Returning to Levittown
Brian Mondschein, Athletics
2015-2016 Staff Essay Contest
My father was a Brooklyn-born Jew attending New York University on the G.I. bill who met and married a Hawaiian-born Japanese grad student at Columbia. I think of myself as the poster child for ethnic outliers. Growing up, the kids at my elementary school were either Irish, or Italian, or Polish, or Irish-Italian, or, well . . . they were something. I was seven, and I asked my parents what I was. My mother told me I was Jewpanese. “Yes,” my father said, nodding. “You are Jewpanese.” Years later I realized that the Jewpanese were not a bona fide ethnic group, which explained why I had never met any other Jewpanese children at school.
My brother and I grew up in Levittown, New York, in the late 50s and early 60s. Levittown was only slightly more enlightened intellectually and culturally than a few other places I have since lived, places often referred to as the “Deep South.” I married a Southerner, and if you are Jewpanese from New York, imagine how disappointing it must be to hear one’s mother-in-law refer to the Civil War as the “Wah of Nawthen Agression.” “Do people really think like this?” I thought to myself, as I have often thought to myself during a lifetime of thinking things to myself. But I said nothing. The teachable moments are few for those surrounding the Jewpanese living in the South. Even as an adult living in the Louisiana, I felt my primary obligation was neither to correct nor instruct, but to survive, or should I say: live smoothly, without incident. And in that sense, I can find some similarities to the situation Southern students of color who come north for their education experience.
When you live in a state where the saying, “Thank God for Mississippi and Alabama,” lingers as an afterthought to every national survey involving health, education, and the general welfare of the populace, being part of “the other” prohibits you from speaking out in many situations where injustice is either perceived, detected, or runs rampant. It isn’t as easy as you would think to speak out about injustice, or to act in the name of social or racial equality, whether you are in Princeton, New Jersey, or Princeton, Mississippi, although the smart money says that when you do speak out, you are less likely to get bitten by a police dog in New Jersey. But nonetheless you sense things, you feel things. Things to you sometimes seem quietly not right.
In Levittown, the paperboy on his Stingray bike delivered the news to our doorstep 365 days a year. He was probably four years older than I, two years older than my brother, and he wore boots with heels, his hair slicked and coiffed like the rock and roll singers of the time. Each day he would wait until he got to the end of our block, and then he would yell “Chink!” at my brother and me. It always seemed odd that he would never say anything when he was directly in front of our house. And I would never even look up at him, hoping that this was the day he had decided to stop yelling “Chink” at us. But it never was.
There came a day one November that my brother had had enough, and he confronted the paperboy. For the buzzing in my ears I could not hear a word they were saying, but I knew from the way the paperboy kept tilting his head sideways at my brother trouble was in the works. They began to fight, and the paperboy landed punches that felt as if they were landing sickeningly on my own stomach and chest. My brother was not fighting, it seemed. He was just sort of holding on. I noticed that the paperboy’s pants, the tight jeans that teenage hoods wore in those days, now had a tear in them, and there was some blood coming from his knee. My brother tightened his grip on the paperboy while they struggled on the ground. I saw that the paperboy had begun to cry. Finally, my brother stood up, the paperboy still face down and motionless on the ground, trying not to cry but the tears still streaming across his reddened cheeks. “We’re not Chinks,” my brother said to him, “We’re Japs.”
We rode off on my brother’s bike with me on the handle bars and my brother peddling down our street. We rode through a pile of yellow and brown leaves, and I kicked the pile with both my feet.
It’s possible to think of your mind as a kitchen strainer or a common sieve. Most of your experiences pass through easily and are long forgotten, but for one reason or another, and sometimes it seems pretty random, things get trapped by the sieve. What’s interesting is that we don’t really get to choose what memories get trapped, what events in our lives make up who we are and how we think. One day something touches a chord in us, unleashing feelings that we never acted on or never knew we had, and we find ourselves doing things that surprise us and others around us. We are standing up for ourselves in a manner of speaking, or we are standing up for our brothers and sisters, or a group of people, or just people we feel connected to. Sometimes the injustice is so far removed from where we are at present that the standing up part almost seems contrived or misdirected. But doing the right thing always feels like the right thing, and, well, if we don’t like that there are people occupying the president’s office, think only to yourself that the president seems pretty good with it, so you might as well be too. Maybe he knows something that you don’t.
As for myself, as untouched as I am as an adult by the transgressions of the real world, I am but one step away in my mind from the boy I was in Levittown, New York, watching my older brother fighting in the street against what I would now call ignorance, but what I thought of back then as tyranny. Perhaps the part of us that once felt alien and mistreated, while different for everyone, may be the key to understanding some of the things that are happening on our campus and in our country. And the Jewish part of Jewpanese? OMG. A whole other story.