From Paki Dots to Gai Lan

By Denise Balkissoon

1.

I believe I’ve written about this before, but it’s a goodie: in sixth grade, a Chinese girl on my schoolbus jabbed my forehead with her thumb and cried “Paki dot!” So when I got to class, I did the same thing to a girl in my class…who was Pakistani. At this point, a popular white girl ripped me a new one, asking me what was so funny about making fun of somebody else’s ethnicity and p.s. did I know I was a huge loser. P.s. I did, because I had a home perm, ok?

Here’s the thing about this painfully hilarious scenario: I am brown. And I had literally no idea what a “Paki” or a “Paki dot” was. Why would I? No one said Paki in my house. I am the oldest kid, so I didn’t have any wiser siblings to school me in the language of ethnic disses. I was outside of Canada from ages four to eight. I truly had no clue, I thought I was doing something trendy that would make me seem cool. Sadly, I have never been good at that.

Anyway, that white girl is now one of my oldest and dearest friends and that incident makes me laugh a lot. The moral of this story is that sometimes, white people are anti-racist loudmouths their whole lives. So really it has a happy ending.

2.

In the eighth grade, I used to take the TTC home from school with a bunch of kids from my neighbourhood. There was me, two sets of boy-girl Chinese siblings, and our white/Macedonian friend. Most days, we would run into the same set of black kids in uniforms. For some reason, we all decided to hate each other and make really stupid comments about each others clothes, intellect, etc. I’m going to say what I honestly think here, which is: they started it.

So one day it got mean for some reason, and the oldest black kid, a boy, said something I didn’t hear. One of my Chinese friends got upset. I asked what the kid had said. My friend wouldn’t tell me. I kept bugging him, so finally he said, “he called you a Paki.”

I felt hot, as I usually do when I’m mad and ashamed at the same time. Then I said “well, if I’m a Paki, you’re a nigger.” To which he replied, proudly, “always have been, always will be.”

This story still kind of bugs me. I mean, I’m mostly over it. But I’m still mad at myself for stooping to his level and for being racist and I’m really mad at him for being racist and I’m also jealous of him for having a pride in the face of racism that I didn’t.

3.

This one is hardest to write, ‘cause it’s about now: sometimes, Chinese senior citizens make me feel crazy. I’ve read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and quite frankly, I don’t like the idea that older Chinese peeps might consider me a a non-person (since I’m not Chinese). I certainly get that feeling from them when I’m being pushed around at the grocery store by someone half my size. I’m also kinda grossed out by their incessant chain-smoking of Marlboros.

I am also sometimes annoyed by the pupusa ladies in Kensington, who serve all the Latinos first before deigning to look at me. So I guess I’d like to think that my racism is spurred by others’ racism, but that can’t always be true. And besides, being tolerant of intolerance is the only way to fight the battle, or so I’d like to think. Maybe bumping up against others’ irrational dislike forces me to acknowledge my own irrational dislike—as I get older, I sometimes do think that xenophobia is “natural” (as in innate, or so ancient it may as well be innate), and that finding a way to be a truly interdependent and multicultural city is a brand new, modern battle that Toronto should accept it’s fighting in order to succeed at.

Anyway, I truly also think that old Chinese ladies are pretty frigging awesome—seriously, are there any other old ladies that get out as much as the Chinese? Whether it’s 7 a.m. or 3 a.m., they are out on the street, doing their shopping, going to restaurants, having a chat at 85 decibels, wearing leopard-spotted fun fur. They don’t let age keep them back. So really, they can smoke as many Marlboros as they like. When I’m 70, I plan on pushing young chicks around to get at the gai lan, too.

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