One story that my mom tells about my first years in Korea is the one where I meet my father for the first time when he returns to us at the end of his Army deployment in the U.S. As we three sat in the back of the taxicab, I snuck suspicious, sideways glances at my father before I leaned in to my mom and whispered (as well as any 2 year old can whisper) my official decision: I gave it some thought but I have decided that — no, thank you –I do NOT want the black man to be my daddy. Driver, kindly pull over and let his black ass out here, please.
(On a side note, if anyone doubts the power of children having images of themselves that they can relate to, please let this story be a lesson. Having lived the first few years of my life with no positive images of black people to relate to, not only did I not know I was black…but apparently, I didn’t want anything dark around me but a belt.)
So there I was surrounded by a sea of Koreans — mouth full of moxie, diaper full of shit, all topped off with a big kinky afro talking ‘bout “I don’t want no black daddy…” when it was clearly too late. You can imagine my shock when I learned that I, myself, am black as well. (Actually, you’re gonna have to imagine it cuz we don’t really remember how all that went down.) But daddies are daddies and we were besties in no time.
Cut to today and it is not without some anxiety that I prepare to head back to Korea for the first time in 35 years.
I’m not sure how I will be received when I return to that sea of endless Koreans. Will I be accepted by these people, my people, in all my curious half blackness, or will I have to jump into that sea and push a few racist Koreans down? (Y’all know I can’t fight!) All of my anxiety has been boiled down to one question — should I straighten my hair before I go or should I continue wearing it in the big frightening shock of runaway curls and coiled shenanigans that I’ve resorted to in my forties? I’m already going to be a full two feet taller than everyone in the country, do I really need to top it off with hair that resembles fireworks?
I mean, really, how far have race relations truly come in such a monolithic country as Korea in the last 35 years?
So, I asked that question of an old ajumma at Han-A-Rheum Market, a local Korean grocery and with a straight face this is what she said in her heavily accented English:
“You no worry black. You worry too old to get marry.”
Just like that. On her mind and out her mouth. I waited for this little pint-sized heffa to crack a smile or something. But nope, she was dead serious. Direct eye contact and all…
The Korean ajumma. Many cultures have ‘em…pushy older broads who place no appreciable value on personal boundaries or socially acceptable things to say. We all understand the concept….our aunties, by blood or by love. But the Korean ajumma is special. You may have seen one and if you’ve seen one then you’ve seen them all. They have curly perms, called pammas, and appear to have purchased all of their clothing moments after suffering a series of mini-strokes. Usually, they are not more than 3 apples tall but they ain’t scared of shit. They have lived their lives and have, in their minds, earned the right to apply their wisdom and experience to yours with or without your consent. And there is not one aspect of your life, my life and life in general that they don’t have an opinion about. There’s nothing that they won’t do for their families about whom they will complain endlessly to anyone who will listen. They have many gifts and talents but if volume modulation is one of ‘em, there is no known evidence of it. They are an entire well-respected subculture in and of themselves.
And in Korean culture, they are feared. You do nothing to incite the wrath of your ajummas cuz you’ll mess around and get your ass cussed out and maybe hit with a spoon. So, I smiled and bowed my goodbyes to the mouthy little broad while cussing her out under my breath and rolled out.
Some time later, I was at family function with some younger Korean cousins. One of the kids was talking to me about school when his mama called him into the other room to bring me some tea. The tea was hot so he walked slowly across the room. By the time he got to me, I was engrossed in somebody else’s conversation about to get all in their business. I could hear him saying something in the background but it didn’t immediately sound relevant. Then, it hit me…(and I shoulda hit him.)
“Here’s your tea, ajumma.”
Apparently, I worried for nothing. I’ll fit right in Korea…curly pamma and all.