THE "CHINK" WORD
Lau was born in Vancouver in 1971. She is the author of an autobiography
of her adolescence, Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid,
published when she was eighteen, which was made into a CBC-TV
movie titled The Diary of Evelyn Lau. She has also
published two short story collections, three volumes of poetry
and two novels – Other Women (1995) and Inside
Out – Reflections On A Life So Far (2001). Her prose
has been translated into a dozen languages, and she has won
several awards for her writing. Her most recent book is her
fourth poetry collection, Treble (Polestar/Raincoast).
twice a year it happens, not often enough that I can ever expect
it or brace myself for its possibility. The surprise of it knocks
the breath out of me, leaves me stranded in the middle of the
sidewalk with a stupefied expression on my face and no way to
retaliate except inarticulately, with a string of expletives.
average, twice a year, someone passing me on the street will
look me in the face and say “Chink”. Or “Go
back to your own country!” (which, incidentally, is Canada).
Or, once, my favourite, “You Japanese monkey!” (I
lived in Vancouver all my life and, like most residents, take
its multiculturalism for granted. When I walk down the street,
the last thing I expect to be singled out for is my ethnicity.
If someone looks twice at me, I usually assume my jeans are
unzipped or there is a stain on my shirt; on a good day, I might
think my lipstick is a pretty shade or, vaingloriously, that
the passer-by is a reader of poetry. As a woman, I sense that
slight charge in the air when I pass certain men, the pause
before the possibility of a crude comment or a disrobing stare,
but now that I’m in my mid-30s, that sort of thing happens
less frequently. In the current play Mom’s the Word 2:
Unhinged, one actor comments that her daughter must own a magic
bikini, because when she puts it on the mother becomes instantly
invisible. There is a freedom to that invisibility that young
women have yet to discover; as you get older, you become increasingly
protected from male regard, as if encased in bubble wrap. A
trip to the corner store is no longer a fraught, stressful experience,
marked along the way by lewd stares and intimate comments.
I am used to bracing myself a little when I walk down the street
alone, with the sort of heightened awareness that women cultivate
like a sixth sense. What I don’t expect to have to defend
myself against is a racial slur. I am the last person to look
for racism where it doesn’t exist—the idea of affirmative
action taking precedence over merit raises my hackles, and over
the years I’ve received my fair share of criticism for
my lack of interest in incorporating ethnicity into my writing.
So, what happened the other day hit me like a punch on the nose.
striding down the street, the brisk fall air quickening my step,
coming back to life after a busy week at the Vancouver International
Writers Festival. I was thinking of how Alice Munro, one of
the writers I most revere, had been in the audience at my reading
at the Poetry Bash, how beautiful she looked, almost doll-like,
and how when she shook my hand I had been unable to say anything
original about what her work meant to me, yet this incident
would still be one of the highlights of my life.
then, with an aperture of happiness opening inside me, a man
in his 60s walking in my direction peered at me and said “Chink”.
a moment of confusion, I smiled, as if it had been a compliment.
I suppose when he looked at me and opened his mouth, I was anticipating
a compliment, the way a woman might from a man passing on the
street who gives her his regard. I stood foolishly in the middle
of the sidewalk after he had continued on; he was almost at
the end of the block before my slow reflexes kicked in and I
yelled after him, a stupid collection of expletives that made
passers-by stare at me as if I were schizophrenic. I didn’t
want to let it go, the way I had last year when a man started
shouting the ugliest racial and sexual slurs at a young Asian
woman who works at a florist’s shop near where I live,
and though I wanted to separate the man’s limbs from his
body, the most I could do was stay with her and tell her clumsily
that she didn’t have to hear a word of what he was saying.
really hear it, inside her—the way the word chink immediately
landed inside my chest like a hot coal and lodged there, burning.
It reduced me to a child in the playground, long before Vancouver
became the supposedly colour-blind city it is today, hearing
that word for the first time and learning I was worth less than
the person who said it.
SELF HATRED AND VISIBLE MINORITIES