By Jenn Jihyun Oh
I grew up in a one-hairstyle-town. In Santa Barbara, California, you’re nothing if your hair doesn’t flow down to the middle of your back in lustrous, straight, sun-kissed tresses. The messier, the stringier, the more it looks as if you’ve just emerged from the glistening sea, the better. Because of this, every girl on the street looks as if she’s auditioning for the Brook Shields role in Blue Lagoon.
The whole restaurant was buzzing like a wedding reception. I was at a big family reunion in Korea staring down at the kimchi (pickled cabbage) for fear of attracting attention to my face. Though I was related to everyone in the room, I felt like a stranger because I had never met so many of them before. Even without raising my head, I could feel my great aunt’s steely glare through the skin on my back.
“Just look at her,” she hissed. “She doesn’t even eat her food properly. She’s been in America for so long she’s forgotten her manners.”
Someone else jumped in. “Just how much does she eat? She’s completely overweight! And look at her posture, her clothes, her hair!”
“Seriously,” my great uncle sneered. “You’d think at least she would have published a book by now or gotten into college early to make up for all of it.”
I didn’t want to hear anymore and tried to escape through the crowd when my father’s voice snagged me from across the room. “Jihyun,” he called. “Why don’t you come here and greet your family?”
Escape denied. I put on a happy façade to please my parents and forced myself back into the room. Ahead of me I saw, instead of relatives, a jury of vultures with scrutinizing eyes and phony smiles stretching from ear to ear. However, my aunt was wearing a permanent scowl on her face, emphasized by the crusting, moldy-pink lipstick smeared on her lips. Even my uncle, who kept fiddling with the three strands of hair left on his glossy head, seemed nicer than she did. I approached slowly as if wading through mud.
“Ahn-Nyung-Hah-Say-Yo.” I politely greeted them in Korean.
The women crowded closely around me, needling me with rapid questions.
“We hear you’ve been working hard in America!” my cousin yapped. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
She peered eagerly at me from behind deep pools of purple eye shadow.
“A doctor?” she asked, answering her own question. “A lawyer? A...do you want to go into business? You look like you’d be great at business!”
“Do you go to any prep schools in the evenings?” my aunt chimed in. “Your cousins Jihae and Wonjoon went to hagwon (prep school) every day and look how successful they are.”
“Oh yes!” my second cousin exclaimed. “My Jihae got accepted into a dentistry program two years early because she received top scores in all her classes.” She paused, glancing around for admiring looks, and then continued.
“The top pay for dentists has skyrocketed in the past years!” she giggled happily. “Just think, she’ll be able to find great husband material!”
This time my great uncle interrupted. “And don’t forget, Wonjoon is already in his second year of medical school, and he’s only twenty-one years old.”
He gave a sigh of satisfaction. “You know, it’s great to see that all our hard work is finally paying off. That boy is money in the bank.”
Are you kidding me? Do they think of their children merely as investments that will yield lucrative returns? I dug my nails deeply into my palms to suppress my rising anger.
“Well, Jihyun?” my great aunt persisted. “What have you done with your life?”
At that moment I felt very alone. I quickly scanned through my sixteen years of life to check for anything that my relatives would approve of. Unfortunately, nothing came to mind. It seemed that my current career choice—journalism—was not something they deemed prestigious or profitable. I didn’t think they would understand that I wanted to pursue journalism because I loved writing and detailing the minutiae of everyday life. I had not spent all my youth in prep schools, drilling for standardized tests and memorizing practice questions.
As my silence lengthened and my face began to redden, my dad attempted a rescue.
“Jihyun likes to run,” he said feebly. “She likes to run fast and win. She has won many races for her school track team.”
As my dad spoke, I could see disdainful wrinkles forming between my uncle’s eyebrows. My aunt’s mouth slowly withered into a scowl.
“Oh, really?” she said dismissively. “Hmm, that’s great. But did she achieve anything real though? Like Jihae? Or Wonjoon?” I finally spoke.
“No, Emoe,” I said tensely to my aunt. “I’m nothing like Wonjoon. I’ll never be like Jihae either.”
To avoid their disappointed frowns, I stared down at my hands and counted the tiny creases on my skin. I breathed deeply.
“But Emoe,” I said calmly. “You don’t even know how much I love track. I’ve never felt anything as good as running or winning.” The gun goes off and I explode from my blocks; all of my thoughts disappear in twelve, hot seconds of sheer energy.
My aunt was staring blankly at me. I spoke more confidently as I went on.
“Emoe,” I said, holding her stare. “Did you know I play the viola and the violin?” I’m really good at both instruments. Did you know that?” I sway back and forth to the rhythm created by my bow; with my eyes closed, I reach for the final note and create a slow, soothing vibrato.
I looked down again, feeling I had said too much. But when I glanced over at my parents, I saw that they were proud that I had been able to stand up for the things I loved.
I asked to be excused. My father granted me permission to leave and it was only then that I was able to fully unclench my fists. I walked into the safety of the garden to join my sister who was serenely standing on the balcony overlooking a pond.
“I saw you in there,” she said. “What did they say? Are you OK?”
I answered nonchalantly. “They didn’t say a lot, just the usual stuff.”
My sister grinned. “Yeah, I know,” she said. “A year ago they were wondering why I didn’t get into Harvard, the only university on their ‘approved’ list.”
She looked into the pond and scattered a handful of breadcrumbs to a small flotilla of baby ducks.
“It’s okay, though,” she said. “I’ve really stopped caring about what they say anyway.”
Yeah, I think I know what you mean.
After the dinner was over, I realized that the encounter with my family members taught me that pursuing my own path was better than just blindly following the herd. I also knew that I wanted to excel in a number of activities, not for status, praise or prestige, but simply because I love doing them. Later that same night, I felt so secure that I wasn’t the least bit nervous when I spoke to my strict grandmother.
“How was the dinner?” she asked.
“I learned a lot,” I answered confidently. “I think I have a sense of what I want to do now, who I want to be.
My grandmother silently waited for further explanation. She knew by the tone of my voice that I had changed.
“I want to be strong,” I started. “And I never want to doubt myself. I know my strengths and I think I’m going to be okay.”
At that moment, I stared up at my grandmother to see a smile I had never witnessed. I knew then that I had discovered a strength within me—the strength to stay true to myself—and I realized that I already had everything I will ever need to be happy. I no longer doubted myself among strangers: I was complete.