Jeffrey LewisPekin, Illinois

Slightly off topic today, but a friend alerted me to a New York Times Magazine feature that used the idiotic xenophobia of my hometown — Pekin, IL — to illustrate the pervasive impact of globalization:

China used to be far away, the country at the bottom of the world. Certainly that must be how it seemed just 20 years ago in a place like Pekin, Ill., a city of 34,000 residents on the Illinois River that took its name from the Chinese capital in the 1820/’s. According to local legend, Pekin is directly opposite Beijing on the globe. The high-school teams there were still called the Chinks until 1981, when they were renamed the Dragons. A smart and forward-looking decision, it turns out: as is happening throughout the United States, the Pekinese [It/’s Pekinites–JGL.] have in their own local ways grown inextricably linked to the Chinese of today. They are now connected not by an imaginary hole through the earth but by the world/’s shipping lanes, financial markets, telecommunications networks and, above all, the globalization of appetites.

Of course, the author leaves the impression that Pekin is embracing globalization, by noting the “smart and forward-looking decision” to drop the offensive monikor Chinks. That isn/’t exactly how it happened, and the real story says something much more interesting about the future of globalization, especially when imposed over the objections of a local community.

As I know the story, the Illinois Human Relations Commission suggested the High School change the mascot, but the students voted 10-1 to to keep Chinks. Eventually, the Administration changed the name, over the objections of the local community and the student body.

How did globalization by fiat fare in Pekin? More than twenty years later, home for the holidays, I decided to pick up a Chinks T-Shirt because no one ever believes a High School would select such a ridiculous name. Pop and I rolled over to the T-Shirt House (on South 2nd Street in Pekin). I found no Chinks — and, tellingly, very little Dragons — regalia. Pop isn/’t shy. He sauntered over to the desk to inquire with the clerk who, after surveying the store from behind the desk (presumably to ensure no Chinese were shopping), led us into a reasonably-sized, back room with every manner of Chinks memorabilia right down to letterman jackets.

Like the Confederate flags adorning local pick-up trucks, Pekin Chinks continues to linger, reflecting the persistent hold that hatred exerts upon the human mind. I own a Pekin Chinks T-shirt to prove it.