I would often relay my father’s life story to the first graders that would congregate around my desk at school. Even as a child, I understood that the truth of a tale should never interfere with the drama of storytelling. I remember seeing my teacher coming over to chastise me for distracting the class before becoming enraptured by my father’s histories just as my classmates had. She badgered me with questions about the ending: Did he ever talk to his mother again? Did she really never visit him at the orphanage? You really don’t know anything about your grandfather? But I didn’t know. And at this point I can’t ask my father, or the mother that he had left.
Here’s another memory. It’s a later one, though the timeline is a bit blurred. I’m hunched down in a cramped closet while my dad hovers over me. He is having me shift through the pile of musty newspaper clippings that have been stored in the corner of our highly disorganized hallway closet. I tell him that he’s wrong to be looking here, and my knees are hurting anyway, but that is when I find a newspaper page with the article title “Local Family Adopts Korean Orphan.” I can’t recall more of the text, but I do remember the photograph of my father that went along with the article. His large, black eyes are unfamiliar in their vulnerability. His hair is combed neatly to the side and he is wearing what looks something like a mini sailor’s suit. The image would be cute if there was not something uncanny about its depiction of my father. I know that it is him but it is not the person that I know. It is my father but it is not my father.
It is also important to note that I, unlike my brother, do not look like my father. My brother’s features reveal the Korean heritage that we share. I, somehow, look more like a stocky Italian boy than an Asian-American mix. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t jealous of the physical connection between my brother and our dad.
As the years progressed, I found myself drawn to literature. I was able to channel my love for dramatic storytelling into a new skill—creative writing. I found Whitman, Dickinson, Bishop, and Stevens, and immediately made them part of my repertoire. Even now, reading through my collection of either British or American poetry, I feel an unparalleled comfort. The ironically pleasant smell of the slow degradation of paper and the glossy black font of my favorite poems can always soothe my mind. Reading a poem where even the first word is able to trigger a rush of ephemeral, elemental joy is like a type of homecoming to me.
Perhaps, if I had to locate a single moment where my literary perspective was expanded, it would be when I first read Nora Okja Keller’s Comfort Woman. The novel is a deeply compelling and heart-wrenching text, but moreover, the work provided me with the language with which I can articulate my Asian heritage. The similarities between my father’s mother (that I’ve never met) and Akiko, the heroine of the novel, were striking. Both were sex workers (or war brides, whichever you prefer) attempting to survive in a country that was torn apart by both violence and colonial expansion. Both women also gave birth to a biracial child, an individual who would have to reconcile with possessing the blood of both the oppressor and the victim within themselves.
Keller’s novel was the first to make me aware of the literature that existed outside of my Eurocentric education. Before Comfort Woman, I would never have considered looking for Korean literature, or even Korean-American literature. The lingering questions that I have for my father may never be answered, however, my readings have made me more aware of the complexity of the life that he lived.
I don’t remember when the word Eurasian first came to my attention. My father never said it. He once told me that when he was a boy in Korea, an older man had spotted his European features and had spit a large wad of gum in his hair. Contrarily, it must have been something of a relief to pass as white with his adopted family in Massachusetts, not only for the privileges of color, but for the security of identity. I still don’t feel comfortable claiming the Eurasian title myself, but that hasn’t impeded me from exploring authors such as Alexander Chee, Chang-Rae Lee, and Han Kang.
There was a moment of worry, as I began to delve deeper into Korean literature and culture, that this exploration would force me to question my allegiances towards certain identities. Recently, I have found solace in knowing that there is a healthy Catholic population in South Korea. I have also found comfort in my icon of Christ depicted as a Korean man that I bought from a fairly progressive monastery gift shop. The inscription reads that the piece is an homage to the 18th century Korean Christians who were persecuted by the church for their continued ancestral worship. This synthesis suits my increasingly ambiguous collection of my own identities. My search for liminality reminds me of the story behind my father’s name, which was originally Mak-Koo. His adopted American family chose to change my father’s name to its closest English equivalent: Mark. I look at my Korean Christ that is currently sitting at an angle above a precariously stacked pile of books. Some of the authors have Asiatic names, some Anglicized. For now, the awkwardness of it all seems appropriate.