I was born with fire in my throat.
As I emerged from my mother’s womb, a veil lay atop my wailing head like a glistening crown. The midwife smiled and cooed as she held me and gently peeled the veil off.
“What is that, what is that?” Mother cried. She hadn’t slept or eaten in over a day, and in her delirium she saw an apparition of last winter’s baby. Eyes, nose, and lips blurred into an ethereal image of a howling newborn.
“Don’t worry, my lady,” the midwife said as she gingerly placed the caul into a metal receptacle and wiped the bloody debris off my pink skin. “Your daughter is healthy. The caul is a sign of good luck.”
Too tired to protest the midwife’s superstitions, Mother accepted the assurances and let her head fall back into the pillow, descending into a dreamless sleep.
It was 1928, the year of the dragon, and the local shaman had foretold to Grandmother that her first grandchild would be a girl born at dawn on the first day of harvest, one of the most auspicious intersections of circumstances. That morning the roosters on a nearby farm cried in unison with me as the soft, muted blue of dawn ushered in my birthday.
My newborn cries startled Father, who had been pacing outside the paper doors for hours, unsure if I would survive. Even neighbors who had been fast asleep were awoken. Were these the cries of an animal, they wondered, or worse, a spirit bearing an omen? Superstitions abounded in Grandmother and Grandfather’s modest town, only a day-long carriage ride from the capital city, Seoul. Their country had been under Japanese colonial rule for eighteen years, and the more that was taken from them, the more superstitions filled their wagging heads and mouths.
Misfortune was good for the local shaman’s business, however. While Grandmother considered herself a Christian, her childhood fascination with shamanism persisted. She remembered the old shaman’s house that she had visited as a child with her mother: the walls bearing paintings of strange men in crimson and emerald robes, the candles flickering on the mantle next to the bowl containing ash, the incense sticks whose pungent, wispy smoke seared Grandmother’s young nose, the black hanbok of the shaman that flowed around her like a dark sea, and the soft clinking of vials whenever the shaman rifled in her drawer for the ingredients to concoct a tonic. Grandmother knew that God would not look too highly upon shamanism, yet there was something irresistible about the idea that an otherworldly power could intercede with one’s future and ward off misfortune. God could perform sporadic miracles, to be sure, yet a shaman could always be relied upon to tilt fate in one’s favor. And what harm could there be in calling upon the aid of forces larger than herself—be they spirits, ancestors, or gods—when so little in the world was within her control?
On the morning of my birth, the neighbors eventually realized that the strange wails that had awoken them were the early-morning cries of a newborn. A collective relief overcame them; the sound of a weeping infant was rare during these precarious times. Grandmother later told me that the townsfolk spoke of my birth as a harbinger of good fortune. Hope was as scarce and precious as rice, and hunger compelled everyone to take whatever crumbs they could get, no matter how small.
When I reached one hundred days, another rare milestone, Grandmother paid the shaman a visit.
“The caul is an auspicious sign,” the shaman said. “Given the circumstances of her birth, I foresee that the child will be blessed with a keen mind, good luck, and long life. She will be shielded from danger.”
Grandmother smiled and clapped. “I am so glad that I will have a lucky granddaughter.”
“Yes, yes,” the shaman nodded, straightening the skirt of her hanbok. “But you should know that her luck will not extend to those around her. Not her friends. Not her family.”
Grandmother’s joy wilted. “What good is it for her to be lucky if her loved ones are not spared from misfortune?”
The shaman could only shake her head. “You can only thank the spirits for the luck and prosperity your granddaughter will receive. They do not dispense it generously.”
Grandmother nodded, mulling over what future misfortune might befall their family, as she dropped a small purse of coins into the shaman’s extended hands.
My parents named me Youngmi, and months after my birth they left my grandparents’ home and returned to their house in Seoul, where Father taught East Asian history at Yonhi University.
When he was a boy, Father had believed that history, like science, was the study of truth, except that history happened in the past. “The United States became an independent nation in 1776”—that was an irrefutable fact. Writing or saying it differently did not change its veracity. History was supposed to be objective and impervious to manipulation.
The Japanese colonial government, however, deemed certain Korean schoolbooks “outdated.” Under the pretext of peninsular education, history books that focused too much on Chosun and failed to glorify the Imperial Island were confiscated and incinerated. How that had enraged Father, even as a student. When he railed against Japan to his parents, they had shushed him.
“Don’t make too much noise,” Grandmother said. “The Japanese show no mercy to adults or children.”
Father knew this was true. Students who protested had been arrested. Dissidents had been publicly flogged. And so Father, like so many others, learned to swallow his rage, compress it, and let it reside in his throat like a glowing coal, never dwindling, biding its time. Japan believed that history lived only in the minds of those who bore witness and in the brushstrokes of writers on parchment paper. Once you silenced the witnesses and burned their books, history could be made anew. Father knew otherwise, and he swore to himself never to forget his own history, even if the written words were now a pile of ash.
By the time he was a young professor, all university texts were Japanized. He thus learned to conceal himself in Japan’s agenda and language. His Japanese was nearly perfect, even while the words felt like poison on his tongue. The school administrators respected him, as he always greeted them warmly and complied with the lesson plans approved by the Japanese Ministry of Education and Culture. In appearance, Father had fallen into line.
In actuality, he kept his history lessons as neutral as discreetly possible. Instead of saying “Emperor Hirohito is a god,” he said, “Many in Japan believe that Emperor Hirohito is a god.” Instead of saying “Japan’s modernization efforts have benefited Chosun,” he said, “Japan has built railroads in Chosun, and people use them.” These were small acts of protest, to be sure, but it was his hope that if he did not parrot colonial propaganda, his students would receive a more objective history. Father’s superiors liked him and indulged these small gestures as harmless forays.
He was aware, however, that scholars—especially history professors—were under the watchful eye of the police, suspected of engaging in subversive activities. It thus filled Mother with great consternation when Father began to hide old history books under a floorboard beneath a rug in our home.
When the ordinance to “reeducate” students first came into effect, the remoter areas of the country had enjoyed a brief reprieve before administrators came to confiscate their books. Some old friends hid and covertly exchanged books with each other to ensure that their history would never be forgotten. Triple-wrapped in newspaper and hidden under the bellies of wagons or in secret compartments within suitcases, these few surviving volumes made their way among students and teachers alike.
Father knew that the Japanese police could search our home without notice. His old history books were considered contraband, and the mere possession of them was deemed treasonous. So, in the event that the police discovered the loose floorboard and lifted it, they would see only a shabby wooden box containing family curios: a broken watch, a jade ring, a list of old family names, and a daguerreotype of Grandmother and Grandfather from the last century. Beneath the box were several inches of soil, and beneath that was another wooden board that could be lifted to reveal a rice sack and several layers of paper wrapping. Within those layers were two history books from the 1890s, probably the most recent books published in Chosun that were uncontaminated by the Japanese.
It filled Mother with even greater consternation when Father would pull one of these books out from storage and start reading it to me when I was in grade school.
“Remember to be very careful with these books,” he would say as he gently unsheathed it. “Never tell anyone about them, not even your best friend, not even the relatives.”
“It will put us in great danger if these are discovered. You know what the police would do to us.”
“Yes, Father.” I had seen neighbors arrested and children crying as they clung to parents being dragged away by the police. I never wanted to see my parents get in trouble.
Mother would huff at Father. “Why do you endanger us with those books? Telling her about them puts her in danger too!”
“She is the next generation,” he would reply. Turning to me, he would add, “Know your history. Even if they burn our books and make us read their lies.”
He would sit on the floor cross-legged and free the book from its paper wrappings. The spine would release a pleasant crackling sound as it gave way to his hands.
“Tell me about the Three Kingdoms,” I would say.
Father would pretend to be put out. “Most girls your age play with dolls or read fairy tales. Why not you?”
“Princesses and dutiful daughters, bah! I want to hear about the Three Kingdoms.”
The corners of his lips would curl, and I would clap my hands.
“Ay!” Mother would sigh audibly in the kitchen and clang a pot loudly.
Father and I would look at each other and giggle, and he would turn the thin pages and begin to read to me. Many of the words were old-fashioned and pedantic, but I could still envision the battles that my ancestors had fought against foreign invaders.
After only a few pages, Father would close the book and say, “We’ll stop there.”
“Yes, Youngmi-yah. We can’t keep these books out for too long.”
And then he would begin the long, reverent process of placing the book back into its paper sheaths and returning it to its layered hiding place beneath the floorboard.
When I entered third grade, the teachers at my school were replaced with Japanese teachers. My new teacher, Yimoda Sensei, was a stout Japanese man with wire-rimmed glasses and a tidy haircut. Standing at the front of our classroom on the first day of school, he uttered the first and last sentence he would ever say in Korean: “From now on, we learn in Japanese.” My friends and I looked at each other quizzically while he began scrawling strange marks on the blackboard. We would soon learn that these were the letters of the Japanese alphabet.
Over the next few months, the Korean characters I had grasped just a few years ago were supplanted by Japanese characters, whose lines and curves were at times foreign, at other times similar to our characters. We began to learn their words as if we were first-graders, reshaping our lips, tongues, and tones to conform to their clipped consonants, vowels, and inflections. Yimoda Sensei directed us to speak only in Japanese. If we spoke a single word of Korean, even during lunch, the nearest teacher would slap the backs of our hands with a stick or ruler. In time, I began to gossip in Japanese, pass notes in Japanese, and even dream in Japanese.
The class also began to take early-morning outings to the school grounds, where Yimoda Sensei and the other teachers instructed all of us to kneel down and bow toward the east in the direction of the Emperor. We also had to recite the “Pledge of the Imperial Subjects”:
We are the subjects of the great empire of Japan.
We shall serve the Emperor with united hearts.
We shall endure hardships and train ourselves to become good and strong subjects of the Emperor.
It was like a silly school song. One day I tried to mouth the pledge in silence without saying the words. A sudden strike fell on my back with what felt like a metal rod, and I yelped. The words bubbled to my lips as pain radiated from my spine and heat rose to my eyes and cheeks. I glanced behind me and saw Yimoda Sensei glaring at me, the wooden pointer in his hands ready to dispense more discipline. From then on, I recited the pledge vacantly, trying not to hear the words and shifting my weight, my shoes digging into the grass. As long as we went through the motions, our backs and hands would remain unscathed.
The final insult occurred a few years later, one day after school. Father held my hand and led Mother and me to a concrete office building where a line of other Koreans stood. It was a hot day, and I felt the inner lining of my school uniform stick to my back. When we arrived at the counter, I stood on my toes to listen to what Father was saying to the man behind the desk. It was so loud that I couldn’t make out Father’s words. A mix of conversations in Korean and Japanese surrounded me from neighboring lines.
When Father finished his business, we all walked home in silence.
Father, holding my hand, said finally, “We have new names now.”
I shook my head. “But we already have names. I’m Shim Youngmi.”
His mouth opened and closed before he spoke. “Our new surname is Shimizu,” he said, his voice wavering. “Your assigned name is Emi. Shimizu Emi.”
Shimizu Emi. A Japanese name. My Japanese name.
In the following days, I would say the name to myself again and again. Shimizu Emi. The sounds, so novel and strange, played off my tongue and lips like hollow seeds. I found the name charming, even though I knew it was a manacle. It was a name without which I could neither register for school nor pick up a package from the post office. As Youngmi, I did not exist in the system; I was invisible. As Emi, I was acknowledged. It was a name I would bear and answer to until the end of the Japanese occupation.
Some believe that if you chip away enough of a man, in the end there will be nothing left of him. But Father believed that no matter how much they took from a Chosun man, he would always have his han. As I grew older, I could see that each indignity forced upon Father only stoked his anger. With the Japanese Name Order in effect, the rage within him that had been compressed for so long seethed in its prison. Perhaps it was inevitable that it would seep out in ways he was not aware of and could not control.
One day at the university, Kano Hinata, a fellow professor, approached Father and asked if he could spare a few minutes to talk. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Kano invited Father into his office and closed the door. The two men took their seats, facing each other, and Father sensed that this was not a routine chat about next semester’s syllabus.
“Shimizu Sensei, we have worked together for eight years. You know I have respect for you.”
“Thank you, Kano Sensei. I am honored,” Father replied in Japanese.
“I say this to you only as a concerned colleague,” Kano said, drumming his fingers against each other. “Some of the students felt uncomfortable with your statement about the Emperor in your last class.”
“I make many statements about your emperor. Which statement caused discomfort?”
Kano paused and looked at Father, his eyebrows rising and falling. “You are well-liked here, by me, the other faculty, even the dean,” he said, “despite your heritage.”
Father cleared his throat and nodded.
“We have always respected your scholarly contributions and your engagement with students. I say this with the utmost respect and humility. But several students reported yesterday that you compared Emperor Hirohito to Ivan the Terrible from Russia.”
Father stifled a cough.
“That was not well-received.”
“Ah,” Father said. “I can see how citing similar personality traits and behavior might hurt some students’ feelings. I will try to be more careful next time.”
He stood up, but Kano shook his head. “Excuse me,” he said, also rising. “I’m sorry to say that this isn’t about hurt feelings.”
Kano sighed and looked Father in the eye. “You think you’re being funny. But I’m telling you as a colleague and a friend, this is dangerous. Be careful, Shim. People talk. And police listen.”
Father said nothing.
“You may not know that Dean Takahashi and the chief of police are close,” Kano continued. “They are brothers.”
Father gripped the handle of his briefcase.
“That is the only reason you haven’t been arrested yet,” Kano said. “Haven’t you noticed that your house hasn’t been searched in the last couple years? That you haven’t been called into the police station? But even the chief of police answers to someone above, and if a student says something to the wrong person—”
“I understand,” Father said.
“Your good favor here will not always protect you. Please, I am asking you, be careful.”
Father loosened his grip on his briefcase and nodded. “I appreciate your words. You have always been kind to me.”
He was opening the door to leave when he turned back to Kano. “You should also know that I am and always will be a man of Chosun.” With that, Father bowed and bid his colleague good night.
But, as it turned out, Kano’s warning came too late. A Japanese student did say something to his father, who complained bitterly to an uncle in the colonial administration.
The following night I was practicing arithmetic when a banging on the door startled me. “Open up, Shimizu!” a man’s voice bellowed. “By the authority of the police, we are searching your home.”
Father opened the door and uniformed officers barged in, pushing him aside. It was not my first time witnessing an unannounced search, but I was still terrified and ran to Mother, who cowered in an empty corner. We pressed our lips together so we wouldn’t scream and watched as they lifted beds, tore off sheets, opened and closed drawers, and rummaged through papers, all the while barking in Japanese to each other.
Behind them, Police Chief Takahashi ambled into our living room in his ornate uniform. Father would later tell me that he could see the resemblance between the chief and the dean, and it disturbed him to feel an involuntary sense of familiarity with this man whom he had never met.
As one officer tumbled the contents of my bookbag onto the floor, Father stood with his hands in his pockets, staring blankly at the uniformed men who were rifling through his home for evidence of anti-Japanese sentiment. Their sabered rifles gleamed and tapped their sides. Their thick black shoes pounded on our floor, causing the floorboards to tremble beneath my folded legs. The Japanese men looked no different from Chosun men. Their eyes were narrow and brown like ours, their hair obsidian black, their skin shades varying from ivory to light brown. But the officers’ words, the venom in their voices, made it clear that we were different people and that no amount of resemblance could ameliorate the enmity between us.
At last an officer stood before Chief Takahashi and saluted. “No contraband found, sir.”
The chief nodded. “Assemble and head to the station.”
“Hai!” the officer said. He barked an order to the other officers, who began to vacate our ransacked home.
After the last officer left, Chief Takahashi waited a moment before turning to Father. “Next time,” he said, frowning, “leave the Russians out of your lessons.”
After Father bowed and said “Hai,” the chief turned and walked out of our house, leaving the front door open to the gaping night.
My novel begins in 1928 with the story of a Korean girl born during the Japanese occupation of her country. As a child, she witnesses the colonial government’s oppressive tactics, including policies aimed at “Japanizing” the Korean population. Her native customs, her language, and even her Korean name are replaced with their Japanese counterparts. As she grows older, the girl finds ways to rebel against her colonizers while also forming friendships with Japanese civilians who reside in Korea. She begins to question her own prejudices against the Japanese and realizes that good and bad people can exist on both sides of a conflict.
The second part of the novel begins in 1972, when the narrator’s daughter and son-in-law emigrate to the United States and have a daughter there. Again, language, customs, and names are assimilated and supplanted by their “Americanized” forms, though willingly. The American-born daughter does not contend with colonizers but with an established majority culture that differs vastly from that of her Korean immigrant parents. During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of racial tensions arise between her family and their American neighbors in Philadelphia. In this era, immigrants in America from all Asian countries were perceived as a monolith, an ironic contrast to the earlier Japanese notion that all other Asian ethnicities were inferior. As a result, different Asian Americans found solidarity with each other. The narrator in this second part searches for ways to preserve her cultural identity as a Korean American.
The novel as a whole explores cultural assimilation and its effects on one’s sense of self. The main character in each part views her name and her native language as metaphors for her identity. When pressured to assimilate to a dominating culture, each one confronts a number of questions: Can she resist internalizing the implied inferiority of her own native culture? When she assimilates, is she losing a part of herself or is she becoming someone else? Can it be both? Is assimilation necessarily bad, or is it an inevitable consequence of human migration and political conflict? Finally, how do the relationships she forms with people within and outside of her ethnicity affect her identity and perceptions of race, especially when it comes to friendship and love?
Kristine Chung Salcedo is currently a student at The New School in New York City, pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing, and has had short stories published in Project As[I]Am, Pif Magazine, and Platform Review.
Embark, Issue 18, April 2023