Can I Sit with You?

Spitting Image
November 1, 2007, 7:01 am
Filed under: elementary school, middle school, name-calling, orchestra, race, school bus

by John H. Kim
Age 10 at the time

Fifth grade was a low point in my life. I had finally made some friends in third grade, and gotten through fourth. Then we moved to the other side of the mountain, to a huge, run-down old house overlooking the Hudson River. My parents had bought it as a fixer-upper, and I think got a real deal. It had a four-and-a-half acre mostly wooded lot, with a garage that used to be an old stable. There were no other houses for quite a distance, which made it kind of lonely.

We lived off highway 9W instead of a regular street, so the school bus didn’t stop near our house. I walked to school instead, which was only a quarter-mile if I cut through our enormous mountain lot to the dead end of Franklin Street. This involved trekking through a wide grassy path through the woods, past an old swimming pool. The walk was bearable some days, but when I had orchestra practice and had to lug my French horn, it was a real pain.

I had a hard time adjusting to the new school. I missed my friends Mark and Jason, and would call them on the phone a lot. At some point into the school year I finally invited someone from orchestra over to our house. I can’t remember his name anymore. I remember he played a woodwind of some sort, certainly something a lot lighter to lug to my house than a French horn.

When he came over, my mother was home. She brought us some snacks, then we looked through my stuff and around the house. We didn’t talk about anything in particular, and didn’t play games like I did with my old friends. Then we went outside to the big yard. The garden was still probably a mess, but it was big. Suddenly, he got mad over something, and yelled, “The problem with you is that you think you’re the spitting image of your mother!” Then he stalked off.

I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about.

I couldn’t recall exactly what we had been talking over, but it didn’t seem to involve my mother. I cast my mind in all directions, trying to think what it could mean. Was it some sort of clever dig at my looks? I hated clever insults, or rather I hated being embarrassed for not understanding them. Was it a play on words, something about “spitting”? Insults often seem to invoke mothers.

Then something occurred to me. My mother was white, and my father was Korean. Did that have something to do with it? I still didn’t understand why he said that, but it did seem to make a sort of sense. In fact, I realized he was right. I didn’t think of myself as Korean at all. I didn’t interact with my father much, so most of my mannerisms came from my mother.

Still, it was a puzzle. My visitor was white, but I think he was from an immigrant family of some sort, maybe Eastern European. What would make him say that? I couldn’t remember what would prompt that, but then, I didn’t remember much about what we talked about anyway. As far as I can remember, we didn’t talk or hang out after that for the rest of the year. I certainly never asked him what he meant by it, or what made him say it.

It did make me think about a lot of things. I still remembered some of the popular chants from elementary school. One was “A fight! A fight! A nigger and a white!” Another was “Chinese; Japanese; Dirty knees; Look at these!” — done pushing up and down your eyebrows, then pulling out your shirt like breasts. I didn’t understand what was behind those rhymes as I thought about what he had said, but I somehow knew they were related.

I made it through the rest of the year at that middle school, but I never made any friends. The next year, my parents put me in a private prep school across the river. It was a long bus ride, but the bus would stop at our house. Some things changed, but others didn’t. I still didn’t think of myself as Korean for the most part, but sometimes I would stop and think about the incident, and my image.