In high school I hung out for a while with a Japanese FOB named Toshi. He was kind of a dork. He spoke English badly and had coarse wavy hair, a clipper-mangling mess that didn’t take well to an SGV fade. Obviously, he was doomed.
For these reasons, he took a lot of shit from us, like how we drove him home from our youth center B-boy sessions. When he yelled, Reft! we’d yell, What? then laugh and turn right.
We did this for days. We did this endlessly.
The worst is, when we’d finally drop him off, he’d bow crisply from the sidewalk and salute us.
Thank you everybody! he’d try to say.
Reft! Reft! We’re all Asian. You’d think we’d let this go. But for weeks, as soon as he’d start stretching on the wooden gym floor, we’d be like, Ay Toshi! Remember “Reft?”
He’d hang his head sheepishly and grin.
He probably liked the attention.
That’s what we told ourselves at least.
He talked how some of our moms and dads still talked, how we had talked not that long ago: Reft!
Ha-ha! It was funny and not funny all at once. We laughed for 200 years.
Not surprisingly, Toshi laughed too. He would’ve done anything to be liked. If you’d told him, Hey. Japanese dudes eat people, he would’ve nodded. Yes, I know. So fucked.
That was him. But what was our excuse?
These days, I live and teach in Korea, among people who kind of look like me. After all those years of American ching-chong, ding-dong and, “Go back to blah blah blah,” I have to say: It’s nice to be here.
The strange thing is that people like Toshi are considered by the locals to be pretty cosmopolitan. They’re multilingual heroes and pioneers. They’re brave adventurers or brats, not FOBs.
I’ve been trying to readjust my perception. It’s like that riddle where you need 4 gallons of water, but you’ve only got 3 and 5 gallon jugs.
I think of Toshi when white people tell me how well I speak English. They try to explain to me concepts like “culture” and what’s wrong with so-and-so country, and like Toshi I want to tell them, Yes! So fucked!
I don’t have the heart though. Mostly I say, Yeah. OK.
I don’t want to dive into a pool that deep—or maybe, I guess, a pool that shallow.
They don’t quit though. They’re not convinced that I believe they’re right. Come on! they’ll say. My such-and-such friends all agree!
Oh, I’ll think.
In my mind, I am Toshi.
How had this happened?
Now, I’m hearing all the gongs ringing.
I have to say it. We did him dirty. We treated him bad. He was our mascot, our straw man, and maybe our villain, but he deserved to be more than our Long Duk Dong.
We threw him under the bus pretty hard. It felt so good and normal to treat him that way though and no brilliant analysis is needed to understand why. It won’t help him or anyone that I regret what I did, but I can do better—I think—for the both of us.
Toshi wanted to be a B-boy. He didn’t like battling though. He didn’t like clowning on people’s moves or trying to one-up them. What he did like was taking his turns and smiling a lot. When someone dropped into perfect halos or comboed air flares into head-spins, he’d point with both arms and bug out, hype as shit: Are you seeing this?!
Mostly, he’d clap along on the sidelines, a kid just happy to catch the beat. He could do three windmills. He could kind of get cricket. He could almost do a flare.
He was in love with Janet C, a Chinese girl in Band with a big voice and bigger pop star dreams. He’d been saving, hundreds of dollars, he told me, for a bracelet: sterling silver and diamonds. He was shy when he admitted this, but proud.
They didn’t talk much yet, but when he’d gathered the money, he’d buy it for her at the mall. He had it all planned out. He’d come up to her like, Can I talk to you? and she’d look at her friends, and he’d say more deeply, Alone.
She’d follow him, getting more nervous, saying, Oh my God! Toshi! What is it?
When they were somewhere more private, he’d stop her. He’d show her that red pillowed case, and as her heart beat faster, he’d say, as smooth as anyone, Girl. This is for you.
And there, far from the opinions of others, he would finally become himself.
It would take just a little longer.
It was only a matter of time.