Jennifer is Vietnamese, a determined fan of Korean food and culture, and befriended me when she thought I was more Korean than I am. She suggested a day trip on a Monday to eat Korean BBQ without knowing that it had been at least five years since I had eaten at a Korean restaurant.
I also hadn’t mentioned I stopped eating most meat when I was 14 (a bleeding-heart personal decision after watching “Food Inc.”).
“You don’t eat meat?” Jennifer was understandably incredulous upon first learning this at the restaurant.
She said this loudly, and I glanced around the restaurant instinctually. We arrived at 11:00 sharp—right at the start of the lunch.
“To maximize eating time,” Jennifer explained.
Consequently, there were no patrons to hear me protest:
“I can eat fish!”
Jennifer looked unsettled.
Our waiter sat us at one of the enormous white booths designed for 14 people—there were no small booths as if the very architecture of the restaurant anticipated gluttony. Two pairs of giant tongs rested neatly beside a collection of side dishes and a sprinkling of lettuce. Blue strobe lights flashed from the ceiling. Occasionally, the light caught the reflection of the tongs, which then unkindly winked at me.
Jennifer examined the menu with quick precision. Before I finished browsing the list of foods, she coolly ordered the calamari for me. I pointlessly feigned autonomy by swiftly nodding at the waitress in approval. The waitress, a distracted woman with blue eyeshadow, didn’t look up.
The squid arrived in tentacle form, submerged in bright orange sauce, and dressed with a green onion garnish. I leaned forward in anticipation, and Jennifer carefully placed a few of the twisty appendages onto the hot pan in the center of the table.
“I don’t know how to cook calamari,” Jennifer warned.
The squid squealed and hissed at the heat. It angrily spat boiling orange droplets of sauce at me, and I quickly leaned back into my seat.
Around us, groups of lunchers filled tables. They occupied the space loudly, comfortably—ordering without hesitation.
“It looks done to me.”
“Do you know what done looks like?” Her tongs stayed firmly pressed on the tortured, noisy tentacles.
She may as well have said, “You don’t know what done looks like,” and she would have been right.
I wasted the rest of the day in bed, clutching the skin around my belly while my stomach cinched and contorted around itself. Between fevered trips from the bathroom and my room’s trash can, I began to conceive the squid legs coming back to life. Each tentacle, undeterred by my stomach acid and verbal pleas, was making a desperate bid to exit my body the way it entered. I could hear the screams echo from when they first unwillingly met the hot pan; the squid demanded to leave a warpath, a trail of destruction only a victim of acute violence could inflict.
I hid my food poisoning from Jennifer. I have no problem detailing the excruciating disgust that accompanied this sorry interaction with the calamari, but getting food poisoning is somewhat a quintessential tourist experience, and the thought of admitting that mortified me.
Earlier, halfway through lunch, Jennifer sufficiently noticed that I was significantly out of my element. I had feebly offered to help Jennifer cook the meat—the way children ask their mother for permission to assist in the kitchen.
At some point in the conversation, I brought up the fact that my mom had been insisting I work in Korea post-graduation for a few years—she wanted me to bond with her side of the family and learn Korean. I mentioned, off-handedly, that I was hesitant.
Jennifer commented after a minute of thoughtful chewing:
“Well, I wouldn’t worry too much,” she said. “You could definitely pass for a foreigner.”
I recoiled, “What does that mean?”
“I just mean that you wouldn’t have to worry about speaking Korean or anything when you’re there,” She was unbothered by my reaction. “You could just be a tourist.”
That night, when I wasn’t looking into a toilet bowl, I spent a lot of time watching my reflection in the narrow, teal-framed dorm mirror beside my door.
I intuitively know I am Korean and white because my mom is Korean, and my dad was white. Still, when I analyze my features, I grow somewhat uncertain.
I had a friend in high school who was a perfect image of her mom; they were both beautiful with curly brown hair and large square teeth. I have never recognized either of my parents like that in my face. I can see evidence of Asian features in my upturned eyes and wide nose, but these features look melted, hastily molded by some indiscriminate whiteness in my genetic makeup.
My face must certainly reflect my ethnicity, but it cannot possibly reflect parentage as equally. When I pinch and pull at my cheeks and start to look at myself as a collection of features instead of a human, I think my parents could have been any Asian/white combination. There is no evidence of Boksoon and Dave.
The first and only time I went to Korea was when I was 13. I met a hundred extended relatives who greeted me and my brother with excitement; we greeted them with trepidation. They asked if we spoke Korean, and we looked at our mom. I remember recognizing a specific shame in her expression; it was the same kind of shame I saw when I would complain about wearing a hanbok or forget to bow when ladies from the Korean church came over for dinner.
I remember not seeing my nose in any of the hundred people I met.
I think my relatives expected me to learn Korean by the time I started college. My mom spent a lot of time insisting that I was smart and cared about the Korean side of my family.
On that trip to Korea, I spent a lot of time watching Spongebob Squarepants at my uncle’s 30th-floor apartment. I refused to watch this show in America; I harbored an idea that only dumb kids liked Spongebob. I briskly abandoned this attitude when my mother and uncle left my brother and me alone with our cousins.
The first time our parents left us to entertain ourselves, we divided our parties on the long taupe couch in the living room facing the TV. The three hosts nervously fidgeted; my brother and I—the two American parasites—sank deeper into cushions.
My eldest cousin flipped through channels, gripping the remote and cautiously watching the two strangers in her home after each click. She silently begged us for a reaction, any recognition.
When the yellow cartoon sponge appeared on the screen, there was unparalleled excitement. Unintelligible shrieks of mutual understanding alleviated the tension and ensured a failsafe activity for the rest of our family summer in Korea.
When I was 18 and still couldn’t speak, my mom relentlessly placed me in front of the computer to Skype with her family. I was rendered mute in these infrequent conversations. When my mom was in her peak of denial, she would force my cousin and me to stare at each other wordlessly, as if I would suddenly burst into Korean. Naturally, both of us spent these conversations eyeing our respective parents to relieve us.
In most attempted conversations, a relative would laugh to break the tension.
I am severely acquainted with this laugh. I heard it often when I visited Korea. Initially, it was a pitiable amusement, used unsuccessfully in excess to fill the absence where language should sit. Too many years have passed, and the laughs are still omnipresent, just more hollow recent in phone calls. I have grown to hate the sound of laughter from my Korean relatives.
My mom’s phone sometimes rings late at night or early in the morning. Whether or not I stay hidden in bed depends on the language I hear exit my mother’s mouth.
I specifically remember my mom explaining a call she had with my uncle the winter after my first semester at college. I had only inquired about the contents of this particular call because I could hear my name repeated throughout the conversation.
“What did he ask?” I asked. “About me?”
“He just asked about what you were studying,” she responded warily.
“What did you say?”
“I told him you were studying English,” she exhaled abruptly out of her nose.
“What did he say?”
That silence stood out to me. When I pretend to translate this phone call in my head, I imagine my mom softly saying, “Simone’s studying English,” followed by a gaping, irreparable silence that screams: “English? She doesn’t even speak Korean!”
It hadn’t crossed my mind when choosing a field of study, but there is an obvious irony, subtle selfishness, and significant cowardice to majoring in a language one already knows well. Regardless of my awareness, I had made a conscious decision that I would rather grow proficient in ostentatious communication with English-speaking strangers than make a bare minimum effort with my blood relatives.
So, I flirt with the idea of learning Korean, but after years of wasted opportunity, it feels too late and kind of stupid to download Duolingo.
Jennifer was one of the people I know who took up learning Korean for fun a few years ago. Occasionally, she will text me a Korean phrase that I will often have to look up on Google Translate. This will often leave me feeling guilty. Most of the time, it’s not actually personal guilt—something manifested from my own desire to know Korean. Instead, I find a more disgusting guilt that comes from wishing she didn’t.
I have several friends of mixed ethnicity or dual heritage who have casually brought up to me (in the early stages of friendship) how awful their cousin “who doesn’t speak the language” is. Often words like “pathetic” and “raised wrong” find their way into these conversations. There is a thinly veiled understanding within many dual heritage communities that if one doesn’t speak the language, one must be whitewashed, apathetic, or both. Blame may be placed on the parents or individual, but the blame is there, always.
For a year, when I was nine, my mom forced us to attend a Korean Catholic church across the street from an empty strip mall. There was one other half-white girl that came to church with her mom. She initially caught my attention because she looked like someone I should know, but her name was Haesun Park, and she spoke both languages without a stutter.
Haesun avoided me as a preventative measure. Whiteness was a disease, and she was a survivor. She avoided me out of fear of further reinfection. It was as if spending too much time with me after long Sunday sermons might somehow Americanize her name.
It might be possible that Haesun didn’t like the idea of being friends with an optional Korean—a girl who never experienced the routine hesitation, preemptive apology, and ultimate mispronunciation from teachers that followed a class roll call. “Haesun” was a permanent tag she wore, a branding that kept her from turning her Koreanness off.
I think she could tell how easy it was for me to leave the church and stop being Korean for the rest of the week.
I don’t want to reject my identity, but my grasp on the culture and the language has slipped through my adolescence; my Korean identity is stuck, stunted at childhood, and only present in the features it leaves on my face.
In this way, we have rejected each other. It has rejected me for my complacency and aversion to discomfort. I have rejected it for making me feel like a kid and a foreigner in my own body. Neither of us—me or my identity—can fully commit to one another, leaving both of us confused and with no other choice but to shelve this feeling for another day.
I noticed in my journalism class that the AP Style Guide removed the hyphen from dual heritage terms in 2019. There is an implication that the dash suggests otherness. I felt strange about this; my “Korean American experience” doesn’t look right. There is too much space in between the two words. The distance between the ‘n’ and the ‘A’ is awkward, as if every other letter is comfortable standing shoulder-to-shoulder, but these two letters haven’t gotten acquainted yet.
The hyphen made this term more real to me. It physically connected one part of my identity to the other—it did the work for me.
Hours into my delirious food poisoning nightmare, I think I started to sympathize with the squid in my stomach. As it dragged and shoved its way up my esophagus, it shrieked in a language that I struggle to understand but recognize incrementally and when repeated slowly.
Perhaps the squid hated being in my stomach because it knew we didn’t understand each other. Maybe it just wanted to go home, where things are comfortable, everyone speaks its language, and no one knows how much it is lying to itself.
Simone Melvin is a student living and learning in Dallas, Texas. She loves art museums but does not know that much about art. She is also a voracious fan of sun-dried tomatoes and has poor eyesight. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.