Posted in Thoughts, Travel

Being Half Asian in Korea

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Half-Asians have a spider sense for other half-Asians.

It’s hard to describe what, exactly, makes someone “look” half-Asian. I’ve met halfies with pale skin and dark skin, straight black hair and curly light-brown hair and everything in between. Yet, somehow, we can always find each other in a crowd.

That’s why, when a skinny girl with long brown hair sat in the first row of my third-grade English class during my first week as a teacher, I knew she was like me.

I did my introduction lesson, explaining that I was half American and half Chinese (a gross oversimplification, but easy enough for the kids to grasp). In every class, without fail, this part of my presentation was met with astonished interjections and expressions of disbelief (“OOOAAAAA, TEACHER!!! SO COOL!!”) When I explained that I was American, the girl in the front nearly jumped out of her seat in excitement.

At the end of the class, she ran up to me.

“My dad’s American too!” she said in perfect albeit high-pitched English.

“That’s so cool!” I said, bending down slightly so I was at her height. It occurred to me that this little girl was the only person in school I didn’t have to water-down my words for. My Korean co-teachers often went on about how clearly I spoke English (“Just like our textbook CD’s!”) and I wondered if they knew that that wasn’t how I normally spoke.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“My name’s Hailey,” she said.

“Well, it’s nice to meet you, Hailey,” I said. She smiled and waved, then bowed for good measure, before running off to her friends.

She was the only biracial kid I’d seen in the school. She seemed well-adjusted enough, talking easily in Korean with the other kids.

I realized that I might have been the only other half-white-half-Asian person she’d ever met. This seemed even more likely when my co-teacher came up to me a few days later and said:

“Hailey is always very excited to see you. I can understand her feelings.”

“I’m excited too,” I said, sweating a little when I realized that I’d inevitably and involuntarily become somewhat of a biracial role model for this girl. I just wasn’t sure if:

a) she needed one in the first place

b) I was good enough to be the kind of role model she deserved

But, while I still had a lot to figure out, I’d definitely learned a thing or two about being half-white-half-Asian in my 22 (23 in Korean age, kill me now) years of life. Now that I was in Korea, I was gaining a more nuanced understanding of my race every day.

Top Things I’ve Learned About Being Biracial in Korea

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  1. People don’t stare at you

“People will stare at you,” they told me. My Korean teacher told me. My interviewer told me. My friends told me.

Except… no one really does.

I live in an area of Seoul with very few foreigners, so foreigners are kind of like unicorns. But most of the time it seems like the Koreans here could not care less about my foreigner status.

Even when I twisted my ankle while trying to cross a stream and nearly tumbled three feet down into wet water and rocks, letting out an undignified squeal, none of the Koreans around me so much as glanced in my direction.

After years of being told how white I looked by other Asian people, this is still surprising to me. I hadn’t been worried, because I’d never really fit in anywhere my entire life. People in America never actually stared at me in the street, but I’d heard more than once at school from a near-stranger “Oh, I’ve seen you around campus. You look very… unique.”

I know that I do. Even among half-white-half-Asian people, there’s no one who really looks like me. But I got over my angst about that somewhere in high school. It’s a part of my reality and my identity. Being different is nothing new for me, so I was ready for the stares.

But they never came.

Maybe I look “Asian enough” from a distance. Whatever it is, I’ll admit that, at times, it’s nice to blend in.

2. People overestimate your Asian-ness

It was 7pm on a Tuesday. My friends and I had stopped by a bakery that smelled like literal heaven. I was with two people: Veronica (who is white) and Nadea (who is black). None of us are particularly good at Korean. I have two semesters of college Korean under my belt, while Nadea has a year of self-study and Veronica has been diligently working through the Korean alphabet for a month.

Nadea approached the vendor and tried to ask if the bread on the menu was sweet.

The woman blinked slowly and stared at Nadea, expression unchanged. The classic Korean I-don’t-know-what-you’re-saying-so-I-will-stare-at-you-until-you-do-something-else look. Nadea repeated the question with slightly different wording, only to be met with the same look.

Then, the woman turned to me.

What is she saying?” she asked me in Korean.

I froze. “Ummm… she…. uhhh….”

I fumbled for words, making another attempt at phrasing Nadea’s question differently, only to be hit with more questions in Korean, still directed at me. I wanted to scream “What makes you think I have any idea how to say this?!

We got the bread eventually. Nadea was satisfied. I was a bit flustered.

3. People Underestimate Your Asian-ness

“You’re very good at using chopsticks,” my co-teacher, Seung-Jin, said at lunch. “Did you practice a lot?”

“Umm…” I covered my mouth and finished chewing my jap-chae, “I didn’t really… practice?”

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“So you tried for the first time in Korea?” she gasped.

“No, I mean, I used chopsticks in America.”

“REALLY?”

“I mean, not for like, pizza and stuff. Just for Asian food. My grandmother taught me.”

I remembered sitting at a table in my grandmother’s house with a cup of dried beans on my left and an empty cup on my life. My grandmother put a pair of chopsticks in front of me and told me to move all the beans to the empty cup. While excruciating at the time, I’m forever grateful to her for this lesson.

“My grandmother is Japanese,” I reminded Seung-Jin.

“Ah, right,” she said. Because it was easy to forget that about me, I supposed.

4. People Make Weird Comments About You

 

I don’t mean offensive, I just mean… weird. Such as:

Is that your real hair color? Umm, yes. But it’s so dark. … I’m sorry about that?

Are you wearing colored lenses? No. Your eyes are so interesting. They’re brown. Yes yes but a lighter brown.

My favorite comment came when sitting at a restaurant with a Korean guy who quickly made his way to my “blocked numbers” list:

“Your nose is beautiful,” he said.

I paused before the ddeokbokki on my chopsticks could reach my lips.

“My nose?” I said, conscious of how oily my nose probably was and uncomfortable with him scrutinizing it so intensely.

“Yes. Many Korean people want your nose.”

“It’s my mom’s nose,” I said slowly. “It’s a Chinese nose.” Had he really never seen a Chinese person before? Maybe it was different seeing the nose slapped on a face with “white” bone structure.

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“It’s beautiful,” he said. He brought up my nose seemingly every ten minutes. I started to wonder if he had a nose fetish. I didn’t meet him again.

5. Some People Will Never Accept You

“And who knows a word starting with ‘D’?” I asked my third-graders.

Hailey raised her hand and stood up. “Doll,” she said confidently.

The boys behind her started snickering. “Oeguk-in” they said. Foreigner.

She looked down at the floor and said nothing. My co-teacher looked at the boys disapprovingly and handed them extra sheets of homework as punishment. For the next few minutes, Hailey stared at her desk, shoulders hunched over.

I wanted to yell at the boys, to tell them that Hailey was just as Korean as them, that insulting her was insulting me.

More than that, I wanted to tell Hailey not to listen to them.

I wanted to tell her that for years, wherever I went, people on both sides of my heritage also told me I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t welcome. I wanted to tell her that I’d spent nights crying because I thought I’d never be “enough” for anyone.

But I’d learned, day by day, that no one else could tell me who I was. I’d learned that being an outsider is a privilege because belonging nowhere is also belonging everywhere once you stop caring what people think. I’d learned how special and beautiful I was, how blessed I was to be part of two worlds, to be unique, to have this kind of empathy for outcasts and willingness to explore new cultures.

But, in the end I said nothing.

It wasn’t my place to discipline the kids in a language I could barely speak, and I couldn’t embarrass Hailey in the middle of class.

Class ended and the kids ran out. I saw Hailey eating lunch with her friends, laughing and looking like nothing had happened.

But I knew that she hadn’t forgotten what the boys said and she probably never would. I knew that she’d save every one of those comments somewhere dark and deep inside of her. I knew that her life was going to get harder as she got older, but I also knew that she would be okay, that she would love herself and find people who loved her not as Korean or American but as Hailey.

I hoped that one day, with or without me in her life, she would understand the words I never said.

Posted in Thoughts, Travel

How Can You Make Friends in Your Second Language?

Very late PSA: I’m going to Seoul as an English teacher with EPIK next week…

…and sometimes I wonder how I’m going to make friends with my elementary Korean skills.

After all, so much of our personalities is conveyed through our words. As a writer and English teacher, the very foundation of my career is diction and syntax. It’s a skill that I’ve honed for my entire life and a tool that I use to convey the many shades of Kylie that I have to offer.

A HUGE part of my personality is my ability make jokes or dish out sass like free chicken samples at a food court Panda Express.

I can make people laugh in other languages, too.

Just… not always for the reasons I intended.

FLASHBACK: Kylie’s Last Korean Lesson (via Skype)

Kylie: So I tried to make Korean seaweed soup for my dad, but it came out really watery. I went to H-Mart and there were too many kinds of seaweed so I just picked one. (Shows teacher a picture of the seaweed aisle at H-Mart).

Teacher: (begins laughing hysterically)

Kylie: … What?

Teacher: (continues to laugh hysterically)

Kylie: WHAT, teacher, WHAT?

Teacher: THAT’S the seaweed you used?!

Kylie: It’s wrong?

Teacher: (slams forehead on desk, still laughing hysterically)

Kylie: YOU DON’T EVEN KNOW WHICH ONE I PICKED. HOW DO YOU KNOW ALL OF THESE ARE WRONG?

Teacher: (starts crying laughing)

Kylie: TEACHER PLZ

Teacher: Kylie-Ssi, those are seaweed sheets for kimbap and rice. (Pastes two pictures into our shared google doc)

What I used:

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What I was supposed to use:

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Kylie: …. no wonder it came out looking like sludge.

Teacher: (dies of laughter. RIP I need a new Korean teacher now)

END FLASHBACK

… My point is, I am unable to express a vital part of my personality in Korean, at least for now.

So, up until I become fluent in Korean, will the only people in Korea who truly know me for who I am be English-speaking foreigners? Will everyone else only know a watered-down, baby-talking version of me?

At first, my answer was a resounding “YES” that motivated me to study Korean even harder.

But then, I thought about the interactions I’ve had with my students and foreign friends of different English-language abilities.

There’s Eugenia, in my beginner English class. I don’t know her nuanced thoughts on American politics and race relations, but I know that she’s punctual and dedicated despite being the lowest-level student in the class. I know that she’s got a funny side, because she saw me on the train after class and sat across from me, staring aggressively, until we finally made eye contact and laughed together when I jumped in surprise.

Then there’s Jonathan, another beginner student who can’t really pronounce the letters “s” or “z” but sits at his table 5 minutes before class and plays scales on a black violin.

Are my interactions with these people less meaningful because they’re limited by language? Are they less “real” than the interactions I have with native English speakers? Are the things we share with each other actually watered-down and inauthentic?

I think that perhaps, when we don’t speak each others’ languages as well as we might like to, what we see is not a lesser part of each other but a different part. Perhaps we see a facet of someone that we might have overlooked when distracted by all the vacuous words so often tossed in the air. There’s a sort of innocence, or maybe honesty, to paring down our words to the bare minimum. There’s nothing to hide behind.

 

 

Posted in Writing Updates

New Story: Aurora’s End

Today is a happy day because my short story, “Aurora’s End,” has been published in the Spring 2017 issue of The Puritan. Confetti cannons! Balloons! Trumpets! etc.

First and foremost, I owe a great deal of thanks to my fiction professor and wonderful advisor, Jim Grimsley, as well as my peers who helped me workshop this story last year.

Thank you, as well, to The Puritan‘s fiction editors André Babyn and Noor Naga for all their help in editing and revising this story.

And lastly (but not least-ly), I am forever grateful to Giang and Lina for patiently listening to me read my drafts and supporting me unconditionally.

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Okay, now back to business.

This is a Canadian magazine, so please excuse the “colours” instead of “color” and other discrepancies. Basically, if there’s anything at all that you don’t like in this story, blame it on the Canadians and not me.

I can’t say too much about this story because I’m saving that for another blog post in The Puritan‘s author blog, The Town Crier. I’m a bit behind on writing that (gets on the floor and bows in apology to the wonderful Puritan editors), but I’ll let you know when it goes up.

However, I’ll say this much:

This is a story about trying to love someone who you no longer recognize because of their depression.

My thoughts on this topic have changed a lot since I wrote this story in 2016, but one theme has remained constant in all of my shifting interpretations: there are no right answers.

People who haven’t been in Jing’s (the protagonist’s) situation love to tell you what you’re “supposed to do” when someone you care about becomes depressed. But real people have a funny way of failing to align with everything you read online. Somehow, they render useless all the books you’ve read about depression in your search for nonexistent solutions because reality is never that clean. None of those books tell you how far to go or how long to hold out in loving someone who breaks you a little bit every day.

I hope this story challenges you to think critically about how depression impacts everyone, not just the person suffering from depression. I hope it encourages you to love others endlessly while still recognizing and validating your own suffering, your own need for love.

Without further ado, I present to you “Aurora’s End”…

“In December, I became The Girl Who Saw Her Brother Drown, even though that’s only half true. I saw the ice open up and the lake breathe him in, then it was only Augusta maple trees and snowflakes on my eyelashes and so much silence, like he’d never even existed.

It takes three minutes without oxygen for your brain to start destroying itself. I waited for twenty-three minutes sitting cross-legged below an aspen tree, drinking tea from Tai’s thermos. It was too hot and he’d said to wait or I’d burn my tongue, but I burned it anyway and kept drinking until everything tasted like ash. Then the northern lights started casting purple banners across the sky, fifty-four minutes too late. I saw every colour and I saw colours that only existed for that moment and I saw every single star combust, but I did not see my brother drown. He was somewhere beneath the ice, while I was looking up at the sky….”

(Finish reading in The Puritan)

 

Posted in Thoughts

I graduated hooray

A wild Kylie crawls out from a cave, even paler than before (which is really a feat, since she was already a bed sheet, so just imagine that her skin is literally translucent), hair untamed (not that hard to imagine), clothes tattered and squinting in the blinding sun, holding something triumphantly above her head, baby-Simba-the-opening-scene-of-the-Lion-King style. The object in her arms is blinding white, reflecting the sun. Upon closer inspection it appears to be… 320 typed pages?

“I FINISHED IT!” she screams, voice weak from a year of disuse. “I FINISHED MY THESIS!”

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My dear friend Joanie and I at our honors ceremony where they rewarded us with a few yards of pretty rope for sacrificing a year of our lives to our theses.

(clears throat)

So that’s where I’ve been the past year.

One of the perks of being a creative writing major is that your thesis gets to be a creative project instead of a year-long analysis of Renaissance literature or a detailed report of your experiments poking C. elegans under a microscope. My thesis was a fantasy novel about a boy who takes a train to purgatory. I’m in the process of querying agents who will potentially try to help me publish it.

Here’s actual footage of agents rejecting me:

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Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t spend ALL of my free time writing. You can really only write for so many hours in a day before you forget how to speak English. The thing about creative writing is that, as fun as it can be, it’s mentally draining. I didn’t exactly curl up in bed after a long day of class and say “You know what I feel like doing? Winding down by cranking out 3,000 words of an emotionally-charged murder scene which I will have to research extensively.” So I made time for other things. You know, for inspiration.

I started the year by flying into Atlanta early for International Student Orientation, where I hung out with my amazing and brilliant freshmen mentees.

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Not pictured: my other wonderful mentee, Natalia.

I did lots of fun things with my friends, including but not limited to: attending Braves games, riding tandem bikes in the rain, eating too much Korean BBQ, playing tipsy twister, and hosting a Halloween party.

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Halloween at The Castle of Dreams, feat. Snow White, a minion, Minnie Mouse, and a gross tub that we used to bob for apples.

My fantastic roommates, Giang and Sarah, made our apartment (otherwise known as the Castle of Dreams) feel like home. IMG_3474

For spring break, my friends and I drove to Gatlinberg, TN, for some hiking and general tomfoolery. This was our destination mostly because I informed them that I am an actual vampire who hates the beach, so we opted out of the more “traditional” spring break cities because I have the best friends ever.

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Giang I stole your picture and I’m not sorry

I can honestly say my senior year was my favorite year of college. This was mostly because I focused my energy on things that truly mattered to me and people who care about me. But now…

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IT’S OVER.

Except not really.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my travels, it’s that real love doesn’t fade across time zones. People who are truly meant to be in your life will always be there, no matter how far away you are, what sort of trauma you’re trudging through, or what forces are trying desperately to pull you apart.

It sucks not having hugs on demand, but I never lose sight of how lucky I am to have people who love me all around the world. My time at Emory isn’t “over” because I’ll carry every part of it with me every day. Graduation is not an endpoint for me, because I believe that nothing ever truly ends.

… Did you like that last bit?

(Yes, Kylie, that was lovely)

Well great! Because that’s actually a quote from a story of mine that is being published in a few short weeks!

(I’m really good at subtle transitions, as you can see)

One of my short stories is being published in the spring edition of The Puritan, an online literary magazine based in Toronto. This is exciting because it’s the first time anyone has PAID ME for my writing. I’ll send out another blog post when that gets published soon, but I wanted to get this out first rather than writing one SUPER MEGA BLOG POST ABOUT EVERYTHING.

Another thing I did this year is a lengthy analysis of Mulan (yes, the Disney film) for my English class. If you’re interested in what Mulan has to do with racism, feminism, orientalism, etc. then take a look!

Until next time!

xxx

-K

Posted in Writing Updates

A Book Review and a Republication

A quick writing update from underneath a mountain of poetry books:

I read a book and Cleaver published my thoughts about it, mostly because I intern there and they told me to have thoughts about it, but also because it was a good book.

My review of A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar

(But in all honesty it is a very good book, especially if you’re into very dark themes)

On an unrelated note:

A few months ago, the editor of Cleaver (where I published “Voltage“) told me that she’d forwarded my piece to a national undergraduate literary anthology called Plain China. A few weeks ago, an editor from Plain China told me that they’d accepted it. I’m starting to feel like a one-hit wonder. I’ll send around the link when they actually publish it so you can read it ON TWO DIFFERENT WEBSITES if you want.

Thanks to everyone who still reads this defunct travel blog.

-K

 

Posted in Travel

The End

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I hadn’t checked the countdown on my phone in weeks. I didn’t need to anymore, because I knew the little gray boxes labeled “WEEKS,” “DAYS,” “HOURS,” “MINUTES,” and “SECONDS” all had tiny white zeros.

I’d started the countdown almost as soon as I’d come to Spain, back when I sat in bed and stared at pictures of my friends while listening to “See You Again” on repeat and thought please let this be over quickly.

Now I’m afraid that I won’t be able to fall asleep without the sounds of Spanish television from across the hall. I’m afraid that whenever it’s 2:00pm, no matter where I am in the world, I’ll hear Victoria calling “A comer!” from the kitchen, and I’ll remember sitting at a round table with a tablecloth thick enough to be a blanket while she hands me a spoon for my lentil soup. And whenever I don’t have time for lunch and stuff half a peanut-butter sandwich in my mouth, I’ll hear her saying “Es muy poco!” and pushing an overflowing bowl of fruit at me.

Victoria is 77 years old. I know I want to come back to Spain someday, but I don’t have any immediate plans (or money) to come back soon. And it’s possible that by the time I get around to coming back, she’ll be gone.

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Salamanca from the Huerto de Calisto y Melibea 

I’ve said a lot of goodbyes in my life. Sometimes it seems like whenever I teach myself how to be happy in a new place, I run away. I left my family and high school friends in Massachusetts, started from scratch in Atlanta, and just when I figured out how to be happy again, I got on a plane to Madrid.

I’ve learned that my happiness doesn’t come from other people, but is something I take with me and can rediscover no matter what continent I’m in or what language I have to speak. I’ve learned that goodbyes are necessary, because if I’d never said goodbye to my friends last spring, I never would have met Victoria. But for all the practice I’ve had, saying goodbye never gets easier.

Whenever I get too caught up in the “last” time I’ll ever experience something, I think about a passage from my favorite book, Einstein’s Dreams. Every chapter is a different theory about time and all the different ways it might stretch and implode. My favorite chapter imagines a world in which “time is a circle, bending back on itself. The world repeats itself, precisely, endlessly.”

It describes a woman who gives her dying husband one last kiss:

She is certain that this was the last kiss. How could she know that time will begin again, that she will be born again, will study at the gymnasium again, will show her paintings at the gallery in Zürich, will again meet her husband in the small library in Fribourg, will again go sailing with him in Thun Lake on a warm day in July… How could she know?

I think about this passage whenever another “last time” falls on my shoulders. I find it more comforting than any religion I’ve ever practiced or read about – the idea that there is never a “last” time, that there’s no end to your life and no need to mourn the things that are lost because eventually you’ll find them again.

The idea that when I wave goodbye to Victoria from the bus, I don’t need to be sad because one day in August we’ll meet for the first time again. She’ll be waiting for me on Fonseca street, then we’ll take the #4 bus back to her apartment. She’ll take me to my room with two tiny beds, then leave me to unpack while she makes paella for lunch.

I’ll ride my bike in the rain again, take salsa lessons again, get lost in the gardens of a Moorish palace again, look down at the Guadalquivir river from a ferris wheel again, and finally come back home again to eat seafood soup with Victoria. And just like every night, she’ll say “A pasar buenas noches” as she stands at the sink washing dishes, and I’ll say “Hasta mañana.” See you tomorrow.

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Posted in Travel

Being American Abroad

“We’re in Portugal,” I said. “We can’t get burgers.”

That didn’t stop me from staring lustfully at the burger stand in the Lisbon food court. From twenty feet away, I could still smell all the salt, grease, and diabetes. I looked over at Bethany and Amanda, who wouldn’t look at me because they were hypnotized by the word “BURGER” printed in white chalk on the menu overhead.

“Yeah, we can’t,” they agreed quietly, still staring at the burgers.

“Well,” I said, “is there anything distinctly Portuguese about them? Different from American burgers?”

“The meat,” Bethany said. “The meat is different.”

“And we couldn’t eat them in Spain, because we always eat with our host families,” I said. “And we had Portuguese food for lunch.”

Bethany and Amanda didn’t say anything, but looked at me expectantly with eyes that said, Just say it, Kylie.

“I’m going to do it,” I said.

“Me too,” Bethany and Amanda said.

Ten minutes later, we had trays of steaming hot burgers and fries. I had never felt more American, even though I rarely ate burgers while in the U.S. Halfway through my burger, I realized people were staring at us as they cut their burgers into pieces and speared them with forks.

I put my burger down and picked up a fry. “People eat burgers with forks and knives here?” I said.

“Apparently,” said Amanda. “I don’t care, though.”

“Well, we’re the ones doing it right because burgers are American and we’re American.”

“Kylie, be quiet. Everyone here speaks English.”

I stuffed more fries in my mouth before I could say anything else. As I looked up, I saw half the Emory group on the other side of the food court, coming closer to us.

“Shit,” I said, wiping my face with a napkin. “We’ve been caught.”

Bethany and Amanda turned around as Katherine and Jason appeared behind us. Katherine’s eyes locked on my food, which I tugged closer to me.

“How’s the burger?” Katherine said, smiling.

“Amazing,” I said, temporarily forgetting to be ashamed of being so American.

“Yeah, we all ate there half an hour ago,” Katherine said. “It was great.”

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Three dysfunctional Americans exploring Portugal

“It’s actually not that expensive to ship candy corn from America to Spain,” I said.

Amanda laughed.

“I was serious,” I said. “I’m getting desperate.”

Halloween was coming, and I hadn’t had any candy corn since August.

I’d searched every candy store in Salamanca. I’d tried describing it to my host mother, who frowned before pulling out a bag of triangular cherry candies that some French girls left for her. I told her that no, that wasn’t candy corn, but thanks for trying. Then ate the candy anyway.

Halloween was my favorite holiday. I loved to watch horror movies and laugh hysterically while my friends screamed and hid under the blankets. I loved buying tubs of 2/$4 candy corn from CVS, even when the cashier looked at me and said, “You nasty.” I loved wearing a superman costume under a white blouse on Halloween, then quickly unbuttoning it and saying, “Does anyone need help?” when my friends asked a question about our Chinese homework.

But Halloween had only just started trickling over to Spain. Some kids went trick-or-treating, but the grandmothers still said “How shameful!” at the idea of asking strangers for candy. College students stayed in bars until 9am, like always, except this time in costume.

But there were no jack-o-lanterns, no haunted houses, no bobbing for apples or donuts hung from strings. I planned to spend Halloween night in bed, surrounded by dangerously inexpensive candy from Carrefour, watching The Nightmare Before Christmas on my laptop.

The Friday before Halloween, while walking to the plaza, I got a text from Katherine.

“I have your candy corn.”

I dropped my phone on the sidewalk, scooped it up and read the text again to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.

I vaguely recalled a conversation a few weeks earlier when I’d seen Katherine in the street and mentioned my search for candy corn (which I talked about to anyone who would listen). She said her mom was visiting from the U.S. and could ask her to bring me candy corn, but I’d half forgotten about it and half thought that she wouldn’t actually do it.

I texted back:

“Literally any time and place that it’s convenient for you to give it to me, tell me and I’ll be there.”

That night, I cut open the bag and sat in bed marveling at the most beautiful, perfect pieces of candy corn I’d ever seen in my life.

I remembered Halloween sleepovers in middle school with bowls filled with candy corn all over my living room.

I remembered buying 99-cent bags of candy corn from CVS when I got out of work at the daycare back in 12th grade and eating them on the bus on the way home.

I remembered my friends at Emory buying bags of candy corn to help me get through study sessions until 2am.

I remembered sealing a half-eaten bag of candy corn with a purple hair tie during freshman year, then giving it to a guy I liked and later texting him to ask for my hair tie back.

I only ended up eating a few pieces of candy corn that night. I sealed the rest in a plastic bag and put in the drawer of my night stand. This was one piece of home that I wanted to last a long time.

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Celebrating Halloween in 9am grammar class

“I heard that some people were killed in California,” Victoria said.

I spooned more potato and pimentón soup into my bowl. “Oh, sí?

Sí, sí, I heard it on the news.”

I broke off a chunk of bread and starting stirring my potatoes. “A shooting?” I said.

“I mean, I might have heard it wrong,” Victoria said quickly. “There was just something about it on TV right before I went to bed last night. I’m not trying to scare you.”

“It doesn’t scare me,” I said. “Pass the water, por favor.”

I finished filling my glass and saw that Victoria was still staring at me.

“Shootings don’t surprise me,” I said, setting down my spoon. “They happen all the time in America. In movie theaters, at schools…” I paused, wondering how to best translate “Planned Parenthood Clinic” into Spanish. I gave up and shook my head, picking up my spoon again. “It’s easy to get guns, en mi país.”

Almost as soon as I’d come to Spain, I’d started referring to America as “mi país,” or “my country.” Mostly because it saved time, since no one seemed to say “América” in Spanish, but rather, “Los Estados Unidos” and that was a mouthful to say every time I wanted to make a cultural comparison.

But in doing so, I’d unintentionally taken ownership of something that I never realized I wanted.

Sometimes it’s easy to be ashamed of America. I feel that way whenever I watch the news with my host mother and Donald Trump appears on the screen, or when we hear about yet another unnecessary shooting.

Yet, when I was suddenly stripped of the food, the ideology, and even the language of the country where I grew up, I started to miss things that I never even knew that I loved. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d said, “En los Estados Unidos,” because the U.S. wasn’t just a country to me anymore, it was my country, where I was from.

My country is massive, arrogant, and a little chubby, but it gave me a good education, a safe childhood, and raised me with the audacious notion that I can achieve all of my dreams. We have far too many guns and cheeseburgers, but America’s problems are my problems to fix. I can never wash America from my hands just by fleeing to Spain, nor would I want to. I will accept the amazing public education, the terrible health care system, the autumn leaves in New England, the rampant heart disease, the pumpkin pie, the xenophobic politicians, and the American Dream. Give it all to me. I’ll take every piece of it, good or bad.

I thought about this while sitting in my Spanish linguistics class as my professor played a campaign video from the 2012 U.S. elections, complete with “God Bless the U.S.A.” blaring in the background.

“I want to cry,” I whispered to Emma. “I love this song.”

“Kylie,” she said, “this is the cheesiest American song ever.”

“I know,” I said. “That’s why I love it.”

 

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The only way to do Halloween, feat. Clark Kent 2013

 

Posted in Travel

When to Play the “Foreigner Card”

Foreigners in Salamanca are called guiris. I don’t know if guiris give off a particular smell, but everyone seems to know that we’re not Spanish.

A bunch of guiris looking lost in a small village in Salamanca province.
A bunch of guiris looking lost in a small village in Salamanca province.

My host mother once described my complexion by holding up a porcelain plate, and combined with my Asian-ish eyes, I’m not surprised that people don’t mistake me for a local. But some of my American friends seem to attract English-speaking tourists without even opening their mouths, and none of us can explain why.

But there are more benefits to being an “outsider” than I thought. Namely, being able to decide when to play the foreigner card. Which happens mainly…

In situations where my social etiquette is questionable

Something I probably shouldn't have done in a church.
Something I probably shouldn’t have done in a church.

Even in America, I’m spectacular at doing things the wrong way in public: going in through the exit door, using the wrong bathroom, etc. In Spain, it’s even worse. You seat yourself at restaurants MOST but NOT ALL of the time, so standing in the doorway looking confused will usually get you nowhere. The male and female bathrooms are labelled with creative drawings and sometimes “S” and “C” which is confusing because both “Señores” (men) and “Señoras” (women) start with “S.” TL;DR: life is complicated.

So whenever I feel like I’m doing something wrong in public but don’t know how to fix it, I make my foreign-ness as obvious as possible.

Like when I went to a trial Latin Dance class, entered the building by slamming the door against the wall, and stepped into a room of Spanish people staring at me.

I turned to my friend Amanda.

“Let’s just stand here and speak in English so everyone knows that we have no clue what we’re doing,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Amanda. “It’s better to look like a foreigner than just an idiot.”

“Yeah, then maybe someone will help us. Hahaha. I’m so confused. HAHAHA someone please help us.”

At which point a woman at a desk in the back smiled and asked if we needed help, and no one that day died of embarrassment.

This tactic also works when people try to sell me things or hand me brochures while I’m walking back from class. I loudly say, “I DON’T SPEAK SPANISH I’M SORRY” and run away. The same applies for when creepy guys talk to me. So far this method hasn’t failed me.

Most Spanish people *IN MY EXPERIENCE* know basic English (hello, goodbye, hamburger, etc.) but aren't fluent. It's safe to assume that anyone who looks like a grandparent doesn't speak English at all.  Salamanca is a college city so there are more English speakers than usual, but shopkeepers, bartenders, and most people on the street don't understand me if I speak at a normal pace to another American. I know this from my experience pointing out attractive guys on the street and yelling at people who don't walk fast enough without anyone so much as turning around.
Most Spanish people *IN MY EXPERIENCE* know basic English (hello, goodbye, hamburger, etc.) but aren’t fluent. It’s safe to assume that anyone who looks like a grandparent doesn’t speak English at all. Salamanca is a college city so there are more English speakers than usual, but shopkeepers, bartenders, and most people on the street don’t understand me if I speak at a normal pace to another American. I know this from my experience pointing out attractive guys on the street and yelling at people who don’t walk fast enough without anyone so much as turning around.

But there are also times when I feel like I have a good handle on the situation and get irritated (maybe unfairly so) when people treat me like I don’t speak Spanish.

This happens a lot when I ask questions.

Lost and confused: my natural state of being
Lost and confused: my natural state of being

While in Santiago de Compostela, I sat down in a restaurant with three other Americans and started reading the menu. I saw caldo gallego under the first course. I knew it meant “Galician Broth,” but that could mean anything from chicken noodle soup to the boiled blood of Galician pilgrims, so when the waiter came over, I decided to ask.

“A quick question,” I said in Spanish. “What is caldo gallego?

Una sopa,” the waiter said. “Soup.”

Sí, sí,” I said, frowning. [Whenever Spanish people offer unsolicited English translations, they seem to pick the least helpful words to translate. One of my program directors once said, “Los romanos, sabéis? The Romans!” because clearly no one could have guessed that]

“I know what caldo means,” I said (still in Spanish). “I’m asking what’s IN the soup.”

“Fish and vegetables.”

Sí, sí,” I said, “pero qué pescado?

“Codfish,” he said in English.

I considered telling him that I knew that word in Spanish, thank you very much. I’d eaten fried bacalao with my host mother every week since I’d come to Spain. It was the same fish hanging in every window in Santiago de Compostela with giant, terrifying eyes. This whole region of Spain was famous for its bacalao and I would have to be blind not to see it written on the chalk boards outside of every restaurant. So I appreciate the fact that even though I haven’t said a word of English to you, you’ve been insisting that I can’t speak Spanish. I came thousands of miles just to speak English with you. I’ll tell you where you can shove that codfish.

Instead, I closed the menu.

Vale,” I said. “I’ll just have the toast and ham, thank you.”

Here's a picture of a peacock to break up the text. This has nothing to do with this blog post. But in case you were curious, this peacock's name is Joder because it was in a tree and when the assistant director of my program looked up at it he said, "Joder!" (which means "fuck"). In Spanish, peacock is "Pavo Real" which translates to "Royal Turkey," so sometimes I accidentally say "turkey" instead of "peacock" in English.
Here’s a picture of a peacock to break up the text. This has nothing to do with this blog post. But in case you were curious, this peacock’s name is Joder because it was in a tree and when the assistant director of my program looked up at it he said, “Joder!” (which means “fuck”). In Spanish, peacock is “Pavo Real” which translates to “Royal Turkey,” so sometimes I accidentally say “turkey” instead of “peacock” in English.

As hard as it is to live abroad and be forced to speak another language to get by, being a guiri is a unique kind of in-between world. As a biracial person, I’ve navigated gray zones my entire life. This is just another case of learning the rules of the game, and having fun even if I can’t always win.

Posted in Travel

The Best Day

The best day started at 5:00AM. I had to catch a 7:00AM bus to Galicia, so I crammed my clothes into a duffel bag, grabbed the “snack” (two sandwiches, a banana, a chocolate bar, and two juice boxes) that my host mother had insisted I needed to eat before lunch, and headed out.

At 6:30AM, the only people on the streets in Salamanca were college students who hadn’t finished their night out. Girls walked past me in mini skirts and high heels while I shuffled away because I felt thoroughly unpretty in comparison in my glasses and sweatshirt, lugging a duffle back up a hill before sunrise. Two guys at a traffic light said something to me about the bus station and patted me on the shoulder when I didn’t understand. I thought that 6:30AM might be the best time to find attractive guys in Salamanca. Then I walked past one guy screaming a sequence of vowel sounds that didn’t sound like they belonged to any language while throwing bottles at a building, and changed my mind.

The bus was big enough that everyone could have their own row, so I wrapped my scarf around me like a blanket, lay down across the seats, and ate my nutella sandwich (called nocilla in Spain) while watching the Spanish sunrise through the bus window.

Six hours later, we stopped at a hotel with no wifi, one outlet per room, and bathrooms the size of closets. After a hot shower and a handful of candy from the front desk, none of it bothered me anymore.

After lunch, we drove to a winery.

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The last time I’d been to a winery, I was 17 and also in Spain. But back then I was averse to anything other than pumpkin iced coffee and salted caramel hot chocolate. This time I had an entire glass of wine and felt thoroughly adult afterwards, even if I didn’t really like it and ended up eating almost the entire bowl of peanuts that came with it.

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Afterwards, we all boarded a boat to see how Galicians catch mejillones. A waiter put a giant plate of mussels and shrimp in front of me. I turned down the extra bottle of wine and received a huge bottle of lemon Fanta instead.

I picked up a mussel and turned to Amanda.

“How do we eat these?”

She shrugged. I cracked the shell open and poked at the orange meat. It looked like a baby heart.

I looked over at Amanda. She had already eaten two.

“They’re good,” she said. “Salty.”

I looked at Bethany on my left. “On three?” I said.

“Okay.”

“Okay. Uno… dos… tres!

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They were very good. As long as I didn’t look at them, or think about what I was eating.

“Maybe if we eat enough of these, we’ll turn into mermaids,” I said, cracking the head off a piece of shrimp. Bethany and Amanda agreed.

Bagpipe music started playing from the speakers in front of us (Galician culture has a lot of Celtic influence). I took off my sunglasses and looked out across the harbor. The air smelled like salt and fish. Suddenly, I felt like I was in Boston again.

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Maybe it was the sunshine, the familiar ocean smell, or maybe it was the shot that I accidentally took because I thought it was a tiny cup of coffee, but for some reason I felt incredibly happy.

Later, we found a staircase that led down to where mermaids lived. I started singing “Part of Your World” for the rest of the night.

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On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a beach to see the sunset. Amanda and I took off our shoes and stepped into the water, which was cold enough to make you scream but not give you frostbite. I thought about how lucky I was to be on that beach at that exact moment to see such an amazing skyline. I thought about how wonderful it was to have friends that let me sing Disney songs for hours and took off their shoes to run through freezing salt water with me. I thought about how when I first came to Spain, I wasn’t happy, and how silly that all felt now.

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After dinner, Bethany, Amanda and I walked around the city until we found a 24-hour convenience store and bought 1-Euro chocolate bars. We sat on the beach and watched the lights twinkle across the water from all the houses and boats across from us.

I heard someone speaking English from the stone wall up above us and looked up at some of the other people from our group walking by.

“Let’s wave!” I said.

“Let’s not,” said Amanda, “because they’re probably going out while we’re sitting in the dark eating chocolate on a Saturday night.”

I thought about this while they walked by, putting another cookie in my mouth.

“Well, I’m happy with my life choices,” I said finally.

Bethany and Amanda nodded. We turned back to the shore and watched the lights again, even after it was too cold and windy and we really should have gone back to the hotel. I refused to let the best day so far come to an end so easily. I stayed until I memorized every pinprick of light on the water, the smell of albariño and salt water, and the feeling of something that I had lost finally coming back to me in one freezing cold wave of salt water against my bare feet.

GALICIA beach

Posted in Travel

Victoria

Las mariposas

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“My neighbors don’t like birds,” my host mother said, tearing up another piece of bread and throwing it onto the patio. “But I do, so I feed them and blame it on the man next door.”

She smiled as she tossed more bread crumbs onto the porch. A tiny gray bird swooped down and started pecking at the red tiles.

Mira, it’s so cute!” she said.

A tiny moth fluttered around one of the pink flower pots. Victoria scoffed.

“I hate these mariposas,” she said, grabbing a dish towel and stepping onto the patio. She started viciously whipping the flower with the towel until the moth flew away and purple flower petals fell everywhere.

Victoria turned around and smiled as if she hadn’t just destroyed her own plant.

“There,” she said proudly. “No more mariposas.”


Las salchichas

“Do you like salchichas?” Victoria said one night.

“What are salchichas?

Victoria walked to the fridge and took out a package of what looked like hot dogs.

“Oh yeah, I like those,” I said. “We have those in America.”

Bueno,” Victoria said. “I’ll make them tonight with some patatas fritas?

Patatas fritas?” I echoed. “French fries? Like in America?”

“Yes. Do you like them?”

“Well…” I paused. I was always careful when telling Victoria what I liked. If I ate more of something than usual, she tended to give me bigger portions and cook it more frequently. And as much as I liked pasta and fried eggs, I didn’t want to come back to the U.S. 10 pounds heavier having eaten very little actual Spanish food. I also wondered if french fries were part of her normal diet, or if she was making them because I was American.

“Yes, I like them, though I try not to eat them too often,” I said finally.

Sí, sí,” Victoria said. “Every once in a while is fine.”

At 9:00 she called me back for dinner. I sat down at the counter and poured myself a glass of water. Victoria placed a large plate of french fries in front of me, then scraped six hot dogs onto my plate. I looked at them, then at Victoria, with sheer terror in my eyes.

“I can’t eat all of those,” I said.

“They’re small,” Victoria said, picking up a kiwi and peeling it. “You can do it.”


El cerdito

“We’re traveling to La Alberca tomorrow,” I said, “so I won’t be here for lunch.”

“La Alberca!” Victoria said. “You know they have a little piglet running around the streets?”

“They do?”

, everyone feeds it bread and it gets really fat.”

I imagined a little pink piglet with a red collar bouncing up and down the streets of a cute Spanish village. I decided to bring some extra bread with me to La Alberca just in case. Then I realized I hadn’t been listening while Victoria kept talking.

“…And also sausage,” Victoria finished.

“They feed sausage… to the pig?” I repeated slowly.

Victoria looked at me for a moment, then bent over laughing. “No,” she said. “They feed bread to the pig and it gets really fat. Then then they make the pig into sausage.”

I spent the next day searching for the legendary piglet. An hour before leaving, I finally found it. Though it wasn’t as tiny and pink as I’d imagined.

The cerdito of Mogarraz, who I named Guapo.
The cerdito of Mogarraz, who I named Guapo.

Cuando me vaya

“I’ve only had one other girl who didn’t like to go out,” Victoria said, putting plastic wrap around half a melon. She turned back to the sink and the mountain of dishes that she refused to let me help her wash. It amazed me that two people could dirty so many plates, but she insisted on giving me a separate plate for every type of food.

“But all the other girls I’ve had went out. The American girls went out every night, even when they had class in the morning.”

“I can’t do that,” I said. I’d heard it from enough people that I was somehow “doing it wrong” by sleeping at midnight every night. All my friends said their host mothers expected them to go out and were accustomed to students coming back at 7AM and sleeping until 4. The host mothers acted surprised if we woke up before lunch on Saturday and wondered what was wrong if we stayed home at night.

I’d made a valiant attempt at going out the night before, dragging myself to a Taiwanese girl’s apartment at 11pm to hang out with other international students. I didn’t know how to buy good wine, so I brought cider that no one drank. I had some good conversations and a decent glass of tinto de verano, but I was exhausted, my head hurt, my throat hurt, and my Spanish was getting worse by the minute. A drunk Chinese boy asked if me and my friend Amanda were sisters, even though she was white and blonde while I was half-asian and brunette. I came home at 2:30 while everyone else went to the plaza to keep drinking.

“It’s probably better that you don’t,” Victoria said. I looked up.

“Really?”

“You came here to study, after all,” she said. “Most of these girls never study, they just go out all the time. I don’t understand it, because they’re paying to be here. But you can do whatever you want, just don’t come home drunk.”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” I said. We sat down together and started eating our sopa at the kitchen counter.

Victoria had hosted girls for over ten years, and said she couldn’t remember how many. She never said their names, but she remembered certain things that they did. One American girl liked to sit on the patio and tan. One Korean girl refused to eat rabbit meat because she had a pet rabbit at home. The French girls ate bowls of plain lettuce every day.

Even if I was somehow “doing it wrong,” I liked the idea that maybe Victoria would have a reason to remember me as well.

Miranda del Castañar
Miranda del Castañar