The story of a Korean-American recent college graduate.
I stuck a mini American flag into my overstuffed burrito, and it looked much more fitting. After all, burritos were not as common in Mexico as it was in the United States, and though Mega Tacos promised authentic Mexican style burritos, the fact that my tortilla was stuffed with more than sixteen ingredients made my meal as American as Taco Bell. There were many things like that here in California, like those white sushi rolls that everyone seems to love. How could anyone claim these rolls, which started with the “California rolls,” have originated from Japanese sushi? People here loved to claim that something had cultural significance, and what you were getting was what was familiar in other countries. Novelty was cherished, and inventions were made to give America the satisfaction of bumping into foreign culture. It was the same with Korean-Americans. Neither country above nor below the cursed 38th parallel had ever produced a single Korean-American. Just like those massive burritos and the Californian rolls, we were invented here in the States. Sure, the Americans got the idea from elsewhere, but we give the credit for kimchi to the Koreans even though the Portuguese introduced those chili peppers that are so important to the making of that dish. In that similar way, Korea provided America with the Koreans they needed to produce the Korean-Americans.
The flag was given to me by the United States government to go along with my naturalization documents. After having spent twenty-one years as an unnatural alien of California, I was finally given the privilege to be a citizen. I remembered very little of the country of my birth; I came to the States when I was ten months old. Jimmy Ahn was officially American, said the documents.
Mega Tacos was a short bus ride away from the Los Angeles courthouse I took the oath of loyalty in. My dad promised to meet me here to give me a ride back to my home in Long Beach. I was afraid of cars and refused to drive myself.
“9-11 was a long time ago,” said a passerby pointing at my flag.
“It was 9:11 this morning.”
As he walked away, apparently dissatisfied with my joke, my dad walked in. Dad was wearing a red shirt with white stripes and brownish shorts complemented by shin-high white socks and black sandals. He wasn’t bald, but his sweating scalp was visible through his thinning hair; his hair managed to escape insults because his near lack of eyebrows attracted much more laughter. He sat down across from me and waved away the waiter that approached him.
“How did it go?” Dad asked me in Korean.
I pointed to the flag.
Dad didn’t speak English; our family lived in this country for the last twenty-one years, but he still couldn’t converse well enough to order a cup of coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. He understood enough of the language to guess the basic idea of what was being said if there was a lot of body language, but Dad could never speak it right. Mom wasn’t much better, but at least she could order a pancake and some eggs, and during her good days, she managed to get some bacon too. There were very little things as funny and pathetic as my dad trying to speak English. He pronounced the word “passion” as “fashion,” and the word “fashion” as “passion;” My dad’s favorite movie was The Fashion of the Christ.
“What’s the point of getting some silly document?” he asked.
“I’m living in this country, so I thought it’d be useful.”
“Your green card would have been sufficient.”
“I don’t like green.”
“I guess I’m being just a bit sentimental. You’re the only one in our family that’s legally not Korean. It’s like we’re strangers now.”
Dad was a traditionalist, a nationalist. He had always been strict with my sister and me when it came to keeping our culture alive in us. If it weren’t for my dad, the only thing Korean about me would’ve been my narrow eyes and yellow skin.
“You can’t forget,” Dad continued, “that you will always be Korean.”
“But I’m American now,” I said lifting up my documents to show him.
“No paper can change your blood.”
“No blood can change your papers.”
He shook his head at me. He was never fond of my sarcasm, and he hated when I disagreed with him.
I pulled the flag back out of the burrito before cutting up the dish. It was too big for me to eat alone, and I passed half of it to my dad. The two of us ate mostly in silence. My Korean was fluent, but I had a hard time getting the tone right, so I sounded like a seven year old. I didn’t like speaking in Korean much, and it was the only way to communicate with Dad. I enjoyed the silence; it let me concentrate on the burrito.
“Have you considered what I talked to you about last week?”
But of course, Dad wouldn’t stay quiet.
“All of them.”
I placed my burrito down and tapped the table with my fingers. This wasn’t a topic I wanted to talk about, especially while I ate. My college degree in English was a couple of weeks away, and Dad was pressuring me into making a career choice. Dad wasn’t very happy when I chose to study Literature; there aren’t too many lucrative jobs for Literature majors, but he changed his mind when he discovered the graduate potentials of English students, especially for law school. Since this discovery, Dad had been pushing for me to get into law. Part of our discussion last week involved the possibility of me working as an intern in the law office of an acquaintance of his.
Our discussion on my career ended with Dad slamming his fist down. He made it very clear that if it wasn’t going to be law, I had a choice of either pursuing a medical degree or a doctoral degree in literature. It was an ultimatum; I wasn’t sure what would happen if I didn’t obey, but it would be better if I never knew.
“I haven’t decided what to do yet,” I replied.
“Your sister’s going to medical school starting this fall. You heard of her acceptance to Northwestern didn’t you?”
“Dad, you mentioned this like forty times.”
Since my sister Judy was going to be a doctor, Dad preferred that I become a lawyer. It was simple logic for him; he would consider it to be a bigger success if he had rich kids working in different fields.
“You’re my eldest son; I want you to succeed.”
“I’m your only son, and money doesn’t equate success.”
“It’s not about the money; it’s the prestige.”
“I’m not really interested in medicine or law.”
“If you really won’t do any of those, you can at least get a doctorate in literature. You must like literature; you studied it for four years. I could deal with you being a scholar.”
“I’ll think about it Dad.”
“There isn’t much time left; you need to decide quickly. You have to study for the exams so you can apply for next Fall, and that internship position won’t stay empty long.” He gave me a stern look before swallowing the rest of his burrito. He gulped it down, not taking the time to enjoy it. “Hurry up and finish, I have to get back to work.”
I wrapped my leftover burrito, replanted the flag, and said, “I’m done.”
With graduation being two short weeks away, I had enough to worry about without Dad pressuring me. It was true that I had to think about my future career, and I still wasn’t sure what I’d do with a degree with such few uses, but I had the present to stress over. Finals week was in five days, and for me, that meant writing page after page of essays and research papers. I never stressed about school before because I always did everything in a comfortable steady pace, but this was my final semester, and I was one good paper away from finishing with all Ace’s. If I accomplished that, I might be able to buy a couple of weeks before Dad started breathing down my ass again.
I went straight to the library at school after Dad dropped me off. The library was packed with students cramming a semester’s worth of knowledge for the final push before summer. The occupied computers created a symphony of clicking mice and keyboards. In the corner, Starbucks was making massive profits from sleep-deprived students begging for a shot of espresso. I escaped the chaos through the elevator and rode it to the very top where the lack of desks and computers kept the frantic atmosphere of the bottom floors away.
I sat on one of the couches and pulled out my essay on Conrad’s Lord Jim. Being old fashioned, I wrote on a notepad before setting it to type. I used a blue pen to continue the essay, and after every paragraph, I made edits and adjustments using a red pen. I got lost in the red white and blue, never stopping the scribbles and the edits; I let nothing distract me; I didn’t even look up from the paper. I put my phone on silent, and made the wise decision to leave my leftover burrito back at home. Stein, his butterflies and the death of romanticism were all that I cared about.
It was unclear how long I had written, but when I got to the final paragraph, the long summer day had concluded; the sun was tucked away behind the moon. My eyes went back to the paper, but before I could get the blue ink going, someone grabbed my shoulder from behind.
“There you are,” said my friend John. “Why didn’t you answer your phone?”
“I was writing an essay. You know how I am, no distractions.”
John was one of fourteen John Kim’s I met throughout my life. In Long Beach State, I met three of these things. For some odd reason, Korean parents were obsessed with names that began with “J.” John, James and Jonathan (even Jimmy) for the guys; Jane, Jenny, and Jean for the girls; and there were Anglicized Korean names like Jun and Jin. The lucky few got away with slightly better names that started with other letters like Kevin or Cindy. It was the worst, however, for kids who got stuck with Korean names that translated horribly like Dong or the unfortunate, Yu Suk.
“I saw your flag in the leftover burrito at home. Congratulations, my American friend.”
“Please don’t tell me you ate my burrito.”
“Don’t worry, I learned not to touch your things a long time ago.”
John and I had been best friends since the early years of high school. He had just come to California from the motherland, and because his dad and my dad were such close friends, we too, became friends. In recent years, since we started college as roommates, the two of us drifted apart. He became attached to friends that were more like him, people who were new or strange in America, the FOBs (Fresh Off the Boat). To them I was a banana, not the fruit, but a label for people of yellow skin that assimilated too deeply in America. We were yellow on the outside, but white inside. I suspected that John no longer considered me his best friend.
“Anyways,” said John, “I tried to call you so we could go celebrate your citizenship.”
“I’m a bit busy right now.”
“You have another week to finish that, and tonight’s pretty much done. Let’s just go for some pizza or something.”
Pizza did sound tempting. All I had was one-fourth of a burrito, and my body was beginning to ask for sustenance. I put my materials back in my bag and followed John towards the glass doors. I looked up at the clock above it for the time. It said eleven. Eleven?
“What’s wrong?” John asked as I stood staring at the clock.
I pulled out my phone, which had been put in silent because I was easily distracted by buzzing phones. I had twenty-one missed calls, seven of which were from John. The other fourteen was from Kelly. She also left me eighteen text messages since 9:30, one for every five minutes I was late for our “appointment.”
“I’ve got to go,” I said before bolting down the stairs.
Kelly Madison was a product of the Creative Writing department. Our appointments involved her bringing her fiction writing, and me editing and critiquing it. Being late to these meetings often made Kelly erratic, sometimes neurotic and always choleric. It was only because that I was a pedantic editor that Kelly tolerated my compulsive tardiness. However, I had never been more than ten minutes late.
I rushed out of the library, nearly knocking over innocent bystanders on the way. I pressed the phone against my ear and pressed the speed-dial for Kelly. Five rings went unanswered, and her voice asked me to leave a message after the beep. By the third attempt, I reached the bike stands where I had parked my own two-wheel ride. There, I found Kelly huffing by my bike; her cheeks were flushed and her long blond hair was frizzled all over her face. She had her navy hoodie in her arms. There were beads of sweat on her bare neck and shoulders; it was apparent that she had been running.
“I’ve been looking for you,” she said, barely moving her lips.
“Hey Kelly,” I replied.
“Then I found your stupid bike here.”
“I’m sorry, I just got caught up in my essay, and my phone was off.”
“You son of a bitch.”
She stared at me with a pout, her thin lips protruding out. Kelly was a short girl, small enough to hide behind some of the bushes planted by the classrooms. Her stature was nothing to be scared of her, but her vulpine eyes, and the demonic countenance she employed made my body cold even during the eve of a Californian summer. She stomped towards me, and jingles were emitted from her hips. Kelly always clipped on a small bell on the right side of her hip as if to always announce others of her presence. She gave me one solid punch to my left arm, and then she stood there with her arms crossed. It was difficult to calm her down, but when I offered her a ride on my bike pegs, she eased up on me.
We rode the bike to a nearby bar because the cafés we normally met in had closed as midnight began creeping in. The bar was quiet, and only a few drinkers lingered on inside. The music was dimmed and chatter was reduced to whispers.
“I want a beer,” said Kelly.
So she did, and thus a beer was bought.
“You’re not going to drink anything?” she asked.
“I can’t have alcohol in me while I edit.”
She smiled for the first time tonight. I held my hand out to her, and she placed her short story in my hand. Just like my essay, I was pulled in by Kelly’s story. It was called “Symphony,” and it told the story of Preston, a young guy who gets assaulted and hospitalized by a homeless man with a skateboard. I scrutinized the paper five times, leaving streaks of red, before handing it back to her. It was a solid story with strong characters, and I told her so in detail.
“Can you have a drink now?”
“Would love to, but I’m the designated driver.”
She took a sip of her own drink without breaking eye contact. “I can’t believe this is going to be the last story I submit for Long Beach State.”
“Time does go fast doesn’t it?” I said. “What are you planning to do?”
“I’m going to spend the summer writing and see how that works out. I might or might not apply for the MFA, but I’m just going to see where my writing takes me first.”
“Sounds exciting. I can’t wait for your first publication.”
“What are you planning to do? You’ve been very vague about that since I’ve met you.”
I shrugged my shoulders and said nothing. There really was nothing to be said; the only ideas I had were the ones rammed into my head by Dad. I was envious of Kelly, of her sense of direction and freedom. Then I felt something else of Kelly; there was a small pang of loss knowing that I would probably see very little of her after commencement. Graduation was starting to become a depressing affair. She pierced me with her eyes as if she knew what I was thinking.
“It’s kind of stuffy in here isn’t it?” I asked.
It was several hours past midnight when I finally got home. Kelly and I ended up talking late, and she ended up drinking than either of expected she could. It was as if she was trying to break some personal record. In the end, she ended up passing out. Carrying an unconscious girl on a bike was no easy task, and after three failed attempts, I ended up carrying her over my shoulder as I walked the bike to her apartment. I delivered her to her roommate, who was blatant about her anger at having to wake up to open the door for an Asian deliveryman with an unwanted package. I dropped Kelly in her bed and tucked her in before taking my bike home.
In my own apartment, I found John sleeping on the couch with a half-empty box of chicken and jalapeno pizza on the coffee table in front of him. The TV was on and it gave the typical bluish glow to the otherwise dark apartment. I switched the set off, and placed a blanket over John. I was contrite; I didn’t expect John to be waiting up for me, with pizza no less.
I took a slice of pizza and put it on a plate alongside my leftover burrito. Not wanting to disturb John’s dream, I took the food inside to my own room. I dispatched the pizza with alacrity; thanks to the chaos of Kelly, it was the first thing I got to eat since the burrito lunch. When I went for the leftover, I felt a sudden compulsion to salute the flag, which was planted into the burrito in a slant, like in Iwo Jima. I saluted it before pulling it out to finish the food, and I felt calm. Despite everything, I was happy to be American.
My trance was interrupted by a text message notification. It was a message from Judy that said, “Congratulations on your citizenship Jimmy. Listen, I had a long talk with Dad after he apparently dropped you off today. He’s pissed off at you, be careful.”