Sometimes I felt like the anniversary of Pearl Harbor was like a second birthday, and a terrible one at that. You know those birthdays that you know you should be happy, but your mom made you invite all of your seventeen annoying baby cousins? And youâ€™re dreading it because you know youâ€™ll be spending your special day wiping spit off your clothes and trying not to slip and die from falling on Jenga bricks? Every year, I felt like that, only much, much worse.
After all, no teacher can resist the temptation to go off on a tangent and talk at length about how the Japanese killed 2,403 brave American soldiers, how the USS Arizona sank, and how America later dropped a bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, winning the war once and for all. And after all, teacherâ€™s canâ€™t help but give Japan a bad rep. Pretty annoying, especially when people ask you straight to your Asian face whether youâ€™re Japanese or not. And especially annoying when teachers pretend to swoon over the tragedy of such an epic battle. Fun, fun, get your fresh-grilled fun here.
This pattern had developed for years, but it was on my twelfth anniversary of Pearl Harbor that the tension I felt every year on that day made itself blatantly known. As soon as history class ended, temporarily renamed The Sad Saga of Pearl Harbor, Volume XII, I flinched on the inside, though I knew what was coming. Even though this year, I was celebrating Pearl Harborâ€™s anniversary at a new school, nothing was different.
This time, I tried to pretend to be interested in the fake plastic apple on the teacherâ€™s desk, brilliant red. Its luster drew my eyes to it, so I often spent boring class time like this studying it instead of my books.
â€œAre you Japanese?â€ A girl with crow-black ruler straight hair asked me. Her eyes squinted.
On the inside, I groaned, but only slightly. Itâ€™s amazing how kids all over America can be so different yet so boringly the same. After getting this question thousands of times, I shouldnâ€™t have been worried. Yet here I was, awkwardly standing there like a grizzly bear in a playground full of kids.
The rest of the class was watching me silently. I sensed their eyes on me, not that this was new.
I swallowed. I was convinced the class could hear it. â€œNo,â€ I said weakly. â€œIâ€™m Chinese.â€
I could feel the class almost relax, as if they were suddenly satisfied. The honey-haired girl simply said â€œohâ€ and turned back to her books.
I felt my cheeks redden. The teacher began the math lesson, but my torture was far from over.
By the time recess was out, I and the rest of the class were waiting for the teacher to start class. A studious boy with glasses looked at me with brief, baleful scrutiny, making me feel like I was underneath a microscope. â€œDonâ€™t you know the Japanese invaded China?â€ he asked matter-of-factly.
â€œWell, uh-- I guess, I mean, yeah,â€ I stammered. I had heard vaguely about it, but not much. â€œWhy?â€
â€œWell, doesnâ€™t that make Japan your enemy?â€ Once again, I felt twenty pairs of watchful eyes on me, waiting.
I didnâ€™t know how to answer that. I was Chinese, yet I held no hostility towards the Japanese. I felt like I always did when someone burned me badly. No one had ever asked me that, and in that way! My mouth flopped open and closed like a fish on land.
Finally, I answered by sitting down and pretending to read my book in silence.
The class didnâ€™t like that answer. After another uncomfortable silence, I finally found the courage to say another. â€œJust because they bombed you doesnâ€™t mean they should be your enemy too. The war is over.â€
I didnâ€™t realize it until I said it how desperate I was that someone, anyone, the world, understand the utter simplicity of what I had said. We shouldnâ€™t be having this conversation now, I thought. We shouldnâ€™t be fighting becauseâ€¦ because I donâ€™t know why because.
The class collectively squinted their eyes. I ducked my head, hoping that this brief second of silence would hold. Because weâ€™re all human! I wanted to scream at them. If you believe in the survival of the human race, if you believe in holding onto what we hold dear, then you would believe this! YOU DONâ€™T UNDERSTAND!
Suddenly, the room blurred and hot streaks ran down my cheeks.
For what must have been the hundredth time that day, I glanced towards the only place in that school I had ever known solitude: the swimming blotch of red on a block of wood. That apple.
If I had ever wished for anything in my life, it was now.
I found myself wishing that its vivid red represented the rising sun on the Japanese flag, the blood red background on the Chinese flag, the red stripes on the American flag, and all the colors in between.