One of the more unpleasant memories that sticks out vividly from my childhood growing up in suburban England is of a little girl I did not know coming up to me in a local park where I was playing with my best friends and bluntly asking, “Why is your so face so flat?”
She asked me this without even so much as a hello! No preamble whatsoever! Did your parents not teach you to properly greet and introduce yourself to strange people before you fling insulting questions in their faces, flat or otherwise?
I was highly affronted. Partially by the fact that she hadn’t even tried to preface this outrageous question with some sort of greeting or conversation (and our age was no excuse; eight-year-olds are perfectly capable of making comfortable small talk just as well as adults, damn it!), but mainly because it was straight-up racist and rude.
I was only eight, but I had already faced down my fair share of insulting remarks about my flat nose, small eyes, and nonexistent eyelashes at school from classmates, and I needed another unoriginal jibe about my very Asian face like I needed a well-sharpened HB graphite pencil shoved up my nose. Which is to say: not at all. And beyond just the indignation of the racist question, there was also the fact that I had by this point in my life accumulated a too-large collection of Insults I Wish I’d Come Up With Better Comebacks to on the Spot, and I was not in the market for any new ones to add to it.
Because herein lay the unfortunate truth of the thing, the sting of the thing: I never found myself quite able to retaliate whenever I was on the receiving end of insults from sassy little brats like this girl in the playground. I had a passably good eye roll reserved for such occasions, but beyond that and an elegant, all-purpose, “shut up stupid” (which over years of receiving the same idiotic questions evolved into an increasingly incredulous “oh my God you can’t actually be that stupid”) I was none too quick to fire back scathing insults of my own - largely because I just didn’t want to.
Attribute it to what you will - a cultural heritage that valued meekness, or an upbringing in a home that emphasized the virtue of politeness, or a deeply ingrained moral code acquired from reading too many Enid Blyton books in which the girls who were sharp and brash and confrontational had a harder time making close friends, or maybe, just maybe, and this is the explanation that I still don’t really like to consider, that it’s just my personality - the fact remains that from a young age I did not give as good as I got.
By the way, this isn’t going to be a race thing. You thought this was going to be a race thing, didn’t you? I guess I did create that impression with that lead. If you have read this far because you were expecting a poignant essay on How I Learned to Embrace My Flat Korean Face Growing Up in South Woodford, England, I am sorry to disappoint. Maybe that will be my next piece, and I’ll post it on Medium and all ten of my Asian-American friends who follow me on Twitter will share it and it’ll go viral, and then BuzzFeed will publish a post called This Girl’s Essay About What It’s Like Growing Up Asian in a White Suburb Is So Real and Gives Us All the Feels containing screenshots of entire chunks of the whole essay, and then I’ll receive a phone call from a Random House editor and sign a book deal for a memoir expanding on my original essay and then spend the next year of my life sitting in coffee shops with my laptop and a London Fog trying to figure out how to make my very boring childhood spent in an actual London fog sound more harrowing than it was.
Anyway. The point I was trying to make before I got distracted following my wildly imaginative ego down a rabbit hole was that if you were here for the poignant race essay, now would be a good time to stop reading. Because this isn’t a race essay. No no, this is far more self-centered and far less profound. This is an essay (well really it’s a blog post but I’m going to call it an essay because “essay” sounds intellectual and high-brow while “blog post” calls to mind your Xanga from when you were thirteen) about my inability, or reluctance, or whatever it is, to convincingly stand up for myself, to give what I get, to be, in short, confrontational. It is an affliction that has plagued me for years.
So back to the park in South Woodford, England, circa 2001.
I stood there on the jungle gym as this four feet of brashness looked at me, unblinking, with a smirk on her face, and waiting for an answer. But it didn’t come from me. Instead it came from my two very angry best friends, Anna and Jess, who had appeared out of nowhere and now flanked me as we all stared down my offender.
I don’t remember what they said, exactly, but it was something to the effect of, “That’s so racist, she’s Korean, stupid, but I bet you don’t even know where Korea is because you’re soooo stupid.”
Whatever it was that they said, the girl turned and fled, intimidated by my loudmouthed friends, and the three of us ran to Jess’s mum, Tracey, to tell her what had just transpired at the jungle gym and shamelessly point out the guilty party from across the park, so Tracey could go and have A Word with her.
This was a recurring scene from my childhood. If someone was mean to me (not that this happened all that frequently at all, in case you are starting to feel too sorry for me) I would at worst tell them to shut up, and then try and move on with the rest of my day. More often than not, however, my friends Anna and Jess and Zak would chime in to stick up for me, regaling the opposition with barbed insults that could have flayed the skin off a crocodile.
I don’t think I was a pushover by any means, but I didn’t exactly spit flames either.
And it didn’t really change as I got older. There was, maybe, a brief spark of fiery-ness in middle school, after I had moved to Korea, when I discovered that sarcasm was a free weapon for anyone to wield, and that I was in fact more adept at brandishing it than some of my more slow-witted classmates, but this spark quickly died out, as sparks do. The fact that I found myself perpetually getting in trouble around this time for being snarky probably contributed to its fizzling out. (I’m sorry, Mr. Baker! I didn’t mean to sass you, honestly!)
It was in high school that I really learned how non-confrontational I was. Because people were actually mean in high school. (Yes, news flash! High school is full of jerks.) One person in particular. I won’t say the name, given that this is all in the distant past but also given that I have now amassed a loyal following of about four readers on this blog, who I am sure would hunt this person down on Facebook and spam them with indignant messages on my behalf - no, really, friends, there’s no need. I appreciate your righteous anger, but it is unnecessary, because I am such a magnanimous person. And if you’re still patiently reading at this point, please imagine me saying this while draped in a queenly robe with a scepter in one hand and the other hand extended gracefully, because this is always the image that comes into my head whenever I hear or read the word “magnanimous.”
Anyway, people-slash-person were jerks to me in high school for various reasons and non-reasons, and I learned many new Korean curse words during this time from being on the receiving end of a dazzling variety over the years. And in the face of these sporadic verbal attacks I for the most part sat quietly and just tried to ignore them. Because, as I was learning about myself at this time, whether it’s nature or nurture (psychologists, please email me when you’ve figured that one out) or just too many Enid Blyton books, it is just not hardwired in me to be able to slam my hand down on my rickety front-heavy desk when I’m being cussed out and tell someone exactly where to get off, or to tell a girl on a jungle gym that I’d rather have a flat face like mine than a small brain like hers without missing a beat.
I sometimes look back at my eight-year-old self and my sixteen-year-old self and fault them for being too meek and taking crap from other people without giving any back. Most of the time, I like to distance my twenty-three-year-old self from these selves and think that I’m a little fiercer now, a little less likely to take crap from people. But I don’t know if this is actually true. It’s hard to accurately measure that now that I’m not daily facing jerks who are actively trying to insult me or annoy me every hour. Which is a good thing, in case that wasn’t clear.
And realistically, if you were to ask someone who knew me to describe me today, it’s a safe ten dollar bet that the first thing out of their mouth wouldn’t be, “Yurie? Ooh, she’s so fierce. She doesn’t take crap from NOBODY.” (Yes, I’m aware that’s a double negative. It was for effect.) It would probably be, “Yurie? Uhh… well she’s weirdly obsessed with Anne of Green Gables, and she hums like all the time, and it can get really annoying. What was the question again?”
So a big part of me wishfully thinks that I’m a little less passive now, but there is also a small part of me that tells the big part to stop whining and trying to be something it’s not and just get over the fact that this is who you are already, and why can’t you accept that, jeez. It’s this small part that reminds me that I don’t have to know how to be brash and confrontational to get on in the world, contrary to what, well, the world might say. The small part that says maybe there is something to be said for not retaliating.
Again, I don’t know. If someone were to walk up to me tomorrow and curse in my face or mock my lack of a nasal bridge, I’m not sure what I would do. Maybe I would actually tell them to go screw themselves. More likely, though, I would give them a scornful stare and just walk away without saying anything, and they would probably think that was the most incredibly lame response they’d ever met with. I think I would be okay with that.
This is not at all a satisfactory conclusion, I know. Is it a cop-out to say that the early twenties aren’t exactly all about satisfactory conclusions anyway?
One thing I am pretty comfortably sure of at twenty-three that I was not sure of at sixteen and at eight: not firing back does not mean you are weak.
Also: my face isn’t that flat.