I was born in Seoul in 1974. That’s the story, anyway. Oh Young-Chan is the name I was given by a group of strangers who took care of me until I came to the U.S. in December, 1976. The rest you’ve heard before. My parents and nearly everyone around me was white. Or Euro-American. Or Anglo. There are pictures of the party my mother’s co-workers threw to wish her farewell and to welcome the new son she was leaving work to care for. In those pictures, you can see me clinging to the only black woman in the entire office. Beside those pictures, in the scrapbook my mother has kept all these years, there are the many welcome cards sent by family and friends. “Welcome,” or “Congratulations,” they say, nearly all accompanied by a drawing of a sandy-haired child with blue eyes. These small ironies are well-documented.
When asked if I wanted to go to school on Saturday to study Korean, I said no. I wanted to play football. I wanted to be what nearly every kid wants to be: one of the kids; maybe a star running back someday. Eating dinner at my best friend’s house, I was called an “alien,” jokingly, by his stepfather. Meaning, jokingly, “an illegal.” Sensing my embarrassment, he added, “a little green alien.” At some point my classmates at school realized, though they had always know, that we were different, and suddenly this difference became irreconcilable. So I turned from my childhood friends to punk music and the skateboarding culture as it was before it became an “extreme sport.”
Through high school and college I wrote poetry because I didn’t know what else to do. During this time I wrote a lot of self-pitying poems about, directly or indirectly, being adopted. About being homeless, nameless, without a people, without a sense of self that did not depend on a perspective which would always count me as a foreigner, an immigrant, an alien. That there is both novelty and limitation in writing one’s life as an ethnic minority has been duly noted elsewhere. That one must come to the conclusion that the sum of one’s life and one’s work can be &mdahs; must be — attributed to and culled from more than a difference in phenotype is a harder lesson to learn.
When I read my poems at the KAAN conference in Los Angeles in 1999, I had several adoptive parents talk to me afterward. I was reminded of the first poetry class I’d ever taken, a weekend workshop with Li-Young Lee and Edward Hirsch at Governors State University in Illinois. On the final day of the weekend there was a farewell reading. I read a poem in which I tried to imagine my birth mother (a trope I’ve grown tired of hearing worked in nearly identical fashion — but one which seems necessary to begin writing down the bones). A man came up to me with reddened eyes and asked me what he could do for his adopted son, to keep him from feeling alone, abandoned. I don’t remember what I told him. I only remember the look on his face as he walked away, inconsolable.
I’ve always though that art is not about understanding, but about possibility. What could I have said about my poem that would have made any sense? Everyone is haunted. You go on living and the same question is never quite the same the next time you ask it.
Steven Haruch is currently Acting Instructor in the Department of English at the University of Washington in Seattle. He writes film reviews for the Seattle Weekly, in addition to teaching part-time at a Korean American afterschool program.
Poems by Steven Haruch.
T H E A R G U M E N T F R O M S I M P L I C I T Y
The mornings were like this, ah rah jji? Yes: the room filling with light, the shadows draining into the street.
You were trying to teach me to speak, dropping your key from the third story each evening,
and I climbed up to you with only a clumsy language in my mouth. There were days that you came home
needing only a shower, you said, the smell of stacked dishes trailing like a wet string through the narrow hall.
At night we mouthed the talk of those who are barely awake, not a whisper but a low dull hum. Ah rah jji?
Do you know? How our two bodies shone from the lamps along Damen Avenue, proof
that light could rise. And you were lonely, then, for the country I had not seen in twenty years.
L O W
What syllable are you seeking, Vocalissimus, in the distances of sleep? Speak it. –Wallace Stevens
Asleep again, I did not hear the telephone. You were, instead, that girl in the painting who reaches down from her bed to touch the sea.
Which sea, I don’t know.
The train. Shaking my head in the turns.
As if I disagreed with what I was dreaming. But I was dreaming I was asleep.
When I wake it’s midday and I can still hear you breathing. The telephone beside the bed. Were you dreaming of oranges?
I stayed awake describing them. The cold cratered skin, the peels.
When you go walking inside your sleep, The city will be dim. Your cameras Swaying from your arms. Above, a single star Will be blinking. A cursor, spinning
What seems like slowly over the rooftops. The man inside the star Is taking a picture of the world. Everyone But me, he will say, to the microphones That line his helmet. And below him,
In a Low Earth Orbit, the rocket stages Drift by like clouds. In your dream, the sky is still the sky. Or, it is the sea, having fallen apart to get there.
Poems by Steven Haruch.
S O G I V E M E A C H A N C E A N D I
P R O M I S E I C A N M A K E Y O U S M I L E
Try to paperclip the days together. Memory like a tv rigged with a coathanger. Listen, if you place two microphones just so, certain sounds will disappear, so to speak, from the recording. If a wave is cresting in one and falling in the other. You and me, we canceled each other out and then we’d pull out the diagrams and plan each other’s rescue. Then we’d try to sleep and try to wake up while the room was dark and the diodes were spelling out the time. Spend all day trying to stay awake.
People would say, I need validation, and they’d be talking about their cars, trying to remember if they’d parked beneath the rhino or the porpoise on the green level or the brown. Then they’d spiral down down through the garageÑthat giant screw drilled into the sidewalk. A simple machine, the screw: distance times time, work times time.
You’d have your head propped against your palm, headphones wired through your sleeve, and you’d stamp receipts all day, or sell tickets while “Caroline No” blared out of your hand in mono. Mondays and Wednesdays you would practice CPR on mannequins, the eyes of which blinked red if you failed to bring them back to life. I came with you once and tried to go unnoticed but your teacher asked me to lie down beneath an overturned conference table, which would take the place of a tractor-trailer. I was supposed to be unconscious but I heard you come rushing into the room. You knelt beside me, and with two fingers on my neck, you turned to your partner and said, He’s hurt.
I W I S H I K N E W W H A T T O T E L L Y O U
The rain broke its news to the aircraft And spent the afternoon holding to the story About to end above our row of houses, An ugliness painted into the corners. Water spilled through the window onto my shoulders, The lights dimming from the storm outside.
I saw you, or thought I did, standing outside Trembling like the wings of an aircraft With nowhere to land, your shoulders Pulled in. You shouted, “I’ve got a story To tell you soon,” your hands at the corners Of your mouth. Between the houses
Your voice kept at it, or instead, the houses Kept at your voice, though it stayed outside Long enough for you to give up, and from the corner’s Grayish angle you took off. The aircraft Carrier was in port, and you were to write the story Of how it nearly sank near one of Atlas’s shoulders,
In that other hemisphere full of dark shoulders And smallish straw-covered houses. I didn’t bother calling down from the second story Just to tell you I hadn’t been outside In twenty-seven days. The aircraft That nearly drowned you out were at the corners
Of my eyes, and the carrier, returned from the corners Of the earth, needed you. The highway shoulders Were jammed with cars, the bright aircraft Dipping their wings. All across town, the houses Prepared for their sailors, welcomes home hung outside. But they don’t remember how to live on land; the story
That would make you famous, you said, was not a story At all, but a collection: the folded corners Of a hundred sailors’ diaries, written outside The official recordÑhow each shoulders A separate desire for the sea, for the houses Of childhood, for the deck and its eager aircraft.
But you are a different story, your thin shoulders, Your glasses chipped at the corners. Now the houses Are all dark. Outside: the rain, the distant roar of aircraft.
Copyright © 2000 Deann Borshay Liem & NAATA. This content was originally created in 2000. Visit the original site.