Korean Enough

I teach a class in the novel for three days at the Wesleyan Writer’s Conference, and then drive to New Haven to take the train into New York City Wednesday night, headed to an event co-hosted by Guernica Magazine and the Asian American Writers Workshop, a reading/party for the June fiction issue that I guest-edited. I feel a little blank on the way down. I cannot stop thinking of how I live inside a kind of tacked-together world made to appear affluent that is instead crumbling down. A few very rich people live safely hidden inside of it, secretly hollowing it out and working to maintain the illusion of wealth for the people on the surface.

This started a while ago.

Here are some of the thoughts in my mind as I drive:

  • a taxi ride from back in April, in which the driver told me a story of giving a ride to someone who described a “plan” to take the wealth of the country and place it in the hands of a few. I realize it bothers me because when he said it, this wasn’t one of those crazy times, like the driver who held up a picture of a woman and said, Do you know who this is? This is God, but instead it was like he was saying there was a plan also for a new stadium on the West side of Manhattan. He didn’t need me to believe him.
  • I am thinking also about my own money, of which there isn’t much, and how, after the event is done, I’ll go to my accountant, because of continuing tax issues I have and because he keeps night hours–I don’t like my wife’s TV shows, he tells me.
  • The stories from dinners at the conference, of people in Vermont burning their furniture to heat their houses because they can’t afford oil or gas heat, and of people sleeping in their cars along the roads, without homes. And so driving into the city no longer feels casual after that, and my sturdy ’94 Geo Prizm, which gets 35 miles to the gallon, makes me feel rich.

Because I am thinking of this and more, some things have gone wrong. For example, I made a Facebook event for my reading and then…felt like I was done. Facebook is very easy for making invitations to events, and it was so easy, and so many of my friends are on it, I didn’t send out emails or put it on my blog. When I realize I forgot to do more than this, I have a moment of feeling how I live in a future I don’t know I would have chosen, but that I did manage to choose, all the same. So to recover, I make calls on the drive down, apologizing to perplexed friends who I know are rightly mad at me for this. The student interns, who for some reason I feel like I’ve known for a long time, mock me for this the next night, when I return, and even insist I delete applications from my page in front of them. But for now, I step onto the train, feeling both exhausted and foolish. And on the train down, I fall asleep.

I arrive at the exact time the event begins. The room is standing-room-only full, and my three writers from the issue are there: Catherine Chung, Elaine H. Kim and Jin Young Sohn. The events director of the workshop hands me a cold free Singha beer. A reporter from Korea Daily takes a picture of me with the three writers I chose. Then I read from this essay:

I lived my first three years in Korea, in my grandfather’s house in Seoul, before we moved to Truk, Hawaii, Guam, then Maine. My mother tells me that the first written words I ever read aloud were “Obi Mechu”, the Korean version of, if your American child looked up at you and said, “Schlitz Beer.” I was on her lap, looking over her shoulder at billboards as we drove through Seoul.

My father’s family in Korea keeps traditions they brought with them from China in the 15th Century that the Chinese no longer keep; they use an archaic Chinese script in the keeping of our family’s records. They perform, inside the confines of my family, these rituals of this lost homeland—even as they tell me they fear I’m “not Korean enough,” with no sense of irony whatsoever.

If I were, say, to be as like them as they asked when I was younger—if I were to be “Korean enough,” I still would never be Korean enough for some. I would still go to my grave an alien. I think of them, though, now that I live in America. I wonder if what we do as Korean Americans is so very different from what they do in Korea with the traditions of China. If we are headed towards becoming a performance of the myths of the homeland that would be bizarre and even antiquated to the people who live there now.

Go check out the issue. As you read it, pretend you’re inside the Asian American Writers Workshop, a loft office on West 32nd, near Broadway, full of books and people. There’s a low stage with a stool that’s lit up, and the room is mostly dark. Small origami cranes of different colors cover most of the wall behind the stage. People have turned the fans off to hear the readers.

More tomorrow. If you live in New York, and you would have wanted to come, I’m sorry for not telling you about this event. And, should I even say it? This is probably a bad time. But if you’re on Facebook, add me.

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