I thought summer camp would be endless fun. My two best friends were going and I wanted to go with them so badly I asked my dad to lie about my age so I could get in. I was seven and you were supposed to be eight. Dad liked my spunk, so he changed my birthday on the application and I got to go to the two-week overnight camp. On Father's Day I always remember this story with gratitude and want to share it with you.
Camp Russell wasn’t quite what I had dreamed about. It wasn't a rich kids’ camp, but the Boy’s Club camp and was full of tough kids from all over the city. I was scared and tried not to be noticed, but as the only Asian kid there I stood out everywhere I went. Kids would whisper to each other when I walked by or shout from a distance, "Hey Jap" or “Ching, Chong, Chinaman!” and everyone would laugh or pretend to speak Chinese. I didn’t know what to do. There were too many and they were too big to fight. So I pretended not to hear anything and no one approached me or threatened me. I was big for my age and I heard them joking that I knew karate.
But even though the kids didn’t want to fight me I was still scared. I was afraid that the whole gang would overwhelm me and beat me. I dreaded the threat of violence. I was terrified of the hatred in their faces and words. And I couldn’t understand why they hated me when they didn’t even know me.
And while I avoided violence my friends didn't. Joey was already shaving at nine and when Shaun made fun of him for being so hairy Joey chased him and swung at him not realizing he had a razor blade in his hand. Shaun screamed as blood spurted out of his neck and Joey started crying hysterically, apologizing like a madman. Both kids were sent home leaving me alone. All my boldness in wanting to go to an overnight camp for bigger kids was gone and I was scared by my first time away from home with no friends. I felt homesick and every night in bed in the dark cabin I wished I was home with mommy and daddy and my big sisters.
After a week of camp parents were allowed to visit. When my mom and dad came to see me they asked, “How’s camp?” “It’s okay,” I lied. I wanted to be tough, but somehow I couldn't hide my pain any longer and started to whimper. I put my head down and began to sob, my little body shaking. I had never cried before in front of my dad. My dad never cried and neither did I. As his only son, I knew he wanted me to be strong and I didn’t want him to think I was a weak sissy. But he put his arm around me and held me to his big chest. So I let it all out.
I didn’t explain much, just that kids were calling me names and my friends were gone. My dad said gently, “That’s okay Steve, you can come home. You don’t have to stay.”
But it was funny, because as soon as he said that, suddenly I didn’t feel like going home any more. After I calmed down and wiped my tears away, I told them I was staying. They lingered a little longer that afternoon, thinking I might change my mind, but when they saw that I was firm in my decision they went home without me, leaving me there for the final week.
I don't remember much else about camp. But I have never forgotten those events. Now I realize that my dad gave me a great gift that day. Even though he must have felt disappointed that I had failed at my great adventure, he didn't show it. He let me be vulnerable and frail. He accepted me with my weaknesses. He let me cry and comforted me. And that gave me the courage to go on. Looking back on my life I am forever grateful to my father for his tender compassion. When I became a dad myself and had two boys of my own I remembered how he had treated me and have trusted that they too will find courage in accepting their vulnerability.
Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu teaches psychology at Stanford University and Fielding Graduate University and is the author of When Half is Whole, Multicultural Encounters, and Synergy, Healing and Empowerment.
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