Like little stars.
Judy Blume, my mentor and friend, told me not to engage with my bully. “Forget her, she isn’t worth it,” she told me. But I had a strange curiosity over what happened to the woman — I’ll call her Mary — who had once been my tormentor. Over the years I’d developed a secret theory of bullies, that they were the ultimate softies, the ones who have to build a fearsome spiked carapace over some sad, sad hurt. It’s that kind of empathy, perhaps, that made me a novelist. And Mary certainly gave me a story to tell.
Bullying, unfortunately, was a part of the warp and weave of my childhood. I grew up in northern Minnesota in the ’70s, where my Asian family was the only color in a sea of Scandinavians. When I was in second grade, a crew-cutted boy shoved me against some metal monkey bars, cracking the back of my head open.
But the most difficult time came when I entered junior high. I was underweight, bookish, bespectacled. Gym class was a convergence of all my anxieties. The other girls were tall with pretty hair that feathered and training bras, while I had no breasts and not even an undershirt for camouflage underneath the one-piece uniforms that looked like a baby’s onesie.
Mary was the instigator. She was not particularly popular or athletic. She had that kind of genericism that I would have killed for — she was just like everybody else.
One day in the locker room, Mary leapt out in front of me and started to sing, “ching-ching-a-ling” while doing some kind of interpretive dance that involved pulling the lids of her eyes into slits. Her friend Terry (also not her real name) echoed her taunts. I had a feeling this was not the end of it — and it wasn’t.
My Asian parents valued nonconfrontation over everything. When I vaguely hinted at this assault that waited for me daily (or, at least as it seemed at the time), they suggested I stay quiet and concentrate on my schoolwork. Some people didn’t know how to deal with minorities, they said. One day, this would pass, and I would leave Hibbing behind for an Ivy League school, and everything would be all right. That might have been good advice for the long term, but in the meantime, the ching-ching-a-ling routine continued, my only solace being that it often fell flat.
And then one day, two “tough” girls brought the whole thing to an end. They spoke quietly to Mary and Terry, who then approached me, ashy-faced, and each muttered, “I’m sorry, I won’t ever do it again.”
Now in my 40s, enter the brave new world of Facebook. Like many, I receive requests from classmates I barely knew — including this: Mary the Bully wants to be friends! I deleted the request and didn’t think about it. But after a few months, another request would appear. Then another.
It occurred to me that maybe Mary had read one of my novels, including one, in which a Korean American girl growing up in Minnesota — surprise, surprise — suffers through a “ching-ching-a-ling” song (and in the novel, at least, the protagonist manages to fight back). There was a mention of my novel in People, and classmates were definitely reading it. But while people like my piano teacher wrote tearful letters (“I had no idea this was going on”), the apologies I thought I might receive never arrived. The closest thing to an apology: “I didn’t know why you let it bother you so much, people were just kidding.”
With Mary’s enthusiastic friending — she also went to the trouble to find and join my Facebook author page — I thought, maybe the novel had made her more reflective, and now as adults it would be possible to talk about what happened. I accepted her friend request, only to discover she just liked to write things about Sarah Palin on my wall. But after more time passed, I thought this was a unique opportunity to do something I never had the courage to do when I was younger. I wanted to try one last time to understand my bully.
Mary lives in Oregon now and is married with an assortment of children, stepchildren and grandchildren. She agreed to talk with me, and we had an hour-long conversation on Skype.
When I asked her why she had tormented me for so long in junior high, she said she didn’t remember the specific incident nor its duration. In a rush, she told me she had “blacked out” most memories of junior high because her parents had gotten divorced and she was having a hard time; therefore, she didn’t have any memories of me, specifically. In fact, she went on, she was bullied: Right before entering junior high, she’d moved among the town’s three elementary schools where “people were mean” to her, particularly at her last elementary school, where “the bitches” made her life miserable. She added that she had older brothers who beat her up all the time. At one point, I almost wanted to say plaintively, “But what about my being bullied?”
The more I tried to pin her down about the “ching-ching-a-ling” routine, though, the more she sought cover.
“I’m a good person, I’m compassionate,” she said. She never came out and said, “I didn’t do it,” or “You’re crazy.” Instead, she said, “I’m not a racist.” And, “I don’t see color.” She went on to postulate that if she did do that routine, it wasn’t an expression of racism, it was more out of a desperate need to get laughs. “And it was at your expense,” she admitted. “I tried to be nice to all these other girls and they weren’t nice back to me. All I wanted to do was fit in.” She started crying. She apologized. I suggested she didn’t need to apologize for something she can’t remember doing. We said goodbye. Cordially, I thought.
There is a quote attributed to Plato and/or Philo of Alexandria — “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” — that is probably anachronistic to both, but still useful. Hearing about what was going on in Mary’s life at the time made me open to the possibility that she wasn’t motivated by racism, or, at least, that wasn’t the primary motivation. I believed her: She was desperate to get laughs from our peers, and my being Asian conveniently sat right in front of her, and my 85-pound weakling demeanor made it all the more attractive.
But that’s certainly not how the seventh-grade me perceived it. It has been disturbing to read that a government study found that Asian Americans endure the most bullying in school of all ethnic groups: 54 percent of Asian American teens compared with 38 percent of blacks, 34 percent of Latinos, 31 percent of whites. This study was released last October, the same month U.S. Army Pvt. Danny Chen was dragged from his bed on a base in Afghanistan and forced to crawl on the ground while his fellow soldiers threw rocks at him while yelling ethnic slurs.
Hours later, Danny Chen shot himself. His journal read, “Everyone here jokingly makes fun of me for being Asian.”
One lingering effect of this bullying was that for years afterward, I disavowed all things Asian that could in any way be connected to me; I even turned away from the Seoul Olympics, refusing to watch any non-event footage, puzzling my college boyfriend who thought I might at least want to watch a cultural spectacle with him. Living in New York and meeting other Korean and Asian American friends who did not deny or avoid their ethnicity helped me get over my self-loathing, as did a year I spent living in Asia.
But even now, as a fairly composed adult, when I read about bullying, particularly racial bullying, I am back in seventh grade with Mary, while she pleads amnesia, telling me: “Honestly, my first memories of you aren’t until high school.”
The day after we spoke, Mary further muddied the water by sending me a long email that was at once apologetic, evasive, ambiguous, contradictory, ashamed, conciliatory:
Again, I can only say that if I did do those things you say I did, I am truly sorry. I was a dumb, insecure preteen who was trying to fit in and in doing so I hurt you, and I am very sorry. I cannot change the past, or your memory of what may or may not have happened.
What I am equally ashamed about is that during the course of that call, my 26 year old daughter was in the other room listening to the entire conversation. Imagine the shame of having your child hear these terrible accusations, of which, she does not believe. Thank goodness.
Then she closed with this:
Its’ [sic] not always about you being Asian. You need to understand that the world is not against you because your [sic] Asian…I will continue to be the woman I am, I am kind, considerate, caring, compassionate & loving. I am a good mother and grandmother. I raised my children to be compassionate, caring and good stewards of our environment.
It occurred to me that she could indeed be a good steward of the environment and still be the girl who made my life a living hell in junior high. Don’t we all recast our memories to bolster the stories we tell ourselves, about who we are? My friend who also grew up Asian in the Midwest had an unforgettable experience of having her face slammed into a brick wall, breaking a bunch of her teeth, but the perpetrator now tells people, oh, no, she was trying to help by putting a hand on her back to stop her face from hitting the wall. Perhaps she honestly believes it. Mary told me many times she is not a racist but that Terry, well, she never liked minorities too much; what was her point revealing that? I could whine that what I hoped would be a spiritual exercise ended up an unproductive mobius-loop meditation on the fungibility of memory.
Another possibility, however, is that while that experience colored my life, it wasn’t a big deal to her, maybe it even fell in the category of affectionate “teasing” and was thus unworthy of remembering; it has been 30 years. Another friend says she receives Facebook friend requests all the time from mean girls who singled her out; clearly, to them, their behavior was not a big deal. That’s the insidious underside to this: What may be unremarkable, forgettable, deniable (“I was just joking!”) for one person can cause wounds that never fully heal in another.
There was a girl, let’s call her Heather, who came to our high school senior year. She, like me, was bookish and the subject of unkind remarks about her looks, and, as we were all graduating in a few months, no one bothered to befriend her. At least she was brilliant in physics class, and I presumed in a few short months she’d be out and on to some great career as a rocket scientist.
She came to a book signing I had in Minneapolis, and at first I didn’t recognize her. She was disheveled, with at least three equally disheveled children in tow. We had a short, uncomfortable chat where she informed me she was a single mother on welfare (and possibly drugs?). Right before she left, she asked, in a voice full of pain: “How did you do it? How did you get past it?”
I didn’t know what to say. I was lucky? The most damaging part of being bullied is the awful feeling of being alone. Maybe what saved me was that I wasn’t alone. In seventh grade I had the tough girls who stood up for me. By high school, I had teachers, friends and writing to carry me through. Writing nonfiction helped me figure out the world, fiction allowed me to revisit these memories, examine them as an outside observer, and to alchemize them into art, something I was proud to own. My earliest novels were young adult and middle grade novels, set in junior high and high school, and perhaps they were a message-in-a-bottle to the next generation of kids: You are not alone.
Ironically, while I was reading Mary’s long, conflicted, seemingly heartfelt note to me, she was composing a different kind of screed on Facebook — one that I was blocked from, but calling out an “Asian” from school, prompting a few helpful classmates to forward it to me. Her blacked-out memories of me apparently had been miraculously revived:
I’m tired and weary of people making everything about their race. Guess what, if you perceive people as mean to you solely due to your race, maybe they just don’t like you as a person? Perhaps they don’t give a rats [sic] ass what your race is…maybe your [sic] just a bitch, with a giant chip on your shoulder!!
At least, I don’t have to worry about defriending her on Facebook again. Maybe Judy was right. This was a can of worms I might have been better to leave alone.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee's novel about the future of medicine will be published in 2015 with Simon & Schuster. She teaches creative writing at Columbia University. Find her on Twitter @MarieMyungOkLee and on Facebook.More Marie Myung-Ok Lee.
Like little stars.
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Some adolescent scars linger well into adulthood. Interview With My Bully, our new essay series, hopes to provide some closure, and maybe even build some understanding and common ground between the picked-on and their young tormentors. Ever wonder what happened to the person who pushed you around in junior high?
Why not track him or her down -- and post your essay on Open Salon.