When I was a young child growing up in Korea, it was said that the image of the fading moon at daybreak, reflected in a pond or stream or even a well, resembled the speckled shell of a dragon’s egg. A dragon embodied the yang, the masculine principle of life, and it was thought that if a couple expecting a child prayed to the dragon’s egg, their offspring would be male. Of course, every family in those days desired a son over a daughter. Only men could carry on the family line; women were merely vessels by which to provide society with an uninterrupted supply of men. So every day for months before I was born, my parents would rise before dawn, carrying offerings of fresh-steamed rice cakes to the stone well behind our home, as the sky brightened and snuff ed out the stars. And they would pray to the pale freckled face of the moon floating on the water’s surface, pray that the child growing inside my mother’s womb would be a boy.
In this they were to be disappointed. On the third day of the First Moon in the Year of the Rooster, their first and only daughter was born to them. In those waning days of the Yi Dynasty, newborn girls were not deemed important enough to be graced with formal names, but were instead given nicknames. Often these represented some personal characteristic: Cheerful, Pretty, Little One, Big One. Sometimes they presumed to be commandments: Chastity, or Virtue. A few—Golden Calf, Little Flower— verged on the poetic. But too many names reflected the parents’ feelings about the birth of a daughter. I knew a girl named Anger, and another called Pity. More than a few were known as Sorrow or Sadness. And everyone had heard the story of the father who named his firstborn daughter “One is Okay,” his next, “Perhaps After the Second,” the third, “Three Laughs,” and the last, “Four Shames.”
As for me, my parents named me “Regrettable”—eventually shortened to simply Regret.
Koreans seldom address one another by their given names; we believe a person’s name is a thing of intimacy and power, not to be used casually by anyone but a family member or close friend. When I was very young, Regret was merely a name to me, signifying nothing more than that. But as I grew older and learned it held another meaning, it became a stone weight in my heart. A call to supper became a reminder of my unfortunate presence at the dinner table. A stern rebuke by my father—“Regret, what are we to do with you?”—seemed to hint that my place in the family was impermanent. Too young to understand the real reasons, I wondered what was wrong with me to make me so unwanted. Was I too short? I wasn’t as tall as my friend Sunny, but not nearly so short as her sister Lotus. Was I too plain? I spent hours squinting into the mirror, judging my every feature, and found them wanting. My eyes were set too close together, my nose was too small, or maybe it was too big; my lips were thin, my ears flat. It was clear to see, I was plain and unlovely—no wonder my parents regretted my birth.
In truth, my father was merely old-fashioned and conservative, a strict adherent to Confucian ideals, one of which was the inherent pre ce dence of man over woman: “The wife must regard her husband as heavenly; what he does is a heavenly act and she can only follow him.” I was a girl, I would eventually marry and become part of someone else’s family; as such my existence was simply not of the same consequence as that of my three brothers, who would carry on the family line and provide for our parents when they became old.
But I knew none of this when I was young, and instead decided it was due to the shape of my nose or the color of my eyes; and for years to come I would fret over and find fault with the girl who looked back at me from the mirror.
I have traveled far from the land of my birth, and even farther from who I was then. More than forty years and four thousand miles separate us: the girl of sixteen who took that fi rst unwitting step forward, and the woman in her sixtieth year who now, in sight of the vast Pacific, presumes to memorialize this journey in mere words. It is a journey measured not in time or distance, but in the breadth of one’s soul and the struggle of becoming.
Excerpted from Honolulu by Alan Brennert.
Copyright © 2009 by Alan Brennert.
Published in February 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
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