The Heavy Bag

Downtown street trees glowed with Christmas lights as music from the holiday carousel wafted over from Seattle’s Westlake Park. “How cute is that!” chirped my sister-in-law as we stepped around a line of families waiting to take Santa pictures. Prattling over our 2016 gift lists, we came to a stop behind a pack of shoppers waiting at the crosswalk for the light to change. Suddenly there was a shout.

“Hey you! Chinese lady! You! Get out!”

Reflex kicked in, and I ducked. “Chink!” clanged in my head.

The rant continued but didn’t draw closer. I peeked through the crowd. I’d barely noticed the street performer as he balanced, circus-elephant style, on a large rubber ball at the corner of Third and Pike. Relieved—and slightly embarrassed—I straightened up and pretended not to hear. Eh, just another ignorant jerk. That chickenshit strategy might have gone unnoticed if my sister-in-law hadn’t grabbed my arm and urgently said, “I didn’t hear him! What did he say?”

I was still so tense I almost burst out laughing—I was busy trying not to listen to what she was keenly trying to hear. I tried to wave her off—we’ll talk later. But then, lips taut, I quickly replied, “He’s saying something about the Chinese so I’m not listening.” Her blue eyes widened as she recoiled in surprise.

Just then, a twenty-something white man to my left stepped out of the crowd and turned to address the guy atop the ball. His voice, surprisingly neutral, rose above the din. “What about the Chinese?” I didn’t dare look. But that moment made him my hero.

“The Chinese are taking away our jobs!” the guy on the ball yelled.

As the light changed and our pack of pedestrians surged forward, my hero’s tone turned to one of disgust. He pointed to the performer’s hat lying open on the sidewalk. “How can you be so hateful when you’re begging us for money? Thanks for showing your true colors!”

When I searched for him moments later, he was gone.

*     *     *

Back in 1964, when I was eight and didn’t know any better, I walked home from school alone. No one told me that in the lily-white California suburbs, my straight black hair clearly marked me as “other.” One afternoon, three bike-riding boys overtook me and blocked my path. I looked around; nowhere to run. They pressed their fingers to the corners of their eyes and lifted, chanting, “Ching Chong Chinaman, Ching Chong Chinaman,” before laughing and riding off. It happened in a blur; when they left, all I felt was relief.

But when I told Dad, his jaw tightened. Was I wrong to tell him? Was I overreacting? What I now realize is that anger, simmering since his own childhood, was set to boil by a new feeling of impotence: he was helpless to protect me. Out in the white world, I was visible. Small. Vulnerable.

“Remember, we have a proud history. Chinese civilization has been around a long time. We had gunpowder when they only had stones.”

“Just ignore them,” he growled in a tone so primal it scared me. Jabbing his finger in the air, he continued, “Don’t ever give them the satisfaction of knowing they got to you.” Ignoring bullies, he said, would weaken them in the long run. But now I was terrified. Did threats lurk around every corner? Could I ever let down my guard? As my eyes filled with tears, Dad’s tone softened. “Remember, we have a proud history. Chinese civilization has been around a long time. We had gunpowder when they only had stones.” His esoteric jabs at the relative coarseness of white civilization fell flat. Finally he looked me in the eye and leaned in close, bestowing on me the family mantra that has emboldened each generation. “Remember,” he whispered, “you’re not just as good as they are. You’re better.”

*     *     *

In the cinnamon warmth of the department store, against a festive backdrop of reindeer and sleighs, my sister-in-law grabbed my arm again. Although the verbal barrage was safely behind us, she looked stricken. “I’m so sorry,” she began. “How could that man yell at you like that? I had no idea!” Her admission, and our deeper discussion that night over dinner, gave my story new purpose. What I would have dismissed as just another shameful incident became my next week’s talking point.

When I told my brother about the guy on the ball, he scoffed, “So what? Don’t be so sensitive.” Then he chuckled. “Know what I’d do? Hit him where it hurts. Take a twenty and hold it over his hat. Then go, ‘What’d you say? Oh, I guess I can’t give this to you then,’ and make a show of putting it back in your wallet. That’ll show him!”

When I told my relatives and Asian friends, there was a collective shrug. Why should I expect things to be different?

Some white acquaintances totally missed the point. “How did he know you’re Chinese? Just pretend you’re Vietnamese!” Or, “Were there other Chinese around? Maybe he wasn’t yelling at you.”

My white friends, however, reacted with genuine outrage. “What, to you? Here in Seattle? That’s horrible!” Some hesitated before asking, “Is it okay if I tell others what happened to you?” Of course I said yes. Assimilation, with all its negative baggage, can work in my favor; so deeply am I woven into the fabric of our community that an assault on me felt like an assault on everyone. One friend erupted with an uncharacteristic outburst, shouting, “I want to knock him off his stupid ball!” Amused, I nodded, thinking, nice metaphor! She pinched her lips and swung her arm, backhanding the air with deliberate force. “No, I mean that literally! Don’t you?”

*     *     *

Across the broad bowl of Seattle’s CenturyLink stadium, fans streamed into rows, lime-green beanies bobbing in a field of navy. Protected under the stadium overhang from December’s icy chill, I shimmied with excitement. The 2016 Seahawks still had a shot for the playoffs.

I couldn’t believe my good luck. The night before, Elizabeth, my rowing partner, texted me: Just picked up tickets for the Seahawks-Panthers game tomorrow… Want to go? These seats were even better than the ones she’d scored for the Falcons game in October. From our perch high above the thirty-yard line, I had a clear view of both scoreboards, the tunnel to the Seahawks locker room, and the platform where they’d raise the American flag. Perfect.

Bundled in Seahawks gear, I settled into my seat. As the Seahawks and Panthers warmed up on opposite sides of the field, the rows around us started to fill. Men in Avril and Wilson jerseys, whooping and slapping one another’s backs with an easy “season ticket holder” familiarity, landed in front of us. To my left, a man in a navy-blue Seahawks jacket gave me a cursory nod as he took his seat. The teenage girl with him pulled up her hood and continued tapping her cell phone.

I frowned; that’s not how it was supposed to be. Long ago my parents had held season tickets for the Oakland Raiders. Usually they took their friends, so I was thrilled whenever I got to go. Sun-drenched Sunday afternoons at Oakland Coliseum—shelling peanuts and cheering for Lamonica and Biletnikoff—taught me to love football. During commercial breaks Dad patiently answered questions I’d stored up—Why is clipping such a big penalty? Why is everyone bunched together for an on-side kick? I’d made up questions just to get his attention.

Suddenly, amidst the sold-out CenturyLink throng, I felt alone. I leaned forward, glanced down our row, and pivoted a complete 360. As I shrank back into my seat, I confirmed it: I was the solitary yellow face—the only minority—in a sea of white. I tugged my coat close, trapping the warmth of my breath. Still I shivered.

Had all these white guys voted for Trump?

Had all these white guys voted for Trump?

I shook my head and groaned. Shut up! I berated myself. Don’t go there! I could almost hear my sons laughing, “Mom, don’t be so paranoid!”

I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Why should I be afraid? I was born here. I belong here. White men don’t scare me; I’m an engineer. For thirty years I worked with, and supervised, scores of white men. I played on volleyball teams with white men; now I row with dozens more. I married one, and before him, another. I live in Seattle, one of the most progressive cities in America. In this very stadium back in October I wouldn’t have thought to fear.

But December jolted me with a new truth. Bombarded by a daily chronicle of local hate crimes—swastikas sprayed in a Bellevue park, Muslim women harassed on the University of Washington campus—my fight-or-flight reaction kicked into overdrive. The night some fool on a ball bullied me in downtown Seattle, I reeled from his assault. November’s election, and the associated knowledge that 63% of white men voted for Trump, hurt like a deep jab to the heart. Did two of every three men pressed around me also ascribe to his misogynistic, bigoted, xenophobic beliefs? My rational side said, “Don’t stereotype!” while my emotional side cringed, whispering, “I shouldn’t be afraid, but I am.” Wildly seesawing between control and chaos, I felt sick. Battered. Exhausted.

From a distance I heard the referee’s whistle, sensed a sharp elbow in my side. “Hey, it’s opening kickoff!” Elizabeth shouted. We jumped up. Bursting with relief at the welcome distraction, I joined the deafening chants, yelling so loud my throat hurt. As we took our seats, I accidentally brushed against my neighbor. “Sorry,” I mumbled, instinctively pulling in my elbows. But my self-imposed distancing dissolved when the Seahawks made a huge play, intercepting the ball and landing on the Panther’s seven-yard line. CenturyLink stadium erupted in one loud roar. Clapping and cheering, we leapt up. The Avril-shirted guy in front of me yelled, “Go Hawks!” and started high-fiving everyone in his row. The noise was eardrum bending.

Suddenly he turned around, palm aloft in clear high-fiving position. Awash in a typical “bro” this-is-fucking-AWESOME adrenaline rush, his entire face became one goofy exuberant grin. He saw me. Palm up, he hesitated.

Did he see my eyes widen in panic? I never touch people at football games. Or in his football frenzy, did he zero in on my Seahawks jacket—not my yellow face—and judge me American enough to come through and not leave him hanging? Or would he quickly drop his hand with a barely audible, “Oops”?

I couldn’t let that happen. Against every instinct, if this white guy was welcoming me into his Seahawks tribe, literally reaching out to me, I had to seal the deal. So I swung out hard, a perfect volleyball spike. Even though we barely caught each other’s pinkies, when he beamed and turned to Elizabeth, I knew I’d made the right call.

Did they see me as “other?” Would they keep their elbows tucked too? But as our high-fives got better, I breathed easier.

Throughout the 40-7 blowout, there were many more high-fives—with that guy, with the guy next to me, back to that guy again. When I first thought these guys might have voted for Trump, I felt like a bone had caught in my throat. Did they see me as “other?” Would they keep their elbows tucked too? But as our high-fives got better, I breathed easier. High-fives signaled unanimity, a pact that the only colors that mattered to them were navy and green. And if not—if a celebratory high-five didn’t vindicate them from being forces of oppression outside of the stadium—at least I felt safe sitting with them for a few more hours.

*     *     *

At thirteen I topped out at 5’5,” tall for a Chinese girl. One night after dinner, Dad waved me to the garage. His workout bag—his heavy bag—hung from the ceiling by a thick reinforced chain. He positioned me in front of it.

“Close your fist like this.” He wrapped my fingers tight, tucked my thumb below my knuckles. “Never put your thumb on top. You’ll sprain it that way.” He stepped behind the heavy bag and held it still. “Now punch.”

I drew back my arm and swung at the bag. The chain barely jingled, but he didn’t laugh. “No, not a roundhouse. And don’t pull your fist back like a boxer. That wastes time. Keep your wrist straight. The back of your hand lines up with your arm.” He tilted my hand forward. “See? Now your fist is flat. Now lean in. That’s right. Now harder.”

After a few weeks of punching practice, Dad waved me to the garage again. His crooked grin, almost conspiratorial, showed he was pleased with my progress. He stood behind the bag. “Now kick,” he said, bracing himself. “Kick the bag.”

 

Amber Wong is an environmental engineer who enjoys life’s ironies, like being an engineer who writes. A fifth-generation American, she explores how the statics of culture—ethnicity, gender, even one’s profession—bend the dynamics of modern-day America. Winner of The Writer’s Connection essay contest, she has also published work in Slippery Elm, Metaphorical Fruit, We Came to Say: A Collection of Memoir (2011), We Came Back to Say—An Anthology of Memoir (2014), and The Seattle Times. Amber earned an MFA from Lesley University and a master’s degree in civil engineering from Stanford University.

Photo by Lynette Huffman Johnson