PARTING SHOTS: THE WAYWARD CAREER OF THE G-WORD: ‘G.O.O.K is a four-letter word’

In this day and age of Political Correctness, you seldom hear the G-word uttered in our public or even private conversations. It’s frowned upon at any public discourse, especially among the American-born generations, ever since the Great Awakening of Asian Americans in the 1970s and 1980s.

For this FOB (Fresh Off the Boat) immigrant from Korea, however, the racial slur did hardly rattle my Teflon nerves, since my slow-boat-to-America generation had been exposed to racial epithets routinely bandied about among different ethnic groups.

But it’s instructive for the younger generations who have grown up in the PC years to get some historical perspective of not only the G-word but other epithets in the fast-evolving demographics of this nation.

One quick way to get the update is the legendary movie icon Clint Eastwood’s film, “Gran Torino,” in which Eastwood dare uses all kinds of racial slurs as the bitter, foul-mouthed Korean War veteran to promote the spirit of multiracial tolerance and understanding. In a London interview Eastwood groused, “People have lost their sense of humor … In former times we constantly made jokes about different races … but we didn’t think anything of it or have a racist thought.”

I recall another public flare-up over Vietnam War hero Sen. John McCain’s unwitting G-word gaffe disparaging Vietnamese during the heat of his abortive presidential campaign.

And let me go back to a Jim Crow time when I came to bear witness to the strange, wayward career of the G-word, as fickle as the shifting sands of changing times.

The year was 1956, still in the shadow of the bloody three-year “police action” in Korea and a year after Mama Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the “white” section of a Montgomery bus.

And a funny thing happened on my police/court beat while I was working for a Tennessee city daily as a cub reporter — probably the first and lone Asian reporter laboring in the South, warily navigating in the twilight zone of segregation where black folks couldn’t dare cross the color lines.

Back home in South Korea, I had been often admonished by my apprehensive elders that I must follow the racial customs of the South, where people of color were segregated under the law. While in Rome, they warned, do as Romans do. And I was determined to follow that piece of advice in the interest of sheer survival.

Part of my reporting chores at the Kingsport Times-News — the Monday morning proceedings in both City and General Sessions (county) courts — were hectic, drawing the usual ragtag collection of weekend warriors charged with fights and stabbings, public drunkenness, prostitution, speeding, DUIs and the like.

As I was walking past a long line of bleary-eyed, disheveled defendants, along with an escorting jailer who had just returned from a military tour of Korea, I heard someone yelling, “Hey, gook, come here.”

That G-word was jarring to my ears. During my southern sojourn, I had grown accustomed to the all-too-familiar sounds of “Chinaman,” a mild appellation reserved for Orientals among the polite circles, or “Chink,” in usage among the less-refined lower-class. I would simply brush off those slurs since I wasn’t still familiar enough with the slang.

Back in South Korea I had occasionally run into street scenes where some irate GIs dogged by urchins begging for candies and chewing gum would hurl the G-word at the pursuing pack. The made-in-Korea GI slur apparently had spread into popular lingo in the American South.

Automatically I turned around, shouting back in the direction of the taunting voice, “Are you talkin’ to me?”

Come to think of it, I was an early incarnation of the paranoid Travis (portrayed by my favorite actor Robert De Niro) freak-speaking into a mirror in the movie “Taxi Driver.”

“Are you talkin’ to me?” I repeated, half-scared.

“Yeah, I am talkin’ to you, gook” snarled the mousy-looking jailhouse habitué from a nearby mountain hamlet.

“I’m no gook — I am Korean,” I blurted out.

“Yeah, you are gook all right, boy. Come here and wipe my a–.”

The accompanying jailer was visibly agitated, “Lee, are you goin’ to put up with this s—? Are you chickens—?”

That’s when I found myself between a rock and a hard place. I was deep in Jim Crow Country, and I must stick with my assignment as a reporter, come rain or sleet. How could I create an incident while on duty, an unpardonable sin for a cub reporter to commit?

You could slice the tense air with a knife. The leering faces of the jailhouse bunch were fixed on me. The Korean War veteran I had befriended pushed me into a corner where I had to defend my Oriental face.

The guard came to my aid. “I will arrest the bum on a public profanity charge if you just file a complaint with me,” he whispered.

With my shaking hand I dashed off my complaint. At that moment of heat, neither the jailer nor I the reporter realized that the G-word was no profanity. It was a slur, just like the N-word uttered so casually in daily conversations among white folks in those days. It had little to do with religion or deity. But it didn’t matter.

The presiding judge, wearing a huge Santa Claus nose and tipsy half the time while on the bench, was sober this time. When the prosecutor called the case, it was my turn to become an accuser, instead of being an observer.

And His Honor, who would inject the N-word almost every paragraph in our small talk in his private chamber, was at the judgment seat on the G-word.

“Did this defendant call you a name — G-O-O-K?”

“Yes, your Honor,” I mumbled, half in embarrassment.

Southern justice was swift.

“In my court, G-O-O-K is a four -letter word.” The judge banged his gavel, “Guilty!”

The word spread fast to my city editor, an AA member on the wagon for nearly a year. To my shock and relief, he didn’t fire me. Instead he insisted, “Be sure to include the item in your story, just to warn them town drunks.”

My next morning article’s last paragraph read: “The public profanity charge was brought by Times-News reporter K. W. Lee against a Church Hill man. (General Sessions Court) Judge S. G. Gilbreath levied a fine of $25 plus cost.”

I didn’t dare spell the four-letter word in the Bible Belt family newspaper.

K.W. (Kyung Won) Lee worked for 40 years as a reporter, editor and publisher in both mainstream and ethnic journalism. He is best known for authoring an investigative series on the 1974 San Francisco Chinatown gangland murder conviction of immigrant Chol Soo Lee. In 1979, Lee founded the first national English-language Korean American newspaper, the Koreatown Weekly.

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