Dear Hong Soon-Ho, the girl with the perfect forehead
The thing I remember most about you is your perfect forehead. I used to be so envious of the smooth rounded curve, the radiant yellow-pink skin, and the vast expanse between the hairline and the eyebrows that captured the sun and made your face glow. My tiny forehead failed to meet the golden ratio. At one point, I even tried plucking some hairs (like weeds) to increase the vertical landscape, but I always knew in my heart that my forehead was fake fake fake — painstakingly manufactured with a pair of tweezers — unlike the natural wholesome goodness of yours. My mom used to remark that a fly would slide down your forehead due to its perfectly smooth arc (which is a completely normal compliment in Korean), and I so very much wanted a fly to slide down my forehead too.
It was 1986, we were in second grade, and we were the best of friends in South Korea. We had a shared burden of carrying masculine names for our unmasculine bodies. I’m proud of my name now, but when you’re a little girl in second grade, the deep philosophical meaning of Jung (justice) Dae (big) — “Big Justice” — is just a tad difficult to appreciate. Yours always sounded so much more beautiful than mine, with its rhythmically repeating “Hong” and “Ho.” But regardless of whose name was more ladylike (it definitely was yours), we commiserated because we were both blessed/cursed with progressive parents who thought girls could be as good as boys in our patriarchal society and gave us powerful names. Do you know, I let my parents name my daughter, and guess what they chose? Sae (world) Kyung (govern) — ”Governor of the world.” And we thought our names were hard to bear!
We were the coolest and most popular kids in school. In Korea, that meant we were the nerdiest, most studious kids in our class, always competing with each other for first place on our exams, and all the other kids wanted to be near us to bask in the glory of our academic excellence, hoping some of it would rub off.
I remember when our whole class got in trouble one day, and our teacher, Miss Kim, made us all stand in line so one-by-one she could slap our palms with her ruler. I was terrified. I had always been a good girl, and never in my life had I gotten into trouble. You kept your cool and calmly whispered in my ear, “Rub your hands together. If they’re warm, they won’t hurt when she slaps them.” I took your advice to heart and frantically rubbed my grubby second grader hands. When my turn came around, I closed my eyes, presented my palms, and was greeted with a muffled laugh from Miss Kim. I peeked and saw that my palms were covered with little black pilings of grimy skin cells that had accumulated due to my ultra vigorous rubbing. I got a half-hearted smack on my palms, and it didn’t hurt a bit, all thanks to you.
Two years later, I moved to Europe. These were the days before emails and Facebook, and international phone calls were ridiculously expensive. So, before we left Korea, I bought a beautiful stationary set with purple flowers all along the borders, and I started penning my first letter on the long flight across the ocean. I had romantic visions that we’d become life-long pen pals, sharing our lives with words through the years. But I made new friends, had new adventures, and the pen just got harder and harder to pick up.
I have a confession to make. Years later, when I went back to Korea to visit my grandma, I saw you across the street, but I turned the other way and pretended not to see you.
I felt guilty at not having persevered with letter writing. My Korean language skills had been stunted at the fourth grade level, permanently stuck at being unfailingly polite and respectful to my elders with no vocabulary for rebellion. Korean men may not have been lining up to date me, but their mothers — oh how their mothers longed to see me join their family. I was embarrassed that I wouldn’t be able to converse with you as an equal, that you’d use your fancy hip young people words, and I’d be lost.
Well, Hong Soon-ho of the perfect forehead, this Christmas, I break my silence.
To hell with language deficiencies and guilt. If my three year old daughter can say, “Let’s go everyguys,” and have herself be understood, then what in the world am I afraid of. I offer you a perfectly executed ninety degree angle bow, with both hands folded neatly over my belly button.
Merry Christmas. 즐거운 성탄이 되시기를 바랍니다!