I'm Uncomfortable — and not Japanese!

I’m in 3rd grade. Mrs. Cox is weaving around groups of desks as she reads a history lesson. Today’s topic: World War II.

Sitting across from me is Billy, a friend and baseball teammate. He’s got freckles all over his pale face and thin, blond hair that end at his eyebrows. I glance over to see what he’s up to. He’s zoned out.

Mrs. Cox starts talking about the attack on Pearl Harbor. A Japanese attack from the skies killed and injured thousands of Americans. Eager to escape his boredom, Billy lights up with this information. I know this look, he’s a class clown, a good one too. I turn my attention towards him, just as eager for some entertainment. He looks at me, narrows his eyes with intensity, and starts shooting me with an imaginary gun.

Trying to whisper over his sound effects, I tell him the obvious mistake he's made.

“I’m not Japanese! I’m actually Chinese!”

Billy doesn't seem to care. He continues his attack. The other students at our desk group notice and start giggling.

I’m a bit annoyed, so I try again.

“I’m not Japanese! I’m Chinese!”

But the bullets kept coming. What’s going on? How could anyone assume I was Japanese?

At this point, Mrs. Cox is close enough to hear the commotion.

Flustered, I explain to her the situation. “He’s shooting me because he thinks I’m Japanese, but I’m actually Chinese!” Surely, the adult will understand. She’s going to tell my friends that it made absolutely no sense to relate a Chinese person to a Japanese event.

But without skipping a beat in the lesson, she waves her hand at us. Billy stops shooting.

I’m so confused. I’m not Japanese. I don't speak Japanese. I’ve never been to Japan. I’m Chinese. I speak Mandarin. I visit Taiwan often to see my family. The difference could not be any clearer.

I don't like what Billy just did and it was mean. Why would he target me, even as a joke? I’m on the American side! I was born in America and grew up in America! We’re all equally American, equally not Japanese!


Why did Billy think I was Japanese? Why didn’t he think I was Korean? Why didn’t he think I was black?

Would you excuse Billy’s behavior? Why?

If you were Mrs. Cox and understood the situation, how would you have handled it?

What would you say to my 3rd-grade self to help him make sense of what happened?

Form your answers. Read the article below.

Are you ok with your answers being applied to this situation as well? Why? What’s different?