To Miss Tranquist,
Watching your face scrunch up, I anticipate the confused head tilt that always seems to follow as you pause at what I am sure must be my name. After all, you did just call for “Sarah Griswold,” and “H” for “Han” usually comes after that. You do a quick scan around the room at the blonde-haired Rebeccas and blue-eyed Michaels before your gaze settles on me. I wonder what must be going on in your head, looking at the little Asian girl with dark hair and darker eyes in a sea of light hair, light eyes, and even lighter skin.
“Uhhh, Hai-oh yeen?” you manage.
Compared to other teachers in the past, you definitely did put in more effort than some. But I can feel my face redden as everyone’s eyes lock onto me. Being the center of attention was never what I wanted.
“It’s H-yo In,” I say to you.
“Ah, okay, thank you.”
The look of relief on your face is unmistakable as you move down the roster and see “Jake Harrell,” a name you can say. The rest of attendance goes on without another glitch, without another awkward moment for you to have to endure.
I’ve always hated the first day of school. Unfortunately, it never gets much better throughout the semester. You somehow always seem to find someone else to call on, even when I shoot my hand up into the air before anyone else in the class, and maybe you don’t think I notice, but I’m the only student you never say “Hello” to by name. When you address me, you usually just refer to me as “you.”
I wish you’d try. All it takes is a little bit of effort, but it turns out that you’re no different than any other teacher I’ve had over the years. I understand that you don’t want to be embarrassed, but I wonder if you’ve ever put yourself in my shoes.
You were the reason behind my many fights with my parents who kept insisting “Hyo In” was a beautiful name, but I didn’t care that it meant “wisdom from dawn” or that it represented my family, my heritage, my culture, my language. I wanted nothing to do with it because all I ever wanted was to fit in and be accepted, to be called on without hesitation and be greeted by name.
It’s been over fifteen years since I started going by “Melanie,” a name that people like you can say without a second thought. I hear my name often and from the lips of many people, and I like it. But, Miss Tranquist, at what cost? What do you think is in a name?
Melanie Hyo-In Han
Pungent smell of fermenting kimchi. Familiar sight of simmering bone broth that holds fish cakes, thirteen or maybe fourteen of them, dancing to the rhythm of bubbles. Up. Down. Up. Down. They lazily sink all the way to the bottom before bouncing back to the surface, playing a game of sorts among themselves. Hustle and bustle of lunchtime at Myeongdong Market with fried chicken feet, splayed out and curled at the ends, rows of hanging chilis in different shades of summer sunset, dried, whole squid piled flat on top of one another, their every tentacle preserved and intact…
I wonder what you’d think if you saw me here, staring at the little pyramid of perfect, round kimbap. The kimbap lady’s restless hands move tirelessly to toast each sheet of salty seaweed. Rice, egg, carrots, radishes, cucumbers, beef. The predictable pattern of roll, slice, stack. Roll, slice, stack. Just because my people’s food is different than yours, it doesn’t make it gross. Do you remember that day at our fourth grade picnic? Do you? I do.
My mom woke up at 4 a.m. that morning to pack my lunch, and I got up not too long after, unable to contain my excitement for the upcoming class picnic. Hidden by the door frame, I watched her restless hands move tirelessly. Roll, slice, stack. Roll, slice, stack. I hoped you might be impressed, maybe even a little jealous of my mom’s perfect Korean cooking.
But when lunchtime finally rolled around and I opened my kimbap container, all I heard were your “Ewww!”s, and within minutes, you told half the class that I brought sliced millipedes for lunch.
I remember my reddened face, ringing ears, dragging feet… My shaking hands found themselves tossing the kimbap that was my mom’s 4 a.m. work into the open, hungry mouth of the trash can, which readily swallowed my pride and my lunch, along with my favorite yellow plastic container - the one with smiling ducklings on it. At that moment, I couldn’t tell whether I wanted to die or be white.
Your perfectly triangled white sandwiches, perfect pale skin, perfect light eyes (they looked easy enough to gouge out)... it looked like sunshine rested in your golden hair while night and fury nested in mine.
I didn’t eat that day. Instead, I sat alone on a bench a few feet away from you and your friends, listening to a song you had made up about me. You taught it to everyone in the class, and the song stuck around for the rest of the year. I can still hear it in my head today.
At home that afternoon, I shut myself in the bathroom, scrubbing my skin raw and crying my eyes dry until exhaustion called my name. When the front door clicked, I threw angry words at my mom. I yelled and yelled and yelled some more. I didn’t care that “everyone in Korea brought kimbap to a picnic” or that “there was nothing weird about seaweed and rice and vegetables.” I told her I never wanted it, ever again.
And, she never made kimbap, ever again. We never talked about the incident after that. I avoided Korean food, especially kimbap, a food that wasn’t worthy enough to enter the pale, pale world I had created for myself out of triangled sandwiches, white skin, light eyes, and sunshine bleached hair.
I hated you. I wanted to be you.
And now, I watch as you post Instagram photos of you eating kimbap at a Korean food truck in downtown L.A. #koreankimbap. #seoulfood. 1.1K likes.
I think about the irony of it all.
I hope you remember me as you eat your kimbap.
Melanie Hyo-In Han
One day, I came home from school, and you were just gone. Mom said it was because you missed Grandpa and you missed Korea. She said you didn’t wait for me because you were bad at saying goodbyes, but I knew better.
You left because you were fed up with me, fed up with trying to teach Korean to a granddaughter who kept refusing it.
So off you went, back to your homeland, a land that wasn’t my home, with nothing but 6,381 miles, 12 hours on the plane, and hurt between us.
You left me a letter:
My Dear Yeast,
You know I grow up in Korea while Japan abuse
forbid speak our language as child force learn
Japanese language of oppress and change
my name to other country. Yoshiko, they call me.
Many word gone when release from Japan.
Japan burn thousand and thousand book
force study Japan forbid our language
prison for people who wrote our words.
Release from Japan regain our language miracle.
I proud of my people my movement regain
history country culture. Yeast, grow up
in foreign country no use our language.
What do you know about war for our country?
Last wish for Yeast. Learn Language.
Grandma, I do understand why you want me to learn Korean, especially after everything you’ve been through with the Japanese occupation and Korea’s history. But you’ve also got to see where I’m coming from. I get made fun of every single day at school because I have a “weird accent.” Kids tease me because I’m Korean. Teachers underestimate me because I’m not white. I want to fit in. And right now, I can only do that by letting go of a part of me.
I promise you that in the future, I’ll be fluent in Korean. I promise I’ll make you proud of me. I’ll be proud of who I am. But until then… I’m sorry.
Melanie Han is an avid traveler and a poet who was born in Korea, grew up in East Africa, and is currently living in Boston. She got her B.A. in English, Spanish, and Linguistics, as well as her M.Ed. in Secondary English and Spanish. At the moment, she is pursuing an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. During her free time, she can be found eating different ethnic foods, studying languages, or visiting new countries with her Canadian husband.
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