Gang Girls

By Angela Tung

Memoir

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?”

He shrugged.

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.”

Ooooh.

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?”

Prologue: I’m getting worried about the Simon Smithson Effect (SSE). This afternoon I was fiddling with this piece, which is a companion to the earlier “I Don’t Brake for Mongoose,” both belonging to a larger work called “The Dump,” when in comes an email from the guy in Hilo who’s been using my trailer, telling me that this morning at sparrowfart, when he was least expecting it, he was stopped by a cop and told to register the trailer or face a $100 fine. Read on.

Earlier this year I was heading out of my house in Hilo, Hawai’i, with a trailer-load of Monstera and banana trunks. Going to The Dump. Feeling strong and powerful because I’d been cutting down bananas.

Cutting down bananas is a cheap way to feel like a person of enormous physical power. You take your machete, step up to a banana plant, even one fifteen or twenty feet tall, and give it a serious chop. Down it goes, and with a satisfying thump, because banana trunks are very, very heavy. Most of the heaviness is water, but who cares? A banana going down goes down with as much force as a much larger woody tree that you might have taken a long-ass time to fell with an ax.

Downside is that it’s hard to carry the trunks to the trailer and hard to lift them up to put them in. You have to chop them up into sections that you can lift, which does take away from the mightyman feeling you got just before, when you toppled the bastard with a single stroke of your Crocodile brand machete. Those of you who are not tropical people need to know that bananas are harvested by felling them. They grow back from the stump, and very quickly, too.

So there I was, headed for the dump with a load of Monstera and mightyman banana trunks, which were leaking their water all over the trailer, but not so much, lucky for me, that they filled it and gushed out onto the road the way you sometimes see trucks or trailers with a long track of leaked something behind them on the road. And you drive along wondering what some asshole is leaking, hoping it’s not something really bad, like gasoline or phenylpyruvic acid* so that when the asshole’s vehicle or some other jerk ignites it, the flames run back to you and under, and burn you up.

Of course the banana trunks wouldn’t burn, being mostly water and all.

And the Monstera wouldn’t burn because it’s a hard-ass plant. Grubbing out Monstera is the hardest agricultural task I’ve ever done, and I’ve done a lot, including clearing Southwestern Pacific rainforest for gardens. The big leaves are nothing, but the trunks – some call them stems, but I call them trunks – are very heavy. The root system is extensive and you have to slash each member clear of the ground, because there’s no digging the bastards out.


When I’m looking at Monstera I’m going to have to take out by hand, I whimper. So I think about alternatives, but the war surplus store in Hilo does not have any M2A1-7 flame throwers left over from the Pacific War. The guy with the Bobcat charges too much. The chainsaw gums up too quickly to be useful.

There’s one other possibility besides brutal machete work. There’s a part of Monstera that you can eat, which is why the complete Linnaean binomial of the ones that vex me so is Monstera deliciosa. I was thinking that I could eat some, and hope the others are paying attention.

I used to explain to my classes that human cannibalism was almost always ritual and was (a) meant to let you commune with the dead by allowing another body to become part of you, or (b) to demonstrate how little regard you had for that body, by treating it like food, very demeaning, and by passing it through your personal digester and turning it into shit, even more demeaning.

So I thought that if the Monstera have some sort of plant-consciousness (which might be the case, since Hawai’i is the most New Agey place I know, and maybe the Raelians have managed to learn from their intergalactic contacts how to make Monstera conscious) then the ones I hadn’t eaten would either die of fear or shame or maybe teleport themselves to another universe, which would do the job of getting rid of them just as well.

I favor the idea of being a Monstera-cannibal** mightyman as well as a banana-felling mightyman, but I would need to make sure the Monstera knew I was eating them to insult them, rather than to commune with them.

So back on the street I didn’t want to leave a banana juice trail like the kind I’m describing, because that might attract the attention of a Hilo cop, which in turn might direct his attention to my unlicensed and unregistered trailer, and I might have to pay a fine***.

In the old days, like the really old days when I was in high school, being stopped by a cop wouldn’t have mattered because my girlfriend C was the daughter of the famous Sergeant B****. So I would have found a way to mention that I was Sgt. B’s daughter’s boyfriend and all would have been well.

In 2004 I met with C in a Starbucks at Waimea, also known as Kamuela, to talk about the old days. I had not seen her since 1960. It was a pleasant meeting but the badass pink Chevy didn’t come up.

Sgt. B was famous for his car. Fifty years ago in Hilo, and even today, the cops use their own cars as patrol cars. Mainlanders are always going on and on about it, especially when they get ticketed for traffic violations because they have no idea, no idea at all, that the Nissan Maxima that eases up behind them while they’re driving their rental car 50 in a 35 is actually a cop car, until the lights behind the grille and the blue light on top, which the poor ignorant Mainlander thought was just a Volunteer Fire Department blue flasher, begins flashing. Gotcha.

Sgt. B’s patrol car was also the family car. It was a ‘57 Chevy Bel Air, but it wasn’t like your ordinary Bel Air. It was pink, for one thing. And it had a Corvette engine, for another, although Sgt. B had not ordered the floor-mounted four-speed. So there was Sgt. B’s car: two hundred eighty-three horsepower, three-speed column shift, four doors, pink. It seems wrong to put “badass,” “pink” and “column shifter” in the same sentence, but I will: it was a badass column-shifter pink Chevy.

Sgt. B was also famous because, whenever he felt like it, he would take the badass pink Bel Air over to the Kona side, where there was more than a mile of very straight two-lane highway. That stretch exists unchanged today, and in fact I was driving along it a couple of years ago when my Mainland visitor G started questioning me closely about C and I had to tell about what happened on that highway.

What would happen on Sundays over on the Kona side straight highway was that people would drag there. And when Sgt. B was in the mood, he drive over and he’d drag too. So picture the scene, as I got it from C (back in high school, not in Starbucks): kids in their rods or hot stocks, dragging on the highway, and the pink police cruiser arrives. And joins in, sometimes with C in the passenger seat. Sgt. B didn’t kick everybody’s ass, C said, but he kicked most of them. I was never invited to go along, so this is all second-hand.

C and I got to take the pink Bel Air out on a dates. We had to be careful not to key the police radio mike while making out, though. It was exposed, hanging on the dash and, well, you know. We had to be careful with feet, elbows, other body parts. We almost never turned on the flashing lights and siren and pulled our friends over.

By the time I was worried about getting ticketed for a leaking unregistered trailer, Sgt. B was long dead, C wasn’t answering my emails, there was a 100% legal Hilo Dragstrip, and there didn’t seem to be a Hilo myth about the badass column-shifter pink Chevy I could connect myself to, and get off by association with one of the immortal ancestors. So I didn’t want to be stopped.

* A metabolite of phenylalanine, harmless in small quantities, but dangerous in large. I like the sound of it, because it suggest fiery destruction. It’s not funny to people with PKU.

** Yes, I know that for it to really be cannibalism I’d have to be a Monstera deliciosa myself, but this is creative non fiction, so cut me some slack here.

*** As per the SSE.

**** Sgt. B is long dead, but C is still around.



I went to a spa for the first time the other day.

Booked myself a massage and a facial at Burke Williams. It’s very fancy, and when I checked in I was immediately escorted to the ladies’ locker room, where there were Jacuzzi baths and showers and a sauna and a steam room and dozens of beauty products and expensive blow dryers and fuzzy bathrobes and towels, all of which were available to me.

I’d been told when I made the reservations that I should come at noon, as this was when the spa opened, and I was free to spend the entire day there, soaking in various baths with other naked women.

My spa escort brought a number of rooms to my attention during the tour.

“This is the Silent Ladies’ Room,” she said. “You can come here and be quiet.”

Inside, there was a woman being quiet.

“This is the lounge,” she said. “You can sit here quietly.”

Then she brought me to my locker and told me to get naked and please remember to wear my special spa slippers. “They’re in your locker, along with your bathrobe.”

I put on my bathrobe. It was very large, too large. I put on my spa slippers, which fit perfectly. I found this strange, because I am an average sized female, but my feet are smaller than average.

I had an hour before my massage appointment, so I walked to the steam room. On the door was a large sign that said: “Do not use the steam room if you are wearing contacts.”

I was wearing contacts.

So I went to the sauna. Same sign on that door.

I noticed a bowl with bananas and apples. I hadn’t been told anything about the bananas.

Could I have a banana?

I looked around me.

No one.

I quickly took a banana. I hid in one of the showers while I ate it, just in case.

It was still only 12:20. My appointment wasn’t until 1:00. I walked around. Where were the other naked ladies?

I went to the Silent Ladies’ Room.

I sat quietly for a moment.

I went to the lounge.

There were more bananas in the lounge.

I stared at the bananas for a moment, then grabbed one, unpeeled it, and ate it. Right there in the lounge. An employee walked by as I ate the banana. I got nervous and stuffed a giant piece into my mouth, just in case she was planning to take it away from me.

She didn’t take the banana away from me, though, so I became bold and took another one and ate that right there in the lounge, too.

There was nothing to look at in the lounge. There was a fireplace, but I’d hardly call that entertainment.

Another lady in a bathrobe and special spa slippers entered the lounge. I got nervous in her presence, so I got up and went back to my locker to get my cell phone. Maybe I had some good emails.

No service.

I ate another locker room banana.

I went back to the lounge, and sat down. My masseuse walked in and asked if I was “Leonora.”

“Yes,” I said. Because there’s really no point in correcting her.

She put her hand on my back and kept it there as she guided me to the massage room and spoke to me in a thick accent. This made me feel as though I was in trouble.

In the room, my masseuse told me to get naked.

Everyone wanted me to get naked.

She left, I got naked, she came back in.

“No no, darling. You need to be on your stomach,” she said.

I predicted she might want me on my stomach, but it seemed rude to have her enter the room with me not even facing her with a nice smile.

“Oh my goodness! So many tattoos on your body!” she said.

“Heh heh, yes,” I said.

“You have large bruises here,” she said, poking my right butt cheek.

A few nights before I let a stranger in striped pants and a feathered hat spank me with the riding crop at the after party for the TNB reading series, and he wasn’t very gentle.

“Oh, ha, yes, that’s because of this person, I don’t know his name, and this event…it’s really not a big deal,” I said.

Then massive amounts of oil were poured all over me.

As she rubbed me down, the masseuse verbally pointed out all of my bruises and scars.

“What happens here? You have bruise here, also,” she said, holding my arm.

“I think I fell,” I answered.

“You have scar here,” she said, tapping my chin.

“Yes, yes, I drove a scooter into a parked car,” I said.

“You have bruises, many bruises here,” she said, holding my leg in the air.

“Right, I’m fairly certain I was sleepwalking,” I said.

“Also many scars on toes,” she said.

“Scooter accident again,” I said.

This went on and on for the entire massage.

Then it was over. She told me to drink plenty of water and guided me back to the ladies’ locker room with her hand on my back, telling me about how I should really use the steam room.

I had an hour before my facial.

I stood in the ladies’ locker room. Now there were more naked ladies in there with me.

My contacts were still in, so I still didn’t use the steam room.

I ate another banana.

I accidentally looked at a woman’s bush for too long, and she caught me. I pretended I was looking at something behind her. Hmm, that’s interesting, what’s that? A used towel? Interesting.

I got into the Jacuzzi with two other naked women.

No one was speaking, even though we were not in the Silent Ladies’ Room or the lounge, where we were free to sit quietly.

It made me uncomfortable, to not speak to my naked Jacuzzi partners, so I got out, put my robe back on, and ate another banana.

Then I went and sat in the lounge quietly. I pretended to be very relaxed.

The lady doing my facial came to retrieve me.

She also placed her hand on my back as we walked to the room.

We got to the room, and even though I was there for a facial, I was told to get naked again.

The lady smeared many delicious smelling things on my face and then, for some reason, massaged my feet, which are not a part of my face at all.

As she was removing the face mask she’d applied to my skin, she tapped my chin.

“You have a scar here,” she said.

Then I was brought back to the ladies’ locker room with her hand on my back.

I took a long shower, and then dried off while trying not to stare at an old woman’s naked body.

I put two bananas and an apple in my purse, and then left the locker room.

Many people put their hands on my back as I was walking out, all of them asking how my stay had been.

“Oh, very relaxing, just wonderful,” I said. “Your bananas are very nice.”

Parking was twenty-one dollars.