I was always set up to be a ninja villain instead—in Naruto terms, a hero who never made it, a hero who never found comrades or friends, and an outcast. I was one of three Asian kids at my Catholic kindergarten through junior high school in Ossining, New York, a quiet suburb whose only landmark is Sing Sing Prison. Everyone else was white, including our teachers. The most ethnic school lunches available were tuna sandwiches and pasta with meat sauce. The few times I dropped three dollars on tuna, I was met with pinched noses and claims that Chinese people smell, fart, and shit unlike any other race because there’s something inherently different and disgusting about the way we eat food. It wasn’t until after I graduated that the school added vegetarian options other than frozen pizza and grilled cheese. Last time I checked the menu, it even included a vegetable. Even when I was drafting my valedictorian speech, I had the condescending, white eyes of my grammar teacher tell me that normalcy isn’t a real word. Naruto, however, would have had the courage to talk back. I didn’t. I let my speech do all the talking and dropped the mic on 500 white people, all shocked that I ended up as the representative of the Class of 2012.
The bullying at home was somewhat predictable—a side-effect of first-generationness. It was just harder to accept. I’m the only child of two Chinese immigrants who grew up and achieved the absolute most in Shanghai and still came to New York City for more. They grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, which only hardened their drive to struggle, survive, and overcome anything. My mom’s first gig in New York zapped her from a shared Brooklyn basement to a three-floor Westchester townhouse. My dad spent his childhood begging for scraps in Szechuan and ended up thirty floors up on Fashion Avenue. China’s hyper-nationalism shaped my parents’ lives and ended up shaping mine more than I would have liked. Since elementary school, my parents were taught to call the Japanese guizi, or devils, for the bloodshed and tragedies committed during the Japanese invasions of China.
I remember sitting across from my mother, asking for historical clarification, as she recited “qi, qi, lugouqiao”—seven, seven, Lugou Bridge—like a Chinese proverb. The Lugou Bridge Incident ramped up already existing tensions between the Chinese and Japanese armies and marked the bloody start of the Second Sino-Japanese War.
So from my parents’ anti-Japanese childhood to their hyperproductive adulthoods, it came naturally that they resented their golden child for dedicating hours of her life to watching Naruto. While I was honing my ninja run, both at school and home all I heard were high-pitched mockings of the Japanese language, of Naruto, of my only friends.
Even a few episodes of Naruto itself messed with my head. I found out that my favorite character, Sasuke, my first ever crush, had his whole clan massacred, and as a result, he went rogue and left the village to avenge his bloodline. I think this is where my villainhood arc got juicy. I was so absolutely devastated by this plotline I stopped hugging my pillow pretending it was Sasuke—never mind the distress that my first crush wasn’t even a real human.
By the fifth grade, the original run of Naruto ended after 220 episodes and was becoming another aspect of my life I couldn’t exactly keep up with. My Sundays consisted of language classes, PSAT prep, finishing up regular homework, piano practice, and parental screaming. I didn’t have the energy for Naruto anymore.
In the meantime, Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto had moved on to developing a new series, Naruto Shippuden, which follows Naruto’s teenage and young adult years. The last time we see kid Naruto, he vows to bring Sasuke back to the village, and embarks on four years of hard training. For Shippuden, Naruto comes back as a battle-hardened man, and I came back streaming on VIZ.com, unaware that the business trips my dad was taking to China maybe foreshadowed his leaving the house like Sasuke left the village.
Shippuden also came back with a bang, teasing Naruto’s reunion with Sasuke. His hard training was finally about to pay off—except it took another 50 episodes before we actually chronologically made it to that moment. For context, the diehard Naruto audience had to wait two years, ten months, and nine days to see Naruto and Sasuke back together in any meaningful way, grown and now hating each other. From age seven to twelve, I waited, mourning the way Sasuke violently knocked out the girl who loved him and tried to stop him from leaving. And, fuck, Sasuke still doesn’t come back.
My dad didn’t come back either. My life felt like an anime where I was now a full-fledged villain. The ninja way I had inherited from Naruto, the determination to achieve, enlighten, and never give up, had gotten completely warped. The vigor with which I once had pursued goodness and Hokage-ness I was now misdirecting into self-harm and eating disorders.