Thursday, March 29, 2012

Things That Scare Me

When my mother was pregnant with me, she saw A Nightmare on Elm Street with my grandmother, a movie which terrified them both so badly that my grandmother was afraid my mother might have miscarried.

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After the movie my grandmother urged my mother to go to a hospital. My mother declined, because she was wise enough to know that miscarriages are only caused by chromosomal abnormalities, immunological disorders, and witchcraft.

My personal medical knowledge is limited, but I believe this incident instilled an early appreciation for scary movies in me while I was still developing. I emerged from the womb with a carnal lust for fear and gore, and I've been chasing the craving ever since. By the time I was six I had a refined palette for horror and a discerning taste for what I liked. And what I liked was true, grisly horrornot cheap jumps. I hated being startled. I felt like that was cheating. Once my babysitter thought it would be funny to jump out of my closet and scare me. I screamed and instinctively shot my arm out in defense, punching her squarely in the bone zone.

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I'm not down with being startled. If people startle me, crotches get pummeled. When I saw Scream 2 in theaters, I went around punching dicks and ovaries left and right. It's how I cope. Don't judge.

In my lifetime, few things have honestly scared me. I found Marge's voice in the first season of The Simpsons terrifying, and I live in constant fear of dolls coming to life and stabbing me to death, but the first time I experienced legitimate fear was in third grade when the school library purchased copies of those heinous Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. The accompanying illustrations in those books were clearly designed to send children into terror comas. I firmly believe everyone born after 1975 has been permanently scarred by that series.

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A few years later those scars were freshly opened when my grade school screened Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in installments during a week of heavy snowfall that made recess impossible. I might be in minority when I confess I found the bulk of the movie dreary and pointless, but there's one scene that made me freak the geek out. You know the scene I'm talking about. You know.

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In short, Willy Wonka forces a bunch of candy-addicted children on a boat ride through hell. The children understandably flip their shit.

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The Wonka scene is one of a handful of scary experiences I've locked away in my mind, but it's not a vast collection. While I'm constantly hoping to be terrified into cardiac arrest, few things sincerely scare me. Off the top of my head I can think of only two: bees and zombies. Stop laughing. Let me explain.

First, bees are scary, y'all, and I turn into a child when I encounter them. Case in point: one summer day a wasp flew through an open window and landed on my coffee table (wasps are essentially bees with a bad attitude). I immediately booked it out of the room, then peered cautiously around the corner, quietly hoping it would fly away on its own accord. He didn't, so I had to consider alternative avenues. I took the rod from the shower curtain taped a drinking glass to the end of it, and from a safe distance I lowered the cup over the wasp.

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"Now I just have to wait a week for this thing to die," I thought. I couldn't wait that long, though. I also couldn't set it free because wasps are assholes and it probably would've flown back to sting me in the eyeball. I slid a piece of paper under the glass and then carried it to the freezer. Then for the next hour I nervously monitored the glass, waiting for the thing to stop moving.

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After it had finally frozen solid, I tossed it out the window. "It'll thaw out and fly away," I thought.

Bees and wasps are a manageable worry, but zombies are my one true fear. They horrify me because it's really not that crazy of an idea when you think about it, and I think about it a lot. Several years ago there was a fake news story that spread through the Internet, citing a new strain of malaria that caused people to die, then reanimate moments later and attack everyone around them. Part of the hoax claimed Condoleezza Rice was losing her marbles over fears that the new super-malaria might be used as a biological weapon against America, and after reading the article, I was ready to lose it right along with Condi.

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I have nightmares about zombies at least bi-monthly, if not more frequently. I'll wake up with a start, the grisly visage of a decomposing monster lingering like mist in my mind, and I'll have to spend the rest of the night with all the lights in my apartment turned on. It doesn't help that zombies are becoming more and more pervasive in popular culture.

A few weeks ago I was watching The Walking Dead while eating a burrito, and I became so distressed and entrenched in the episode, I had to stop eating completely.

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When something causes me to neglect food, I know it's serious.

Sometimes I think about how I'd react should a zombie outbreak ever occur in real life. Fearful as I am of the living dead, I suspect I might actually do okay for myself in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I'm pretty resourceful, I'm not entirely weak, and if it really came down to it I'd have no qualms using a child as a human shield.

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I suppose the silver lining to a zombie outbreak is that bees probably won't survive in such a scenario.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Bad Friend

When I was eight, my best friend was an Asian kid named Martin. Martin’s parents had immigrated when he was five or so, and they were deeply traditional. They also adored me, and I loved spending time at Martin’s house because his mother seemed to cook sprawling, sumptuous feasts every night. It was like each evening they were celebrating Mulan’s defeat over Shan Yu. Whenever I’d visit, his mother would stuff me full of steamy, savory morsels, as if I myself were being shipped off to war.

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Somewhere along the line I gleaned the notion that Chinese parents prize sons over daughters (which may or may not have been true in this case), and I chose to believe this as the reason I was liked. As an impressionable child, it seemed entirely likely that Chinese people simply hated girls, but I didn’t care. As long as I was being fed delicious food, I took no interest in complicated socio-economic issues. I’ve always been easily placated by food. I would’ve invited Stalin into my own home if he offered me a pot of mashed potatoes. Garlic mashed potatoes and I would’ve converted to Communism on the spot.

Whatever the case, they loved me, and I quickly learned I could get away with almost anything. For instance, Martin’s mother was unfamiliar with the American rating system for movies, so I could convince her to rent absolutely anything for Martin and me. One night I nonchalantly handed her a VHS of Goodfellas and she rented it for us without question.

I reveled in the violence and foul language. Martin did not.

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It wasn’t all roses and pork buns, though. Martin’s parents had a tendency to be overly worrisome, and I sometimes found it stifling. One weekend they invited me to go camping with them. I was thrilled, but my excitement didn’t last long. Barely an hour into the car ride up to the mountains I started feeling peckish, and asked Martin’s mom if there was anything to eat. She told me there were snacks and drinks in a cooler by my feet. I opened it to find a collection of lukewarm bottled waters and a large bag of seaweed snacks.

I was not amused.

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A sweeter child would have graciously accepted the room temperature water and bag of fish food, but if you’re keeping tabs on me so far, at age 8 I was clearly shaping up to be a manipulative racist. I scoffed at the offering and chose to pout for the rest of the car ride.

Once we arrived at the campground I perked up and quickly forgot about the grave personal insult I’d incurred earlier. Lunch and dinner were decidedly more appetizing, and as the sun began to set that evening, my mind wandered to thoughts of s’mores and ghost stories told by campfire light. Instead, around 7:30, Martin’s father put out the campfire and started packing up the supplies. Alarmed, I asked what he was doing.

“We go home,” he said.

I literally didn’t believe him. I asked, “Aren’t we staying overnight?”

“No,” he replied, “Too dangerous to sleep in woods.” I was flabbergasted. I looked to Martin for support but he seemed unphased. This was apparently normal camping behavior to them.

For a second time that day, I was thoroughly unamused.

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Nevertheless, the campsite was cleared, and we were all home in time for a 10 o’ clock bedtime.

I grew up in Montana, which aside from a numerous Native population, is very white. Martin and his family were the only Asian people I knew for years, and I made most of my assessments about Chinese culture based on their actions. It wasn’t until middle school, when a Chinese girl burped in my face during gym class, that I came to realize that not all Asians are meek and polite and worrisome.

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Come to think of it, that girl did a lot of shitty things to me during gym class, the worst being purposefully stepping on my button-down running pants, causing me to literally run out of my clothes.

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(Looking back, both of those things are, in fact, hilarious, but because it happened to me, it was devastating.)

Martin’s family was different, though. His parents were so frequently clueless, and Martin was so friendly and agreeable. I found myself taking advantage of them all too often, especially Martin, and usually without being cognizant of it. I finally realized it was a problem one summer while we were swimming at a public lake. My mom had taken Martin and me out to the lake and we spent the morning swinging into the water from a rope swing tied to a branch. Around lunchtime a couple of teenage girls approached us and took control of the rope swing, refusing to share. One of them would swing out and the other would immediately grab the rope as it swung back. Then she’d wait until her friend was out of the water and back at her side, positioned to grab the rope once more as it arched back. They alternated in this manner for several minutes, refusing to share, despite my complaints that they were being unfair. They were bullies, plain and simple, and it infuriated me. After half an hour of this nonsense I could barely contain my rage, and finally I exploded. I mustered up the worst insult I could imagine and screamed it at them as loudly as I could.

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I was immediately shocked at the words that had escaped my mouth.

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The girls gaped at me, clearly stunned at my outburst, and after a tense moment of silence they sulked away. I figured I’d won the stand-off, and Martin and I resumed swinging into the water.

It wasn’t long before the girls returned, and they weren’t alone. My mother was with them, looking furious. The girls had told on me. My mom asked me if what they’d told her was true, and without missing a beat I declared, “no, of course not. They’re lying.”

I figured it would be my word against theirs, and I expected Martin to corroborate my claim. He always did what I said, so why would this be any different? My mother turned to him and asked, “Martin, who’s telling the truth here?” Martin looked at his feet.

“They are,” he said quietly. I was irate. My mom made me apologize to the girls and told me it was time to leave. For a moment I attempted to stand my ground, but she dragged me away.

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Behind us, the girls snickered at the turn of events.

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On the car ride home my mom lectured me about lying, and about how calling girls bitches is sexist and unacceptable, but I heard not a single word of it. I was fuming in the passenger seat. I was angry at my mom for punishing me, and angry at my friend for what I felt was a personal betrayal on his part. Mostly, I was angry that the bullies had won.

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Not once did I consider that this fiasco was at all my fault. I didn’t stop to consider that putting my best friend on the spot and expecting him to lie for me was bully behavior.

I was still angry the next day when my mother came into my room to talk to me. She asked me why I thought Martin had told the truth, even though it would get me in trouble. My first thought was, “because he’s a goody-two-shoes Chinese nerd,” but I didn’t say that. All I said was, “I don’t know.”

But I did know. Martin had told the truth because he was the only one involved in the dispute who had any sense of honor. I, on the other hand, was a liar, sort of racist, a little bit sexist, and worst of all, I hadn’t been treating my best friend like a friend.

A few days later the incident had blown over, and we were back to doing whatever it is 8-year-olds do (Legos? Arson? I don’t remember). But I made a conscious decision to not be a shitty friend after that.

I also made a conscious decision to not involve Martin in any bank heists in the future, because he clearly couldn’t keep quiet. Snitches get stitches, after all. And friends don’t give friends stitches.

Friends don’t give friends stitches.