My niece Sophia sent me a picture she drew once of “all the people of the world.” She wanted to send it to me because she knew I traveled a lot and she wanted to travel like her aunt Hyejin someday.
There were four women in the picture, carefully colored with marker and all holding hands. The Korean woman was on the left, dressed in a traditional hanbok dress with black plaited hair over her shoulder; next to her was what my niece said was a Mexican woman with a multi-colored fiesta skirt flaring out from her legs; next to her was a Japanese woman, a bun on top of her head and a red kimono buttoned up the front; and on the far right, an American, bright blonde hair, blue eyes, and a sun dress.
When she called on the phone to ask if I liked it, I told her it was beautiful. I hung it by my door so I could see it every time I left the apartment.
As I held Anna in her sleep, I could barely keep my eyes open against the late hour’s passing. It was early in the relationship, and nights we’d stay up talking, lying in the lamplight, arms wrapped around each other, and when the music stopped and the night sounds quieted, we’d provide the soundtrack, the laugh track, the songs. But this time she fell asleep almost right away. She closed her eyes, held me. And I only realized she’d fallen asleep when I heard her teeth start clicking.
She wasn’t cold, it was just this thing. Her teeth grinding.
“What?” she mumbled when I nudged her awake. Her eyes blinked open, and she smiled.
I kissed her forehead. “Nothing. It’s nothing.”
When my family first moved to the United States, I was in fifth grade. I didn’t speak the language well, and while most teachers took extra time with me to help me, I remember this one history teacher who refused because she thought I wasn’t trying hard enough. I didn’t always do the assignments, but that was mostly because I couldn’t understand all of them. I thought maybe she was racist, but I didn’t know. I asked her for help one afternoon, and she said she was busy. Five minutes later, a couple white girls asked her the same thing, and she said, “Sure, of course, anytime.”
To this day, I don’t know if it was an error in translation, or if it really happened.
Anna is white. White and blonde. But not the highlighter blonde people in other countries imagine Americans to be. A dirty, brown-blonde that’s almost all brown. When we met, Anna said she spent a lot of the summer in the sun, so her hair was even lighter than usual.
I wonder what my family would say if I brought a woman home for chuseok. Or American Thanksgiving. Or any other random day of the year.
I dated a white guy once for almost a year, and all Mom could say about him was that he was “nice” and wore “nice shoes.” She only said the latter part because he didn’t take them off when he came into the house, a pet peeve my mom had always had with the American kids I hung around with when I was in high school and that continued into my adulthood. I’d imagined our hapa babies and remembered when my friend in college told me mixed kids were always the most beautiful. I’d nodded because I didn’t know what else to say.
Anna and I are walking to K-Town one night, full on sushi and sake, tramping on the hard concrete, watching the numbers of the streets descend. Her arm is locked in mine, and the late fall air is pressing cold to our cheeks. Scarves and gloves, her body warm against me. She’s talking about work, her boss who always takes credit for her successes, the grant that got rejected the day before. The air turns white with our breaths. We stop at a street corner.
Beside us, ground-floor property is transforming into a store, or from one store to another, it’s unclear. Big glass windows let us look in, the brightly lit room, all gutted, wires and ducts poking out from all over, dry wall demolished in parts, jagged edges jabbing toward the ceiling. The cement floor is littered with debris, brooms and abandoned tools.
I want to tell her that this is where she finds me, this is what we have to begin with.
I don’t know why I think this.
The light changes. She tugs on my arm as she pulls me across the street.
I visited my niece in Los Angeles once. My older sister lives there with her husband. We were playing with Sophia’s Barbies. She told me their names—Ariel, Samantha, Ellie, Brittany, and others I don’t remember. She pointed to them, one blonde-haired one, then another. “This one’s my favorite,” she said, pointing to the youngest-looking one, her face frozen in an obligatory smile. “Mommy said she’d get me another for Christmas. I want the new gymnastics one. She can even do backbends.”
I looked at the dolls all lined up, long blonde and brunette hair, shaded eyes, toes pointed like ballerinas.
When Anna tells me I’m gorgeous, I can’t believe her. “Why don’t you show off your body more?” she asks one night, running a hand down my side.
But I feel like I’m all angles and no curves. A sharp jaw line. Too much muscle and not enough of the American softness that Anna says comes from eating too much pizza and fast food.
I just shrug and tell her that I’m not a showy person and “aren’t the jeans I wore tonight tight enough for you?”
My grandmother told me once that none of the Korean movie stars could act anymore. “Their faces are so tight from all the surgeries, they can’t make you feel any emotion,” she said.
I watch those new Korean movies from time to time and think about my grade school friends in Korea, and the one whom I still keep in touch with who told me that “Hyejin, men would like you much better if you grew out your hair. And got your eyes done.” Over the years, since we were little, she’s kept a list—the things she’s done and the ones I should do.
She’s married now, two kids. She reminds me of that sometimes, to add to her credibility.
Anna and I first met in a bar in the Lower East Side. She was in this show called “Dykeopalypse,” a weird semi-amateur production that combined end-times humor with dyke drama jokes and jabs at gender theorists. I’d just moved to New York from the D.C. area and wasn’t really out, but most people read me as a dyke anyway, so I let them. A co-worker at the non-profit where I worked invited me.
Anna was a post-apocalyptic zombie. She came up to the bar after the show, makeup off, and I told her she looked great undead. She laughed but looked at my friend, possibly to reconfirm that I wasn’t an idiot, and then said being a part of the undead made her parched. I promptly bought her a drink.
My mom asks me when I’m going to have babies, tells me she’s waiting for a son—or a daughter, anything. She tells me she’s modern, that a son or daughter would do, that in America either could carry on the family name, really, because people do all kinds of things here. All kinds of things are possible.
“Where is this going?” Anna asks one day. She’s made dinner for me—lasagna and salad.
I cooked for her the weekend before. She wanted Korean food, the things my mom had made when I was a kid. I made kimchi stew, waited for her to scrunch her nose, knew it would be too spicy, knew that I was a horrible cook regardless. My aunt always teased me for my cooking, told me I needed to improve to get a husband in the future, that it was good I was smart so I could still have something to offer. But Anna finished the whole bowl, even used the thin metal chopsticks with only a few fumbles. “We grew up eating all kinds of foreign food,” she said, evidently in response to the surprised look on my face.
Her fork pokes at bits of meat, swirling the leftover tomato sauce into pretty patterns. “I mean, I haven’t met any of your friends—except the ones we share. And your family—”
“I told you. My family’s complicated. They’re very Korean.”
“They’ve been here for how many years now? I just don’t think it’s fair that you have to hide this part of yourself. Not to you, not to them.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying this doesn’t feel real.”
“But it is.” I reach a hand across the table, squeeze her fingers with mine. “It is.”
She pulls her hand away.
“I just can’t tell everyone. You have to understand that.”
Her smile is slight, doubting. Metal scraping on the plate’s veneer, the record player’s sudden stop, fuzz, the arm’s shift. Silence.
When we first moved to America, Mom fed me like I was a child just rescued from starvation. But, no matter what I ate, I didn’t grow much taller or much curvier. The other girls hit puberty, and I looked at their new bodies with envy. In the locker room, I hid behind the shield of the locker doors or, on the most painful days, sneaked into the bathroom stalls to change.
My grandmother likes to joke that I speak Korean with an American accent. “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it,” my mom sometimes says, in English no less, but losing it would be impossible. And not just because I speak Korean with my family, at church, in the Korean grocery stores.
It would just be impossible.
Sophia held my hand as we walked. My sister was giving me relationship advice. I told her I don’t need to date anyone, and besides, all the Korean men in New York are too Korean for me.
She shook her head. Houses and apartment buildings loomed around us, gilded by the low-slung sun. Sweat beaded at her temples. “Come on,” she said in Korean. “Surely you can find some Korean-American guy who’s Korean enough to please Mom and wild enough to please you. At this point, Mom’s so worried she might even be happy just to have you bring a white guy home. Or even a black guy.” I saw her smile and wondered if she was reveling in the future scene, Mom’s sullen disapproval, chopsticks dropping from his hands, awkward bows, muddy shoes.
Sophia tugged at my hand. “What, sweetie?” I asked.
“I’m only going to marry a Korean man,” she said with certainty. “Korean men are better than white men.”
I shot a look at my sister, but she was still smiling, looking into the windows of another’s house, a Latina-looking woman smoking a cigarette on a balcony.
We crossed a street, and my sister finally looked at me. “What?” she asked.
I try to teach her Korean words—soft things, loving things. She said she wanted to be romantic with me in my native tongue, to say things that would make me smile. But they sound hard in her mouth, edges sharp and pointed. I tell her it sounds cute. I tell her it’s hard to learn something new. Tell her I’ve been in the U.S. for years and am still learning.
Once when I visited my grandmother in Korea, she told me I was beautiful, but that I didn’t know it. I thought it was a compliment at first—Koreans are all about humility—but then she said that there is only one worse thing in the world—not being beautiful but acting like you are.
“Both are tragic,” she said.
I look at all the faces around New York City and want to say that I belong. I could look like anyone else on the street, could be anyone. I could be fresh off the boat, or I could be born and raised in Tucson, or I could have been adopted at age three and shipped over to a smiling white family. No one would know. Even when I opened my mouth. Folks have been here for years, but you can stay in one small place, your tiny island in the city, never using anything but your native tongue.
Anna and I spent the first full weekend after we met in bed, or at least that’s what it felt like. Telling each other of our dreams, where we came from and where we were going. Anna told her story like she read her poems—delicately, balanced, with emphases on the end of each line. It was clear, arranged neatly, with rhythms and patterns to corroborate it.
Mine felt like a postmodern orchestra arrangement, with disjointed chords and endings that didn’t resolve. I tried to wrap the story up in words, to chew it out of my mouth, to plaster it with meaning, to point here and here so that it could make sense.
But Anna was always much better at talking than me.
She recreated that story in a poem once—my story, our lying in bed and me telling it. And when she told it, it sounded beautiful.
But it wasn’t mine.
When I first moved to America, my mother, aunt, sister, and I all lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a town just outside of D.C. My aunt worked at the Korean embassy, and after my father died, Mom thought it was best for us to be with her sister. She wanted me to get a good education and wanted me to get out of the Korean school system. I was bewildered most of the time. I hated the feel of the apartment, the temporariness of it, the worn carpeting, the neighbors’ shouts late at night. The world that blurred around me, faces, language, time.
My mom tells me how far I’ve come every chuseok. How I don’t even have an accent anymore.
I wake up next to her one morning, and I think for a moment I’m in the apartment I lived in with my aunt. I think of my mom, my dad, the way I felt so alone even surrounded by family.
The way I could close my eyes in my room, door shut, and feel like I was still in Korea. Her arm is around me, and I pull her closer.
“Jal jasseoyo?” she asks in a whisper.
I nod. “Your Korean’s getting better.” I kiss her cheek, tuck some stray hairs back behind her ear.
I close my eyes and try to get back that feeling.
Miguk—America, the land of beautiful people. That’s the literal translation. But as I walk the streets of New York, I’m unsure. I’m unsure partly because I don’t know if they’re more beautiful than people elsewhere, but also because most of the people here are from other countries. Or at least that’s what it feels like when I take the bus home nights after the subway shuts down. I watch the faces that get on and off. I listen to the conversations, the languages.
Look at slumped shoulders braced against the winter night as the numbers of the avenues move up and up. At lighted windows, wonder who’s still up so late and why. Wonder if folks are fighting or loving, getting up for work or just getting home, pacing the hallways alone or rocking a baby who has awakened in the night, holding her close, singing her lullabies until she falls back asleep.
One thought on “Editors’ Choice: Alexis Stratton”
Fantastic capture of cultural differences within New York City. Brings personal memories of my own experience there.