Our family moved to Budapest, Hungary in the spring of 1998. We had moved around in Asia many times before—Seoul, Singapore, Beijing. But this was our first time in Europe. Hungary was struggling then to shed its Soviet past. The luxuries of the late capitalist boom—shopping, leisure, recreation—were only just catching on. At eleven, there wasn’t much for me outside our apartment. Maybe a movie at the only mall in the city, which most of the time stood eerily empty. Maybe a meal at McDonalds, where people had trouble understanding English but no trouble staring at my black hair, small eyes, and yellow skin. I was convinced every smile or comment my way was intended to mock or harm, and often, it was.
Sometimes people reached out to our family in markets, restaurants, on the sidewalk, to do just the opposite: to affirm us, to welcome us into their community. But even that made me turn away in embarrassment. I didn’t want to be welcomed in. I wanted to have been born belonging.
My first friend in Budapest was Saphir, a wiry girl with a platinum bob and cheeks pink as cotton candy. We sat next to each other because we were both new to the school. Between classes, we went out to the hall and stood in line together for the water fountain. She always drank first. Afterwards, when it was my turn, she solemnly watched me take a drink. I lowered my face to the stream and moved my mouth like a guppy fish, all the while wishing I didn’t look so silly. But I was relieved she was there, grateful I didn’t have to be alone.
“Do you want to sleep over at my house?” she asked me one day.
I would be crazy not to say yes.
But even then, I knew our relationship was forced. We sat next to each other, but we didn’t share inside jokes, or secrets, or telepathic instincts. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t know her at all. We were merely allies of necessity.
Saphir had reservations of her own. Leading up to the Friday of the sleepover, she came to the water fountain with questions for me, a new one for each passing day.
Do you eat hamburgers? What do you wear to sleep?
From the nervous look on her face, I knew I was supposed to reassure her. I smiled and nodded furiously, explaining just how much I loved hamburgers. I bluffed that I wore bright cartoon pajamas—the preferred sleepwear of every mid-upper-class white child on TV. Then I panicked, wondering if I could acquire such pajamas in time.
We volleyed back and forth like this all week. She nodded along with my responses, but the gray clouds of concern still loomed. Friday morning, Saphir approached me at a water fountain with her very last question: Can you use a fork and knife?
I was to give some ornate and enthusiastic elaboration of yes. Yes, I have the motor skills and the civility to eat with a fork and knife. Yes, my body seeks out and successfully digests hamburgers. Yes, my skin will be covered in the same Crayola shades of cotton when we shared the intimacy of sleep. I was to prove that I wasn’t too different, too savage, too brown, that I had fully assimilated into western culture. I was to convince Saphir, an eleven-year-old girl, of all these things. It wasn’t a fair fight.
In hindsight I understand she was only a child. Her questions were likely fed to her from some other source, likely some influential grownups in her life sitting around the dinner table. But as a child myself, I couldn’t see any forces at work besides our own will. All I saw was that she was in total control of me. She was the Sphinx, the guardian at the threshold, demanding I answer her riddles to prove my worth for passage.
In the end, whatever I said wasn’t enough. Saphir came up to me later that Friday to inform me the sleepover had been canceled. Her parents had guests in town, and my additional presence would be overwhelming—strictly for logistical reasons.
I nodded along to her excuse, terrified I might not be able to hold my tears in until I got home. After that exchange, Saphir and I stopped pretending to get along.
We went our separate ways, and thanks to my athleticism, I found other friends quickly. I had short legs, but I also had an eye for midfield. I had coarse black hair growing everywhere, but I could nail jump shots. I was self-conscious and trapped in my body, but I had a strong left arm that struck out, one after another, the smooth and delicate white girls I envied.
When Saphir stepped up to the plate, my hands trembled. I wanted to see the ball pass by her in plain sight, the way she had eluded me. I wanted the comforting thud of the catcher’s mitt swallowing up the ball.
She swung and missed. I watched her walk away from the home plate with her bat still in her hands. At the end of practice her socks and cleats were still white, without a hint of the mud or grass usually kicked up from running bases. She couldn’t join in when the rest of us sat around in the locker room, picking mud out of our soles. I felt like I had struck her out all over again.
Soon, there was nothing I didn’t excel at. I started every game of the season, aced my classes, sang at talent shows. I made sure to bring all my sketches to school so everyone could ooh over my meticulous, disciplined lines. I challenged the boys in my class to public rounds of arm-wrestling. Over and over again, I demonstrated my distinctions.
It didn’t stop me from feeling hideous. I still looked away from my own reflection in bathroom mirrors, especially if Gloria or Brigit or any of the other pretty girls were standing nearby, close enough to be reflected with me. But that was a feeling I’d learned to negotiate. I couldn’t stop people from looking at me, but at least what I was showing was skill, which was almost like strength, which almost didn’t need beauty.
Our family left Hungary after two years. We went back to Korea, where I thought I could escape from the torture of being surrounded by beautiful girls. But I was wrong. South Korea boasts the highest worldwide per capita rate of plastic surgery, with one in every five women choosing to go under the knife. For women in the college-age group, the rate is closer to one in two. When we moved back in 2000, plastic surgery was just entering the mainstream culture. Some girls in my school would come to class with bandages over their noses, and gossip about the procedures their parents had promised them as a middle school graduation present.
Just as I had ignored the gestures of kindness in Hungary, I ignored the Korean girls who tried to embrace and welcome me back like their sister. Instead, I obsessed over the ones who dissected me with their eyes. Those were the girls I cared about the most, the ones who taught me how to dissect myself.
Instead of hiding behind a performance of dexterity, I simply hid, period. No one could dissect me if they couldn’t even notice me in the first place. I vanished into the crowd of identical tartan uniforms and hair cropped to regulation length. When we did pushups in P.E., I let my knees and elbows buckle in unison with the other girls. When we had to stand up and read in English class, I made every effort to mimic a Korean accent, to make my English as clumsy as everyone else’s.
I dreaded any kind of public outing, even with my own family. I would cry, feign sick, pretend to be asleep so I didn’t have to leave. My only wish was to stay in my room and forget myself. I mingled among the inanimate objects that I collected. Books, movies, CDs, candles, highlighters, scented notebooks, 0.25 millimeter specialty pens. All stacked up around my room into little pagodas. I would wake up from rigid knots of sleep, to see my objects were still there, exactly as I had left them. I arranged and rearranged the pagodas until it comforted me enough to fall back asleep again.
My mother spent hours at my door. “Why is this locked?” she often shouted from the other side. “What are you doing in there?”
She rattled the knob, throwing her weight into it, hoping her frustration could break it down. I stayed in bed and closed my eyes. When I emerged in the morning, I pretended to have been asleep the whole time, with no recollection of her reaching out to me.
That was how I watched many years pass, burrowed into the crawl space of my own life.
I still have trouble looking into any mirrored surface in restaurants, airports, grocery stores. I hold my breath if I’m about to see my reflection. That’s the real ugliness, right there, in the moment that comes before I see anything. I refuse to meet my own eyes because I know it will dismantle the false strength that I’ve constructed.
Can you use a fork and knife? I left Saphir fifteen years ago, but Saphir never left me. I see her in every person who shouts ching-chong gibberish at me on the street, in every man who grabs my arm and puts his fingers in my hair, asking me if I will love him long time. I see her in myself when, before I leave the house, I cover my face with make-up to lighten my skin and widen my eyes.
When people ask what Hungary was like, I have trouble looking at the truth. So I hide again. I tell them what I wish I could remember vividly, the memories that aren’t mine at all. I tell them about snowfall so pure and constant that I could watch it for hours, trying to discern where the milky sky ended and the ground began. I tell them about the evening walks my family used to take along the Danube. The Chain Bridge lit up and reflected in dark water, the patio cafes selling decadent espresso drinks and chocolate cake, the streetlamps casting an orange glow on the ancient buildings, softening their flaws, making pretty their bullet holes and blackened limestone. I tell them it was beautiful.
Che Yeun is from Seoul, South Korea, though she has been on the run for a while. She is currently working on a collection of short stories. She documents her travels, real and imaginary, on www.koriental.com.