“What was that?!” I yelled at Aron, the lead singer of my new band.
He was behind the wheel of the van I had just bought. It’s fall 2007. We had the Murder City Devils’ Empty Bottles, Broken Hearts cranked, and we could barely hear each other. It’s one of my favorite albums to listen to while on the road, and with this being our first tour, it only seemed appropriate.
“There it is again! Pull over!”
The sound increased in volume and frequency. It reminded me of the final stages of microwaving popcorn, except the kernels were aluminum and exploding underneath the hood. Our engine was bursting, the rattling gradually slowing as we pulled over and shut it off. Our excitement about getting to Los Angeles through this overnight drive was only slightly shaken, however, and I left a message for the guy who sold me this lemon, hoping to get answers. It was so new (at least for us), we could still smell the spray paint on the side of our trailer: a bright red rising sun with large letters proclaimed that this tour machine belonged to THE SLANTS.
The lights of a highway patrol car illuminated the interior of our van. I tensed up slightly. We were 164 miles outside of Portland, just out of the protective liberal bubble for a van filled with rock n’ rollers of color. While most people think of cities like Portland and Salem when they think of Oregon, when the town names start to end in lin or burg or ville, the political hue goes from deep blue, straight past purple, to a fire engine red. It’s one of the parts of the Pacific Northwest where Oregonians curiously speak with a Midwestern drawl.
I watched as the silhouetted highway patrolman walked up, the brim of his wide cowboy hat casting a large shadow over our back windows. We traded pleasantries and explained that the van was making loud noises, so we pulled over to investigate.
“Well, y’all can’t stay here. You gotta’ move on,” he said in a friendly, but firm voice. He looked over the van and trailer, squinting his eyes at the design emblazoned on the side, then pointed his flashlight at each of us. “So what’s the Slants?”
“We’re a Vietnamese polka band,” Aron said. The other musicians in the back struggled to hold back their laughter.
The officer gave us a look of consternation and ordered us to drive up to the next exit, where we could wait for the repair shop to open. Looked like we were going to sleep in the van tonight. It was freezing, and I packed for California weather, so I rummaged through the merch in our trailer and layered up in Slants’ hoodies. I’ve always believed that a requirement of being able to tour is resourcefulness—might as well put that to use.
I let out a heavy sigh as I locked the trailer back up. I thought I was done with touring in old, busted vans. This was supposed to be a new start on my terms: chasing my music dreams with an all-Asian American band.
* * *
My first awareness of “race” came when I entered kindergarten. Before that, I didn’t really think about racial identity or what it meant. It didn’t even cross my mind that my brother, John, was different, even though he had medium dark hair while I had jet black hair. But then it was San Diego in the 1980s. When John’s biological dad would visit, I just thought he was a family friend. My parents didn’t tell me that my mom had been married previously until I was a teenager because they thought the notion of a family half-siblings would confuse us. Ironically, the idea of being a mixed-race family never once crossed their mind as being weird: We were a family and that was that.
My parents immigrated to the United States from Asia: my father, from the Canton area in China; my mother from Taipei, Taiwan. They met while they were both working at a restaurant in San Diego. They both worked really hard to provide for our family. And because they didn’t want to see me or my siblings struggle as much they had, they stressed the importance of a formal education. Their dream was to have a family of doctors, lawyers, and computer engineers. My father didn’t want me to have his hands—the calloused hands of a kitchen worker, with hardened skin that could grip a hot wok without flinching.
My dad would tell me parables instead of bedtime stories. One lesson was about strength: He had me break a single pencil, which I easily snapped in half. Then, he took a small handful of pencils and asked me to repeat the task with a dozen. No matter how much I struggled, however, I couldn’t break that many at once.
“This is why family and community is so important,” he said. “With one, it can be easily broken. But together, you cannot break them.”
My dad’s favorite refrain might as well have been a tattoo on his forehead: “Work with your brains, not with your back.”
To emphasize this point, my parents would frequently buy activity books and games for math, writing, and reading comprehension. The lessons began as soon as I could talk. My parents even sent me to pre-school a year early so that I could get a head start.
When we first walked onto the grounds of my elementary school, I felt very much at home. The school was in my backyard—literally. Only a chain link fence divided the property between our home and the school’s field. It was so close that sometimes agong, my grandpa, would watch me playing soccer during recess. I remember looking at the field from my window, excited to go to my first day of school and see what the fuss was all about.
When I first enrolled, the administrators had me take some placement tests. The many years of working through activity books allowed me to test several grade levels ahead of kindergarten. While I was proud of my achievement, the school guidance counselor took my parents aside and had a separate conversation that I wouldn’t learn about until almost three decades later.
My parents told me that the exchange they had with the school went something like this:
“We’re really impressed by Simon, he has a lot of potential. We think he’ll do very well but we would like to put him in special classes so he can do even better.”
“Special classes?” my parents asked. “Like to skip grades?”
“Well, we will test him for that later. But these classes aren’t about that. He seems to be doing just fine. We’re not worried him now that he’s here, to be honest, we’re more worried about you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your English. You speak with a deep accent and we’re worried that it may affect how your children speak. So these classes will help him speak like an American . . .”
“Our son is an American!” my father said. “He was born here in San Diego.”
“Well, an American citizen, yes, but he doesn’t look or sound American. We’ll put him in ESL classes so he can speak like one. We also need you to stop speaking oriental languages in the house whenever possible. Whenever you speak to him, only use English, if you can.”
Whether we realized it or not, our family was being asked to assimilate to American culture by erasing portions of our own. There was no room to hold both identities—I had to choose one culture or the other. The school recommended against me going to Chinese school: an after school program for ABC (American Born Chinese) children to learn how to read, write, and speak Mandarin formally. I was to only learn English while my cousins and the few friends I made at the Taiwanese Sunday school went to Chinese school. To this day, I am illiterate in Mandarin, Taiwanese, and Cantonese, my first three languages.
These days, many schools are desperate to have integrated language programs, especially for Mandarin, since dual-fluency is tied to success. It’s assumed that people who are bilingual are more intelligent and expand possibilities for companies. I’ve tried to make up the lack of that experience with Rosetta Stone and podcasts I listen to during commutes, but this has yielded only limited success. When I visit family in Taiwan, I’m filled with shame that I can’t properly communicate with them. I’m bluntly wielding the tools of language, but can’t do much more than order food or find a bathroom. Contrasted with my near-fluent Spanish, it makes me wish I could do more. When my extended family looks at me, I imagine they just wonder, “How did he learn English so well? And where did the Spanish come from?” Or perhaps, “What can’t he converse with his own family?”
* * *
My parents used to play family home videos on the television. At two, I was already grabbing an acoustic guitar and jumping on the coffee table to play a concert for the family. The grainy footage and cacophony showed that I loved putting on a show.
I really fell head-over-heels in love with music once I got better acquainted with my dad’s hi-fidelity stereo. When I was six, I used to lie in front of the speakers for hours, watching vinyl records spin, and learning how to use the tuner to pick up FM stations. We had our own small collection of records and cassettes—mostly goofy songs sung by children. Those annoyed me. What I really wanted were the large LP discs in my father’s collection: the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and Elvis Presley. With the radio, I would be entranced with pulsating, arpeggiated keyboards and electronic disco beats, the early sounds of synthpop music.
I loved pop music.
For my seventh Christmas, John gave me Some Great Reward by Depeche Mode on cassette—which featured hits like “People are People” and “Master and Servant”—probably because he was tired of my blasting Music for the Masses nonstop. I brought that tape to school for show-and-tell. We listened to “Master and Servant,” my favorite cut from that album. I still find it hilarious that in my innocence, I subjected a class of second graders to a song about sadomasochism:
Domination’s the name of the game in bed or in life
They’re both just the same
Except in one you’re fulfilled at the end of the day
In any case, the teacher didn’t even notice.
Around this time, my cousins Wynne and Nelson started taking piano lessons. My siblings and I were insanely jealous. After some begging, my sister, Ro, and I were able to join them at the same music store. Though, it was really my aunt Lin who helped make this happen. She was my mom’s youngest sister, and she was always looking out for us. When my parents were busy at work, we’d spend our summer with her. She’d take us swimming, to the video arcade, and to the beach to make sure that we could have some proper childhood experiences.
Like our cousins, my sister also started on piano. But I wanted something sexy—the electric guitar, the devil’s axe, the tool of the six-stringed samurai. My parents gave me a ukulele instead. I couldn’t tell the difference, so it didn’t matter to me. I just knew that plucked strings were an important part of rock stardom. I had already taken that first step, I was on my way. The quantity of strings and the sound that they made could be figured out later.
Time spent with our cousins started changing. Instead of running around in the backyard playing hide-and-seek or pretending to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, we’d play “band.” It was an intricate process of spreading copies of the Pennysaver, back issues of the San Diego Union Tribune, and magazines across the living room floor so there wasn’t a square inch of carpet visible. This was our stage. After creating the foundation, we’d gather whatever made the most noise to use as instruments: toy pianos, pots and pans for drums, and my trusty ukulele. We would pound away at everything and scream at the top of our lungs, because that’s what rock stars did.
I looked at the television and thought, I’m going to be on MTV one day. My parents viewed the same TV as a device that would help my English so that maybe one day I could earn that coveted PhD.
My dad had a fairly successful restaurant business when he moved to the U.S., but my mom convinced him to sell it when I was born as the work was so demanding. But once the kids were in school, and mom’s parents moved into the house, it seemed like the right moment to finally have something of their own again. The restaurant, House of Canton, would become a second home for us. We’d help run the restaurant, do homework there, and even sleep in the office until the customers who stayed past closing would leave.
Before I started fourth grade, we moved from San Diego to Spring Valley to be closer to House of Canton. It was the fourth home we lived in as a family. Music was something we hung onto. Ro started taking trumpet lessons at Garrett Band Instruments, a music store near our restaurant. Meanwhile, I begged and begged for something other than the ukulele—especially when I learned that it wasn’t actually a guitar. I could never make it sound like what I heard from rock n’ roll records I spun on the stereo. I remember counting all four strings on my humble ukulele and realizing that this was the main reason why it didn’t look or sound like any of the guitars displayed at the store. If my sister got a new instrument, why couldn’t I?
Walking into a music store for the first time can be like a young wizard’s first experience at Ollivanders Wand Shop in Harry Potter: the instrument chooses you. All around the world, some version of Diagon Alley exists, whether in band class at school or at the Guitar Center. New musicians often choose instruments because they are drawn to certain sounds: brass rather than woodwind, strings instead of rhythm, etc. But just like in the world of Hogwarts, while wizards can definitely use other wands, they don’t just feel right when they aren’t the one.
Many people ask why I play bass instead of guitar. The reality is that I play both, though neither particularly well. I’ve picked up a couple of instruments throughout my life, and what I’ve played really has depended on the role. In high school, I played the marching baritone—which sounds like a trombone and looks like an inflated trumpet—for my class while I was also the lead singer/guitarist for my band, the Rockaway Teens.
Of course, people also pick up the guitar to impress girls and the drums to annoy their parents, or choose to sing to shine in the limelight. Ultimately, I chose the bass guitar because it felt underappreciated and overlooked. Maybe, as the middle kid, I felt like I could relate to it. It was a mightier version of the ukulele; at least it had the same number of strings. That fact that I was a huge fan of Guns n’ Roses and really loved Duff McKagan’s chorus-fueled bass powering the band didn’t hurt either.
At this point, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life—I was only ten. But I knew that I felt so connected to the expression of music, that to tear it away would be to tear apart a piece of my soul itself. Music was the only thing that made sense, especially when the world around me made very little.
On the basketball courts at school, students tormented me on regular basis. It didn’t help that I was new to the neighborhood and that I spent most of my time outside of school helping at my parents’ restaurant. It especially didn’t help that I was one of the few Asian students there. Being different made me a prime target.
They’d throw balls, punches, rocks and insults. Despite making a few friends—tough for a kid that moved around as much as we did—I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was an outsider. It enveloped me like the oversized hand-me-down t-shirts I wore from my brother John (six years older and three sizes larger than me).
Transitioning to middle school meant being thrown into a larger pool of students, many of whom I didn’t know or share any classes with. That also meant that most of the students were older and bigger than me. Seventh and eighth graders seemed much more intimidating.
One day, I stayed back to clean up the schoolyard after P.E. It was a regular responsibility that would rotate with different students. Four older kids waited for me, hiding behind a wall nearby so I wouldn’t see them. The teacher had already gone inside the locker room, yelling at the guys to hit the showers. Everything was quiet on the field and on the courts except for the sounds of my sneakers shuffling along the blacktop, until my ears started ringing and my vision blurred. I’d been hit in the back of my head by a basketball. As I stumbled towards the edge of the court, I cried hot tears. Before I could turn around, I was pushed. Hard. My hands stung as they met the loose gravel, pebbles scraping my skin and leaving tiny cuts that would later turn to blisters.
I tried to scramble away as these boys laughed and hurled insults. The thing that scared me the most wasn’t the fact that there were four of them, but rather that they were smiling, grinning. They weren’t angry. They were enjoying this moment.
One of them ran up and threw sand into my face, which stuck to my sweat and tears and hardened. As I wiped at my eyes, another kicked me in the stomach, and I doubled over.
“Look at this Jap!” I heard one of them yell. “I can’t believe sand can even fit in those slits!”
“This gook isn’t going to do anything,” said another. “What a little chicken shit.”
They laughed some more.
Finally, I stood up and threw back: “I’m a chink! Get it right!” They were stunned. “You guys are so stupid, you can’t even be racist right.”
Confused, they stopped. And they walked away.
* * *
Kyle and I were one of the few people at our high school that listened to punk rock. Hot Topic hadn’t hit the malls yet, so the idea of wearing all-black, having dyed or spikey hair, or using a novel wallet chain made from linking safety pins together was especially not cool. But we wore them anyway.
Kyle and I had met freshman year of high school, and we found ourselves in a band together, playing songs I wrote along with the standard punk rock covers of the Angry Samoans (“My Old Man’s a Fatso” was a favorite) and Operation Ivy. The music was a mix of mid-90s pop punk, inspired by groups like Mr. T Experience, the Queers, and Screeching Weasel. We tempered it with terrible songs I wrote to sound like the Exploited, Crass, and the Sub-Humans. While most of our jam sessions were in our bedrooms and garages, we did end up playing a single house party. The attendees were too drunk and high to care, but still, I loved it.
I would scour encyclopedias and albums for inspiration for our songs. Sometimes an idea would come from maps: I thought “Katmandu” was such an interesting sounding place, it deserved to be written about. Other times, it would be my own personal struggles with being extremely shy, yet crushing on girls. Our “hit” was a song called “Anti-Social Boy,” written after waking up from a dream about the capitalist state in the middle of the night. Kyle and I would spend hours on the phone talking about anarchy and socialism—concepts introduced to us through punk. I’m not quite sure we really got any of it (or if any of the artists did either), but we could definitely connect to the emotion behind it, and the frustration that democracies were failing to uphold their own intended values.
To make a statement about how much he believed in the lifestyle we were desperate to emulate, Kyle showed up to school with bright pink hair sculpted into eight-inch liberty spikes all over his head. I thought it was amazing. I even told him, “You look so punk!” No one else at school shared my awe of this look. Teachers frowned, giving Kyle dirty looks as he walked into the classroom. Students would snicker and point. Almost no one at school had dyed hair at the time, so this was a giant pink target on his head. Throughout the day, his cheeks would flare up red as he nervously smiled in response to people’s jokes.
As per usual, I was supposed to meet Kyle out in front of school. There was an area at the top of the stairs with a short railing, flagpole, and the administrative offices that overlooked the parking lot and waiting area for cars. It was always bustling with activity. You could hear rap music being blasted from the cars of older students, honking horns from impatient parents, and the idling of diesel engines from the school busses.
As I was walking up to our spot, I noticed a group of half a dozen students had circled around Kyle, taunting him.
“Are you some kind of fag or something? Why do you have pink hair?” one of them asked.
His face just burned as sweat started to trickle out from his spikes. He nervously laughed with them.
“Look at this faggot! He can’t even say nothing.”
“His face just looks like he has bright berries. Maybe he’s a clown!”
“Yo clown, why do you look like that? How come your mom lets you out the door looking like that?”
One of them gave him a light push. A security guard who was watching the scene play out nearby turned away. I couldn’t take it any longer. I was squeezing the railing with one hand because I was so nervous. I didn’t want them to notice my shaking. I mustered the little courage I had and finally yelled, “Maybe it’s because his mom isn’t stupid and ignorant like you are. Maybe she doesn’t judge people by how they look!”
The laughing immediately stopped. The silence that followed seem to last an eternity. They turned to look at me instead. While I didn’t have bright pink hair, I looked a bit clownish myself: wearing an oversized t-shirt with a band logo drawn with permanent markers underneath a camouflage army jacket covered with homemade patches safety-pinned on. The gel I used to spike my hair with was ineffective against my thick Asian hair, leaving a shiny and wet-looking flop of black on my head.
“Yo, what did you say, Jackie?”
I looked around. I was confused. I didn’t see anyone else near me who could have said anything. They were staring at me, their glares cutting me down to size.
“He’s talking to you, Jackie.” One of the boys flashed a smile. “Is this faggot your boyfriend? Are you trying to start something?”
The other guys started laughing, one of them exaggerating it by doubling over and pretending to wipe a tear.
I suddenly got the joke. They were calling me Jackie . . . for Jackie Chan. The logical part of my mind went into overdrive: I’m nothing like Jackie Chan. He’s much older than me. He has a big, flat nose (mostly from it being broken so many times). He has that weird bowl-cut mullet. Most importantly, he knows something that I don’t: martial arts. I had taken one week of karate with my cousins when I was in fifth grade. But in no way did that prepare me for taking on a group of older, larger, meaner students in a one-on-six melee.
I could see the fear in Kyle’s eyes growing, like he was saying, “We’re going to get our asses beat. Again.”
So, I did the only thing I could think of: I struck the single martial arts pose I could remember from karate camp and gave them the meanest look I had in me. It was a look fueled by the countless other bullies who had pushed me to the ground, mixed with a healthy dose of embarrassment and nervousness.
“Don’t call me Jackie!” I wailed. “You’re either stupid or racist if you can’t tell the difference.”
To my surprise, it worked. A couple of them took a step back.
“Hey, now. We were just messin’. We don’t want any of your chop-socky shit. We were just playing!”
That was the second time owning up to a stereotype worked. And it wouldn’t be the last.
I wish I could say that all of my encounters as a kid were victorious or brave, that I didn’t let the countless remarks get to me. But when you’re an adolescent trying so hard to be cool, to be accepted by your peers only to be rejected at every turn, it wears you out. I still remember the embarrassment I felt in elementary school when a teacher asked me to share the origin and meaning of the fortune cookie in class during Chinese New Year. Our family didn’t ever share fortune cookies beyond handing then out at the restaurant, so why the hell would I know? Years later, I learned that fortune cookies were actually developed in California, a clever twist on some a Japanese confectionary.
Then there were all the teachers over the years that would call on me in math, fully expecting me to illuminate the class with a brilliant answer even though I could barely follow along. I couldn’t hang in Calculus! And even though I excelled in English Lit, I was seldom asked to share my interpretations (It was a Christ-type, it’s always a Christ-type). I always felt helpless, wishing I could retreat into some corner, secretly praying that I could be a normal white kid like everyone else.
In a moment of teenage fury during my sophomore year, I told my dad that I was ashamed of being Chinese.
“How could you say that?” He said. “Your mom and I work so hard for you, your brother, and sister! You should be proud of who you are!”
“Dad, I’m tired of getting killed out there.”
That day, my father, who rarely expressed any kind of emotion, displayed heartbreaking sadness in the middle of our restaurant. I felt guilty, but not enough to stop me from continuing to disassociate myself from everything I considered Asian—Chinese, Japanese, or otherwise. It’s not like people could tell the difference or cared enough anyway, so why should I?
* * *
Perhaps it’s no wonder that I eventually found myself moving to Portland, OR, known as “America’s Whitest Major City.” How I found myself on tour with a punk rock band that I admired, even though it meant dropping out of college and giving up on a full scholarship. It allowed me to get some space away from my family, my roots, Southern California. It let me get away from the heartbreak of losing Perla, my high school sweetheart. And it led me to sleeping in a broken down van with an obscure racial epithet spray painted on the side, waiting for a tow truck on the side of the highway.
I thought that was all in the past. With my previous band, we crammed into a minivan that was almost forty years old. On tour, we spent more time waiting for a repair than we did driving. With the Slants, I thought things had changed. I believed in this idea so much that I took a second mortgage out against the house I lived in to fund our first album. I’d gotten this van and trailer from another touring band because I thought it’d be dependable.
But there I was, spending the night in Oakland, Oregon, trying to get to back to California, to prove that the path for this band was unlike anything anyone had ever seen. At this point in my life, I identified more with what I did (play music) rather than who I was (an Asian American), even though this band combined both—and maybe the former would help with the latter. Our first tour was booked around an anime convention, which felt like a good idea at the time.
“Start it up again,” Aron said. “The windows are starting to ice over.”
As soon as the ignition engaged, the sound of slapping returned. This time, it sounded like a tiny helicopter firing up. I left it running just long enough for the heat to melt the frost.
While the rest of us curled up and waited for morning, Aron drank everything we had left—which was a lot. This was only the first night of tour. Eventually he got out of the van and peed on our new trailer. When he saw the closed door upon his return, he just assumed that we had locked him out. Aron repeatedly drop-kicked the sliding passenger door, leaving a dent the size of his boot and breaking the handle off.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked, reaching over and opening the door. “It was already open!”
After a moment, he said, “Oh,” realizing it was unlocked the entire time. “Well you shouldn’t have closed the door and let me think it was locked.”
My innovative all-Asian band with all of our high-minded ambition wasn’t any more immune to lead singer syndrome than any other group.
“Sorry I can’t do nothin’ ‘bout that door of yours, though,” the mechanic said to me in the morning, after he’d replaced our misfiring piston. It didn’t matter; we didn’t have time to waste. We had a show to get to. I put the charge onto my credit card, and we got back in our dented van and drove straight down I-5 toward Los Angeles.