Growing Up with the Face of a Bad Guy
What westerns, cartoons, and racist rich kids taught me about representation in media
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In the third grade, my homeroom class watched a terrible western-style clip involving a gang of white settlers chasing a Native American boy across the desert. The boy was on foot, the white men on horses. The men were mustached, shoulders broad and square, hands armed with rifles. The footage was grainy, and there was little to no actual fact involved, but I suppose my memory might be faulty in that regard. What I remember most is this: at some point, one of my many torturers snickered to the class, “Hey, he looks like K.” From there, the movie became a sort of game. “Look at K run.” “K got shot.” “K has a flat face.”
We sat in darkness, the whine of the television fading out as I listened to their faux-whisperings. By the time the boy was cornered on a cliffside, most of the class was caught in a kind of chanting mob mentality. “Die, K!” “Shoot him!” I began to pray for his escape. Of course, in the end, the boy died. The lights came on, and the chairs were put away. Under the sudden, blinding hum of the fluorescent lighting, my classmates looked at my face and laughed.
I attended an expensive private school in Lower Manhattan for six years. My only friend in elementary school, who understandably abandoned me after the bullying reached insurmountable levels, was the child of a rock star and a model/actress. Like many first and second generation immigrants, my own parents worked themselves to the bone to send me to a “good school.” We lived with seven or eight people in our tiny Sheepshead Bay house, depending on the season.
While the children of the city’s white glitterati swarmed to their Caribbean babysitters at day’s end, my own Guyanese grandfather would meet me at the gate after taking the early guard shift at The World Trade Center. We took one or two trains and at least two busses to get home, where my grandmother would be waiting with curry, or roti, or dal. The trip lasted over an hour and a half; I was late to math class every single morning. If I was lucky, after dinner I could watch my grandmother’s prickly cunning decimate every contestant on Wheel of Fortune. In the beginning, I did not want for anything. I was fed. I had books and toys. In kindergarten, I only knew that I was ostracized: for the clothes I wore, for not having a mythical second home called a “Country House,” for the food I brought to school in tins and Tupperware, and for my skin. By nine, I only knew that I was miserable, and that sometimes I wanted to die.
On weekends, my father watched a lot of westerns. He seemed to particularly enjoy John Wayne. Every role blurred together: John Wayne on a horse, on a hill, talking down to a woman. John Wayne wearing a white shirt, broad-shouldered, tanned. After attending school with the children of cinematic luminaries, the distinction between actor and role was difficult for me to parse as a child. In my mind, here was Keanu Reeves fighting a bad guy. Here was Keanu Reeves crying about a girl. Here was Keanu Reeves wearing a cool jacket. (I really liked Keanu Reeves.)
If I was lucky, my father would put on Bonanza. Adam Cartwright was tall and handsome and gentlemanly. He wore a black hat, which I had never seen before in a Western. It made him seem dangerous, but in a good way, like Batman. I liked to watch him get on and off his horse. Eventually, although I didn’t know this at the time, Pernell Roberts tired of the series’ formulaic plotlines and his character left the show, which severely dampened my interest depending on what point the re-run schedule was at. Little Joe was handsome, but he was also far too stupid. He was always running off half-cocked, getting himself into trouble.
What I liked most about Bonanza was that there were no “bad guys,” with the notable exception of systematic injustices, which was important because the bad guys in westerns were almost always Native Americans. Occasionally, there was the Engrish-speaking Oriental, or the lone black extra, but mostly westerns were filled with a kind of racial resentment that my little brown head had no words to explain, despite being called “Walking Dictionary” and “Miriam Webster” by my tormentors. I didn’t have the language to talk about racism then, or the even more complicated racial imposter syndrome.
I wasn’t pale, or fine-boned, or hairless like the Chinese characters I saw on television. In the summer, I tanned to a rich tamarind that I cherished, while my mother burned lobster-red. Despite growing up speaking toddler’s Cantonese, I watched Jackie Chan Adventures and Mulan with a kind of quiet alienation, understanding that the characters did not look like me but not really understanding why. My Guyanese heritage was even more complicated. We were Indian, maybe, but also not. We were Caribbean, and definitely West Indian, but we were vehemently not black. Most people I met had no idea where Guyana was, and there were certainly no Guyanese people on television. I was, in a word, brown. And confused. I identified most strongly with Aladdin and Jasmine, who looked like me and weren’t from any real country, who were clever and oppressed and beautiful.
Most of all, I was absolutely in love with Gargoyles’ Detective Elisa Maza. Maza was mixed-race and entirely non-white, intelligent, and kick-ass. She was pretty in a practical way that never interfered with her job, and she was never, ever objectified. She was everything modern racial justice advocates want from representation in media. When Salli Richardson was originally cast for the role, the showrunners changed Maza’s backstory and racial heritage to be respectful of Richardson’s mixed black and Native ancestry. This is a factoid that draws genuine awe from my friends when I tell it, as we now live in 2018, where whitewashing is a controversial norm.
Still, when I remember the actions of my fellow classmates, I am unsurprised at the current state of the industry. I know that I am not quite being fair. Children are, after all, often petty and cruel. They latch onto difference, and if that difference is racial, then so be it. I was harassed for my book smarts, my acne, and my asthmatic clumsiness as much as I was for my eyes or my race or my skin. But I was bullied for the latter, in the end, and the fundamental difference is that those children were never taught that there were some lines that should never be crossed. They were never taught that race matters, insomuch as they should not be racist.
In retrospect, it is easy to understand my affinity for Bonanza. The Cartwrights were about as egalitarian as you could get for a western. They often spoke up on behalf of the oppressed, and sometimes those people were even PoC. And while their Chinese cook Hop Sing wore a long braid and spoke Engrish, he was also allowed to have his own personality, his own feelings and desires. He was never referred to as Oriental, only Chinese; any use of the word “yellow” was firmly corrected. In “The Lonely Man” (1971), Hop Sing finds a traumatized young white woman, Missy, while prospecting in the forest. Missy is near-feral, but through Hop Sing’s patience and his superb cooking skills, he slowly coaxes her into a kind of quiet, comfortable companionship. Finally, in an incredible gender reversal and in contradiction to the ugly slavering stereotype exemplified by I. Y. Yunioshi and Long Duck Dong, Missy is the first to declare her love and propose marriage.
These days, I can talk for hours about the emasculation and feminization of East Asian men in American cinema. This would include a lecture on the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Page Act of 1875, and the way Chinese women were intentionally barred from the country to prevent Chinese laborers from creating communities or settling in the States. There is much to be said about the complexities of trauma, and what it means for a traumatized white woman to find a male Chinese cook with a long braid non-threatening. But I had no understanding of these concepts in elementary school, and so what I can offer is this: in the first grade, the aforementioned only friend of mine and I were caught between friendship and puppy love in the way only children can be. Sam* and I drew ourselves as Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask. We exchanged gifts on Valentine’s Day. But one of the other students was jealous, and at quiet reading time this student confronted me at the bookshelf and demanded to know my ethnicity. I answered absently, used to this question from viejitas on the train who thought me Chicanx, and less adorably, substitute teachers who liked to make a guessing game of my racial identity.
“Well,” Harper* responded, “if you’re Chinese, you should have a crush on the other Sam, because you’re both Chinese. And I’m white, so I should get to be with the white Sam.”
I don’t remember how I responded. Probably something along the lines of, “That’s really dumb.” What I do remember is that later, at the snack table, Harper was still dissatisfied with my refusal to back down. What followed was a Harper-led mob-style chanting of “K is Chine-ese!” over and over, complete with several children holding up their eyes at the corners, and the banging of plastic utensils on the table. The two other AsAm students in the class began to cry, notably including Other Sam (who might have actually been Southeast Asian, come to think of it, and not Chinese at all.)
Harper was not punished in any meaningful way for this transgression. I don’t think there was even a time out. When the teachers came back in from retrieving our snacks, they quickly rushed to the side of the two sobbing AsAm kids, and left me standing there in absolute confusion. I was not comforted, or even really addressed beyond a cursory glance, which in retrospect may have had something to do with Annie* and Other Sam’s Manhattan apartments, or maybe the fact that Annie was half white. My statement was taken, and then I was seated at the table full of twenty kids who had chanted my racial identity at me as a slur as though nothing had happened. In a way, I suppose, nothing extraordinary had; the teachers must have been used to looking the other way. Soon after this, Sam stopped spending time with me, or inviting me over, or sitting with me at lunch. When my mother tried to insist I deliver a Duane Reade bear-and-chocolate combo to Sam’s desk next Valentine’s Day, we had a blow-out fight about it. In the end, I thrust the bear into Sam’s hands and ran away.
After three weeks of idyllic meals and innocent flirtations in the forest, Hop Sing entices Missy into joining him at Ponderosa, the ranch where the Cartwrights employ him as their cook. He rushes into “#1 Boss” Ben Cartwright’s office to tell him that he is engaged to be married. Outside, Missy is hiding around the corner of the porch. She is dressed in one of Hop Sing’s black cheongsams; her red hair has been braided long in the back. She has, in essence, attempted to assimilate into Chinese culture as she knows it. When the broad, amiable Mr. Cartwright comes out to shake her hand, she flinches away from him; Hop Sing has to take her hand and bring the two together.
The look on Mr. Cartwright’s face in this scene is priceless. It is the look every white person should rightfully have in the face of systematic racism. He looks equal parts horrified and guilty, and the expression does not leave his face for the entire second half of the nearly hour-long episode. Ultimately, both the audience and Ben Cartwright know that his white guilt cannot save Hop Sing’s happiness. We know what Hop Sing and Missy do not: miscegenation was explicitly outlawed. It was not until Loving vs. Virginia in 1967 that anti-miscegenation laws would be banned from the U.S.. “The Lonely Man” aired in 1971; it is damning to think that even to a classroom of uber-rich white kids in 2002, the show’s message was still progressive.
In the end, Hop Sing does not believe Mr. Cartwright when he breaks the news. The heartbreak on Lorne Greene’s face, here, is excellent acting. His heavy brow furrows. He looks like a man collapsing in on himself. Against Mr. Cartwright’s advice, Hop Sing is determined to see the local judge. “He knows me,” he insists. Mr. Cartwright tries to convince him to leave Missy at Ponderosa, but the couple refuses. They go into town together, attracting the hateful glares of the white populace.
There is a story in Chinese mythology of a man who falls in love with the moon. Not the moon goddess, Chang’e, but the actual moon. He sees its reflection in the water, but when he rows out and dips his cup into the placid mirror of the lake, it always comes up empty. He spends all night outside in the dark, dipping his cup into the moonlight and coming up with nothing but lakewater and heartbreak. When Missy begins to warm up to him, Hop Sing comments that talking to her at first felt like trying to catch a moonbeam. For those who happen to be familiar, we recognize this as a foreshadowing.
Sure enough, when they reach the courthouse, the judge tells Hop Sing what the audience already knows, that the law is absolute, that they would both be jailed. By this point, the tension has built to a towering height, each scene more and more menacing. This is, in my remembrance, one of the most horrific episodes ever aired in a show that often traded in comedy and slice-of-life family drama. In the end, the mob waiting outside the courthouse for the “coolie” that is “chasing” a white woman is almost a relief. This, at least, is the devil we know. Here is the Chinese man beaten into the dirt, the sobbing woman re-traumatized, the teeming masses of white violence. Here is the end we always knew was coming for us.
(*Names have been changed.)