Falling into Fear
My wife left me grousing on the couch. She had to get up early but told me before she went to bed, “Come get me if something happens.” We had gone to the polls early that morning, before ours even opened, then waited in the predawn to vote for Hillary Clinton. As it became clear she was going to lose, I didn’t go get Mary—in part, because I couldn’t convince myself the outcome was all but decided. I only turned off the TV when Clinton had a two percent chance of winning. Then I went about shutting down our house, snapping light switches, and pulling the blinds closed. I stared out the window above the kitchen sink and into our backyard. All the neighbors’ homes appeared darkened, too. In the darkness outside, in that stillness, I tried to think about how our lives were going to change. Trump’s election victory had validated the worst aspects of our national character and I knew that night that the bigots and racists would feel emboldened by his ascension.
My neighbor’s motion sensor light flashed to life, no doubt triggered by a raccoon or a possum, perhaps a neighborhood cat on the loose. The barren trees stood in shadow, craggily limbed, and unnerving. My yard, though, remained in the dark and it seemed so easy for someone to slip into our home. We live in a safe town and I am often bemused by my wife when she asks me to lock the door in daylight as I run out to the store. But everything—and I do mean everything—seemed different now. We had a newborn in our bedroom asleep in a crib. My wife and I both rested in fits since her birth, not from the child’s cries but from our own imaginings of tragedy. I always knew becoming a parent would change how I saw myself as a man and a husband, as writer and a teacher. I knew all that would become secondary to our child’s wants and needs, to my desire to protect it from nearly every reasonable thing I could. In that dark hour of that dark night, with these thoughts on my mind, it occurred to me I needed to buy a gun.
I am half-Korean and though my accent carries the southeastern Kentucky town of Corbin, where I was born and raised, my features clearly mark me as something not solely white. Early on I learned that one’s ethnic makeup is not something cross-checked when it comes to hate and prejudice. I have never been afraid or ashamed of the person I am or the heritage I carry. Even when I was a boy and I was teased or prodded into fights, not once did I ever wish I was the same as everyone else. Being different was a badge of honor because I loved my mother and father fiercely and I was composed in equal parts of both. This is not to say that I don’t think my differences didn’t put me (or my brother) on edge from time to time. It surely did and caused in both of us a combativeness against any slight of any kind—economic and cultural as much as racial—and a sense of wanting the world to operate fairly and justly because so often we saw it didn’t.
When I think of my childhood, I think of it as a happy one, but the flares of discord that would occur in any life almost all center on me being half-Korean. The slurs, the whispers, the way kids tugged at their eyes. All of it was designed to tell me I didn’t belong, that the place I grew up in wasn’t my place, that I would never be of it even if I was from it. Later, in high school, a cheerleader would say it to me: “Why don’t you go back to where you came from?” Try as I might, I cannot let these instances of pain go.
When I was in the eighth grade, a new restaurant opened and the locals swarmed it, starved for something new in a town that didn’t have many sit-down restaurants at the time. I begged my folks to take me and when we got there I put our name in with the young girl who was the hostess. She was two years older than me and I remember how nervous I was to speak to her because she was a high schooler and good-looking. We took our spots in the anteroom full of packed people and began our wait. Groups of two and three and four went ahead of us. The wait was supposed to be thirty minutes, maybe more. I don’t know how long we stood there but the next thing I remember is my mother walking up to the young hostess, and though I couldn’t hear what she said, I heard her tone. She was very close to that girl’s face and she was clearly upset. The girl apologized, but my mother wasn’t having it and she waved to my father and me and said we were leaving. People were watching her. They were watching us. I was thinking of this popular girl and what she might think of me, or say about me at school. We left and my mother’s voice was loud and raw. She was convinced the girl had seated a family that arrived after we did ahead of us. Inside the car, from my spot in the backseat, I tried to defend the girl. This seemed to aggrieve my mother even more. She turned around in her seat to face me. “You’re not old enough to remember what we went through.” Mentioning my brother, she said, “When Tim was a little boy that happened to us all the time and I am not going to let it happen again.”
I felt chastened. My cheeks burned hot with embarrassment but also a sense of anger. Anger at my mother for causing what I thought at the time to be a scene, but anger also for the potential truth of what she believed. Anger for the ways in which I may have missed other such instances of willful neglect in our little town. It was easy when kids at school used racial slurs to know where they stood but suddenly there was now a world that behaved differently toward me in silence and I had to discern what was real prejudice and what was an honest mistake.
At my kitchen window, I thought about the changing world, how fast the earth moves on its axis, the rate at which we are hurtling through space orbiting the sun, how both are speeds beyond comprehension which we will never viscerally feel, but the shock, the terror of what the world would now hold when I went to class the next morning was with me. The differences of my facial features which had marked my life, which I had passed along to our daughter, rose in me and I feared for her life more than my own and I feared that by being the man I am with this Asian face I would bring pain to visit her. The thought that by living my simple life could cause someone to strike out at me seemed a real possibility in ways that it hadn’t before Trump was officially elected president.
Overt racism’s lone virtue is that you know where the other person stands. It has been unsurprising that since the election mosques have been burned, synagogues threatened, and brazen racist acts and hate crimes have become more and more common. All of this has been fueled by Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric during his campaign, and his silence about these acts once he won; his adolescent name-calling; his unjustified anger at a system that has done nothing but empower him, cajole him, forgive his debts, and make him a billionaire a few times over. And now he wants to rip all that down in the name of his name only. He fights for no one but himself, for his own delusional legacy.
I went to bed afraid that night for the first time in my adult life, and the days since have done little to put me at ease. I told Mary that Clinton lost and she sprang up.
“What are we going to do?” she said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I need to tell you something and I need you to listen to me and not react immediately and say no.”
“Okay,” she said.
“I think I need to buy a gun.”
She was calm. We were close and our voices were low. “Why?” she asked.
“Because I’m afraid something will happen to us.”
“Why would something happen to us?”
“Because look at me,” I said and my voice nearly cracked and the edges of my eyes became wet with tears. “I have to protect us,” I said. “I have to protect our daughter.”
Mary wiped my cheeks with her thumbs. “I don’t think we need to worry about that,” she said.
“But you don’t know what it’s like. You don’t know how people can be.” How could I tell her the whole history of my past, the whole history of my mother and my brother? Could I recount all the slights? How could I tell her that real or imagined, they all ran together until the psychic pain becomes so embedded it’s as if it becomes its own vein under your skin? I couldn’t. Not then. But that vein had been reopened after having been closed for a good number of years and I knew that just as the country was reverting, so was I. Every face now seemed a potential enemy and these were feelings I had not felt in almost twenty years.
Mary calmed me. We lay in silence and she closed her eyes. Our child kicked her legs in her crib, shuffled in her sleep, and let out a soft baby sigh. The lights we keep on low in the room allow us to see her body and I arose to look at her face, which was my mother’s, which was mine. I could not keep her from the world any more than I was kept from it and I fought sleep thinking of what I would do if someone came to us in the night, if someone said something to her, if my own personal history repeated itself into her life and she was one day told to go back to where she came from. I thought of all the things we would try to give our child, of all the sweet talk of dreams that had filled our days before and after her arrival, but I had not planned, despite knowing better, for how to help her face her face.
Rumpus original art by Kara Y. Frame.