Social media is filled with uplifting stories of people who encounter racism and rise above it.
People of colour who wade through the mire to embrace or convert their tormentors " or, at least, distinguish themselves in the face of ignorance.
They go low, we go high.
This is not one of those stories.
The facts of my encounter with a real-life racist in Vancouver, your honour, are as follows. On July 10, a random white man called my wife and I "gooks", an awful thing to do. He followed us and told us to "go home". I confronted him and he backed down.
So far, so woke.
Here are the bits I left out. They do not enhance my heroic tale.
He was homeless, or looked it. He was pushing his belongings in a shopping trolley. He had clearly suffered indignities beyond anything he threw our way. He looked very tired. We looked prosperous and sleek. I had veered around him, and pretended not to notice him, in the same way one might dodge a small but inconvenient obstacle on the pavement.
Knowing all of this, I still came perilously close to punching him in the face. I wanted to. And I would have, had he given me the slightest physical cause. I didn't really care what he thought. I didn't want to rise above anything. I felt furious and justified and I just wanted to punch him.
I frightened him, too, and it felt great.
This story, if it is about anything, is about privilege.
I noticed him before we crossed West 17th Avenue. He was squatting shirtless against a newspaper vending box on Cambie Street, struggling to pull on a filthy blue hoodie.
I gave my wife's hand a little squeeze and veered oh-so-slightly away from his flailing sleeves.
"******* gooks," he muttered.
In 48 years of being ethnically Asian, I had never before been called a gook, not within earshot. It is a silly-sounding and anachronistic slur. It felt clunky and staged, like dialogue from a Vietnam war movie. To have it directed at me, in 2019 Vancouver, felt horrid, but also weird. I almost said "excuse me?"
This is my privilege showing, of course.
Racism generally punches down. I'm not white, but I am secure and middle-class. I have never been dispossessed. I am an immigrant, but I am not a poor immigrant. If my personal outcomes have suffered for being ethnically Chinese, I've never felt it. My feelings might have been hurt occasionally, but to have suffered the kind of systemic racism that I know afflicts and oppresses others?
Nope. I'm doing fine, honestly. This is my experience of racism, and mine alone. It does not diminish or alter the experiences of others.
So, to be called a gook on a sunny afternoon several days before another crackpot would express similar sentiments in circumstances far different " in distant Washington DC " seemed mostly odd.
It was about to get odder.
"******* border jumpers. Go home," he said as we passed. Was this for real, I thought? What border, with what gook-filled hellhole, was he imagining? The one with Washington state, or Montana? Alberta, maybe?
I flinched but we kept walking towards our goal, the doors of Shoppers Drug Mart. We needed paper towels.
Then my stomach dropped when I heard the clatter of a shopping trolley behind us.
He was warming to his theme now, confident he had the upper hand. "******* go home. Go. Just go."
My wife released my hand and skipped down the stairs of Shoppers Drug Mart as the doors slid shut behind her.
"That's right," he said.
And the red mist descended.
In hindsight, it's clear what flicked the switch inside my lizard brain. He was gloating, at having forced my wife to submit (in his mind, at least).
I balled my fists and turned and took two quick strides towards him. "What the **** did you just say?" I asked.
He fell back on his heels, with what looked like genuine shock. I sized him up properly for the first time. His hair was a thick Paul McCartney mop. His sleeves were pushed up to reveal forearms corded with muscle. He was a little taller than me. But he was sunken chested, hunched and ravaged. His cheeks and eyes sockets were hollow. A stiff breeze would have knocked him over. He looked frightened. I didn't care.
"Well. I didn't necessarily mean you specifically," he said, enunciating the five-syllable words of this strange explanation with new cautious precision.
"Then why THE **** did you say it?" I pressed on, with less caution and fewer syllables.
I have heard about de-escalation, and I endorse it as a theory. Yet in that moment I was willing him forward. He had started this, right? I felt justified in my fury.
But the fear I made him feel? That was also my privilege.
In this ferociously unequal city, I keep my belongings in my home, not a shopping trolley. If I need something, I can buy it. I have no particular reason to be angry at strangers, but if I am hurt by one, I have people who will care for me.
It demonstrates the toxic potency of the hateful slurs 'go home' and 'go back where you came from'
He stammered out something that defies easy recollection, about freedom of speech and Canada being a place where you can speak your mind or some-such nonsense, but the blood in my neck was already ebbing and the confrontation now felt ridiculous. I clucked my tongue and walked through the sliding doors.
Inside, my wife scolded me, but I felt not the slightest shame. As we browsed the aisles I heard a metallic banging, and a raised voice, furious now, shouting to itself.
Should we exit through the other door, I asked my wife. Not so brave now.
Afterwards, the street was empty, except for an upturned rubbish bin, its contents strewn about the pavement.
I might pretend I learned something from this encounter, but truthfully? I am quite certain I would behave again in roughly the same way, if presented with roughly the same circumstances.
There was no logic at play here, from either of us.
If anything, it demonstrates the toxic potency of the hateful slurs "go home" and "go back where you came from".
It is that they are delivered as commands.
They imply not just the meanness of an epithet, but the casual assumption that the tormentor is above the tormented. And there is also the implied threat, the unspoken "or else".
It is one thing when that command is delivered by a man pushing a trolley on the street. It's another when it comes from the man in the Oval Office.
In my head, I know that when someone says "go home", that I should try to subvert their ignorance, to aim high, and make it a teachable moment.
But in my heart, I just want to start punching.
That's the thing. It drags us all down low.
The Hongcouver blog is devoted to the hybrid culture of its namesake cities: Hong Kong and Vancouver. All story ideas and comments are welcome. Connect with me by email email@example.com or on Twitter, @ianjamesyoung70
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