KEEPING UP APPEARANCES, FULFILLING EXPECTATIONS
By Sue Cho
1988. a Korean couple in Seoul—they were sweethearts in college, a 연세대-이화대1 couple. Already they have two kids, a girl and a boy, age seven and six. The boy, eleven months younger than his sister, loves calling his 누나 with a disrespectful “야!” Filial piety is appropriately observed—할아버지 and 할머니 live with them; a typical Seoul family.
What would be a reason for such a family to decide to have another child, so late in their marriage? The obvious answer was to produce another male Cho. He won’t be the heir, but he will grow up to carry on the family honor, and the family name.
So I was supposed to be a boy. I figured this out at an early age, perhaps because of my mother’s bitter and often-told story about how my grandfather, and then my father, interrupted her post-birth rest in the recovery room, took a peek at my lack of wee-wee and withdrew from the room with a grunt. My mother always followed this story by saying: “Oh, but I secretly wanted a girl, my Little Prince, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
Calling me the Little Prince was meant to satisfy my five-year-old desire not to be a girl. As a young lad, I wanted nothing to do with girliness: no skirts, no hairclips, and definitely no pink. I preferred to keep my hair kept short in the style of Mowgli from Disney’s Jungle Book, and in pre-school, I decided that I would lay down the law to any jerk who played with my blocks. This, together with my five-year old cross-dressing, caused the presiding nun of this Catholic school to ask my befuddled grandmother, in all seriousness, whether I was a boy or a girl.
Perhaps I took this type of behavior, performing the part of a boy, to be the proper way to fulfill expectations. My grandfather and father did often remind me that even though I was born a girl, without a wee-wee with which to produce another Cho boy, that I was as good as a boy, that I would grow-up to achieve what any boy could.
Then came my move to America, and with it the immediate and gradual shattering of our family. Friends I made in America could not get over the fact that my parents were separated, but not divorced. Communication within my family became less and less sincere, less and less clear, and just not often enough. No longer did I directly hear what they wanted of me. I could only make less and less educated guesses as to what a good daughter should be.
In America, I experienced the prolonged liberty of wearing baggy, grungy clothes and playing outside with the boys until my father began to hint that I needed to get serious, prepare for the magnet high school exams, and look nicer. He recruited my sister to take me shopping. She reluctantly skipped Limited Too, which I despised, but gradually she was able to get me interested in wearing low-rise flare jeans and slim fitted t-shirts, and later on, even dresses and make-up. As many girls do in high school, I got carried away with it at one point. One morning, as I got into the car with my father so he could drive me to school, he looked at my skirt and asked me if I had wanted to look like a whore. He meant that I should go back and get changed. I guess that wasn’t what he expected of his daughter, either.
Keeping up appearances has greater implications for my family. These days, it upsets my brother to see my eyebrow piercing. I think that he’s worried about my future. He is thinking, What Korean boy would go for that? Instead he asks, “Are you seeing anyone?” I quickly answer that this semester, I am focusing on my studies. An acceptable answer.
I guess looking nice means playing your part: looking like a girl, and a specific type of girl at that. The one who goes to a prestigious American college, gets into Harvard Law, and along the way, finds and marries a nice, Ivy-educated Korean boy from a good family. If he’s tall, that would be a plus. I am to be a smart girl who looks sophisticated, but not strong enough to make the matchmaker veer away. I hear that my brother, soon to be a dentist, has received some proposals, yet my sister, who is to become a general surgeon, has heard nothing. No one wants a daughter-in-law who spends too much time away from home, and who wields more power than her husband.
What my family does not know, or perhaps tries to ignore, is that chances are, I won’t be finding a nice Korean boy to date, let alone marry. Perhaps I’ll find a nice Korean girl, but I have a hunch that this will probably not fly with dear 엄마, 아빠, 오빠, 언니, 할머니, etc. I know, too, that my extended family back in Seoul will be affected by it, or at least pretend to be appalled by the madness that is infecting the family tree.
Trying to please my family is always hit or miss, but I’ve perfected it in the appearance department. I have come to know what they want, through an endless series of guess and check. Nevertheless, when I go to meet my father, who visits twice a year, my room becomes a mess from dismissed outfits flown about in a frenzy. It becomes a fight within myself to pick out the appropriate costume—a part of me tells me to be what I already know how to perform, to appease expectations, and a part of me tells me to express the truth, to rebel.
Lately my mother has been imparting life lessons through our weekly phone calls, which have been our only means of communication since the 4th grade. She says that while I’m in college, I should do whatever I’d like to, follow my heart, and to take off—spread your wings, she says. But she politely adds, “But Sue, I don’t think being gay is okay. It’s only natural for a man and a woman to be together.” So much for following my heart—I’m thoroughly confused.
Being a tomboy as a child, wearing baggy clothes, and even having an impulsive eyebrow piercing is not a big deal—they mark phases in my youth. But as I mature, I am learning that keeping up appearances will grow harder. I am exhausted by having to constantly guess at what it is to be a good member of the Cho family, and to attempt to play the part. I would like to follow my mother’s advice to spread my wings, but she seems to be overlooking the fact that I’ve already strayed far from the nest, and am afraid, so afraid, to fly back home.