A Product of Two Cultures MAG

By Stephanie K., Roanoke, VA

     An ancient, slightly bent woman stood in the living room. With skin wrinkled like drying bark, she wore the flowing, pastel linens of traditional Korean clothes. I stood, gazing at her pointed silk shoes embroidered with flowers. Her curled feet looked like little pink shrimp. It was explained to me that she was my eldest paternal aunt, and she burst forth in rapid Korean and extended her small hands toward my face. I gazed at her hands in astonishment. They were even tinier than my own child-like ones. Why, they were the hands of an infant's.

"You look so much like your father!" she exclaimed. Her eyes crinkled shut and her mouth swung open, forming a toothy smile.

I was both speechless and confused. Having just awakened from jet-lag induced slumber, I was still in my pajamas. I had been expecting a hot cup of coffee, not a meeting with a long-lost aunt. Surprised and somewhat bewildered, my mouth gaped open. I was beginning to become unhinged. Uprooted.

My aunt drew me close in a strong embrace with her heavy eyes tightly shut. The last time she had seen me was when I was in the fourth grade, as a spectacled little girl with waist-length hair tied with rainbow-striped ribbons, but I had no recollection of that whatsoever. It didn't matter, though. She was here now. With her gnarled hands, seasoned with lines of hardship and perseverance, she touched my newly shorn hair cut by quick, anxious American scissors.

"You have changed so much!" she exclaimed. Her head bobbed up and down, as did her frail body.

I didn't know how to respond. How could I talk to somebody I had just met? Moreover, my Korean was far too inadequate to describe the emotions that poured forth. Managing to sputter a few words in English I knew she didn't understand, my mouth hung loose and empty. Words did not surge through my lips as I wanted them to. I was only able to produce droplets of warm tears, which trickled down my face. The tears mocked my inability to communicate.

I looked to my cousin, Uhnee, with whom I was staying during my summer trip to South Korea, and she beamed at us with her flawless white teeth. She suggested we take a walk in Olympic Park, which was practically next door to her apartment. Gohmo, the aunt I had just met, agreed with an eager nod.

We walked along one of the paths, weary feet shuffling. With the world seeming to pivot and glide by in slow motion, I observed that Gohmo walked with a similar posture to mine, head slightly down and hips slightly forward. Uhnee walked with her usual metropolitan flair, with nimble feet and her back held straight and confident. But Gohmo walked with the same contemplative, yet solid, steps I took. There was that slight American clumsiness in my motions, but I shrugged, for nothing could be done about that.

As a breeze came from the trees, I looked at my relatives. Uhnee sat with pursed red lips, watching the horizon. Gohmo sat next to her. Her sad yet refined air seemed to penetrate the surrounding atmosphere.

Through the shadows, I noticed a lone tree sitting atop a throne of rolling green hills in the distance. The twisted tree sat misshapen, beckoning toward the sky with its bone-colored branches knotted with tribulation, yet giving way to new leaves that stretched for the sun. I gasped with delight. Such a simple image, it seemed to splash across the almost-transparent sky. Its intensity shook my very core - I saw my life in that image.

A product of two distinct cultures, one from the West and the other from the East, it's difficult to understand this thing Americans call identity. I have always lived in predominantly white towns, where I spent my days filling coloring books with emerald-eyed and olive-skinned princesses. Consequently, I often feel split, for I don't belong wholly to either society.

I thought about that humble, yet stoic, tree. It reminded me of Gohmo, actually. It had a sad quality, as though it had to live through trouble and misfortune, yet was still alive. Giving life to new leaves, it was flourishing with spirit. Did I represent the new leaves on that tree? No, I had no vibrant green leaves. In fact, I could not look up and see them even if they were there; all that I ever saw were faded oranges and grays spread beneath me, decaying in my shadow and blanketing my past.

I was uncertain of so much, but I know this: Gohmo saw something. Like an ancient tree, gnarled and weathered, she had a blessed viewpoint. She could look out along the horizon, and when she surveyed my branches from up above, she saw something. Waves of hope, splashing inside me and foaming with thick pride, soared and crashed into my heart.

Now I understood. Here was beauty! Here was reason! For the first time in my life, I came to understand who I was. For so long, I had been the timid, slant-eyed girl with the kind of skin jaundice victims had. I had been an outcast. And there, all I could see was a wasteland of oranges and grays.

But no more. As I watched these two women, products of two generations and lifestyles, I knew I was much more. Something happened at that moment. I had found my roots, and I knew there had to be a canopy above me. I stood motionless and took a long, last glance at my gnarled tree, shuddering its shoulders to the wind. With the breeze combing the strands of my hair and the scents of the forest soaking my lungs, I felt complete.

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