After 9/11, Amanda said that she bet airline security was going to get tighter. She looked all the way around our dorm room circle, and landed on my face. You might have trouble.
I have black hair and yellow-brown skin. In high school, in a district of pasty white faces, I was Chinese—not half-Chinese, not Asian American. No hyphens or halfways. Just different. Other.
In college, I thought I passed for white, had been asked if I were Greek or Italian. Then this.
There was a wrestler who debuted in WWE in 2004, billed as Muhammad Hassan. The character had a chip on his shoulder, angry that for the past three years he’d been followed in grocery stores, eyed by police officers, that mothers steered their children clear of him at airports. I’m American! he protested, but the crowd’s jeering in arena after arena grew louder. A rare villain who’d done nothing wrong. A villain with a grievance who was actually, obviously right.
A crystallizing moment. The Royal Rumble. A thirty-man battle in which, one by one, combatants enter the ring at timed intervals, only to be eliminated when another wrestler throws him over the top rope to the floor. There can only be one winner. As the cliché goes, it’s every man for himself.
But this time, when Hassan entered, the ring, the match stopped. A sea of men stopped, stared, then sprung into action. The story was that they all had ambitions, and they didn’t all get along, but they could all agree that Hassan had to go. It was one of the quickest, most collaborative eliminations in the eighteen-year history of the match.
July 4, 2005, the nuance, the complexity of Hassan’s character fell away at a TV taping. He summoned five men in black ski masks to attack The Undertaker and choke him with piano wire. In a particularly poor twist of fate, the episode aired three days later, hours after terrorists bombed London.
The network demanded that Hassan never appear on their show again.
So, Hassan was off TV.
On a July 24 pay-per-view spectacular, The Undertaker chokeslammed and pinned Hassan in the ring. But that was not enough.
As Hassan crawled away to the backstage area, The Undertaker stalked him. Up to the stage where wresters flexed and posed when they made their entrances and as they celebrated their victories. He caught up to Hassan, lifted him high and power bombed him through the stage to the floor. Until Hassan was destroyed. Until Hassan was gone. Until Hassan was forgotten.
And the man behind the character? Mark Copani, an American of Italian descent, had followed in a tradition of men representing different identities. Rodney Anoa’i, the Samoan American born in San Francisco, who waved a Japanese flag and wore sumo garb as Yokozuna. Nelson Simpon, the Minnesotan who played “The Russian Nightmare” Nikita Koloff at the height of the Cold War. Perhaps most apropos of all, Sergeant Slaughter, all-American hero turned Iraqi sympathizer during the first Gulf War so he could play the foil against Hulk Hogan.
WWE released Copani. He never wrestled again.
The year is 2016. I’m in graduate school without any obligations for the winter break, and for the first time in my life I grow a beard. As it fills out, as it thickens, I elect to keep it for the weeks to follow, let it grow bigger, bushier, more pronounced.
I catch up with an old friend as he passes through town. I’m not thinking about the fact that he hasn’t seen me since I started growing my beard.
What the hell? You look like a terrorist.
I remember: you might have trouble.
I remember this.
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Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and is a recent alum of the MFA program in creative writing at Oregon State University. He won the 2014 Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction from the University of New Orleans and has previously published or has work forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, the Prairie Schooner online, and The Bellevue Literary Review. Find him online at http://www.miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.