Home was this northeastern knot of Queens, in the town (if you could call it a town) of Flushing. Northern Boulevard was our main commercial thoroughfare, and two-family attached houses crowded its side streets. They say the neighborhood once contained a hearty swath of the American population, but when I landed here as an infant, Flushing was starting to give way to the Koreans. By the time I graduated from college in 2000, Northern looked like this: Daedong River Fish Market, named after the East River of Pyongyang. Chosun Dynasty Auto Body, run by the father of a girl from my BC calc class. Kumgang Mountain Dry Cleaning, owned by my uncle's accountant's cousin on his mother's side. This was my America: all Korean, all the time.
Flushing. The irony was that none of its residents could pronounce the name of their adopted hometown; the Korean language lacked certain English consonants and clusters. The letter F was assimilated to an H or a P. The adults at church would goHoo before they could form the word, as if cooling it off their tongue. My uncle and aunt's rendition: Poo-Rushing. It could've been poetry.
Home was 718 Gates Street, Unit 1. It was my Uncle Sang's house, and I lived there with his family: his wife, Hannah, and my younger cousins Mary and George. A few blocks away was his store. It was a modest-size grocery carrying a mix of American and Korean products, along with the usual emergency supplies—flashlights and batteries, candles and condoms. From Northern you could spot our green awning, bearing four white letters in all caps: F-O-O-D. Below it were large wooden tables stacked with pyramids of fruit.
One day in late summer, I was crouched in one of the aisles, turning cans of beans face out and flush with the lip of the shelf. I heard someone say, in Korean, "Jane-ah. I heard about Lowood. What a shame."
It was Mrs. Bae, the wife of the pastor of our church. I stood and ducked my head into a bow. At five foot seven, I towered over most of the women of Flushing. Her words were like salt sprinkled on the sting of being the only one in my graduating class still bagging groceries and restocking merchandise. The economy—with the exception of the tech industry—was, for the most part, still booming. I'd had a job with Lowood Capital Partners lined up since my senior year last fall, never anticipating that in the months that followed, here's what would happen: The company would be heavily leveraged in dot-com investments, the CEO would resign after accusations of insider trading, and the interim CEO would issue a hiring freeze. My job offer had been rescinded.
Mrs. Bae went on. About how her daughter Jessica worked such long hours at Bear Stearns yet still she would wash the rice and do the laundry and help her little sister with her homework after she got home. How Mrs. Bae felt undeserving of such a devoted daughter. What Mrs. Bae didn't know was that "Jessica the PK" (Pastor's Kid) had cut class every Thursday our senior year of high school to shoot pool at Amsterdam Billiards in the city.
"I'll tell our Jessica to help you," Mrs. Bae said, staring back with the usual curious expression she seemed to reserve for me. You'd think that after all these years I would've gotten used to it. I didn't. I averted my eyes, focusing on the hairline cracks running through the floor tiles.
"No, no, that's too much trouble for you." That was Sang, approaching us.
They had the usual exchange—"No, no trouble at all, you and Mary's mother must be so worried." "Eh, what can you do?"—before my uncle turned his head sharply, shooting me a look. I thanked Mrs. Bae. He shot me another look—that was my cue to go get her some fruit, on the house. And none of the cheap stuff.
That was the power of nunchi. There's no word for it in English; perhaps its closest literal translation is "eye sense." My friend Eunice Oh sometimes likenednunchi to the Eye of Sauron: an all-knowing stink eye that monitored your every social misstep. Other times she said it was like the Force, a way of bending the world to your will. But Eunice had an annoying tendency of bringing everything back toStar Wars or Star Trek, Tolkien or Philip K. Dick. For me nunchi was less about some sci-fi power and more about common sense. It was the ability to read a situation and anticipate how you were expected to behave. It was filling your elder's water glass first, before reaching for your own. The adults at church always said that goodnunchi was the result of a good "family education."
On my way to the fruit stalls, I was intercepted by Mrs. O'Gall, a petite Irish granny who frequented Food every day. Cradling a head of iceberg lettuce, she demanded help with the Hellman's mayonnaise: "It's too damn high."
The jars on the shelf were at hip level—I handed one to her. Mrs. O'Gall shook her head. "No, gimme the smaller one." When I told her that eight-ounce jars were the smallest we carried, she said, "Unbelievable. You people." She told me to put in a special order from our distributor.
"Yes, Mrs. O'Gall. I'm sorry, Mrs. O'Gall."
She walked away with her iceberg and mayo, leaving a trail of her particular scent in her wake. Mrs. O'Gall had that unwashed smell the elderly sometimes had, one that made you think of brown paper bags left out in the rain and chin whiskers and absentee adult children. It was the smell of abandonment.
I returned to Mrs. Bae with the fruit, but she was gone. I was making my way back to the shelf of beans when another customer stopped me. Then I rushed to man the second cash register—a line of new customers had formed. The delivery guy from the beverage distributor cut to the front, waving a pink invoice at me. "Who checked your cases?" I demanded. "The little stocky guy," he said. I knew he was referring to our stockboy, Hwan. I jerked my head, motioning him to the back of the line—we werehis customers, so he could very well wait—and when I reached him, I paid him with the dirty twenties we kept at the bottom of the cash drawer, the crisper bills reserved for the shoppers.
I was just about to leave the register when Mrs. O'Gall returned; I processed her mayonnaise refund, even though she'd opened the jar and removed one teaspoon. Then it was over to the wooden stalls, to pick out the bruised and dented fruits from their unblemished counterparts.
I was just making my way back to the bean cans again when I saw Sang. His was a harried gait, and it always struck me as less a rush to his destination than a hasty departurefrom—like he couldn't get out of a place fast enough.
He frowned when he arrived at where I stood. "You do this?" he said, waving a pink invoice—the soda delivery I'd just signed off on. My uncle usually spoke to me in English, even though it was his weaker language.
I could hardly expect him to clarify. Sang had a very specific organizational system for running Food; he knew that store and its many intricacies like the back of his chapped hands. The problem was, that knowledge was all in his head and none of us had access to it. And he expected you to read his mind.
Sang had other rules, too, that I'd had to learn over the years:
No chew gum.
No back-talk to customer.
No act like you so special.
No ask stupid question.
"Go to office get last week invoice," he ordered. I rushed past the aisles of produce and dairy cases to the back corner of the store. This was our "office"—cardboard boxes flattened into walls and duct-taped to leftover PVC pipes. The desk was a slab of scrap wood suspended by L-brackets drilled into the concrete wall. The chair was an upended milk crate. As I rummaged through the banana box on the floor—our version of an accounts-payable/accounts-receivable department—I thought of my interview at Lowood on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center. My cubicle would have had walls of sleek frosted glass, overlooking an office that overlooked the river.
I found the soda invoice. In my haste to get back to Sang, I tripped on the cinder block propped against the door of the walk-in refrigerator box. I would have pitched forward if Hwan, our stock boy, hadn't dropped his hand truck and rushed to break my fall.
"You okay, Miss Jane?" he said, steadying me to my feet.
"That stupid door," was all I managed, my cheeks flushed with embarrassment. The problem with the walk-in was that unless you knew how to jiggle the handle a certain way, the door failed to latch. The refrigerator kept things cold as it was, but if it was sealed properly, its contents would stay preserved for up to three days, even if the power blew out. The door, as it stood, was a liability. But whenever I brought the subject up to Sang, he'd wave my words away.If not broke, why you gotta fix? For Sang the inverse was also true: Everything broken could be jerry-rigged to working order. It was his own special form of madness—he never stopped trying to salvage the unsalvageable.
"Why you take so long?" Sang said when I returned with the invoice. He jabbed a finger at the offending signature.My signature. Apparently we were supposed to receive credit for two more soda cases, but the new invoice didn't reflect that credit. I realized, with sinking stupidity, that I should have called for my uncle on the spot, instead of taking the deliveryman's word as a given. Things like this happened every now and again—the delivery guys would do a bait and switch, "pocketing" the extra pallet or two—but the store had been busy. I knew what Sang would have said if I'd paged him over the loudspeaker—Why you ask stupid question? Where your nunchi?—as though it were something I'd carelessly misplaced somewhere, like a set of keys or a receipt.
"Why didn't you just tell me about the credit?" I asked. "Then I would've known—"
"Don't talk back to your uncle," my Aunt Hannah interrupted, walking toward us. Then, to her husband, "It's Mr. Hwang, from Daedong Fish."
Sang rushed away, and it was just Hannah and me. Her eyes studied mine. "Are you trying to make his high blood pressure go up?" she continued in Korean.
I toed a loose floor tile. Yet one more thing that needed to be fixed. I made a note to grab the putty knife and adhesive from the toolbox in the office.
"Don't you know how lucky you are?" she said. "You should be grateful."
Hannah was echoing what everyone in this tangle of Queens thought about my situation. They knew all about my dead mother—I could see it in the way their eyes have fixed on me these past twenty years. Just as I knew who borrowed money from whom to start a business and which of those businesses were flourishing and floundering. I knew their children's SAT scores, their college acceptances and subsequent job offers, but I also knew who was dating whom, who was cheating on whom, where they went to get drunk or high.
In Flushing your personal business was communal property. Such intimate knowledge was stifling. I tapped a hand to my chest, seeking relief. I felttap-tap-hae—an overwhelming discomfort pressing down on you physically, psychologically. When the walls felt as if they were closing in around you, that wastap-tap-hae. When the strap of your bra was fastened too tightly across your chest, that wastap-tap-hae. When you were trying to explain to the likes of Hannah how to turn on the computer, let alone how to operate the mouse, that was unbearebly, exasperatingly,tap-tap-hae.
I must have been frowning because suddenly I felt a harsh rap on my forehead: my aunt had flicked a finger at me. "Stop that," she snapped. Hannah had a theory that scrunching your face led to early aging. "You of all people need to worry about wrinkles."
Then don't touch me, I thought, but if I spoke the words aloud, I'd only set off the cycle anew.Don't talk back. You should be grateful. It was easier to comply silently. So one by one I loosened the features of my face. I became expressionless, unreadable.
Then Hannah pointed down the aisle to the shelves of beans. "Why'd you make such a big mess over there? Go finish."
As I reshelved the beans, I thought once more about that job at Lowood. Flushing and Food would have been an indistinguishable speck from the office windows. I'd have had the chance to see how a real business was run. Not Sang and Hannah's mom-and-pop operation: decidedly rustic, with none of the homespun charm.
I tapped my hand once more to my chest. Tap-tap-hae. All I wished was for this feeling to go away.
Every Sunday we went to church. On the way you passed the American Roman Catholic church, the Korean Roman Catholic church, the Chinese Buddhist temple, the Pakistani mosque, and an ever-expanding assortment of Korean Presbyterian and Methodist churches. (The Korean Protestants, unlike their Catholic counterparts, seemed to multiply like Jesus's five loaves and two fishes.) Service was held in one half of a two-family house. After Pastor Bae gave the sermon, the mothers preparedbibimbap in the kitchen for the entire congregation.
Every Sunday, for as long as I can remember, Eunice Oh and I would find each other after the service. She'd always been the same Coke-bottle-glassed girl since childhood. In truth she and I were bound together less by common interests than by our differences from them, the more popular kids in our year: Jessica Bae—Pastor Bae's daughter, who just graduated from Columbia. James Kim, who went to Wharton and was about to start at Lehman—his parents owned a deli downtown. John Hong, who was at Sophie Davis—his father's herbal-medicine practice was down the block from Food. Jenny Lee, who went to Parsons and now did graphic design forCosmoGirl! magazine—her mother owned a nail salon on the Upper East Side, and her father, according to my Aunt Hannah, graduated from Seoul National but "was too proud to get a menial job."
But this was our last Sunday together. Eunice was leaving again, this time for good. First it had been for MIT, where she'd majored in something called "Course VI." Now for San Francisco, where she'd gotten an offer from Google. Eunice had had her pick of offers— including one from Yahoo!—but she went with Google. Why she would take a job with a dot-com immediately after the dot-com crash, no one could understand, but I suspected it had to do with her American boyfriend, a guy called Threepio. He'd also accepted a job in Silicon Valley. They were heading out the next day.
"The job search, how goest?" Eunice asked, pushing up the nose of her thick glasses with a chubby finger.
"It goest—" I started, then stopped. You never knew what you were going to get with Eunice. One day she spoke like an Orc, the next like Shakespeare. Sometimes I found myself imitating her without even realizing I was. "It's going. Actually, it's not. There's nothing on the market."
She waved one hand in the air and rummaged through her bag with the other. The other girls from church carried purses, but Eunice had had the same Manhattan Portage messenger bag since the seventh grade, which I knew was filled with its usual jumble of stubby mass-market paperbacks, a well-thumbed C++ pocket guide with some chipmunk drawing on the cover, magazines ranging fromScientific American to the 501st Daily, assorted highlighters, and German mechanical pencils (.5-mm thickness) and their lead refills. Eunice Oh could not wait for the day when paper went digital.
She pulled out a copy of the Village Voice; its circulation in our part of Queens was nonexistent. The page was opened to the classifieds, her finger pointing to one of the listings.
I peered down. An ad for a fertility clinic. "You want me to sell my eggs?"
"No. This one." She jabbed again. And there, wedged between the clinic's posting and one from an escort service offering "discreet and seXXXy services" was the following:
BROOKLYN FAMILY DESIRING AU PAIR
We wish to invite into our family an au pair (i.e., a live-in "babysitter," although n.b., we take issue with such infantilizing labels; seeing as the term has yet to be eradicated from the vernacular, we have opted—albeit reluctantly—to use it in this text for the sole purpose of engaging in the lingua franca) who will foster a nurturing, intellectually stimulating, culturally sensitive, and ultimately "loving" (we will indulge the most essentialist, platonic construct of the term) environment for our bright (one might even say precocious) nine-year-old daughter, adopted from the Liaoning province of China. In these postmodern, postracial times, we desire said au pair to challenge the existing hegemonic . . .
The ad cut out, exceeding its allotted space.
Eunice knew I was supposed to be looking for a finance job, not a nanny gig. It was insulting that she thought so little of me. I might not have gone to a name-brand college like MIT or Columbia (even though everyone at church thought that Columbia was one of the easiest Ivies to get into), but I'd still gotten an offer from Lowood. I wanted out of Flushing, but not so badly that I'd be willing to change diapers or the equivalent in order to do it. I had spent enough of my lifetime watching my cousins Mary and George walk all over me because they knew I had absolutely no power over them. I had a plan. Baby-sitting was not part of that plan.
"Don't you want to get out?" Eunice asked, looking at me. "A very sheltered existence you lead."
She was one to talk. "So you're telling me to go live with a bunch of total strangers. Who can't even write normal English."
"What do you expect? They're probably academics."
"They live in Brooklyn." We had spent countless rides on the 7 train, watching as the city skyline bloomed into view. As kids we used to imagine living in deluxe condos that overlooked Central Park. Swapping Queens for Brooklyn? You would be no better off than where you started.
I sighed. "A bunch of places have my résumé on file. If something comes up in the next year—"
"Much can happen in a year," she interrupted. "Just apply. Worst-case scenario, you hate them, they hate you, you part ways. But I have a good feeling about this. Their daughter's Asian, you're also Asian"— she glanced up at my face, revised—"ish. And you can play up your whole epic sob story: uncle, grocery store, orphan. Everyone loves a good orphan story." (Reader, technically I was only half an orphan.) "Jane. Your ticket out, this could be."
Eunice extended the paper anew. Reluctantly I took it from her.
We made our way to the line for food. Eunice's father was standing in front of us. I bowed; Dr. Oh and I were nearly the same height. "Eunice-ah," he said, after I greeted him. "Make sure you mail letter to Jane after you leave home." Dr. Oh spoke a fluid, gentle English, a far cry from the choppy waters of Sang's speech.
"Abba: letter writing is obsolete."
"Yes, well . . ." He fumbled for words; finding none, he patted a warm hand on his daughter's back. But instead of leaning into her father's embrace, she pointed ahead. "Abba, the line. It's moving." Eunice Oh had nonunchi whatsoever.
The mothers heaped rice onto our Styrofoam plates, and we loaded up on bean sprouts with red-pepper flakes, spinach and carrots drizzled in sesame-seed oil, ground beef marinated in a sweet soy sauce, brown squiggles of somenamul root whose name I didn't know in English, fried eggs with still-runny yolks, shredded red-leaf lettuce, a spoonful of red-pepper paste, and of course squares of cabbage kimchi.
We headed to the kids' table. Jessica Bae dabbed at her mouth with a napkin and said, "So, Eunice, you're, like, leaving us. That's so sad!"
"Yo, Eunice, isn't that, like, mad stupid? Working for a dot-com right now?" John Hong said.
"A good company it is. A greater company it will be." When she spoke, she looked at no one in particular, which gave the impression that she was talking to herself. Sometimes I wondered how Eunice Oh had ever managed to get a boyfriend.
Jenny Lee tittered into her napkin. Jessica Bae turned to me. "So . . . Jane!" she said brightly. "That like, totally sucks about Lowood. How's the job hunt going?"
". . ." I hated when it was my turn.
"My mom said she saw you at your uncle's store yesterday." Jessica paused. "It must be really tough to get a job when, like, you know . . ."
"You know" meant "You only graduated from CUNY Baruch."
I could feel Eunice studying my face. "Jane has a job she's considering. An au pair job."
I shot her a look of nunchi, but Eunice pretended not to see me.
"A what pair?" said James Kim.
"Isn't that, like, a housemaid?" said Jenny Lee.
"That doesn't look good at all," Jessica Bae continued. "Do you know about our rotational internship? At Bear Stearns?" She repeated the name of her firm, as if I could forget. "You should apply? It's, like, for college seniors, but I cantotally put in a good word for you?"
Did I mention Jessica Bae only got into Columbia off the wait list?
Then my cousin Mary came to our table with a plate full of just vegetables (in public she was perpetually on a diet) and took the seat next to John Hong. She smiled brightly at him. She smiled brightly at everyone, except Eunice, at whom she curled her lip and said, "Eu-nice." When her eyes fell on me, they grew round. "Omigod, Jane," she said, pointing at my face.
Everyone's eyes followed the direction of her pointing.
"You've got . . . on your forehead . . ."
I swiped at my face, thinking red-pepper paste had splashed me. My fingers fell on a tiny bump. I saw James Kim feeling his own face for pimples. He'd had horrible acne since the eighth grade. When I looked at Eunice for confirmation, she just shrugged. "Darker matters have come to pass," she said.
Jessica Bae began rooting through her tiny purse. She pushed a travel-size bottle of astringent and a Baggie of cotton pads into my hand. "Here. Go to the bathroom."
Since everyone expected me to drown my pimple in purple-tinted ethyl alcohol, I got up, dreading how their eyes would once again latch onto my face when I returned. On the short walk to the bathroom, I ran into Pastor Bae and his wife, Jenny Lee's parents, James Kim's, John Hong's, Eunice's, and of course Sang and Hannah. I forced myself to go bow, bow, bow to each and every adult I met.
I finally reached the bathroom, and leaned all my weight against the locked door. My neck was sore from the rapid succession of bowing. My cheeks hurt from all the strained smiling. I lifted my eyes to the mirror. What I saw was limp black hair. Baggy brown eyes. Sharp and angry cheekbones, pasty skin, pointy chin, and—like a maraschino cherry on top of the whole mess—a furious red pimple smack- dab at the center of my forehead, the same spot where Hannah's finger had jabbed me the day before. At first glance I looked Korean enough, but after a more probing exploration across my facial terrain, a dip down into the craters under my eyebrows, or up and over the hint of my nose bridge, you sensed that something was a little off. You realized that the face you were staring into was not Korean at all but Koreanish. A face different from every single other face in that church basement.
After lunch Eunice offered to give me a ride home. Staring down the expanse of Northern Boulevard through the windshield, she let out a long, low sigh. But soon she would leave Flushing and slip back into her world, the one where eachping she volleyed forth would be met with its appropriate pong. I was glad for her. Sad for me, but glad for her.
She gripped the steering wheel and drove off.
When we pulled up to 718 Gates, I said, "I guess this is it."
Eunice's eyes were still fixed on the road ahead. "That's right."
I reached for the door handle, paused, and blurted, "I'll miss you."
"I know." Her words sounded canned.
I jerked open the handle. "Well, don't get all mushy on me." One foot was already out the door. "See you, Eunice."
"It's 'So long, Princess . . .' " Eunice's tone changed to the one she used when enlightening the unenlightened, but there was a hitch in her throat. She stopped, started again. "Good-bye, Jane Re. I wish you well. May the Force be with you."
"And also with you" I found myself saying."
We shook hands.
"Lose the nunchi, Jane," Eunice said. With these words she drove off and we each went our separate way.