He was in a Vancouver elementary school when he first heard the scalding words. He had given a wrong answer, a simple wrong answer.
“What is the capital of Canada?” Miss Bowen had asked.
His hand had shot up and he had answered proudly, “Vancouver!”
Miss Bowen had turned to the principal and in her precise, aloof voice had said “Of course, he’s not one of us.” She had turned back to the class, “That is incorrect. Who knows the right answer?”
And a little white girl had known it was Ottawa.
He had been given a Chinese name at birth, his parents proud of their first and, as it turned out, only son. By the time he was four he began to insist that his name was Bill and he was happy to punch out anyone who disagreed with him. The school therefore listed his name as William, which puzzled him for years.
His parents just called him “Son”, nagged him to improve every little thing and were proud of him without ever telling him so.
His younger sister, who also had Chinese name, changed it as well. She became Eleanor. His parents did not nag her very much, they didn’t need to; her behavior was good. But they did not look at her with pride.
Perhaps because he knew he didn’t fit in he began to feel that he didn’t have to even try to fit in. He missed school or arrived late, he did the homework only when the topic or the teacher appealed to him and he carved his name, “BILL” in capital letters on every desk he ever sat in.
He was the first lad in his group to smoke or drink beer. He tried working for the money to do this but when someone complained about being waited on by a Chinese kid he walked away from the shop forever, taking a pack of Marlboro with him.
When the Second World War broke out, he was just old enough to enlist. The enlistment officer did not want to take a Chinese kid.
“You won’t fit in,” he said. “They’ll think you’re Japanese.” But eventually they took him anyway.
He was shipped to France where, if he did turn out to be Japanese, he could do no harm. For six years he was a gunner in a tank, surviving when many didn’t because he shot first and asked questions later. It kept his crew alive throughout the war and his proudest possession was his photo of him with them.