In 3rd grade I sat at my desk reading a ditto. Across from me sat a classmate named Freddy Goerlitzer. It’s odd that I still remember his name. We quietly began our seatwork, and reading the instructions, I pointed the words out with my middle finger. Freddy saw this, raised his hand, and yelled, “Mrs. Rode, Mrs. Rode, Josh stuck out his middle finger! Josh stuck out his middle finger!”
Outraged, Mrs. Rode bellowed, “In the hall... NOW!”
I was shocked. What had I done? What was so wrong about pointing with the middle finger?
My name was written on the chalkboard, and I was given a thorough berating in the hall. “I know you come from a Christian family, and this, with all your knowledge of the love of God, is totally unexpected. I am disappointed in you.” She wagged a finger in my face, continued berating my Christian background and my family, and told me how bad I was for pointing with my middle finger. Freddy also accused me of pointing it at him. The tip of my finger may have been pointed in his direction, but it lacked the intent of insult or non-verbal injury to his dignitas and fama.
Now that I think about it, I actually feel sorry for Mrs. Rode. What was her problem with the Church and Christians? But I digress.
In my shock, I stood there in the hall with my mouth agape, not knowing if I should defend myself. I didn’t ask what I did wrong or what pointing the middle finger meant. I was totally clueless, but she presumed I knew what that gesture meant. She had never bothered to ask if I knew the meaning. And I simply accepted her verdict.
I do come from a good Christian family, and an immigrant family at that, and they did not teach me the idiosyncrasies of American body language. For many Asian American families, the home is practically a cultural capsule. Step inside, and one is in the old country. Step outside, and one is in the United States. The language spoken at home may be English, sometimes with another language mixed in, but culturally one remains in the old country. I was this sheltered from the realities of American life.
For many East Asians, pointing the middle finger has only begun to take on the American meaning. Many still point at things (although it is more polite to use one’s hand or a full swoop of a hand), words, and even people with their middle finger. I shudder when an old lady points to something with her middle finger at the supermarket, because I remember that moment the cultural barrier came down when as a child.
That day, I went home, cried, and told my parents what happened at school. My mother, being a devout Protestant, blankly looked at me as I told her I was scolded for pointing with my middle finger. Flummoxed, she asked my father, “Whatever does that mean?” In a hushed tone, my father, also a devout Protestant who lived in the fear of an ever-watching Almighty God, whispered, “It means ‘Fuck you’.”
We all gasped over tea. My Roman Catholic aunt choked on her tea and violently coughed. “Aba, yung ang meaning?” Lo, is that the meaning?
But something I do wish my parents had done was to speak to my teacher. They did nothing to confront an injustice. We let someone else define who I am. We accepted her truth. And I’m not going to say it was a racist incident. It was simply a cultural misunderstanding. This is American multiculturalism.
Sometimes, it makes me shudder. Is this how badly we think of other people? Have we, as an American people, become so judgmental that we transmit our negativity to others? Do we assume the worst of others? Are we that inclined to think of others so unjustly? When did the presumption of innocence cease as an American cultural value? Or are we entitled to galloping around the village on a witch-hunt?
That day, among many days throughout my childhood, was a day when my eyes were opened. I had lost a bit of my own innocence. Sometimes, I wish never had.