Cultural jig

Claire ahn


           I danced Irish step as a child.

           I remember floating across the dance floor with stiff arms and a calm expression, different jigs enveloping the room with Farewell to Erin and Slip Jig. I remember pale faces, blue eyes, and light hair. At every performance, I clipped my hair up, donned a dress, applied makeup to my slanted eyes, and stuck out like a sore thumb among the rest.

           Slanted eyes. It made all the difference.

           When the lights came down, I danced my soul out like the rest. We were stars, twirling through an eternal interstellar jig. Limbs exploded out in different directions, creating enchanting works of art that galloped across the stage. Once the music died, we stopped breathlessly as not to break the sacred silence that echoed through the hall.

           When I went home, Istanding in front of the bathroom mirror—undid my hair, rubbed off my makeup, and pulled off my tight dance shoes. Then, I reviewed the pictures and wondered why I had chosen to dance when my facial features were so different from the rest. There were no schools for Korean traditional dance nearby. In a town filled to the brim with Catholics and the Irish, I—an American-born citizenwas a fresh-out-of-a-Korean-drama foreigner.

           When I went to school the next day, I brought genuine home-cooked Korean food for lunch: kimchi, dried seaweed, rice, and dumplings. I sat down at the crowded cafeteria, where half the kids were already standing in line to receive their standard pizza and milk cartons. I opened my lunchbox, twisted my thermos open, and took the lid off my dried seaweed. The food tasted like home. There was no kimchi because I hated the taste, but that hadn’t quite wiped the unsettling memory of my grandmother telling me I wasn’t “truly Korean” because of my distaste for the traditional food.

           It took thirty seconds for the first student to receive his pizza and come sit down. When he did, he eyed me oddly. I didn’t notice at first, but the more he stared at me, the more self-conscious I became, feeling naked and exposed. Nevertheless, I continued eating until he spoke up.

           “What’s that?”

           “This? Dried seaweed and rice.”

           I meticulously placed the kim in my hand and piled bap on top. He watched me for another minute before speaking.

           “Dried seaweed?”

           My head snapped up. “Yes.”

           He wrinkled his nose. “That’s gross. Why would you eat that?”

           At that very moment, my breath hitched. My trembling hands put my food back down to the ground. Six-years-old, I was uncertain about why the boy had told me the food was disgusting. All I knew was that I couldn’t bring Korean food to school anymore.

           I came home to my mother cooking, which sent trails of burning shame down my spine. The house smelled of fresh ginseng, thousands of years of tradition, red envelopes, and incense on a stick. I skirted around the corner of the table.

           “Umma?” Mother. The words slid off my tongue with an English lilt, garbled and twisted: “I can’t bring Korean food to school anymore.”

           She cocked her head in confusion.

           I mustered my courage. “Can you make me white person food?”

           We locked eyes, and I knew that she understood instantly.

           I retreated to my room with a CD player in hand and Island Angel by Altan in the other. I plugged in the cord and inserted the CD, letting the Irish music fill my room and ears. I did my homework to the soft sound of the tin whistle and thin wail of the fiddle playing so fast that he must’ve sold his soul to the devil to do it. I let the beautiful music envelope me and the warm sounds penetrate deep into my soul. My fingers drummed my papers to the beat, and my feet tapped out the rhythms instinctively.

           As I listened, I wondered if maybe if I continued listening to such music and packing pizza and salad, I would one day become white enough.


           A few weeks later, I sat down for lunch. There was a new student at the school, Anna, and she had decided to sit a few feet away from me. When I opened my warm pasta, nobody made a single nasty remark. I ate quietly, replaying my last Irish stepdance concert over and over again in my head. Eating quickly, I finished halfway into lunch.

           The new girl was small and had pitch-black hair and kind, slanted eyes. She was tanned, and wore jeans and a yellow t-shirt. Her expression radiated innocence.

           When she opened her lunch box, my heart nearly stopped.

           She’d packed seaweed and rice. In that very instant, every bone in my body ached for her.

           One of the other girlsred-headed, fiery, and freckled—peered at Anna’s food. I steeled myself for the caustic comments, unrestrained laughter, and mocking jeers. I remembered the boy’s eyes, so curious yet so full of hatred and misunderstanding. He’d stabbed me in the heart and twisted the knife. Even now, I could not look him in the eye.

           I watched Lynn open her mouth, and breathed a silent prayer to God, Mary, and whatever other Catholics saints existed.

           “Your food looks good,” Lynn commented.

           Anna beamed, and muttered a shy thank-you.

           My mouth felt dry, shock washing over me. Something inside of me urged me to speak up. It was a PLEASE HURRY UP IT'S TIME-from-TS-Eliot kind of imminent. My eyes teared up, and I closed my lunchbox. I’d expected the end of the world, but had gotten the Garden of Eden instead.

           “Hey,” I said softly to Anna, “that looks really good.”

           Anna stuttered a thank-you, her cheeks reddening. I inhaled deeply, and sighed. Unbelievable amounts of relief shot through me. For the rest of lunch, we sat there in silence, acknowledging each other but saying nothing.

           Maybe I didn’t have to be white enough. It was a beautiful thought. After all, no matter how many reels and jigs I danced to, and no matter how much I tried not to bring Korean food, I would never be white. I didn’t have to be.

           I glanced over at Anne, who had begun conversing with Lynn.

           A happy thought occurred to me, and spread throughout my limbs like sunshine drenching the earth with warmth.

           Maybe I was enough the way I already was.