By Kaylee Park Hammonds
Context: I’m adopted. I grew up in the American South on Sesame Street and fried chicken. Not the trendy Korean kind, the kind you soak in buttermilk and fry in Crisco. I went to the Sorbonne. I also happen to be Korean.
Here’s one way you could talk to me: Ask me, “Where are you from … originally?” Ask me this, and I clam up immediately, because I know what you’re really asking is “Where’d you get them slanty eyes?”
Sometimes, if I’m feeling mischievous, I’ll just say “Korea.” More often than not, this response is met with something like, “South … or North?” Once this happens — and it’s something that happens a lot, what with the North going all bat-shit crazy with missiles and the spectre of Dennis Rodman and whatever the hell he was doing over there — you’ll be met with a blank stare. And no one does a blank stare better than someone with small eyes. Then, if I have the energy, I’ll educate you about trade sanctions mean and how that would definitely apply to the market for little girl babies, let alone whatever the unfortunate population of North Korea produces that is fit to sell.
Another way you could talk to me depends on your age. Most things are generational; this is no exception. If you’re a lot older, you’re probably going to tell me about some girl you knew in “the war.” I’ll politely ignore the lascivious smirk, because you’re an old man, and you served your country, and you should be allowed your NSFW memories. They have nothing to do with me.
A little younger (but still rather older than me), and you’ll mention that you know someone else who is, by golly, Korean! You’ll suggest that I meet with your tangential acquaintance, that we might enjoy talking to one another. About what, I’m not really sure. Maybe the halcyon days before the war or our favorite recipe for kimchi. Or maybe, there’s some secret Korean-ness that we both possess, some sort of secret handshake that we might enjoy that you, a white man, is aware of, but we are not. Hell, there may actually be a secret handshake. But, being adopted, I’ve never been made party to it.
If you’re a specific type of sweater-vest wearing, Scotch-swilling older white man that I oft encountered while waiting tables during my college years, you’d do the following:
- Try to greet me in a garbled version of Korean after which I will tell you I don’t speak it, which will prompt you to
- Act really, really surprised and sometimes, to
- Bemoan the fact that I’m just like other American girls with “no culture,” but after that you’re going to feel kind of awkward so you’re going to
- Tell me it’s really, really great that I’m adopted and then undo all “the good work” inherent in 4 by asking me 5, which is
- “Have you ever thought about, you know, finding your real parents?” at which point I will
- Top off your wine and find some graceful way to leave you, your embarrassed wife, and your (frankly too-small) sweater vest.
Sometimes — this is a little trickier — people will try to get to the bottom of why my English is so proficient by asking me, “What is your second language?” To which I will answer, “French.” Being thrown off by this is not unusual, but usually you will recover fast enough to ask me, “No, I mean, I guess I mean, what is your first language?” My response will be a curt, “English,” which will usually not satisfy you, so we will have to go through some variation of the 1-6 listed above. While we are going through these motions, I am mentally crossing you off as potentially any of the following: friend, lover, boyfriend, passing acquaintance for whom I have semi-jolly feelings, one-time dinner date, etc. The best is when this happens at the grocery store, which happens more than I can credit. It doesn’t help, I guess, that I frequently purchase tofu and edamame—not the effect of my upbringing, but rather of my predilection for “healthy” foods, the type touted in magazines graced by smiling white women with enviable abs.
If you are a certain kind of lowlife, you will honor the tradition of cat-calling women, but with your own special spin: you just loooove Asian girls. We get it, sirs, we don’t look like the rest of the “girls” you often see. Not always, but more often than not, you’ll feel the need to assign me a nationality, most often Chinese. You’ll greet me with a self-satisfied “Ni hao.” Usually, I’ll politely nod, but if I’m feeling snarky, I’ll respond with much saccharine, “Hello, how are you today?”
It would be funnier if I had adjusted earlier on to being “different” (i.e. not white). Instead, it just made me feel insecure and kind of bonkers, never having gotten the chance to be a pretty girl, just a Korean (or Chinese or whatever) one.
If you’re my favorite ex-boyfriend, and you’ve seen me daily frustrated by these things, you will
- Wait until we are travelling in another city, in its Chinatown, and then pretend you can’t tell “which one” is me or
- When we are out for sushi, pretend that I am an employee of the restaurant and repeatedly and pompously demand that I clear your plate, bring you more sake, give you a massage, etc., and
- Keep doing 1 and 2 until I have enough of a sense of humor to write down all of the above.
Kaylee Hammonds is a Birmingham, Ala. and New York City-based writer who specializes in food, shelter, and garden writing. She holds an MA in Food Studies from NYU, which she’s pretty sure qualifies her to eat a lot of cookies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org on Twitter at @kayleehammonds.