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Othering: One Girl’s Struggle to Define Herself in and out of Korea

Othering: One Girl’s Struggle to Define Herself in and out of Korea

November 28, 20111045Views

Editor’s Note: The following is part 1 of a two-part essay.

By Rahn Kim (a.k.a. Hae Ran Kim, a.k.a. 김해란 [1])

Two thousand and one, winter in the southern hemisphere: the Korean Air jet was ready for takeoff. Curled up alone in a coach seat, 15-year-old Haeran felt a tsunami of tears wash down her face. The grief was debilitating. She gave her precious tween years to a haven of white, middle-class maidens in Christchurch, New Zealand: this previously glamorless sheep country that now seemed inexplicably beautiful. Breathtaking, even.

As an artist, one learns to appreciate the almost-beauty in suffering. This day in my distant memory was the last time I yearned, suffered, and grieved for the loss of and departure from a physical entity. I really must have loved this place. I even wrote a poem about it, that is now buried deep within my teenage diaries.

“Oh, is Hae Ran-i[2] really only four? She really is healthy-looking, you know, and so tall… you must be feeding her so well!”

Being different had never been a foreign concept, even back when I was still “homegrown.” Teased for my height at my piano school by a short, insecure boy, my education of othering began at age four, the moment I sent a satisfactory kick into his unsuspecting nuts. This was my protest, my hidden potential, and my victory: the pure unadulterated resilience of a child. Too young to care about the consequences, I ignored the commotion that ensued. I ignored the little boy’s enraged mother and I ignored my own mother’s calm and collected, kind advice:

“Be careful baby. If you destroy his nuts, you’ll make him sterile.”

“Forty-one kilo[3], seriously? Hah, betcha she’s the fattest pig in first grade!”

Seven years old, much taller and a little chubbier, the world remained as cruel as ever, and the burden on my shoulders had become a little heavier. A “big-boned” first grader daring enough to take on the older boys, I went head-to-head with the neighborhood third graders, running about with a soccer ball on the hard brick fields of Seoul apartment complexes. We were unafraid of skinning our knees or breaking our skulls open. I was a bold and righteous child, too stubborn, too protective, and too proud to feel shame for my mother’s post-polio disability. As an infant, it had been a stroke of detrimental luck when her polio vaccine had to be postponed because of an untimely fever. At age thirteen, the polio treatment surgery left one of her legs’ growth stunted with limited muscular capacity. I treasured the stories of how she persevered and refused to be defeated by the bullying, the painful treatments, and the chafing braces. I, too, refused to bow my head at the bullies, and at the sight of my seven year old classmate’s pathetic imitations of my mother’s limp. The moment that I snapped, the moment when I could no longer withstand the insults, the moment that my 135cm[4] hulking mass knocked his tiny body down and punched his face to pulp all the while bawling my eyes out, victory was no longer as sweet as I had imagined. I sat in the staff room, my tear-stained face swollen like a puffer fish, and watched my mother cry. I could never start another fist-fight.

Even so, I never could keep my mouth shut at the crucial moments. I told it as it was, to those assholes and rude bastards, and even ate a punch for it. I took it with honor and pride.

Nothing shut me up as effectively as moving to New Zealand.

For a lonely 9-year-old—a competent, voracious, above-average reader of anything and everything readable in Korean—it was a crime, a treachery of the highest degree to be handed an English-language picture book. While my pride helped keep my back straight and my head held high, it also silenced me. I refused to utter a single English word because it wasn’t going to be perfect. It was either a perfectly formed sentence or nothing. I would remain a strange, mute child for the next year.

I still wonder how my brain managed to rationalize this silence, a period that resembled some severe developmental disorder. My teacher called my parents, the school counselor called my parents, and my classmates cocked their heads at this curious and incomprehensible phenomenon. But it was precisely during this silence that I began my journey to my very own voice. I was a sponge, a vessel for new ideas, a young fish learning how to swim through the world. Every little thing and moment touched me and sparked millions of electric jolts in my brain. Whether they be “Hey, where’s Korea?”, “Is it part of Japan?” or, always the burning question, “Are you from North or South Korea?”, my mind ticked away trying to process this great influx of new information. The catalysts were everywhere. The children at the public pool would clasp their hands together and bow to me with “Konnichiwa, arigatou ,[5]” before giggling away. Out and about in town, even the McDonald’s counter person hesitated to serve me—I had hit the lowest of the low.

Then I got it. I began to see my position in the world. My appearance, my accent as a Korean and my dialect as a Kiwi, my race, my gender, and my nationality would define me. I went from a simple young outsider to an exotic spectacle of the other.

“Korea, Korea, Korea, the only thing you ever talk about is Korea. Why don’t you just go back to where you came from?” said Helen. Helen A[6]. After more than a decade (120 months; 3650 days; 87600 hours), I still remember the name of the girl who struck me with these spiteful words. Helen A., I won’t ever forget you.

My mother, Jung Ah Kim, and my father, In Soo Kim, are two people from the last tumultuous protest generation of Koreans, born less than seven years after the 1953 armistice of North and South Korea, and raised amidst a series of authoritarian administrations of military coup d’états and martial laws. To quote a Korean newspaper article from 2004 on my parents’ latest venture into geriatrics and their volunteer medical services:

“a fated meeting, as an activist couple… Dr. Jung Ah Kim, Kyunghee University, class of ’77, and her one-year junior Dr. In Soo Kim, met in 1980 while hitting the streets in protest of the Gwangju massacre. They married in 1985.”

At a time when many exceptional intellectuals and privileged individuals took the first chance to get out of the country, my parents forewent the opportunity with an idealistic and patriotic conviction—“Let’s change the country from inside out”—and stayed behind in Korea. For all I know, much of this story may be a romanticized exaggeration of my parents’ youth, the kind that parents tell their children with nostalgic delight. But there is no doubt that my mother’s full ride to a prestigious Korean university and medical school and my father’s brooding intellectualism were not only for show. However, their youthful national allegiance and spirit gave way to children and pragmatism when they left their prosperous and busy careers as doctors and immigrated to New Zealand in 1996 in hopes of a more worldly education and opportunities for their three children. In 1999, when they had to abandon the simple country life in Christchurch that they had come to cherish, and return to their hectic lives in Korea, they may have regretted foregoing the international medical license, just a little.

“I miss you. (But only when you’re far away.)”

At thirteen years old, I faced a major turning point. My mother and father had always encouraged independence and strength, and thus it was my own decision to remain in New Zealand as a boarding student. Korea had never been a place of happy memories. I chose to be an outsider in this new home  that I had become accustomed to, instead of returning to my birthplace where I had first learned to be an outsider. But being alone was more unbearable than I had imagined. The vast physical distance between me and my family started to shift the emotional connection that I felt with this country and within my family. Helen A.’s words rang in my ears, illuminating my lingering sense of loss. Rangi Ruru Girls’ School, simultaneously a wonderful prep school and a sugar-coated bourgeois relic of New Zealand’s British colonial past, housed my burgeoning teenage woes and foreshadowed my inseparable ties with the white upper-middle class. Sheltered and coddled in the white, expensive Christchurch neighborhood, Merivale, I crawled out of Korean homogeneity only to plunge into the homogeneous white upper socio-economic strata of New Zealand. These complete four and a half years spent in New Zealand consisted of the most painful period in the extraction and substitution of my cultural identity, the extended process of which is still ongoing now as a 25-year-old.


Beginning at Vassar College in 2004, I started to go by “Rahn,” an alteration of my name’s original romanization, incorporating a phonetic aid for the correct pronunciation of the second syllable in my first name, Ran. “Ran,” pronounced like the past tense of “run,” was unacceptable, and the joke, “Hey—” (as in the greeting, like “Hae”) “—Ran,” was definitely getting old.

My name is a converging point of my cultural and gender identity. I never took on an English name like many 1.5 or second generation immigrants do. My name is a part of myself that I cannot give up. I permanently sealed this name into my body when in the summer of 2006, I had it tattooed on my left ankle.

Hae / 해 / 海 [7]for ocean, Ran / 란 / 蘭 for orchid: together, the characters in my name mean “the orchid of the ocean.” After my birth, my young twenty-seven year old psychiatrist-in-residency father spent weeks contemplating my name, even missing the government deadline for name-filing. Thanks to my father’s dedication, I almost didn’t legally exist. And thanks to his dedication, I can confidently say that Hae Ran is a really beautiful name. My father went all out and all in on a soul-searching journey, with the special kind of love that you nurture for your very first child. Hae Ran is also the name of a river located in the northern region of North Korea. He gave me this name in the hopes that I may walk along the Hae Ran River in my lifetime. The poetry of my name was his prayer for my beautiful life and his idealistic dream of Korean Reunification.

Many miscalculations were made.

The legend, as passed on by my mother, is that my father’s ancestors, originally from the North, bore a long line of royal wives during the Joseon dynasty[8]. The late matriarch of this family, my grandmother, looked at my face as a baby, and announced, “In a different time, under different circumstances, this one would have made a formidable general.” I was destined for great things! One thing is for sure: I would have made a better general than an ‘orchid of the ocean.’ My gender-defying appearance and my low voice has always denied me the romance of the dainty orchid. But even before my body started to betray society’s (and my) expectations of my birth sex, gender had always been in the back of my mind.

My name, my family, and my body undeniably and inevitably bind me to the culture of my roots, my birth country of Korea. In Korea, I learned the extremes of gender dichotomy, the role of the woman and the role of the man. Around age seven, when I remember having my first conscious, analytical thoughts as a thinking human being, I began to see this dirty truth. With my parents’ history as protesters, intellectuals, and agitators, they comprise the more progressive mainstream population of Korean society. Even among them and their friends, this infestation and social contract reared its ugly head. The moms always stood in the kitchen. They were the cooks, the errand-runners, and the servers. The dads sat and paced in the living room, idly chatting and smoking, waiting to be served. Triumphing against their disadvantageous size, my questioning little eyes absorbed everything. When I vocalized my distress at this inequity, all I got was,

“That’s how things are, Hae Ran-ah .”

“That’s how it is,” “That’s what we learned,” “It’s customary.” These half-baked explanations would haunt me for years to come, and become the instigators for my ongoing rebellion against cultural and traditional norms and obligations.

To be continued.
Main illustration by Shaina Koval.
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[1] Throughout the essay, I refer to myself with different spellings of my name that I was using during the event and/or time period that is being discussed (Hae Ran, Haeran, Rahn). The Korean name, written and read originally in Korean as 해란, is romanized as Hae Ran.
[2] One of multiple Korean grammatical name endings; indicating an informal subject.
[3] 41 kilograms is approximately 90 pounds.

[4] Approximately 4 feet 5 inches.

[5] Romanization of Japanese expressions, translated to English as “Hello, thank you.”

[6] Last name undisclosed for privacy.

[7] Before Hangul, the morphophonemic Korean alphabet invented in the 15th century, became the primary form of writing in Korea in early 20th century, Chinese characters known in Korea as Hanja were used. Despite a decline in everyday use bordering on nonexistence, Hanja are still often used as base characters for Korean names and vocabulary, providing meaning and significance with fewer characters.

[8] Dynasty of the former Kingdom of Great Joseon (now Korea), 1392-1897.

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Hae Ran Kim is a filmmaker, 3D artist, sort of writer, and second (and last) year graduate student and Master of Fine Arts candidate at San Francisco Art Institute, one of the oldest art schools in the United States, renowned for its experimental edge. Since 99% of Rahn’s work is not experimental, Rahn doesn’t really know why she’s at this school, but she’s making the best of it and trying to scrounge together enough money for the last semester. Rahn is a Vassar College transfer-out and a New York University-Tisch School of the Arts grad. Rahn lives with her partner Shaina and no pets, but hopes to raise a miniature pig in the future when they can afford one. They are vegan. You can find Rahn and Shaina’s work and contact them at: http://www.kovalkim.com

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