I feinted to the right, drew back, caught the pass, and with hardly a pause, shot the ball into a perfect arc, just out of reach of the defender’s fingertips. I watched as the ball soared into the basket without even touching the rim and didn’t notice the defender’s other hand curl into a fist and punch me in the gut.
I doubled over, gasping for air.
“Oh shit, that was dope, bruh!” Marv yelled as he tore his eyes off of the ball and turned to me. He immediately noticed I was hurt and ran over. “What the fuck happened?”
I didn’t answer, still catching my breath and looked up to find the kid who punched me staring at me with a smirk, his eyes burning into mine. Without breaking eye contact, he pretended to brush dirt off his knuckles and said, “I hate it when I get gook on my hands.”
Marv bristled. “The fuck you say—”
I didn’t hear the rest of what Marv said as I pushed past him and tackled the defender to the ground. I pinned his arms down with my knees, ignoring his attempts to throw me off. I noticed his eyes flashing from anger and then to fear as I raised a fist.
By the time my friends dragged me off of him, his face was swollen and there was blood on my hands and on the asphalt. I ran away from the basketball court and away from the distant wail of sirens, but I could still see the smirk on his face following me home.
I’ve been called names before. You sort of have to expect that when you look like me and live in this neighborhood. I’ve gotten used to it over the years because what else am I supposed to do. If you let these assholes know that they’re getting to you, that they’re riling you up, then they push even harder. They want to see how long it takes for you to break. So I don’t give them the satisfaction.
My friends called me Lil Ming. As in “Little Yao Ming.” Marv came up with that one back when I first met him several years ago. We met at a local park and I proceeded to play circles around him in a pick-up game. I introduced myself as Minjae, but after seeing how good I was, he insisted on calling me Lil Ming. Yet somehow, right from the beginning, I could tell that he wasn’t calling me that to be mean or anything. It was because I was really fucking good at basketball. After the game, he brought me over to his group of friends and introduced me as Lil Ming. I decided I liked the nickname well enough, even though I’m Korean, not Chinese. It made me feel like I was a part of something.
My parents called me do-your-fucking-homework. They thought I was wasting my time playing basketball all the time with my friends and my weisamchon. They said they weren’t spending long hours at work just to watch me squander my life playing a game. They yelled at my weisamchon for encouraging me. He ignored them and continued to coach me on developing my jump shot.
My weisamchon is my mother’s younger brother and he was essentially a bum. Broke and unemployed, he came to my mother looking for a place to stay and she didn’t have the heart to turn him down. My father wasn’t too happy about that, but agreed to let him stay until he could find a job. My weisamchon used to play basketball in high school and was apparently pretty good until he got injured. Tore his ACL and didn’t go to a proper doctor because he didn’t have health insurance. It’s a shame because he’s still pretty damn good, even with that limp. He taught me to be able to do a layup with my other hand, control my dribbling so it’s lower to the ground, and a bunch of other things I probably would never have thought of doing. I guess he saw some talent in me and coached me whenever he could.
My weisamchon called me a damn good basketball player.
“Holy crap, Lil Ming, you beat the shit outta that guy!”
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
“Yo, Troy, did you see the look on that fucker’s face when Lil Ming charged at him?” asked Marv, a grin stretching across his face.
“Yeah, that fucker was scared shitless! He must’ve thought Bruce Lee himself was coming after him, he almost pissed his pants!” Troy said with a grin just as wide. They both laughed. I forced a smile.
“Did you see how that fucker’s friend tried to sneak up behind me to sucker punch me?” said Troy. “What a bunch of pussies.”
“Yeah, it wasn’t even a good fight!” Marv complained. “I probably could’ve fought all three of them myself and kicked all their asses.”
“Oh fucking bullshit,” said Troy. “You could hardly handle that one guy on your own! I was about to go help you out.”
“The fuck you smoking, bruh,” said Marv. The two of them started bickering like they always do. I just kept walking, absent-mindedly rubbing the dried blood on my hands, thinking about the way the kid smirked at me. It was a smirk that said no matter what, I would always be inferior to him. That I would never beat him.
‘Well, look who’s inferior now,’ I thought. Strangely, I didn’t feel any better. I thought about the way he slowly became limp under my barrage of fists. How he didn’t move when I got off of him.
A hand grabbed my shoulder and I jumped, spinning around, my right hand already clenched into a fist. Marv let go of my shoulder and put his arms up.
“Woah, woah, easy there Lil Ming,” he said.
“Sorry,” I said, my heart still pounding. I slowly relaxed my fist. “Still a little twitchy, that’s all.”
“Nah, it’s cool,” said Marv, chuckling. “Me and Troy are heading down this way. I’ll see you at school tomorrow, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said. “See ya.”
They walked off, bickering about something completely different now. I stared after them for a moment, then turned and started trudging home.
I went to a pretty shitty high school, even by public school standards. The hallway floors were cracked and constantly dirty despite the efforts of the janitor, the paint was peeling off the walls, half the lockers were smashed in and vandalized, and the bathroom constantly reeked of weed and piss. Think of a large crackhouse that’s being used to teach kids geometry and other useless shit.
I didn’t do very well in school. I was pretty sure I would graduate, which is saying something with our 50% graduation rate, but I definitely wasn’t at the top of the class. The strange thing was, as one of the few Asian students in the school, I was expected to do well despite the lack of evidence of my academic abilities. I got shoved into an Advanced Placement Chemistry class that I proceeded to fail spectacularly. Every math class I attended, the teacher expected me to know all the answers to their questions. As if Asians aren’t allowed to be stupid.
Not that I think that I’m stupid, but I’m not a genius either. After a while though, I got tired of all the badgering and the bullshit analysis of why I wasn’t as smart as the “rest of my kind” and simply stopped trying.
When I was in 9th grade, one English teacher called me “the Jap.” His name was Mr. Gleeson and he was around 70 or 80 years old and apparently fought in the Second World War. He had been captured by the Japanese and held prisoner for six months, which kind of explained his hatred of anybody who looked even remotely Asian. I guess it was pretty cool, because listening to his war stories in class, about the battles he participated in. All of them included the fucking Japs though, and he would always stare at me the entire time he was talking. It made me uncomfortable, to say the least. Thankfully, whenever he wasn’t telling us how all of his friends got killed, he pretty much ignored me. That was fine by me.
There was one story he told us often. It was about how he got tortured in the Japanese prison camps. They would strap him down on a table in a dark room, and brace his neck so he couldn’t turn his head. The table was cold and uncomfortable and damp. It was damp because there was a contraption that hung above the table and every three seconds it would drip a single drop of water down onto the exact same spot on the victims face: right between the eyes.
Mr. Gleeson said it wasn’t bad at first. It was annoying for sure, but it didn’t cause him any physical pain. But an hour passed. Two hours, three, and still every three seconds, drip…drip…drip. He said it felt like every drop of water was a nail driving straight into your skull over and over and over again. He said it wasn’t the electric shocks to the balls or the random whippings that got to him. It was the little drops that he dreaded the most, that built up until it drove him desperate enough to confess everything that he knew. It was a torture by needle-pricks.
I looked it up after the third time he told us that story. Apparently it’s a Chinese torture method and not a Japanese one. Maybe they stole it from the Chinese. Or maybe Mr. Gleeson was full of shit.
I think he retired the year after. Or maybe he died, I don’t know. He was old.
When I got home, I headed straight to the bathroom to wash the blood off of my hands. My parents weren’t home per usual, but my weisamchon was there, preparing dinner.
“Oi, Minjae!” he called from the kitchen, “I’m making some bokumbab, that all right with you?”
“Yeah,” I replied. I quickly stepped into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. I put my hands under the stream and watched as the water turned pink. There was a lot more blood than I thought. I grabbed some soap and rubbed vigorously, ignoring the stabs of pain from the bruises on my knuckles. I made sure to clean between my fingers, under my fingernails, until I was sure that no trace of the other kid was left. When I finally turned off the water and reached for a towel, I realized that my hands were trembling.
“Oi, Minjae!” my weisamchon called again. “What are you doing, jacking off in there? Hurry up and come out of the bathroom. Dinner’s ready.”
I clasped my hands together to stop the shaking, took a few deep breaths and walked out of the bathroom. I went into the living room, where my weisamchon was dumping the bokumbab on two plates. “Your parents aren’t going to be back until late, so I thought we could just eat here and watch the game,” he said. “I hope it’ll—” He stopped abruptly when he looked up at me.
“What?” I said. He pointed at my shirt. I glanced down to see splatters of blood across my front. “Oh.”
“What happened? Is that your blood? Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s noth—”
“Why are your hands all bruised?”
I looked down at my hands. They were swollen and already purpling. I remembered what it felt like, hitting that kid until his face swelled up to twice its original size. The way his left eye couldn’t open anymore and his right eye looked straight at me, straight through me. I remembered hearing a small gasp a few moments after he stopped swearing at me. A gasp that sounded faintly like “please.” I had ignored it.
My hands started to tremble again. I sat down on the couch and my weisamchon sat down next to me. After a moment’s hesitation, he put his arm around my shoulders. And for the first time in years, I started to cry.