The Lingering Sting of ‘Konichiwa!’
How a racial taunt is like an echo, calling back the moments of racial trauma that you’ve tried to forget
I’m walking out of Kronborg Castle, my mind overrun with what I just saw and heard for the last two hours: six hundred years of Danish history topped by a heart-pounding climb up the tower, 145 steps leading to a magnificent view of Helsingør to the west and the hazy Swedish coastline to the east. Shakespeare set Hamlet here, calling the town by its Anglicized equivalent, Elsinore.
I cross the moat and follow the pebbly path to the wide cobblestone walkway when a gaggle of schoolchildren approach me in their colorful windbreakers and backpack straps. A boy with golden curls and a face from one of the old Master paintings steps out of the flock to address me directly.
He smiles, puts his hands together prayer-style, looks into my eyes.
He bows, then scampers away, laughing.
At first, I shrug it off with a joke: China may be the newsworthy Asian country of the moment, but when it comes to delivering racial taunts, Japan apparently still reigns supreme. Yet as I make my way back to the red-bricked Stationspladsen Helsingør, reality sinks in: A grammar-school boy just made fun of me.
Is it possible the child was just being overly friendly to a foreigner and I mistook his enthusiasm for mockery? No, not a chance. Even though it’s been years since I’ve been singled out for my race like this, its burn remains instantly identifiable.
I arrive at the train station with time to spare. A convenience store with its endless rows of candy bars draws me in. This is a very white country, and yet every corner store I’ve entered has been manned by brown people. This one is no exception; the bearded guy in a green soccer jersey behind the counter could be from India or Pakistan. I purchase an overpriced chocolate-covered granola bar.
“Thank you and have a fantastic day,” the clerk says. Everyone I’ve met in Denmark so far speaks fluent English.
It’s a few degrees above fifty, a lovely spring day. I have read that even in the full throes of summer, it rarely breaks…