Chagrin, circa spring 2000

I am breezing out of Sociology 101 as I head to catch the shuttle back to my apartment. I am feeling uncomfortably disconnected from the hyper-involved life I once knew as a college student on campus.

Then I see the flyer. “Come help the sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha help the community.” They are making peanut butter sandwiches for a soup kitchen. I call the number.

“I’m just studying here with the Washington Semester program,” I explain to the sorority community service chair over the phone, “I go to school in Pennsylvania. And I really miss doing community service.”

Her tone is hesitant but polite; it is as though she is fielding a call for a modeling gig with someone she knows fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.

“And you said your name is Kendra?” she asks one more time before giving me the details of the dorm lounge they will be meeting to make the sandwiches.

***

The next night I take the shuttle to main campus and I feel like a proper co-ed, riding the bus with a motley crew of overprivileged, overcaffeinated co-eds on their way to all manner of classes and activities and bars.

I approach the front desk of the dorm asking where I can find a particular lounge. The student receptionist looks at me, hesitating, you’re going to the AKA meeting?

It is at this moment that a cardboard match strikes the flimsy sandpaper of my brain and I am enlightened.

I have signed myself up for an event hosted by a black sorority.

They were trying to recruit women. Maybe women whose names are Kendra. Kendra is the blackest name for a white girl in the book.

I am an infiltrator.

***

The doors of the lounge have an narrow window peering through. My worst fears have come true. If I don’t go in, I can turn around and no one will miss me. If I don’t go in, I will also never know what it is like to force myself to go into a room where I am in the complete and total minority.

***

I try to compensate for the silence with my Mid-Western friendliness; I am so overcompensatingly friendly, I sound like I have swallowed a helium tank.

We make sandwiches.

My sandwiches are inconsistent. I am sweating like a pig.

“I just saw your flier, yep! Just really miss doing community service. Yep, just here for a semester!”

The women are strong-faced. They are proud. They have no idea why I am there.

***

One girl calls her white roommate to come down and it is obvious she is a pity pinch-hitter called off a bench of illegal substitutes, there to make me feel better.

***

I tell this story over and over as if by telling it, the utter chagrin will eventually evaporate. But every time I tell it, I just feel more ashamed of how small my worldview was, how ignorant and presumptuous it was to assume my right to join, to be.

***

Happy 100th Birthday to the Sisters of AKA.

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Hybrid

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Originally uploaded by shamrox

This tree sits in front of my in-laws home. It has garnered some local fame, what with a pine tree spontaneously shooting out of a well-groomed shrub. It is a fascinating little firecracker over which suburbia can marvel.

For me, it is an excellent symbol of my experience in marrying cross-culturally. I spent the last five days at my in-laws, just the babe and I. It was the first time I’d ever been without my husband running interference with his parents, and his grandmother, who has electric purple hair and likes to spank you on the butt when she’s speaking to you.

Every conversation was translated from Korean to rudimentary English for me, or from English to Korean for John’s grandma. Sometimes doors opened on me without anyone so much as knocking. Sometimes my sarcasm fell flat. Some moments were just so full of confusion and we had to concede which we were going to abide by that day — “American style” or “Korean style.”

Just like this Tree/Bush, we are always deciding in our intercultural unit what we are going to be on any particular day, and where, if any, the two can live harmoniously and where we agree that the two are just so disparate, it seems impossible they can coexist.

But after awhile, we look at the Tree/Bush long enough and it sort of normalizes itself. And eventually, with a lot of patient cultivation, one can almost manage to see the beauty in it.

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