Like Mother, Like Daughter

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Illustration by David Owens.

 

“Are you a Twinkie?”

I was in fourth grade the first time I was asked such a question, by one of the only Korean girls I’d ever known as a friend. I knew she did not intend the artificial, albeit delicious, cream-filled pastry. Twinkie, banana, these were terms that I had heard before. Denominations for less-than-complete Asians: yellow on the outside; white upon peeling away the exterior. All names that exacerbated my glaringly apparent insufficiency. I answered no.

“Good. Me neither.”

Whether the words I had spoken were true or not, I did not know, though I desperately ached for them to be so. I felt suffocated by my own inadequacy, and my adolescent shame turned quickly to anger, against my mother, for not speaking Korean, for not being “legitimate” and for shouldering such a deficiency unto me in consequence.

Once, when I was in first grade, a boy pulled up the corners of his eyes at me, pressing his fingers into the skin and proudly presenting to me his “Chinese eyes.” My mother had burned irate that day, a fact that, for many years, I could not understand. To my knowledge at the time, the “Chinese, Japanese, American knees” chant was merely a popular rhyme among the 2007 first-grade class, and one thought to be terribly witty when accompanied by a corresponding stretching of the eyes and final clasping of one’s own kneecaps. Those words to me did not bear half the sting that “Twinkie” did, harmless as that spongy confection appeared.

I now appreciate my mother’s injury, for in her time children knew to be cruel, as well. Then, it was not her inadequacy but her abnormality that alienated her from other children. True, they were permitted to play together, and the fresh blood that issued forth from the scrapes she earned—badges of honor—flowed just as red and hot as any other’s. That was, however, until the game would turn in her favor, and one of them would shout, “You lose because you’re a chink!” and then laugh, too, because how clever a thought was that? And then it did not matter that their blood was common, nor that they spoke a mutual tongue, but that the melanin pervading through one’s flesh had stained it an acrid yellow, while the other’s remained pure white.

It was in those moments that my mother felt that her identity had betrayed her, like a furtive wound opened afresh. A silly thought, childish, as her own olive skin and almond eyes had been no less apparent from the start of the endeavor to the end, but children’s minds work in mysterious ways.

And now, despite our seemingly disparate experiences, my mother and I navigate our own foreign landscapes in tandem, alike in our embittered mutuality and whatever remains of that childlike desperation to fit an unfamiliar mold—barriers that now we seek to overcome. Pain, to be made strength. Like mother, like daughter, I suppose.



Olivia Choi

Lives in: Washington, D.C.
High School: Rising senior at Sidwell Friends School
Age: 17
Favorite Place to Write: “Anywhere—I’ve never been someone who can sit down and write an entire piece at once, so most of my best work happens whenever something comes to me.”
Favorite Author: “I love Margaret Atwood because of how her themes have a way of transcending societal barriers. Regardless of nationality, gender or even time period, her characters’ emotions are universal.”

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