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|Ignorant people have called me a "gook" as a catch-all way of letting me know they hate Asians.|
When I first heard that candidate McCain had used the term to describe the North Vietnamese captors who tortured him during his years as a Prisoner of War, I was saddened but somehow numb, and couldn't work up much of an anger. I guess I was disappointed but not surprised, because people still have such strong emotions about the Vietnam War. I'm always caught off-guard when I hear veterans or other so-called "patriots" still criticizing Jane Fonda for her trip to North Vietnam during the war, as if they feel the same heat and hatred they felt 30 years ago, when it was all happening.
A friend of mine tells me that the word "gook" is derived from a benign Korean word for "people" (Han-Guk are the Korean people, and Mi-Guk Americans) and that it was first used during the Korean War.
In Vietnam, the word took on the meaning McCain spits out. When I was a kid in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the term was applied to me from time to time. Even in the years since, during college or in my adult life, ignorant people have called me a "gook" as a catch-all way of letting me know they hate Asians. No one was assuming I was a North Vietnamese soldier -- they just thought I looked close enough to one, and they wanted to taunt all Asians.
I know this is a typical reaction, to paint all Asians with the word that had been used to describe the bad guys in the Vietnam War (this does not take into account whether we may have been the "bad guys" in a war that tore the U.S. apart ideologically). I've sometimes heard the word "Nazi" used to describe someone with German ancestry, but not nearly as often or with the broad, all-inclusive connotation of "gook." No one uses "Nazi" to mean anyone from Europe, for instance. We know what people mean by "Nazi."
Most racially charged words for Europeans have faded more than words some people still use today for minority groups. "Wop," "Limey," "Mick," "Frog," "Kraut" -- all terms used to denigrate European immigrant groups in the 19th century and early 20th century -- are little used today. But I still hear "nigger," "spic," "Jap," "gook" and even "fag" and "homo" all the time. Gays are an especially sad example of a group that people seem to think is still all right to slap with such name-calling, even when the words aren't used to describe gay people, but used instead as lazy substitutes for better words such as "stupid" or "bad."
This behavior cuts both ways, so I should admit to my own stupidity.
When I was in high school and suffering the occasional racist remark aimed at me, I often used the term "PR" for Puerto Ricans, as an insult. If something was cheap, bad, dumb, low-rent or whatever, my friends and I would describe it as being "PR." It seems amazing to me now that I would say this, considering I never even knew anyone that was from Puerto Rico, or knew anything about its people, culture or history, until I went to college in New York City. It's a fact of racist language that it's easiest to use such words out of context, and out of ignorance. I can honestly say that I didn't mean to insult Puerto Ricans in general by using the term, and I stopped soon after this phase of my childhood. but it's sure hard to explain in hindsight why the hell we said such things.
I suppose McCain is being honest when he says that he only considers his captors "gooks" and doesn't mean to apply it to every Asian. I'm reminded of the time I interviewed a WWII Army veteran of the South Pacific campaign, and he kept using the term "Japs" to describe the enemy he fought half a century ago. Halfway through the interview, the old soldier got a glimmer of realization and stopped to tell me, "You know I don't mean you when I say "Japs," right? It's just what we called 'em back then."
Sure, it's what we called 'em back then. It's not racist if you still use the word, decades after it's become unacceptable and years since we thought that as a society, we've evolved beyond using such charged descriptions, right? Uh... wrong.
I'm not even sure McCain is particularly racist in the ways that American culture has come to judge racism. The problem is that McCain is very visible, and even a slightly cavalier use of the word can be taken by less enlightened or sensitive people as an invitation to use the word widely and without reservation or qualification.
I've been called a "gook," and I know it wasn't in jest. And these days I wonder how young Vietnamese American feel when they hear it. I wonder if someone from the former South Vietnam feels outrage that they might be called something that was thrown around by GIs at the enemy. And I wonder if someone who has roots in the former North Vietnam feels bewilderment that they're being blamed for something they may not have had anything to do with. Hell, I wonder if even former North Vietnamese soldiers who were called "gooks" 30 years ago are tired of the term, because they've gone on with their lives in the years since the war.
And, I wonder if our former enemies have their own words for us -- Americans -- that are still used to describe Westerners and Caucasians. Do they toss around words for the "big smelly hairy Americans" that would hurt our feelings if we heard them?
I'm a Democrat, so I hope Al Gore wins the White House in November anyway. It's unfortunate because I thought McCain was the better of the Republican candidates trying to win the presidential nomination for their party. But I'm glad that with his momentum faltering, McCain has decided to suspend his campaign. In the end, I'd rather have someone I dislike such as Bush in office than have someone who seems likable on the surface but holds such hatred inside his soul.
John MCain's allowed to hate his captors from the past, but he shouldn't make the mistake of painting every North Vietnamese person, or by extrapolation, every Asian, with the broad brush of racism. The world's become much too small a place to harbor that kind of ill will.
"Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View" is hosted by Blue Ray Media.