My name is Isadora Myung Hee Sohn and I am eighteen years old. I was recently ninety-five days on a pediatric burn unit at Tri-State Medical Center, in Albany, New York, being treated for second- and third-degree burns on my legs, complicated by a recurring bacterial infection. The same fire that injured me killed my parents, Hae Kyoung Chung and Tae Mun Sohn, on June 11, 1976, at approximately 3:20 a.m.
It's very isolating to recover from a severe burn injury. The pain requires a great deal of attention and inward focus. While your skin tissue rages and dies, you try and put yourself as far away as possible mentally, to take refuge in small, retrievable thoughts. Nursery rhymes are sometimes useful, as are television theme songs and knock-knock jokes.
Here's a riddle. A jumbo jet takes off from New York en route to Vancouver with 246 people on board. There's a massive snowstorm, visibility worsens, passengers pray and panic. The pilot loses control, and the plane ends up doing a nosedive on the border of the United States and Canada. The weather is so bad it takes the rescue helicopters two days to get to the remote crash site in the mountains. When they finally manage to land, amid the snow and the wreckage, they're confronted with a terrible dilemma. Since the plane crashed exactly on the boundary line separating the two countries, the recovering authorities don't know whether to bury the survivors in Canada or the United States.
It took me a while to get it. The trick is knowing where to focus. There's so much clamor and confusion—the plane, the storm, the panic—that you're easily thrown off. You end up overlooking what you should have noticed right away.
The fact is that survivors aren't buried. They keep walking around. They go through the varied motions of normalcy, trying to forget the screams, the shudder of the fuselage, the sound of crumpling metal. The frozen wait among the dead for rescue.
Many years before the fire that killed my parents, there was another fire. In Seoul, Korea, my mother had grown up among a harem of sisters, hoarded like treasure, quarantined like contagion, inside a high wall that contained the buildings and courtyards of the Chung family compound. My grandfather was a high-ranking government official who spent most of his time carousing with kesang girls and gambling at cards. My grandmother, herself the daughter of a high-ranking official, was terse and irritable, weighted by disappointment in birthing only girls.
One night when my mother was eleven, a treat was set up in the cramped building where the servants slept. It was the viewing of one of the first silent films from America, obtained somehow by my grandfather, along with an ancient projector that wheezed and smoked as it threw its jangled images upon the wall.
The room was hot and crowded, but my mother hardly noticed, so taken was she by the figures of the dancing women. They wore loose clothing that floated behind them as they danced, with emblematic jewelry, and makeup that emphasized their wide eyes and sensuous lips. Alabaster skin, marcelled hair piled high. My mother had never seen such women. Their serpentine sway—unaccompanied by music or sound of any kind, except the restless movement of the children and the hawking of the projector—was intricate, hypnotic. They were like Grecian goddesses come to life, like the sculpted caryatids my mother had once seen in a book in her father's library. She began to move along with them, in time to the unheard music. Her older sister Hae Ja pushed her away. "Hsst," she whispered, pinching her hard on the underside of the upper arm.
My mother huddled close to the projector. She watched as the strip of film wound around the metal spools in a tilting figure eight. Light from inside the machine streamed out toward the wall, thick with lolling dust. She looked up at the screen and then down to the projector again, trying to discover where they hid, these bright ladies, slender, swaying columns of pure grace. The old projector sputtered and paused and, before the audience had time to protest, the dancers disappeared in a spreading sepia bubble. Both film and projector burst into flames.
Children and servants began to scream as the room filled with smoke. My mother smelled something acrid and felt a strange prickling at the back of her neck. As the women had danced moments before, now the elderly ajumma who'd been attending the projector danced in spasmodic rhythm, a flume of fire blooming across her chest. The sensation at the back of my mother's neck became a searing pain. Her head was on fire and she fainted before she could push through, with the others, out of the room and into the dirt courtyard, where the adults ran with buckets of water.
An old servant saved her. He rushed inside the room and doused the fire nestled in her hair, carrying her out in his arms.
My grandmother, overwhelmed by daughters, disgraced by them, thought perhaps she would lose one that night, but my mother was not obliging. She survived with no major injury, just a spot, the size of a quarter, where her hair wouldn't grow, and a shiny purple scar, ropy and asymmetrical.
After the accident my mother was declared unmarriageable and shipped off to a teachers college in Connecticut. She met my father the first week, at a party for Korean students in Hartford. Three months later she sent a picture home (my father in a trench coat over his best herringbone jacket), but my grandparents objected to the marriage. They had consulted an astrologer who claimed, given my parents' birth dates and the distance between the bottom of my father's nose and his top lip, that it was an inauspicious match.
They married anyway, and my mother dropped out of college to take dance lessons. In a photograph from those days she wore a black leotard with a pink tutu; she's bending down to tie the ribbons on her toe shoes, like a girl in a Degas painting.
She quit when she got pregnant. She told me this without resentment, but frequently enough so I understood that only maternal self-sacrifice had prevented her from a marvelous career. In playful moods, she would reenact the dance of the caryatid women as she remembered it, flowing like water, her arms a tossing sea, twisting and bending in a series of movements suggesting supplication, resistance, ardor, and grief.
Soon after I was born my parents had their first fight. My mother wanted to name me Isadora, after Isadora Duncan, the modern dancer. My father wanted to name me Myung Hee. I can imagine the way the discussion would go, my father's annoyance spiraling around my mother's cool determination, getting fettered in her obstinacy and confusing feminine allure.
"Isadora? Isadora?" I imagine my father saying, the word in his mouth like a bad taste. "What kind of Korean name is that?"
"No kind," my mother says, shrugging. "We're in America now."
"We're still Koreans," he says.
My mother doesn't answer. She smiles, beguiling him with her silence.
"I don't even know any Americans named Isadora," he grumbles.
"What Americans do you know?" my mother chides him. She pauses. "We could name her Ingrid," she says. "Or Ava. Or . . . Vivian."
"No, no," my father says, waving his hands in front of his face. "Please."
So I was named Isadora Myung Hee Sohn and called Isa by everyone but my father.
My mother wore a wig to conceal her scar. It sat atop a Styrofoam head on her dresser, looking exactly like her real hair, thick and black, styled softly to just beneath the ears. To put it on she slipped both hands inside, fingers splayed as though she were winding yarn, and maneuvered it adroitly atop her head.
The procedure disturbed me, this half head of hair tugged on like a swim cap over my mother's own head, the naked Styrofoam left behind like a bald sentinel. I gouged a face in the Styrofoam with a ballpoint pen—nose like a lopsided L, kewpie lips, blank eyes the shape and size of pumpkin seeds.
My mother placed the wig atop my own head, where it sat like a long-haired lapdog. I looked at myself in the mirror. I was a strange-looking child, with a sallow complexion, my father's high forehead, and a large, crooked mouth. My mother laughed and called me "Beatle."
My mother. Her eyes, when she was happy, glanced across a room like sunlight, dark centers strewn with diamond facets. When she was unhappy, they seemed to retract beneath eyelids precisely outlined in liquid black, her look averted, cast down, all the giddy shine suddenly leached from the world.
For most of my life I watched her, ensorcelled by her beauty, by the daily acts of grace that were her movements. She peeled an apple by moving her thumb backward along the knife, her small hands seeming to float, to flutter, loosing the skin in one long ribbon, until it fell to the plate like a molted snakeskin. She raced down the aisles of the A & P, picking things up—red grapes, Camembert cheese, salmon steak—and tossing them in the grocery cart, as though she were on a TV game show. Tucking me in at night, she sang "Raindrops on Roses" or "Que Sera Sera," in perfect imitation of Doris Day. ". . . Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?" My mother would lean in, her breath hot in my ear. "Both, Isa," she would whisper. "You'll be both," and I'd feel a chill run through me at the maternal prophecy.
If I watched my mother and was enthralled, I looked out for my father for different reasons. He was rarer in our house. For most of my childhood he would return to work after dinner, in pursuit of something called "tenure" that I did not understand but that seemed to hold talismanic power for both my parents. When he was home he was often irritable, snapping at me for biting my fingernails or spilling my milk. I tried not to attract his attention for this reason, though because he was mysterious, I was also drawn to him.
Nighttime was my father's dominion. I'd lie in bed and hear his slippered feet pass my door, pat-patting down the stairs. The door to the freezer would open and close, followed by the tinkling of ice in a glass, and I would picture my father sitting at our kitchen table in his pajamas, nursing a whiskey and water, attentive to the low hum of the refrigerator and the random headlights of passing cars. In the morning his glass would be sitting in the sink, empty except for an amber viscosity at the bottom, which I once swirled and sniffed and stuck my tongue into, recoiling at the burn. Sometimes a Korean magazine would be left on the table, its spine cracked open. My father's battered briefcase would be left on the floor, a yellow legal pad on top with strange characters marked in black—neither Korean nor English but numbers and Greek symbols in neat equations that ran the length of the paper.
These were my father's tracks, his spoor, which he left behind like some nocturnal animal. His insomnia, incurable and lifelong, reinforced the sense of his aloneness, his haunted exile from a world in repose.
When my father spoke to me in Korean, it was harsh, a vocabulary of scolding, of rebuke. "Mae-majeulae?" Do you want a spanking? uttered with a flat palm raised. "Babo!" Stupid! as we went over math problems together, his middle knuckle boring into my head as if to drill an answer into my skull.
In neither Korean nor English was my father voluble. The language of science was his mother tongue, the silver-voiced siren call to mathematical formulation. It was a language I had no ear for, its jargon so much gobbledygook. My father would grow frustrated as he tried to explain to me the second law of thermodynamics, or the concept of cold fusion. "Look," he would say, his hands raised in a gesture that was half threat and half entreaty, "it's not hard." And I'd try to follow him, his English as barbed as concertina wire, the concepts entering my head and leaving it unprocessed, like baggage down a conveyor belt.
Similarly, he failed at teaching me Korean. I remember lessons at the kitchen table, with colored wooden blocks and bowls of fruit. "Sagwa-juseyo." I would hand him an apple. "Bae-juseyo." I would hand him a pear. I would repeat the phrases after him in a dull, uninflected voice, and he would grow impatient at my lack of competence. "No, no, no. Bbbb-ang!" He would make an explosive sound with his lips. "Not bang. Bbbb-ang means bread. Bang is room! How many times do I have to tell you?"
When I was in eighth grade, he shipped me off to the basement of the Korean church. A self-proclaimed atheist and crusader against blind believing, my father had to turn to God to teach me his native language.
On Thursday afternoons, Michael Lee and Danny Kim played paper football across their desks, while I gossiped with Jenny and Eun Gyeong Lee about trampy Su Ok Min and her Hell's Angels boyfriend.
"Did they really do it?" I asked once, only to be met with the cold, mascara-clotted eye of Jenny Lee.
"Whaddya think?" she replied disdainfully. "The guy rides a Harley."
"An-nyeong!" Pastor Park would welcome us each week, with a hopeful expression that quickly turned desperate. "Hanguk-mal halchul-arayo?" Do you know how to speak Korean? And we would refuse to look at him, rolling our eyes and snapping our gum, muttering, "Aaaa-niyo," sullenly under our breath. No.
After six weeks of this, Pastor Park abruptly ended classes. My father eventually gave up trying to teach me either of his two languages. It was my perception that he gave up on me altogether. I was too difficult, too rebellious, too unlike any Korean daughter he could possibly have imagined for himself. "Myung Hee-ya," he would say, "you should have been born a boy." And we would both think about Stephen and say nothing more, because it was true that I should have been, and because it was true that I was not.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Secondhand World by Katherine Min Copyright © 2006 by Katherine Min. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.