Dirty Knees, Look at These

I was the only Chinese-American kid in my class in the suburbs.  Being the “only” made me love a good underdog story.  It’s why I cheer for small pro basketball and football players, any team playing the Yankees, immigrants, struggling kids, single moms, orphans, people with cancer, widows, minorities….

In school, other children occasionally did the slanted eyes chant – you know the one where you lift the corners of your eyes up and down and say, “Chinese, Japanese, Dirty Knees, Look at These”.  I heard that chant in sing-song voices throughout my childhood and still don’t know what it means (though I’m sure the original intent was probably not only racist but also sexist – if you know this chant you might recall what “these” referred to).

People were utterly amazed at my “excellent English speaking skills” even though I was born in Pennsylvania.  My peers would see me and do a “hii-yaa” karate chop onto the kindergarten table or make up a series of martial arts moves.  Often they’d talk to me in Asian sounding gibberish, “ah saw nee how ma”.

I was a stereotypical well-behaved and quiet Asian girl, so I didn’t fight back, not even with a mean look.  But inside my head, I imagined yelling, “I’ll hii-yaa you!” and then efficiently karate chopping the kid onto the asphalt and declaring, “Justice prevails!”

The taunts punctured my soul.  Each incident highlighted the fact I was inescapably different.  Even when I was having a great day, a chance “hii-yaa” would jolt me.  These times made my heart long for kindness, fairness and love to triumph over petty differences.  I remembering feeling victimized and naively asking God, “why can’t everyone just be nice?”  And though I obediently and quietly conformed to every school construct, my Chinese face remained Chinese, and never allowed me comfort or complacency in a sea of white faces.

Years later, our family took a three-week trip to China to sightsee and visit the areas in which my parents were raised.  Finally, I’d have the opportunity to commune with my own people, eat delicious Chinese food, and feel comfortable in my own skin.  But the moment I stepped off the plane, it was obvious these weren’t my people either.  I caught their long stares and glanced away, only to find others looking me over as well.  Why the attention? Perhaps it was our clothing, hairstyle, inability to speak the language, American luggage or just the way we carried ourselves.  Here, our Chinese faces blended in perfectly, but nothing else did.

Then, it sunk in. I was always going to be a “stranger in a strange land” and God wanted me to remain uncomfortable.

Yes – you read that right. God wanted me to remain uncomfortable, so I’d never forget the feeling of being an outsider.

From my elementary school days forward, He‘d been developing my radar for injustice.  While doing so, He softened my heart toward those similar to me – the misfits and displaced.  It’s why many of my last Facebook updates were about Asian-American NBA phenom, Jeremy Lin.  It’s why I’ve always adored Mother Teresa because she understood everyone was God’s child, even those discarded by society.  And it’s why my heart is huge, wide open and compassionate for underdogs.  In a nutshell, isn’t that most of us?  If we’re honest, aren’t we all slightly uncomfortable, growing older, not quite as together as we appear to be?

“Why can’t everyone be nice?” I’d ask.  But it was clear even in kindergarten I couldn’t karate chop my way toward greater justice. Over time, God worked on my heart and the question became “How can I be nice?” Only in God’s world can taunts, ignorance and misunderstanding lead miraculously to compassion.  And it’s why a silly playground chant, “Chinese, Japanese, Dirty Knees, Look at These,” can eventually lead to something transformational.

  • Donna

    Jean, thank you for sharing. It breaks my heart when I see how insensitive and hurtful people can be. You are making a difference by being transparent and a loving example to others. I am fairly new to your sight, and I find the content very encouraging. Thanks again for all you are doing. blessings, Donna

  • Pam Hannan

    Jean you have always been such a loyal and kind friend to my wonderful oldest daughter. I have always admired you from afar. Now I know some of the reasons why. This article is wonderfully sensitive and insightful. Thank you for sharing. It is profound. “Let’s be nice!” Simple but what a difference it makes to have that goal utmost in your heart. Keep writing and sharing your thoughts, Deborah’s mom

  • Daphne Karel

    What a beautiful story of transformation, from cygnet to swan, from anger and hurt to love and compassion. You really do have a beautiful spirit.


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