By Ben Fong-Torres
The Year of the Rat
Being an older Chinese American, I am no longer, as Roy Orbison sang, “Running Scared.” I am walking scared, constantly looking around and behind me.
Stop AAPI Hate, the advocacy group, knows of nearly 4,000 cases of violence against Asian Americans since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s time to stop the beatings and shootings, the blaming and finger-pointing.
For me, it’s also time to think back just over a year ago.
It was February, a few days before the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco. 2020. Word of the coronavirus had started to spread, as we awaited the Year of the Rat.
I was in Oakland for script readings at KTVU, which broadcasts the parade, and has had me as a co-anchor since 1997.
At our meetings, which take place around lunch time, we are offered deli sandwiches one day; tepid ravioli and salads the next. It’s enough to drive one to actual restaurants.
That’s how I found myself at a soul food place in Jack London Square.
It wasn’t busy when I entered, around 2 p.m. A couple of parties were there. They were Black, as were the staff. But when one of the customers saw me, I got a most unfriendly glare. It felt like a “What are you doing here?” look.
I tried to shrug it off. But then, as I waited for a waiter, I had a thought. At the meeting earlier at KTVU, we’d addressed the issue of the coronavirus, which had reportedly broken out a few weeks before in China. It hadn’t spread to the United States yet, but it was gaining speed. We wondered about its potential impact on the Chinese New Year festivities. We worried whether or not people would stay away from the parade, and from Chinatown. We decided not to skirt the issue, and to refer to it during the parade.
Coronavirus, at that point, was a problem in China. I’m a Chinese American in the San Francisco Bay Area. Big diff. Or was it?
At the soul food restaurant, the lines seemed to be blurred, as I sensed hostility from customers and employees (although, to be fair, nobody said anything). I got my order and left, and put my uneasiness away.
But, just recently, in March, I got a note from a fellow journalist, Chris Chow, passing along a story by another Asian American writer, describing her being verbally attacked for being Chinese, and, thus, being responsible for the virus.
“Does this resonate with you?” Chris asked.
I wrote back with a short version of the restaurant episode. And I wondered. If someone there had confronted me for being Chinese, what would I have done?
Most likely, I’d have let it go. Just wait for my food and get out of there. But if I’d let emotion take over, and if I’d decided to abandon political correctness, and went the “Some of my best friends are…” route, I probably would’ve said something like, “Sure, I’m Chinese American, but…”
I had a number of “buts” to offer. As in: But when I was a kid, spending a year in Amarillo, where my father was a partner in a restaurant venture on Route 66, I found my 12 year-old self in a segregated city. This was in summer of 1957. The head waitress at the Ding How had to call the school district office to figure out whether I’d attend Horace Mann, a nearby junior high school, or George Washington Carver, across town. Somebody at the office decided that I’d be going to Horace Mann, the all-white school. I really didn’t care. School was school.
I had come from Chinatown in Oakland, where my grammar school was comprised mostly of Asian Americans, and where I made friends with kids of all races, including Japanese (who my parents hated, for Japan’s incursions into China) and Black (Ronald Coleman and I fantasized about forming a basketball team). So, in the Texas panhandle, I was ready for…whatever. My schoolmates accepted me, just as they accepted a soda fountain jukebox loaded with R&B as well as pop, rock & roll and country records. But I did have to endure my physical education instructor calling me “Chop Chop.” There was no talking back.
(Photo credit: Ben Fong-Torres with Quincy Jones, from LIKE A ROLLING STONE: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres documentary to be released in 2021)
In high school, back in Oakland, I gravitated to R&B music, favoring, especially, Ray Charles, James Brown, and the emerging Motown Sound, including the Miracles, the Temptations, the Marvelettes and Marvin Gaye. (Yes, I also loved Elvis.)
It was only natural, then, when, in 1969, I landed at Rolling Stone magazine as an editor and writer, I assigned myself most of the R&B artists. Pinnacles included profiles of Sly & the Family Stone and Ike & Tina Turner, a series of visits for a lengthy interview with Ray Charles, and one with Marvin Gaye. I happily hung out with Gladys Knight and the Pips in Las Vegas, and with Stevie Wonder in San Francisco.
In a number of instances, I experienced a level of acceptance and camaraderie from the artists that they might not have extended to another reporter; there was an understanding that we all were outsiders in a way, not only as entertainers rolling through towns and stages, but as people of color rolling through towns and having fun.
By the way, I was not confined to soul music, or to music. Dylan, the Stones, a couple of Beatles, Crosby Stills & Nash, Santana, Linda Ronstadt, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Jefferson Airplane, Cheech and Chong, Diane Keaton, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy. I was a reporter without borders.
I like to think that I also was a person without borders.
And so, because I’d come to love soul food and New Orleans cuisine, there I was at the restaurant in Jack London Square, looking for not much more than some fried chicken and red beans and rice. What better way to get ready for the Lunar New Year?
And I got the stare and the glare. (I do know that, had I been in a restaurant staffed and patronized mostly by whites, I could well have received similar treatment. Paranoia strikes deep.)
A few days later, the parade went on, and although a good-sized crowd showed up, many stayed home and watched it on TV, giving us our highest ratings in ten years.
Great for KTVU and our egos. But, in just a couple of weeks, the world changed, for the worse — for one of the worst years in all of our lives. I suppose the COVID-19 pandemic overwhelms everything else. But natural disasters hit hard, and we’ve also been hit hard by police violence, resulting in the much-needed Black Lives Matter movement.
For four painful years, we’ve had a president who opened the floodgates to racism and division, impacting all people of color and leading to the anti-Asian American violence that goes on today, in Atlanta and from coast to coast. He set a tone; a pitchy, painful one.
In contrast, Joe Biden is calming music to our ears, and we have hope. But we will long be paying the price for the four years that preceded him.
Biden knows well the unending sense of loss that comes with tragedies. Memories—good and bad—are forever.
That’s why I’ll never forget my time in Amarillo, Texas, as a “Chop Chop” kid, and my visit to Jack London Square.
And that’s why I’ll keep looking around me when I’m out on these sometimes mean streets of America.