If You Have To

“No,” I stammered. “I can’t do that.”

“You can,” Sookie said. “You can do anything if you have to. And let me tell you something, Hyun Jin: it’s easy. It’s easy because the more you do it, the more you know it’s not the real you. The real you flies away, and you can’t feel anything anymore.”

Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller

Half In One World

Lobetto lifted his hand and I flinched out of habit. But instead of thumping my head, he cupped his hand gently under my chin. He turned my head toward and way from the lamp-light, so that I faced light and shadow in turns. “We are the same,” he announced. “Half in one world, half in the other.”

Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller

Teacher Stopped Seeing

When his father still lived in Korea, Lobetto swaggered everywhere. One of the smartest children in school—as well as the richest—he was able to present Respected Teacher with weekly gifts of coffee, cigarettes, and nuts dipped in chocolate. Lobetto was chosen leader of the class almost as much as I was. But when his father left for the States and did not return, Lobetto stopped swaggering. The teacher stopped calling him to the front, then stopped seeing him at all. Eventually, Lobetto joined the other ainokos at the missionary school for children of GI whores.

Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller

Magic Makeup

Sookie’s mother tried to think of something stranger, something that would stump us. “Miguks can’t see us,” she said. “Korean faces blind them.”

Aha!” said Sookie. “That can’t be true.”

I thought about it for a moment. It could be true Americans didn’t see like Koreans did; they had overly large, odd-colored ball-eyes. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Just that it’s possible to be invisible to them.” Sookie’s mother pushed away from the table and held her hands out to us. “Come,” she said, “I’ll show you what I mean.”

Duk Hee led us to the back room where she and sometimes her boyfriends slept. Sookie and I perched on the edge of the bare mattress while she searched through her drawers of makeup. When we saw her filling her cosmetics bag, looking over her shoulder once in a while to consider our faces, we started wriggling like market dogs for sale.

“For some reason,” she explained, “American Joes cannot see our faces clearly. Especially when we use the eye shadows, lipsticks, powder, blush-i they give us, we confuse them…I’ll tell you what I think. I think that this makeup is magic—a disguise that lets us move through their world safely.”

Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller

Learned Blindness

When I think about how hungry I thought I was that day, after having missed just one meal, I feel ashamed. Because I never once worried about the hunger Sookie must have felt when—day after day, week after week—her mother failed to return.

While her mother was in the Monkey House, I still saw Sookie every day, but somehow I learned not to see her as well. It was difficult, at first, to pretend that things were normal for her. Then, perhaps because pretending so relentlessly begins to blur the distinction between invention and reality, it became easy to believe things were normal. Practice formed a new pattern, a new way of seeing.

In avoiding her mother’s absence, I became adept at ignoring the obvious regarding Sookie. I stopped noticing how pale and gaunt she became, how circles blackened her eyes, how her hair—wild and uncombed—inched past the approved school length. I forgot what she was supposed to look like.

Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller

Perception of Beauty

It turned out that Sookie did not need Pond’s Cold Cream to cover up her ugliness. Her ugliness turned into beauty without her having to do a thing. She didn’t grow into beauty with womanhood—her boyishness developing into lush curves. Her body stayed long and thin, what the old grandmothers still call unlucky. Her skin didn’t lighten with age; her face did not grow into her overly large eyes. In fact, she looked much the same as an adult as she had in childhood. There were times when we were grown that I saw her as I did when I was younger, and was shocked into remembering that she was as ugly as she always was. And I would be reminded that what had changed was not so much how we looked, but how we looked out of our own eyes, our perceptions of beauty and of ourselves.

Fox Girl by Nora Okja Keller