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The Choke Artist
Confessions of a Chronic Underachiever
By David Yoo
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In often cringe-inducing episodes, David Yoo perfectly captures the cycle of failure and fear from childhood through adulthood with brutal honesty Whether he’s wearing four layers of clothing to artificially beef up his slim frame, routinely testing highlighters against his forearm to see if he indeed has yellow skin, or preemptively sabotaging promising relationships to avoid being compared to former boyfriends, Yoo celebrates and skewers the insecurities of anxious people everywhere.
Table of Contents
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Gangs of New England
I FORMED MY FIRST posse junior year of high school. There were three of us: me, my best friend, Jay, and his best friend, Chris. What initially brought us together was our mutual love of rap music. That, and we were three of the bigger losers at Avon High. Previously, I'd been a member of the elite soccer crew. It was the main sport in school—the football team sucked, and at one point the varsity soccer team was ranked second in the country, according to the USA Today national rankings. Just being on the team carried serious social cachet, but I didn't get along with the coach at all, and startlingly soon after quitting I had a major falling-out with my friends and found myself temporarily sitting by myself at lunch. I needed new compadres, fast, and the only two guys in school who weren't part of an established clique already were Jay and Chris.
They hung out by themselves because they didn't play sports, and on top of that, they were from the poor part of town. Or relatively poor, at least. Avon was absurdly wealthy, so to clarify: by "poor" I mean "squarely ensconced in the middle class." But within the utterly unrealistic microcosm of society that was Avon, they were the closest thing to burnouts at our school. While most guys were working up a sweat playing sports or freely making out with one another in the privacy of drama rehearsal, these two still rode Mongoose dirt bikes with plastic fluorescent green pegs on both sides of their back tires, practicing bunny hops and rail slides outside Chucky's food store on West Avon Road after school. Suffice it to say, socially this was a giant step down for me, but I desperately needed a new crew, and they were my only viable option.
I was stunned when I found out they listened to rap music, too. I'd tagged them as typical skate punks, whereas it made perfect sense that I would get obsessed with rap, since I was the closest thing to a black kid in town. Well, there actually was one real black kid in my grade, but definitely anytime he was out sick from school I was easily the next best thing, simply due to the fact that—as an Asian kid—I was pretty much the only other male student of color within town limits. Although now I can see how he might have secretly resented it, back then I was always deeply jealous of the fact that everyone assumed the black kid was tough just for being black, while my skin tone suggested to everyone that I was a bookish nerd destined to one day steal engineering jobs from them before getting selected as an alternate for the Olympic table tennis team. Nobody would believe that I was in reality a C student and an utter nightmare for my parents at home, and this glaring oversight distressed me to no end.
I'd gotten introduced to rap freshman year by Trent, a junior on the JV soccer team. On weekends he'd pick me up in his dad's Buick Regal and speed around town blasting his homemade "Best of Rap" mix tapes, and over a semester I received a thorough and surprisingly nuanced schooling in rap music, not just learning to appreciate Big Daddy Kane's "Raw" and Kool Moe Dee's "Let's Go," but also developing a certain measure of respect for the few female rappers at the time—MC Lyte, Silk Tymes Leather, and the Cookie Crew; we'd nod our heads to Salt-N-Pepa's "Let the Rhythm Run" as we barreled up and down Route 44 on sunny afternoons. On the rare occasion when we'd get tired of listening to rap, Trent would replay the opening seven seconds of Winger's "Seventeen" at full blast for literally several hours straight.
Every day after school and on weekends throughout the fall of junior year, Jay, Chris, and I would fanatically listen to rap and compose original rap songs. We transcribed all of our favorites by Run-DMC, Ice-T, and the like into a five-subject notebook and then we'd take turns reciting "Rock Box" and "Colors" and "Express Yourself" back to one another. Since I was the ringleader (because I was the only member who could sort of beat-box), I got to come up with the name for our little posse: D-Lite. The "D" stood for Dave, and the "Lite" was a reference to how all three of us were really skinny. I was positioning us to be the answer to the Fat Boys; at one point I sincerely believed we were destined to take over the world—all we needed was a great demo tape. We kept the name until the actual group Deee-Lite came out at the end of the school year and we were forced to immediately drop it. Shoving a frightened frosh guy against the lockers and informing him, "Yo, you just got marked by D-Lite, homeslice," didn't carry any menace to it anymore because merely saying our posse name now conjured up the dance club hit "Groove Is in the Heart."
Chris was psyched we had to ditch the name D-Lite, because he hated it from day one. He was way into gangsta rap, and constantly wore paisley doo-rags that matched his Gap turtlenecks, and over Christmas break he armed himself with a bunch of replica BB gun pistols he bought at Service Merchandise. I'll give him his props—Chris was easily the closest thing to a legitimate thug in our hometown, but that wasn't saying much, given Avon's aforementioned standing as an affluent, lily-white suburb nestled in the financially fertile Farmington Valley of Connecticut. He memorized every line of every song in N.W.A's Straight Outta Compton and, in retrospect, was part of the very first generation of suburban white boys who listened to gangsta rap and felt comfortable pretending they were black because there weren't any real black kids around.
He got horrible grades and was one of maybe three students in shop class. While at first I was admittedly a little embarrassed to be associated with him, I soon found that his failure in school and general outsiderness were precisely what made me feel like I could relate to him in a way I never quite could to my rich soccer buds. In high school even the slightest difference is ridiculously escalated in the eyes of the general populace, and at first I wasn't immune to thinking he was a social leper simply due to the road he lived on, but as we got to know each other I grew to appreciate the fact that, personality-wise, at least the guy had a pulse. And there was a bonus perk to his loserdom as well—his relatively impoverished upbringing offered a sense of legitimacy to our posse; I may have been the de facto closest thing to a black guy in town, but he was by far the closest thing to poor.
Jay was the best break-dancer of the trio, so we nicknamed him Jo-Jo Dancer, which he obviously hated. He could do all the old-school break-dancing moves (which at the time I suppose were relatively new school) to perfection. Jay was a true disciple of MC Hammer long before the rapper became a preacher. He temporarily felt unmoored the night he finally saw Hammer in concert at the Hartford Civic Center; Vanilla Ice had opened up the show, and it turned out he was an even better dancer. Once I got to know Jay, I was surprised to find that not only was he a really nice guy, but he actually got really good grades, too. Way better than mine, at least. He was truly the one guy out of the three of us who deserved better, which I secretly reasoned made him the most likely to get shot in a drive-by someday.
At D-Lite's creative peak junior year, I'd sit in my dad's La-Z-Boy on a Friday night and beat-box while Chris stood on the sofa angrily rapping my lyrics as Jay vigorously did the worm back and forth across the living room floor. We probably could have won the Avon High talent show that year if we'd had the collective nuts to perform our material in public.
Given my undeserved tag as a typical brainy Asian nerd, I was known (among the posse members, at least) as the cerebral one, not only because I was mistakenly presumed to be a genius, but also because I'd discovered A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul and I worshipped KRS-One's skills as a word wordsmith. I spent hours and hours every night writing my own raps instead of doing my homework, a fitting transition from my extended phase of penning dirty limericks for my own "private" entertainment. Most of my raps started with the phrase, "My name is D-Smoov and I gots a story to tell…" I used a lot of tennis metaphors in my unique brand of depressingly realistic, cautionary suburban tales about topics ranging from getting unfairly profiled as a bad element by mall security and acquiring "the food poisoning" from sampling orange chicken at the food court, to the nearly indescribable heartache of losing yet another brother… to private school.
When I look back on us now, I realize we were probably considered jokes at school, but we each had our reasons for wanting to be gangstas, especially me. Pretty much the second my family moved back to the States from Seoul, Korea, in the summer before third grade, I immediately started developing what would eventually, by the time I reached high school, turn into a full-blown, deep-seated ambivalence toward my ethnicity. This was due to the simple fact that in Avon I was the token Asian guy, and basically my entire adolescence was spent trying to not be seen as different.
* * *
BACK WHEN I WAS IN elementary school, anytime friends were due to visit I'd desperately try to remove all traces of my family's heritage inside our house, figuring it was obvious enough that we were Asian, why shove it in their faces like that? Mom was perpetually at her wit's end trying to get me to clean my room, but the prospect of having a sleepover would bring out the Mary Poppins in me, as I'd secretly cart all of the ancient family heirlooms down into the basement. I'd pull together the fancy rice-paper wall in my dad's office and stuff it in the closet and take down any framed pictures of us in traditional Korean hanbok outfits, sliding them under the sofa in the living room. The ring of the doorbell was downright Pavlovian, as I'd race to the kitchen to abscond with the big jar of kimchi from the fridge into the bathroom and then methodically stuff cold handfuls down the toilet, in a panic shoving a phallic hunk of moo kimchi down the front of my tighty-whities as I frantically flushed the cabbagey toilet with my free hand.
Going anywhere public with my friends was an exercise in subterfuge, as I tried to be invisible (unwittingly trying to be a ninja), hoping no kids from other towns would realize an Asian kid was in their vicinity and hurl slurs in my direction and embarrass me in front of my friends. But they always saw me, and I always cringed, praying to God that my friends hadn't heard boys from other towns calling me a squinty-eyed gook or something, and eventually I stopped going to the mall with my friends completely.
To make matters worse, I had the added misfortune of starting high school in the late 1980s in New England, which in hindsight has to be considered the worst time in history to be an Asian-American boy growing up in a white-bread town like the one I grew up in, because people seemed to have only two Asian guys in their lives: me, and Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles. To be perfectly fair, especially cultured people were also familiar with the Japanese guy in Revenge of the Nerds, along with the kid who played Data in The Goonies. Anytime a stranger saw me at McDonald's or the library or wherever, I was fairly certain a gong was going off in his head.
I just didn't see myself as a typical Asian kid. I was aware, of course, that I looked blatantly Korean, but I didn't believe—despite all indications to the contrary—that I looked quite as Asian as other blatantly Asian kids, and it actually confused me in history class when I read in a sorely outdated textbook a reference to Asian people having yellow skin. While I may have been deluded in how people saw me, surely I wasn't color-blind, too? I was suddenly mortified that I would one day wake up with yellow skin, so I started regularly conducting a homemade test whenever the thought came to me, where I drew a line on my forearm with a yellow highlighter—the rationale being that if one day I couldn't see the line, then the prophecy had come true. Self-loathing Native American kids probably had it much worse than me—if they wanted to do the test they'd have to scribble red marker all over their arms.
If my appearance was undoubtedly Asian and there was nothing short of fairly radical plastic surgery that I could do about it, my only choice was to try to hide it physically, as if with the right hairstyle or accoutrement I could trick people into temporarily forgetting that I was Asian. I hated that my physical appearance immediately allowed people to interpret me from a distance, and the main, telltale sign that I was Asian was, of course, my slanted eyes. Naturally I became obsessed with finding the perfect pair of sunglasses to hide them.
I didn't quite go so far as to beg my parents for prescription sunglasses for my hereditarily crappy eyesight, having witnessed the guys on my youth travel soccer team years earlier taunting "the blind kid" who played fullback for Tobacco Valley, but it was a moot point anyway, because I soon realized that sunglasses only solved part of the problem. Never mind the fact that to hide any proof of my slitty eyes I'd have to wear incredibly dark sunglasses, the kind you can't quite see out of, no pair of sunglasses hid my really high eyebrows. Since Asians lack the upper eyelid fold, my eyebrows were set higher than those of my white classmates, and I wasted my allowance every month trying to buy bigger and bigger sunglasses. I prayed for the day big goofy sunglasses, the cheap plastic kind babies are forced to wear at state fairs in the summer, would come into fashion so I could hide my weird, gravity-defying eyebrows.
The compromise was to wear a white baseball cap really low, like a recently furloughed Beetle Bailey (or, more aptly, Corporal Yo). By curving the brim in a plastic cup every night and pulling it down low enough, I felt that my eyes seemed somewhat hidden, or at least shadowed to plausible deniability, while my embarrassing eyebrows were completely concealed under the brim and, to boot, my glaringly black hair was mostly covered as well. My hair was flat and black, but in certain light I swore you could see red highlights, which I made a point of showing to people whenever the opportunity arose, as if it would suggest to them that I was a quarter Irish. The only negative side effect to wearing my white baseball cap so low was that I had to tip my head back just to see, and as a result I perpetually had a crick in my neck.
Unfortunately, even with the hat on I still felt glaringly Asian-looking. The fact was, everything about me, physically, appalled me. Even the mole on my right cheek seemed kind of "foreign" to me, and one afternoon I actually cut it off with a fingernail clipper. The pain was excruciating. I examined the leathery fleck of brown skin on the pad of my index finger for a minute before surreptitiously flushing it down the toilet. In the mirror I stared at the thin trail of blood on my cheek and deemed it simply the price you pay for fitting in. Alas, the mole miraculously grew back a few weeks later, a message that I refused to interpret.
My greatest aspiration was not to become a pro athlete or a doctor or a rock star, but simply to have dull brown hair and dangerously fair skin. Looking Asian, I reasoned, was a physical handicap that hurt my chances of becoming popular in the same way other people's physical handicaps killed their chances of climbing the social ladder. My Asian face was no different from the girl with the gigantic purple splotch on her forehead, or obese kids, or the freckly redhead back when I was at Avon Middle School who was mercilessly tortured for vaguely resembling Eric Stoltz. But no matter what I did to hide my Korean face, everyone still saw me as the token Asian guy, and by the time junior year started, I realized I had to find other ways to change how people saw me. Which is to say that if I couldn't be seen as white, no matter what lengths I went to, then being black was the next-best thing, and therefore descending into thug life was a natural fit.
* * *
IT WAS IN THE spring of junior year when our shit got dark. It was inevitable that our posse would take a turn down this cul-de-sac… we saw the movies Boyz n the Hood and New Jack City, and Jay and I finally became enthralled with the gangsta rap that Chris had always been privy to, symbolized by the act of Jay taking down his Kid 'n Play poster and replacing it with an EPMD poster. Having bought into the gangsta aesthetic as well, I went out and purchased a replica 9 millimeter air gun at Service Merchandise along with a year's supply of CO2 cartridges and mastered shooting Coke cans in my backyard after school using a sideways grip. I started wearing my Ellesse tennis warm-ups, including the shiny, crinkle-nylon sweatpants, to school every day, and I ransacked my mom's jewelry box for thick gold chains; she didn't have any, so one day I wore my grandmother's emerald brooch to school. Let's just say it did not have the desired effect.
As a result of our descent into pseudothuggery, Chris grabbed the reins of leadership from me. That year we spent our weekends tooling around in his dad's somewhat pimpish navy-blue Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera and blaring Public Enemy out the sorely inadequate back speakers, giving ourselves temporary tinnitus every night. I wouldn't classify the car stereo as a boomin' system, since it was all tweeter, but if you listened to "Terminator X" long enough it could sometimes make your nose start hemorrhaging. Chris wore out his dad's set of all-weather tires riding the gas and brakes simultaneously to simulate hydraulic shocks as he manually made the car rise and pitch forward like some drunken metal beast whenever we rolled through the McDonald's parking lot on Route 44. He taught Jay and me how to drive like gangstas—just push the seat all the way back, lean your head against the window, cock your baseball cap sideways, and fist the wheel with your right elbow locked, supporting your chin with your left hand as you occasionally nod along to the beat with your lips pursed.
We acted tough and within town lines felt like authentic gangbangers—one night we tormented a Westminster prep school alum in a hunter-green Volvo 740 wagon who had made the unfortunate error of flashing us for not having our headlights on, which we'd intentionally killed, of course, as we came from the opposite direction. Chris slammed on the brakes and clipped the curb as we spun around and proceeded to redline it after her. We alternated between tailing her and swerving alongside her and leaning on the horn all the way down Arch Road. At a stop sign, Jay lobbed a medium-sized McDonald's strawberry shake like a grenade and it splattered all over her back window, covering up her older siblings' liberal arts college stickers. She was so terrified she peeled out into oncoming traffic and nearly got totaled.
A few minutes later we stopped at a red light and realized the car next to us was the same woman in the Volvo. She was glaring at us, realizing we were just obnoxious, pimply high school dicks. I rolled down the window. "Sorry about that, ma'am, our bad," I said sheepishly. She shot me the bird, and when the light turned green we sat there for several seconds and let her take off first.
"That was wick wick wack," Jay said, adding, "And I don't mean that in a good way."
We went to one and only one rap concert, and it turned out to be the beginning of the end of our posse. On a Friday night in April we drove to the Springfield Civic Center to see my hero, KRS-One. It was our pilgrimage to Mecca and fall from innocence all wrapped up in one. The whole ride up we cheerfully talked about how we were finally going to be surrounded by people more like us, fellow rap lovers, and we cheerfully shouted along to "Ya Slippin' " and "Part Time Suckers" and "9 Millimeter Goes Bang." We were all wearing Gap paisley doo-rags at this point, not just Chris, and we completed the ensemble with baggy plaid button-downs with only the top button buttoned over plain white tees. Chris even wore a hairnet under his doo-rag under his sideways baseball cap, and understandably he was sweating profusely beneath all that headgear.
When we got to the arena and parked in the underground lot we saw that everyone was black, which was initially absolutely terrifying, as we'd spent the previous sixteen years of our lives only seeing this many black people on TV when they showed the crowd in old footage of MLK speeches. As our nerves began to settle, however, we increasingly felt like we blended in rather nicely with our outfits, but then I realized everyone was staring at us. I wished we'd at least worn the same color doo-rags, but it didn't matter, because we weren't even wearing them right in the first place—we looked more like pirates than genuine hoods. I got the distinct impression that everyone might collectively jump us at any moment, and I could tell Jay felt the palpable air of impending menace, too, but Chris was thoroughly oblivious; he had a glint in his eye that I hadn't seen all year. "This is seriously dope," he whispered to us as we joined the throng of black teens heading into the concert hall.
There were a half dozen opening acts, including flash-in-the-pan duo Das EFX, who were kind of cheesy, but finally KRS-One came on, just him and a DJ, and it was better than I ever could have imagined. Only I couldn't relax and fully enjoy it, not only because there were state troopers lining the balcony with their 12-gauges silhouetted just like in The Blues Brothers (or maybe my memory's merged the concert with that scene from the movie), but because two other things happened: One, we got seats on the floor and stood on metal folding chairs like everyone else and midway during the show the giant yellow spotlights shined down on just the three of us and KRS-One pointed and shouted, "Let me get a shout-out for the three white boys in the audience!" and everyone laughed at us without smiling, and it was incredibly humiliating (which felt weird for me, given the fact that in any other scenario I would have loved to have been mistaken for a white guy), and Jay leaned over and whispered in my ear, "We are so going to die," and I squeezed his right arm and whimpered back, "I know!" And two, toward the end of the show, a menacing six-foot-seven guy (who seemed even taller because of his full Afro, which had like three hair picks embedded in it, like ticks) wearing army fatigues and ominously purple-stained shitkickers got friendly with Chris and offered to share a spliff with him. Chris had never smoked pot before, but he saw this as an initiation into blackdom and leapt at the opportunity. Jay and I encouraged him because we were certain it was a test, and if Chris refused surely it would mean our asses. He ferociously smoked half the spliff, which in hindsight I'm fairly certain was laced with angel dust, and he got so messed up that Jo-Jo Dancer had to sit in the backseat and hold Chris's head in his lap and gently stroke the slick hair behind his ears and softly serenade "Mind Playing Tricks on Me" by the Geto Boys to him the entire drive back.
* * *
AS I'D NOTED EARLIER, in order to achieve my reverse version of MLK's dream, I had to work overtime to hide all evidence of my heritage, which only made me hate my older sister, Liz, even more than I already did. Not only did she look way more Asian than me (or so I thought at the time), which simultaneously made me feel better about myself and frustrated to no end by my association with her, but she'd also immediately pursued becoming the very definition of a "model minority" once we'd moved back to the States. Basically she studied her tail off and practiced the violin six hours a day because she didn't really have any friends at school, and to excel at everything else was her only form of revenge on the rejecting masses.
I felt it was such a selfish drive to succeed on her part, giving no consideration to the fact that she was paving the way for me to be unfairly typecast in high school. The good thing about realizing she was the typical model minority was that I finally found something I could be better at than her, for once. If I wasn't going to be as successful in tennis as she was with the violin, if I wasn't going to be Ivy League bound like her, I could at least carve out my own identity by being the first Yoo to actually be popular in high school. Therefore, in response to the existence of my sister, and to the subtle but persistent racism consisting of muttered slurs and slanty-eyed faces, I focused on my social life, and by the time I was sixteen I'd fully transformed into a hyperaggressive, obnoxiously outspoken screwup.
For the record, I call the racism I experienced subtle because whenever I mention it, I always end up feeling like a poseur—I was never hosed by the police or forced to ride in the back of the bus or anything like that. Actually, I was forced to ride in the front of the bus, which when you're a teen boy is the equivalent of a Rosa Parks scenario, for I would have killed to hang out with the popular kids in the back. At any rate, I desperately tried to change people's visual perception of me. The one convenient thing about my self-loathing was that it fit perfectly with my embracing of the recent epiphany that I was physically incapable of succeeding under the considerable shadow of my overachieving older sister, which made busting stereotypes about being an academic genius a cakewalk.
Liz was in her senior year at Yale by the time I'd started junior year of high school, and rather than serve as an inspiration for me (as my parents had hoped), I instead saw her as a complete failure—precisely what I didn't want to turn into: the cliché successful Asian teen with no social life to speak of. My goal back in high school was to be the polar opposite of my sister, which meant that I made a concerted effort to not study, to not excel at anything, and I took a weird pride in molding myself into that rarity: the underachieving Asian-American teenager.
* * *
THE NIGHT OF THE KRS-One concert was a turning point for our little posse, not only because Chris almost died, but because we each came away from it realizing in varying degrees that something major was missing from our "gangsta" lives. Despite how obsessed I was with rap music, I realized that night, standing among a couple thousand black guys listening to KRS-One, that the music meant something more to them. All three of us had no choice but to reluctantly admit to ourselves that there was a major element of make-believe we had to employ in order to make the music and lifestyle even remotely viable for us. I for one felt like a total sham and cringed for the next few weeks listening to my favorite album, P.E.'s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, even in the privacy of my official Wimbledon-wallpapered bedroom with deluxe Sony headphones on. Going to the concert only accentuated to me and Jay the fact that we were just a couple of spoiled suburban boys from Avon, feeling badass listening to music that didn't really belong to us.
- On Sale
- Jun 19, 2012
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing