Answer: Other

Michael Schmeltzer

When I was young I couldn’t tolerate mistakes. I would get upset over errors, over any wrong answer. I didn’t know the difference between good and right. My teacher in Japan was concerned enough to ask my parents how strict they were at home. Do you allow mistakes, he asked. Of course, they answered.  

When I moved to America I tested two years ahead of my grade level. The standardized tests seemed simple, the math basic compared to what I had already studied. The only thing that confused me wasn’t even counted. No matter how it was phrased I never knew the right answer: 

          Please fill in the circle next to your race. 
          Please pick which best describes your ethnicity. 
          Please choose one. 

My mother is Japanese. My father is American. I found them confidently and easily within “Asian” or “White” but I didn’t know where to find myself. I was no “one.” Whatever I chose I’d be half wrong. In the time before bi/multiracial designations, I darkened the box marked “Other.” 

In Japan there is a culture of perfectionism. This is exemplified in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. A friend of mine didn’t much like the film; she thought Jiro tyrannical. I tried to explain the distinctly Japanese nature of the movie. Whether one’s job was to cook an omelet or cut a fish, a person would strive for an impossible ideal every time. 

People do that in the US, too, she countered, baristas and whatnot. Pockets of perfectionists within professions. How could she understand the lens through which she watched the film was not the proper prescription? She was right but in a blurry way.  

And what about my own lens? What could I possibly see accurately with these eyes that were Japanese and American, near(sighted) West and Far(sighted) East? 

When I first started school in America the boys in class told me all the jokes they knew about Asians. 

Q: How do Chinese people name their kids?         
A: By throwing silverware down the stairs! 

Q: How do you blindfold Asians?             
A: Put dental floss over their eyes! 

Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these! I watched them pull their eyes into slits, pull their shirts out in a poor imitation of breasts. I listened to joke after joke. I even laughed. What else could you do when you’re the only student who never heard a racist joke about your country or all the relatives you love, now so far away? What else could you do when you’re surrounded by white students so eager to share the slurs they never had a chance to use? 

And that’s exactly what they were doing. Sharing. Sometimes they spoke with little to no malice at all. Chink. Gook. Slant-eye. Jap. Imagine, at ten years old, having within you such innocent hate.

Other times hate like heat emanated from people. Once, a small boy followed me around a grocery store when I was a teenager. He walked behind me, pulled the corner of his eyes upward, and began mashing consonants together the way kids do when brutalizing a beautiful language. His older brother pulled him away minutes later, apologizing profusely.

Where do I put this anger? Should I have scolded the child or looked for his parents? These are questions I’ll never be able to answer with confidence. 

Another question which bewilders me: where are you from? Such a simple query complicated and confused by blood. Because I’m biracial, because I’ve been mislabeled so often, I assert my identity in place of geography. Because the question “where are you from” too often means “what are you (doing here)?”  

“So where’s your wife from,” the woman cutting my hair asks. “She’s white,” I respond. And I’m right and wrong for answering the way I’ve been taught. 

It’s been nearly thirty years since I moved to America. I don’t have many answers, but I’ve collected the same question for decades. What am I? 

          Answer:     I am the child who sat through an American classroom 
                               while we read about Pearl Harbor. 

          Answer:     I am the child who sat through an American classroom 
                               while we read about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

I am the one who attacks. I am the one who sits quietly in his chair and burns. 

 About the Writer
Split Lip Magazine

Michael Schmeltzer is the author of Elegy/Elk River, winner of the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Award, and Blood Song, his full-length debut from Two Sylvias Press. His collaborative nonfiction book, A Single Throat Opens, will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2017. He has work in Natural Bridge, Meridian, and Black Warrior Review, among other places. More often than not you can find Schmeltzer procrastinating on Twitter at @mschmeltzer01.