Lost Kingdoms: Stories of Identity, Belonging, and Our Layered Past
When I was a little girl, I wanted to grow up. Not for the same reasons why everyone else wanted to grow up. It wasn't about being able to drive or have a house or a family or to be able to stay up as late as I liked. I sincerely thought that when I grew up, I'd be tall and get to wear long dresses that I could spin around in, and my hair would be blonde.
That's what all the tv, movie, magazines, books, and people implied, when they talked about being a grownup.
Jack and the Beansprout.
My earliest memories are of me with my pudgy fat cheeks and lips, hanging onto my grandmother's back with my tiny hands clasped around the cool, papery skin of her neck trying to say, "bean sprout." It kept coming out as "jack and the beanstalk" because I knew that one part of that long tumble of words was the right one, and if I could just catch it, it would trigger the rest. (By the way, I still use this technique when I'm trying to think up words in German.)
Funny now, as I think about it, that "bean sprout" should have been one of my very first words. Bean sprouts, namul, or mung beans, were one of my favourite foods as a child. I loved the crunchy white stalk, but the best fun of all was taking the yellow bean head and squeezing them apart and eating each half in two tiny bites.
I'm pretty sure that none of my Caucasian friends had ever seen or eaten a mung bean until they were much older and experienced their first Korean barbecue restaurant . Jack and the Beanstalk was absolutely my favorite fairy tale because I thought he was Korean. He understood. Who knew that food could be so magical?
Heidi was my neighbor. She was the poster child Korean daughter, the studious standard to which my parents always held me. They never directly asked, "Why can't you be more like her?" but their pointed questions prodded me that way.
I thought about Heidi a lot more as an adult than I did at the time. We were just kids, and she lived around the corner and was in my class and a girl, but despite inviting me to the usual round of after school activities and birthday parties, I wouldn't say that we were friends. We were always next to each other because we had the same last name. Everyone asked if we were sisters. No, a third of Korea shares our last name. She was the perfect overachiever: straight A+'s, first in everything, and she did everything. And even to her, that was never quite enough. I could tell by her face.
As an adult I wonder a lot about the differences between us and how we approached the world. Did her parents push her, or was her determination to be the best coming from inside? I resisted the expectations, the Asianness that my parents pushed onto me with reluctance and angst.
As an adult I first felt bad, joking insensitively that she was the kind of Asian who snapped when they got older. But who am I to say? Maybe now, even 30 years later, I'm secretly jealous.
Grandmothers to me were a completely different concept to me than my actual grandmother. Grandmothers were secret friends, moms squared, caretakers and conspirators, that friend you could always relate when you couldn't stand your parents. The one you mourn when they're gone.
My grandmother was an imposing silver figure with whom I have never shared a word.
I know almost nothing about my grandmother, not even her real name until I was an adult. She was always "halmoni" or at most, "Mrs Lee" in her retirement community. Ancientness is next to godliness in Korea, and while she walked amongst us physically, I always felt the world silently revolve around her. She didn't speak a word of English and never wanted to, although she lived in America since the 1970s. She was the proudest person I have ever known. She always insisted on mixing two breakfast cereals together in the same bowl. She hated chicken.
As the years passed and I asked my mother more about her, she became even more of a mystery to me. I know (now) that she was a true remnant of the old Korea, a place of arranged marriages and households full of servants and women having separate lives than men. She was all of this and so much more that I will ever know. I don't understand how or why she decided to come and stay in America, in a country where she actively pushes away everything American. But I know that she is not alone in that, and that there are thousands of people who wrap and shield themselves with their differences.
I live in Germany and get upset when people don't accept me as one of their own.
I started the violin when I was 5. My teacher was a recent Juilliard graduate, young and energetic and Korean, meaning she was a 5'3 musical drill sergeant. Orchestra became the only other activity I would do, outside of homework and studying for the SATs. For me and the children of other Asians in our suburban neighborhood. The other students of my teacher were nearly entirely Asian. Our orchestra was one of the best in the state, and it was comprised of nearly entirely Asian-Americans like myself. I didn't think this was unusual until years later. In fact, I thought this was normal, that the majority of classical musicians were Asian everywhere in the world.
It wasn't until much later - when I went to university - that I realised how my experience was skewed. I think it was the scene in movie, The Red Violin, that hit me hard, the scene where Comrade Xiang was pursued for having a violin in communist China. A symbol of the evils of western culture.
While I'd known that my sheet music had instructions in Italian or German, I had not really known that classical music was still a very European thing. Those blinders were locked on, hard.
My high school friend Jane was one year older, but we got along like sisters. We were both black sheep, wearing audacious outfits and had a rebellious, creative streak that probably made us a lot cooler than we felt. Jane had a brother, who, in the way of many Korean familes, did nothing and got everything. Jane, her brother, and her mother lived alone, and her future in college was contingent only upon her getting a scholarship. His was secure as long as he existed. He got the BMW, although he couldn't drive. He had no academic requirements or curfew. No questions ever asked. I didn't know how to empathise or be a good friend at that age, but I could see how much Jane hurt, and was outraged at the injustice. I was ecstatic when she earned a scholarship to art school.
I don't know what happened to Jane after graduation, but decades later I imagine her as a creative director somewhere in Manhattan.
Her time. Her choice. Her life.
I've never dated an Asian guy. In high school I would get close and we'd be friends, but despite my brain wanting more, my body just couldn't. It felt like dating a brother.
Because my parents lived through the Korean War, they grew up with almost nothing. No food and no home, cousins and grandmothers separated by political borders, disappeared forever. When I finally visited my mother's childhood home outside of Seoul, she pointed to the garden and told me about hiding my grandfather in a hole in the ground, secretly delivering food to him only after nightfall. She never talked about any of this until I was in my 30s, so growing up I always wondered why they worked so hard all the time.
At first, I thought it was just because they liked working. Only later did I realise that it was more than that. It was a pride of your tree being uprooted and destroyed, and the seed finding a firm hold somewhere new.
But they worked and worked and worked. I would see my mother for a few minutes in the morning before she left for work, and I would see her after 8 when she got home. For part of this, my father owned his own business too, and she would go directly there to help him close up at night.
Thanks to them, I never experienced the same level of poverty. Sometimes feel like the life they gave me undermined my own ability to understand my own limits. The biggest difference between their generation and mine is that I crave challenge as an opportunity to grow, and they strive to never struggle again. That's how you know you've made it, they say.
In retrospect, it's interesting that although my parents were very proud to be American and wanted the American dream for our family, nearly all my doctors, dentists, and tutors were Korean.
They would only trust their own people, but how is that possible when your goal is total integration?
I was tired of being called "Kim." Teachers, coworkers, nurses, government officials would call out, "Kim. Kim! Kim?!" and get irritated when it took me several minutes before I realised they were calling for me.
Consequently, I took my husband's family name when we were married, a naively mute, passive swing at all of America that only I would ever hear. Aha! I thought to myself triumphantly, Now when you deal with me, you can't pronounce it! While true, this hasty legal, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity erased my Korean heritage and made me ethnically ambiguous forever. A few years later I took on my nickname as my given name (in all forms but the IRS) and the deal was done.
I had, in two simple strokes, evolved completely away from my gender, my heritage, and my family.
Only now am I beginning to find my way back.