BY J.A. PAK
When you’re six, new to a country, morphed into this thing called "foreigner," you don’t know what culture is, just that everything you do is wrong and everything that was once so easy and comfortable only brings pain and embarrassment. At birth, culture is family (mine was one of indulgent love). Then you’re uprooted and there’s the schoolyard, of teachers who mostly don’t care, of children who have no skills at compassion—they’re trying so hard themselves, to understand, to fit in. In school—that’s when I begin to fall more and more into an anxious state of observation.
At first I think it’s language, that if I could speak the language I’d understand. Language is culture abbreviated. There are other things that make up culture, like gestures and toys. Friends, or lack of. Religion, television, housing, supermarkets, games, street signs, the way you say 'I love you.' Six years of culture is harder to make up than six years of language.
Now I’m eight and there’s a girl at school—she’s new. At first she pursues my friendship. And then she destroys it and becomes my occasional tormentor. She finds me exasperating. And I can understand that now. I was never a child who liked to play with other children. I preferred to sit and listen, to a friend’s older brother reading a story out loud, to my mother and her friends gossiping. I liked sounds, the lenticular vowels and the jumping consonants shadow-puppeting human life. The girl thought I was a know-it-all, but I only nodded and agreed to things I didn’t understand because, even though I sounded native, my vocabulary was limited. She’d had eight years. I’d had two. Two years of not understanding, of not being understood (nodding was like sleeping, an acceptance of numbing fatigue).
This too. I was born into a culture where little girls were bossy, where hierarchy was severe: the first thing you asked a stranger was how old they were because age is hermetic; the older you are, even if by a day, the more your right to tyranny. I can’t remember now who was older. But I do remember we were both firstborns and maybe that was part of the trouble. Two bright little girls used to being boss. Always stinks of trouble. Even without cultural difficulties, we were probably destined for rivalry.
Time-traveling through your mind is a precarious expedition. Momentum ricochets you from ghost to ghost, tendrilled eyes looking you up and down. Now I’m remembering this girl’s mother, a woman whose gentle kindness always distracted me into a state of bemusement, then warmth, the kind in which all self disappears and there’s only warmth (which anxiety had displaced so it was hardly recognizable). The mother was a child of Italian immigrants. I saw the Italian grandmother once. At the girl’s birthday party, hiding in the kitchen making meatball pizzas (my first—the meatballs were tiny and soft and I thought it was odd, even wrong, meatballs on pizza). That scene, the old woman, cultural milk so painfully familiar—a misplacement like my submerging culture, slowly becoming as foreign to me as she was to her own granddaughter. A grandmother I must meet again inside myself.
A recipient of a Glass Woman’s Prize, J.A. Pak’s work has been published in Luna Luna, Thrice Fiction, Atticus Review, The Smoking Poet, Quarterly West and Art/Life. This is an excerpt from a WIP nicknamed "That Which Cannot Be Categorized."