It was almost a trend in Korea for my parents’ generation to send their kids to study in an English speaking country, and I was their guinea pig. My parents were born in the years when Korea was still very poor and girls had to give up higher education. They survived the 1997 financial crisis by donating their wedding rings and saving up through penny-pinching habits. Now that my dad had settled in his job, sending his first child to better education was a way to legitimize his good parenting and financial success. It gave him a little bit of air in his office, and it provided my mom some stories to share in her housewives’ gatherings. So during my tenth grade, I moved to a private high school that prepares students to go to universities in America.
In my old school, I didn’t have that many friends. The junior-high scene in Korea is extremely cliquey and judgmental just like anywhere else, so if you didn’t belong in a group, you basically didn’t exist. At that point, you don’t feel active hostility by your classmates, but a contagious ignorance. I had to walk the hallway to music classes alone. This made it almost impossible for me to get a boyfriend. The closest interaction I had with a boy was when I did one guy’s English homework and he put his arm around my shoulders. I had to do my homework again because the teacher was very suspicious of him copying my work, and I didn’t want him to be called in to the teacher’s office.
After I moved to my new high school where every guy was nerdy looking and was moving under his mom’s regimented schedules, I didn’t even slightly miss the tender feelings of liking a boy. That was the norm in my high school. Everyone was busy studying for SATs and APs, and students of the opposite sex were just another competition. No one really dated except for a very few, and no one really talked about sex or relationships. When we were studying English literature that was obviously about sex, the teachers divided up the classrooms between girls and boys and skipped discussions about sex scenes.
I got into UC Berkeley. I did get into a few other schools in the East Coast, but my dad insisted that Berkeley was the best choice for me, because my uncle and aunt were living in the Bay Area. I was excited for America.
Dad took the morning off from work for the first time in ten years. Both of my parents, my little brother, and even my grandmother came out to send me off on my journey to college. My mom, who never tolerates me buying coffee outside, asked if I wanted something from the airport Starbucks.
“No,” I said, “It would keep me up during the flight. I want to sleep.”
In the airport, it was very easy to spot who were the freshmen going off to college overseas. They typically had two giant suitcases and eager faces, and were flanked on each side by an anxious parent. As I checked my passport and flight ticket with the security guard, I saw my mom brush away her tears.
The topic of interest for the kids from my high school was English names. Most kids chose names that sounded similar to their Korean names — Sooyeon was Sue and Hye Yeon was Hailey. Some wanted to preserve their names and refused to adopt English names. “Sue? That sounds like an old lady! It’s their fault if they can’t pronounce my name. I’m never changing mine,” Hyunah said.
As it got close to our departure dates, I saw many name changes on Facebook. People would “announce” their new English names subtly by adding Anglo-sounding nicknames on their Facebook profiles. Those who were extra courageous would completely erase their Korean first names and replace them with English names. It was like getting a haircut and changing your profile picture with the new hair to test the waters. It was a ritual, a first step for students going abroad.
On my flight, I thought about my name. My name was easy to pronounce: Young Sun. It actually wouldn’t trouble any English-speaking tongue to pronounce my name. But I wanted a new name. I had done some painstaking research to find the right name. I perused over the list of girl baby names and their meanings for days, but I just couldn’t land on the right one. I had to finalize now. The second I cross the border, I was going to be different person.
I thought about going by one syllable of my name — Sun. A lot of Koreans did that. But it was boring. A part of me wanted a drastically different name. Something like Adelaide, something that no other Korean would think of. I quickly abandoned the idea because I couldn’t imagine my Facebook profile saying Young Sun Adelaide Lee next to my face.
Although the pain in my neck was suggesting that I had been dozing on and off for long, I still had six more hours before my flight landed in San Francisco. I took out our summer assigned readings and attempted to finish them, but I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t keep my thoughts from sidetracking. I was mainly worried about the Korean group. During the summer, the accepted Korean students formed a Facebook group and started meeting up in different places in Seoul, sometimes for dinner and sometimes for drinks. Everyone in the group was invited, but I didn’t go. I was discouraged because the active people in the group already seemed to have known each other through friends of friends. It seemed like there was no place for me to fit in. I imagined that I would make friends through classes. We would lie down in the lawn and have discussions about the readings after class.
I turned on the screen in front of the seat and flipped through TV shows and movies. I was floating above endless stream of clouds through the dark and light, and finally reached the seashore of San Francisco. Behind the waterfront, there were buildings and the iconic Golden Gate Bridge that shaped the skyline of San Francisco. The silhouette resembled a fence blocking me from crossing the border. The plane moved slowly for me to take in one building at a time.
After customs, I went to Starbucks to reward myself with an ice cold Frappuccino for enduring almost two hours of nothingness and staring at other international UC students in the border control area.
“Your name for the order?”
Damnit. I messed up already.
In the following few weeks, I experimented a little in the campus cafés. I gave out every name that was on the top of my potential name list — Sunny, Steph, Sarah, Samantha — and tried to see which one I responded to the most naturally when the barista yelled it out. I think I took too long, because by the time I landed on the name “Sunny,” I had told too many people that I met in classes that my name was Young Sun.
In the Korean community of UC Berkeley, there are two different groups. There are the Korean Americans, who would speak to each other in English and know a lot about hook-up culture. The girls would wear thick eyeliners and talk about which sororities they wanted to join. The first generations of immigrant parents would also belong in this group, but it was outnumbered by those who moved to America with their parents when they were 6–7 years old, and chose to forget everything about Korea. Although they were typically the Asians back home, here, where there are at least three hundred Korean students each year, they saw the need to distinguish themselves from the so-called fresh off the boat Koreans. I was definitely not a part of this group. I initially avoided this group, because it felt awkward to be talking in English when we both knew how to speak Korean.
Then there are the Korean Koreans. They are better illustrated as rich boarding school kids, whose dads serve as board members of very prestigious companies in Korea. They are the airport lounge users, as they have been flying ten thousand miles at least two times a year from early on, going to and from home and some boarding school in the East Coast. The flight attendants realize the importance of these frequent fliers and visit them in their seats. The guys would gather behind Doe Library and smoke Marlboros they hoarded from the duty free shops. They bring newly exchanged, crisp one hundred dollar bills every time they come back to school. My parents sent me enough money to support myself, but I certainly did not share their lifestyles.
I still tried to become friends with the Korean Koreans. I showed up to a freshmen welcome dinner that they hosted at a Korean restaurant near West Gate and went to their weekly Friday meetings and stayed until the group dinner. The upperclassmen would friend me on Facebook and like my posts, but that was the extent of our friendship. There was a higher level of friendship that I found out only through Facebook — on Saturday mornings, photos that were captioned, “Thank you, sunbaes!” would fill up my entire feed. It was the boarding school kids having exclusive gatherings at some upperclassmen’s apartment. They all had the Asian glow on their faces and were sitting cross-legged on the carpet floor, with bottles of brand-name drinks displayed in front.
One evening after our Korean Students meeting, the freshmen girls were gathered in the hallway to walk to the dining hall. One of the upperclassmen approached Sua and whispered to her ears, avoiding eye contact with the rest of us mediocre looking girls. Sua was pretty, well dressed, and came from a rich family. She went to a boarding school in New Jersey, so she even mastered the connections. Sua would later become the President of Korean Students Association, and no one was surprised.
“Look at them giving their address to the secret drinking shit.” Lynn said.
“Yeah, I’m not even jealous. Their things are awkward and boring.”
Lynn was with me. Lynn Choi was an LA native with a cool personality. She would visit Korea during summer breaks and have crazy nights in Gangnam clubs, but she would never stay in Korea for more than a couple of months. She had a lot of American friends and was really out there. She rarely showed up to the Korean Students’ meetings. On the few days she did show up, she placed herself right next to the food table and nibbled on snacks, and did not care for the meeting agenda.
Lynn and I didn’t hit it off instantly because I heard her speaking in English to one of the guys in the group, and I thought she was too American for me. But more and more, I saw myself in her, and I was getting comfortable to the taste of English in my tongue. So we talked for a few times at the meeting.
“Let’s just walk out.” I said to her.
“I feel like we’re doing them a favor by not confronting them. But okay, whatever. Why do you even show up to these meetings?”
“I don’t know, friends?”
“Are you making friends?”
“Not really. What do you come here for?”
“Honestly, for food. But since they started giving out some stale pizza from La Val’s, I don’t think I’m showing up anymore.” Lynn looked seriously pissed.
“I can make you Korean food. I have some stuff I brought from home.”
“Dude, are you serious?”
“Yeah. Do you like ttukbokki? I have a packaged ttukbokki I brought from home.”
“Of course! When is this happening?”
We ditched the group dinner and ate ttukbokki in my dorm room. I took out all the packaged side dishes that my mom squeezed in my suitcase. The more Lynn complimented on the variety of the selection, the more I wanted to amuse her.
Soon, we found a new pattern. On the following Fridays, we left the meeting early to cook Korean food in my dormitory kitchen. Lynn loved my collection of canned kimchi and packaged soups. Our Friday dinners spilled over to other days, and I ran out of my stock soon.
“I heard that there is a Korean market in Oakland. Koreana Plaza, I think. We should go this Saturday.” Lynn said.
Koreana Plaza looked like the building was designed in the 1980s, at best. The dark lighting accentuated the shabby interior. I was hesitant to step in at first. But as soon as I spotted familiar snack names, I let all my guards down and started piling up our cart.
“Slow down! We’re not buying all of this!” Lynn was screaming.
“Oh come on! Why not?”
The marinated clams in the fridge took me way beyond my expectations.
“Oh my god! I never thought I would get to eat these before I go home in the winter,” I said.
The marinated clams had to sit on the stove overnight for the full soy sauce flavor to soak through. It takes a lot of effort to prepare this dish, so it was a way for my mom to communicate with the family. It appeared on the dinner table the night I came home from my high school entrance exam, and the night my dad returned home from his weeklong business trip. There was someone on the other side, probably another mom, who patiently cooked and packed these side dishes.
“Lynn, I miss home so bad now.”
“You should come visit LA! The restaurants have this.”
Lynn always invited me to places, including parties that she was invited to.
“Are you sure I can go too?”
“Of course you can! It’s this guy, Nick. His house. You’ll like him too.”
“Oh cool. How do you know him?”
“My CS class.”
“Oh, okay. So you can actually become friends with people you meet in classes? I’m never successful at doing that. All the people I talk to after class look like they are annoyed.”
“Well, he’s actually a TA for that class. I sat in his office hours a lot.”
“And you guys became close friends?”
“Not exactly close friends, but yeah.”
“Nice. I want to see him! I’ll just tell my parents that I can’t Skype with them tonight.”
I threw on my T-shirt and slacks and Birkenstocks. Black slacks and Birkenstocks were a thing in Korea that summer, so I thought I looked pretty hip.
“Oh boy, you are going to regret wearing that.”
“What do you mean?”
She came out of the bathroom with her outfit. She was artfully showing her skin in between her tank top and her high-waisted mini skirt.
“You are going to freeze yourself! It’s not LA.”
“Booze blanket, girl! Trust me.”
Walking with Lynn to the party was reassuring, and I felt confident just by being next to her. She had long and skinny legs that she flaunted with her strides, and guys that we passed by would turn around and stare at her. I wished that I would bump into the boarding school kids, so if they ask us where we were going, I could say, “We’re going to a party!”
“Lynn, should we bring something, like chips or lemonade?” I asked when we were passing the CVS. She laughed it off. I had never been to a party outside the context of Korean Students Association, not to mention that I had been to a very few of those as well. The Korean students’ gatherings were more intimate, but in a completely different sense. Everyone gathered around and played drinking games until we gradually broke into small groups and talked about which neighborhood in Seoul we were from and which professors gave the best grades.
“It’s so different,” I said inside.
“Yeah. You don’t have to sit in a circle and introduce names here.”
“What? I can’t hear you!”
Lynn was fighting through the crowd to make way. It seemed like the house was entirely filled, but people still came in and out of the way and squeezed through. Lynn grabbed my wrist, and we fought the congestion into the kitchen. On the kitchen table, there were colorful bottles of vodka, juices, and stacks of red plastic cups. The table was sticky and had traces of spilled liquid. Lynn flapped her arms in the air and snatched one of the vodka bottles.
“Wait, wait. Who pours the drinks for you?” I asked.
“Myself,” Lynn said.
I stopped her and held on to her cup.
“Jesus Christ! You are not going to be forever alone even if you pour drinks by yourself. That rule doesn’t exist in America! It’s ridiculous by the way,” Lynn said.
No one was encouraging nor discouraging us to finish our drinks. There were people coming and going out of the kitchen, but they didn’t care about what we were doing. “I don’t get it. Who keeps track of these things, and what are they doing these for?”
After three rounds of Lynn’s mixed drinks, I said, “I could play along with this.”
“You’re hilarious. Let’s go out and dance,” she said.
We walked out of the kitchen to the living room. It was like karaoke, but a bigger version of it. Everyone was dancing intimately and singing, whereas I just stood in the corner, watching and guessing what would follow for the couple locked together on the couch. Lynn grabbed my wrist and introduced me to her friend, Nick.
“This is the guy that I talked about!”
“Welcome, ladies,” Nick said, “I’m going to grab something better for you guys to drink.”
Lynn blew a kiss to him.
As soon as she turned around, I said to her, “He’s really cute!”
“I know, right?”
I smiled. I knew she wanted me to reassure her. I had to approve her choice of Nick, by agreeing that he is cute. I opened my eyes extra wide to imply that I’m surprised by how good-looking he was. In fact, he was, and I thought only Lynn could attract guys like that.
We danced to a catchy song that I had never heard of. Lynn was singing along, jumping up and down, inviting me to dance. I liked the songs, so I wanted to tell Lynn that we should listen to these when we cook next time.
When I looked up, Lynn was making out with Nick.
They were kissing so passionately that I wondered if they were making up after a big fight. Then I felt a hand around my lower waist inside my shirt. The cold touch was immediately met by a burst in my body temperature.
Lynn was screaming “Ramen!” the second she woke up from my bed.
I pulled out two packages of ramen noodles that we got from Koreana Plaza and dumped them in the boiling water. We cooked in my dormitory kitchen all the time. It was spacious and the windows were big, so it was good for chatting and doing homework, too.
“I thought that Americans like to eat hamburgers the morning after they drink.”
“Dude, my stomach would blow up if I ate greasy food right now. Nothing beats a spicy ramen when you’re hung-over,” Lynn said. We laughed and chugged down our ramen.
“Well, so, the guy.”
I knew this was coming.
“Did you give him your number?” she asked.
“No, he didn’t ask.”
“What? Wasn’t he like all over you last night?”
“I don’t know. We didn’t really talk. You know, it was really loud inside. He just asked for my name and that was it.”
“He was kind of cute. Do you want me to ask Nick about him?”
“No, that’s okay. What about you and Nick? How’s that going?”
“We’re just friends with benefits.”
I couldn’t admit to Lynn how I felt that night. It was the first time that a guy showed any kind of interest towards me among other girls. At the same time I was incredibly embarrassed of myself for taking pride in it.
The following weekend, I shopped for short and revealing clothes. I thought that would get more boys to talk to me at parties Lynn would take me to. I tried on a white sleeveless blouse with a really low cut back.
“I like it. It really brings out your shoulders.”
“You think? Is it too much?”
“No, I’ve seen much worse. This is nothing.”
“My mom would kill me if she saw me in this.”
“How did she even send you to school here? She should have killed you earlier when you became friends with me,” Lynn said. She was slouched on the stool of the fitting room.
“Okay then. I’m gonna buy this.”
I was spending thirty, forty bucks for tops made with not much fabric. I had to buy new ones every weekend because I didn’t want to wear the same thing over and over. I spent hours checking myself out in the mirror, trying on different outfits. Before, I thought tops that showed your belly were only for singers going on stage. Now, I was wearing them and justifying it saying, “I can wear whatever I want.” Lynn encouraged me, telling me that I looked cute. I was thankful for San Francisco weather, because it let us scurry down the streets in our crop tops and jean shorts even in November.
Lynn and I eventually stopped going to the Korean students’ meetings. When we encountered the Korean group smoking outside the Main Stacks, we exchanged a curt greeting and walked away fast. I pushed my weekly Friday night Skype calls with my mom and dad to Sunday mornings, because I wanted to go out with Lynn.