- Pages: 384 Pages
- Publisher: Penguin Young Readers Group
- Imprint: Kokila
- ISBN: 9780593462751
An Excerpt From
The Noh Family
Next to kimchi, Koreans have perfected one other thing: The Dramatic Pause. It’s that moment right after an epic reveal that lasts only a minute but stays with you forever. After bingeing countless hours of K-dramas, I have yet to find one episode that doesn’t have The Dramatic Pause. It’s like the Lee Min Ho of K-dramas; it never gets old.
I have somewhat expertly (see aforementioned amount of episodes watched) broken down The Dramatic Pause into three broad categories:
(1) The good: Two star-crossed lovers finally meeting face-to-face after missing each other one too many times. Often in the rain and almost always without an umbrella. (Swoon.)
(2) The bad: The main character finding out they lost their entire family fortune in a terrible economic investment and are now destined to a life of destitution and degradation. (The shame!) Extra pause if this was orchestrated by their best friend, who secretly hates them because they are embroiled in a love triangle.
(3) The unexpected: The main character discovering that their father is not actually their father and that their life is about to change . . . dun. Dun. DUN! (Like in the episode Hazel and I are watching now.)
Every Friday after school, Hazel, Seb, and I have a standing appointment to binge K-dramas at my house. Since today is graduation, I wasn’t sure if they’d be able to make it. But here we are, crammed onto my twin-sized bed, watching a much-needed episode of the K-drama My Professor, My Father on Hazel’s laptop.
Since Seb likes to pretend he isn’t into K-dramas like Hazel and I are, we sent him on a very important errand that should take precisely three minutes.
“Chloe Chang! Some of us have to read the subtitles.” Hazel taps me on the shoulder. “Any closer and you’ll be in the screen.”
I give her a pointed look. “Just because I’m one hundred percent Korean doesn’t mean I don’t have to read the subtitles either.” Technically, not quite 100 percent Korean, but close enough.
“Okay, but . . .” She motions at the space I’m taking up, which happens to be in direct view of her screen. I scoot back, only mildly embarrassed. As my best friend since forever, Hazel knows I lose all sense of time and space when it comes to Dad discoveries.
We would’ve been less cramped at Hazel’s, but she has five sisters (yes, five), each with very strong and very different opinions about everything. Even though she lives in a six-bedroom McMansion, Hazel claims there isn’t enough space to avoid what she calls the ¡Qué quilombo!, or the shit show of personalities. Real-life drama, Hazel claims, is not as much fun as K-drama.
When I inch closer to the screen again, Hazel shoots me a dirty look.
“You’re doing it again! Great, now I missed what he said!”
“He said he can’t believe that all this time, his professor was his father!”
“Oh my god! Finally!” She squeals with me.
Then it comes: The Dramatic Pause.
We hold our breaths and watch as if in a trance as the camera pans from one character to the other. Cue the surprised look on their faces. Cue the single-tear trickle. Cue the original soundtrack. Ugh. Even when I know to expect it, it gets me. Every. Time.
Then, as we knew it would, the episode ends abruptly, leaving us completely hanging.
“Noooo!” I yell up at the ceiling.
“Arrghh! Why do they always do that?” Hazel protests with her fist in the air.
I smile at her ridiculously. Hazel and I have reached that level of obsession with K-dramas where we’ve started to mimic their exaggerated reactions ourselves. “How much time do you think we’ve wasted watching K-dramas?” Just hours after our last day of high school, and already I’m feeling nostalgic.
“Wasted? Omo!” she gasps with a hand to her chest. “You mean invested.” She checks her phone and says, “And for the record, according to MyDramaList, we’ve watched five hundred and sixty episodes, which is roughly twenty-three days of continuous viewing. I have no regrets.”
I laugh. “You’re right. It was totally worth it.” We lie side by side on my bed, staring up at the popcorn ceiling. All those memories of Hazel, Seb, and I holed up in my room bingeing K-dramas will somehow have to sustain me for the next four years without them. Pretty soon, Hazel and Seb will be off to California.
While I’ll still be here, in same old Oklahoma.
Seb walks in right in time with some comfort food.
“Did someone order a bowl of Shin Ramyun?” He sets down a tray with two steaming Styrofoam bowls of instant noodles on my desk.
We don’t dignify his question with a response and instead grab our bowls, snapping our wooden chopsticks apart. Seb knows that when it comes to the Shin, we don’t joke.
“Sebastian Elias, you are the best.” Hazel gives Seb a quick peck on the lips before mixing her noodles around with her chopsticks.
How do I feel about my best friends suddenly having feelings for each other? Psshhhh . . . totally fine.
And, at the same time, not fine at all.
The three of us have been hanging out together since middle school, geeking out over our shared interests in fashion and TikTok dances. The summer before junior year, however, Seb grew five inches, developed muscles, and basically became objectively hot. He was the same Seb to me, though. The brother I never had. I thought Hazel felt the same way about him, until they came out to me as a couple at the beginning of our senior year. I should be used to it by now, everyone moving on while I’m standing still. Story of my life.
We both take turns inhaling the noodles, then coughing up the spicy soup base that somehow always goes down the wrong pipe.
“Whoa, heavy episode? You guys seem slurpier than usual today,” Seb says.
“It’s been a day,” I manage to say while chewing the noodles. “Just glad it’s over.” Big events, the ones where families are expected to attend, send my nerves into hyperdrive. Maybe it’s because I don’t have a “normal family” like everyone else. My dad was killed in a car accident less than a year after my parents left Korea, which changed everything for my mom, who was six months pregnant with me at the time. Now, she’s all the family I’ve got. I swear, my life sounds sadder than a K-drama when I think about it.
“Hey, I’m sure your mom will make it up to you. She always does,” Hazel says, setting her chopsticks down and putting a hand on my shoulder.
“Theresa Chang may not be around to make the Shin–,” Seb says, motioning to the bowls of noodles.
“Or come to graduations,” I mutter loudly.
“But”—Hazel smiles with her head cocked to the side—“you know she loves you.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Other than my mom, Hazel and Seb know me better than anyone. They know that sometimes when Mom’s at the hospital, she just plain forgets about everything, even me. Like the time she couldn’t make my eighth-grade art exhibition where I showcased my first fashion designs, or the school performance where I played the role of Chip in Beauty and the Beast, or parent-teacher conferences—every one of them. I know it sucks now, but Hazel and Seb are right. Mom might have missed my high school graduation, but I know it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love me.
We’re like the Korean Gilmore Girls, except without the cute boyfriends and rich grandparents. So, like, the poor, lonely reboot version.
“I was kinda hoping Ted Takahashi would show up.” Hazel nudges me, snorting.
“Whatever happened to the 23andMe test we got you?” Seb asks.
“Oh, that,” I say, setting the bowl of Shin Ramyun aside.
It was last year that Seb first noticed my uncanny resemblance to Ted Takahashi, the weatherman on our local newscast. Seb wasn’t totally off base—I look nothing like my mom, while Ted and I have the same widow’s peak hairline and almost identical low-bridge noses and full lips. Since I don’t know anything about my dad, we convinced ourselves that I must be Ted’s daughter. Anyway, Seb and Hazel got me one of those DNA kits for my eighteenth birthday back in March. It wouldn’t exactly confirm whether Ted Takahashi is my dad, but it would at least point me in the right direction, since Mom is Korean and Ted Takahashi is proudly Japanese.
The test was supposed to be a joke, but to be honest, I wanted it to be true. Not that I dream of being the illegitimate daughter of Ted Takahashi. But lately, I’ve been feeling a bit, I don’t know, left behind. I always felt different next to Hazel and Seb, who both have these big families with not only a mom and a dad, but also siblings and cousins. Over time, there were other glaring differences. Like when Seb joined a robotics club and Hazel enrolled in a film class that took up their spare time. I tried to ask my mom about taking fashion design classes, but if regular extracurriculars cost money, fashion classes cost beaucoup bucks that we don’t have. Now they’ll both be off to college, leaving me behind once again. So when Hazel and Seb spun a fantastical story about my parents’ ill-fated romance worthy of any makjang drama, I wanted it to be true. That way, if Ted was my dad, I’d at least know something about him.
As it turns out, science does not take into account a person’s wishful thinking, no matter how much they want it. I had to learn that the hard way.
“Got my results this morning. I’m 95.1 percent Korean. Ted is Japanese, so not my dad. Sorry to disprove your theory.”
“What? No way,” Hazel says at the same time Seb says, “It’s gotta be wrong.”
Surprisingly, they’re serious. Which makes me realize it wasn’t a joke to them, either.
I shake my head. “It’s DNA. How can you doubt factual science? It’s how murder mysteries are solved and how rapists are convicted.”
Seb winces. “This conversation turned dark real fast.”
“Does it at least tell you which region of Korea you’re from?” Hazel asks. “Maybe that could point you in the right direction.”
Seb raises a quizzical brow. “It’s DNA, not GPS.”
Hazel shoots him back a look. “I don’t know how DNA works. I’m only trying to be helpful.”
The snippiness in their tone with each other is unusual. The disappointment must be getting to them, too. Before things get worse, for any of us, I decide to be the first to accept my fate. A life skill I’ve grown accustomed to.
“Look, I appreciate it, but let’s face it. My mom is right, and there are no big secrets. My dad is just some guy who died and had no other living relatives. Take it or leave it, this is who I am.”
“Can I see the results?” Seb asks, and I hand him my phone with the website pulled up.
“Oh, look, it has this section about finding relatives,” he says, scrolling down. “I guess if anyone you’re related to also took the test, you could connect with them.”
“It requires you to opt in,” Hazel reads over Seb’s shoulder.
They both look up at me, wide-eyed.
I shrug my approval.
“Yes! I’m downloading the app and opting you in!” Seb fiddles with my phone.
“Okay, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves like we did with the Ted Takahashi thing.” Even though it was a far-fetched idea, I didn’t realize until now how much I wanted Ted to be my dad. I don’t know if I can guard myself from being sucked into the idea of yet another story about a long-lost family, and I definitely can’t handle the disappointment again.
Hazel cocks her head to the side and stares at me with her big brown (technically hazel) eyes. “Another episode?”
“You read my mind.” I give her a weak smile.
She pushes the mouse on her laptop to start the next episode of My Professor, My Father. Seb joins us in solidarity, and we cram together on my twin-sized bed. Pretty soon I forget about being alone and get sucked into the lives on-screen, proving once again that K-dramas are the perfect answer to everything.
A couple of hours later, I’m fully expecting Mom to come through the door at any minute with balloons. Or tacos. Or both. Instead, my phone buzzes.
“Ahhh, my Chloe-yah! Congratulations!” Mom’s voice booms out of my phone, and I briefly check to see if I accidentally have her on speakerphone. Nope, not on speakerphone. “You’re officially done with the high school!”
“Thanks, Mom,” I say, chuckling. Mom left Korea precisely eighteen years and nine months ago. Besides a hint of an accent, her English is near perfect. Except she hasn’t yet mastered the and’s and the’s. At this point, I’m not sure she ever will.
“How does it feel, now that you’re a college student?”
“Community college, Mom,” I correct her. “I feel, I dunno, the same?”
“I’m so glad you’ll still be close by. Now I have you all to myself for four more years.”
“Yay.” The snark in my tone is unintentional. No matter how hard I try, I’m just not as thrilled as she is about going to Meadowland Community College down the street from Meadowland High School. “When are you going to be home? I’m starving.”
“There’s some leftovers in the fridge.”
“Leftovers? You’re not coming home for dinner tonight?” First she misses graduation, now dinner? This is not my idea of making it up to me. In fact, this is the exact opposite of making it up to me.
“I forgot to tell you. I took an overnight shift.”
“Again?” Last time, it was for the laptop I needed for school. The time before that was because our ancient car finally went kaput and we needed a new one. Well, new to us at least. We’re not destitute or anything, but Mom’s single-income salary as a nurse never seems to be enough. I know it’s not her fault, but it just doesn’t seem fair.
“Now that you’re starting the college—”
“I thought it would be a good idea. You know, for the tuition.”
“It’s just tuition, Mom. Not the tuition.” I can’t help the disappointment in my tone. Hazel’s family rented a banquet hall, and Seb’s family is at one of those fancy restaurants that serves bite-sized food with stuff like garnishes and sauces. Then there’s me, alone at home, on the phone with Mom, hearing about the extra shifts she has to pick up since I’m going to start community college in a couple of weeks. On a day like today, I was hoping it would be a little more formal and a little less sweats-and-a-T-shirt. Maybe something where I’d finally get to wear one of the pieces I designed.
“Oh, don’t worry. We’re going to be just fine. It’s always nice to have some cushion. You know, a ‘just-in-case’ fund,” she says in her nurse voice.
Great. Now I feel guilty for making her feel guilty.
“Maybe I’ll take a part-time job at Sew Fantastic. You know, that cute fabric store downtown?” Not only would I be able to help with tuition, I could snag myself a 20 percent employee discount.
“No, no, no. You’ll be too busy studying for your clinicals,” she says quickly.
“Don’t you think you’re getting ahead of yourself? Clinicals aren’t for a while.” Ever since I told Mom I was considering becoming a nurse like her, she treats me like I’m some sort of child prodigy.
“Don’t worry about the tuition,” she says. Any time I mention the idea of a part-time job, she shuts me down, like it’s her responsibility alone to financially provide for us.
I sigh quietly. Growing up, I really believed that Mom could do it all. At the school’s annual father/daughter dances, she’d dress up in a suit and tie, even drawing a silly mustache using eyeliner on her upper lip, and insist on taking me. On Father’s Day, she’d take me to Six Flags, let me eat eleven-dollar funnel cake and ride the upside-down roller coaster as many times as I could without puking (and sometimes with puking). That was when I was younger. I’m eighteen now, and I want more than a distraction on designated Dad days that only remind me I don’t have one. Mom simply cannot do it all anymore. The problem is, she won’t admit it.
“By the way, I’m sorry I couldn’t be there today. I had to—”
“I know. You had to work.” There’s a quiet lull between us. Mom must’ve given me this excuse a million times. I thought once I graduated from high school, things would change and we’d spend more time together. But I’m realizing that, with community college tuition, nothing’s going to change. Mom’s going to be busier than ever.
“Mom, I . . .” My voice quivers. I’m thinking about what I really want for graduation. It isn’t a big party, or an out-of-state college, or even tacos. I want to know more about my family. “Do you think you could tell me about Dad?” I never ask, especially knowing how difficult it is for Mom to talk about him. Maybe this can be her way of making it up to me for not making it to my graduation.
“Chloe-yah,” she says, her voice sounding more like a sigh. She draws in another deep breath, letting it out just as slowly. Then, there it is.
As if we were in some medical drama, even the hospital machines in the background begin beeping loudly in anticipation of Mom’s response. I hold my breath. This is it. The day has come. She is finally going to tell me about my dad. The real story about who he is, not some vague answer about how he died in a car crash and that was the end.
“Nurse Chang! We need you!” A sharp voice cuts through the receiver, and I deflate.
“Oh, Chloe-yah. I’m sorry, but—”
“Yeah, yeah. I know. A patient needs you.” The sigh on the other end of the receiver is filled with so much remorse, it seeps into my soul and makes me regret what I said.
“I’ll make it up to you. I promise,” Mom says. “Okay, now I really have to go. Congratulations, Chloe-yah. I love you.”
“Love you too.”
After we hang up, I decide to pull out my latest design. Now that I have all night to work on it, I could probably finish it. Mom calls it a hobby, but this so-called hobby of mine started in the sixth grade when I first met Hazel and Seb and we decided to go to our first dance together. I knew Mom couldn’t afford a new dress, and the ones in my closet were so basic. That’s when I started making my own outfits. I even found a way to repurpose old clothes from Second Time Around, the local consignment store. I turned a muumuu into a romper, slacks into cigarette pants, and a day dress into an evening gown. Every outfit I design gives new life to an old garment. In fact, I’m quite envious of my creations. Sometimes I wouldn’t mind fashioning a new life for myself.
I’m currently working on a midi day dress with a pleated pleather skirt and a ruffled top. It was supposed to be for my first day of college until I overheard Mom talking to Nurse Linda, saying that she couldn’t even pay for in-state college. After that, I knew fashion school was out of the question. Now I plan on doing with this dress what I do with every one of my creations—sell it on Etsy to someone else who has a more fabulous life than I do.
My phone pings with a text notification, interrupting my thoughts, and I reach for it. Maybe it’s Mom telling me she got someone to cover for her and she’s coming home early to be with me. Maybe it’s Hazel or Seb, ditching their families to hang out with me. I’m not usually susceptible to pity hangouts, but I’d make an exception today. No one should be spending the night of their high school graduation alone.
I check my phone and instead of an invite, it’s a string of pictures from Hazel at her graduation dinner. There’s a long table decorated with the University of Southern California flags and maroon-and-gold balloons tied to the chairs. On the back wall is a banner with Mylar balloons spelling out her name. Then Seb replies to the group with photos of his own family holding big cutouts of his face with different expressions; a UCLA banner hangs behind them. I smile at my phone, scrolling through photo after photo. When I think of how to respond, my smile disappears. What am I going to send them, a photo of me in my Meadowland High School sweats, eating leftovers, alone?
I don’t reply. Instead, I do something stupid. Really stupid. I pull out a letter that’s folded and tucked under my mattress and read it for the hundredth time.
Dear Ms. Chang,
We are delighted to inform you that you have been accepted to the Fashion Design Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In addition, we are pleased to award you with a scholarship due to your outstanding qualifications and impressive portfolio. Kindly let us know by July 25 of your decision. We look forward to hearing from you, and congratulations on your accomplishments!
Tears blot the paper before I finish reading it. I’d never even told my mom about it. It would be pointless. Even with the scholarship, the cost of living in Manhattan is more than ten times what it is in Tulsa. I fold the letter up again, shove it under my mattress, and try to convince myself that not attending FIT is a decision I’m making and not a decision that’s being made for me by my circumstances.
I stare up at the popcorn ceiling, lying in my bed thinking about my dad, and once again I’m steeped in disappointment. Deep down, I thought that finding out who my dad was would help me know who I am. Because being a nurse and living in a small town may be what my mom wants, but it’s not my dream. This can’t be it for me.
Another notification lights up my phone, and I pick it up lazily, thinking it’s more pictures from Hazel or Seb. When I notice it’s a different kind of alert from an app I’m unfamiliar with, I jolt up. I click on the icon, opening up 23andMe.
MESSAGES (1 NEW)
From: Noh, Jin Young
Subject: Hello, Cousin
Friday, 11:59 PM
Dear Ms. Chloe Chang,
I am Jin Young Noh. I received a notification that our genetic tests indicate that we are a 15.5% genetic match, suggesting that we are first cousins. Hello! This is a fortuitous chance meeting.
From: Chang, Chloe
Subject: RE: Hello, Cousin
Saturday, 12:03 AM
Dear Jin Young,
Cousins? Sorry, there must be some mistake. Unfortunately, I don’t have any cousins. My parents are only children. I’m afraid this must be a mistake.
Saturday, 12:04 AM
Wait. This is DNA. There aren’t any mistakes with DNA. My parents are Joon Pyo and Theresa Chang. Are either of these names familiar to you?
From: Noh, Jin Young
Subject: RE: Hello, Cousin
Saturday, 12:20 AM
I don’t know about Chang Joon Pyo, but I had an uncle named Noh Joon Pyo. He’s my father’s brother who died in America right around the time I was born. I go to college at the Johns Hopkins and the rest of the Noh family is in Korea.
From: Chang, Chloe
Subject: RE: Hello, Cousin
Saturday, 12:21 AM
Does this mean we are cousins? Am I a part of the Noh family?
When you say “the rest of the Noh family,” how many of you are there? Not that I’m freaking out or anything. Well, I’m partly freaking out. I’ve never had a big family before—not even a small family for that matter. This is a big deal! Okay, I need to sit down or else I’ll pass out . . .
From: Noh, Jin Young
Subject: RE: Hello, Cousin
Saturday, 12:26 AM
I completely understand this may come as a shock to you. The family is not large, but we are very close. We live with Halmoni, our paternal grandmother, who had three sons. My father was the middle son and your father was the oldest son. There is also a younger uncle, Noh Han Pyo. He is forty-one years of age and unmarried. I have a sister, Soo Young, so now you have two cousins.
From: Chang, Chloe
Subject: RE: Hello, Cousin
Saturday, 12:27 AM
Wow, that is a big family! It’s just me and my mom here. She’s a nurse and a workaholic, so I’m alone a lot. Now that you’re telling me I have family, that makes me feel like I’m not alone. Even if most of you are halfway across the world. I’m so eager to know more about you!
From: Noh, Jin Young
Subject: RE: Hello, Cousin
Saturday, 12:27 AM
I am so eager to learn about you too! What is your blood type?
From: Chang, Chloe
Subject: RE: Hello, Cousin
Saturday, 12:30 AM
My blood type? I do actually know my blood type since my mom says it’s good to know it in case of an emergency situation where a blood transfusion could save your life (which is my mom in a nutshell). My blood type is B. Why do you ask?
From: Noh, Jin Young
Subject: RE: Hello, Cousin
Saturday, 12:33 AM
Oh, forgive me. In Korea, your blood type is how we know about a person’s personality. B means you’re creative, outgoing, and optimistic. I have a feeling we would get along really well. Along the same lines, I know this may seem rushed, but my family would like to invite you to Korea to visit us as soon as possible. Of course, we will arrange your travel and accommodations. We are so very eager to connect with you, our long-lost relative. Please let me know at your earliest convenience.
Of course my mom is working an overnight shift on the night that my long-lost cousin pops virtually out of nowhere and into a DNA website messaging platform. Rude.
I should be more skeptical of Jin Young’s messages. I mean, what if he’s a scammer? What if the next message he sends is going to ask me for my Social Security number and bank account info? Oh, and why not throw in my passwords while I’m at it. The sad part is, if Jin Young did make those super sketchy personal identity theft requests to get to know more about me, I would hesitate, just a second, before saying no. That’s how desperate I am for his story to check out. I’d have a connection to my dad and a real family with cousins, aunts, uncles, and a grandma, just like everyone else.
First things first, I check my most reliable source when it comes to all things unknown—the internet. I type in the search box: Noh Jin Young. About fifty different websites pop up, each with a different Noh Jin Young, and the articles are mostly in Korean. There’s no way I can Google Translate my way through that fast enough.
Remembering he said he goes to Johns Hopkins, I add the school’s name in the search box next to his name, then refresh. I click on the first page that comes up, which is the Johns Hopkins website. Under the Business Administration department, buried in a long list of student names, is the name Jin Young Noh, which confirms it’s the same person—my cousin.
Goose bumps line my arms and neck. I have a cousin.
Make that two cousins.
I add Soo Young’s name to the search, refresh the page, then click on the first link. It appears to be some kind of business trade publication. I try to make sense of the article, but it must have been translated by a badly programmed bot, because it’s mostly incoherent. It isn’t until I scroll down to the bottom of the article that I find what I’m looking for: a photo.
Hair immaculately styled. Makeup flawless and tasteful. And their attire? Ridiculously glamorous, dressed in head-to-toe couture. Jin Young and Soo Young are standing together with a fashionable-looking older woman. Is that their mom or grandmother? It’s hard to tell. I can’t be related to these people.
Pacing the living room, I wait for Mom but then begin to worry about how she’ll take this information. This isn’t only huge for me, but for her, too. Unless . . . no, she couldn’t have known about my dad’s family.
Before I jump to any conclusions (I mean, any more conclusions), I begin to scour our tiny two-bedroom apartment for any clues or hints, starting in the most obvious place—our living room.
My mom has efficiently compartmentalized everything about my family history to one day. Every year on October 26, she prepares an annual jesa—the memorial of my dad’s death. Tulsa has one Asian market. It’s small, far away, and expensive, so we usually never shop there, which means Mom never makes Korean food. Dad’s jesa is the one time each year that she spends the entire day making a drool-worthy spread that includes rice cake soup, steamed dumplings, and vegetable pancakes. In addition to savory foods, she also makes a wide variety of sweet rice cakes and cookies accompanied by trays of fruit. It’s the only time we eat homemade Korean food; it’s the only time we do anything Korean, really. More to the point, it’s the only time we acknowledge my dad. We don’t even talk about him. We sit there, staring at a crappy photo of him, in silence. It’s so enlarged, it’s too grainy and pixelated to make out any of his features. Honestly, that’s how my dad is to me in real life, too. This blurred, undecipherable being.
So that’s it. That’s everything I have of my dad—a framed photo of him on a black lacquered table adorned with an ornate mother-of-pearl design in the far corner of the living room.
I don’t find any new information about Dad in the living room, and I know for a fact there’s nothing about him in my room, so that just leaves Mom’s room. I slide open the door to Mom’s closet, which is pretty sad. It’s sparse, filled with more scrubs than regular clothes. After rummaging around, which takes approximately two minutes, I notice an unmarked shoe box on a shelf in the corner. The hairs on my arms shoot up as an eerie feeling creeps over me. Maybe there’s more to this story than I know. Maybe Mom knew about Dad’s family this whole time. Holding my breath, I lift the shoe box lid.
Inside the box, nestled in crumpled-up tissue paper, is a pair of unflattering black pleather shoes with an insane amount of arch support. Nursing shoes? I roll my eyes at no one. How easily I forget who I’m dealing with here. Of course Mom doesn’t have any secrets.
As I’m putting back the shoe box, something falls from behind the shelf and slips down the back wall of the closet. When I bend to pick it up, I instantly recognize the Polaroid photo.
I run over to the corner in the living room and confirm that it’s the cropped photo of my dad, the framed one we stare at during jesa every year. Except this one is the original, and it’s not blurry at all. Staring at my dad’s face with this level of clarity is almost as if I’m staring at him in person. I can actually see the resemblance. Not shown in the framed photo is my mom, who is next to him in this original one. She’s wearing a uniform shirt with embroidery on the lapel, the letters S and W interlocked. My dad’s arm is slung over hers, and they’re smiling from ear to ear. In fact, I’ve never seen my mom look so happy before, which simultaneously tugs at my heart and tears it into tiny pieces. Behind them is a shiny gray-brick building with Korean letters on the signage. They must have been in Korea.
Maybe Mom does know about the family.
I’m still staring at the photo of my dad when I hear the key turning in the door.
“Mom!” I shoot up and practically lunge toward her.
“Well, I missed you, too! Maybe I should work weekends more often.” Her hands are full of take-out boxes from Seoulful Tacos, but she still manages to open up her arms to hug me.
Instead of a hug, I pocket the Polaroid and shove my phone with the messages from Jin Young in her face. She stares at the screen with her arms still suspended in the air. After a frozen second, she slowly puts her arms down and sets the take-out boxes on the kitchen table.
“Who sent you this?” she says instead of an answer.
“This guy, Jin Young, reached out to me on 23andMe and said—”
“23andMe?” She shifts her position, folding her arms across her chest.
“It’s this company that analyzes your DNA and links you to anyone with a genetic connection. Anyway, the website says that Jin Young and I share 15.5 percent of our DNA, which means we’re cousins.”
“I know, right? Then I told him I don’t have any cousins because you and Dad are only children whose parents both passed away, right?” I carefully inspect her facial expression for any signs of preexisting knowledge of this information. She gives me none. She just stares at me blankly, unable to form words, so I continue.
“Anyway, when I told him your names, he sent me these messages.” I hold up my phone again. “If Dad is Noh Joon Pyo, not Chang Joon Pyo, then that means he has brothers. Which also means I have uncles and a grandma and cousins!”
She sits down slowly, digesting this information. Just when I think she’s going to say something important, she starts opening the boxes. “I brought home Seoulful Tacos for breakfast, your favorite.” She slides a plate over to me and puts a taco wrapped in parchment paper on it. “They don’t open until eleven, but when I told the manager you were graduating the high school, he made an exception. Isn’t that nice?” She glances up with a forced smile.
“Mom? Are you hearing me?” Maybe she’s in shock. People act strangely when they’re in shock, right? I’m pretty sure I read it in one of the pamphlets at the hospital Mom works at. “Didn’t you say Dad was an only child?” I try again, this time speaking more slowly.
“I-I said your dad had no other family.” She begins unwrapping a taco on her plate.
I stare at the plate, confused. “How can you think about eating at a time like this?”
Mom sighs, exasperated. “I’m trying to make things up to you, for missing your big day yesterday.” She unfolds a napkin and places it on her lap.
Any other day, tacos would have done the trick to distract me. But not today.
I take her hands to stop her and look her straight in the eyes. “Mom, I know this is a lot to handle, but I need to know. What are you not telling me about Dad?”
“How come you took a DNA test?” Mom asks, completely ignoring my question.
Now it’s my turn to sigh. “It was a gift from Hazel and Seb. At first it was meant as a joke, but if this is true, and this is Dad’s family, then it’s no joke.”
“A joke?” She draws her head back. “What kind of joke?”
I tell her about Ted Takahashi and how we thought he was my dad.
“Well, that’s just ridiculous.” She balks. “Your dad doesn’t look anything like Ted Takahashi.”
“What’s ridiculous is that you hardly ever talk about Dad,” I say, getting worked up. I’m done with getting the runaround. I want to know who my dad was. So I finally ask her, “You’re not surprised by any of this, so you must have known about the Nohs. Did you?”
She winces, rubbing her forehead. “Losing your father was hard enough. Nothing good can come from reopening old wounds.” Her voice cracks.
“Old wounds?” I can’t help but scoff. “I don’t even know who my dad was. That’s not an old wound. That’s just a wound. It needs tending to, or else it will fester. You’re a nurse, you should know.”
“Haven’t I been enough for you? Aren’t you happy with your life?” She looks as if I’ve mortally wounded her, and my stomach writhes with guilt.
“It’s not that you didn’t do enough, but there’s this whole other side to me I know nothing about. I want to know what Dad was like and what traits I inherited from him. I want to know that he’s more than just a corner in our room that we think about one day out of the year. Maybe it’s time you faced the fact that you can’t do it all. You can’t be mom and dad. Not this time.” My hand slides into the pocket of my sweatshirt, and I’m about to pull out the photo to ask her about it when she clears her throat.
“There’s nothing in the past that can fill the void of losing your father,” she warns.
“You’re right. Nothing can replace losing Dad. But his family, my family, is still alive. They’re inviting me to visit them in Korea—”
“What?!” Mom says, cutting me off. “Flying internationally to see people you never even knew existed until now?”
It should make me see how ridiculous I’m being, hearing just how drastic this decision to meet them is, but it doesn’t. It makes me even more determined. “Mom, I want to go. I never got to meet my dad, and now I don’t want to miss out on the chance to meet his family.”
“It’s not the right time to take a vacation. I can’t take any time off of work,” she forges on. “Besides, you’ll be much too busy getting ready for college anyway.” Then, ignoring me completely, she picks up the taco off her plate.
“Community college,” I correct her for the millionth time. Like everything, Mom is in denial. Denial about my future prospects, my interest in fashion, and now, my dad’s family reaching out to me.
It’s clear to me that Mom isn’t going to budge. Anger replaces the guilt, and instead of pulling out the photo from my pocket, I shove it down deeper. It’s up to me to find out more about my father.
“In case you haven’t realized, I’m eighteen. A legal adult. If Dad’s family, my family, is inviting me to Korea, I think I should accept. I don’t need your permission. As for money? I have enough to go on my own.” I’ve never spoken to my mom in that tone before. I’m just so tired of watching opportunities pass me by. If I don’t take matters into my own hands, I’ll be stuck here the rest of my life.
“What?” Mom stares at me as if she’s looking at me for the first time.
“I’m grateful for everything you do for me, Mom, but I need to live my life, too. While you’ve been spending your days and nights at the hospital, I’ve been selling my clothes on Etsy for the past year—clothes I’ll never be able to wear if I follow the path you’ve laid out for me. Fashion is more than a hobby. Just like this trip is more than a vacation.”
Unable to speak, Mom sets her limp taco down and swallows the food in her mouth. Her typical go-to response to anything Dad-related is complete silence, and I’m not expecting anything more now.
“I’m going, Mom.” The words surprise me as much as they surprise her, but so did this conversation. I never met my dad, and no one can change that. But now that I have the confirmation I was looking for that I have a family, I’m not about to let that go, not even for Mom.