On my visits to Korea, I felt very much like the wrong sort of grandchild, the lumpen half-breed, who couldn’t speak Korean and who couldn’t look Korean. How do you tell them apart, a cousin asked me, about Americans.
I don’t know, I said. I just do.
I didn’t tell him the white kids asked me the same question.
Most of my childhood I felt like a shade, something in and out of perception. People would say things about Asian people in front of me that they would never say in front of someone more visibly Asian, and people would say things about white people in front of me that people would never say in front of people more visibly white. I vanished, it felt like. Or my appearance changed. White people thought my eyes were brown and my hair brown. Blacks and Asians thought I had green eyes and red hair. Why would you go to Korea to visit relatives, asked one co-worker of mine, at a bookstore in San Francisco, some years ago.
Because. . .and then I paused in my answer. Because I’m half Korean.
His eyes shot open. No way, he said.
I accepted it then, as I did as a child, in the way children do, that this was what I was, something that changed in the light around people and that I couldn’t control or predict. Most people, I think, when they meet other people, are confident that they give the appearance of belonging to this or that ethnic group, they feel confident that there is a home somewhere and a family that looks like them. This was not me, though. My mother was blonde, my father’s hair, shoe-polish black. Except for one red hair. Which he would pull out.
My eyes are hazel, half green and half brown. My hair, brown and red.
I soon realized I could give a different answer every time, to the question people always asked me: What are you. It hurt at first, as a child. Why was it no one knew what I was? And why did they seem suspicious, or even resentful? But soon it became a mark of distinction, to be like this. I have been mistaken as Mexican by Mexicans, African American by African Americans, I have been asked by strangers if I am Swedish, Japanese, Chinese, Argentinean, Hawaiian. What was I indeed. If no one knew, what could I be?
An excerpt from my essay, “Kitsune”, in Brothers and Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, and in stores now.