grew up in a town that prided itself on its open-mindedness because its mayor was Catholic. Today I am left with only an inkling of how I, a Chinese kid with extra-slanted eyes, fit into the local population's worldview, but that small town was where I learned the biggest lesson of my life.
I was born in southern Taiwan. When my family came to the bleak little midwestern town of Cold Prairie* I was just starting the second grade and spoke no English. My family had been sponsored by a local family that disintegrated into a messy divorce and a suicide during our first year in the United States. With its tragic demise went my father's job as an apprentice color separator at a local printing plant. My parents somehow kept us together body and soul by persuading a failing grocer to let them turn one cobwebby corner of his store into a tiny sandwich shop. Over the years, it evolved into a full-fledged "Chinese and American Restaurant" occupying the entire floor space.
At school I was "that chink kid" to my teachers and the well-mannered kids. Other kids favored nicknames based on obscene corruptions of the names of various Chinese dishes, real and fanciful. One blessing was that in my first months I understood little of what they said. I recall spending a lot of time reading old magazines and throwing a baseball through a tire hanging from a tree in our front yard. I was convinced that none of the other kids wanted to play with me, so I rarely bothered even to look at them, much less attempt to make friends.
My mother was a comforting presence but most of her evenings were taken up by household chores and other families' sewing. My father was a deeply religious and philosophical man who was thoroughly immersed in the struggle for his family's survival. I know this only in retrospect. As a kid I thought of him as an emotionless robot perpetually immersed in one form of drudgery or another. He said little to me in those years. I was sure he had no conception of what I was going through.
Of his words to me, I have only one clear memory. It was the day I was beaten up by a group of older boys on my way home from school. I had quietly put my books down in my room, walked out to the front yard and, as usual, began throwing baseballs through the tire. Somehow my father was home early that day. He came out to the yard and just stood there watching. It gave me an odd feeling because I had never seen him standing idly. As I walked over past the tire to retrieve the balls, he grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me over to the steps. He sat me down beside him.
After a long silence he cleared his throat. "You will always find bad people," he said in his accented English. We had been in the states about five years then. "You never mind about the bad ones. You only mind the eighty percent good people." He looked at me for a long time, maybe to see if I understood. Then he got to his feet and said he had to get back to the restaurant. As he was leaving, he put his hand on my head and repeated, "You just mind the eighty percent good ones. Then you be okay."
My father's words stayed with me. Maybe because he had never said much. Maybe I was just desperate to believe that the sneering faces of the boys who seldom lost an opportunity to torment me didn't represent all that life in Cold Prairie had to offer. In any case, my father's words seared themselves into my consciousness like a hot brand.
The next day is etched in my memory. I found the strength to ignore the taunts and jeers of the bullies and began making eye contact with the other kids. I was surprised to see that their faces showed little of the malice to which I had resigned myself. Some even smiled at me as though they didn't know that I was that "chink kid" despised by the whole town. A few even went out of their way to make friends.
My new friends talked me into joining Little League. A few weeks later the coach made me the team's starting pitcher. By junior high I was popular enough to be elected class president. One of my closest friends that year was one of the boys who had joined in bullying me. In my senior year of high school I was homecoming king and starting quarterback. In a town like Cold Prairie that is like being seated at the right hand of God.
The day I left Cold Prairie for college wasn't the jubilant escape I had daydreamed about a thousand times. Instead, big hot tears washed my cheeks as I said goodbye to all my friends. My mother somehow brought herself to give me a quick, hard hug. My father shook my hand and cleared his throat but couldn't seem to get any words out. He just put his hand on my head and nodded.
I won't pretend that my father's advice was some magic incantation that turned a hostile world into a friendly one. Even now, years after I first took it to heart, I run up against people who are determined to extract their ounce of flesh for no more reason than that they don't like the way I look. But over the years I have made a habit of reminding myself that they are members of a sad minority in need of converts to share their misery. They get my indifferent back. I save my face for the good people who make up my father's 80%. They rule in Cold Prairie and, as it turns out, the rest of the world too.
*This town's name has been changed to spare the feelings of many good people.
“The other kids favored nicknames based on obscene corruptions of the names of various Chinese dishes, real and fanciful.”