This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
"I look so Asian in this photo—look at my chinky eyes."
People say this after they have taken a grinning photo and their eyes have creased into horizontal lines. They say this because they think they look bad—because they resemble an Asian person. When people make these kinds of comments, they are simultaneously demeaning the physical features I've been trying to learn to love my entire life as if it's of no importance. That when they erase the picture, they simultaneously partake in the erasure of my cultural identity as if it's the last thing on their mind.
The word "chink" originated as a slur used to generalize Asian people—despite the many, many different ethnicities, dialects, and cultures within the huge and diverse continent of Asia. Some sources speculate that it comes from the sound of Chinese slaves working with hammers on American railroads, while dictionaries indicate the literal meaning of the word is "narrow opening."
Googling the origins of the word is easy; the reason why some people use it is more complicated.
"I bet you let those random chinks cum inside you."
A jealous ex-lover said this with such ferocity that I winced. He was reacting to the news that I had been intimate with somebody else following our breakup. That somebody else was Asian.
The word is drawn sword-like with the intention to hurt. I insist on forgetting it until I'm forced to remember it. I'm reminded of the broken English that runs through my bloodline and of the time it has taken my parents to pick up the fragments of their second language. I'm reminded of my high school days when I would deny my heritage and my mother tongue to avoid hearing it.
My ex didn't use the word in direct reference to me, but he knew it would strike me with brute force. I wondered afterward if the word had always been in the back of his mind: as he met my family, or when he thought of my brothers, father, and mother. The power of a word used to cause collective harm lies in its ability to distort the image its recipients have even of themselves. My eyes might appear small, but you're forced to see things when someone you loved spits it out at you.
"We need to stay away from those chinks."
A white couple said this as they shuffled away from my mother and me at a grocery store. We were in Brisbane, a city in Queensland, Australia, shopping for mushrooms and shallots for my Chinese dinner. It was 1996, around the time Pauline Hanson warned Australia that it was "in danger of being swamped by Asians." I was two years old.
She told me about the incident when I was older. Despite her limited English, my mother knew the word was meant to be heard—and to hurt. Her maternal instincts drove her to turn away, wrap herself around me, and rush me home. She made herself my shield and took the sharpness of the word in her back. I wonder if she had trouble cooking that night.
I'm old enough now to understand the magnitude of a word designed to demean and other. I couldn't ignore this word even if I tried. I hear it ad-libbed in Migos' "Get Right Witcha," I hear it in Fresh off the Boat, I hear it when a social media whiz on ESPN refers to basketball player Jeremy Lin as a "chink in the armor." It is no measure or reflection of my worth, I know that, but hearing the word still makes me wince.
"Chink" is a last-resort weapon, the weakest kind. But it can't be removed from the thread that passes down through generations. It follows my mother, it follows me, and one day it might follow my future children. But strength and endurance have been passed down our bloodline too, so instead of avoiding the word, I acknowledge its weight; I just refuse to carry it.