I heard the sound but the meaning didn't register. I stood in line with my classmates on the playground waiting for recess to start.
The sound came again and this time it meant something. I turned around and felt a finger jabbing my shoulder.
It was my classmate, Billy.
I had transferred to this school a week earlier. I had just moved to town two weeks before from Tachikawa, Japan, where I was born and lived until I was 10. From as far back as I could remember, as soon as kids were old enough to walk and ride their bikes, they'd go to their neighbors' houses to see if there were kids to play with — we lived near an airbase and most families were transient. And it didn't matter if the new kids didn't speak the language. There was no such thing as the "White Devil." We were the United Colors of Benetton and whomever was able to play and share a meal at each other's houses did just that. That's how we learned fellowship, citizenry, respect, and honor.
So on that playground in 1974 — less than a month after I was uprooted from my childhood home by my parents who sought a better life in the States with what they thought was more opportunity for me as a Eurasian child — I was exposed to discrimination for the first time in my life.
"HEY CHINK, WHAT ARE YOU? DEAF?"
Billy pushed me a third time. I reeled around to look at him squarely in the face and reflexively kicked him in the crotch. Hard.
Our P.E. teacher, Mr. Ingle, blew his whistle and started yelling for the class to stay in line. Billy lay on the ground, curled up in a ball. He was red-faced, spitting. Crying. "She attacked me! I didn't do anything!" he sputtered.
Fate was on my side that day. Mr. Ingle was close enough to witness the entire exchange and was purple with fury as he grabbed Billy by the ear and dragged him into the admin offices. "Shelley, come here, you!" he bellowed over his shoulder.
We were taken to the principal's office. I was terrified that I would be expelled or put in jail — whatever it is that a 10-year-old pacifist, introverted, OCD-ridden kid worried about when she'd been good all her life and finally did a bad thing.
When Billy came out 15 minutes later, it was clear he'd been crying. He started screaming at me unintelligibly, big fat tears rolling down his contorted, ogre-like face. Mr. Ingle led him away and huffed at me to stay put. I was terrified. I didn't know what my parents would think. I didn't know what they would do.
A few minutes later, Mr. Ingle returned and sat next to me on the bench.
"Shelley," he said sternly.
I felt my stomach drop. My ears started buzzing and my eyes started to sting with tears. I felt like I was going to pass out.
Mr. Ingle smiled and ruffled my hair. And then my convulsive tears came. This gruff old teddy bear of a man smelled of cigars and Old Spice aftershave. His face was lined and weathered and when he took off his sunglasses, his green eyes sparkled like fire.
"Look, Billy's a troublemaker. Don't you ever let anyone call you those bad names. I don't condone fighting or violence but you did good. I'm sorry you had to go through that and I hope it never happens again. But it might — and you won't always be able to fight back like that — but you must always, always stand up for yourself."
He gave me a little Dixie cup of water from the drinking fountain and sat with me while I recovered. He told me about his grandkids and then we returned to the playground.
"Listen up! Get off your butts and start running or I'll send you all to the bench!" He winked at me as I ran past him in the searing heat of the day.
Many more encounters followed in middle school but they were verbal, not physical. Then in my first year of high school — the last year that I lived in that town — I was approached by a gang of skinheads who threatened my life. I didn't run away. I stared them down out of pure terror but I guess they took that to mean I wasn't frightened and surprisingly left me alone from then on.
I never told my parents. I knew they would raise a fuss, maybe even transfer me to another school, which might present even worse problems. My teacher's words stayed with me my entire life.
Then, just as high school started, my parents decided to move to California. By that time, I had a best friend, Ruthie. She was (and is to this day) a true-blue friend who didn't care where I was from or what I looked like. We loved reading, watching BBC shows, and memorizing Beatles' movies. But upon hearing that we were moving again, this time to Los Angeles — a place 50 times larger than the town we lived in — I was terrified that the bullying might turn physical.
Through her tears at hearing the news, Ruthie asked, "What if it happens again?"
"I dunno. I'll have to learn how to really fight."
We sat for a few minutes. Then brilliance struck. At least that's what I thought at the time.
"Oh my God. What if I tell everybody I'm Italian? Or Greek?" Although I was Eurasian, with my olive complexion and hazel green eyes I could blend in with almost any ethnic group. In the four years we lived in that town, people mistook me for Brazilian, Italian, Hawaiian, Samoan, Greek, and many others.
Ruthie thought about it. "No. Unless you know those languages, you'll be outed when you meet a real native who starts talking in Italian or Greek. THEN what will you do?"
So we sat some more, moping and crying. Disaster loomed.
"Wait a minute. I could be British." Everyone loves British people. I wouldn't have to learn a second language. People love British people. Even when they curse, they make it sound smart and as if they're paying you a compliment.
In the nanosecond it took to register, we both squealed into our princess phones. We were both Anglophiles. We knew A Hard Days' Night by heart and would answer questions at school with lines from the movie just to see if anyone would notice. No one did.
And so I became British. And as I recall, the only other tweak I added was that my obviously Asian mother was my stepmother. Case closed.
But growing up a mixed-race kid in the 1970s was a challenge, for sure. It became painfully clear that the white kids I knew only knew about minorities from the stereotypical characters they saw on TV in shows such as Chico And The Man or All In The Family and Good Times, where minorities had heavy accents and worked at menial jobs. Many of the kids in that little town figured that since I was part Asian (which to them just meant 100 percent Asian) I was a whiz at math and science and couldn't pronounce the letter "L". And I can't blame them, it was the cultural norm at the time and actually still rings true today. My mom was Chinese-Filipino and my dad was Scottish and Welsh. They made a glorious, "beautiful people" couple. They were exotic. Mysterious. They never faced discrimination. In my decision to become British, I never thought about the long-term consequences or logistics. I just didn't want to get bullied. Or beat up. Or worse.
And in my first hours at the new California high school, I realized that my fears were completely unwarranted. It was like Japan all over again. There were black kids, Hispanic kids, Asian kids, mixed-race kids of all combinations — 70 percent of all my classmates were either mixed-race or well traveled and no one cared who my parents were or how Caucasian or Asian or British I was other than to ask which part of Britain I was from. And with the very first lilting "Hallo" out of my mouth, it was too late to reverse the lie.
I'd really screwed things up.
So while I staved off the discrimination and bullying quite effectively, my Britishness was not easy to dump. I'm weirdly happy to recall that I actually "passed the test" with a British exchange student from Birmingham and an Aussie from Queensland who never questioned me other than to commiserate about what sweets we missed. My group of high school friends went to college together and I remained good friends with a core group of about six. Throughout college and into our early careers, I maintained the ruse. I had no idea we would all remain close. I assumed that I would only have to carry on the persona through high school and that everyone would disperse from then on and only meet up for reunions.
But we all stayed so close that one friend, Linda, even introduced me to my husband, Mike.
And he was the very first person I let in on the secret. And no, I wasn't British when I met him. The accent became less and less pronounced as the years wore on and since our friends were busy with their careers and families, we only saw each other a few times a year. A year after Mike and I got married, Linda invited me to stay the weekend while her husband was on a business trip.
"Shel," she started…
"Yes?" I had no idea what was coming. I thought she was going to ask for my chili recipe.
"You're not really British, are you?"
I had the exact same physical reaction as I had when Mr. Ingle first sat with me on the principal's bench.
Crap. Crap. CRAP.
"Have you ever even been to Britain?"
CRAP CRAP CRAP.
"No. But my dad's family are all from there."
"But Shel, why didn't you just tell us the truth when you met us?"
She was hurt and upset. I explained how terrifying it was to be bullied and discriminated against and how sometimes I even feared for my life. The place we moved from still had residents who flew the Confederate flag. But after that heart-to-heart, she understood a little better why I went to such lengths to protect myself.
The story made its way to one of our high school friends who was gay. I had a coming out lunch with him and Linda. When I told him, he smiled wryly. In his eyes lay decades of hurt, brought to the surface by my admission. But nothing had to be said. The silent understanding between us was: "You did what you had to do."
Then I had a bigger coming out event. About 10 of us were having game night and sharing a meal at a huge dining table in a Big Chill kind of way. As I looked from friend to friend, I was overcome by the love and friendship I'd shared with these amazing people for the last several decades. And I couldn't continue to lie to them. They didn't deserve it. Then or ever. I leapt off the cliff.
"Hey, um, I have something to announce," I said. Everyone stopped eating and talking to turn and listen.
"I'm only half British. I've never been to Britain. I lied to you all and I'm so sorry. I get it if you never want to speak to me again."
My friend Jim piped in, "Oh, I knew that. Not for a long time, but I eventually figured it out. Hey, you want more chips?"
My friend Grace put her arms around me and said, "Oh my God. You poor thing! We all love you! Why did you feel like you had to do that? Oh my God!"
And all anyone wanted to know was the story. And when I finished, everyone continued with the evening as if nothing had happened. And really nothing did. By that time, and likely decades earlier, in that little high school, it didn't matter where I was from or what languages my parents spoke or where I called home. All that mattered was that we were all good people just trying to live happy and fulfilled lives.
But sadly, some acts of discrimination continued into adulthood. And they were far more insidious. I worked with a woman who was of immediate Japanese descent but born in California. During my welcome lunch, she asked me where I was from and I replied, "Tachikawa."
"Oh really? But surely you can't have been born there."
"Actually, I was."
And from that moment on, she became my enemy. In Japanese culture, those who are born off the islands proper are considered "Nisei," which means second-generation. And while natives don't speak of this, Nisei and any descendants not born on the islands are considered non-existent. Not even ghosts. Dead. She told a co-worker — which got back to me — that I was considered a true Japanese because I was born in the motherland (even though I was not Japanese by race) and for that, she hated me and made everything difficult at work. I could be Christ incarnate and save her dying son but because of this generations-old cultural stigma, I was her much-hated enemy from then on. While it wasn't as much of an affront as a high school death threat, it still hurt.
So, what of the years between childhood and adulthood? Have attitudes changed? Are people better or worse? The difference between then and now is big. But it's also nothing. In the last few decades, the world has become much more politically correct but the stereotypes, discrimination, and bullying all continue.
The semi-permanent hair dye of social awareness and respect does little to conceal the simmering, festering ugliness that recent political events have only brought to the fore again, like a long lost cousin found in an asylum and wheeled out for all to see in the blinding light of day. But the cousin is merely hidden away, always at risk of discovery.
Racism still exists. Discrimination still exists. And I think they always will. That makes my heart ache to its core because I know firsthand the damage it does. Some people aren't even lucky enough to survive it. And all I can remember is the profound upbringing I had in Japan, where the local kids invited me as an honored guest to their homes and the mama-sans fed me sticky omochi or homemade oyaku don while I taught them a few words of English and they taught me to write a few letters in Hiragana. All this barely a generation after the horrors of WWII.
And if you truly think about it, the only way we're "better" than a stranger standing next to us is not because of the color of our skin or who we love or what we earn. The only time we're better is when we look at all others from a place of love. Not fear. If you were on a battleground, wounded, and the only person who could save you was the enemy, would you take his hand or would you choose to die out of stubbornness and hatred? Would you help him if the tables were turned? What if his name was Billy?
Billy, wherever you are, I hope you've grown up. And even if you haven't, I want to thank you for helping me to grow up.