Using “Chink” in an Asian American Old West Tale

I started a dime novel series called Cowboy Ninja about a Chinese American growing up in the Old American West. Naturally, in a story like this, I inevitably came to the use of unpalatable words like “celestials”, “Chinaboy”, and, of course, “chink”. The uproar over Jeremy Lin’s “Chink in the Armor” fiasco last year reminded me of the time when I came up to the word “chink” in writing this book. I paused for a moment there.

I wanted my book to be historical, but at the same time, it was directed at young adult readers and even kids younger than that may happen upon it. Did I want to teach this horrible word with its long history of hate, murder, and discrimination towards Chinese Americans specifically and Asian Americans in general to a whole new generation of kids?

In the end, I came to the resounding answer of YES, guided by one of my author heroes, Mark Twain. As all of us know from our high school readings, in Huckleberry Finn, Twain made heavy use of the word “nigger”, and he’s not even African American! But clearly, he wrote during a different time period, and of course, the word was in a lot more common use, in a bad way.

This greatest American novel of his was clearly one that reflected a deep belief on his part that slavery and racism was wrong, wrong, and wrong. The free spirited American icon, the orphan boy Huckleberry Finn, came to the choice–turn in the runaway slave Jim, his friend, or go to hell. And Huck’s answer was:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell.”

There you have it. Huck believes wholeheartedly in the propaganda of his society at the time, that to let a slave runaway free was a sin that deserved the punishment of everlasting damnation in hell, and he makes the very bold and very brave decision to sacrifice himself for the sake of his friend. American literature just can’t get more beautiful than that.

In the controversy a couple years ago over the whitewashing of Twain’s Huck Finn novel, schools were banning the book because of the n-word, and publishers were printing versions of the book where the word “nigger” was replaced with “slave”.

I definitely DO NOT agree with that.

I’ve taught Huck Finn myself to students, and it is uncomfortable when we come up to the n-word. I allow kids to skip it if they want in reading out loud, and even I skip it myself, explaining to students that the word just comes with so much pain and suffering, that I don’t want to use it carelessly. I explain the history behind it, and I use it as an opportunity to explain the power of a word, and that if they were to use it out loud, they need to aware of all the baggage that comes with uttering it.

I also explain that it is okay to use and discuss the word if we are not doing it out of hate, ignorance, or disrespect, and that any word used with ill will becomes a “bad word”.

My immediate reaction every time I see racist derogatory words like “nigger” or “chink” while teaching kids is to flinch, to wish it would go away, so I could carry on with safer and more pleasant topics of study with my students. However, then the social activist teacher in me wakes up and says, “No way am I backing away from this. Better the kids learn this from me than from some ignorant or bigoted fool.”

Better they understand the history, know the suffering and injustice, feel the sadness and anger first hand, learn from the past that did happen no matter how much we try to edit it out of books. Better we teach reality to kids, and not some sanitized fairy land where people’s hands are never dirty. It is scary as a teacher to face this sensitive topic. Recently, a Seattle teacher was forced out of a school for teaching about racism. But it needs doing.

As a writer, too, then, I feel the same way, because as a writer, I do see myself as still a teacher. For Cowboy Ninja, I’ve been doing a lot of research into the history of the American frontier, which includes a whole lot of Asian American history. As I learn all of it, I incorporate it into the story, presenting the history in an easily digestible fictional narrative that not only entertains but teaches what I learn to the readers as well.

And a huge part of that history is the hate and discrimination against Asian Americans during that time period, often manifesting in horrifying violence. Also, it manifests in the racists words like “chink”. Better people remember this horrible word, the wrong it stands for, so that they can recognize it when it comes back in new forms in the future.

So here it is, the use of “chink” in Cowboy Ninja:

“Hey, the Chinaboy is pretending to read again!” Tom laughed and his boys laughed with him.

“You all mind your own reading!” Pat shot at them. She never liked it when everyone ganged up on one kid, especially not when the one being picked on hadn’t done anything to provoke the others. Unfortunately, it seemed like the Chinaboy’s mere existence was enough to provoke the rest of them.

She looked at the Chinaboy who didn’t seem to hear anything of what Tom said. He didn’t even flinch, just kept on staring at the book he held out in front of him.

“He can’t hear or understand a word we’re saying anyway,” Tom shook his head at Pat’s reprimand. He smiled back at his gang. “Wouldn’t be surprised if all Chinamen were deaf and dumb like him.” This elicited a round of laughter from his crew of boys.

“Yeah, that’s why they’re only fit to do women folk’s work,” one of them chortled.

“There’s a reason why they’re yeller skinned! They’re too yeller to do a man’s work.”

“Uh huh, wash that laundry chink boy! Wash it good!” another yelled out in the direction of the Chinaboy. The younger children snickered and giggled. Gender jokes were easy to understand, even for the little ones.

One boy got up and started making a motion like he was holding clothes with both hands and pushing them up and down on a washboard between his legs while hopping up and down making it into a ridiculous looking monkey dance.

“You all had better stop your yapping and get back to your studies!” Pat glared at them, using that same look she saw her mom give her students when she was giving them a good talking to. What she really wanted to do was throw her reader at them and then pick up the yardstick and give them all a good whacking. Only the memory of her mother’s patience kept her from doing that.

“Don’t tell me you’ve got a soft spot for chinks, Miss Cake?” Tom said with a meaningfully raised eyebrow.

When I went back and reread this, I found myself getting all wound up and upset at the characters picking on him, and then I stopped myself and realized, “Wait a minute, I wrote this, didn’t I?” Surreal.

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