There’s a Korean word, Han. I looked it up. There is no literal English translation; it’s a state of mind; of soul, really. A sadness. A sadness so deep no tears will come. And yet still, there’s hope. — Josiah Bartlet, “The West Wing”
Profile: DOB 1974/USA/Female/Korean
Developed Disorders: Generalized Anxiety, Bipolar, Panic, Borderline Personality, Emetophobia, Excoriation, Body Dysmorphic, Depersonalization, Derealization, Agoraphobia, Obsessive Compulsive, Social Anxiety, Premenstrual Dysphoric, Irritable Bowel, Hypochondriasis, Art.
Inherited Disorder: Han¹
Childhood Onset (Citations):
· I withered, becoming teary and knot-throated when merely asked my name.
· I obsessed for long hours each day over a set of art books (Book of Art I, II, III) that a door-to-door salesman charmed my usually pragmatic mother into buying. My life and those pictorial lives fused. I explored grotesqueries, narratives, sickness, freedom, oddness, composition, heaven/hell, woods, torrents, sins, saints, crosses, fruits, bugs, geometries, colors, passion, moods, tones, and all of the mesmerizing power of the object/image and inevitable language. In that house with so few books, no instruments, and welcomed neglect — did the ambitious peddler know he would change my life, that in a sense he helped make me?
· I spent many nights scanning the sky, imagining that distant aircrafts and the night’s first stars were UFOs. This activity usually occurred while my skeleton was cradled in a yellowing beanbag, while I urgently probed my private parts with Barbie’s head.
· I experienced crippling nausea at the sight of other Korean daughters excelling at ice-skating, piano, tennis, and swimming — all manners of tricks that this little pony did not have access to. Other children’s confidence further eroded mine. I could hold jealous vomit all day. Clapping and cheering, but not for me.
· I watched movies about Cinderella and Snow White while gnawing my fingers bloody and wondered how to be like them, without knowing why it seemed better. I later imagined a Disneyland of misfits, a place where we peculiar ones fit. The red, brown, yellow, black and — did Jesus really love us, too? How precious were we in his sight? What color is a private Jesus standing in the corner of a room?
· I experienced my inaugural panic attack while bearing witness to father striking mother again, and suddenly becoming cognizant of the danger in it, when before the beatings only amused me. The physical abuse that once seemed filmic and separate from me, the way a brutal episode of Popeye feels, were finally too real. So adult. I think that moment of recognized violence answered the question that starts with what do you want to be when…?
· I believed aliens abducted me. They circled my bed and inspected me, bone slate hands lifted me from my rosebud littered canopy bed (a rare luxury purchase my parents splurged on to get me to sleep in my own room) and took me somewhere, then delivered me back feverish, paralyzed, with a bloodied nose and no memory of anything.
· Most nights, I crawled like a carpet soldier into my parents room and slept under their creaking bed for fear of death via stabbing by a male intruder wearing a black ski mask. The most I ever saw was something like a guardian angel that unfurled from head to toe, glowing like an ectoplasmic scroll of the Statue of Liberty, hovering by the bed and beaming.
· I sunk in the deep end of a lap pool at a wedding reception, met my own smiling ghost wearing my favorite pale pink dress. She and I breathed water in sync for what seemed like eons packed into blank-faced dice, and when the tuxedoed man pulled us up from under, witnesses say I only smiled as hot urine streamed down my legs. I never coughed up that water.
· One night at my father’s best friend’s home, I stole a wooden rosary, binged on canned lemon frosting when no one was watching, and coveted my friend’s Lite-Brite. Later, I hid behind a dresser, trembling and fearing notice, while my dad’s drunken pal angrily vomited into a trashcan, his wife scolding him. The next day I stuffed the rosary between my mattresses and left home to ride my bike as fast as I could, trying to outspeed my guilt, repulsion, jealousy and strange new fears that blossomed in the alien-filled night.
· I never shook any of it.
Treatment: Paxil. Writing. Waiting (tables and time).
I am Korean. Poor Korean. There is a difference. Childhood places my mother planted us always gave heed to affluent whites. She would have no less, believing that you are whom you run with. Because of this, I was a double anomaly in all my habitats—poor and brown. They called me karate girl, math girl, china girl, mute, alien, blind, chingchongdingdong (it’s okay, you can laugh), brown girl, dime-slot eyes, chink, Jap, twinkie… They cited my eyes by squinting theirs. They bowed aggressively. They karate-chopped the spaces in front of my face and body. They preyed on my timidity. Little boys chased me, forcing their hard kisses until I cried in shame. All of it felt like my fault. So I swallowed hard, dammed up tears and learned to sputter a chronic lie—Well, I have a big blue pool in my backyard. What did Small Me believe that proved to anyone?
If my mother wanted to assimilate me into what she believed was a superior condition—the condition of being wealthy, white (ish) and Christian—she failed. Or she might say I failed. Because I think I learned the most important things in my life from poor, many-colored (even a lot of white) agnostics/ atheists, and it is their influence that has shaped me the most. From a young age I was attracted to people from the “unsavory” classes. Those who were orphaned, promiscuous, addicted, riddled, cunning, irreligious, drunk, defiant, emotive, shunned, nuts—all whom possessed superior bullshit meters. My radical angels saved me. They didn’t give a damn. I didn’t want to.
A) I was born in perfect health:
·Brown – first defect.
·Monolids – second defect.
·Rickets – third defect.
·Wide nose – fourth defect.
·Flat head – fifth defect.
B) I was born again:
·Skin paled – first correction.
·Eyelids creased – second correction.
·Legs straightened – third correction.
·Nose shaped – fourth correction.
·Skull rounded – fifth correction.
Today, from head to toe, I feel defective. Even my insides scream “Wrong!” I have this “flaw” (common in Asian body types) that I share with another girl; it is that my waist is too long. Like the waist of the terrified Vietnamese girl in that famed Pulitzer Prize winning photo, you know exactly which one. I feel we are disposable. Does she feel it, too? Are we both frozen in a colorless freeze frame, our arms reaching out for something, a mouth shaped like an O that traps a kind of soundless howl? Life, at its best, is a state of constant hoping with sporadic encounters with beauty but in my blood, and probably hers, streams also a kind of persistent dread. In the mirror, we flinch from the belly button to the pubis.
Mother mated with a Korean man bearing western features. She says her family did not approve of this fortuneless and hard-partying man, that it was a faulty arrangement. But she begged to have him. She wanted to live in America, with this suave human, where things seemed wide open, full of every opportunity. She wanted a home with choices, not strictures. So she came to him, because she was a white-hot fire, and her family submitted. My father took her with his enormous eyes, model cheekbones, strong-bridged nose, lean build, and mafia-style alpha swagger. She owned her features, too. Ideal pearl skin, silky black-brown waves, bedroom eyes and shapely legs—all that served well in California. Father used his looks and his gender to be spoiled by women, lord over non-alphas and be hired at swank white establishments. Mother worked hers to weasel out of traffic tickets, clinch jobs that “less attractive” immigrants were denied, flirt down prices with her coquettish smile, swindle social service departments… my bearers must have believed that America plus attractiveness could equal power. When there is no wealth or natural born privilege to be utilized, there are equally fleeting devices. Can you see, it’s about beauty + race in this family.
Who could blame us?
My late teen years saw me bloom into my face bones and my body turned solid, less like a dark fragile stem with an erasable head, and people began to ask half-white? My mind expanded in conjunction with strange new powers, a kind of “passing.” My breasts bloomed into firm mounds, my hair was a wild chestnut beacon. Coal rimmed eyes and flaming lips became my signature. Boys began to tease me in new ways. Young men and middle-aged men and geriatric men and divorced men and widowed men and men in traffic and men in gyms and men in bars and men in school and men in markets, women too… asked for my name and more. I didn’t cry or lie to them about pools. I could swim now. I could speak. I could curse. I could throw a hit back. I returned kisses hard. I had control. I had a thin skin of Han protecting me, and now I could make you cry.
But I still cried a lot too. Do.
I lured many men to bed, nearly all white as beautiful lambs. Did I sacrifice them or did I sacrifice me? Who was exotic then? And if we both were, did it negate the negative aspects of that condition? Sometimes prostitution, stripping and escorting seemed viable career paths, a rejection of the proper mode (remember the wealthy, white, Christian standard?), an embrace of the romantic stereotype of war-ravaged love between lonely soldiers and Asiatic angels. All of these ways to feel good and not sleep alone, they beckoned me. I heard I was good at it. That reputation spread. I did it for free every single time. There was cheering and clapping, for me.
But what war?
Whenever radiant whites courted me for more than one night, I was pleased. They took me under their wings and their rides were wild. With them, I felt as though I was in an important movie, as the reliable sidekick—rarely the star, but better than the extras. I desired them, their easy legitimacy. Words unspooled from their mouths, full of humor, secret dialects, deep meaning, information and flagrant stupidity, too. Their confidence was noted. Paths widened for them. They drove with one hand on the wheel. Smokes tucked behind ears. When they laughed, they did not cover their mouths. They bared their teeth, and puffed up like heroes, cowboys, and rebels. I touched their beards. I ate their ears. I rode on their backs. I sat on strong laps. I shared their clothes. I learned their music. I flipped their covers. I ate their food. I read their books. I watched their movies. I changed their stations. I took their heat. I watched their play. I greased their backs. I comforted the drunk. I nursed the sick. I danced their dances. I sorted their mail. I drank their brews. I smoked their plants. Every little thing they did was magic. Every bone they threw, I crawled for. And when I learned how, I started throwing bones, too.
The pool is full of our bones.
Instead of aborting, I produced two Hapa children. One male and one female, from two different white men. One man left, and one stays true. My parents prize both children, as if they themselves bore them, viewing them as superior specimens with their large clear eyes, their snowy white, fluttering lashes, their soft olive complexions turning opaline in winter and that cool, confident American air. They got good ass! Pure Asians crane their necks to see them, smiling and cooing, searching our faces to understand something. These children are intriguing and exotic, the way hybrids can be. Just the way a kaleidoscope shifts its arrangement, so do the children remain in a mesmerizing flux—a white and Korean flux. In some way, I hope I have negated a lingering curse handed to me by my Korean legacy and by their father’s white history. Stopped it in its tracks, through the children. Will he not beat her? Will she not cower? Will he not feel faulty? Will she not feel inferior? Will they not retreat? Will they not invade? Will they take no slaves? Will they flee from guilt? Where is their Han? Where has it gone? Did I absorb it for them? Will I? Just let me.
Every day I ask myself, who am I?
And the answer depends on who you are. So here I am. Trying to write myself brave. I spin myself into a notable character. I appear benign but I feel dangerous. I am transparent as a thousand jellyfish, fitfully electric because under this crass bohemian authorial exterior is a person who dared raise her hand and was not noticed. She opined, but was not heard. She was viewed suspiciously, even by her own race. She was a mere curiosity, a heartless thing under glass. Her ethnicity boggles her mind. Happily doomed to a life of waiting tables, in a state of forever smiling servitude, an ultramodern geisha, a mealtime concubine, and a cultural anomaly. Are there many poverty-line-straddling, mid-life, neurosis-riddled, agnostic Korean waitresses who practice authoring? Isn’t it abhorrent to her kind? But then, what is her kind? Does she need a kind? Does anyone?
Let me cling to Han. Han is wildness. Han is action. Han is poetic. Han is disorder. Han is temper. Han is intuition. Han is ingrained. Han is heritage. Han is energy. Han is fits. Han is woman. Han is myth. Han is riding bikes in the sky, with nothing chasing us down. Han is a forever packed into blank faced crystal dice. Han is equalizing. Han is an orgy. Han is monochrome, yet a fluorescent rainbow, too. Han is the thing we ALL possess and the thing that dies when we die. Han is a glimmering sky-blue pool in a celestial future of equally visible/invisible beings. Han is the beginning, middle, and end of each of our own onsets, the memories of the scary, divine remembrances that make us who we really are and show us where we are going.
So I ask, will all of your pretty aliens, ghosts, and words swim with mine?
¹ Han is a concept in Korean culture attributed as a unique Korean cultural trait, which has resulted from Korea’s frequent exposure to invasions, by overwhelming foreign powers. Han denotes a collective feeling of oppression and isolation in the face of insurmountable odds (the overcoming of which is beyond the nation’s capabilities on its own). It connotes aspects of lament and unavenged injustice.
The minjung theologian Suh Nam-dong describes han as a “feeling of unre-solved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one’s guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined.” – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_(cultural)
Art by Maggie Nowinski.
Caroll Sun Yang earned her BFA at Art Center College of Design, an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, and holds certification as a Psychosocial Rehabilitation Specialist. Her work appears in The Nervous Breakdown, New World Writing, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Necessary Fiction, Word Riot, Columbia Journal, Diagram, and Juked. She is the associate editor for The Unseasonal. She survives in Highland Park, CA with her family of four and is always down for lo-fi anything/sarcasm/dogs/Latrinalia/frosting/Cheetos.
Caroll Sun Yang