Lit Mag Poetry

Korean (?) American

There’s always a pause right before someone says my name. I close my eyes, breathing my last gulp of air as a nameless student. Then it comes, the dreaded snarl of romanticized Korean, pulled and stretched like old gum on a shoe. Snickers erupt amidst the class, and I give the substitute a few more tries before I interrupt with an apologetic smile. I give her a clean, unbroken name that doesn’t sound so discordant on colonized lips, but I can’t scrub the air and make the mangled version of my name disappear.
When we split into groups, a pink and alabaster girl takes one look at me and says, “You can do the powerpoint, right? You’re smart; I bet you can do this whole project yourself.”
I know an order when I see one, and I obey instead of quietly answering that it’s rude to assume that the Asian girl can do anything to save abysmal grades.
(Test Question #4: would an Asian girl sacrifice her own grades to bring down the slackers with her? Explain.
Answer: no. An Asian girl, let alone a Korean one, barely has enough spine to fit her whole body. Her culture demands it).
My so-called friends talk in hushed tones at the cafeteria while I sit and chew the sandwich my mother made me. Sundried tomatoes and mozzarella cheese. Seeded bread, no crusts.
“I don’t know, she doesn’t seem like a lesbian to me.”
“Right, like you’d know what lesbians look like?”
“How’d her parents take it?”
I take another bite. Pesto sauce sticks my tongue to the roof of my mouth.
“They’re forcing her to some kind of camp. Can’t say I envy her.”
“What did you expect? You know what our parents are like.”
A sigh of sympathy goes around the table.
“It just doesn’t make sense. She liked boys before. I’ve read cases like this; no one suddenly turns into a lesbian overnight.”
“Whatever, just as long as she doesn’t start staring at me across the street windows.”
I push my chair back from the table, and a dozen girls that look like me (but not like me) swivel their heads.
“Bisexuality exists, you know.” I remark casually.
Throwing away the sandwich feels like I’m emptying a tray at prison, with the eyes of wary wardens on my back.
(Test Question #44: can a Korean girl be bi?
Answer: She must marry a boy with good connections and a well-paying job, produce healthy, precocious children, and must enjoy this role even if she sees an obsidian woman who has sunlight in her eyes and warmth in her smile).
He doesn’t call me or text me. We communicate in a different language of romance: academics. I gripe about my responsibilities, he’s always there to placate me, and we tutor each other in the subject we each excel in. A balanced scale.
“It’s not coincidence that Pearl brings back the letter to her. She’s grown so associated with her mother carrying that A on her chest that she brings it back. In a way, Pearl’s unconsciously acting as the Puritan society that condemned Hester.”
“So she’s absorbed prejudices aided by the environment she lives in. That’s some real life osmosis.”
“How many times do you have to bring in biology during analysis time?”
“But it’s fun. It makes you petulant and cute.”
“Nice save.”
“It’s also funny to see because you don’t look like someone who hates science and math.”
“You know, glasses, brunette, good grades.”
“I have a B minus in Bio.”
“Exactly my point! It’s so ironic.”
“That I’m a bad Asian?”
(Test Question #444: put a white boy and a Korean-American girl together. What kind of reaction would you see?
Answer: inevitabile repulsion).
My mother says to come over. Sharp lines define her hollow cheekbones, and her cinnamon-colored hair sits on her head in an elegant bun. With my hair as black as a frying pan and cheeks as round as apples, we’re a striking contrast. She has her tablet with her and the faces of my grandmother and my aunt swim in front of the screen. They ask me about school, if I’ve lost any weight, and whether I’ve met any boys.
“When you graduate, we’ll go to the new plastic surgeon here! He’s very good, so many stars here went to him…”
“You’ve grown so tan! Better put more lotion on, you don’t want to lose that great paleness you have.”
I nod, a bobble head with a glazed smile on her lips. Behind my smile, I hide the fact that I’ve lost credibility with my Algebra teacher, gained three pounds, and that the boy I’ve loved stabbed me in the back.
(Test Question #444.4: can a Korean-Asian-American girl ever tell the truth?
Answer: See #44).
There’s a girl who looks like me, but not like me. Her vowels dip and her consonants break, and her fingers twitch nervously on her quilted pencil case. Her name taints the air when the teacher introduces her to us, and the people around me giggle. When class ends, the people part from her path like she’s one of the Sonnimne. She sits at a single table in the cafeteria, slowly picking her lunch apart. A couple of boys from the table behind her mime eating a dog. One of them selects a yellow highlighter from his pencil case and starts painting on his skin, and the boys start to laugh.
The girl starts and then trembles, as she realizes I’m walking towards her. I breeze past her, smiling at the boys.
“What’s so funny?”
The highlight drops from the table. The boys start saying they’re participating in a play, and I just silently stand there until they run out of excuses. They mumble a half-hearted apology and retreat to the sandwich line.
I steal one of their chairs and drag it over to the girl’s table. I open my lunchbox, snap open the wooden chopsticks, and offer her a small roll of sushi. She looks at it like it’s a time bomb.
“My mother makes them, and they taste great. I don’t give a damn about anyone who thinks it’s cliche.”
The girl smiles.
(Test Question #4444: would a Korean-Asian-American girl help another like her?
Answer: No. I, on the other hand, would).

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