I first notice it a few weeks after the election. The swastika has been spray-painted onto preexisting spray paint, fresh lines of red atop faded ones on the curb kitty-corner from my parents’ house. I show my father, but he’s already seen it.
Some people like to fool around, he says, continuing to prune the shrubs.
Do you know how long it’s been there? I ask.
A couple months, he says, still focused on the task. Just leave that junk alone. Not yours.
But people will see, I say.
Not yours. He grips the shears and looks me in the eye. Don’t touch it, he warns.
Online, a friend suggests turning the symbol into the logo of an old computer operating system, with its wake of little black squares. Another friend suggests turning it into a bird. Neither feels right—too jaunty, too whimsical—but I buy the canister anyway. Its rattle like a promise, or a threat.
Not that I’m entirely surprised: I’d been on the lookout, counting flags along the drive down like always. The summer before I counted five, but this time I’d only seen one, the visible-from-miles-away emblem you see every time you take a certain route through Virginia. This time what I see are stickers for the Republican and eventual winner—six on pickups, two more on minivans, a giant banner dangled from the roof of an outdoors outfitter.
But really the trip had been fine, which I’d remarked upon on social media: “Beautiful, warm, not yet racist.” The post received likes from friends in New York, where I now live, but pushback from fellow native South Carolinians.
Sure is great you keep talking about racism! commented one, the younger brother of someone I went to high school with and who liked to come around arguing things weren’t as bad as they are. Maybe, he said, if you keep talking about it enough you’ll eventually find what you’re looking for.
Plenty racism outside the Cackylackies, sir, commented another, a forty-something liberal.
The first person I argued with—fuck him. Linked him to stats on the rise in hate crimes and other incidents.
This second friend, though, I said what she wanted to hear. Good people there too, racism everywhere—which was all true, sure, but also not. But I’d recently lost another friend over a similar conversation and I wanted to keep this person in my life.
I got where she was coming from—that caricature of slack-jawed, thick-drawled bigotry—but why the impulse to lecture, instead of listen? The only thing worse than being racist, it seems, is being called one.
And now there’s a swastika on the curb. I mention it again to my father while we’re walking Robert, my dog.
Stupid people think it’s cute, he says. Robert pauses to sniff at a neighbor’s lawn ornament and my father offers a theory: the same guys who’d been hired to make the original water-meter marks, maybe they made the new ones, too. Could be, he explains, they come back. But when I ask who would be so dumb and obvious, he waves me away.
What about the pressure-washer, I ask, couldn’t we use it? Just blast the thing away?
Maybe, he allows. But it’s the other guy’s side.
What if we spray-painted over it? I ask, but my father shakes his head.
And so here’s where we stand: me with my canister, unable to use it; him with his fading patience.
Ah, such good weather, my father says finally, signaling the end of our talk. Robert trots us past the neighborhood clubhouse, with its black gate and entry code. But gazing up at the dramatic sky, taking in the crisp, sweet air, it’s easy to forget the things that aren’t as nice. Good weather was what brought them here in the first place, that and my father’s work at the textile plant, and now that he’s retired, it’s what has kept them here. That and everything else they’ve come to see and know in a life.
My father goes inside and I linger, watching his slow, resigned walk.
We’ve had this conversation before, my parents and I.
My father’s view is hate is hate, not just in South Carolina or the South, so what can you do. As he says: Who care what those stupid think? Anyway, he reasons, he’s not nice to them, so why would they be nice back?
My mother sees it differently. The only times she’s been discriminated against for “being a Chinese” were on two occasions: The first, many years ago in our hometown, when she’d been dressed for yard work and was treated rudely at a pizza buffet; the second, even more years ago in New Jersey, when a priest refused to shake her mother’s hand during communion, despite shaking everyone else’s. That’s why she stopped going to church during those years, she tells me in a hushed, regretful tone, insisting I tell no one, not even my sister.
Five decades and that’s what it’s been like for them. No hiyas in the hallways or ching-chong-changs in classrooms or during church-league basketball. No nickname “Chinky” from an earringed grade-school bully whom you sincerely consider a friend because, except for that, he’s nice to you.
The thing about where I’m from is, back then, people didn’t used to think twice about being racist. And now they think twice.
This is what I’m thinking that afternoon, wandering downtown, when I find myself before the county courthouse. In front of me is, I read, a tribute to “our Confederate Dead,” a three-story erection with a soldier on top, slouch-hatted and cradling a rifle. On each side of the base are inscriptions: battle flags chiseled into granite, a stanza about Lee’s gallants in gray one day being found “in the right.”
“These chivalrous sons,” the unnamed author, or authors, go on, “wrestled victory from foes who far surpassed them in numbers, in excellence of arms and equipment, and in all the provisions and munitions of war to re-create the greatness of the south and make it again the sweetest land on earth.”
I skimmed to the end, where I read, and reread: “The Confederate soldier won.”
No mentions of slavery. “Constitutional liberty” is how it’s put.
Post a photo and watch the comments fly.
That night, spray can in hand, I’m standing over the swastika in my parents’ neighborhood.
But I don’t do anything. Can’t. I know I’m sick of seeing it, and don’t want anyone else seeing it either, but I also know I won’t have a chance to explain myself before taking off the next morning, back to New York, where the racism’s at least hidden better, less out loud than apologetic.
Later, when my mother asks about the spray paint in the plastic bag in the closet, I lie and tell her it must be Daddy’s. Let him explain it, which I know he won’t, and that’ll be the end of it. A swastika on their curb and her son trying to do something about it would only worry her in her lymphoma-remissioned state, and she’s got enough to worry about already.
Of course what I really am is afraid. Afraid of getting caught, afraid of how I might react when pushed, all those years of getting shat on, taking what I got, fuel for the fire to come.
Back in New York I’m still thinking about it. So I pitch the story to my producer, who pitches it to his producer, who then suggests using it as a way to interview a psychologist on the effects of experiencing indirect racism—traumas, she says.
When I haven’t written the story weeks later, the more senior producer follows up.
If you don’t do it, she says, with some impatience, can you assign someone else?
Yeah, I say—then bury it.
We’ve all succeeded at burying it until, months later, back in South Carolina, we’re having dinner and I note the swastika’s continued existence to my father. My mother is busy with the food and doesn’t hear, but my father’s eyes narrow.
You going to do something? he asks. If not, then shut up.
We could spray-paint over it, I say again. It would be easy.
Nothing easy, he says. Then he stabs at a cube of tofu and asks, What color?
Of spray paint?
Red. I have it in the closet.
Lemme see it, he says.
I fetch the canister and my father removes his thick eyeglasses to squint at the label.
Ah, just forget it, he says, replacing his glasses, resuming eating. He changes the subject to Robert, who is in the garage, barking.
Still, something’s changed. I’m in the kitchen the next day, making myself a sandwich, when the doorbell rings twice. I know it’s him from the aggressiveness of the rings.
What? I say from the kitchen, not wanting to make it any easier.
Out, out, he yells.
Can I finish my lunch?
I take another bite, then begin putting things away.
Need you to come! he screams.
Fine, I say. Languidly I open the door. What is it?
Put on socks, put on shoes, comes the order, from now fifty feet away.
Do I keep on fighting, or can I accept how some things are and will remain? Is it about respect, why I’m doing this, or something else?
Socks and shoes on, I find my father sitting in the car, on the passenger side. He hands me the key and I start the engine.
I ask, Where are we going?
OK, but can you just tell me where?
Pssh, pssh, he says, waving for me to get a move on.
We go for about a mile before he explains in a measured, spiteful voice: You want to do something about piece of junk, we do something. We going to Dollar General. Buy gray spray paint.
A win is a win, but still I have to ask: Are you sure they’ll have it?
They WILL have it, he insists.
And so we pass my high school and middle school and elementary school, pass bulldozed lots, the hospital where my mother receives her cancer treatments, the old swim center, or where the old swim center used to be, where I first learned to swim and my father went for senior hours until the county shuttered the place, then tore it down.
I pull us into a shopping center where Dollar General was but is, like the swim center, no longer. Just a brown-papered storefront and what was once the sign, white outlines where the words were.
Must be closed down, my father reflects.
Can we try the hardware store now?
Try Family Dollar, he says. I restart the car and he directs us this time into the parking lot of a chain drugstore.
This isn’t Family Dollar, I say.
Just get out! he erupts, can you understand?
Sure enough, Not Family Dollar has no gray spray paint, either. We are at this point, my father and I, truly livid, the inevitable terminus of our every interaction, a motley of English and Mandarin, grunts, curses, and yells, the inarticulate fury beyond what can be said.
Nothing to do, though not for trying; ever try, ever fail. Fail no better.
When I relate our plan to the hardware-store salesperson, a remarkably polite older white gentleman with reading glasses perched on his nose, he recommends a removal chemical you can use to pressure-wash it all away. A sound solution, since it’s technically someone else’s curb. My father is still skeptical, though, so I pick up some gray spray paint, too, just in case. I put it all on my card.
And then we’re wheeling the contraption out of the shed, hooking up the hose, yanking the cord till the motor catches. Suddenly we are jackhammering away. The neighbor whose house it is, a middle-aged woman, emerges looking inquisitive and more than likely annoyed. Taking in her blue eyes, loose floral-printed pants, and ribboned straw hat, so many pinks and pales, I presume she’s not the perpetrator while also presuming she might not be exactly against it, either. I explain what we’re trying to do.
And I don’t want any kids to have to see it, I add, playing up the service angle. For the kids.
Oh, she says, I’m so glad. She brings out a wicker basket filled with individually wrapped candy for us. My father hides a scoff and I deposit the offering in our garage, then return to the task at hand. Together we spray the chemical remover from the hardware store, pressure-wash, repeat. It’s taking longer than we’d initially thought; several times my father removes his cap to wipe his brow. Yet the task has become somehow tolerable, these bad times bringing us closer together.
My father asks if I can adjust the water flow and I follow his instructions. Twisting shut the faucet then twisting it back on, I remember calling him on Election Day and learning that both he and my mother, forever fiscal and social conservatives with a framed, fake-signed thank-you from the previous Republican president and his wife, had voted for the Democratic candidate this time around because, as he explained: I don’t want to be ashamed to be American.
My father triggers the sprayer and I think of another time, at the start of the campaign, when I’d flown home to cover a rally—the Republican candidate’s sold-out event at the local civic center. What are your thoughts on immigration reform? I’d asked my father as cameras zoomed on various objects and keepsakes in our house, B-roll for the documentary, lives smushed into three-second montage.
What do you think about the border wall? I asked.
And I know people act differently when filmed. How, faced with a crew and lights and pressure, you suddenly get nervous and tongue-tied and vulnerable.
But I hadn’t expected how polite and thoughtful my father would become, this man I could respect and want to be friends with.
That some of his answers angered me is beside the point.
An hour and a half later, my father and I have removed a portion of the swastika. White residue froths the curb.
Ah, can’t do any more, he sighs. Running out of gas.
We idle the motor and examine our work. The swastika still visible, but faded now. You have to really walk up to it to tell what it is, not that you can’t still tell. With a victoryless air, we wheel the machine back in the shed.
Weeks later I’m back in New York, answering work emails, when I get a call from my parents’ cell number. But when I pick up, there’s the southern-accented voice of a man I don’t recognize.
Mr. Yee? he asks, mispronouncing it the way some people do. This is Ronnie at the paint shop. Your father is here, wanting to return some spray paint but he doesn’t have the receipt. We was wondering if you’d be able to help us, he says, and I tell him, sure. I don’t know but I can try.
James Yeh is a writer and features editor at the Believer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, Harper’s, VICE, and GQ, among other publications. A 2011 Center for Fiction emerging writers fellow, he was a 2014 writer-in-residence at the Hub City Writers Project in Spartanburg, South Carolina.