by Joey Kim
Church was the one place in town where Koreans were the dominant culture.
I remember sitting in silence next to my mother while she prayed in a language I wish I knew. I sat with her during service until I was forced to go to Sunday School. It took us thirty minutes via car to get to church in Youngstown, and Youngstown was different from where I lived. It had factories, sidewalks, nonwhite people, truck stops, and bus stops. The houses looked older, historical even.
It was the one time a week when my mother wore her dress suits or fanciest clothes. My sisters and I wore white-collared dresses, off-brand saddle shoes or Mary Jane’s from Payless, and once we started getting money for chores, white purses. We had to tithe part of our chore earnings as offering.
After church service when the adults were meeting about bible study or missions or whatever they did, the kids played in the parking lot or church basement. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere else.
One day after service, after the free donuts and coffee, the adults went upstairs to the sanctuary, leaving the kids to play. My two older sisters were hanging with friends their age, and I was watching Esther, our baby sister. She was three years old.
Esther wanted to play. She wasn’t allowed to go outside, so I wanted to entertain her. I tickled her and made funny faces that she tried to mimic.
“Haha, you’re silly!” she exclaimed, pointing at my air-blown face. “I wanna play tag!”
“Ok!” I said, jumping up.
“Tag, you’re it!” she cried out, running toward the church kitchen. I gave her a head start, and I got up to pretend to chase her.
Pretending is easy for us Asian Americans. Pretending to be white by sounding like them, dressing like them, earning money like them.
Audre Lorde said in 1980, “We have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or to destroy it if we think it is subordinate.”1
Us Koreans have chosen the second: “copy it if we think it is dominant,” to the point of assimilation without individual identities. We are a mass of bodies without difference, an “Oriental” balm for healing what Teju Cole calls the “wounded hippo” of white guilt.
It was a pretend chase, or so I thought. I looked at her little feet scurrying across the peeling linoleum floor. Her energy was uncontainable. We did circles around the basement, as I tried to tire her out of her Dunkin’ Donuts sugar high.
She turned around to look at me and smiled. She continued running, but suddenly tripped on her rubber soles and fell headfirst into the sharp corner of a steel cabinet. Her head was on the floor, blood gushing out of it. I screamed.
I screamed again when I picked her up off the floor. My sisters came, saw, and screamed. They went upstairs to get our parents. Korean people gathered around us and spoke in what sounded like the gift of tongues.
We took Esther to the hospital. She got eleven stitches in the center of her forehead. My guilt was not a “wounded hippo” kind. I was nine. I did not know how to be white yet. Letting my sister fall marked my arrival into racial adolescence.
1Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984), 115.
Joey S. Kim is a scholar, creative writer, and Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Toledo. She researches eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature with a focus on Romantic literature, global Anglophone literature, postcolonial theory, and poetics. Her poems have been published in Pleiades: Literature in Context, Burningword Literary Journal, The Hellebore, and elsewhere. In 2017, she received the national Council of Korean Americans’ spoken word poetry prize. Twitter: @joeykim
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What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “A Sunday in Youngstown”? The drafting of “A Sunday in Youngstown” started about two years ago, and it is a work I was inspired to write after reading Ibram X. Kendi’s ‘How to Be an Anti-Racist.’ Kendi’s rethinking of the memoir genre as a space for critical race commentary helped me reflect on my childhood as a process of learning my racial and ethnic embodiment before I had the language to understand it.
What surprising, fascinating stuff can you tell us about the origin, drafting, and/or final version of “A Sunday in Youngstown”?
The drafting of “A Sunday in Youngstown” started about two years ago, and it is a work I was inspired to write after reading Ibram X. Kendi’s ‘How to Be an Anti-Racist.’ Kendi’s rethinking of the memoir genre as a space for critical race commentary helped me reflect on my childhood as a process of learning my racial and ethnic embodiment before I had the language to understand it.
Check out the write-up of the journal in The Writer.
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