Saturday, October 16, 2010

Back in Brooklyn

On another trip, en route to another flight. Sometimes I fly out of JFK instead of the customary EWR because of significantly cheaper fares. The shuttle would drive on the Cross-Bronx Expressway or the Long Island Expressway and I find myself gazing towards the Verrazano Bridge, shimmering seaboard of the Atlantic and feel suddenly nostalgic.

I am a New Yorker, by birth. As the city evolved from Koch days to Dinkins nights to Guiliani's revolution, I learned to identify myself by my birthplace the farther I ventured from the proximity of the Big Apple. I remember crossing 42nd St with my mother. "Close your eyes!" she admonished, fearful of some triple X vision that would steal my innocence. There was her unfailing closeness to my every step, watchful of potential kidnappers. Strangers tried to give me candy, and she intervened so I never knew if it was an innocuous lollipop or a pedophile in disguise.

Bay Ridge. There was the omnipresent shore a few miles away; we would either go to the beach every weekend or eat fresh seafood as a concession. There were steaming shish kebab carts on the corner and the old man who refused to take money from us. There was the Italian baker who let me choose the biggest, cheesiest Sicilian slices from the local pizzeria. My eyes would rest on old posters of a woman choking and a man helping her, both faceless and yellow, primitive precursors of CPR. I remember window-shopping for Barbie dolls at Century 21 Department stores. I remember opening a single gift on Christmas morning (Santa was all we needed) and never realizing we were poor.

I went to P.S. 314, while my friend Tony across the street went to Catholic school. I used to go there too, until I was harassed by a racist nun. Tony's older brother went to Harvard, and his mother, Cookie or Candy was her name, scolded him for acting "rich." She never forgave the girlfriend in the gleaming convertible and fought hard to prevent him from getting his own phone. Tony never understood it. We watched Michael Jackson videos and Thriller and tried our hand brake-dancing in the streets.

When I was in Brooklyn, my Latina friend AriSally had a house draped in burgundy velvet and all things red. I fought imaginary kungfu with a Chinese boy named Kenny and hung out with a black girl Monique, whose hair were wondrous spirals that just stuck out, no matter what she did. And I had a crush on a Taiwanese boy named, get this, Chiang Kai.

Then we moved to New Jersey. It was the first time I experienced culture shock. Everyone around me was white and Italian, with flowery surnames that ended in vowels. Suddenly, it mattered that I wore boy's socks and I did not have a playroom brimming with recent Cabbage Patch kids. I did not play softball and I was ridiculed because my sentences ended with "thank you" or "please." They smirked when I told them my family only had one car. And I became painfully aware of what I did not have.

Worst of all, I was Asian. Globalization had not hit suburban New Jersey in the late 1980s. There was no Chinese food or appreciation of anything Asian. We were still considered "Orientals" at the time, and anything remotely Pacific in orgin was relegated to the Karate Kid. My nickname at school was Miyogi. They laughed that I knew more about Shaolin and Wudang than I did about "Roseanne."

I learned that kids are cruel, how words and stares can penetrate the bone and make you bleed deeper than any flesh wound. In New York, danger lurked in the streets. Sometimes, I would hear shouting and fighting from my bedside window. In the good neighborhoods of New Jersey, it is a more insidious danger, the kind of bullying that drives students to suicide these days. What's more, I am not sure that inveterate meanness goes away when people grow up.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Enter Jeju Island

This is Korea's answer to Hawaii: a vista of lush greenery, crystal waters, and indecisive volcanoes. Ironic how lava and ash from smoking mountains comprise most of the places we think of as paradise: Hawaii, Jeju, Capri. Out of destruction come our most coveted vacation spots. Perhaps we are more aware of our mortality when we come to these islands. Perhaps we sense that life is fleeting and this beauty within each of us becomes ever more exquisite.

People come to Jeju Island to honeymoon or to fall in love. I came here because I had walked out of my life. My mother followed the footsteps of her favorite Korean TV drama All In, filmed on location here. And apparently, we were accompanied by a plethora of little ones.

Let me explain. South Korea is the mecca of educational after-school programs; students are more ubiquitous than pens. We ran into large groups of students with matching parkas at practically every national site, monument, or museum in Seoul. It must have been field trip week. Some were inquisitive, some were bored, but their sheer numbers made sight-seeing painstakingly slow. Noisy. And they followed us to Jeju. Imagine trying to admire waterfalls and scenic panoramas with giggling kids running past you every two minutes. Or climbing Sunset Peak, a mountaintop with dazzling views of the island, and finding middle-schoolers throwing tissues at each other on the summit. They were impossible to avoid, even at lunch. Some found my mother endearing; they even gave her gifts and shared kimchi with her. Mostly, they just laughed at me. So much for my maternal instinct.

Luckily, I was in good company. I ran into two single Korean gals, teachers on holiday. One was a tomboy, rather petite, dressed in no-nonsense jeans and a t-shirt. The other was feminine and tall, with long ringlets flowing over her ruffled blouse and she sported high-heeled sandals. She carried a purse, and a magenta parasol to keep the sun from infringing upon her fair complexion.

They were exploring a new walking trail that promised to take hikers through all the delights of Jeju, and I joined them. Despite their command of the language, their mastery of trails left some to be desired. Not that I minded. The shores of Jeju were so beautiful. Sapphire seas breaking onto the black rock beaches in a perfect angle of light. We trudged through hills and cliffs overlooking the ocean, and kudos to my friend with the high heels. Along the way, we also traversed unknown roads and wound up stuck on the wrong side of criss-crossing highways.

We laughed through it, and they told me about the rigid Korean social structure, how society expects them to be already paired off, and how single women were regarded as pariahs. "Everyone wants to know why you are still single and then they are scrambling to set you up." I wasn't sure America was so different. They were a few years older than me, approaching forty and I discerned the lines of defiance in their faces. Both were attractive, but seemed somehow wistful. I wondered about their past relationships and the inevitable endings, since neither appeared to trust men. Maybe they were even divorced. Edith Wharton once said, "Our legislation favors divorce, but our social customs don't." Same thing applies to singlehood. Philosophically, we are encouraged to be independent, but socially, we are discouraged.

Single women of a certain age tend to be bold, audacious, and defiant. Maybe it's because we are free. Maybe we just don't care. Or maybe our defiance is a defense mechanism. Maybe underneath it all, we are afraid to be hurt again.