by Naomi Kim
People ask me where I am from, and I never know how to answer.
When we first moved to Georgia, my parents decided to plant three plum tree saplings in our backyard. We went to the plant nursery in the heat of summer to pick them out, and my father went outside to break open the dirt with a big shovel from Lowe’s. But the plum trees did not take well. Deer came in secret and ate their young tender leaves. The trees, their trunks already slender, grew skinnier and skinnier. In the end, they died. In the end, they were just three thin sticks in the hard red earth.
It does not snow in my town, but one winter, about ten years ago now, everything froze. Ice coated the pine needles high in the trees, and when the wind blew, those icy needles rattled against one another. My brother and I were outside bundled in sweaters and jackets, tramping through the stiff frosted grass of our backyard, when we heard the noise from high above. We stopped and looked around because we couldn’t tell what the sound was, or where it was coming from, in all its lovely strangeness.
I go to college in Providence, Rhode Island, where it does snow. It snows and it snows and it snows. Every time, I fall in love with it all over again. I walk around outside and brush snow from bushes with my bare hands till they are stiff and splotched with cold. I made a snow angel for the first time during my freshman year, and I lay in the snow moving my arms up and down, and a friend said, you have to use your legs, too, and we all laughed at my ignorance.
I didn’t quite know how to build snowmen, either. The blizzard that February gifted us with a snow day, and no one went outside, except to get food—no one but me. I spent a good half hour trying and failing to build a snowman, squatting amidst the swirling flakes just attempting to roll a snowball. My gloves were soaked and my hands were freezing, and later a friend from Massachusetts told me that was the wrong kind of snow for building snowmen or making snowballs. Who knew that there were different types of snow? Wet snow, dry snow.
When I was in middle school in Georgia, teachers used to hand me my report card, smiling, and ask me where I wanted to go to college. And I used to tell them I wanted to go up north, where it snowed, and what I meant was, I want to get as far away from here as possible.
Back home from college for Christmas, I’m in the middle of saying something about communal bathrooms in dorms when I suddenly feel overeducated and pretentious and elitist and unbearably out of place. There are four of us here at this Tex-Mex restaurant with burritos and quesadillas and chips and salsa, but two of us are people who left and two are people who stayed. Of the two who stayed, one is a student at the local college and the other is working at a jewelry store.
While I’m away, I forget that there’s a world where you graduate high school (or maybe you don’t), and right away you get married or engaged or pregnant, and you get a job or two. Every time I come back someone else seems to have gotten engaged. Or had a baby, or maybe even a second baby. On two occasions my friend tells me about people our age, people we know, who are now divorced. And here I am, back in this world, in this Tex-Mex restaurant, talking about dorms and classes and Brown University of all places.
I remember then that my parents went to college and I remember that my family is not from here in any sense of the word and I remember that we have never belonged. The plum trees in our backyard died, and we never put down any roots, and we are only here until we leave, because we will surely leave, because we must leave. We have practiced leaving ever since we arrived here. Two or three times each year, we leave our town behind to drive three and a half hours to Atlanta, where we stock up at the nearest Korean supermarket. Now my brother and I have both headed off for colleges in places where it snows. Each time we leave home, we find ourselves farther and farther away.
It seems to me that I am always leaving. And yet leaving—as a word, as an action—means there is a place I start from.
The holding pond at the end of our backyard fills with water after it rains, like when the hurricanes-turned-storms blow through on their way up from Florida. Sometimes the water lingers for weeks and weeks, and frogs lay their eggs there so that the pond teems with tadpoles. The frogs fill the night with ribbitting and croaking, and I find them with their white, translucent bellies pressed against the glass of my bedroom window. By day we watch ducks paddle serenely across the holding pond while the wind ripples the surface. A heron, white and silent, stands long-legged at the water’s edge.
Sometimes when I think about home, I think about the holding pond and the way it holds the sky, the pines, the houses, all of them wavering on the water. I think about how when we come home from church on Sundays and park the car in the driveway, we have a good view of the water and the ducks. My mother says we have a postcard scene right in our backyard.
That postcard scene is the view I have from my bedroom, and when I look out at it I almost think I live somewhere I really do love. When I arrived back at home in March, as the surging pandemic shut down college campuses, the holding pond was a solace to me. It was full of water when I arrived, and I marked time through my fourteen-day quarantine by watching the water level fall day by day, till the grass poked up in blades of green, till there were only patches of water like sheets of glass, till there was just a meadow under the sun.
I was baptized as a three-year-old child in Tennessee, in a Presbyterian church, where the pastor drew with water the sign of the cross on my forehead. He said, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” My brother, just a baby, was baptized that same Sunday. A touch of water to the forehead.
Rivers of life, Jesus says to the Samaritan woman at the well. Sometimes my faith is less than the merest trickle, the merest stain of damp. Sometimes it is dry and brittle like desert sand turned glass-like under the glare of the sun. I was confirmed Methodist in Georgia when I was thirteen, and I became a doubter in Georgia not long after. But at the altar rail for Communion I take the bread and I drink the grape juice anyway, and maybe it is acting, or maybe it is an act of faith.
A touch of water to the forehead. I think about seeing babies baptized in our Methodist church. Soft sunlight pouring in through the pastel-colored stained glass windows of the sanctuary. We sing, we your family love you so. But the youth pastor mispronounced my Korean first name when I was confirmed, and on Commencement Sunday five years later, I hated it, I hated it, I hated standing up there in my cap and gown like I was a part of something. I felt embarrassed as I took the gift bag from them. I was an imposter wriggling my way into their midst. I couldn’t remember any of the words to “Great is Thy Faithfulness” except the refrain, but I had to keep moving my mouth like I was singing along and knew what I was doing like everyone else.”
Somebody once told me that mouthing “guacamole” or “watermelon” is effective when you don’t know the words to hymns.
Your daughter talks like a Yankee, my mother’s English conversation partner joked with her in Tennessee. And I was proud of it, proud that I didn’t talk like a Southerner. I was proud, too, that once I had left the South for college no one ever guessed I had grown up there. You don’t have an accent, everyone said. Don’t Southerners have accents?
I’m not a Southerner, I said, fiercely. Who cared if I’d grown up there my whole life? I’d never been part of y’all, and from most of what I knew, I never wanted to be part of y’all. But at Brown, I found myself looking for grits in the dining halls. I looked and looked and looked. Once, I discovered them on the vegan side of the cafeteria, with topping options like Brussels sprouts and carrots, and no cheese in sight, and I was affronted by the idea of healthy grits. I didn’t know how to eat healthy grits, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to put Brussels sprouts in mine. I ate a heaping serving of cheesy polenta every time it was available, because that was the closest we ever got to grits, and I papered the cafeteria comment board with requests for grits with cheese.
Sometimes, when I’m back home, I can hear a hint of an accent creep into my words. Chameleon-like, I veer Southern when talking to someone who is all Southern drawl. I hear myself drop the g’s off the ends of words. I’m leavin’… I’m comin’ home … I don’t mean to do it, but it happens all the same, like I’m trying to say, listen to me, listen, I sound like I could belong.
I confess: sometimes, almost desperately, I do want to belong.
On the highway going farther south from my town, towards Florida, there are billboards advertising for Jesus. White, blonde, blue-eyed Jesus, who promises he will be back and invites you to visit his website. You can have Jesus and blue skies and pearly light, or you can have the horrors of hell as depicted on the next huge billboard—zombies with outstretched arms, lurching through the fire.
I think about Jesus walking on water and how there must have been no footprints left behind on the sea, as there might be left on sand. Jesus walked on water and I have walked in the South, and like him I have hardly left a trace behind. But you can’t walk on water and get away with dry feet, and I can’t escape the red dirt that stains my soles.
This is what I am afraid of, that my town will swallow me up, and every effort I make to leave will always fail, and I will find myself back there again, and again, and again. And one day I will be like one of those plum trees, a shriveled bitter stick that couldn’t take to the soil.
Can you hate a place so much you love it? I ask a friend on the phone. I am in Providence, lying on my bed under the steeply angled slope of the ceiling, and the South is far away, which is—I think—the way I prefer it. My friend is a New Yorker who loves the city. I say, But I don’t think I love the South … I just feel—inescapably connected to it.
Maybe, she suggests, it’s a little like jeong.
Jeong: 정. Jeong is a word like grace or faith or salvation, meaning that I’m not quite sure how to define it. It’s Korean, meaning I’m doubly unsure of what it means, or how to translate it. English is the only language that comes naturally to me, and jeong has too many layers to say what, exactly, it is. Something like affection, or attachment, or closeness. Is it jeong that I feel for the South? This helpless, unending connection that I never asked for. This bond that I can’t be rid of.
I hate that when I think of going home I am thinking of Georgia. I hate that when I stumbled getting off the plane in Atlanta and the TSA agent who saw me laughed and said, “Girl, I saw that!” in a Southern accent, I felt a sudden rush of affection almost like relief, because I was coming home. I hate that when I close my eyes the landscape I can recall most easily is one of fields and red dirt and the tall, skinny pines with the branches only at the top. I hate that on the drive down from Atlanta, as hills give way to flatness and fields, I feel a kind of contented elation, and I know I’m almost home, I’m almost home, I’m almost home.
I’m almost home.
Naomi Kim grew up in Georgia, goes to college in the Northeast and is sometimes mistaken for a Midwesterner. She is a senior studying English at Brown University, and her writing has previously appeared in Lunch Ticket and LETTERS.
“Almost Home” is the first story selected for our “Separation” theme about feeling disconnected. Look for more stories about separation in the coming weeks.