Chinese Buckwheat

Presenting the first chapter of Bing Bang, an ongoing memoir by Mr. Bing Bang, a weak-willed Oriental American publicly pondering his life and surreal times. In this installment, “Chinese Buckwheat” aka Bing Bang drops a flaming crayon on his polyester pants. Southern Baptist madness ensues.

I was born with a full, poofy afro. It was a black halo, crackling with dark spark. It was a curly balloon suddenly buoyant with the air just outside of my mother’s vibrant, joyous vagina.

I am not sure if my father’s sperm had an afro, or my mother’s egg had the afro. I prefer to see the sperm struggling to swim against the drag of a giant afro soaking up all of my mother’s juices.

There was the pregnancy, wherein my oversized afro drained much of the resources meant for my brain. (Yes, you are right, I am setting up excuses for my failings on the first page of this faulty memoir.)

After nine months, my mother pushed out baby black curls as my father waited in the hallway with Swisher Sweets cigars.

“Is he our baby?” he asked, when he entered the room, a small, primitive room, one of the few in St. Joseph’s hospital, the only hospital in Brazos County.

“Yes, I do believe he is,” said Dr. Lindsay. “He came out of your wife.”

My father smiled a big smile, his fleshy 32 year-old face stretching like a  balloon sculpture. He walked over and recited the first ten digits of pi.

The doctor stared at him, as my mother closed her eyes as if tasting a good, totally Chinese soup. “Never too early to start,” he said.  

“What do we put on the birth certificate?” asked the nurse, picking up her clipboard, her face eager to find out what name you slap on a Chinese baby with a Don King hair-do.

“Last name first, or first name last?” asked my father, as the order of names always seemed to reverse on him.

“Let’s go with first name first, and last name last.”

“Surname Bang,” grunted my mother as Dr. Lindsay fished for the placenta.

“Bang?” asked the nurse in totally Beaumont accent, “as in bang-bang/you’re dead/brush your teeth and go to bed?”

“Yes,” my father said, understanding that his family name was synonymous with gun violence in the United States. “Bang Bing is his name. Or if you want his given name first, is Bing Bang.”

“Bing Bang,” said the nurse, suppressing a smile. “And what should I put down as his race?”

“Chinese,” said my father.

“Oriental American,” said my mother, getting all Library of Congress, 1970-style.

“We don’t have those,” said the nurse, as if referring to milkshake flavors. 

“What do you have?” asked my father, not missing a beat.

“All we have is white and black.”

My mother, who had seen many government documents describing the U.S. population, asked, “Can we be ‘other’?”

“There is a black school.  There’s a white school. There’s no other school.”

Simultaneously, my father shouted, “White!” and my mother barked, “Black!”

“Black is a better color. More serious,” said my mother. “But it can mean evil.”

“White is his skin color. You can see right through it,” said my father. “But it can mean death.”

“Well, you don’t seem too excited about what he’s going to carry with him the rest of his life,” said the nurse, examining her clipboard to see if she had spelled Bing Bang correctly.

“Can he be red?” asked my mother. “Yes!” chimed my father, “Red is the best color. It’s everything good.”

“Only time I see a big busha hair like that is on the Negro babies,” said the nurse. Just to be clear, she added, “That’s black.”

At that moment, I was unaware of the discourse. Only later did I understand the bipolarity which I had suddenly squirmed out into. Only later did I see that there was no compromise in this barbell; there was no in-between. You either tremble furiously at one pole or you get stuck at the other. But times change, people change, lables change, right? 

That didn’t stop the neighbors from calling me “Chinese Buckwheat” for the first several years of my life.  Buckwheat was the nappy-headed black boy in the Little Rascals films still being broadcast on our rabbit-eared television every Saturday morning. Because I was an Oriental American, I became known as “The Chinese Buckwheat.” It has long been the habit of Americans to label things the “Chinese fill-in-the-blank” even though “Chinese” in and of itself was kind of a blank, and that blank was mostly filled with some black or white connotation of evil or death.  Or both.  Yellow hordes, Red China, Mao. Chinese Water Torture. 

That naked Vietnamese girl running from napalm; she wasn’t Chinese, most likely, but back then it was the same difference as they say.

But, really, lots of people felt that Chinese people were good things.  

My parents would drag me out to the neighborhood park, and the proper Southern neighbors named the Wrights would say, “What a cute,” or “Now there’s a” and it was good words they filled the blanks with.

How kind of them. 

Some folks simultaneously said kind things and offered observations at no charge: “God certainly didn’t spare your boy no hair, now did He?” “There’s a handsome boy somewhere beneath all that fuzz.”

Nobody told my immigrant parents who had never touched the head of a black person that they needed to purchase an afro pick. My parents tried brushes and combs; they tried pouring water on it but it was like pouring water on a cloud, it just floats back up. They eventually gave up.

Upon entering kindergarten, I was still the “Chinese Buckwheat.”  I understood this not at all, and simply responded to them by emitting one of the few English words I knew: “Okay.” There was laughter. There was pointing. I had happily squeezed myself into some tiny cubbyhole that people could understand: Buckwheat, a proud and celebrated caricature, who had somehow popped out of a Chinese couple who believed that their son simply had curly hair.

To be sure, I was the Chinese Buckwheat, a Siamese twin of the original innocent rascal; we were attached at the afro, separated at birth, and yet I arrived late to the sockhop. 

*****

At five years old, my hair was big and bad and completely entangled. My parents tried combing the wispy afro, but my protestations and tears taught them that they cannot tame the jungle. Clearing it was also out of the question, as I would bawl my eyes out at the sight of scissors. My parents let my hair exist as it was intended to exist; a nest of black straw sewn together for the odd bird that is America to roost upon my brain. Really, truly, only in America could this happen, this super-curliness (not like the curly from earlier generations; not like that fun curly, these were serious, voluminous, and fantastically numerous curls) happen; they believed that only in America where chicken can be deep-fried and ready to eat in one minute, only in America can America make more perfect what is already perfect — their son — through the magic of E Pluribus Super-Serious Curly Hair.

My parents never taught me English; they knew it was better to let real Americans teach me the language. They could hear their own sing-song accent, and in America it often sounded off-key, like whistling at a funeral or burping for ten seconds at a wedding. 

They presented me to a Catholic kindergarten class taught by a beautiful young Southern Baptist named Miss Bassett.

“He needs to nern English,” my father smiled gently.

“I’ll nern him some English,” responded Miss Bassett, who knew how to “speak their language,” as she put it.

She hailed from the far east, meaning far east Texas, and this made her somewhat dangerous to those in the more “edumacated” (learned and enlightened) pockets of the Texas Bible Belt. But the Catholics prided themselves on being more tolerant than other denominations, so the board happily looked beyond the cotton still unplucked from Miss Bassett’s overalls. However deeply she had been reared in that dark pine forest, after all, she had studied Education at Texas A&M College and had been one of their earliest female graduates in 1971, a year after my birth. She was up on all the latest terminology as she enjoyed reading the pedagogical journals in the college library, and she sometimes used the word “pedagogical” in natural-sounding conversation.

Still, she was from the far east, way far out. And so was I.

She led the kindergarteners in singing Jesus songs that went something like “Jesus loves me/Jesus saves me/From the Devil/From my Satan/Who will eat me/Beat me sweetly.” I did not know all the words at the time, but that’s what I have pieced together since then.

We had just returned from the chapel, where I aped the rituals of the other children: kneeling, clasping hands, saying something to the sad man on the wall.  

On the way back from chapel, I found a locust shell, and I wanted to eat it, as it looked crispy, like a deep-fried wonton, but I was told to remove it from my mouth. So I carefully placed it on a crusty wooden bench.

After singing Jesus songs, we launched into our art assignment, which involved melting crayons in the flame of voltic candles and then using the melty stuff to paint. We were all working on elaborate abstract works, and I was sitting at a small green wooden table with two girls and a boy. They played everyday at school, sometimes chasing the chickens in the back yard and sometimes chasing each other.  I went through the motions most of the time, mostly just waiting for my mother to pick me up.

The girl in the pink dress to the right of me was named Roshanda, and she was a white girl with big blonde locks on each side of her fat face. She spoke with an oilman’s Texas accent, and she always pointed out the differences between each student: “She’s black, he’s white, they done have some gray babies; checkerboard like a tablecloth, maybe. There ain’t no fat kids here except me.” 

She looked down at my pants that day and informed me, “Your dick is on fire.”

I didn’t know what “dick” was, so I just said what my mother told me to say whenever a foreigner spoke to me.  

“Your dick is on fire!”  she yelled.

“Thank you!” I yelled back.

“You’re welcome!” She nodded, yes, indeed.

I looked down and I saw my dark green pants, which were made of some petroleum-based material, slowly melting away in the crotch area. Next to the melting was a hot, fat, red Crayola crayon. The smoke rising from the region made it look like I was on fire.

“Miss Bassett! His dick is on fire!”

Miss Bassett told Roshanda to hush and then looked at me and then looked at my crotch. I looked up at her expectantly.

“See, Miss Bassett!” shouted Roshanda, “That’s a Chinaman dick!”

“Will you lookee — ” said Miss Bassett, suddenly in full East Texas accent, “A China boy staring at his own winkie. And it’s aflame.” And then she whacked me in the crotch with her bare hand. She put her hand on my shoulder to hold me still, and gave me another whack. “Ain’t it my day! Beatin’ a Mongol with an afro! God done mixed you up something fierce.” She whacked me and whacked me. “And now there’s some poor black boy running around with completely straight hair,” she muttered.

The extinguishing of my penile conflagration didn’t hurt. Not one bit. Not speaking English and feeling intimidated by all other humans, that was uncomfortable. And yet I rarely tried to initiate play with the other kids at Big K Kindergarten. I longed for gentle children to carefully invite me to play with them, and this was not happening; so I avoided all interaction. I deadened myself. The whacking by the Bible-thumbing fingers of Miss Basset made me sit up in my coffin. I raised my arms in apparent praise! I relinquished all fears and floated in exaltation! I shouted some of the only English I knew, “Jesus loves me!  Jesus loves me!” 

“Hush!” chided Miss Bassett, “Don’t say that! You only say that, when, well, when you’re not on fire. Especially not down there. Silly creature.”  

And she whacked me a few more times to prevent the fire next time too. Then she craned her neck down and sniffed for smoke. By now the room was completely silent as the other kids had never seen a boy getting spanked on his front side. They waited for someone to make sense of it all. 

“I think I’m done, y’all,” announced Miss Bassett. “I pray to God that I am.” Then, for the first time all year, perhaps, she looked me straight in the eyes, and for several seconds. She asked me, “Are you okay? Now don’t go telling your parents I beat you up. I was saving your life; you and your Mr. Willie Johnson.” I remember this as being the nicest thing anyone said to me all year. Sometimes upon returning home from nursery school, daycare or kindergarten, I literally banged my head against the wall. Pretending to have fun with strange children was somehow alienating, and I much preferred the structured regimen at home, where I was forced to learn math and Chinese, and where I played with only two humans, my sister and my mother. But Miss Bassett with her warm, far east accent made me feel good inside. She patted my back and said she had saved the imperial dynasty from coming to an end.

The other kids were murmuring, still not sure what to make of the action, and Roshanda explained to them, “Miss Bassett whupped him cuz his dick was on fire.” 

“Well, that ain’t right,” said the boy from my table, “Why didn’t she just pour a glass of water on him?”

“You don’t throw water on an oil fire,” said Miss Bassett, missing no beat. “Now go draw something.”  

That’s when I jumped up off my wooden stool and began wandering around the classroom with my penis wagging in and out of the ragged hole in my pants. I felt unchained, free at last, perhaps. I experienced a sort of unrepentant wanderlust I had never embraced before, and perhaps never since. 

Every few seconds, Roshanda said, “Chinese people don’t wear underwear!” and she kept repeating this. “Chinese people don’t wear underwear! Chinese people don’t wear underwear!” And recalling it now, over two decades later, I wonder why I did not have any briefs underneath my flammable pants. I know my father wore underwear; that was his principal attire at home. But why not me? Perhaps they were trying to save a few dollars. Everything came down to the frugality of life; we weren’t libertines after all. 

“Sit tight,” Miss Bassett said to me. “Let me call your mother to come get you another pair of pants.” That was my starting gun. I ran out of the classroom and streaked down the veranda. I screamed a single unholy syllable as I sprinted down the hallway, my penis bouncing this way and that and looking awful bald beneath my global afro. Upon reaching the end of the veranda, I remembered something. I sprinted back to that crusty bench and picked up the locust and popped it in my mouth like Palooka gum and then I screamed “Xiao ji-ji!” I was calling to the chickens in the yard. That yard was the cushion between us and the woods; sometimes an odd snake or turtle would slip in and die. Miss Bassett would take the little kiddie shovel and just catapult the dead reptile back into the woods. 

Months later, on the last day of kindergarten, she found a baby turtle on its back and simply flipped it back on its feet. We watched her carefully, as if this were a sign of something. Then we napped until the end of class.

Both of my parents came to pick me up that day, as Miss Bassett had requested a meeting with them. That’s when she cracked a joke about us all being from the far east, and I’ve been saying that ever since. She then said to my parents that in her professional opinion, she believed that I would benefit from one more year of kindergarten.

“I don’t want you to get alarmed on me,” she said. “But your son is retarded, and not just in one way is he retarded but in multiple retardations.”

My father furrowed his brows and looked at my mother, who had studied both English and Spanish at Taiwan University. “Retarded?” she asked Miss Bassett. “Or do you mean well-regarded?”

“He does not elocute much,” she said, “and when he does, it is in the form of a scream. He runs around like a madman whenever he has the chance, and he cannot tell the difference between Jesus, Satan, and myself. If I didn’t know better, I would say that he was a feral child.”

“There’s nothing wrong with our son,” said my father, with a bit of a glare.

“There’s nothing wrong,” my mother repeated. “He’s Chinese. We’re all Chinese in our own special way.”  

Miss Bassett did not know what to make of this and politely said, “Yes, we are. We are all Chinese.”

“So he does not understand many of the American way,” said my mother. “But he knows Thank You!” And they all laughed, my father less than vigorously. “Say thank you,” my mother nudged me. 

“Thank you, Ma’am,” I said.

“To conclude,” intoned Miss Bassett, “my recommendation is that because of your son’s social handicaps, him being Chinese and all of that, we recommend that he go into special education.”

Long pause.  In case my parents did not understand, Miss Bassett emphasized, “For special kids.”

My father nearly popped an artery in his head. “Are you saying –”

“Yes, Mr. Bang, I would like your son to spend another year here — ”

“Our son is not going to spend another second here!” he yanked my arm to leave.  Mom followed, and none of us looked back.  

But Miss Bassett wasn’t through. Out came the words, like a warning dispatched from an outhouse, “You know it ain’t going to be easy for that boy!”

Some twenty or so years later, I often find myself dreaming that I am running from something terrible. And when I wake up, I sometimes think back to the day I burned a hole in my pants and what I did after I ate the locust shell. Into this corner and out of that nook I scampered, and as if inexorably drawn, I stumbled into the chapel. I was only somewhat naked, and more than somewhat raw, having had my dick beaten by a well-meaning Southern Baptist. Quietly, I looked around at the simple geometric shapes of the stained glass. Without my cohorts around, I was free of any need to pantomime piety. 

I sauntered up the spine of the humid chapel, straight towards Jesus. I stopped abruptly. I looked up at him. I could not remember what he was famous for, but he always looked so familiar. Was he that music guy?  Jesus Von Beethoven? Or was he the King of Siam? “Getting to know you,” I sang, repeating lines from one of my parents’ records. I turned and walked backward toward Jesus, bocking like a chicken; was I scared? I tripped and fell to my knees and felt how hard the wooden floor was. Pretty soon, someone would come get me. I didn’t have much time.

I turned and looked up at the sad man.  And then, almost as a plea, almost as if I really meant it, almost as if I knew way more about my life and my future than I actually could have, and as if I were offering myself to a bereft downtrodden lonely brother, I said, “Jesus love me.”

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