the tragedies that my classmates’ hormones were writing for them. I was never considered a heroine, love interest, vixen, or villainess. Even Kelly assigned me the role of secret confidante and then audience member. To be the Smartest Girl in my high school was to be disembodied, which was what I thought I had wanted all along. I was the Brain. Everyone else around me became their bodies. The girls with the large breasts and long dancer legs became cheerleaders and Homecoming Queen. The boys with the throwing arms and the runner’s calves became football players and Quarterback. It was a kind of fate that most of them embraced, including Kelly. I watched it all from a distance, which didn’t give me objectivity or clarity. It just made me lonely.

When we first met, I tried to tell Leo about my childhood in Boiling Springs. He said that these experiences meant that I did know what it was like being Asian in the South. For a soon-to-be psychiatrist, he wasn’t a very good listener. No, Leo, I knew what it was like being hated in the South. Leo would have me equate the two, equate my body with what others have projected onto it. I won’t. (Like my great-grandfather Graven Hammerick, I’m an optimist at heart.) I believed, and still do, that this state of being that I was trying to understand had content and substance separate and apart from what Boiling Springs had taught me.