| FROM THE MUSE | BY MADELEINE JOUNG | MAY, 2013 |
If someone asked her what her name was, she would think about it, appraising the asker, before giving an answer. Then again, that was what people did. Most of them had two names, one totally Korean and the other completely Japanese.
She didn’t. She had a Japanese name, of course, because it was required. But her other name—the real one—was an oddity. It was both, a medley, but it was a bit like something she would later come to know as vinaigrette. A mixture of oil and water, never completely blended.
Her father was a retired Japanese soldier, but her mother was Korean.
The boldest of her Seoul classmates seemed to take sides in the war (whichever side had the momentum at the time, usually the Empire), but she never did. She was a bit of an enigma, just like the codes no one knew about yet.
Everybody else resented her, because they (perhaps correctly) were of the belief that she had an advantage over the rest because of her father’s blood. The rumor was that he was the Emperor’s half-brother’s cousin, once removed. Traitor, the children thought whenever the Allies were winning, but didn’t dare to say it out loud in case her father used his military connections to have them killed.
She knew what the clique of Korean girls meant when they shot her dark, uneasy looks, knew why she didn’t have any true friends among the few Japanese children. It was because of her father, who listened to the radio reports and hoped for a Japanese victory, and her mother, who kept cuttings of Resistance newspapers in the darkest corner of the kitchen cupboard. She knew who the sympathizers in town were, because they all gathered in her living room on Saturdays, drinking and rambling about the glories of the Empire, on and on and on—only in Japanese, of course.
Her father was killed at the tail end of the war by a group of rowdy Koreans who came across him in the middle of town, looking for a Jap or a sympathizer (a chin-il-pa) to inflict pain upon as they celebrated Hiroshima. She hated them. She hated them all. She hated herself.
It was different in America. When they passed her on the sidewalk, they didn’t try to guess if she was Chinese, Korean or Japanese, and they didn’t gasp when she said she was mixed. Well, not quite as much, anyway.
She didn’t know what to call herself. Korean-Japanese-American? Japanese-Korean-American.
“Asian-American,” she said to the blue-eyed woman with the curly hair.
“Asian?” she answered, hesitating, when they asked her heritage in a job interview (she didn’t get the position).
“Korean,” she told the man behind the counter at the Oriental grocery, keeping her eyes trained on the poster behind him, which read I’m A Proud American. “Mostly.”
“Same as you.” She hoped that she looked enough like everyone in Japan Town for this to be an acceptable response.
She filled in the box that read “Asian/Pacific” on all the forms with the little checkboxes, which was simple enough. But she didn’t know what to write in the space for her name. Her mother’s family name was Kim, her father’s Suzuki. Yes, she’d taken the Japanese one in wartime Korea, but this, this was America and they still hated the goddamn Japs, she thought. So she put Kim.
And she didn’t know what her first name was anymore, so she picked an American name at random, from a phone book. Ironically, it was Kimberly, and she decided against adopting that name. She tried again. The next name that came up was Virginia.
Virginia Kim became her third name.
Eventually she found a job at the Chinese restaurant, bussing tables. This was because at the other logical places she wasn’t Japanese enough, or Korean enough. She could never be elevated to the level of waitress, since she didn’t speak Mandarin, but it was enough for her to pay the bills.
At first she thought she might start to take classes at the local college, but it was cheaper to take the English class at the church, where a woman talked at them for two hours and then offered them frosted cookies. The old man who usually sat next to her was from somewhere in Eastern Europe, and his English was weighed down with an accent, like a fish carrying a stone in the sea. In the pew behind them sat the mother and daughter from Mexico, and the couple who’d emigrated from Ghana.
If she could make it through the workday with enough energy left to walk, she would find her way to that sanctuary.
Well, it was a sanctuary before that day, sometime in February, when they asked everyone to name their home country.
“No,” she said, simply. They all stared, eyes muddied with near-pity and confusion, although some of that was because of their language comprehension. She held her head high and wouldn’t give them an answer. As they pressed her (she thought of an iron, hissing as it weighed down on top of a creased shirt), she forgot why they’d asked in the first place, but she walked out and didn’t go back.
As she strode down the sidewalk, hands fisted in the pockets of her coat, she wished that she had a car so she could stamp her foot on the accelerator and drive far, far away like in the movies: the old black-and-white films that had been shown on rare occasions in the wartime Seoul suburb, using a shoddy projector.
The snow was layered on the pavement, slushy and dirty. Another person was stumbling over the icy patches on the path, with pale skin and a large nose, and a beard that could have passed for a squirrel’s tail.
One year later, Virginia Jones became her fourth name, because he never pressed her on her heritage. As far as she knew, he still thought of her as vaguely Oriental, and didn’t care what race she was, not really.
Their neighbors seemed perfectly capable of talking to her when she was alone, but when she was with her husband they couldn’t say more than empty words, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot like nervous vermin. She didn’t mind.
Usually, she was too tired to speak with them anyway, because the supervisor at the restaurant seemed to take pleasure in giving her all the work that he could. He would bark something at her in Mandarin, his command devoid of any hand gestures or other indications that could help her guess at the meaning.
Then he would laugh hysterically, like it was the funniest thing, while she held her hands behind her back and just watched him until he pulled himself together (it took a while). When the supervisor had his composure back, he repeated the instruction in fragmented English, still chuckling nastily to himself. And when she was halfway through the assigned task, he would yell again in Chinese, and the cycle would repeat until the end of the shift.