I started primary school almost two decades ago. Whilst many memories of my time there have faded over the years, there are certain things I can conjure up vividly and will think about every now and again. This is one of them.
We were in grade four, a bunch of ten year-olds restlessly lining up outside on the pavement for assembly. The girls all had their checked, short-sleeved sundresses on and the boys wore their light blue polos and grey pants. And of course, we all had our legionnaires hats on, a staple in Australian primary schools. I was minding my own business and patiently waiting for assembly to start, a dull and tedious part of our daily routine. Other students were either doing the same or chatting to each other, about whatever were the hot topics for ten year-olds at the time. There was nothing out of the ordinary.
She came leaning in from the left side of my peripheral vision, laughing and chanting something repeatedly. I had heard the laughter going on behind me for a little while, but hadn’t taken notice of it. It took me a moment realise she was actually saying “ching chong eyes,” and was concurrently using her index fingers to pull the outside corners of her eyes upwards, turning her perfectly rounded eyes into slanting slits. She was Asian too, but I suppose because of the genetic lottery she hadn’t inherited these “ching chong” eyes. I, being Chinese and an amalgamation of my parents’ genes, unfortunately had. She then turned around and gave a short performance to the other students, and as quickly as the joke had started, it ended. I could tell she hadn’t meant to torment me specifically, she had simply found a funny joke and ran with it. Unfortunately, it was coincidentally at the expense of people like me, and whilst I did not react at the time the fact that this memory has remained with me all these years says something. You could say she was too young to know any better, but then why didn’t I not know any better? I had never done that to anyone.
Don’t get me wrong, I can take a joke. I didn’t even bat an eye when a friend earnestly told me she didn’t want to wave at me from across the road because she wasn’t sure whether I could see out of my eyes. In fact, self-deprecating humour is my forte, and I will often make fun of myself on the basis of unjustified stereotypes. I will laugh along with my friends when they make a joke about Asians being bad drivers, or the fact that I have no eyes. Oh, and I can give it back to them just as harshly. Banter for me does not always need to be ruled by political correctness, and in the right environment with people I have a strong friendship with, almost nothing will be off limits. However, there is always an unspoken, mutual understanding that whilst these generalisations may come from a place of some truth, it is not taken seriously nor used to genuinely belittle the person. Sometimes I like to compare bantering to competitive sports. Think of it as a rally of zingers between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, rivals on court but mates everywhere else. My opponent may smash a whopping ace down the line to win the round, but I’ll applaud them and shout drinks afterwards. We both enjoy the game, but what happens on the court remains there, and the friendship does not change.
And so, back to what happened fourteen years ago, and why I believe I’ve never forgotten it. I hold absolutely no hard feelings for the girl, nor do I remain bitter about the event. I am sure she did not have the intention to insult me, and for goodness sake, she was only ten years-old. Racism probably wasn’t even a word in her repertoire. But the truth of the matter is I did not feel a part of the joke, I felt like the joke. Instead of hitting shots with a fellow player, it felt like being pummelled by an automatic ball machine. It came out of nowhere and I was wholly unprepared, with no racket to return any balls There was nothing I could throw back as a funny quip (although at that age none of us had even discovered what banter was yet) and this was not someone I was really even friends with. I hate to say it, but it hurt a little. Sigh. But hey, what’s in the past is the past, and whilst I still think about every now and then, I haven’t let that remark affect who I am. I am proud of being Chinese-Australian, and I like my “ching chong,” eyes thank you very much.
I sometimes question where the line lies between acceptable humour and unjustified discrimination. I think there is no hard and fast rule, which makes the already grey debate even murkier. It depends on the person, situation and what is being said. I personally choose not to take myself too seriously, but I also have a limit as to what is acceptable. Most importantly, I try to respect other people’s preferences and will never make daring jokes at someone’s expense unless it is a friend whom we have a lot of trust between us. Even then, I am prepared to apologise if I do cause any offence (which thankfully hasn’t happened yet).