A Test of Strength
It’s 9:30 on a Wednesday night. I’m heading home after a lap swimming session, my body lean and humming with endorphins. For the last several months, I had been nursing a back injury that prevented me from participating in most high impact activity, including my Muay Thai classes. Swimming kept me fit without risking further damage.
When I visited my parents in California for the holidays, I kept the injury from my mom because this is exactly what she had nagged me about when I told her I started taking Muay Thai classes. Cẩn thận. Boi tốt hơn cho con. Be careful. Swimming is better for you.
I didn’t want her to worry about me, but I also didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of being right.
My mother and disgruntled, 1 year old me in San Francisco, 1993.
Besides, this week I made my triumphant return, smiling ear to ear as the advanced students annihilated me during sparring. I missed it so much, and welcomed home by familiar faces, I was over the moon. Still immersed in my thoughts, I pass a group of men on the sidewalk.
Unfazed, I ignore him and keep walking.
This happens all the time in the city.
“Hey, Ling Ling!”
My pace slows. Did he just—?
he shouts at my back.
The three of them catch up and trail behind me. The first one taunting, the other two flanking him and jeering along. They’re all significantly larger than me. A quick assessment of my surroundings confirms there isn’t another soul in sight for several blocks.
“Kung Pao Chicken?
I’ve been here before.
Directly on my right,
he stares me down.
into my veins.
I turn to face him.
The men titter.
My heart throws itself
against my rib cage, warning me.
Fight or flight?
“You want some fried rice, huh?
Do you even understand what I’m saying?”
I drop my gym bag
and punch him in the face.
Surprised, he stumbles back. The others rush in, but I’m ready to put all that Muay Thai training to use. A swift low kick to the second guy’s shin and he staggers. I close the distance, wasting no time. Jab-cross. Elbow.
With each strike, every moment that I ever felt this all-consuming rage flashes before my eyes through an angry, red filter.
I’m 5 years old and crying over an injustice I can no longer remember. My mother is tilting my chin up.
Crying is a sign of weakness.
If you show weakness, others can push you around.
The second guy crumples, clutching his face. Elbows and knees are the worst, and mine felt the satisfaction of his cartilage giving way to blood. His friend winds up for hook, but my smaller size gives me speed. A sharp push kick to the gut puts his face at just the right height to grab his head and— Knee. Knee.
I’m 12 years old and hanging out with my cousin at his new house. They had just moved from the Bay Area to Renton, Washington. He’s telling me about these white kids at his new school. The teacher who asked him why he keeps getting into fights with them.
I told him it’s because I’m the only Asian kid and they think they can pick on me. He didn’t say anything after that because he knows it’s true.
I whip around to see the first one scrambling to his feet, trying to flee. A roundhouse kick to his ribs and he’s down again.
But I’m not done.
I’m 17 years old, a man is belittling my father because of his Vietnamese accent. "Do you even understand what I’m saying?"
I’m ranting to my father on the way back to the car.
He is expressionless. You have to be strong.
I grab the front of my harasser’s jacket, lifting him up, only to pound his face with rapid intensity like I’m Ip Man. The pain and suffering of millions of Vietnamese refugees on my knuckles. Their resilience and determination in my sweat.
His face is now unrecognizable. I’m sure he would have said the same about mine among the other countless Asian-Americans in this country. I drop him to the floor and straighten up. The air is still except for my heavy breathing, and the occasional groans from the bodies around me…
“You want some fried rice, huh? Do you even understand what I’m saying?”
He’s still smirking at me with his cronies behind him. I’m still holding my gym bag. Fight or Flight? The impulse to do something, anything, is maddening.
But there is a fine line between courage and stupidity. If these guys, with their toxic masculinity, size advantage, and pack mentality, decided they wanted to hurt me, they easily could. I’m outnumbered.
I turn and keep walking. They keep up their antics, following me to the end of the block before peeling off, bored by my lack of reaction.
By the time I’m home, my face is streaked with tears of frustration. My nerves jangling with unused adrenaline and anger without an outlet.
The whole situation was an unwarranted reminder of how powerless I felt growing up in the face of ignorance and blatant racism. How powerless I still feel. My family didn’t flee their war-torn homeland, almost die several times at sea, then at a refugee camp, and rebuild their lives from the ground up in a foreign country that reduces their history to two paragraphs in a high school history textbook, so that I could endure the same uninspired, ignorant, and racist slurs that they did.
As I get into bed, I remember once reading that anger is a second hand emotion. A response to pain and perceived threats, often as a form of defense against feeling vulnerable or hurt. Sometimes, feeling angry is easier than feeling pain.
It would be easy to continue fantasizing about going through a Rocky-style training montage, hulking up until I can wipe out anyone who dares to threaten me or the ones I love. However, ignorance will always be around, so I fantasize about the day the anger doesn’t come.
Not because the pain is no longer present, but because we have risen above it.
Pain is woven into the very fabric of the Vietnamese-American diaspora.
And we are stronger because of it.
My brother, father, mother, and I. Christmas, 2018.