Cathy Does Not Like Bananas
The recess bell rings, and the other children dash for the door. The classroom that the students want to escape is warm and secure with Ms. Dodson in charge. The leather coat that she wears every day is hanging on a coat rack behind her. The pockets are big enough and I am small enough that she always says, “I want to put you in my pocket and take you home. You’re so cute.”
I remain sitting at my desk hoping Ms. Dodson will not make me leave the classroom. Though she is very nice to me, she will not play favorites. When she looks up from her desk and sees me sitting at my desk, she smiles and gently tells me to go outside.
I don’t want to go to the playground. I know what is going to happen once I leave the safety of my classroom.
The windows on the door shine from the morning sun rising into the fall sky. The noise from the children playing outside becomes louder as I approach the doors. I reach up to press the metal door handles. The metal feel cools against my hands. I pause to take a large breath, and push the doors open.
The screams and laughter of playing children hurts, not my ears, but my chest.
If only I could join them.
“Hey, chink!” I hear someone yell. A group of kids, standing near the door, start to laugh. It is the usual group, which every school seems to have—the ones who enjoy teasing and tormenting other children.
“It’s four eyes!” a girl shouts. The group thinks this insult is the funniest. It has been hurled hundreds of times, but still has not lost its power to sting. The kids seem to know which insults will continue to hurt, even though I try my best not to react to them.
“Hey you stupid gook!” someone yells. I don’t know what the word ‘gook’ means. But I do know the intentions behind the insult.
“Go back to China, you stupid chink!” Kevin, who pulls the corner of his eyes down to imitate Chinese eyes, says scornfully. If I weren’t angry, I would laugh. He looks silly trying to imitate an Asian with his white skin, hazel eyes, and short blond hair. His imitation angers me more than his insult. Anger that wants to hit his face races to my fists, but fear of the consequences races through my thoughts.
“I’m Korean, you idiot!” I scream at Kevin. I won’t ever admit to those kids that I don’t know the difference either.
I try to ignore them and make my way to the swings as I usually do during recess. I love being on the swings. As I swing up and down, I can close my eyes and imagine the air caressing my face is my mother’s hand brushing away the dirt and pain, and the brief tingling in my stomach is the feeling when I see my mother’s face. That face is sometimes my adopted mother’s face, Ms. Dodson’s, or any other kind woman’s; but I never see an Asian face.
But today, I don’t reach the swings. A group of four boys crowd around me and start to push me from one boy to the next. There are several girls who stand outside of the ring, giggling. One of the worst tormentors, Casey, is especially brave this morning and trips me. I look at Mrs. Allen, who is supervising the kids playing on the soccer field, wishing she would rescue me from these kids.
The laughter of the children makes my eyes water. I stand up and look at the boys. “Leave me alone! I haven’t done anything to you guys!” I shout. My hands are clenched into small fists from the lacerations on my palms and from the desire to punch Casey.
He starts to laugh louder, and says, “Look, the chink is mad,” in his worst oriental accent. The others start shouting in unison, “The chink is mad!”
I hate him for tormenting me. I hate him because he has blue eyes and blond hair, unlike me. I hate him, most of all, because he has friends.
Karen, laughing, says, “The baby is crying.” Like parrots, the other kids in the group mimic her. Even though she is missing a tip of her right pinkie, she doesn’t get teased. They tease me because I look so different from everyone, including my family. It is not because I wear glasses; it is not because I am the shortest kid in the class; it is because my face is so different.
I can’t stop crying, and I scream, “I hate you guys!” and run off the school grounds. But I don’t hate them. In spite of the teasing, I like Kevin, with his antics in class, and Karen, with her husky voice. And I like most of the kids in my class, even though I don’t know them very well. I start walking home. “Why are they so mean?” I ask myself. “They weren’t this way in Kindergarten.”
When I enter the house, my mother asks me, “Why are you home?” This is the first time I have come home during the school day. The tears dried while I walked home, and before entering the house, I wiped away any trace of crying.
“Leave me alone,” I tell her. I go to my bedroom, the semi-dark of the basement welcoming like a den, and close the door. I don’t think she understands the way I feel. I am so different from everyone. When I go to the store with my mother, I feel embarrassed because I don’t look like her. The question strangers ask, “Who is this?” is the worst. I don’t see them ask other women with a small child this question—they assume the mother and child are related.
My mother knocks on the door and asks, “Are you alright, Troy?” She seems concerned, but I don’t want to talk to her at this moment. I know she loves me, but because she sees me for who I am, she is blind to the fact that I look different. Her blindness makes her unable to understand the problems I am suffering this year.
“Yes,” I mumble. I feel confused. I don’t know how to tell her that I am miserable because I was adopted. At the same time, I would like to have someone to confide in about my misery. Last month, when I brought up my feelings, she offered to buy a pizza. I didn’t want a pizza, I wanted the pain to go away. I feel confused. So I have decided that I will not tell her about what is happening this year in school.
Prior to this school year, I spoke with my mother all the time. I asked once why they had adopted me. Her explanation was that she and my dad wanted six children. Their friends had just adopted a Korean girl and were ecstatic. The married couple gave my parents some information, and the rest is history.
At the time, the explanation did not bother me, but now I feel anger over their decision. I trace the route a plane would fly on the map of the world I have made with chewed gum on the bunk above me. I want to tell my mother that it was stupid to adopt me when I am completely different from them. Looking at how the green and blue gum clashes, I wonder, ”Why didn’t they adopt a white child if they wanted six children and leave me in Korea?”
Where I belong.
In November, there is a new girl in the class. Her name is Cathy. The teacher assigns her a desk in the front. During class I stare at her hair. I become lost in the strands of dark blond hair which travel neatly down her head and end in mad curls that are carefree. The recess bell rings, and I rush to greet her, but she hurriedly leaves the room. I pause for a moment, not sure if she is trying to avoid me or did not see me.
That night in bed I start to daydream as I always do. Tonight, though, instead of my usual dream in which my biological parents, who are rich, come to reclaim me and take me back to Korea, I daydream about Cathy. I see a future with her as my wife. I see myself working and coming home to the house with Cathy waiting for me having already cooked dinner like the family in “Leave it to Beaver.” A contented feeling washes over me because I am married with two children and a steady job.
The next day, at recess, I wait for the other kids to leave the classroom. When I walk outside, I brace myself against the cold wind and the insults that are sure to fly. The wind hits my face, and I shiver, but I don’t think it is from the cold, but the torment I know is coming. I take several steps and then stop in confusion. Where are the insults? No kids are waiting by the door to start harassing. In the distance, I hear my usual tormentors screaming in unison, “It’s monkey face!”
Some of the boys, Casey and Kevin included, are trying their best to imitate monkeys by hopping from one leg to the other, drooping their arms as low as they can and grunting like monkeys. I see their breath in the cold air each time they grunt, giving an exclamation point to the sounds. There are three girls, standing away from the circle, laughing at the scene. Their cheeks and noses are red from the cold. Their expressions are so intoxicating, a mixture of joy and excitement. How can such an expression be possible while watching such misery? I make my way over, curious to see who they are torturing.
When I arrive, at first I cannot see whom they are tormenting because I am shorter than everyone. Two of the boys separate, creating a gap through which I see the person they are teasing. I look at that person, guilt for wanting to know who they are teasing warring with relief from not being teased today.
Cathy is standing in the middle of the group with tears running down her cheeks. I don’t understand why they are calling her “monkey face”. Her face looks like all the other children. Remembering the daydream from last night, I feel an urge to pound my fist into the boys that surround her. I want to scream at the girls to leave her alone.
If I rescued her would she talk with me?
Looking at the gathered kids, I imagine my tiny fists smashing into Casey and Kevin faces. Their swollen noses dripping blood propel my imagination. Surely, Cathy would like me for rescuing her. But the reality of the situation crushes my thoughts, and a sense of helplessness washes over me. I turn around and walk away with my head down.
The next week, the kids stop teasing me because they have a new kid to torment during recess, Cathy. Feelings of relief and anxiety clash inside my head. Seeing Cathy just as miserable as I was the previous week dampens the joy of not being teased. The lack of tormenting makes me feel like another school kid, the feeling I had in kindergarten.
I ask Alex, “Hey Alex, why do they call Cathy ‘monkey face’?”
He is a classmate who never teases me but also never speaks to me. He looks at me through his thick black glasses, not sure whether I am speaking a foreign language. Then he decides that I must be speaking to him. “She looks like a monkey,” he says, and then quickly turns back to the roll of film he made from a grease pencil wrapping. He must feel awkward having to talk to me.
The week after Alex explained the reasoning behind Cathy’s moniker, I try to steal looks at Cathy’s face, trying to find any resemblance to a monkey. But I never really see the resemblance. She has blue eyes which I find so fascinating. She has white skin while I have yellow. Her hair is blond with soft curls at the ends while my hair is like a bunch of black sticks. She looks like everyone else at school.
After the New Year’s break, I return to school. Now I don’t dread going as much since the kids stopped teasing me. When the recess bells rings, I see Cathy listlessly sitting at her desk. I have never spoken to her since she arrived at school. I still cannot get the courage to speak to her. I walk toward the playground.
When I step out, the usual tormentors are standing in a group near the exit. They start screaming. For several moments I don’t understand what they are screaming, then the words start to make sense.
They are screaming, “Chink! Gook! Four-eyes! Shrimp! Midget!”
The last month and a half of freedom has made me forget the words they use. For some reason, the insults hurt more than they did before Cathy arrived. A sense of not being so strange, a sense of almost belonging to the group, is ripped away with those insults.
Cathy walks out of the doors onto the playground. I want to stop the insults and the pain, so I scream with desperation, “It’s monkey face!”
Then everyone turns to Cathy and starts screaming. I join in the screaming. She starts to cry. Staring at Cathy as she stands alone in a circle of kids tormenting her, a feeling of loathing slowly settles down on my shoulders and travels to my feet. I feel like a traitor, not knowing what I have betrayed, not realizing a traitor is never trusted by any side. The loathing becomes an anchor, holding me mentally to the same exact place for years to come.
Some years later, while reading an article about race, I see the term, “banana”, which describes me perfectly—yellow on the outside and white on the inside. I recall Cathy, how I betrayed myself by hurting her in an effort to fit among the other kids. I am not white nor am I Korean. I will never be fully accepted in the western world, nor will I be fully accepted in the Asian world.