Racism as an Asian Adoptee

by Josh Woerthwein adopted from Vietnam to the USA.

I’ve decided to share my own experiences with racism, because current events have got me reminiscing about the past. Let’s not get it twisted: much worse has happened to much better people than me. But I do think it’s important that people know that racism has been around for decades; it’s actually America’s favourite past-time. I just think that a certain person exacerbated the situation in how he chose to refer to Covid-19. And for some reason, it empowered cowardly racists to attack elderly Asian men and women (mostly from behind, because they lack the testicular fortitude to actually show their faces), and commit acts of mass murder.

My adoptive mum and I, April 1975

MOST of the people I’m friends with on social media are people I’ve actually met. There’s a handful that I haven’t. So for those of you whom I haven’t met face to face, a little background: I was born in Viet Nam in 1974, adopted by a white family in 1975 (I’ve got three siblings, one being their biological daughter, and they adopted two more kids–both half-Black/half-white), raised in south-central PA, and didn’t leave the area until I went to university. In a round-about way, I ended up in the NYC-metro area and have been here since 2001.

I am pretty sure I had repressed a lot of what happened throughout my childhood, but the increased media coverage of racism-based violence and hate crimes towards Asians got me reminiscing about “the good old days”. I was thinking about the first time I can remember something racist being said or done toward me, which opened the floodgates. This is gonna be long, so grab a coffee and enjoy the ride down my memory lane!

  • I can’t remember this because I was too young but my mom told me about it: a friend of my mom’s saw me in the stroller and said that I almost looked like my mom, and asked my mom if she was going to have surgery done on my eyes so I could look even more like her. My mom, shocked, came back with, “How about I get surgery on MY eyes so I look more like HIM?”. Her friend was even more shocked and said, “Why would you do something like THAT?!” I am pretty sure they were no longer friends after that. My mom was also thanked numerous times by any number of people when she was out with me for “saving him from the dirty Commies”.
  • Age 5 or 6, in kindergarten, I recall other kids mocking me with, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at THESE”, and when saying “THESE”, they’d pull the outer corners of their eyes up and out to mimic (supposedly) my eyes.
  • In my neighbourhood, one of my friend’s older brothers nicknamed me “Hadji”. I think he said it was because I reminded him of Hadji in the Jonny Quest cartoons. It stuck. In my neighbourhood, I was always referred to as “Hadji” until I left, at around the age of 19.
  • When I was 8, I was walking home from a friend’s house and an older kid (he was probably 16) tried shooting me in the head from his bedroom window across the street with a pellet gun. He was a bad shot and instead hit me in the right hip. When questioned by the police, he said he just wanted to, “Shoot the slant”.
  • The same friend’s house I was walking home from, I had just left because his father told me, “I used to shoot lil gooks like you from my Huey in ‘Nam.”
  • I was called “slant” or “chink” a few times a week in elementary school.
  • That changed to “gook” and “zipperhead” or “zip” in middle school.
    The More You Know: did you know that “gook” derives from the Korean word for America/Americans, which is “miguk”? It sounds like, “me gook”, so during the Korean War, Americans probably thought Koreans were saying, “Me, gook”, turned it into an epithet and called Koreans “gooks”. That of course, transferred to all Asians, since you know we all look the same to white people. Also, “zipperhead” comes from when American soldiers would hit a Korean or Vietnamese soldier in the head with the stock of their assault rifles, it’d open up their heads like a zipper. “Zip” is just a shortened form of it.
  • By the time I hit high school, it had morphed into, “Charlie”, “VC”, and “riceboy”. “VC” of course derives from “Viet Cong” aka “Victor Charlie” aka “Charlie”. “Riceboy” is the one that was used the most though.
  • I was also told to go back to my own country a multitude of times for as long as I can remember through 11th grade.
  • I kept a brush and a can of paint in my locker in high school that matched my locker, because I could paint over the swastikas that were left on my locker faster than it took me for have maintenance come and do it.
  • At the beginning of 9th grade, a kid Mike told me to go back to my own country and I decided to tell him to go back to his. I wasn’t a very big kid. He basically picked me up and threw me down a flight of stairs which broke both of my wrists. He got suspended for three days.
  • Throughout middle and high school, I was asked numerous times by white classmates, “Do your Asian women have slanted pussies, because your eyes are slanted?”
  • I’d be rich if I had a nickel for the number of times I was asked if I knew kung fu or karate, followed up with a weak-ass karate chop and “hi-yaaaaaaaaaa”. At this point in my life, I didn’t know one bit of martial arts. Same goes for being asked if I ate cats and dogs.
  • The KKK and WAR (White Aryan Resistance) were both essentially clubs in my high school (not sanctioned by the school but the school did nothing about their presence).
  • In high school (~1,200 students, and less than a half dozen of us weren’t white), some kid got caught with something like four rifles and 2,000 rounds of ammunition in the cab of his pickup truck. When asked why, he said it was “to clean the school of all the mud people”. I assumed he was just a terrible shot. He wouldn’t have gotten caught if someone else didn’t see it and tell the principal about it, since it was odd to see outside of hunting season.
    I met a nice Catholic girl in high school at the local ice rink. It got to the point where I asked her out on a date and she accepted. I went to her house to pick her up on our date night, and her father answered the door. The conversation went as follows:
    HER DAD: Who the fuck are you?
    ME: Josh, I’m here to pick up Colleen for our date.
    HER DAD: That’s not going to happen, and here’s why: you’re not Irish. You’re probably not Catholic. And you sure as fuck aren’t white, so you better get the fuck off my property before I fetch my shotgun.
    Needless to say, I’ve never attempted to date a Catholic woman since then.
  • In 11th grade, I threw a football player Jamie through a window in the middle of my English class. For much of the class, he kept whispering, “Hey riceboy” from the other side of the room. I guess it was just a decade+ of pent-up anger that finally came to a head. I was raised Quaker…pacifist. WWJD and all that bullshit. I got up out of my chair, ran across the room, snatched him from his seat and threw him through a wire-mesh safety window (we were on the first floor, he didn’t fall very far). I got suspended for three days. After that, though, no one during the remainder of my junior year or senior year in high school said anything racist to me, ever again, at school.
  • I had gone to a Denny’s with two friends, Leah (a Korean adoptee) and her boyfriend Jeffrey (a white Italian kid). Jeffrey liked to dress in a punk style, and was wearing black Doc Martens with red laces. We were sitting there and a group of skinheads came over to our table and asked Jeffrey why he was sitting with “two of the mud people”. Jeffrey was confused. They said only earned skinheads can wear black Docs with red laces (as I found out later, black Doc Martens with red or white laces, laced-up in a certain manner, means you’re a skinhead, or have attended a boot party where you stomp on and kick someone). They ended up chasing us out of Denny’s to our car. As I was getting into the driver’s seat, one grabbed me around my neck through the door. I slammed the door on his arm a few times until he let go and backed into one of them that was behind the car (he rolled over the roof/hood). I don’t know what happened to the third one. We just bolted and never went to Denny’s again.
  • I finally got out of Bumblefuck, PA and went to university. They at least had more black and brown folks around, so it was a nice change. Funnily enough, I tried joining the Asian American Student Coalition/Association and was basically denied for not being “Asian enough”. I couldn’t win anywhere.
  • I got into what I thought was a nice relationship with this Italian woman when I was a freshman. We dated for a few months, then she ghosted me. I was finally able to get in touch with her and she said, “I was just using your slanty ass to get back at my boyfriend”.
  • That being said, I didn’t deal with much racism at all while I was there.
  • I was going to Philly and my car got a flat tire. It was in the evening (it was dark) and I was on the side of the Schuylkill highway. If you know the area, there’s like, zero shoulder. Anyway, I was in the process of rummaging around my trunk getting the jack out when a car pulled up behind me. That was nice because their headlights gave me more light. I heard one person ask, “Do you need any help?” I turned around and said, “No” and the two guys who were approaching me, their expressions immediately changed. They were wearing typical neo-nazi gear: combat boots, military pants and jackets. Out came the racist remarks, telling me to go back to my own country, etc. One pulled a chain and started whipping it around, the other pulled a knife. They started approaching me and I went into attack mode. I had started actually attending a karate school my freshman year of college and I was a brown belt by this time. I had three years of 5-day-a-week training and numerous tournaments under my belt. Chain boy: I bent his leg backwards at the knee. Knife boy: I was able to grapple his knife arm, leg swept him, and heel-stomped his solar plexus. I finished changing my tire and left them on the side of the road.
  • Fast forward a few years to the company I’ve now been with for 20 years. There were three incidents there during my first five or six years. First one, a delivery driver was walking by me in the warehouse and asked me where the karate school was, followed it with a fake karate chop and “hi-yaaaaaa”. It was actually so long since I’d heard anything racist directed toward me, my first thought was, “Wait, we have a karate school here now?”
  • A co-worker whom I had dealt with on the phone for months, who I finally met in person at a conference told me, “Your English is so good, I wasn’t expecting someone like you to be able to speak it so well”.
    I was eating Chinese food with three other co-workers in our little fourbicle and an older co-worker was walking by, popped his head in, looked at one of them and said, “Hey Billy! Y’all eatin’ that gook food now, huh?!” and left. I lost my shit. He came back later to apologise, and the conversation went like this:
    JOE: Hey Josh, I didn’t mean to offend you with what I said earlier. It’s just that, you know, I fought in the Korean War and they messed up my one hips really bad. But I can understand your English, so you’re OK in my book.(Keep in mind that WE WORK FOR AN ASIAN-OWNED COMPANY!!!)
    ME: Hey Joe, if you ever open your mouth to me one more time, I’m going to break your other fucking hip and dance on your grave.
    After I reported him to HR, his employment was terminated.
  • I’ve noticed that, “You speak good English” is something that gets said more to me as an adult (it wasn’t something I had heard a lot in elementary/middle/high school).
  • A few years ago, I was at the regular watering hole with a few friends — most not white . Some random white woman from out of town (I think from Texas) told us she was making a movie about the Tuskegee airmen and told us she was calling it, “The Flying N*ggers”. Needless to say, we attempted to not talk to her for the remainder of the evening. Later, we were outside having a smoke and she was trying to get our attention. She called my good friend “Maleek” (that’s not his name) and was calling me “Pol Pot”. “Maleek” finally turned around and was like, “WHAT?!” and she made little flapping motions with her hands and goes, “FLYING N*GGERS!” My friend angrily went back inside because he probably didn’t want to provoke the situation, but I turned to her and said, “Come here”. When she got close enough to me, I whispered in her ear, “If you open your mouth one more time, I’m going to place your teeth on these steps and slowly step on the back of your head until you end up swallowing your tongue”, stepped back and smiled. She gathered her things and left.
  • When I was living in Ohio, I went to a Subway to get a sandwich and the woman working there started chatting me up like she knew me. She even asked me how my brother Vinh was. I then said I had no idea who she was talking about and she asked me if I was so-and-so. I said no, I do not work at that nail salon. She said, “Oh my mistake. All of you Japs look alike to me.”
  • Also living in Ohio, I was looking after my girlfriend’s kid (they’re both black). She was hungry, I was lazy, so we walked across the street to Denny’s, of all places. We were seated in the back section. Two other tables were seated, brought menus, water and served before anyone came by to give us menus. I ended up taking her elsewhere for a sandwich and on the way out, asked the manager if it was normal for Denny’s to be openly racist toward its non-white customers. I explained what happened, she apologised and offered a free meal. FOH.
  • Getting asked, “Where are you from?” answering with “Pennsylvania” because that’s where I identified from being from, and then asked, “No, where are you REALLY from? Like, what are you?”

I fantasised about all the ways I could kill myself for pretty much elementary school through my junior year of high school. There was one failed attempt that took me a bit to recover from. All of this happened pre-Trump. And the shittiest thing about this is, I usually assume people are racist until they prove otherwise.

#StopWhiteTerrorism

Leave a Reply