You’re twelve years old. A month has passed since your Korean Air flight landed in lovely Newark Airport. Your sixteen-year-old sister is miserable. Your mother isn’t exactly happy, either. You just met your father for the first time, and although he’s nice enough, he might be, well – how can you put this delicately – a loser.
You can’t speak English, but that doesn’t stop you from working at East Meets West, your father’s gift shop in a strip mall, where there are not only customers to wait on but neighboring stores to visit. Everything is new. Nothing is the same.
Welcome to the wonderful world of David Kim.
That’s the premise of my novel, Everything Asian, which is being published today. I’m looking at the folder that contains the first draft of the first chapter (which turned out to be a much later chapter in revisions), and to give you an idea of the age of this thing, the file is in WordPerfect 5.1 format. It is dated 9/14/1997.
And now, here’s a little excerpt. You can read the first chapter in its entirety on my website.
I was waiting to use our apartment’s only bathroom, shifting from foot to foot, when the door burst open and my sister walked out, her eyes raw and puffy, followed closely by Mother, arms tautly alert, ready to catch her if she fell, if she melted, if she died.
My sister had chosen this day, my twelfth birthday, to try to kill herself, or at least pretend to kill herself. Looking back on that day now, I can see it was merely a stunt to gain attention, and even then I think I knew she was bluffing, but still, I couldn’t ignore the blue dish and the paring knife sitting on top of the toilet seat, its tip pointing toward the bathtub like a compass needle. On the dish, a pile of white pills sat like an offering. I put the dish and the knife on the floor and flipped the seat up. As I peed into the bowl, I stared down at the silver edge of the blade, wondering how close it had come to my sister’s wrists.
When I finished, I walked the stuff back to the kitchen. I let the pills roll onto the faded Formica and counted twelve of them. I arranged the tablets on the dish in a circle, placed the paring knife in the center, and mouthed the words “Happy birthday” in English. I wheeled the knife around until it pointed five past seven, the exact time my head would have poked out of Mother’s you-know-what, twelve years ago to this day, the twenty-eighth of February, my squishy eyes slowly unsticking, wondering just why the world had gotten so cold.
I called my sister Noona, Korean for “sister.” Her full name was In Sook, and her American name was Susan. She wouldn’t know this until later, but there was another name-in-waiting, Sue, one she would eventually grow into.
Noona, almost sixteen, had days when she didn’t say a single word, not to me or anyone else. Then there were days when she wouldn’t shut up. I would ask her if she wanted another ice cream bar and she would start cursing like you wouldn’t believe. When Father wasn’t at the store, he was in New York, striking deals with wholesalers and vendors, so he wasn’t around to see these strange fits. Luckily, Mother was home to handle her. When my sister became deaf-mute, Mother spoke to her like there was nothing wrong. And when Noona became irate, Mother listened calmly and when there was a break in the yelling, she took her into her arms, where, for a moment, my sister would sink and disappear. When she resurfaced, silent bright rivers ran down her cheeks.
Noona was not taking the move from Seoul, Korea, to Oakbridge, New Jersey, too well. Unlike me, she actually had friends to miss, especially her boyfriend. She wanted to call them all, but Father wouldn’t let her because it was too expensive, and besides, with a half-day time difference, it was next to impossible to get anybody at a reasonable hour. Noona called anyway.
“I only called four times,” she said to Father when the phone bill arrived.
“Three hundred dollars!” he screamed, the first time I’d heard him scream. Before then, he was nothing but nice to us. “Where am I going to get three hundred dollars?”
“It’s the least you can do,” Noona said. Her voice stood at the edge of a cliff. Father had no rebuttal. He looked hurt, he looked tired.
That was the first month, the first phase of Noona’s loneliness, soon to swell heavy and round like a full moon.
The very next day after their fight, Father came home with the biggest tape recorder I’d ever seen. “Here,” he said, showing Noona how to use it. It was the kind that you’d find in high school language labs, the black rectangular monsters with one giant woofer on top. The buttons were so big, you almost had to use two fingers. When Father pressed EJECT, the lid sprang up like a catapult.
Noona put the tape recorder to work immediately. She spoke intensely, her long black hair falling around the unit like a cape, her lips floating over the tiny triple slats on the built-in microphone. The first day, she sat in her room and made five 90-minute tapes in a row, seven and a half hours of her fragile voice laid out on thin magnetic ribbon. How could anybody have that much to say? It was a miracle she was able to keep the phone bill under a thousand dollars. When the tapes were ready to be mailed, she insisted on accompanying Father to the post office with as much nervousness as a mother sending her child off to school for the first time.
The reply didn’t come for three long weeks. When Noona saw the package from Korea with her name on it, she ripped into it with animal ferocity. There was a quick scribble on an index card and a tape that looked too professional to be an amateur recording. The note read:
Sorry you can’t be here
This band is really good
We miss you
My sister listened to the tape once, slipped it back in its case, and buried it deep in her drawer.
She wasn’t eating well and losing weight. She chewed her food slowly and carefully, as if her mouth were full of broken glass. If her eyes weren’t puffy or red, they were black and sleepless.
Mother was worried. I knew this because she came up with ridiculous suggestions.
“Maybe you should sleep in the same bed,” she said. “You know, like when we were in Korea.”
“I’m too old now,” I said.
“Mother, we’re in America,” I explained. “In America, brothers and sisters don’t sleep in same beds.”
Mother nodded, stared at her hands, sighed. Her few stray grays had multiplied since our move. She looked old and scratched up like my second-hand dresser.
It was hard enough being Noona’s roommate, let alone sharing the same bed. Nights were the worst. From the other side of the room, I heard her lingering sobs, how they seemed to come automatically, without any provocation. I tried not to be rude, but after a week of running short on sleep, I had to push off the covers and yell, “Can you please stop crying?”
She stopped. I couldn’t believe it worked, just like that. “That’s better,” I said half-jokingly, but no response was forthcoming. I felt bad for yelling at her, but in an instant I was dreaming of sitting plush in a candy-striped La-Z-Boy on a soccer field, munching on barbeque potato chips, my new favorite food.
The next day was my twelfth birthday, when she did the knife-and-pill thing, so suffice it to say, I was not pleased with myself.
By Sung J. Woo
Published April 14, 2009
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press