– Queenie Ho, Omaha
It was a sweltering day, and in the Midwest, that meant air so thick with moisture that it was hard to breathe. The sun was high and shining so brightly in the sky that you have to squint when you dared to venture outside. Everyone wore shorts and tank tops, and everywhere you go, you were greeted with the flap-flap-flap sounds of flip-flops. The classrooms were heavy with the smell of sweat and drowsy with summer heat. Fans lining the walls were set on high in an attempt to keep the room ventilated, but there were so many of them that our teachers were mostly muffled by the sound of the blades of the fans cutting through the stale air.
It was near the end of the school day, and our teachers had given up and similarly succumb to the fact that we were all being roasted alive. It was an uncomfortably long day, and though normally, the ringing of school bells signaled an escape to the air-conditioned comforts of my home, I was rather anxious. An uneasiness caused by the events of the previous afternoon had settled and made me reluctant to walk between the oven that was my school and the glorified refrigerator that was my home.
An uneasiness caused by the events of the previous afternoon had settled and made me reluctant to walk between the oven that was my school and the glorified refrigerator that was my home.
The day before had been much like today. Hot. Everything and everywhere was sticky and sweaty (and hopefully, if you were lucky, not stinky with the sweat). I was walking home from school, weighed down by a backpack carrying my day’s homework and struggling a little bit to find my way to our new home in a new town. I heard the low rumbling of a truck and gravel crunching beneath its tires. It backfired a little and kept rumbling on. A broken down truck in a small farm town was not uncommon, but the sounds still felt very new and exciting. I had seen trucks before, but the prospects of seeing a farmer in a farm truck in the country—that was an image I had yet to witness. I turned around and looked.
The truck might have been white at some point in its life, but it was now red with rust. In the driver’s seat was not a farmer with overalls and a hat like I had expected but one of my classmates. One of his arms was propped up against the open window, and the other one sat rather carelessly on the steering wheel. A faded green hat sat high on his head, and he was wearing a red plaid cut-off shirt. A single strand of hay peeped out from between his lips, and I thought he might have smiled. I thought to myself, well, even if it had not been the Farmer John I had expected, it was sort of close enough. As he continued to roll past me, a small billow of smoke left his exhaust, and he stuck his head out.
I had expected a simple “hello” or “how do you do?” My parents had told me that those were the country ways, and that it was polite to reciprocate. As I opened my mouth to say hello, he said, “Go back to North Korea, chink.”
I was confused at first. I’m not North Korean. I can’t go back to a place I’m not from…
And so I stood on the sidewalk and watched as he chugged along the gravel road. Engine exhaust and dust following and fading behind him as he drove further and further down the road until he eventually turned at a stop sign. He was already out of sight when I finally understood. He didn’t care that I wasn’t from North Korea. He didn’t care that this was my country too. All he saw was a girl who, in his opinion, didn’t belong and had no right to belong.
Perhaps I was hurt, perhaps I was angry, but I didn’t really understand it. I just felt uncomfortable. Uncomfortable in my new town. In my new school. In my new home.
I wasn’t new to this whole moving business, and so I knew that that was not the source of my uneasiness. In fact, I find moving around to be exhilarating. New places and new people, but I guess that was what was so different this time. It was the people, and it was racism—and I had never really experienced racism until that moment. I didn’t tell my parents about it that night. I did my homework, ate my dinner, and went to bed feeling rather dejected and apprehensive at the possibility of having to see this person again at school.
Which led us back to this moment, and I was sitting at my desk. The backs of my legs were stuck to the wooden chair, and I was gripping my books tightly in my hands, waiting for the dreaded bell to ring. I looked at the clock, and it tick-tocked away. The hands shivered ever so slightly with each passing second.
I was jittery. What if it happened again?
The bell rang, and everyone woke with a start. Suddenly, drowsy students were hurriedly and eagerly gathering their belongings and rushing out of the classroom. What was previously a silent corridor became filled with laughter and chatter as students filled the hallway, searching for their own bright purple locker. Cah-chuh, cah-chuh, cah-chuh. The sound of locker doors opening echoed throughout the school as everyone prepared to head home. I reached my locker and started packing my things in my bag. I checked to make sure that I had all of my books and binders.
Biology. Trigonometry. English. Accounting. Literature.
I checked and double-checked and triple-checked.
Biology. Trigonometry. English. Accounting. Literature. Home-ec? Did I have home-ec homework?
I was stalling, and I knew it. I wanted to go home, but I didn’t want to go home.
What if he said it again?
The hallway had emptied, and the last few slam of locker doors rang and marked the exit of the final stragglers. I shut my own locker door and stood up. What if he said it again? So what? They were just words, and I could choose to not let them bother me. There was a choice, and I could make it.
I put my backpack on and started walking down the stairs that led to the main entrance. People were always going to say things, and sometimes they were things that had no business being said. But what was I going to do? Pick a fight with everyone? Hide in my house and never come back out?
That was no way to live. They didn’t have the power to hurt me, because I wasn’t going to give it to them. I didn’t have to be angry. I didn’t even have to forgive them. People were ignorant and hateful sometimes. I could choose to ignore them, and I could choose to face them with honesty and kindness. This was my new life, and, heck, if I was going to let a couple of ignoramuses stop me from enjoying it.
They didn’t have the power to hurt me, because I wasn’t going to give it to them. […] This was my new life, and, heck, if I was going to let a couple of ignoramuses stop me from enjoying it.
I hiked up my backpack and pushed opened the front doors. If it was possible, it had gotten even hotter and more humid since I left the classroom just fifteen minutes ago. I could see heat waves rising from the pavement, but there was the smallest hint of a summer breeze. You could barely feel it, and the only signs of it were the nearly imperceptible waves of the trees. As I stopped at the crosswalk to check for cars before I crossed the street, I saw him again at a stop sign. He was in his rusty truck, with a cigarette in his mouth, and a friend in the passenger seat. He was laughing at something his friend had said when his glance moved my way. At this instance, I knew I had a choice. I was in control.
I looked at him, and I smiled. I didn’t check if he had smiled back. I didn’t care, and it didn’t matter. I was going home.