Listen: Patricia Park ’03 Reads From El Chino
Earlier this semester, Patty Park ’03 returned to Swarthmore to read from her debut novel, Re: Jane and from her new book, El Chino. She discusses growing up as a Korean-American in Queens, N.Y., and the cognitive dissonance she experienced in reconciling where she came from and what she was becoming while she was a student at Swarthmore. The book centers on Juan Kim, a Korean adolescent, and takes place during the Argentine Dirty War from 1976-1983.
“His name was Juan Kim, but everywhere he went in Buenos Aires, it was always Chino. El Chino. Even though he wasn't Chinese at all, but Koreano. Korean, Okinawan, Taiwanese. At the bottom of the of the globe, we're all one in the same. Nobody could point out Korea on the pull-down map in Juan's grade six classroom. Dubious much has changed since. So, Chino he was."
Park, who graduated from Swarthmore in 2003 with an Honors English literature major and psychology minor, completed her M.F.A. at Boston University. In 2009, she was awarded a Fulbright, which she used to travel to Korea to do research for her novel. Park has taught writing at Boston University, Ewha Womans University Graduate School of Interpretation and Translation, and CUNY Queens College. Her essays have been published in the New York Times, The Guardian, Daily Beast, Slice Magazine, and others and she has appeared on MSNBC's "The Book Report", NPR's "Here and Now", WNYC's Brian Lehrer, and CBS Radio. She is currently teaching at American University in Washington D.C. and working on her new novel.
Peter Schmidt: Thank you all for coming. I'm Peter Schmidt in the English department. I teach lots of courses in the novel and US literature. And this is my friend and colleague, Bakirathi Mani. [crosstalk 00:00:11].
Bakirathi Mani: Hi, I'm Bakirathi Mani. I teach Asian American literature in the English department, and post-colonial studies, and gender and sexuality studies.
Peter Schmidt: And by strange coincidence, both of us are teaching a Patty Park novel in our syllabi this semester.
Bakirathi Mani: We're so excited. This is actually one of the ... Probably the second or third time that our classes have converged. But we don't do this regularly, and so we're excited for our students to meet each other.
Peter Schmidt: But some faculty are exploring little more ways in which classes sometimes can overlap, and then share resources and events and things together.
Bakirathi Mani: Can we see a show of hands of students who are in your class?
Peter Schmidt: Yep.
Bakirathi Mani: Professor Schmidt's class? And in my class? And there's some double counters, I'll say.
Peter Schmidt: Yep, there's a few taking both.
Bakirathi Mani: Great.
Peter Schmidt: You want to start? Go. Start.
Bakirathi Mani: Well, I just would like to start by saying how [inaudible 00:01:08] it is to have you visit us. And I will leave the honors to Peter.
In the Asian American literature, we read Re Jane as one of a series of texts that are authored by Asian American novelists in the 20th and 21st centuries. And I think one of the things that was so striking to many of us in Asian American literature in reading this novel, is how true to life it felt, especially in its descriptions of everyday life in Flushing and Brooklyn. There were so many students who could sort of see themselves in the text, and that, I think is a really powerful moment of recognition, as well as representation. But then of course, the novel also takes us elsewhere, to Seoul, and then back to Astoria.
We talked a lot about ideas of time and space in the novel, and how in some ways, the chronology of the novel, there're parts of it that skip over time, particularly as Jane is flying from New York to Seoul the very first time, and misses over September 11th happening, and then sees it on a television screen. So, lots of really interesting conversations about gender, about class, about racial representation, and then also time and space.
Peter Schmidt: And how some things in some narratives are central, and then if you flip the narrative around, things that are on the margins sometimes can be quite central in the new version of the narrative and stuff.
I'd like to welcome you by mentioning just a few things that you may be curious about, that what Patty did in preparation for her brilliant career when she was at Swarthmore, back here. She was an honors major, and she wound up getting high honors. She was a major in English literature and did a minor in psychology, and had advanced courses in social psychology, as well as in literature. I think she took American literature, and Shakespeare, and other things.
Some other courses that she took that are really fascinating include a course on W.A. Mozart in music, she was in performance in the chorus here. She also took a course on Spanish American society through its novel, by two professors that are ... One's retired and the other is about to retire there. So got very much a sense of Latin American literature and the important things that it was doing in fiction.
She also did a lot of poetry workshops, both the introduction and the advanced workshops. And just as a side-note, I taught one of those classes and it was very clear, a lot of poets, or students who are just learning the art of poetry, very much speak in their own voice in a kind of monologue. And her voice, her poems were often very full of different voices, and she was very good at trying out different characters and points of view there. So in certain ways, poetry allowed her the kind of space to develop the skill that definitely a novelist needs, where different characters will speak differently, rather than all a like and stuff.
She also did a study abroad program. In her case, she spent a year in Siena, Italy. Well not a year, but a semester ... and stuff there. She also did an economics course in games and strategies while she was here.
She currently does writing. She'll tell you a little bit about her new writing project and things, but she's also teaching creative writing fiction courses at American University in D.C., both at the undergraduate and at the graduate level. Right. So it's a real honor and pleasure to welcome her back to Swarthmore. Patty, welcome.
Patty Park: Hi, everybody! Thanks so much for coming today. Gosh, I realize Peter must have looked at my old transcripts. I mean, all those classes were coming back to me. Game theory, I've been trying to get out of my head for these past ... over you know, many years, and rather unsuccessfully.
Okay. Thank you, to Peter and to Baki for inviting me into the English department. Thank you for teaching my work, and thank you all for reading it, or having read some, or ... you know, engaging with the work. It's such an honor.
So, when I was at Swat, I took many poetry, and as well as literature classes with Peter. I think he's read every poem I wrote in it for my four years here, most of them, and all of their kind of teenage angsty, you know, wroughtness. So, thank you. He was still very encouraging, all the same. But I found that the poems kept getting longer and longer, and then they kept having a narrative, so they went from free verse to prose poems. And then finally I'm like, "These poems have an identity crisis. They need to become a novel." So that's how that all happened.
So, as many of you know, I'm from Queens, born and raised. And when first showed up at Swarthmore, I felt like I'd arrived in a foreign country. I didn't grow up speaking academic-ese. When people talked about modernism, I didn't realize it had a capital M. And one time in a seminar, I was accused of having a very essentialist reading of a text, and I was too ignorant to realize that I had been insulted.
My household, and maybe a lot of immigrant households, you know, we didn't grow up reading Derrida or Foucault, or the Chronicle of Higher Ed, or the New York Review of Books. Or even the New Yorker, for that matter. Ours was a language of construction, of building codes, of bottom lines. So language for me became a way to convey meaning in the quickest and most efficient way possible. And I'll also blame my Queens roots, and then I went to the Bronx High School of Science, so efficiency and practicality became king. Meanwhile, my classmates at Swat, and some of my professors too, no offense. It would take them ten luxurious sentences to say what my immigrant parents could say maybe in one broken sentence.
So both of these experiences, Queens and Swat, they informed my relationship with language, and with the written word. Growing up, I could never take ... Bless you ... communication for granted. You know, when your parents don't speak perfect English, and you don't speak perfect Korean, you language becomes reduced to this lowest common denominator. And what was most important was making yourself understood, by whatever means possible. Not crafting the most beautiful, metaphor rich sentences. And yet, as an English major who wrote poetry at the time, here, I had to care about the way that words sounded, and the effect that they had.
I wish I could tell you I've come to some kind of a synthesis in my relationship with language, but I haven't. The struggle is real, and it continues. Ultimately though, I think that writing is meant to elucidate, not to obfuscate. I write about minorities within minorities, and I want to give voice to those groups who feel marginalized, even among their own.
So today I'm going to read from two works. One from Re Jane, which many of you know, and then from my second novel in progress called El Chino.
So Re Jane is a story of an orphan named Jane Re, and it uses that structure of Brontë's Jane Eyre to tell Jane's story of coming of age, and of learning. So I guess there's something audacious about setting a revered Victorian classic in Queens, a borough whose literary legacy is what Fitzgerald calls, "The valley of ashes." But, oh well. I'm going to read two scenes [inaudible 00:09:18] trains, and I'm going to start with Jane leaving Flushing.
"I boarded the 7 train leaving Main St. station. There was an unmistakable rattle whenever you stepped aboard the 7, as if the train cars were hinged together by a single, loose pin. But I wasn't heading for the city. I was on my way to Brooklyn. There's a geographical irony of leaving Queens for Brooklyn, two outer boroughs that abutted each other. The fastest route was not to travel along the more efficient hypotenuse, but to make a right angle through Manhattan, crossing both bridge and tunnel. It's not that we had beef, per se. We acknowledge our injured scrappiness to the city. We were after all, bridge and tunnel. All our roads lead to Manhattan. It was the borough that blazed in its own violet light, and threw scraps of shadows on the rest of us."
"I've driven through Brooklyn only a handful of times in my life. My uncle Sang would make us roll up the windows and double-check the car doors were locked. He'd written off the entire borough after a fruit and vegetable he owned on Smith St. went up in flames during a blackout. According to my aunt Hannah, Sang had stumbled home that night with burnt clothes, a black eye, and a busted rib. Since then, his mind conflated the three Bs. Brooklyn, black people, and the blackout."
"Add to that one more B. A baby. A bundle of joy. Me. I was a burden, the daughter of his dead younger sister, and a mixed-blood bastard to boot. My mother had done a stupid thing as a college student up in Seoul. She fell in love. It was an indulgence at a time when most marriages were arranged. Worse, she fell for an American man, a G.I., or so the story went. My grandfather kicked my pregnant mother out, or maybe she left on her own accord. Sang was stingy with the details. All he ever offered up about my mother's life was contained in three terse sentences. 'Long ago she used to listening you grandpa. Then one day she stop. Now, she dead.' Aunt Hannah filled in patches of the narrative of the sister-in-law she had never met, colored with her own perceptions. 'Your mother was a wild fox girl. Don't you dare grow up to become like her.'"
"In any case, my mother had me, a Honhyeol, a mixed-blood. Then she died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, from the fumes of cheap coal briquettes used for cooking and heating, an all too common occurrence in Korea back then. Rightfully, I should have died too, had not providence, or maybe it was the police, saved me from the wreckage. After her death, the responsibility of dealing with me defaulted to my grandfather. The way I pictured it, he stepped outside one morning to get a drink from the well, and there I was, swaddled on his doorstep. He stared down at me and thought, 'Oh, shit.'"
"There was no question I would have been stigmatized if I'd stayed in the motherland, where my dubious lineage would have undoubtedly come to light. But here's another geographical irony for you. I traveled nearly 7000 miles across the globe, to escape societal censure, only to end up in the second largest Korean community in the Western world."
"We were stuttering our way out of Queens. The 7 train was like that. Tourettic. The lights blinked on and off, the rickety train cars jerked from side to side, as much as front and back. I stared at the other slumped passengers. The faces repeated in a pattern. Korean, Hispanic, Chinese, Chinese again, Indian. You could always tell by their worn expressions that they were going from home to work. You could always tell by their worn shoes, all sharing the same thick, rubber soles, designed to absorb the labor of the day."
"The train emerged above ground, the windows opening to the sprawl of Flushing. First you saw a beautiful clock tower, sitting on top of a concrete storage-warehouse, with loud, capital letters, U-HAUL. Then the Van Wyck, snaking its way through heaps of sand and ash, through auto body shops and junkyard lots. There were rows of brown, frayed, tarped storefronts, with Korean lettering. Then the view of Ashe, a stadium the shade of working class blue. On game nights, you could barely make out the half-hearted roars of the half-empty crowds. Ahead, the sliver peaks of the midtown skyline glinted in that violet light. This was our Queens wasteland. Then the lights in the train car flickered off, as the often do on the 7 train."
Then 150 pages go by, and Jane lands in Seoul, for reasons it takes 150 pages to explain. But you all read that, so you're along for the ride. There's this term I refer to in this passage I'm going to read. It's a Korean term called tap-tap-hae, and there's no word for it in English. But if I can briefly hijack my own reading for a little vocab lesson, I'll attempt to explain. It's this feeling of discomfort that manifests itself both physically and psychologically. So when your bra straps are too tight, that's tap-tap-hae. When you feel like the walls are closing in on you, that's tap-tap-hae. When you're speaking with someone who does not understand irony, that is infuriatingly, exasperatingly tap-tap-hae.
"Our train left Seoul station for Busan. Large steel cranes dominated the plots of land. Wrecking balls were poised over low-rise buildings, ready to raze their old and tired facades. But then the scenery shifted, concrete giving way to farmland. My mother had one made a similar journey to Busan, during the family's flight from the North. but she had only been a child. Sang too. The few details he had offered up were characteristically sparse. 'Train inside full. No choice but riding on top. It was little bit tap-tap-hae.' Then his tone would grow dismissive. 'But those days, what isn't little bit tap-tap-hae?'"
"My grandfather had ordered the family to flee South as war broke out. 'We'll meet in Busan,' he said, before the Communists came and conscripted him into their army. All south-bound trains were already bursting with women and children. They were forced to ride on top of the roof of the train car. Sang and my mother sat toward the middle, while Big Uncle and my grandmother sat to the outer ends, their hands encircling the smaller children as if they were playing Ring around the Rosie. At each stop, more passenger got on, but no one got off, the cars groaning with the burden of too many people."
"I stared out the window. Our train was approaching a tunnel burrowed into the face of a mountain. We rushed through, the whoosh of wind causing the cars to rattle, and the lights flickered off. In that darkness, it was more than just little bit tap-tap-hae. It felt as if we were being swallowed whole. When we emerged from the tunnel, Changhoon pulled my hand away. I'd been rubbing my chest. 'Everything okay? You look pale.' 'It's just, I wonder my mother's family taking the same train ride. During the War.' 'Don't say it like that,' Changhoon said. I felt chastised. Maybe talking about the War was a no-no."
"But he was referring to my Korean itself. 'Your cadence, it goes up and down too much. It's a dead giveaway that you're a foreigner. Here's what you sound like. The ti-ger go-bbled up the-boy-and-girl.' He smiled, triumphant in his ability to diagnose the problem with my Korean. 'We Seoulites stay neutral when we talk. Listen. The tiger gobbled up the boy and girl.' 'But you go up and down too.' 'But that's how you're supposed to speak Seoul-standard Korean.' He said it as if it were no big deal to ask me to fix the very rhythms of my speech. I probably should have left things there. Why rock the boat, when we would have enjoyed the rest of the ride, holding hands and watching episodes of Gag Concert."
"Except, I didn't. 'Your cadence isn't perfect and flat either,' I said. 'What about when you say why?' 'What about when I say why?' 'Here's Changhoon [inaudible 00:18:04] sound.' I unlaced my fingers from his. 'Why-y-y-y!' I slashed a line in the air. It spiked like a series of murmurs on a heart monitor. Kind of like when valley girls say, 'Oh my Go-od.' Changhoon looked nonplussed. 'Oppa's just trying to help you,' he said. I thought his tone would soften, but it remained resolute. 'If all you want to do is make jokes, how will you ever improve?'"
"I train my ears on the conversations surrounding us. The other passengers' animated chatter rose and fell like lapping waves. The Busan cadence had a distinct, familiar rhythm. If I closed my eyes, I would be right back in the church basement in Queens. 'I like Busan speak. It sounds like music,' I said. Like a lullaby, I thought."
So, that's from Re Jane, which many of you are familiar with this. And to end, I'll read a little bit from the opening of my second novel in progress. It's called El Chino. I'm not sure. How many of you studied Spanish? Some? Yeah, many of you. El chino, I guess it literal mean like the Chinaman, or the Chinese male person, but it's fraught because it applies to my main character, Juan Kim. He's a boy who falls in love with jazz, despite his parents' attempts to [inaudible 00:19:26] study classical piano. And it takes place during the Dirty War. The Argentine Dirty War, from 1976-1983, when the military junta, the government disappeared 30 thousand people for subversive activities. But in Argentina where Juan Kim was born and raised, to be el chino, all Koreans were chinos, at least to the Argentines in this story. And so that title, that name is in some ways, a slur. But you'll learn about it.
For those of you who read Re Jane, you might remember the character of Juan. He's like the stock boy in uncle Sang's grocery store. So I retroactively fitted him into Re Jane once I knew I was working on this book, which I started ... nine years ago? Oh, I cheated on Re Jane on my full write in Korea by starting this, and then I finally had a chance to return. So I'll just read a little bit from the opening.
"His name was Juan Kim, but everywhere he went in Buenos Aires, it was always chino. El chino. Even though he wasn't Chinese at all, but Koreano. Korean, Okinawan, Taiwanese. At the bottom of the of the globe, we're all one in the same. Nobody could point out Korea on the pull-down map in Juan's grade six classroom. Dubious much has changed since. So, chino he was."
"At first Juan didn't mind, but his sister Una did. She was born seven years before Juan, before the Kims had ever heard of this country called Argentina. Whenever the word was hurled her way, she'd snap, '[foreign language 00:21:04],' only to be dubbed [foreign language 00:21:06]. And there were only so many battle she could fight in one day, in one lifetime."
"The Kims lived at the mouth of Avenida Carabobo, idiot-face avenue, in the [foreign language 00:21:22] of one-story cement shacks, as far as the eye could see. [foreign language 00:21:27] was the only way to describe them. Ugly as all hell. No respectable Buenos Airean would deign to dwell in these miserable, and rather aspirationally named villas, on the outskirts of their fair port city. Porteños, as they call themselves, prefer their gunned and guarded high-rises in the choicier neighborhoods to the north. Their penthouses afforded vistas of the famous La Recoleta Cemetery, where Argentina's most famous corpses, Evita, et al. were buried, or said to be buried. Mausoleum vandals were not uncommon, and those paid to patrol the grounds were paid once more to look the other way."
"Pit stops within [inaudible 00:22:16] [foreign language 00:22:17], literal beautiful land they called America was supposed to have been the Kims' original plan. Instead they passed a dozen years here, in [foreign language 00:22:28], south of beautiful. In so many ways, Argentina felt exactly that. Falling short of the promised destination. The Kims, along with the literal boat loads of other Koreans arriving in the port of Buenos Aires, settled for this passed through shanty-town, 10 kilometers west of the city center, and almost 10 thousand kilometers south, [foreign language 00:22:53]. Officially, the neighborhood was named [foreign language 00:22:57], but the Koreans called it 'paekkucho'n', 109 Village, after the 109 bus route that ran the length of Carabobo. But no [foreign language 00:23:06] had actually ever seen, let alone ridden this phantasma of a 109 bus. As with most things here, it was simply another fiction that people came to believe is true."
"Juan Kim was the first [foreign language 00:23:22] of [Paekku 00:23:23]. His mother had given birth to him, moments after they docked in Buenos Aires. He knew Paekku like the backs of his pale, fine hands. Block after concrete block, and still Juan knew the fastest way to the parks, the [foreign language 00:23:38], the [foreign language 00:23:40]. Weaving through the front and back [foreign language 00:23:42] of their neighbors. Yes, gardens. Paekku was the Cadillac of misery-villes. Running water, electricity, indoor toilets, a verandah even, to grill the evening meal of short ribs and sweetbreads. The Kims had never known such luxuries in the Korea they had left behind. These government projects had been constructed during Juan Perón's reign, in the era where worker was king."
"Still, such luxuries were not enough. Not enough for señor and señora Kim to overcome the cost of migration, the daily negation of the self, the feeling of being un-moored in a foreign land. Not enough to soften their tongues to the sing-songiness of Argentine [foreign language 00:24:30], when all they longed to do was curl, fetus-like, in to the crisp comfort of their native Korean. So they silenced themselves. After time, the natives took them for deaf and dumb. It was easier this way."
I'll stop here. I've been reading. Thank you.