“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
On the first-grade attendance sheet, Jessica’s legal name is the same as her Korean one, and Mrs. Powell stumbles. Min see oh? Min ee soh? Laughter from all of us little ones sitting criss-cross-applesauce on the blue carpet. Jessica smiles and raises her hand. It’s Minseo.
The next year, Mr. Scott inflates his cheeks with air, blows out in one theatrical huff. I’m not even going to try to pronounce this one. Laughter. Ms. Coleman the next year: There’s always the one weird name in the class. Laughter. Mrs. Andersen squints and brings the paper so close to her face I’m afraid she’ll papercut her eyeballs, and by this year Jessica knows the routine and smiles slyly, speaking up before Mrs. Andersen can try. Minseo. But I go by Jessica. Laughter.
The perpetual joke and the perennially hilarious punchline, and always the same curious questions: Where does your name come from? Where do you come from? Jake Griffin raises his hand and asks her if she’s from North or South Korea. Laughter again, and Jessica throws her long black hair over her shoulder and laughs with them. I wish I were Jessica. I wish my Korean name were on the attendance sheet, too. I want to be conspicuously Korean, to have the class’s attention. I want to be the joke everyone always finds so funny.
In fifth grade, I sidle up to Jessica one day and whisper, “I’m Korean too. My Korean name is Young-Eun.” She lets out a little gasp and pokes me frantically on the shoulder. “We should talk Korean to each other when we don’t want people to know what we’re saying.” From then on, we are the best of friends, pointing at other people, jabbering away in Korean, giggling when they ask us, Are you talking about me? Everyone asks us if we can say something to them in Korean and we gladly oblige, beaming when they look at us in awe and say, Whoa, say something else! Korea is enchanting, exotic. Korea is a secret world.
I fly to my secret world the summer of fifth grade, like every other summer, and spend muggy days running to the corner store for bubble wands and chocolate-scented erasers, stuffing myself with food in air-conditioned shopping malls. My grandmother and I walk hand in hand to the outdoor market every day, chattering nonstop as we play a game, trying not to step on the cracks in the brick sidewalk. Years of shoe factory work still weigh heavy on her permanently curved spine, and she has to stop on the way home and take a few deep breaths on a playground bench. She watches as I laugh uncontrollably from the swings and she beams at me, her smile full and round and beautiful.
But my little brother doesn’t like Korea. He doesn’t like kimchi and he can’t use chopsticks. He has to ask for a fork to eat his jajangmyeon and can’t get past fork … fork … before the waitress nods briskly and rushes off. My father thumps him on the back and laughs, “What kind of Korean are you?” My brother looks up blankly: “I thought I’m American.” My father explains how we’re a different kind of American. Korean-American. He makes a point of the hyphen. My brother, still confused, says, Okay anyway and goes back to wrapping black bean noodles around his fork.
It’s so humid you can feel the water thick in the air when you step outside. I wear my favorite pink checkered shorts, but when I sit down my thighs stick to the chair and expand to twice their size. I ask my mother, “Umma, why are my legs so fat?” and she tells me it’s because I’m Korean, sturdy and strong. “But I don’t want to be strong. I want to be pretty.” She tells me that’s just the way Koreans are made. As she walks around the cosmetics store, I examine my face in the little mirror and ask her why my eyes are so small, why my nose is so flat. That’s the way Koreans are made.
“Is there anything good about being Korean?” I ask. But she’s swatching lipsticks on her hand and doesn’t answer.
I come back from Korea and enter middle school with sparkly stationery and soft, salon-straightened hair that swings from side to side when I walk. Everyone asks me where I got my hair done, where I got my mechanical pencils. They moan, You’re so lucky when I say, Korea. I guess these are the good things about being Korean: pencils topped with small plastic bears and a straight perm that lasts until the end of eighth grade.
But I get my hair cut again, the perm fades away, and just in time for high school, I’m all the way back to coarse, wavy hair that curls in all the wrong places. When Jessica and I count the Koreans in our new private Catholic school, we come up with three. Two of them are us. Suddenly when teachers gag over Jessica’s name during attendance, I feel my eyes turning into hyphens, my skin yellowing like old plastic. Next to me, Jessica recites her old punchline, but it sounds more like a confession now, her voice small and guarded. No one laughs.
They do laugh, eventually, when our Spanish teacher talks at length about her trip to Beijing. “I had to leave my poor little dog at home … ’cause you know what they do to dogs over there.” She raises an eyebrow and the class roars. Jessica and I eye each other, our foreheads wrinkling. The teacher spies us. “Have you two ever tried dog?” Uproar again, and everyone’s shrieking gleefully. We shake our heads haltingly and lower our eyes. I don’t want to be the joke anymore.
When chemistry tests are handed back, I get a B, and the girl next to me stares in disbelief. “Are you gonna be okay? Don’t your parents beat you if you don’t get straight A’s?” I’m confused: “No, are you okay?”
“No, I just thought, because like, all my Asian friends … never mind.”
Embarrassed, I freeze, searching my brains for the right words to parry the blow. “Oh … well … I’m not that kind of Asian, I guess.”
She nods knowingly. “To be honest, I don’t even see you as Asian. You know what I mean?” She pats me on the back and walks away. I glow suddenly in the warmth of her praise. At dinner, I tell my parents about the B, and they hardly look up. “Good job!” my father says through a mouthful of bibimbap. My mother asks me to pass the gochujang sauce. Again, I think, We’re not that kind of Asian. I’m satisfied.
More often than not, though, they disappoint, slip back into fresh-off-the-boat, immigrant mode, and I’m exasperated. When my father drops me off at school, he rolls down the window of his gray minivan and shouts, “Good day! Good day, Young-Eun!” before driving away. My ears turn red as I run without looking back. I remind him nightly: “Appa, can you not use my Korean name? And you can’t just say, ‘Good day.’ You have to say, ‘Have a,’ or it won’t make sense.” He repeats, “Ahh, have a. Have … a … good … day, Kay-lee. Right?” The next morning, he rolls down the window and forgets again.
He tries to break out of Korean, practices his English on us at home and I mock his accent, rolling my eyes at how he falters uhh, uhh before producing a second-rate rendering of the American sound he wants. I make fun of my mother too, how her tongue fails, makes the th dead and heavy, how her i’s all sound like e’s, stretched like kalguksu dough. “Umma, you’re not supposed to say it like that.” I open my mouth to show her how my tongue pushes against my teeth and she tries to copy me, her eyes wide, brow furrowed. More often than not, they are that kind of Asian. The wrong kind.
Wrong Asian or right Asian, we love ice cream as much as the next family. My father and I drive downtown to find the only place with snickerdoodle—his favorite flavor—and he hops out of the car to see if he can pay for parking, his nearsightedness forcing his face close to the sign so he can read it.
“You need help reading that sign, buddy?” Two white men approach. Their arms flail around as they try to communicate with my father in some strange sign language my father never agreed to speak, mouths moving slowly, syllables long and exaggerated. “No … park. You … no … park … here.” My father’s face crumples soundlessly, shocked.
“I am not stupid. I live here. I have Ph.D. I have citizenship.” The accent voids it all. Their mouths keep stretching, pulling every which way as they say, Ohhhh, ohhh-kay, their heads nodding with dramatized understanding. My father stamps his feet and flattens his hands against his temples as they walk away, laughing. “I am a citizen. I am a citizen.” We don’t get snickerdoodle ice cream, and on the way home, I look into the rearview mirror. I think I see him crying.
I learn the word chink from my friend Zoe, standing next to me in the bathroom, our mouths hanging open as we carefully swipe mascara onto our lashes. Zoe, half-Korean, half-white, has pale pink skin, not a trace of yellow, but Korean eyes. She blinks and looks at herself. “I wish my eyes didn’t look so goddamn chinky.” I inspect my own eyes, say nothing. We walk to Brandy Melville together and marvel softly to each other about the disconcerting number of tall, skinny, blonde girls in the store, clothes hangers dangling from their manicured fingers, soft shirts draped over their arms. On the walk home, she tells me how she wishes she were tall, skinny, blonde, and most importantly, full white, and that she’d never in her life met an Asian who was pretty. My chest tightens and won’t let go for the entire half hour she spends complaining about her half-Asian ugliness to my full-Korean face.
So the Korean on my face is ugly, but the Korean everywhere else is beautiful. K-pop idols. YouTube tutorials. How To Look Like A Korean Girl. How To Get Korean Skin. I want to tell all the girls dusting orange blush and porcelain powder over their faces: You don’t know how good you have it right now. I want to tell them: If you want Korean skin, break my flesh with a fingernail and peel it away like a tangerine rind. I want to tell them: You’ll keep my skin while it’s still fragrant and wear it on top of yours. And then you’ll give it back when it’s shriveled yellow-brown, when it’s not cute and you don’t want it anymore. I want to tell them: Korea is not yours. Korea is mine.
But when I step into Incheon International Airport the August after my sophomore year, my grandmother and cousins, aunts and uncles run towards me and start cheering, chattering in sounds I recognize but can’t understand fast enough to speak back. What grade are you in? How is your new school? How are your studies? My tongue calcifies, feels over-large in my mouth. Uhh. Uhh. My parents quickly apologize for me. She can understand some, but she can’t speak it anymore. Sympathetic sounds from the crowd. We cram everyone into two taxis and drive to my grandmother’s apartment. I let the noise wash over me and pretend to sleep.
“She’s not Korean anymore?” my eight-year-old cousin asks. I hear her mother shush her and say, Of course she is. My cousin worries, “Can she still play Barbies with me?” I worry the same thing, wonder if I’ll be able to say more to her than yes and no. I walk along brick sidewalks, into corner stores and shopping malls, wondering if Korea is mine anymore when I can hardly call forth the words to order buckwheat naengmyeon or do more than stare into the salon mirror as I try to remember how to thank the hairdresser for straightening my hair.
In the darkness of my grandmother’s spare bedroom, I hug one of her magnolia-patterned pillows and wish I knew how to ask her to take me to the market again, that I were still small enough to fit on one of the little red swings in the playground next to her apartment. All the words I don’t know how to say hang heavy from my chest, and my thoughts travel toward America. How I wish I were still there, knowing all the right words and the right way to say them—until I remember how I lost all those words at, “Have you two ever tried dog?” At, “Don’t your parents beat you?” At Zoe’s wishing all her Koreanness away. I remember how I kept silent. Embarrassed, I had hurried away from the old man who screamed, Go back to your country, gook at me in a rasping voice from across the street. At home, from Wiktionary, I learn that by gook he meant 1. slang, vulgar, derogatory, offensive, ethnic slur: A person of Far Eastern or Oceanian descent. I learn that it comes from the Korean word mi-gook, for America. Does gook, then, mean Korea or America? But Wiktionary tells me the word 국 (guk), itself simply means “country.” Which country, when neither one belongs to me enough to let me speak?
I wake to my grandmother sitting at her kitchen table, scratching out English letters on a worn piece of cardboard—the alphabet, the numbers spelled out, words like store, bank, cat, music, and over and over, my American name. Kaylee. Kaylee. Kaylee. Kaylee. She looks at me when I sit down and grins at me. “I … lah-bh … you!” I love you. In three English words my grandmother shows me I still belong to her. I still belong to the market, red swings, and summer tangerines. I still belong to my gook, chink, Korean face—and perhaps it is even beautiful. My eyes, my nose, my skin, my blood stop being a secret world, start being more like a declaration. An oath. To my father: I promise I’ll be there every time your English isn’t. To Jessica: I promise your given name doesn’t need to be twisted to fit in someone else’s mouth. To Zoe, to the teachers, to the strangers, to anyone who has ever loved me less for my chink self: I promise there is so much you have failed to notice.
To myself, the Korean and the American: There is strength in being the hyphen. Strength in holding two countries together. This I won’t let you forget. I promise.
Kaylee Jeong is a Korean-American high school student from Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in The Rising Phoenix Review, BOAAT, and Hyphen, and her poetry and short fiction have been recognized nationally by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Hollins University, and Columbia College Chicago.
by Kaylee Y. Jeong
International Young Writers Prize for High School-Aged Writers