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from the April 2020 issue

The Park Bench

An East Asian boy struggles with racist bullying at school and pressure at home in this children’s story by Sandrine Kao.


“Yes, Sybille, I would like you to back off . . .”

I didn’t allow myself to actually say it. But I really would have preferred it if she just went her own way. I needed to walk alone awhile and think.

Her chatter stopped. She was waiting for an answer. I was only half-listening to what she was saying, and she could tell. I wasn’t that interested in her latest quarrel with Ness.

“I’m getting on your nerves, aren’t I,” she asked, “going on about all this when it’s got nothing to do with you?”

I was on edge, although it was something else that was bothering me. But Sybille was being kind, and I didn’t want to annoy her, so I just said, “Of course you’re not getting on my nerves. Go on, I’m listening.”

Now that I’ve stopped having school lunches, I sometimes walk part of the way with her at lunchtime. She lives right next to the park where I eat my packed lunch. She’s been seeking me out lately—especially since she fell out with her group of friends. I think she quite likes me—she knows she can tell me stuff. Right behind us, Ness was walking between Johan and Phil, her laughter loud enough to drown out Sybille’s monologue.

“She’s doing it on purpose, just to wind me up,” muttered Sybille.

I could feel their eyes on my back, too, which I resented. Always thinking they’re smarter than everyone else. I had the same feeling, that they were laughing at us. At both of us, not just at Sybille; I’ve had this suspicion that everyone wants to make fun of me for some time now. Anyway, they’d be turning the corner soon, and I wouldn’t be able to hear them anymore.

Sybille usually goes that way too. But this time, she continued into the park beside me, still talking, as though there was nothing odd about it. I interrupted her—there was no way I was letting her follow me.

“Sybille, don’t you normally go that way?”

I pointed to the street the others were walking along.

“No, I’m going through the park with you,” she said. “I don’t want to walk in front of them, and I’ll get home just as quickly this way. You don’t mind?”

I shrugged, giving nothing away. She was free to take it as a no if she wanted. The truth was, I really didn’t want her to come with me. After school, it wouldn’t have bothered me. We would have walked along through the trees and gone our separate ways at the end of the path—Sybille turning right to go home and me going left along the wide avenue that leads to my neighborhood. But I wasn’t planning on going home right then. It’s quite a ways to where I live—about a twenty-five-minute walk. We usually only get an hour at lunchtime, so I don’t tend to go home. Instead, I sit on a bench in the park to eat my packed lunch. And I’ve got better things to do than keep Sybille entertained.

I was already nervous.

And the closer we got to “my” bench, the more uptight I got. I could see it now—it was really near—and I squinted to get a better view. Sybille’s chatter was distracting, and I was struggling to hide my irritation. She seemed to notice anyway.

“What’s up with you?”

In my head, everything was mixed up. I didn’t know what to say or how to explain to her, and my suspicions got the better of me. What if it was her? She lives right by the park, she could easily get here anytime she liked. I was sure she already knew where I ate my lunch, and that I didn’t go home.

Without any warning, I grabbed her by the arm and dragged her toward my bench.

That put a stop to her chattering. She seemed taken aback, and at the same time, her cheeks had reddened. For a brief moment, I thought she looked pretty. I realized that unless I explained myself immediately, she might misinterpret my actions. But there was no time for that, there we were in front of the bench, and I saw it—something else written in Wite-Out. I pointed it out to Sybille, but she was already looking at it. There it was, freshly spelled out—


Rice Balls Alex
 

Alex—that’s me. I’m an East Asian boy. And believe me, being on the receiving end of insults like this is no fun at all.

. . .

I forced a laugh that was about as joyful as a tired old smiley.

I didn’t know who’d done it. But it was no coincidence that they picked this very bench.

Yes, people often make fun of me and my typically East Asian features. And yes, strangers do sometimes snigger at me in the street, calling me “chinky” even though they’ve no idea where I’m from. Or else they tug at the corners of their eyes, speaking in a stupid accent, bleating, “ching, chang, chong.” I don’t react—they’re just a bunch of morons with nothing better to do. But it’s not surprising—with everything you hear on the news, how can anyone be expected to think well of the Chinese? They’re always saying it’s because of the Chinese that businesses are relocating, that the Chinese don’t respect human rights or protect the environment, that they’re only interested in money—and of course that there are too many of them. It’s scary. But the truth is that most Chinese people are just victims. Their government only cares about productivity, it doesn’t worry about whether things are fair. And nobody ever mentions the fact that Western countries did exactly the same thing themselves. And if all you care about is profit, well, other things don’t matter, do they?

When it comes to nicknames at school, the options are endless. Some of the kids call me “noiche”—it’s French back slang for “Chinese.” I just shrug. I don’t like it, but it’s how people talk. Others call me Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jet Li. Sometimes, it’s even affectionate.

On the other hand, writing something as lame as Rice Balls Alex on a park bench, and doing it anonymously—that was cowardly. And another thing—whoever did this must have been spying on me. How else would they know I’d come to this bench and read it?

And it’s not the first time! Yesterday, it was

 

Spring Roll Alex

 

The minute I saw it, I pulled my scissors out of my pencil case and scraped the white letters off. I felt a bit better once it was gone—but I still hadn't been able to stomach my tub of rice. I imagined someone hiding behind a bush, watching to see how I reacted, and sniggering. But I couldn’t see any sign of anyone, so I headed back to school, my stomach in knots. I wanted to act as if it hadn't affected me. I pretended to be happy, I made an effort to laugh harder than usual. I also kept an eye on how everyone in my class reacted. I was convinced it must have been one of them who’d done it.

I was so suspicious, I even wondered whether it might be my friend Bobo—though I knew it couldn't be. I hadn't even told him where I went at lunchtime. And he knows I'm not from Vietnam—yes, that’s where spring rolls come from. People don't even know the difference between Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean: to them, we’re all “chinks.” Or else gooks, slitty-eyes, noiches, rice balls, dog-eaters, etc. I’m from Taiwan, so don’t get me started! Nobody knows where it is or what it is. When my friends asked where I was from and I said Taiwan, here’s what they said:

“Ah, you’re from Thailand!”—that was Yann.

“No, you idiot, if I was from Thailand, I would have said Thailand. Just because it starts with the same letter doesn’t make it the same country!”

“Oh yeah, like ‘Made in Taiwan’!”

“They used to make cheap stuff there in the nineties. Now they specialize in electronic components.” That was Mehdi, our very own geek. He’s always glued to his tech, sniffing out the latest computer equipment.

“Taiwan?”

“Yeah, it’s Chinese, right?”

“It's the rebel island!”

That was Bobo. Not bad, geographically speaking. But politically—well, that’s another story. Since then, though, we’ve even discussed whether Taiwan should become independent!

Anyway—the point is, Spring Roll was a very poor choice of insult. And Rice Balls was no better. I forced a laugh in front of Sybille, but she was livid. And speechless, at first.

“It’s pathetic,” she said in the end. “Who could have done this? Do you think it’s aimed at you?”

I soon stopped laughing when I saw how she was taking it.

Other things were scrawled on the bench too: POLICE = SCUM in black marker, J loves M (engraved inside a heart), and a spray-painted La Cité du Parc on top!!! All common enough sights around town. But Rice Balls Alex, that was different. There was no room for any doubt. I was being deliberately targeted.

How could I possibly have suspected Sybille for a single moment? I really couldn’t see her enjoying this sort of thing. It was stupid of me to drag her to the bench. I would have been better off walking on, as though nothing had happened, as far as the park gate, and then going back to my bench alone. Now I had to admit that it was aimed at me.

Because I’m the one who eats here at lunchtime, on this bench. And the first insult was already there yesterday. If I catch whoever it is, they’ll be sorry!

 

[Later that afternoon . . .]

She’s such a pain, our neighbor, always going on about my dad.

“Yeah,” I told her, “he’ll be back.”

Keeping things vague, I hurried to get through the door to our building.

She was persistent. “When will he be back?”

“In December, for Christmas,” I lied.

And then, to change the subject, I quickly added, “How are things with you? How’s your daughter doing at school?”

I knew that would hit the spot. Her daughter was in my class last year and really struggled to keep up. East Asians are prouder of their children than they are of anything else, and (unlucky for her) Mrs. Huang’s kids were very, very average—both scraping through school with no sign of any talent for anything.

“Yes, fine,” said Mrs. Huang unenthusiastically.

She began an angry retreat toward her apartment. But then she just couldn’t resist.

“You should answer in Chinese. If you always speak French, you’ll forget your Mandarin. It’s not right to deny your own culture!”

Yeah, right.

Slam! She shut the door in my face.

That’ll teach me to mention her own kids to her.

The only thing Mrs. Huang has to be proud of is that her kids can speak and write Chinese. Fluently. Which is more than you can say of me—it doesn’t take long to lose a language. Yet we’re constantly told how important it is to know how to speak Chinese, that it’s a fantastic asset for our future careers, that we’re bound to find work in international trade or the import-export business. The eldest Huang kid is studying marketing at a private school—his mother’s so proud. It’s not even as if there was any skill involved—all you had to do to get in was be able to pay. But that doesn’t stop her bragging that he got in because he speaks Chinese, or droning on about how having both cultures is so enriching for him. I couldn’t care less about the import-export business, and I definitely don’t want to work in it.

As for the Huang girl, she hangs out with a group of other East Asians. Sometimes they speak Chinese among themselves just so other people can’t understand. All their parents are shopkeepers or entrepreneurs. Which means these kids are dressed in luxury brands, with the latest tech in their pockets and celebrity-endorsed eyewear . . . not to mention hair that’s been bleached or dyed. But of course I’m the one who gets accused of rejecting my own culture.

Anyway, it’s my dad’s fault I can’t speak Chinese anymore. All he had to do was stay here. I used to speak Chinese with him because there was no choice—his French isn’t very good.

I wasn’t even ten years old when my dad left. He promised we’d go on vacation to Taiwan as soon as he got a good job—he’d been out of work for quite a while here in France. Once he went back to the island, he did find a job very quickly. But we didn’t go to see him in Taiwan. And he came back here less and less often.

He usually writes at this time of year to tell us he’s bought his plane tickets. At the same time, he sends money so that we can manage until he gets back. But this year, nothing. No matter how often we write, there’s no answer. No letter, no email, and no money either. My mom says something must have happened to him, and since he’s all on his own over there, nobody’s noticed he’s missing, and that’s why we haven’t been told. Or else he’s met another woman and abandoned us, my mom and me. Maybe he’s been leading a double life for years and has another family—so he’s cut us off forever.

I did ask my mother once, “Why didn’t we go back to Taiwan together? Couldn’t all three of us have lived there? It’s not as if we have any family or ties here in France. What’s keeping us?”

“It’s not as easy as that, Alexander. I don’t have anyone in Taiwan either now that your aunt’s gone to live in America. It was a stroke of luck, being able to stay in France—let’s not throw it away. And how would you have kept up with your schoolwork from there? You can barely read and write Chinese. You would have found yourself having to repeat the year, maybe several times over. And your life is definitely better here.”

I’m not so sure. What I think is that my dad would have gone anyway. It’s just not his thing, family life. Mom knows it—she wasn’t even that surprised when he left, as though she expected it. And yet she still thinks he’ll end up coming back. The thing is, it’s been almost a year since we last saw him, and there’s been no news for months now. Let’s face it. Dad’s left us.

I won’t be heading off on vacation to Taiwan anytime soon, although I’m sure I would have enjoyed the hot, stifling humidity, the taste of exotic fruits, the mountain landscapes, the sea, and the gray sandy beaches lined with palm and coconut trees. It’s easy to imagine myself melting into the crowd, amidst the passersby as they wander among the street food stalls, shops, and evening markets. I’d fit right in, just like all the other people there. Instead of being “Alex the Noiche,” I’d just be one East Asian boy among others.


From Le Banc. © 2013 by Syros. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Jane Roffe. All rights reserved.

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