I. NEW WORK
The last time Ab saw her biological half-brother, Jiwon, he was six years old and unwilling to release her leg, which he had wrapped himself around like a baby panda. He sobbed, in Korean, “I don’t want you to go to California,” which sounded like Cali-por-nee-ah. She recognized “bogoshipo,” I miss you, and her Korean name, “Sun-Yeong,” followed by “noona,” sister.
That was the summer of 1999, and Ab had just turned eighteen the month before, during a Homeland Tour for Korean adoptees that ended about a week before she moved into her biological father’s house to live with him and his wife and their two children. Deji, nine years old, didn’t love how Ab’s presence suddenly demoted her position in the family from firstborn daughter to, well, not the firstborn daughter. Jiwon, six, had acted out on Ab’s first night in their house and smacked her across the face, and when she pinched the skin above his elbow, hard, in retaliation and out of view of the parents and aunts and uncles who had gathered for the occasion, he looked at her in surprise, clearly weighing his options to either start screaming about it or do what he actually did, which was to crawl into her lap and hand over the controller to his Nintendo.
All summer, the two of them played Super Mario Bros. Jiwon babbled in Korean at her and howled at her terrible moves, groaning and sighing his displeasure at seeing her guy, Luigi, die repeatedly. As she improved, though, resurrecting the game’s secrets from the graveyard of her childhood memories, and as she progressed past his highest level, he celebrated her and Luigi’s advancements, transfixed by the game and Ab’s ability to play. And as the weeks went by, sitting side by side in their gaming chairs, she picked up her brother’s various expressions and learned the different intonations of the same words when spoken in delight or frustration. After only a few weeks, Ab was surprised to discover that she was fluent in six-year-old Korean.
Nights, the family slept together on the floor. The father on the farthest end, closest to the door, and then the stepmother, then Deji, then Ab, and then Jiwon, who, every morning, she discovered, had wriggled his way into being her little spoon. After a week of this, she began to wake early in order to hug him close and smell the crown of his head, inhaling the baby brother she never knew she had.
But Jiwon was twenty-six now. Ab was thirty-eight. Twenty years had passed without any correspondence from anyone in the family, until last night when Jiwon reached out via Facebook, first by sending a friend request, and then by following up with a message to say he was in California and wanted to meet. Ab explained that she lived in Utah now but confused the issue by saying she wasn’t there at the moment. She would be back tomorrow, she told him, and she asked if she could pay for his flight to Salt Lake City. She planned it so that after she got home in the morning she could clean her apartment and make up her second bedroom for him. She scheduled his flight to get in late in the evening.
Now, Jiwon was at her door.
She heard his knock. She didn’t know why she let him knock. Since she didn’t drive highways at night, she had booked him an Uber from the airport and tracked his ride and knew he was outside. She took a deep breath and looked up at her ceiling as if praying, then exhaled and opened up.
“Come in, come in!”
Ab took his Adidas duffel bag and put it in his room, which was by the door. She showed him the bathroom across the hall, which would be his, then led him into the living/dining area and gestured for him to take a seat, wondering if he would choose the couch or the table. He sat at the table. So would she have.
“Water?” she said. “Beer?”
Jiwon indicated beer, and Ab remembered that their father was a HITE and soju drinker. As she walked back from the kitchen with two Yuenglings and handed one over, she studied his face. No trace of the chubby kid she remembered. He was strong-looking, muscular, taller than she would have thought. His hair was curly now like Ab’s, although he probably permed it. She didn’t remember anyone else in the family having curly hair, except their aunt.
As Ab drank, she peeled the label from her Yuengling bottle. She wondered if Jiwon might be offended by the brand name even though it wasn’t actually Chinese. Better Yuengling than Sapporo, she supposed, particularly as there was no HITE to be found at her local Smith’s grocery. From what she could tell, Jiwon didn’t care. As he drank, and as she watched him, she felt an overwhelming urge to inhale the crown of his head but of course that impulse revealed a yearning for a past that was long gone.
“Our father is dead,” Jiwon said, suddenly.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She didn’t know what else to say.
The father he spoke of was his father, not hers. Ab’s dad lived in Ohio. She was surprised, though, to feel so little upon hearing Jiwon’s news. Except perhaps sadness because she felt so little upon hearing his news. Yes, perhaps sadness, tinged with twenty years of resurfaced guilt for leaving that summer without warning, weeks before she should have, without any explanation.
“I thought you would want to know,” Jiwon said. “I could only tell you if I saw you again, in person. Please understand me.”
“I do,” Ab said. “Thank you.”
She added, “I’m glad you’re here.”
“I’ve missed you,” she said, after a while.
But it wasn’t really him she missed, right? It was the six-year-old him she missed and had wondered about over the years, although not with any real frequency, truth be told. Honestly, she had convinced herself long ago that he’d been so young, right? He’d probably forgotten all about her.
Around midnight, Jiwon was close to passing out and Ab helped him into bed. By then, they’d moved on to shots, which Ab did not toss back as he did but sipped, although she heartily encouraged him to: “Geonbae!” she said, laughing, conjuring up twenty years of dusty old phrases she’d long since thought she forgot. “Jjan!”
She closed his door and quietly began cleaning up, wondering what they would do for the rest of his visit. The truth was it wasn’t a great time for him to be there. She was between campus visits. Her first had not gone well. After her job talk, the post-colonialist got the first question. “But what are you doing to dismantle the canon?”
Ab had opened the door to his question, regrettably, by going off script and making a joke midway through her talk about not hating the canon. She was potentially if not likely a diversity candidate, so Ab had meant to signal that as a nonwhite creative writer and an experimental one at that she had been trained to be a generalist and could in fact teach canonical texts in introductory literature courses. She was not prepared for a question about what she had assumed was one of her strengths—a solid grasp of the Western tradition—which had been in an instant turned against her.
She could have drawn attention to her sample syllabi, featuring an expansive range of contemporary authors working in different genres and forms. She could have said that, after Angela Flournoy, she too tried to write “against unreality” by, for instance, centering characters that looked like she did. Or she could have said that in her own new work, like that of certain contemporaries she admired such as LaTanya McQueen and Robert Lopez, Ab too was reckoning with her own confusing assimilated behaviors and questioning the extent of her own internalized white supremacist beliefs. And if none of that felt particularly appropriate for the moment, she might have simply suggested that the hybrid forms she specialized in reflected back the mixed and multiple identities of her own lived experiences, her students’, and when you really thought about it just about everyone’s. But Ab did not say any of these things. She froze and never recovered. On the drive to the airport, the search chair informed her that hers was their third and final campus visit. Predictably, it took only two weeks to find out she did not get the job.
Her second failed visit was much fresher. She’d only gotten home this morning, and she hadn’t even unpacked yet. For this job talk, she had been asked to address the question: How does form perform content? So she prepared a talk titled “The Lyric Essay: A Broken Form for Broken Narratives,” and she had intended to make the case that the fragmented hybrid-genre’s form, reliant on juxtaposition and white space, could perform a writer’s deliberate withholding, reflecting the writer’s choice to not tell, or to tell only what they knew and on their own terms, which could be particularly useful for those whose stories were full of holes or for those who could take back their power by not disclosing and not revealing their trauma as soft-core entertainment for the consumption of others.
To help make her point, she began with an anecdote: During the summer of 1999, at the same time that a translator provided by the South Korean government told me that my biological father wanted to meet me, a producer from The Montel Williams Show told my dad, in Ohio, that his biological mother was searching for him. When I called my dad to tell him not to come pick me up from the airport as planned, that I was staying in Korea for the rest of the summer because I wanted to meet and move in with my biological father and his family, he said, “I wasn’t going to tell you this,” then proceeded to tell me about the producer from The Montel Williams Show. “So,” he said, “I guess we’re both making the only choice we can live with. We’ll probably both regret it.”
This was the essay Ab had tried to write, she told everyone in the lecture hall, but for years it just stalled out after this opening. The Montel Williams Show was too good a detail to be true, but it was true. There just wasn’t anything she could do with it, because her dad never had never done anything with it. Another writer, she said, had suggested Ab just make that the essay, and to explore the divergent paths taken by a daughter and her dad, both adopted, the former transnationally at the age of three and the latter domestically when only a few days old, and to try to get at deep human truths about life and love and countries and borders and family. No matter how sensible that suggestion may have been, it still made Ab uncomfortable. Her dad’s story wasn’t hers to write. So the years went by, and Ab never wrote about her own adoption either. But she did write about absence and loss, again and again, which in a way was like writing around her adoption, and her first book of essays, many of them lyric, were in fact full of holes that were representative of not knowing, representative of all that she did not know and might never know.
As Ab read from her pages, she felt as if she were trying to sell Swiss cheese. She felt like a fraud at the podium, but her audience on this campus was generous and their questions were kinder, gentler. She even saw a few grad students taking notes. But then the nonfiction professor raised her hand. “There seems to be a hole in your own argument, speaking of holes,” she said. “It seems to me that speculative nonfiction also allows a writer to tell her own story, ‘full of holes’ as you say, but rather than simply say, ‘My story is full of holes and this is the best I can do—these bits and pieces of fragmented memories,’ can’t spec-nonfic create space for imaginative possibilities and allow the writer to more honestly and bravely explore those absences or gaps? For instance, your own ‘failed’ essay, as you called it, could have explored the hypothetical musings of ‘what if he had gone on the show?’ and ‘what if you had not stayed in Korea?’ If part of your project, as you say, is for writers to address or confront past trauma by adopting this broken form for broken narratives—why frame such writing, such healing, let’s call it, so negatively? Is there space, do you think, for spec-nonfic in your teaching or in your classroom, perhaps even alongside the lyric essay and/or the other hybrid forms you have yourself adopted?”
Even as Ab recognized the leading nature of the professor’s question, and thought to herself, “Just say yes, of course there’s room!” she, instead, rejected it entirely. She wasn’t even sure why, other than she was afraid of another horrifying silence like the one after the postcolonialist’s question, and so she compensated by not taking even half a second to think before speaking. Instead, she doubled down on her first/worst answer, and it was only toward the tail end, she realized, that she was defensive because of the nonfiction professor’s use of “adopting” and “adopted.” Before Ab even finished her answer, she was convinced she would not get the job.
She might have drowned her sorrows in her hotel room after dinner, during which assembled faculty members had been genial enough and even to some extent welcoming, but when she excused herself to go to the bathroom and checked her phone she found Jiwon’s friend request. She accepted and scrolled through his photographs as long as she could before she began to worry they’d send someone to come check on her. All through dessert she tried her best to engage and to not appear to be too distracted but of course she was incredibly distracted.
In her hotel room, she received his message. An hour later, she responded. An hour after that, she booked his flight from LAX to Salt Lake, which she had to put on a credit card. Was it necessary to buy the ticket for him? Probably not, but she still felt so terribly guilty about that summer.
In the morning, Jiwon stumbled out of his room and yawned.
Ab remembered those early mornings curled up with him on the floor and she couldn’t quite mentally compute how that child was now this man. She was crouched over looking at her potatoes in the oven, which were coming along all right and beginning to brown. The onions and peppers were getting darker at the edges, too.
Jiwon sat at the table again in the same chair he’d occupied the night before.
Ab stood and opened the fridge. She poured two glasses of orange juice and took one over to him with a mug of coffee. “Milk? Cream? Sugar?”
He shook his head. She remembered their father drank his coffee black, too.
Back in the kitchen, Ab topped off her own mug and spooned in about twice the amount of sugar she normally used because she was nervous and because she tended to indulge whenever she was nervous. “How did you sleep?”
“Fine,” he said. “Thank you.”
“Are you married? I thought you would be married.”
Ab shook her head. She felt like a robot, nodding and shaking. “I’m not married,” she said. “Not yet,” she added, and then suddenly she was irrationally upset about why she’d felt the need to add that. “Are you married?”
“No,” Jiwon said. “Not yet.”
Jiwon smiled. “Yes, she is happy.”
Ab said, “Good. That’s good. That’s really good,” and again she felt like a robot.
At this point, she decided she could probably get started on the bacon. She only bought MorningStar strips and worried that Jiwon wouldn’t know what to make of them. She pulled the frozen pink-and-coral strips apart anyway and put them into her nonstick pan and started pressing them into the heat with the back of her spatula, for no reason other than she needed something to do.
Before she could stop herself, she said, “How’s your mother?”
This was one of the more pressing questions Ab wanted an answer to but had felt too guilty to ask. She was a little afraid of what Jiwon might say, actually. It was because of his mother that Ab had left so abruptly that summer. Not because of anything bad she had done, but, instead, because she had been so kind. Too kind.
He paused. Without answering her question, he asked, “Do you have her skirt?”
Ab smiled. Her stepmother had worked in a clothing boutique, and one day she brought back a bunch of clothes for Ab to try on. There was also a leather miniskirt, which was not from the boutique but from her own closet. She had indicated to Ab that she should take it if it fit, which it did. Ab protested, saying it was too nice a gift, but her stepmother insisted. “I’m too old,” she said. “You take it.” Ab had pointed to Deji and said, “No, save it for Deji, for later,” but her stepmother pushed it into Ab’s chest and said, “You. It’s yours. You take it.” So Ab did. She tucked it into her suitcase and took it with her back to America.
Ab nodded. “Yes,” she said. “Tell her I still have it.” Although she had never worn it, she had never been able to part with it.
“Okay,” Jiwon said.
“Okay,” he said again.
Ab found a mixing bowl and started cracking eggs. She figured they could each eat about three so she cleared half the carton, tossed the shells, and began to whisk. She didn’t use milk or salt or pepper or anything like that. She just whisked until the eggs were airy. When the bacon was done she turned the heat way down, removed the pan from the burner, divvied up the strips between their plates, and then returned the pan to its burner. She poured in the eggs and began to stir, slowly. Once they were perfectly fluffy and a bright golden yellow but still a little wet looking, she split them down the middle and put one half on Jiwon’s plate and the other on her own. Then she opened the oven, grabbed a towel, and pulled out the potatoes. She divvied these up, too, but not all of them. If Jiwon was still hungry after finishing his plate, there’d at least be more potatoes for him. She put their plates on the table, went back to the kitchen for napkins and forks, and brought them to the table.
Quietly, they ate.
Their silence wasn’t uncomfortable. If anything, it came as a relief. She had a mild hangover, and she assumed his was worse. There was a bottle of ibuprofen on the table if he needed it, which she left there for him after taking three herself upon waking.
Ab remembered all the meals they shared in Korea that summer. She remembered the way their father made midnight ramen and put the crusty leftover dinner rice into his bowl before pouring in the noodles and broth. She remembered trying to teach her stepmother to make garlic mashed potatoes, except the potatoes they had were waxier than those she was used to and the end result was not good at all. She remembered that despite all her protesting, everyone ate her gross potatoes that night as if she were some kind of cooking prodigy. But most of all, Ab remembered the fruit. Like the potatoes, the fruit there was different. The berries were different, the melons were different.
She remembered living in South Philly, too, for a year after her first master’s degree, and she remembered the Asian market down the street, not far from the room she rented, and how on a whim one afternoon she bought a white peach. She remembered the tearing of its skin between her teeth. She remembered its juice on her tongue and chin, and how just one bite shot her back to that morning thunderstorm a decade previous beneath which she’d met her father and, later, his wife, their daughter, their son, whose six-year-old body curled at night beside her eighteen-year-old anger on the living room floor where the rest of them slept and where she stared into the lush green hills, choking back thoughts, searching those giant white cranes within that thick white morning fog for meaning, the incense burning its citronella spiral through the night.
Jiwon, as it turned out, was getting an MBA from Yonsei University, and he had a good deal of homework, he said, which he had brought with him. Together, they set up their work stations at the dining room table, and they spent the rest of the morning in silence, drinking coffee, occasionally looking at one another and smiling. Sometimes awkwardly. Sometimes not.
Ab needed to be concentrating on her job talk. For this visit, the search chair instructed her to present new work, something unpublished and written especially for their own students if possible, and this new work should be something risky—Ab might even, in fact, model for students a willingness to risk failure. But, the chair told her, the search committee also wanted her to have fun. Perhaps some fun could emerge from a meta-discussion about her process composing this new work?
Ordinarily, talking about process actually did qualify as one of Ab’s definitions of fun, but not under these circumstances, for what seemed to be the cruel amusement of a roomful of strangers who held the fate of her future academic employment in their hands. The fact that she had to come up with three different job talks for three different institutions rankled. She was a creative writer. Wasn’t she just supposed to read something published and deal with whatever questions arose afterward? Wasn’t that the way it had always been done? And why did this department want her to risk failure? What the hell was that about? She didn’t feel like enough of a failure as it was?
Despite having been given the prompt several weeks before, Ab had yet to write a word of this new work. To be fair, there just hadn’t been time. Her only option had been to prepare for one visit at a time. If Jiwon hadn’t popped up out of nowhere, she would have started on the new work at the airport the next morning. But now, something about Jiwon working at her table with her, being not just a college graduate but pursuing an MBA, reminded her of a particular type of trauma she had read about once that some Korean adoptees experienced after reuniting with their family. Other transnational adoptees from across the globe likely also experienced it, but the data had been compiled specifically on Korean adoptees, and because Ab had experienced it herself she had read the entire article with interest.
Essentially, the Korean War’s legacy still informed a dominant myth in the West about why Korean babies were given up. Korea was supposedly a war-torn, third-world nation, and the parents were probably too poor to properly care for a baby. But Ab, like so many others, had been adopted long after the war and during an economic boom. When she moved into her biological father’s house, she was entirely unprepared for what awaited her. Deji had a private English tutor who came to the hi-rise apartment a few times a week, and she also had a piano teacher who sat beside her as she practiced scales on the baby grand in the sitting room. There was a playroom with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with children’s books and toys and video games. The kids were all right. There was even a woman who came to clean once a week. In the living area where they slept at night, the family had a big-screen television with surround sound. Some evenings, they watched Korean dramas. Other evenings, subtitled American movies her father brought back from the video store for Ab’s enjoyment. Theirs wasn’t a bad life. She hadn’t been saved, as an elementary teacher once said to her, from working in a rice paddy.
Then there was Ab’s stepmother, who turned out to be a complete 180 from what Ab had been told to expect. During the Homeland Tour for adoptees, she had heard all about terrible, evil Korean stepmothers. Because birth records documented only the father’s identifying information, adoptees who returned to Korea to search for family often ended up at their father’s doorsteps. If their father was married to a woman who was not their biological mother, though, the search was effectively over. Stepmothers, Ab learned, turned orphans away as if their lives depended on it. Some of the adoptees on the Homeland Tour—one from Norway, another from Germany, most memorably—had been pleading with their stepmothers for years, returning to Korea every summer and begging to be invited inside to spend time with their fathers.
But not Ab’s stepmother. Ab’s stepmother baked a chocolate cake, and when Ab and her father came through the door of the apartment for the first time, the woman and her two children emerged from the kitchen, smiling and clapping. The kids were shy but Jiwon was excited about the cake and eager for Ab to blow out the candles. Deji stuck like Velcro to her mother’s side, but after the cake was cut she did as she was told and presented the first slice to Ab, and then ran back to her mother’s side again. Ab didn’t remember anything else about that day, or even her entry into the apartment, but she remembered the cake and being gobsmacked that her stepmother was celebrating her arrival into her home.
Nothing made sense. Ab had expected poverty. She expected a sullen and deeply unhappy, resentful stepmother. Not chocolate cakes and baby grand pianos and expensive leather skirts. Nothing made any sense at all.
All these years later, at her own table in her own apartment, Ab studied Jiwon’s face. He looked up from the books spread out before him and nodded.
She nodded back, smiling.
And then he asked, finally, what she had been waiting for him to ask, the question she had been dreading for the last twenty years, and which sank like a rock in her gut when she got his friend request. “Why did you leave us that summer? Why didn’t we ever see you again? Or hear from you?”
The last time I saw my biological half-brother,
Jiwon Siwon, he was six years old and unwilling to release my leg, which he had wrapped himself around like a baby panda. He sobbed, in Korean, “I don’t want you to go to California,” which sounded like Cali-por-nee-ah. I recognized “bogoshipo,” I miss you, and my Korean name, “ Sun-Yeong Sun-Hee,” followed by “noona,” sister.
The truth is, Siwon has never come to find me.
I have no idea if our father is alive or dead. Or if, for that matter, Siwon or my half-sister
Deji Haley or my stepmother are alive or dead. I don’t know if any of my aunts or uncles is alive or dead. I don’t know if my grandmother is alive or dead, although my guess is she’s probably dead by now.
The truth is, I did leave them all that summer.
Until now, I’ve never really looked back.
This is true.
During the summer of 1999, at the same time that my aunt told a translator provided by the South Korean government—who then relayed her message to me—that my father wanted to meet me, a producer from TheMontel Williams Show told my dad, in Ohio, that his mother was searching for him.
“I have a father?”
The translator didn’t understand me. Why should he have? But to my knowledge, there was no father and there had never been a father.
That night, when I called my dad to tell him not to come pick me up from the airport as planned, that I was staying in Korea for the rest of the summer because I wanted to meet and move in with my father and his family, he said, “I thought I was your father.”
Unlike so many other adoptions, transnational or domestic, mine was open.
Until the age of three, I lived with my grandmother—or so the story goes. It was only after my grandfather died that my grandmother considered her own mortality and impending inability to care for a child. Her decision to put me up for adoption was made with the support of my aunt, her oldest daughter—the one with curly hair—who happened to be a Catholic nun. Together they decided I would be placed with Holt, a Christian organization, but that I would not go into an orphanage.
Then, even in America, I never lost contact with them. We sent each other letters, cards, drawings, gifts, Dictaphone tapes like the ones my dad used to record patient notes for his clinic’s transcriptionist.
And when my mom and I went to Seoul during the 1988 Olympics, we spent a day with my grandmother and my aunt. Via a translator, more of my story came out. Yes, my grandfather had died and that was the primary event that led to my being placed with Holt. But there was also the fact that my father was out of the picture entirely. He was a roadie of all things, traveling with some band. He had dropped me off one day at his mother’s house, and no one had seen or heard from him since.
“I have a father?”
I was eighteen years old and the story I knew had suddenly shifted on its axis. Until that moment sitting in that coffee shop across from my aunt and grandmother, the translator beside me, if and when I had ever thought of my roadie father the word “deadbeat” came to mind.
I turned to the translator. “What about my mother?”
When my mom and I visited in ’88, our translator at that time had also been asked about my biological mother. He told us my grandmother and aunt knew nothing about her. From then on, if and when I ever thought of her I assumed she was dead, which was the only story I could accept, not least of all because it also helped to justify the actions of a heartbroken, devastated father who ran away to be a roadie.
After a quick back and forth, my translator reported back, “They don’t know about your mother. But your father will be here tomorrow.”
Although my stepmother pretended not to speak any English when my father was around she spoke quite fluently, actually. During the day when he was at work, and when Haley went off to dance class, and when it was just me and Siwon playing video games in the playroom, she would come get me sometimes and take me out onto the balcony to share a stolen cigarette with me.
“Don’t tell your father!” she said, and I never did.
“It’s too expensive,” I said, fingering the seams of my stepmother’s leather miniskirt. I didn’t know why she wanted me to try it on, or to take it. I really did think she should save it for Haley. Or keep it for herself, for that matter. “You don’t wear it anymore?”
“I’m too old,” she said, laughing.
“You should keep it,” I said. “Wear it! We’re the same size!”
My stepmother laughed and said, “No, you’re so skinny.”
We really were the same size. She was just being shy or self-conscious or whatever it was that was going through her mind about giving me her skirt. The leather was ridiculously soft, that buttery kind of soft. I’m sure it was expensive. I didn’t know why she was insisting on giving it to me. But it seemed to be really important to her—the memories it held, and the gifting of it to me. “I’m too old,” she said. “You take it.”
“No,” I said. “Save it for Haley, for later.”
But she pushed it into my chest and said, “It’s for you. It’s yours. You keep it.”
So I did.
I tucked it into my suitcase and took it with me back to America.
I have no idea where it is now.
It wasn’t just peaches that summer but nectarines and plums and concord grapes whose skins and pits we piled up, and green and white and yellow melons and fruit I’d never tasted before, but I ate it all because that was how we shared and spoke with one another—well, the fruit and the soju, the fruit and soju and cigarettes. Oh, how we drank every night and how I learned to pour for my elders with both hands as a sign of respect, and how six-shots-in one well-past-midnight Monday that man said, “Do not ask me anymore about your mother,” and how his wife, who was everything but the third-world woman I had assumed all South Korean women were, said, “Me,” and put my hand beneath her breast, said, “Omah, mother, bio-mom, okay?” and how I looked at her until she said, again, “Okay, you say, bio-mom,” and how I did not answer until days later when I watched her cut the evening fruit and then reached and put a piece of melon in my mouth, and, when I swallowed, said, “Okay,” and how we shared a cigarette that night on the balcony after everyone else was asleep, and how, a few weeks later, on my last day, the two of us looked out into the early morning fog and watched the cranes soar and listened to them cry, not saying anything but leaning shoulder to shoulder, knowing it was never supposed to last anyway, that I was always meant to return to America and continue on with my life and so was she with hers. But before all that, what we did was eat. We ate that fruit all summer long.
When you asked me to come here today—to prepare something new and something risky—I thought, “What is my darkest secret, my deepest shame? And is that something I can write about for this talk?”
Ultimately, I decided to take this opportunity to think about how I did, in fact, ghost the family that welcomed me into their home during the summer of 1999. To me, this new work is more nonfiction than it is fictionalized autobiography.
The fictional component, the dramatic element—having the brother show up after twenty years to announce the death of their father—is an exercise in speculative nonfiction.
What would I say to him, if he did show up wondering what happened all those years ago?
How would I feel if I learned our father was dead?
To whom, if anyone, do I owe any explanation for my past behavior?
One of the risks I am taking with this piece, upon which rests its potential failure, is of course whether or not the leap from one genre to another “works.”
I don’t know.
But it feels honest to me. Like the most honest piece of writing I have ever put on the page.
Another night, several shots in, after she told me to consider her my bio-mom, we were out on the balcony again and sharing another cigarette.
She said, “There’s a ritual for mothers and firstborn daughters. We go to hot springs when we turn eighteen. I want to take you, if you want to go with me.”
I don’t remember what I said to her that night.
A few days later, though, I was on a flight back to the States, completely freaked out about how she shouldn’t have wanted to take me to those hot springs, that that needed to be something she did with Haley and with Haley alone.
I don’t know why I reacted so immediately, or why I chose to lie to everyone and say that I was so homesick that I just needed to secure the earliest flight I could.
Quickly, my travel arrangements were made, albeit shrouded in confusion—my own, my stepmother’s, my father’s. And Siwon’s, clinging to my leg and begging me not to go.
My mom likes to tell the story about how, before my arrival, she had searched for a Korean pediatrician who would be able to speak to me and understand anything I might say in Korean. During my first checkup the doctor’s wife was also there, by invitation, and the woman took one look at my hair and said, “So curly!”
My mom, confused, didn’t understand. My hair was wavy at best. A little frizzy, maybe. There were no ringlets, no corkscrews.
Throughout childhood and adolescence, however, as we realized all the other Asian girls we encountered had perfectly straight silky black hair, and that my own was coarse and wild, wiry even, and frequently a tangled mess, we understood that for a Korean I did indeed have curly hair.
Many years later, during grad school when Grey’s Anatomy aired, I remember falling in love immediately with Sandra Oh, whose hair was even curlier than my own.
The two of us, plus my aunt, were the only Asian women I knew of with curly hair.
Over the years, what began as the coincidence of our curly hair has led to my slowly developing an entirely different origin story than the one I have disclosed above.
Perhaps by writing it here—by giving it voice, at last—it is, in fact, the new work I am truly sharing with you now.
This is a question that haunts me: Why was my stepmother so willing to accept me?
And this is the answer I have come to believe: That man was not my father. I was not his mistake. I was my aunt’s—the nun’s—whose curly hair I inherited.
And because he was the youngest son in his family—the roadie, the deadbeat—he could take the fall, as it were, for my aunt.
Who arranged for my adoption with Holt, that Christian agency.
Who, with her mother, met me and my mom when we visited Korea during the Seoul Olympics.
Who looks like me.
Who is—I swear this is true—the only one who looks like me.
Who, when I came back to Korea again when I was eighteen, met me in a coffee shop after the Homeland Tour and told me that my father wanted to meet me.
I had a father? Wasn’t he a roadie? A deadbeat?
I believed everyone back then.
I believe none of it now.
What I choose to believe, instead, is that my aunt, the Catholic nun who looks like me and has curly hair like me, is my biological mother.
I believe that, at some point, the family’s youngest son agreed to take the blame because it was far more socially acceptable for him to have had a child out of wedlock, and that when I returned again to Korea when I was eighteen they decided to offer me some semblance of a family within the family.
I believe that the reason his wife baked me a cake and welcomed me into her home and gave me her skirt and ate my disgusting garlic mashed potatoes and took shots with me at night and shared her husband’s cigarettes with me out on their balcony was that she knew she had no reason to feel threatened by me, for I was not her husband’s shameful secret but her sister-in-law’s, who had ended up in a nunnery. A self-declared liberal feminist, my “stepmother” was willing to play along.
That day in that coffee shop, after learning my father wanted to meet me, my “aunt” and I took the subway together and she showed me where to get off so I could get back to my hotel. As I stood for my stop, she started sobbing and saying my name over and over again. She pressed something into my hand and wrapped my fingers around it, and she kept her hand around mine so that I couldn’t look and see what she had given me.
When the doors opened, she all but pushed me off the subway and out onto the platform. I stood and watched until it pulled away.
She never turned to look back at me through the window.
Of course, I never saw her again.
I have no idea if she is alive or dead.
In my hand, a delicate gold necklace with a tiny diamond pendant, which, unlike the leather skirt, I do still have.
Then again, it’s also true that on some level I can appreciate that she is probably not my biological mother.
But I cling to it, this story, this fantasy, this just-barely plausible theory, because like anyone else I want an origin story.
Even when we know them to be unlikely, untrue, we hold on to our narratives, against all reason and against our better sense. Because who are we, otherwise?
How else are we to attempt to make sense of ourselves?