Content disclaimer: Mild Dysmorphia. Discussion of divorce.
That makes me half-Asian.
I didn’t really understand this until kindergarten. One girl kept asking me if I was Chinese. The first time she asked, I didn’t know what to say. I went home and asked my parents what I was. They looked at me kind of funny. I guess they hadn’t expected the question. They told me that since Papa was German (partly) and Mama was Korean (through and through), I could say half-German and half-Korean.
That turned out too complicated, since the girl didn’t know where Korea was, and I began to simplify to half-Asian, already sowing the seeds of what would later become a problematic identity. As for the girl, the next time she called me Chinese I shoved her and screamed, “I’m Korean!” in her face.
I must confess I wasn’t a particularly nice child. Any niceness I possess now, I’ve picked up along the way. But that’s not the point of this, not now. It comes later. Right now is about heritage, and that means my parents and their backgrounds and what they’ve given me.
My mother’s parents came from Korea around 1970. There was a doctor shortage at that time, and the United States was actively recruiting foreign medical professionals — like my grandfather, who had attended medical school in Korea — to immigrate to the country and fill in the gaps. Initially, they planned to return to Korea after a few years — but these plans fell through with the discovery of a stable way of life unmatched by what they’d had at home, followed by the birth of my mother in 1974.
My grandfather, who was about five when the Korean War began, grew up in a fishing village. He was one of the first members of his family to secure a post-secondary education. He’d wanted to be an engineer, but his score on the state examinations hadn’t been good enough, so he’d gone to med school instead. Tough, right? Maybe his love of engineering had something to do with the fact that his two sons, my mother’s younger brothers and my uncles, would both become engineers in America, where one’s choice of degree isn’t inherently limited. (And where, perhaps, doctors are revered over engineers.)
My grandmother, who gave up her career as a teacher to come to America, had lost both of her parents by the time she met my grandfather. Her father in particular had led a curious life — many lives, rather, in which he’d held a variety of occupations from photographer to jewelry maker to ward of a wealthy Japanese man. But my grandmother was, in effect, a pauper when she met my grandfather. His father was the headmaster of the school at which she taught. My grandfather, apparently, had his heart set on her from the moment they met. She remembers the circumstances differently. According to her, he’d returned after serving his mandatory military service, and her first thought had been Him again? Somehow or another, he won her heart — and married her, despite his parents’ disapproval. They’d been hoping the matchmaker, the traditional means of Korean marriage arrangement, would lead to a profitable match into a wealthy family, the exact opposite of the match my grandfather had made for himself with my penniless grandmother.
Upon their arrival in America, my grandparents — especially my grandmother, who found herself mainly homebound — struggled with the language barrier. But they found solace in my grandmother’s sister, who had come to America some years earlier, as well as in the community of the Korean Methodist church they attended.
As a popular general and family practitioner, my grandfather became a highly-respected member of his community. When he took a year to branch out and study acupuncture, people began to travel from as far as New York to visit his small practice in Sea Isle City, New Jersey. This year, due only to the upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic, he’s decided to shutter his practice permanently — at the age of 75. My grandmother, with her spare time, has picked up a longtime hobby — painting — again.
You might think it’s harder for me, raised in white America, to relate to my Korean grandparents. But it’s not exactly so. In some ways, it’s always been easy for me to look at them and see my parents and myself in them. They’re happy together. Their personalities fit together. They love food and family and church. They worked hard and made it big. When my parents were dirt poor, searching for a house, they helped them with the mortgage, and my parents paid them back later.
My Harmoni and Harabuji (Korean for grandmother and grandfather) are also the only two people in my life who called me beautiful when I was young. When I was a kid, if I’d ask my mother if I was pretty, she’d shrug and give me some noncommittal response like, “Why does that matter? It’s better to be smart than pretty.” To my Harmoni and Harabuji, I was always beautiful. When we arrived at their home on the island or when they arrived at ours, it was, “Laura’s so beautiful!” My mother would always look away when they said that, as if she didn’t approve.
When my Harmoni cut my hair, as I peered into the mirror, she’d say, “Laura’s beautiful. She has beautiful hair.”
I think I once asked my mother if I was pretty and when she gave her noncommittal response I said, “Harmoni and Harabuji say I’m beautiful.”
She said something like, “They’re your grandparents. They’re supposed to say you’re beautiful.”
I don’t fault my mother for placing the emphasis on brains over beauty, because in the end one is unmistakably more important than the other. One enriches life and the other can only take away and go away. Still, I think that for someone like me — someone who, despite desperately not wanting it, needs some shred of external validation from the people who matter the most — the non-focus on beauty just confused me. I grew up without a sense of what I looked like, being scolded if I stared in the mirror too long, being read the story of Narcissus and Echo at night before bedtime, being read the passage in the Bible about the lilies of the field. These might be minor exaggerations on my part, but they’re what I remember now, and sometimes what you remember is truer than the truth itself. Around the second or third grade I realized that there was this invisible social ranking system that I was virtually unaware of. I could say which of my peers were good-looking, but I had no idea where I sat on that ladder of looks.
I think the moment that woke me up, for the first time, was at the end of the second grade, during the night when all the kids and parents were invited to the school to hang out in the courtyard, have slush, play games. Come back with me. I’m on the playground, not the big one up top, but the little one that’s meant just for the kindergartners. I’m on it because we’ve not been allowed on it during recess since, well, kindergarten. I was playing with Daniel, but now his “girlfriend” Taylor is here. They’re at one end of the play structure and I’m at the other, peering between multicolored bars at the brick wall of the building.
They’re arguing. I can hear their whispers. Hush-hush. What’s going on? Probably none of my business. All of a sudden Taylor’s walking towards me, Daniel in tow. She points at me.
“Tell her. Tell her what you said.”
“No, no, I…” He’s fidgeting.
“Tell her what you said!”
I look at Daniel. I’m confused. “What did you say?” I ask.
He looks at his feet. Turns to Taylor. “I didn’t say I liked her!”
Liked me? I take a step back. “What?”
“I said you were pretty,” he says. He too is stepping back. Sort of holding up his hands in a helpless gesture. For a moment it all feels very adult. I’ve not watched soap operas, but later I’ll realize that that’s what it’s like, a second grade version of a soap opera. “That’s all. I just said you were pretty.”
And then he’s gone, they’re gone, she’s almost crying, and I don’t understand.
There’s another time, third grade, some girls muscle me into the bathroom and try to put makeup on me, telling me how much prettier I’ll look, that I’ll look like an actress, that I’m so pretty to begin with, that now I can go to those Disney auditions in Boston and become a star. Not quite. As soon as they’re gone, I wash the makeup off, but I’m already coming down with a rash. I have sensitive skin, and I never wear makeup. That’s probably mostly because my mother never wears makeup, but also because makeup’s always given me a strange feeling. Like I’m putting on a show for someone and becoming something I’m not. But what am I? Pretty?
There’s more to this story, of course, but those are the roots, the first tendrils of doubt that spiraled and grew into a vine, but right now I’ll leave it hanging by the tendrils. I’d become confused. Part of it, I think, was that it was very easy to look at Hannah, the popular blonde girl, and understand that she was pretty. It was much harder for me to look at myself in the mirror and view this amalgamation of features I’d never seen on anyone else, besides my younger siblings, and think of myself as anything other than featureless and alien. By third or fourth grade, I’d become obsessed with my nose. My nose was way too big. If I could fix my nose, then I could fix everything else that felt wrong. At the same time, I felt ashamed for thinking about my appearance, and I did everything I could to pretend I didn’t care: wore baggy, masculine clothing, little jewelry, “forgot” to brush my hair…
The summer before sixth grade, I flew to Michigan alone to visit my grandmother, my father’s mother, to go to a horse camp in East Lansing, where she lived and still lives.
My paternal grandparents are very different from my maternal ones. For one, they’re white, and they’re not immigrants, although their families aren’t really American long-timers either. No stories about coming over on the Mayflower, for instance.
The biggest difference is that they’re divorced. I believe this happened around 1998, the year I was born. I’ve never really spoken with my parents about it, but I know the bare details. My grandfather, a professor at Michigan State University, was having an affair. He’s married to the other woman now, and they come to Boston about once a year to attend a conference and, I like to think, to see us. I like my grandfather, actually — he’s a really smart man, and I can see a lot of him in my father. But I know my father views the divorce as a mistake that must not, at any cost, be repeated. My parents both take marriage very seriously, as a commitment for life. It is not something that you “just try out” and use divorce as a fall-back option when it doesn’t work out. They married very young, but they counsel me to wait. I don’t think this has to do much with them regretting their decision; it has to do with the magnitude of the decision itself.
My grandmother is a character. She loves animals, and currently has three cats. To earn a bit of money, she rents out rooms to international students at MSU, usually Chinese ones. They’re her housemates. Sometimes they bring animals of their own and other times even children.
I don’t know all that much about her side of the family except that she grew up on a farm in Wisconsin and that she had a brother who’s now dead. I know about my grandfather’s side from the Schmidt family reunions that happen roughly every four years. It’s a sprawling family — he’s one of eight siblings, all of whom are still living, and so my father has endless cousins and I have endless second cousins, though I only have four first cousins. The reunions invariably take place near the home of one of the “aunts” and “uncles,” who are really my great-aunts and great-uncles. The first one I remember, right at the vague hazy edge of memory, was in Washington State. I remember a jetty and fog and seeing seals through the mist. Sometimes I confuse it with another memory, of a wedding in California, where I saw pelicans.
A reunion that I remember better was the one in New Mexico, where I fell in love with the desert. You would not believe how beautiful and desolate it is. The dry Rio Grande, the rain that came suddenly and became a torrent, the way the water evaporated in seconds when the clouds had pushed off, vanishing as if they’d never existed, and you could almost believe that it was one long fever-dream inspired by the scorching desert heat and the mirages rising off the roadways.
The most recent reunion was in Milwaukee, a prototypical Midwestern city with gridded streets and pretty decent food. I remember sitting around the table with my siblings and second cousins and thinking about how I knew none of these people. If we’d passed on the street, we would’ve been strangers. Some of them even reminded me of other people I knew. But we shared this blood connection.
To assess what my two sides share, I can say a few things. For one, my ancestors on both sides probably ate a lot of cabbage. (This one is an observation stolen from my father.) In Korea, cabbage is fermented and turned into the iconic kimchi; in Germany and Hungary, where many of my ancestors on my paternal grandfather’s side came from, it’s made into the equally iconic sauerkraut; in England and Ireland, where the ancestors of my paternal grandmother came from, I imagine they ate a lot of cabbage soup. In all honesty, most everyone used to eat a lot of cabbage. Nowadays it makes up a number of iconic side dishes, and cabbage soup isn’t one of them. The more creative and more delicious preparations have survived.
Another thing my ancestors were quite good at, on both sides, was avoiding war, or straight up running from it. During World War I, my paternal grandfather’s ancestors fled what was then Austro-Hungary — for Germany. I suppose they didn’t flee far enough. During World War II, they fled Germany for the United States, where they have been ever since. Though they haven’t stayed in one place: they’ve spread from corner to corner of America, and some have gone to Canada, and some have returned to Europe.
On my mother’s side, her grandfather on her mother’s side avoided the Korean War by acting as some kind of double agent — God knows the story there. Her grandfather on her father’s side was allowed not to fight because he was a teacher.
That’s another thing — a lot of my ancestors were (and still are) teachers. My mother, a teacher; my Harmoni, a teacher; her mother, a teacher; my Harabuji’s father, a teacher; my grandfather on my father’s side, a professor — and the list goes on. If I become a teacher, I will be continuing in a long (though perhaps not storied) line of teachers that my family, on both sides, has produced.
Most of my Korean relatives are still in Korea. My Harabuji has six or seven siblings; he’s the only one who ever came to America. Last summer, my brother went to Korea and met some of the family. I may go someday, but I don’t know when.
In my imagination, it’s a beautiful place, this land across the sea, with forests and sparkling bays. And an old place, like Europe was when I visited, where people have been building cities and towns for millennia. In truth, it’s probably not all that different from what I know. This is my heritage: a broken mirror, the things that seem and the things that are.