“Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees! What are these!”


What is it about that chant that sends me into apoplexy?  My English mother, (adopted – well, actually, she adopted me rather than the other way round), God rest her soul, bless her cotton socks etc, would counter this with:


“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”


I thought I was done with all this now I’m 50 and living in modern, multi-cultural London.  When I was 5 and the only Chinese kid living in a small village in the North West, not so much of a surprise.  It was the 60s, we were a novelty, we were foreigners (never mind the British passport), political correctness hadn’t been invented yet and there wasn’t a category called “Black and Minority Ethnic”.


The thing is, there’s baggage attached to these chants for the person on the receiving end.  When I was at junior school, my PE teacher accused me of having dirty knees and wouldn’t let me in the swimming pool till I’d cleaned them.  I scrubbed them till they were pink.  My mother hit the roof when she heard.  She took pride in her immaculate child and it was a personal affront that I should be accused of being less than perfectly presented at all times.  The fact that my writing partner suffered the same abuse is of no comfort whatsoever.  It only makes me more angry that others have been hurt as well.


I can’t do anything about looking Chinese.  Oh alright, that’s not strictly true.  I could have taken the Michael Jackson option and widened my slitty eyes surgically.  But why should I?


My daughter’s different.  Her dad’s English (white European on the census form), her eyes are pleasingly round (nobody accuses her of not being able to see through them or that they disappear when she smiles), she has honey coloured hair and her skin is quite pale, not exactly pink, but not obviously yellow.  When she was in the buggy, everyone thought I was her childminder.  I had hoped that she could choose what identity she wanted – whether she was English or Chinese.  I deliberately omitted a Chinese name on her birth certificate – she later chose one for herself.  I thought, in modern day London, she’d be spared the taunts I and my writing partner had endured.  Imagine my horror, then, when I collected her from her multi-cultural, politically correct school, when I heard she’d been called a “Hong Kong Chinese freak”.  Yes, the perp was hauled in front of the Head.  Yes, the child’s mother died of embarrassment and has been apologising to me ever since.


And there I was, a few months later, 1 September 2011, sitting on the 432 from Crystal Palace, minding my own business and hanging on to the granny trolley for dear life lest it sliced off the toes of fellow passengers (Lewis Hamilton was driving the bus) when I heard that old chant “Chinese, Japanese”.


Three white boys in identical striped T-shirts, ten or eleven-ish and a white girl, fourteenish.  I looked for a responsible adult to reason with.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in this situation, on public transport, being racially abused.  Everybody avoided eye contact.  I waited in vain for my knight in shining armour.


It only happened once.  My then fiancé was punting me and my adopted father (ethnically Chinese, born in Cardiff) along the River Weir in Durham when the familiar strains of “Ching chong Chinaman” and “Ying tong, ying tong, iddle I po” (I could personally strangle every single one of The Goons) drifted across from a rowing boat nearby.  My now husband of 26 years was outraged.  Dad and I pretended we were elsewhere, as usual, and Dad muttered “Just ignore them, they’re ignorant peasants”.  Hubby-to-be drew himself up to his full height, announced “Nobody insults my fiancée and future father-in-law” and swept them into the river with his punt pole.


So here I was in a dilemma.  No adult to reason with, no champion, a tearful 9 year old and a life threatening granny trolley.  When I was a teenager, I spoke up on the train to Liverpool.  There was a gang of teenagers and the boys were jeering at me.  I said to one of the girls:


“I’m not sure why they’re doing this but I think it may be trying to impress you.  Are you impressed?”


Then, fuelled by too many Westerns and Dirty Harry films, I announced, “This train isn’t big enough for the likes of you and me.  I’m not getting off so I suggest you do.”  To my astonishment, they got off at the next station.


Why didn’t I say something this time?  Because I remembered the awkwardness in the carriage afterwards.  I recalled  the embarrassment everyone felt and I couldn’t face it again.  I secretly feared that these kids wouldn’t be ashamed enough to get off the bus.  I wasn’t prepared to face the swearing and insults that would rain down on me if I dared to challenge them.   I was scared they’d be violent and I had my daughter to protect this time.  And I couldn’t bear it if the driver stopped the bus and the passengers glared at me accusingly as they abandoned it for another one.  I didn’t want to cause a scene.


When you suffer in silence it hangs around for a long time.  My old childminder says I did the right thing.  My husband, bless him, once he’d descended from the hole in the roof, said I should have called the police.  On kids?  For this?  So I now I feel they got away with it and, because of my cowardice, they’ll go and offend and hurt someone else.


What would you have done?  Answers on a postcard, please.


Claire Martin