The day my mother was hit by the bus, I was making love to a bald man. His name was David Pritchett and he was my Asian Studies professor at Harvard. You know the type—in love with the Far East, wears a short kimono over boxer shorts and eats instant ramen with splintered chopsticks. The love affair of his life ended badly. A Japanese girl he’d met on sabbatical in Osaka. Her parents disapproved of him and married her off on the sly to the son of a family friend. It was then that his hair fell out, he said, in one heart-stricken night. Hair-stricken. I said.
He only dated Asian women. Sometimes he forgot and called me Michiko. I’m Korean-American, not Japanese, but how could blame him? I’ve never dated an Asian in my life. And, except for that barren scalp of his, smooth as an egg, David looked like any other Caucasian I’ve been with, round-eyed and ripe for sunburn. His kind are a dime a dozen around Harvard Square. They look you over, frankly curious, like sightseers yearning for a little exotica erotica to make them feel daring, to make them feel like they aren’t their fathers.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” David would whisper, running his hands along the rounds of my shoulders, the light of the candle reflected in his pale eyes. “Your skin is so soft, so golden…your hair is so shiny, so black.” It was my otherness he loved, and that was fine with me. I’m fond of guys like him. You could say they’re my type. You see, I understand about self-hatred, about running from what you are.
. . .
My father died five years ago. His immigrant heart stopped beating sometime between the beginning of the nightly news and mid-Wheel of Fortune, when my mouther found him. In his Barcalounger in the family room, surrounded by fake wood paneling and beige Dupont Stainmaster carpeting, he was an American stiff. He embraced it all—the split ranch with the postage stamp lawn and the iron eagle above the front door; the barbecue grill on the screened-in back porch; the purple bug-zapper; and the two-car garage. But here’s the irony: he’d disowned me the year before for screwing a white boy on his Broyhill couch.
After his death, my mouther became strange. She started wearing her traditional Korean dress around the neighborhood. People would stare as she went past them in the mall, in her flowing hanbok with the short jacket and satin bow. They stared especially at her shoes: rubber, canoe-shaped things that squeaked like wet tires on the buffed linoleum floor. She worked in the GNC store, selling tiger’s milk and papaya tablets to anemic-looking customers in jogging outfits. Mr. Fragamini, the store’s owner, was sweet on her and thought it might be educational for his patrons to be greeted by a diminutive Oriental woman in native dress. But even he had problems when she stopped speaking English. “Ahnyounghasayo,” my mother would say, welcoming a customer to the shop. “Mor durikayo?” And the customer would back away, gesturing with both hands, staring at my mother as though she meant them harm, and beat a hasty retreat.
After she was fired my mother stayed home, living off Dad’s life insurance money. She only spoke Korean, which I don’t understand. My parents never taught me; they said I refused to learn. I tried to get in touch with my mother’s sister in Seoul, but they had a falling out years ago; my aunt had moved from the only address I had for her.
The day my mother got hit, she was trying to get to me. From the suburbs, she had taken the train to Alewife, then gotten on the red line to Harvard Square. Crossing Mass. Ave. about a block from my apartment, where I, as I’ve said, was preoccupied with David, when my mother was run over by an MBTA bus. I found out a few hours after she was taken to Cambridge City Hospital where she was pronounced dead. The phone rang while David and I were still in bed. I picked it up, and that was it.
I felt the way you feel when you think you’ve reached the bottom of something and you discover there’s still a long way down. I was never close to my mother. My real battle was always with my Dad: when he disowned me, I disowned him right back. My mother, who gave me money on the sly, would call and sob into the telephone, trying to mediate forgiveness, but my father and I had obstinacy in common, and my mother was stuck in the middle like a deer caught in the cross fires.
My parents were strangers to me. Theirs was the immigrant success story, the hard-work-and-sacrifice life that formed a gray backdrop to my own comfort. They spoke a different language, held different values, but more than that, they seemed always to inhabit a different space. I was scolded or praised as a child, shown off to friends, sent to my room, but was never really talked to, never brought in. But, by keeping from me the hardships they endured—the disappointments, the prejudice, the homesickness—they also withheld from me their humanity.
Once, we were in a traffic accident. The man in the other car climbed out and shook his fist at my father. “Goddamn gook!” he yelled. My father’s face betrayed no emotion. He smiled and bowed repeatedly like a pathetic coolie. Even after the man had left, and I asked my father why he hadn’t slugged him, he just smiled.
My parents wanted a daughter from those articles in the Times, you know—the model Asian student, violin tucked under the chin, calculator on the belt, thick glasses, funny haircut like an inverted bowl. I didn’t want to be like that. I couldn’t. I mean, I was smart, but not in ways my parents appreciated. I wrote confessional poetry about masturbation and read Burroughs, Miller and 4 Nin. I did oral reports in ninth grade on women’s degradation in literature and birth control in the Third World. I got into trouble swearing, smoking, displaying public affection in the halls. My parents were pleased when I got into Harvard, happy about the scholarship. But they still refused to present me to their friends: I wore frosted lipstick, my hair hung in front of my face, and I only wore black.
I don’t know what my mother was coming to see me about. I wouldn’t have been able to understand her anyway, unless she decided to speak English again. The police said she’d been jaywalking, as though that was a justification for her death. They didn’t answer when I asked if they were going to prosecute, issue a posthumous ticket. It was the only time, to my knowledge, that my mother had ever broken the rules in this country—my mother, who thought they could cart you away in chains for ripping tags off of mattresses. She used to worry if my father didn’t mow the lawn every weekend. Craning her neck out the window in the direction of our neighbor’s immaculate grass, my mother watched for police cars, convinced we would be placed under house arrest for violating some dour suburban law.
In her purse I found a few dollars, some crumpled Kleenex, my address and phone number, and an out-of-focus, black and white photograph of my father at his University of Wisconsin graduation. One of her rubber canoe shoes was missing. As she was crossing Mass. Ave. it could have slipped off her foot, and as she hesitated, she was hit. I went up and down both sides of the street near the site of the accident, but I never found the shoe.
Sudden orphanhood was odd. David found it necessary to sigh over me and fetch cups of herbal tea, giving me deep, meaningful looks that would reflect back to him in my centerless-eyes. I was in my second year of graduate school, and suddenly short of cash. My apartment was small and airless with clanking pipes and roaches. But I liked it, and did not want to move in with David, as he had proposed, to more spacious digs in Porter Square.
I tried waitressing, but I dropped things, and I couldn’t remember orders. I tried working at Widener Library, but the dust made me sneeze, and the silence made me sneeze louder. David wanted to get me a research assistantship, checking citations on his papers on Meiji Era Power Brokers, but I wasn’t interested.
For some reason, I blamed David for my mother’s death. I kept thinking that I might have been giving him a blow job at the moment she started to cross Mass. Ave. Three-o-nine p.m.: David is lying with his kimono open, his face pink and contorted in pleasure; just as my mother’s ankle buckles and the side of her shoe fishtails; she looks up and there’s the bus.
“You can’t blame yourself,” David said.
I didn’t answer.
“Karen…” His eyes were pink-rimmed, “I love you.”
I reached out to touch the dome of his scalp. I could see blue veins like thoughts inside his head. Alopecia, I thought. The technical term for sudden baldness. It was a beautiful word. Alopecia. Like an Italian villa. Alopecia. Some eternally blooming hothouse flower.
“David,” I said. “I can’t be with you anymore.”
. . .
In April, I answered an ad in the Boston Phoenix and took the T over to the Combat Zone to Freddy’s Girls Girls Girls International Flesh Imporium [sic]. Freddy was looking to replace his Asian representative who’d gone back to Beijing to get married. “Sweet kid,” he said, shaking his head at the loss. He had a black stripper from Brazil, a blonde named Vava Vavoom from Sweden, and a redhead from France.
“Let’s see,” he said, indicating for me to take off my shirt. I did, and he asked me to move around for him. I hammed it up, unzipped my jeans, did some pirouettes. My breasts are big for an Asian’s. I could tell he liked them. My hair is waist-length and I tossed it around, playing peek-a-boo.
“Okay,” Freddy said, writing something down on a pad of paper. He seemed embarrassed. “You’ve got the part. You’re Sweet Lillian Two-knocka from Japan.”
“Um… but I’m Korean,” I said, feeling a little foolish.
Freddy frowned. He wore bifocals and had a sharp nose; he looked more like a bookkeeper than the owner of a strip club. “Neither was Fang Lu,” he said. He shrugged. “We get a lot of Japanese businessmen. Big tippers. They’ll be nice to you.”
I tried to explain the historic enmity between Korean and Japan, and the physical differences between the body types, but Freddy was impatient.
“You’ll be fine,” he said, patting me on the back. “No one’ll know.”
I was nervous the first night, but the other girls were nice. Vava did my face for me, applying sweeps of rouge and thin strokes of eyeliner pencil with maternal tenderness. Fifi (who was actually from Rhode Island) taught me how to remove my velcro body suit in one graceful motion, then bump and grind around the fireman’s pole. Lolla, the girl from Brazil, loaned me her lucky peacock feather to wear tucked in the back of my elaborate Geisha hairpiece.
It’s not what I imagined—the lights are up, and you can’t see the audience’s faces very well. For the most part, everyone’s respectful—there are a few remarks, but nothing out of the ordinary. I have fun on stage, believing in myself as this incredible, exotic creature they have come to see, feeling the heat of their collective desire, camping it up like some Asian parody of Gypsy Rose Lee. Americans make such a fuss about sex, which is nothing to what Koreans make of it—when all it is is heat, flesh, and animal nature. So, big deal. But if you want to know, there’s something almost boring about stripping. The guys look drugged and their eyes get sleepy. And I sometimes feel like a nurse performing a necessary nighttime ritual—like reading a bedtime story before tucking them in.
The club itself was seedy, with ripped vinyl stools, soaped windows, and checked linoleum floors sticky with beer. The stage was black with a runway that split off in two directions and a fireman’s poke in the middle. There were a few footlights, and other lights hanging from a rod on the ceiling. It was the kind of place I’d never been to, that I used to pass by with averted eyes. But I liked it there. Freddy wasn’t a bad boss, not like Professor Stanton who used to make suggestive remarks, and press too close against me in the stacks. Freddy was more interested in the receipts than in us, which was just as well; he kept his nose buried in his accounts. Brad and Tony, the bouncers, took care of us like they were our older brothers. Brad got us French fries or milk shakes between acts, and Tony brushed out my hair, very slowly, without pulling. It’s hard to explain. Part of it was the thrill of rebellion; but part of it was that I just liked it. What happened inside seemed easier to deal with, simpler, more honest at least, than what happened outside.
Anyway, everything was going fine until one night in June. I was out there, doing my thing. I was wearing my Japanese kimono, my hair was stuffed into an elaborate wig, and my legs were slipping in and out of the folds in a beguiling fashion. The music was vamping, and I loosened the obi, shimmying down to give a tantalizing view of my cleavage and thighs. I threw the obi to the side of the stage and wiggled out of the kimono, revealing a red satin body-suit with embroidered black dragons. The night was hot, and I was glad to be rid of the robe. The sweat was glistening on my face and running down the back of my neck, but I kept smiling. It was a packed house and already they were throwing dollar bills onto the stage. There were the usual catcalls, the whistling, and I was just about to rip the Velcro off the body-suit, when I heard someone yell, far off at first, then louder.
“No! No! Stop!”
Someone jumped up on stage and tackled me. There was confusion, scuffling; something dark and heavy was thrown over my head.
“Karen, it’s me! I’m taking you home.” The thing around my head slipped down – it turned out to be David’s navy blazer—and I saw his bald head buried in my left side.
“It’s okay,” I said to Brad and Tony who dashed onto the stage.
“You know this guy?” Tony said, letting go of David’s arm reluctantly, giving him a last contemptuous push.
People were booing. I saw Freddy hovering on stage with a worried smile on his face, gesturing for the audience to please stay in their seats. I was afraid that they were going to kill David. I pushed him off stage.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
He stared at me. “What am I doing here?” he said. “I’m here for my cousin Ken’s stag party. What are you doing here?”
“I work here,” I said.
“No, you don’t,” he said.
“What do you mean, no I don’t?” I said.
“Karen, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but I’m not going to let you be exploited like this!” David gestured toward Brad and Tony, who were standing by with concerned expressions.
“I’m not being exploited, they’re my friends,” I said. “And even if I were being exploited—which I’m not—but even if I wanted to be, goddamnit, it would be none of your business!”
David stared at me. His scalp was bright red and there was a throbbing blue vein across one temple. “You mean you like this—degrading yourself publicly, trading in the worst possible sexist and racist stereotypes, being pawed over and made a spectacle of?”
I gave it a thought. “Yeah,” I said. “Lighten up, David.”
He looked crestfallen.
“Laa-dies and gggentlemen,” Freddy crooned over the microphone, his face flushed in the spotlight. The crowd quieted. “Sorry for the disturbance. So now, without any more delay or interruption, let’s go to sexy, sultry Rio de Janeiro, where every night is Carnival with the beautiful, luscious, Lolla Paloosa!”
The music started. Freddy came backstage and pointed at me. “You!” he said. “I don’t need this! Get your boyfriend in line or you’re fired. This is a legitimate theater I’m trying to run here.”
“Sorry, Freddy,” I said. Freddy waved us off and walked away.
David took my hand. “Come home with me, Karen,” he said. “You’ve got to. Come on, let’s get married.” He was serious.
I stood there in my satin body-suit with black stockings and gold stiletto heels; underneath I wore pasties with tassels I was still learning to twirl, and a black G-string. Under a Geisha wig with a peacock feather stuck in it, my face was made-up to look like a Japanese doll with round, red cheeks and dark eyes narrowed to slits. My mother had been hit by a bus and my father died in a Barcalounger chair. I had just been proposed to by a man with no hair, who loved a Japanese woman named Michiko but would settle for me instead. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I laughed. To his credit, David laughed along.
. . .
I was on my way to the club one afternoon. I’d taken to hanging out in the dressing room before the show, playing bridge with the girls, reading Colette and Jean Rhys to them, both of whom they’d grown to love. It was a beautiful August day, and the streets thronged with tourists, summer students, shoppers, and street musicians. There were some earnest-faced kids in Dead T-shirts and African National Congress knit berets, setting up a card table by the T stop. They were petitioning to keep Cambridge a nuclear-free zone. I stopped to sign. Why not? I signed it Lillian Two-knocka, Japanese exchange stripper.
Oriental Sex Kittens for a Nuclear-free Zone was published in the Moonrabbit Review in 1996.