Mom always said I was a diamond in the rough. “You’re an uncut diamond that was dropped, accidentally lost in the dirt. You’re beautiful, but no one can see that, because you hide your beauty.” What she meant to say specifically was, my sloppy boyish clothes and my unmade up face, were disguising my true potential. “If only someone could see that you were there, a lost treasure at their feet, covered in dust!” she sighed.
“Maybe that’s what I want Mom.” I said. “My ugliness is a filter. The ones that can see through my plain appearance, are the ones that are worthy. I don’t want to be with a shallow follower man that judges by external beauty. I want a man who can see the beauty in me, while I’m in the dirt.”
Mother smiled and said, “You have a good heart Eun Kyung-ee but most people don’t think the way you do! People will always judge one another by appearances. If you’re not beautiful, they’ll pass you by, as if you were invisible.”
That’s our tendency as humans isn’t it? We quickly assess each other preferentially by race, we’re graded by skin tone, gender, clothes as uniforms of reflective identity, economic status crowns, job titles as badges of hierarchy and we’re so afraid of death that we remain immature and superficial forever; as if those surface elements were a complete formula, a statistical pattern locked into the set future, or a mathematical problem with an immediate solution.
Judging a book by it’s cover is a primitive protective system of shallow deductions, meant to keep us safe and in line. It’s a lazy pseudo shortcut; we’re not as scientifically observant as Sherlock Holmes, we can’t decipher the deeper truth if it doesn’t match the status quo. We routinely make wrong assumptions and never realize who’s actually in front us. Maybe it’s because society taught us to wear a costume of accomplishment, or strength, or sexiness, or confidence, but underneath the superficial facade is a rage-filled Hitler, a posturing, self-entitled Trump or an insecure daddy’s boy, Kim Jung Un; tyrants are often paralyzed with their own self-loathing demons. Love doesn’t create psychopaths, hatred always does.
I often had philosophical debates with my mother about sexism or racism, “No matter what race they are, God loves everyone Mom!” I’d stand on my self-righteous soap box and I’d roll my eyes at her various xenophobic responses. She reminded me of bigoted Archie Bunker and his timid wife, Edith! (characters from the sitcom “All in the Family”). I think she couldn’t help it, generational programming was heavily reinforced in Korean culture.
Difference was a dangerous anomaly. Difference could jeopardize the entire colony, so the message was to stay together, act alike, camouflage against the predators of life by blending in. Conformity, obedience, working collectively for the common good, especially within a family, was an honorable act of filial loyalty and love. Sacrifice of individual needs or wants was a mandatory choice. But going off on your own was a treacherous, selfish and solitary betrayal, that often warranted permanent exile; but that’s what I eventually decided.
In retrospect it seems that I intentionally broke every rule that was expected of me, but I didn’t do it to hurt anyone. I had no other choice but to be what I was. I challenged all the asian stereotypes, I was terrible at math and big chested, my skin was perpetually tan, sometimes I bleached and dyed my hair a punky bright red or turquoise blue color, I couldn’t speak Korean anymore and stopped going to Korean-American Church. I was an asian hippie without the 70s glam. I was the youngest child and the black sheep dissident of my family.
To date, I am the only unmarried mother of a biracial child in my entire clan, that’s a start of a poem right there. Square pegs and round holes, I didn’t want to fit in, or maybe I trained myself to want oddity as a way out, an excuse to leave the normal, well-worn shoes on a familiar path, not the spooky, rocky, ‘road less travelled’.
I took the blood-soaked briar patch path, survived karmic relationship disasters that replayed the tragic dysfunctions in my family, but I’m still here writing these surreal stories of trying to assimilate, both within my Korean family and within North American society. The immigrant experience to me, was a circus of fire rings, an endless angst of being an outsider but with the tease of maybe someday belonging.
Someone, usually a stranger (with innocent intentions), will often ask me, “Where are you from?” no matter how long I live here in the US, no matter that this is my only home, I’m a citizen here and my parents are citizens too but it doesn’t seem to matter.
“Where are you from?”
“What does it matter to you? I’m from the East Coast and before that Africa.
“Wow you lived in Africa?!”
“Everyone is from Africa.”
A friend who had a German accent once told me that his accent was like a scar, it highlighted him as an outsider although he was Caucasian. I know exactly what he means. For a long time, I imagined that in Korea, I’d finally blend in, surrounded in an aerial view, of black shining Korean iridescent hair, but now mine is salt and peppered, (a long haired crone I’ve become).
Where do I belong?
Where am I from?
Earth. Stardust. Love.
Korean hairsticks inlaid with stones and jewels, part of the “Couture Korea” exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in SF, CA, Photographed by Judy Eun Kyung Kim c2018