Maybe twice a year it happens, not often enough that I can ever expect it or brace myself for its possibility. The surprise of it knocks the breath out of me, leaves me stranded in the middle of the sidewalk with a stupefied expression on my face and no way to retaliate except inarticulately, with a string of expletives.
On average, twice a year, someone passing me on the street will look me in the face and say "Chink". Or "Go back to your own country!" (which, incidentally, is Canada). Or, once, my favourite, "You Japanese monkey!" (I am Chinese.)
I've lived in Vancouver all my life and, like most residents, take its multiculturalism for granted. When I walk down the street, the last thing I expect to be singled out for is my ethnicity. If someone looks twice at me, I usually assume my jeans are unzipped or there is a stain on my shirt; on a good day, I might think my lipstick is a pretty shade or, vaingloriously, that the passerby is a reader of poetry. As a woman, I sense that slight charge in the air when I pass certain men, the pause before the possibility of a crude comment or a disrobing stare, but now that I'm in my mid-30s, that sort of thing happens less frequently. In the current play Mom's the Word 2: Unhinged, one actor comments that her daughter must own a magic bikini, because when she puts it on the mother becomes instantly invisible. There is a freedom to that invisibility that young women have yet to discover; as you get older, you become increasingly protected from male regard, as if encased in bubble wrap. A trip to the corner store is no longer a fraught, stressful experience, marked along the way by lewd stares and intimate comments.
Still, I am used to bracing myself a little when I walk down the street alone, with the sort of heightened awareness that women cultivate like a sixth sense. What I don't expect to have to defend myself against is a racial slur. I am the last person to look for racism where it doesn't exist-the idea of affirmative action taking precedence over merit raises my hackles, and over the years I've received my fair share of criticism for my lack of interest in incorporating ethnicity into my writing. So, what happened the other day hit me like a punch on the nose.
I was striding down the street, the brisk fall air quickening my step, coming back to life after a busy week at the Vancouver International Writers Festival. I was thinking of how Alice Munro, one of the writers I most revere, had been in the audience at my reading at the Poetry Bash, how beautiful she looked, almost doll-like, and how when she shook my hand I had been unable to say anything original about what her work meant to me, yet this incident would still be one of the highlights of my life.
Just then, with an aperture of happiness opening inside me, a man in his 60s walking in my direction peered at me and said "Chink".
In a moment of confusion, I smiled, as if it had been a compliment. I suppose when he looked at me and opened his mouth, I was anticipating a compliment, the way a woman might from a man passing on the street who gives her his regard. I stood foolishly in the middle of the sidewalk after he had continued on; he was almost at the end of the block before my slow reflexes kicked in and I yelled after him, a stupid collection of expletives that made passersby stare at me as if I were schizophrenic. I didn't want to let it go, the way I had last year when a man started shouting the ugliest racial and sexual slurs at a young Asian woman who works at a florist's shop near where I live, and though I wanted to separate the man's limbs from his body, the most I could do was stay with her and tell her clumsily that she didn't have to hear a word of what he was saying.
I mean, really hear it, inside her-the way the word chink immediately landed inside my chest like a hot coal and lodged there, burning. It reduced me to a child in the playground, long before Vancouver became the supposedly colour-blind city it is today, hearing that word for the first time and learning I was worth less than the person who said it.
Evelyn Lau's most recent book is a collection of poetry, Treble (Raincoast Books).