Go Back

[About four Democratic Congresswomen who are minorities]“….and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”

–Donald J. Trump, 14 July 2019

The last time I heard this comment (“go back [to places]…from which they came”) out loud, I was in the second grade in a Catholic school in Queens, New York.  It was said not to me – a mixed Filipina-American – but to a friend of mine, a Filipina girl who had come to school late and missing her hat, part of the required uniform.  The speaker was a Sisters of Charity nun whose exact words to Theresa were: “Why don’t you go back to where you came from!”  The sister was frustrated with Theresa’s tardiness and her seeming lack of remorse about forgetting her hat.

The next morning, while I was having breakfast, I told my mother (a Polish-American from Pennsylvania) about the incident.  I did not narrate the story with unbelieving astonishment but with a child’s simple glee in recounting something that – happily – did not happen to her.  I was just glad that someone else was the target of the teacher’s wrath.

My mother’s reaction was not what I expected.  She flew into a rage; she began to yell, to bluster, to loudly complain about that nun’s disrespect, her impudence, her racism.  The rage was followed by a reaction: she would not let someone speak like that, particularly to a child.  She would not let someone like that presume to be the teacher of her child, she –

What?!?  What?!  My seven-year-old mind focused on only one thing: I was going to be taken out of Catholic school and put in public school.  That meant only one thing to me:  I was going to get in trouble.  That’s what I heard.  And so, I had my own reaction:  no, please, no.

My mother was on the phone to the principal.  I sat helplessly staring at my soggy cereal, thinking how my life had just changed because of an incident to which I was nothing more than a spectator.  How could this be?  When my mother put down the phone, yet another twist came to pass.

“Put your shoes on; we’re going to the school to speak with the principal.”  My mother started bustling around, organizing herself for the meeting.  For me, this seemed worse than being suddenly dropped into public school; this meant that (a) I would have to tell the principal what I’d already told my mother; (b) I could now see that this story meant more than I realized; (c) if there was the expected resolution, I would have to go to that class with that nun, and I would be going late (just like Theresa!).

This would be a good time to interject, I think, that neither Theresa nor her mother had yet been informed of these events.  Her mother was my piano teacher (to compound matters) and her daughter and I were the only “foreigners” in that class, although my “foreign-ness” was, in my eyes, only fifty percent.  Theresa and her mother had become tangents in this story; the real meaning had become overt racism, and it was really the first time I consciously felt it touch me.

The story’s ending was as happy as it could have been in the circumstances.  I recounted the incident to the principal who promptly called that nun into the office to apologize to my mother and me.  I was sent back to class where I mostly kept my head down, studied hard, and was treated quite gingerly by that teacher.  Theresa continued to be herself – late most of the time, missing some part of the required uniform, and being a desultory student at best.  At the close of that school year, we moved from Queens to the Bronx, and I was enrolled in a Catholic school run by a completely different religious order.

The racism continued, but at a far lower, less visible level.  Kids called me names (“Jap,” “Chink”) which I resented for all the wrong reasons (that is, I was neither Japanese nor Chinese; why didn’t they get that?).  When my mother searched for a new apartment, she always left me behind with neighbors or my Dad (so the potential landlord wouldn’t see her half-Asian child).  I came to ignore the slurs, to make light of the circumstance.  When strangers would ask, whether sweetly, politely, or rudely, “Where are you from?”, I’d say, “Sweden,” and smile.

“Go back where you came from” is hurtful on so many levels: it means that you’re different in a negative way, that you haven’t assimilated, that you’re alien, strange, somehow dangerous.  And, mostly, it means you are not welcome

Well, I’m from the Bronx.  And guess what?  If you say that to me, you’re not welcome, either.

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