My American Dream: 3. Fist Fights

by Harijan

[Picture of Aujin and Me fighting a couple of dudes at basketball court]

Growing up in Korea, one of the things I learned in school was the rule of absolute hierarchy. That one must respect another who is stronger than oneself. So rampant was this rule-by-fist mentality that even little children had no-bars-hold fist fights to establish dominance. To win a fight with someone who is considered “strong” in a class gained much respect and fear. That made your school life easier. In fact, each classroom of approximately 50 students or so had its own rank of the strongest to the weakest.

Then there was the rank for the whole of the class – usually around 300 little children. As I think of it now, it is funny to think about how obsessed we got about these ranks, as if they were baseball statistics.

“Yo, did you hear? KP knocked down LJ during TaeKwonDo match last week. That means KP’s rank just jumped to #3 in his classroom and #6 overall.”

“Man, LJ never ranked that high. When LJ beat SK a while ago, that was a fluke. SK hurt himself before that fight. That’s why LJ still doesn’t want to fight SK again. Because he’s scared. SK would woop both LJ and KP. And SK isn’t even #7 overall.”

My father is a good example of someone who did well in this kind of environment. He was one of these guys who grew up with his fists growing up after the Korean War. He boasted about it, too; how he got his first real big job because he knocked the @#$% out of some henchman at construction yard. I have personally witnessed him punch a guy in the windpipe. That guy dropped to the ground for a little while. And somehow they went out to drink afterwards.

I don’t know about being a construction henchman, but I thought elementary school conflicts were brutal.

Let me share with you some things I learned about fighting as a kid in Korea. One is never to have really long hair. If someone grabs your hair, you are in big trouble. Long hair meant that it was really easy for you to get in trouble real quick. A lot of fights ended this way – by grabbing the other guys hair, bringing his head down to the waist level, and kneeing his face a few times. People usually lose the will to fight after that.

Two was to fight during the school hours and to avoid after school extracurricular fights. You see, fighting during recess or lunch times is like boxing in a ring – the bell always rings at the end of the round. In a fight during recess, I knew I can fight do-or-die and not have to worry about being kicked in the mouth from exhaustion because the teacher was going to come break it up.

But man, a fight after class? That’s basically a street fight with no time limit. You never know how many kids can gang up on your; you might find your friends weren’t your friends after all. It might be that you were too strong and made too many enemies. Then there is that worry some kid might bring a baseball bat or a rod.

The worst part of after school fights was that nobody had the stamina to last a fight beyond a 10 minutes. Everything just got sloppier after few minutes. However sure I was about winning, I never wanted to take the slightest chance of being that guy who got bitch-owned after a sloppy fight where I got pounded on the ground after running out of breaths. I think that’s traumatic enough to make a person crippled inside for a long time. It’s this kind of stuff that will predispose a boy to forever submit to his superiors no matter how unjust or ignorant the situation may be. That’s how people make slaves.

I will be up front with the fact that I was never good at throwing punches when I was little (I can throw punches now). My parents never advocated that I stand up for myself because good Christians always turn their other cheek; I really took this to my heart. In fact, I became very proficient at winning fights by taking punches well. There is nothing more intimidating than watching a kid take your strongest punch, come back, and tell you that you punch like a girl. Plus you can only throw so many punches to someone’s forehead or cheek bone before your knucklebones hurt. You’ll learn this quickly if you fight barehand.

I don’t remember my exact rank, but I think there was a time when kids left me alone because of one of this crazy antics.

Moving to United States, my parents were advised by other Korean parents about the issue of violence among children. I’ll paraphrase this for you:

In the States, things are just more civil. Kids don’t fight. Plus, as immigrants, our children are not looked favorably by school or law enforcement. If there is a problem at school, the children can just talk to the councellor and settle issues by talking.

Like many things, the expectations which my parents created for us children were really different from what we experienced ourselves. They never believed us when we reported that our experience differed from what they have been told by other Korean parents. They argued with us saying that our reality should not disagree with what they are comfortable with.

Aujin drew first blood before I did, within the first month of school in Bronx. Apparently this dark-skinned kid was really harassing Aujin making funny noises (you know, the typical “ching-chang-chong”) in his face, so he communicated the only way he knew how as a 11-year-old, fresh-off-the-boat-no-speaky-English boy. My father was anxious about the event. He didn’t want this to get all of us in trouble.

Nothing happened of it. The kid stop bothering Aujin at school apparently.

While still at the same Bronx school, this other dark-skinned kid spat on my shoulder in the hall way. I ignored this even though everyone else around was trying to get me riled up. I didn’t know how to respond to that, and I just didn’t want to get my family in trouble. So I held the humiliation high. I accepted that somehow I was just lucky to be in the situation that I was. That somehow people who speak English can do things like spit on another human being and get a way with it. To speak English is to show dominance over another human being who cannot speak it. That a migrant has a lower rank because of his tongue.

It didn’t take too long to see how unfair and stupid this idea was. I also saw that my parents fear of getting in trouble was basically nonfounded. There were no major repercussions on school ground violence that I saw.

After only three months of our lives in New York City, our family moved down to Rockville, Maryland. Here, I started testing out some of the social rule. I began challenging those people who challenged me. Even though I still didn’t speak English except for a handful of words, I was able to communicate with my demeanor and stares that I did not mean to submit to their funny business. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it escalated things, but I started inching back towards my personal rights as a human being.

As a side note, I don’t know why this is, but the ones who picked on Aujin and me were usually other minorities who had not been recent migrants. Because we were usually friends with other Asian children, it was either the latino or black children who would instigate us. For a long time, I thought it was some sort of pack mentality that created this kind of situation. However, I think we were vulnerable not because of our race, but for our inability to speak. Verbal communication for the human species is one of the highest tools of forming social order, and to lack this ability means to be the same guy who got beat the bitch-owned for the rest of his life.

There was one instance where Aujin and I actually got in a fight with a couple of brothers who were white.

It was at this one basketball ground where we used to go a lot. Man, these guys would throw our basketball over the tennis court fence or trip us while we were doing layups. One day, we were just shooting hoops, and these bastards started haggling us again. I was so infuriated with these guys – especiallly when they started telling us to go back to our country – I told Aujin in Korean that I was going to beat the hell out of these kids when they were unsuspecting. He acknowledge my plan of action.

Man, I knocked the septum off that guy’s midface! He bled satisfyingly out of his nostrils. Aujin clocked his younger counter part. The fight lasted about 5 minutes. It was not clean, and in the end, we couldn’t claim a clean fight. I remember Aujin was hurt more than I was; I felt responsible for his pain. I was still enraged towards those boys, but in that same anger, I also felt human. To defend myself strongly against what others might see as a petty grievance, I found myself again. Not to live in shame, but to show people that their ignorance will not be tolerated. To break another person’s notion that they can humiliate me to increase their stupid rank, I think it was worth the bleeding, pain, and whatever trouble it brought me for that short time.

To endorse anger in this way, it may not fit the character you know as the current person. I am not proud of fights I had been in, but what I’m trying to convey to you is my frustration of being in this situation where I was picked on every day for just being an immigrant or for not being able to “speaka Engrish.” It’s just not a practical expectation to think that a migrant child should take passively all aggressions which are beyond what is normal part of “social play.”

Eventually, I stopped fighting because of three reasons.

  1. Despite the heavy Korean accent, I figured out how to yell English word.
  2. I was getting big. Other kids were getting big. It was actually getting kind of scary to fight like we used to.
  3. My family moved to school districts where social hierarchy was determined by things like wearing the latest Nike shoes or having a Nintendo 64.

Though I was still on the bottom of the social rank, its repercussion was never that anyone spat on me or made funny noises in my face. They just said, “oh my god, are those Payless shoes? How can you wear that? Like it’s leaving streaks all over the hallway! Eww….”

You know what? I don’t blame them either. Those Payless shoes ripped open every month so that you had to buy two pairs each time you shopped.

Actually, I had gotten in a couple of fights as an adult. It only happens when I was hanging out with Andy, though. I blame him fully. He probably bullied kids like me.