This excerpt is being run in conjunction with .
You’re looking at a sneak preview of Catherine Chung‘s beautiful novel, Forgotten Country, out March 1st. Weaving Korean folklore and history within a modern narrative of immigration and identity, Catherine Chung delivers a fierce exploration of the inevitability of loss and the conflict between loyalty and freedom. Forgotten Country marks the debut of a graceful, astonishing new voice in fiction, one with a quiet ferocity that will break your heart. I have read this one and I will tell you, it is one of my favorite books of 2012. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
In Korea, couples dress alike to show the world that they’re together. Families, sisters, teams, groups—delight in wearing a uniform. Grandmothers wearing the same shirt, same pants, same hat, same sunglasses, go hiking in the mountains together, singing the same song. Here is the lesson: nothing is more important than belonging. Nothing is as satisfying.
On our first day of school in America, my mother dressed Haejin and me in the same outfit. She put both of us in little blue and white sailor dresses embroidered with anchors. Haejin sat on the sidewalk in front of our bus stop crying, her legs splayed beneath her white skirt. My mother, kneeling beside her, whispered, “Haejin, keep your legs closed, please—everyone can see you.” She patted my sister’s back, crooning, and with her other hand tried to push one errant knee closer to the other.
The other kids and mothers stood at the same corner, and gave us a wide berth. I noticed that none of the other girls was wearing a dress. They were all in shorts. I started counting by twos to calm myself down, a trick my mother had taught me in Korea for when I was afraid.
As the bus pulled up, Haejin threw her head back and screamed. “Oh my,” said a woman. The older kids snickered. Even the other little kids, sniffling into their hands, stopped to stare. I started counting by threes.
We waited for everyone else, and then my mother stood resolutely and picked Haejin up, hoisting her onto the bus. Haejin whimpered. My mother turned to me. “Take care of Haejin,” she said, and shoved me on behind her. Before I could turn back, the bus driver shut the door.
I pushed Haejin into a seat near the front, and settled us in. “Look Haejin,” I tried to distract my sister. “Let’s wave at Umma,” I said, but it was just as well she didn’t stop crying to look. My mother was running away. She had already made it half a block towards our house. The sight of it frightened me: it stayed with me all day.
A few days later, my mother was called in and both Haejin and I were escorted to the principal’s office. I thought we were in trouble, but it was my mother he wanted to address. “Just call me Mr. B, he said, winking at the three of us. I warmed to his friendliness.
He said to my mother, “Your girls need names.”
“They already have names,” my mother said.
“Proper names,” Mr. B clarified. “American names.” He spoke loudly. In those days, everyone spoke more loudly at my parents than they seemed to speak to anyone else.
“But they’re Korean,” my mother said softly. “They’ve grown up with their names.”
“Try Janie,” suggested Mr. B. He leaned forward, tapping his fingers together. “And Hannah for her,” he said, pointing at Haejin. “It won’t take long for everyone to adjust.”
My mother looked away from him, but was silent. She did not resist. And so we left his office that day with new names. “Janie,” my sister and I repeated over and over. “Hannah.”
We were excited by the novelty of it: it seemed like a game, like make-believe. It was surprising at first to be addressed by a different and unfamiliar name at school, but it soon felt somehow reassuring as well. Being called by a name everyone seemed able to say wasn’t nearly as disorienting as having everyone say my real name wrong, and anyways, I liked it. It made me feel as if I belonged. It was only my parents who minded.
Soon after this, my father took us out to our backyard to watch the shooting stars. This was something we did every year in Korea with my grandmother and uncle, and my father’s cousins—my father tracked the peak of the yearly meteor shower, and we all went out to the countryside and wandered out at night to look at the sky on the night the stars fell. Some years there was nothing, and some years so many lights streaked across the sky that our necks grew sore from watching. One of my earliest memories was of a streak of light across darkness and the quiet afterwards, and the feeling of wonder.
In America, my mother told us now, you could wish on these falling stars. She said the wishes would come true as long as you didn’t tell anyone what they were. I thought it was a strange sort of magic, but it made sense: a wish that gained strength by the silence around it.
We stayed up way past our bedtime, out in our backyard, lying on our backs on a blanket on the lawn, pointing at the sky. Haejin kept falling asleep in my mother’s arms, but whenever my mother got up to take her in, Haejin would wake up and refuse, and say she was going to stay out as late as me.
The showing that year was slight, but it was warm enough outside to be pleasant, and we were surrounded by fireflies. I had made a list of wishes, and didn’t want to give up until I’d exhausted my list. I don’t remember how far I made it down my list, only that I woke up the next morning in my own bed with no memory of being put there. That first year in Michigan was also the last year my family watched the falling stars together: I don’t know why.
Around this time, my parents decided they wanted to have another child. They wanted to try for a boy. I hadn’t been particularly impressed by our cousins, so I hoped they wouldn’t succeed. I don’t know what Hannah thought of the whole affair, but I saw the force of my parents’ desire for a son as a failure on my part, a yearning I could never fulfill.
For as long as I could remember my grandmother had pressured my parents to keep trying until they had their boy, but my parents had said they were happy with Hannah and me. I didn’t know what had changed.
“It’s necessary,” my grandmother had told my mother. “You are nothing without a son.”
She had recruited me as well. “Don’t you want a brother?” she’d asked, drawing me aside. “Tell your mother you’d take care of him,” she said. “Tell her you’ll help,” she smiled. “Do this for me.” But I didn’t want a brother. I would look down silent, unwilling to ask my mother for this, remembering the night Haejin had been born.
My grandmother wasn’t the only one pressuring my parents. During her visit, my Komo had pushed them too. She’d said to my father in low, urgent tones, “You’re the last one now. It’s up to you to make sure our line continues.”
As happy as a son was supposed to make everyone, trying to have one did not make my parents happier. They fought worse than they ever had. Their anger flared up without warning and singed everything. In those days, my parents’ moods were like the weather: inexplicable, changing.
There were other problems too, of course. My parents knew no one in Michigan. Their pasts were just markers of difference. No one was interested. Our neighbors encouraged my parents to make an effort to befriend the owners of a Chinese restaurant in the next town over. Every time we met someone, they asked, “Have you met the Chongs who own Double Fortune?” Each time, my mother recoiled. In this new place, she felt marked everywhere she went, simultaneously visible and overlooked. Maybe this was why my parents needed a son so badly: a male heir might root them in this country: a boy might have the power to connect the present to the past.
At work, my father had to be careful all the time. At night they tried and tried again to conceive a child who would not come.
“I spend all day with strangers,” my father yelled one night during a fight with my mother. “All I want when I come home is someone I can talk to comfortably. Someone I can communicate with.” He pointed his finger at my mother. “I don’t come home for this,” he said. “Not for this!”
“So don’t come home then,” my mother shouted back. “Or let me go back to Seoul. I never wanted to come in the first place.” When she said this, Hannah and I ran forward and clung to her legs. We wept and begged her to stay, and she cried too, until my father, unrelenting, ungentle, slammed his hand on the table and yelled at all of us to shut up.
That first year in America my parents became unfamiliar to me. They became unsafe. Hannah and I could enrage them with the slightest wrong tone, the most trivial task done incorrectly. Sometimes, in the morning, we would wake up and the mailbox would be knocked off its post and lying battered in the street. I always thought it had to do with my parents’ fights. My father would put the mailbox in the garage and go to work. He’d spend the evening pounding the mailbox back into shape, nailing it back onto its post. The next morning we’d wake up and there it would be, crushed on the sidewalk again. My father would shake his head grimly, sigh, and bring the decapitated box back in to fix again.
One night, my father parked his car outside in the driveway and not only was the mailbox off its post the next morning, but all the windows in our car had been shattered. There were so many pieces of glass inside the car that my father couldn’t get in to drive it to the mechanic. We had to get it towed. He missed work that day, and spent it nailing the mailbox back on. He called the police.
It was probably some neighborhood prank, the policeman said on arrival, and my parents nodded and said yes, these things happen. But even then, I knew that these things only seemed to happen to our mailbox, our car. Secretly, I thought it was my parents’ anger, too explosive to contain. I thought their fights broke the windows in our car, knocked the mailbox off its hinge. There were silences at dinner that lasted for days, then the fights resumed without warning, ignited as sudden as flame. I worried about how tired my father was each night, and the way my mother seemed to get sadder and sadder, and how the meanness between them wore away at their love.
One morning the mailbox had been knocked so far off the post it was in our neighbor’s yard. I watched from the window as my father crossed the lawn to retrieve it from where it lay. Our neighbor wiped his hand on his pants before shaking hands with my father, and then they stood talking for a while, our dented mailbox swinging in my father’s hand. The neighbor’s boy, who was Hannah’s age, laughed while my father talked to his father. I watched our neighbor reach over and touch his son’s hair. I watched the boy prance around him, laughing, and I wondered if what we were really missing in my family was a boy.
My parents loved us. I never doubted that. But sometimes I still wonder if they would have traded me in for the son they wanted. I never asked. I did know that my mother aborted two girls before she refused to keep trying, and that her refusal sparked a coldness between my parents that lasted for years. One night, after a fight that continued downstairs long after I had gone to bed, my mother snuck into my room. She was crying.
“Jeehyun,” she said, lying down next to me on my twin size bed. “You must not be like me. When you are a wife, do not fight. Obey your husband. Fulfill his wishes. Bear him a son. Jeehyun? Are you listening? Earn his love.”
I crawled into her arms and felt her tremble against me. I did not cry. I told her instead that I would practice. I would obey. I would be everything a husband could want, everything my parents might wish.
If I had to mark a moment, I would say it was then, in the dark, that I first learned that love is a kind of disappearing.