By Alex Laughlin
On a July evening in 2010, I found myself sitting on the Ke’iki beach on the north shore of O’ahu. I had lived in Hawaii for five years in elementary school, and the army had sent my family back to the island the day after my high school graduation.
I had tagged along with my childhood best friend, Nara, to this beach party with dark, attractive people I didn’t know. With my toes buried in the sand, I let my eyes glaze over from the campfire’s heat and smoke. The group’s chatter because a thoughtless drone in the back of my mind, each person’s word blending into the others’, and I retreated into my thoughts.
A boy across the fire caught my eye. I remember he had been looking at me all night.
“What’s your name?” he asked me.
And then he asked if I had lived in Hawaii before.
“I think I was your neighbor, on Schofield Barracks.”
Then it came back. His name was Josh, and I had simultaneously been in love with him and hated him when I was in second and third grade. His distinctive red hair and pale light skin with freckles had been such a novelty to me back then. My hair was dark and my eyes were slanted from my mother who had come from South Korea when she met my dad, and my skin was tanned browner than I was born to be. I was the darkest kid in my neighborhood, which was filled mostly with little white children from white military families.
I had gone to school off post at St. Michael’s, a private Catholic school. The fourteen other students in my class all had very dark skin since they were often mixes of native Hawaiian, Japanese, Fillipino, Korean, and Chinese. And, well, anything else you could imagine. This was where no one would look at me funny for bringing seaweed and rice kimbap to school for lunch.
Hawaii is one of the only states where minorities – non-Hispanic whites – make up the majority of the population. Nowhere else in the country would you be able to mix English, Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Tagalog, and Hawaiian. But here you stick out as a haole stranger if you can’t speak and understand this unique combination language called Hawaiian pidgin.
I picked up a few things in my four years at St. Michael’s. I remember telling my teacher I was pau with my lunch pail and calling my friends lolo when they acted silly. I danced in the hula club. The point is that I probably fit in fairly well with the kids in my class, but I was still one of the whitest kids there, just because I came from a military family.
Back to Josh. I can’t remember exactly what we spent all our time doing. I do remember the number of times he made fun of me in front of all the other neighborhood kids. I remember him doing an exaggerated impression of my cautious nature. He embarrassed me and infuriated me but I still couldn’t help myself. I liked him so much.
I liked him, liked him.
One spring day when we sat together on the swing set of a park by our houses. I twisted my swing in circles until the chain curled up and then I lifted my feet off the ground and let myself spin around until the swing was straight again. When I stopped spinning I couldn’t focus my eyes on anything for the dizziness.
I had just spun myself out of a twisted knot when Josh confessed to me, “no offense or anything, but I kind of want to marry someone with the same skin color as me.”
I don’t remember what we had been talking about, and I don’t remember what I said back to him. I was nine years old and I had never realized I looked like any different from the girls I saw on TV and in movies. And I knew I definitely wasn’t dark like the kids in my class at school. Of course I was white.
It wasn’t until years later that I realized how much of myself was not white – and how much I wish I could have said to that boy. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how lucky I am to have been born with my mother’s Korean features: thick, dark hair that doesn’t frizz and skin that tans in the sun rather than burns.
That’s not the only thing I inherited. Koreans actually have a fairly homogenous ethnic identity; ethnic Koreans descend from the same tribal group and they usually share a defined jaw line, tooth structure, and eyes without prominent eyelids. This is why Koreans are so easy to identify. They all look like they’re part of a family, because they kind of are.
On top of that, North and South Korea combined are about the size of Minnesota. Though South Korea is tiny, it has managed to establish a cultural identity known around the world (K-pop, anyone?). The Koreans are proud of who they are and where they come from, and they are determined to be known worldwide. This is what I inherited from my mother.
Over the years I let Josh’s comment fester in the back of my mind, wishing I had had some presence of mind that afternoon to tell him off in the cleverest way I could imagine. I berated my nine-year-old self for not standing up for myself and for the people with whom I am undoubtedly connected. I knew if I ever had the chance, I would rip a huge hole in his ridiculous fourth-grade logic. Then I would belittle him as thoroughly as I could and then flounce off in prideful satisfaction.
But I sat on the beach ten years later, I recognized that little boy in his eyes and I found myself tongue-tied then just as I was when I was nine. I could not find the words I had practiced for years. Or maybe I just didn’t have anything to say to him.
It wasn’t so much that I had forgiven him for what he had said. But in the eight years I had been away from Hawaii, I had realized the strength and pride inherent in my Korean side. The darker part of my appearance that had turned him off all those years ago was the same part of me that reached back through my mother to her parents in South Korea, and then to their parents in North Korea. They are strong, proud people, and their influence is clear in my dark eyes and tanned skin.
I didn’t speak to him the rest of the night, and he didn’t say anything either.