April 05, 2012
April 05, 2012
I was 20 and still a virgin the summer I met the gang girls.
Karen was Chinese and from Queens. Yumiko was Japanese, beautiful, and cursed like a Brooklyn dockworker. They both smoked.
My first day, Yumiko hollered at her boyfriend Pip, who was Filipino and also worked in shipping: “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING!”
Pip jumped ten feet, and we all laughed, but still Yumiko said, when my boss came by, “I think I scared her.”
“You didn’t,” I said. Yumiko didn’t answer.
The truth was she and Karen did scare me, but not in the way that they thought. While I knew they could kick my ass from here to the Cloisters, I was more scared of what they thought of me, the suburban Asian girl with a voice like a newscaster’s.
I’d just finished my sophomore year, and was living by myself on campus. I needed alone time, lots of it, away from roommates, fighting friends, and nitpicking parents. In the evenings I’d run on our gym’s track, then have some sad semblance of a dinner concocted from the local market’s salad bar, toast, cream cheese, and canned sardines. TV-less, I’d write in my journal, filling page after page with daily minutiae, and I’d read the books we got at work.
My internship was in editorial. Everyone else in editorial was white. While Karen and Yumiko answered phones and click clacked through inventory on their green screen computers, we read dozens of books – or book jackets at least – and wrote pithy blurbs to go into little catalogs that went out to snobby bibliophiles once a quarter. When the World Wide Web came around a couple of years later, our little operation would be rendered obsolete.
Till then we worked on the same floor as the fancy schmancy New York Review of Books. Its one-armed editor was our editor too; the son of the poet Adrienne Rich was on its staff. Spotting him was almost like spotting a celebrity.
“Do you even speak Chinese?” Pip asked me.
I wasn’t afraid of Pip. “Yes,” I said.
“You don’t sound like you do.”
“How should I sound, Pip?”
I was two when we moved from Oakland to Queens. We lived in Queens for exactly one year before making our escape to the suburbs of New Jersey. Now that I was going to college in Manhattan, I wondered how I’d have turned out if we had stayed in the city. I might have gone to Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech. I might be tougher and less shy.
Or I might be completely sheltered, like my classmates from Chinatown who stayed on campus all week and went home every weekend, who had never been to the American Museum of Natural History or the Met.
“Never?” I squeaked. I’d been to each at least four or five times, between class trips and sojourns with my father.
They shrugged. School for them was about getting straight A’s and passing the Regents. Their dads were too busy working 24/7 to take them anywhere.
Karen and Yumiko weren’t in college although they graduated from Stuy, one of the city’s top magnet schools. Straight A’s weren’t their thing. Cutting class was, and dating Chinese gang members. The Ghost Shadows, the Flying Dragons. They recognized half the guys in the mug shots of a Chinatown history book I brought in. They knew someone who knew someone who knew the Uncle Seven, the Canal Street Godfather.
The boys in my high school played lacrosse. They wore pink sweaters thrown over their shoulders and loafers without socks. The girls were grade grubbers or cheerleaders. Some were grade grubbers and cheerleaders. One group of goody-two shoe Chinese girls who all ended up at Cornell had been dubbed “the Chinese mafia,” though they probably would have shat twice and died being anywhere near the likes of Karen and Yumiko.
* * *
The first time I heard the term “banana” was freshman year. I saw a flyer for a rap session: “Bananas: A White Man’s Best Friend?” I had no idea what a “banana” was or how it could be anyone’s friend, but it was hosted by a club called the Asian Women’s Coalition, which sounded pretty cool to me.
The room was packed. Apparently being a banana, or not, was a big deal. People argued about what it meant to be Asian – not just Asian, Asian American. What if you didn’t speak the language? What if you preferred dating white guys? What if you had a Texan accent like the Korean guy sprawled across the radiator? What about assimilation? Gentrification? Wasn’t this a melting pot? No, a mosaic!
I still didn’t know what a banana was.
Finally, someone asked: “I’m sorry but what is a banana exactly?”
The woman running the show snorted. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Someone else answered, thankfully: “Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”
Was I a banana then? In junior high I did wish I were white, but now I didn’t. Was I residual banana? Was that a thing? Would I lose points in the game of early ’90s Political Correctness? What would I get if I won?
* * *
There were girls like Yumiko and Karen at my college too, I realized. Like my friend Rosana who once when I playfully punched her on the shoulder, stiffened like she was trying her hardest not to knock my block off. Who hit the deck whenever she heard a car backfiring. Who told me, “I’d have beat you up every day in high school,” after seeing a photo of me with long straight hair, pearls, and a Laura Ashley dress.
Like her friend Mei who was 80 pounds soaking wet but still threatened to pummel my roommate Judy for always staring at her dyed blonde hair.
“You have to stop, Judy,” I told her.
“I can’t help it!” she cried. “What Asian has blonde hair?”
The kind who can kick your ass.
* * *
The more I got to know the gang girls, the less they scared me.
Like me, Karen was learning Mandarin. We discussed characters, drawing them in the air or on our hands. Yumiko spoke Japanese fluently, and her voice would go all soft and flowy when she talked on the phone with her mom. But while I felt I understood them better, I knew they still didn’t get me.
“Okay, Angela, I have to know,” said Yumiko one day out of the blue. “Do you only date white guys?”
I hadn’t dated any guys by then. Had never even been kissed. I’d been on two (disastrous) dates, both in college. At the end of the first one, the guy left me at two in the morning to walk the two blocks home by myself. The other was a literal blind date with a blind guy, who I wanted to like because he was a musician and poet, but in the end couldn’t get past his girth, the way his eyes rolled in opposite directions, and his long pale fingers that were always moving – on his beard, over the platter of Ethiopian food, across the table reaching for my hand.
I thought of mentioning my crush Bernard, an engineering student. Like me, he was an American-born Chinese from the ‘burbs – Long Island in his case – and till college had had mostly white friends. I called him all the time although my mother warned me not to be too eager. What I didn’t know was that summer he was courting a girl from Taiwan, a girl who always wore dresses, and never swore, and covered her eyes during violent or sexy scenes in movies. What I didn’t know was that to Bernard, I might as well have been another guy.
“Race doesn’t matter to me,” I said.
Yumiko exhaled streams of smoke through her delicate nostrils. I knew she didn’t believe me.
The truth was Bernard was the first Chinese guy I liked. Till then my crushes were Jewish, Italian, and plain white. To me, Asian guys were like my brothers, my cousins, kids I’d known since diapers.
Till Bernard of course.
* * *
I grew to like the smell of cigarette smoke. I filched one of Karen’s and tried smoking it in my room. I watched myself in the mirror. I liked how the cigarette looked in my hand, but plumes kept rolling uncontrollably out of my nose.
I kept calling Bernard. I kept writing in my journal. I wrote about something that happened that was so upsetting, I ripped the paper with my pen. I can’t even remember what it was. One of those random racist things from some guy on the street.
I told Bernard how I tore the paper getting so mad.
“That’s. . .scary,” he said.
We were on the phone. “What’s scary?” I asked. “What happened?”
“No,” he said. “That you got so mad.”
I snorted. “Didn’t you throw a glass against the wall once because you were mad?”
“Yeah, but I’m a guy.”
I twirled the phone cord. I should have said something – to Bernard, to the guy on the street. The gang girls would have. Karen, Yumiko, Rosana, Mei. They’d have flipped the bird at least. They’d have composed a cacophony of curses; they’d have thrown something, called up an old boyfriend just sprung from jail.
“You should get out more,” I said. Then I laughed. It was a joke, see? Maybe you’ll still like me. “So what else did you do today?”
September 16, 2008
Mr. Gibson requested that he be able to observe me in my natural habitat. Due to the relocation of my family members, and the dissolution of our family compound, this interview took place over two days at Solley’s Deli in Encino, California. A place my family and I inhabited frequently during my most formative years.
Mr. Gibson insisted on a relaxed and casual atmosphere. I showed up on time, but comfortable, in my usual ensemble – an American Apparel zip up hoodie in white, crewneck t-shirt in red, and sweat pants with the gathered ankle in navy blue.
The contents of this interview have been edited. All pauses and blinking removed for the sake of brevity.
CG: Ms. Pollon, I’m going to attempt to pose these questions in an order I believe will be of utmost importance and interest to the American people.
RP: Terrific. I look forward to each and every one of them getting to know me.
CG: Please tell us about the Ticketmaster / U2 concert incident.
RP: Can you be more specific, Charlie?
CG: Regarding Pam Freed in particular.
RP: What aspect of it?
CG: Just after graduating high school, you entered the work force as a clerk at Tower Records in Sherman Oaks, California.
RP: That is correct. I rose from a simple store clerk, to Import Buyer, and then to Shift Manager.
CG: U2 was touring the United States. Your former best friend, Pam Freed, someone you were still in contact with but not as close with as you were the semester previous, knew of your proximity and probable assignment working the Ticketmaster window, and asked you to get her two tickets. You told her you’d try.
RP: That’s right, Charlie.
CG: You didn’t end up getting her those tickets, did you Ms. Pollon?
RP: I didn’t, Charlie.
CG: Why is that?
RP: The tickets were in high demand and Ticketmaster regulations prevented me from being able to make more than one transaction per customer. I did not consider myself above the rules, and so, because I was getting myself tickets, I could not also get her tickets.
CG: Could you not have gotten her tickets bundled along with your tickets? You and your friends could have sat side by side with your former best friend. Everyone would have been happy.
RP: It was against the rules, Charlie.
CG: Were you unable to get Pam Freed tickets or did you simply decide you didn’t want to get her tickets?
RP: I was a Shift Manager, Charlie. There were parameters I was not going to breech.
CG: Our records show you had not been promoted to Shift Manager at that time.
RP: I was on a fast track, Charlie. I wouldn’t allow personal relationships to jeopardize the greater good.
CG: In ninth grade you tripped and fell during Nutrition. You ended up leaving campus and didn’t return until the following Monday. Tell the American people what caused this extreme reaction.
RP: I fainted, Charlie.
CG: You fainted.
RP: Yes, Charlie. People faint.
CG: Is it not also true that on the day in question, you were wearing, for your first time, a pair of high-heeled Kork-Ease?
RP: That is true. But beside the point. You know, if we must go here, in order to clear my record, I’ll let you know that I’m pretty sure on that day I was also in the midst of the glory that is the female reproductive cycle.
CG: Let me get this straight. You were wearing unwieldy high-heeled shoes, may or may not have been suffering from menstrual cramps, and you fainted.
RP: I’m not sure my footwear is an important component in this mix but, yes, I’d just gotten the Kork-Ease, was pretty excited about them, and took them for a spin on the campus quad.
CG: ABC was able to locate your yearbook from that time and found various comments throughout the book seeming to address the incident.
RP: I don’t know what you’re talking about.
CG: Quote: “I’m going to use that ‘fainting’ story next time I embarrass myself. Don’t ever change, Lori Baumbach.”
RP: Kids say the darndest things, Charlie.
CG: Another quote: “You think fast on your feet, even though you can’t walk in your shoes. You are 2 sweet 2 B 4gotten, Seth O’ Shanahan.”
RP: Rumors get started.
CG: Speaking of rumors, it’s been reported that The National Enquirer is delving into this piece of your history. Trying to get to the bottom of it.
RP: I’ve got nothing to hide, Charlie. It’s my word against Lori’s and Seth’s.
CG: History has shown that you are basically a relationship person. You go on a few dates with someone and they either don’t work out or they end up your boyfriend.
RP: I’m single-minded when it comes to love, Charlie. I like to focus on one man, give him my all. It’s truly a metaphor for how devoted I am to our great country.
CG: However, at one juncture in your life you had an overlap. You were in a relationship with one man, and before you ended it with him, met another man of interest. You couldn’t decide which one was “righter” for you… this according to journal records.
RP: Well, Charlie. Both men had admirable qualities and I needed time to assess which path to take.
CG: What does this say about your loyalty, Ms. Pollon?
RP: The man I was in a relationship had taken to focusing on his heavy metal band to the detriment of our partnership. I had needs. Just like the hard working men and women of this country have needs.
CG: Where did you draw the line, “romantically,” with these men, Ms. Pollon?
RP: Charlie, I don’t think the American people want to be dragged in to smut talk like this.
CG: The question is valid, Ms. Pollon, because according to transcripts taken from your private journal, when “Man X” found out about “Man Z” and confronted you, you admit you “totally evaded answering the question.” What are you hiding?
RP: Charlie, evading does not connote lying. Evading means avoiding. The words even sound alike. I think the American people want someone in charge who can avoid conflict and I have a long history of avoiding conflict. I tell conflict, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
Preview of The Rachel Pollon Interview – Part 2, with Charlie Gibson:
Lies My Hair Told – The Chemically Straightened Years
Why I Pulled The Leather Waistband Tag Off of My Levi’s 501s – What Size Pant Was I Concealing?
How Often I Listen To Jennifer Lopez On My iPod During Cardio Workouts at the Gym
(Note: At my handlers’ discretion, interviewer Charlie Gibson may be replaced with Project Runway’s Tim Gunn. He seems so nice!)