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?”