When I was nine-years-old, my fellow classmate Kevin Hashimoto captivated me completely. Every move he made in the classroom and on the playground was more gripping and exciting to me than Scott Baio in a pair of tight jeans. When he came in the classroom each morning in his carefree t-shirt, Lee jeans and slap bracelets, a chill the likes I understood not, ran up my spine and left me feeling drunk, years before I had my first drink (an entire bottle of Malibu Rum my freshman year of college, the details of which will be saved for another story completely). On the playground, our class was fond of breakout games of freeze tag, and I played hard. Until Kevin was “it,” then I was down on my hands and knees on purpose, ready for him to tag me. The innocent childhood version of what wasto become a-not-so-innocent pattern years later. His mom wrapped his can of Pepsi in his lunch in tinfoil every day to keep it cold and I really dug that. Way fiercer than my grape Hi-C juice boxes. And he had a different Ocean Pacific t-shirt for each day of the week and it made my little buns quiver with delight.
Kevin Hashimoto and I dated, er, were friends shortly after my love affair, I mean friendship, with the studiously sexy, privileged Jonathan Cheng died down. Jonathan’s mom drove an Acura Legend and had their brand new subdivision house carpeted in pearl white. Kevin Hashimoto’s mom picked him up in a Caprice Classic station wagon and their ranch house carpet was pea green and seemed to be leftover from the early 70s, a mystical time I had never known and brought great mystery to the landscape that was Kevin’s home. When I was with Kevin, I felt liberated in a way I have never felt around Jonathan, who wore Izod shirts, occasionally with his collar turned up. I had traded down boyfriends, I mean, friends, and Kevin was the East Village to Jonathan’s Park Avenue. And let’s be honest, it’s all about below 14th Street.
That year I found myself quietly obsessed with Hannah Cho, Laura Tan, Joy Lee and May Tran, who all sat fairly near me in my class. They all had long dark hair and had the very best in Asian built pencil boxes, you know, the kind from the 80s where if you pushed a button, various drawers opened. They read Babysitters Club dutifully and just all around had their shit together. These were MY girls.
Everyone readied themselves as Ms. Hartnett passed scantrons out. I looked at my boyfriend - friend - Kevin, and my ex Jonathan. They were focused intently and I smiled, feeling peaceful and ready to ensure I placed at the same level of my beloveds all around me.
The first few questions, which I came to understand we were actually scored on, involved filling in our names, our grade number and the day’s date correctly. (Rumor had it that Joe Gunderbut, a special nine-year-old, had last year spelled his last name wrong and this was the beginning of him being held back and repeating fourth grade with us). Wanting to make sure I didn’t wind up like Joe Gunderbut, I filled out my answers very carefully. Today’s date: 4-28-88. Room number: 5. Hair color: E. E. Red / Auburn. Then came the next question that at first seemed easy enough but then upon deeper consideration was anything but: What race are you?
A. White B. Black C. Hispanic/Latino (non Eskimo) D. Asian E. Pacific Islander F. Native American (including Eskimos)
Hmm. Well, yes of course this seemed obvious and I was fairly sure I knew the answer. Duh. But I also realized at an early age being part of a diverse group of Asian, Mexican and White kids that race wasn’t always fluid and that I’d better think this one through. I decided I could figure this out by process of elimination. Okay, let’s see. I wasn’t Black. Nor was anybody else in Cupertino in 1988, so that was easy. I had no idea what the fuck Hispanic meant, but I knew I probably wasn’t. Pacific Islander? Hmm. I had just seen the movie South Pacific on Beta Max and since I was born in Minnesota in the middle of the country, I was pretty sure that was out. And the only Indian I was familiar with was that chief from Peter Pan and a few other Indians in cartoons, and as much as I loved the really respectful depiction of Indians in cartoons at that time, I knew this wasn’t my ancestry. So that pretty much left one choice, and I couldn’t believe how obvious it was and felt foolish that I ever even questioned it. I smiled at my silliness and filled in the correct bubble: D.Asian.
Happily, I moved on and directed my attention to the questions at hand: “If Michael, Sally, Amy and Ryan are all born in the month of August and they are all 12-years-old, which of the four is the oldest?” I became immersed in questions about trains arriving at stations ahead of other trains and how many lemon bars were left after half a dozen were sold at the school bake sale and before I knew it, the little hand on the clock had made a couple rotations and I was on the last multiple question.
As I finished with a giant dent in my index finger, (I was a studious Asian child used to such casualties of good academic habits), I proudly walked my test booklet and scantron and #2 pencil up to Ms. Hartnett who handed me a chocolate scratch n’ sniff sticker with the words “GOOD JOB!” in cursive across the chocolate bar and instructed me to take out my book and read quietly while the others finished their tests. Wishing I could devour it and not just smell it, I walked back to my desk and dutifully pulled out my copy of THE BABY SITTERS CLUB #7: Claudia and Mean Janine. That nasty Janine. Why’d she always have to be so much better and smarter than her younger sister Claudia? Just cause she was in Calculus class in 10th grade, and Claudia was getting a C minus in Pre-Algebra was not cause for her parents to be tough on her and make her babysit less hours. Hannah, seated diagonally across from me in my 4-table formation flashed me a knowing smile – she was one ahead of me on #8: Boy Crazy Stacy. I looked across the room at Kevin reading The Hardy Boys. I could totally relate to Stacy and flashed Hannah a smile back to let her know as much. “Heeyy girlfriend!"”
A few minutes later as I read about my crazy Asian sisters Janine and Claudia being super shady to each other, I suddenly heard my name pierce the silence of the test taking and reading. I looked up and saw Ms. Hartnett starting intently at me.
One day in the Spring of 1988, Ms. Hartnett, a teacher in her forties with extremely short gray hair, a different sweater vest for each day of the week and braces, and not even the invisible kind, announced it was time to take the annual California Standardized Test, to help us determine who was smart and who was special. Hannah, Laura, Joy, May, Jonathan and Kevin’s eyes shone brightly and the girls prepared their pencil boxes. Joy had a super deluxe Hello Kitty Pencil System that she said one of her aunts in Taiwan had sent her. She liked to rub it in that she had family hookups all over Asia to send her the best in Hello Kitty high tech and her box even boasted a built in pencil sharpener, super high tech in ’88. But here’s the killer: Since she had plenty of Hello Kitty mechanical #2 pencils, she didn’t even need to use it. Bitch.h.
“Daniel, can you come up here for a moment please?”
What could it be? Did I leave a question blank on my test? Would I be forced to repeat fourth grade for misspelling my name? Horrified, I felt my cheeks grow warm and all eyes on me as I crossed the room to Ms. Hartnett’s desk, surrounded by inspirational quotes about climbing mountains and living any dream, no matter how fucking big, the latter a picture of Nancy Reagan with a huge smile, a red couture dress and slapping Mr. T high five.
“Daniel, I believe you made a little mistake on your scantron. For #4, what race are you, you got confused and mistakenly chose Asian. Whoops!”
I felt my heart pound in my little chest and tried to make sense of what the issue was here. I stared at her waiting for another clue to clear up this misunderstanding.
“You see Daniel, you meant to choose WHITE, not ASIAN. Perhaps you were confused because as a white boy, you are also sometimes called CAUcasian. CAUC-ASIAN. Asian is a suffix but CAUC is the prefix. You are a CAUCASIAN but not ASIAN. Do you understand?”
Easy, bitch. I tried to push the rising lump in my throat down with a mighty swallow and ignore the sixty-two various shaped eyes trained on me to see how I’d get out of this little pickle. I decided that the honesty was always the best policy:
“But Ms. Hartnett, I AM Asian.”
“No, Daniel, you are WHITE.”
What the fuck planet was she living on. I looked at Kevin, who was chewing nervously on his pencil and had put his book down to watch. Jonathan’s polo collar was extra turned up today. He seemed to grin and take pleasure in my true racial identity being so publicly questioned. I’d show that ungrateful cheating motherfucker that he couldn’t do me dirty like that. Hannah, Joy, Laura, May, everyone was watching. A few students giggled, as if I really were white or something and couldn’t believe this show down was actually about to happen. For a moment, the light reflecting off of the metal and rubber bands in Ms. Hartnett’s mouth agape blinded me. Nancy Reagan and Mr. T seemed to be watching to see what I’d do. The room spun. Then I looked at Kevin and saw that face, those eyes, that I so longed to identify with and be accepted by. I knew I had to act. I took a deep breath and let it rip.
“No, M.s Hartnett, I am Asian. Maybe you didn’t realize it, but I happen to be Jewish, a people who were mass murdered just forty-five years ago, my own ancestors were told that it was shower time and then gassed. And the one thing we got out of this situation was a promised land called ISRAEL.” I pointed in the general direction on the world map pulled down over the blackboard. “And Israel? Is on the continent of ASIA. So since my people are from Asia, that makes me – ASIAN.”
Ms. Hartnett, lovely and gentile, looked like she’d been bitch slapped by me. I waited for what seemed like far too long for a room full of nine-year -olds to be dead silent until finally Ms. Hartnett blinked a couple of times and set my scantron down.
“Well, I suppose that does make you Asian then.”
Music to my ears. Duh. As I walked back to my desk, Jonathan’s smug look was long gone, replaced by a look vaguely reminiscent of having just seen his recently deceased grandmother, and Kevin? He nodded at me a “good job” nod that melted my heart and the girls flashed me “way to go” smiles. I took my place back at my seat, next to Joy, and sharpened my pencil in her Hello Kitty High Tech Pencil System. I greeted my fans across the classroom by flashing a confident smile and since some students were still mid test, I picked up my book and got back to Claudia standing up to that bitch, Janine, and the subject of my race was never brought up again. At least in the fourth grade.
Kevin and I broke up, er, drifted apart, in fifth grade. Seeing him playing wall-ball at recess was painful for a while, but it wasn’t long before Matt Chen was a new student in my class and was seated next to me. The attraction was palpable and it was on, er, we became friends quickly.
The fourth grade was the first time I remember directly standing up to authority and defending my rights. And on the 1988 California standardized test, Daniel Blicker is recorded as: D. ASIAN.
“Yes, Ms. Hartnett?”