In the autumn of 1979, I was a 7-year-old first-grader at the John H. Glenn Elementary School in rustic Pine Hill, New Jersey. Mornings always began with the soothing voice of my mother. "Wake up," she whispered in Korean. "It's time to go to school."
And every morning I always woke up with a knot in my stomach.
It's not that I disliked school. I loved the challenge of trying to square-dance during gym class and spell all 10 words on my spelling list so that I could get a pretzel rod from my teacher, Mrs. Sindoni. No, what I feared every morning was the half-mile walk to school, down Melrose Drive where Paul Wilcox would be waiting.
Paul was a tall, skinny boy whose blond hair had turned to bright white after daily, prolonged exposure to sunlight. A year older and bigger than I, Paul lounged on the corner to remind me and my best friend Kevin Scharr of just who did not fit into the lovely All-American picture.
"Hey, chink boy," he hissed as soon as he saw me. "Why don't you go back home to where you came from?" To Kevin he would ask, "How can you walk with this Jap? Aren't you American?"
Kevin and I simply shut our mouths and quickened our steps. We practically ran the last 200 yards to school. Once we were safe in Mrs. Sindoni's classroom, Kevin always assured me, "Don't listen to what Paul said. You're still my best friend."
As reassuring as those words were to a small Korean boy in an otherwise alien environment, I always felt saddened and depressed because Paul still would taunt me and remind me that I was a "chink." Most of all, I was saddened because I could do nothing to stop the pain.
Fourteen years later I'm still close to Kevin Scharr, who calls me once a month. Paul Wilcox is long forgotten. But the lingering memory of that pain was revived by a recent incident that happened to a friend of mine.
Eun Mi Lee, a native of Baltimore and a senior at the University of Maryland, and two other Asian-American women had spent a carefree, enjoyable day in Washington. On the return trip, a heavyset man wearing a blue T-shirt and jeans sat near the three women on the Metro. Reeking of sweat and alcohol, he proceeded to spew a litany of slurs on Asian-Americans to no one in particular but in obvious reference to the three women within earshot.
Asian-Americans were not to be trusted, he said. Asian-Americans were greedy, selfish people intent on making a buck. Asian- Americans think they are better than everyone else. Asian-American women do not wash their hair.
During the tirade, many of the other Metro riders sat silently, reading their newspapers, feigning sleep or just trying to ignore the ranting. Finally, the three women, stunned into silence, found their stop and left quickly.
Has society evolved so little? Has the Rodney King episode and the Denny's case had no impact on the mentality of Americans?
The gains made for civil rights during the 1960s have done littleto offset the prejudice many people continue to maintain and uphold. The inner core of hatred is still there. One comment, one physical expression bring back years of pain and suffering caused by racism.
The indifference of the other Metro riders causes the deepest pain.
Was there not one decent human being whose code of ethics was violated by this man's disparaging remarks? Not one who understood how difficult it is to be "different" in an otherwise Caucasian culture and society?
Not one person said or did anything to prevent the man's insults. No one defended the women or Asian-Americans in general. Not one even asked him to lower his voice.
Did the other commuters not take the man's statements seriously, and therefore assume that the women also did not? Were they too weary to speak up? Were the man's comments not incendiary enough to incite action?
At least when I suffered through Paul Wilcox's rantings my best friend was there to comfort me. But no one was there for the three women on the Metro. No one told them that they were not greedy. That they could be trusted. That they do practice personal hygiene.
I know the humiliation these women must have gone through as they sat trying to look indifferent while each word tore at their hearts. I'm sure they love America just as much as I do. But when you hear the words of pure bitterness and undisguised contempt, you wish your parents had not had dreams of a big home and a good education in America.
Edward Lee is a Baltimore Sun intern.