Children and servants began to scream as the room filled with smoke. My mother smelled something acrid and felt a strange prickling at the back of her neck. As the women had danced moments before, now the elderly ajumma who'd been attending the projector danced in spasmodic rhythm, a flume of fire blooming across her chest. The sensation at the back of my mother's neck became a searing pain. Her head was on fire and she fainted before she could push through, with the others, out of the room and into the dirt courtyard, where the adults ran with buckets of water.
An old servant saved her. He rushed inside the room and doused the fire nestled in her hair, carrying her out in his arms.
My grandmother, overwhelmed by daughters, disgraced by them, thought perhaps she would lose one that night, but my mother was not obliging. She survived with no major injury, just a spot, the size of a quarter, where her hair wouldn't grow, and a shiny purple scar, ropy and asymmetrical.
After the accident my mother was declared unmarriageable and shipped off to a teachers college in Connecticut. She met my father the first week, at a party for Korean students in Hartford. Three months later she sent a picture home (my father in a trench coat over his best herringbone jacket), but my grandparents objected to the marriage. They had consulted an astrologer who claimed, given my parents' birth dates and the distance between the bottom of my father's nose and his top lip, that it was an inauspicious match.
They married anyway, and my mother dropped out of college to take dance lessons. In a photograph from those days she wore a black leotard with a pink tutu; she's bending down to tie the ribbons on her toe shoes, like a girl in a Degas painting.
She quit when she got pregnant. She told me this without resentment, but frequently enough so I understood that only maternal self-sacrifice had prevented her from a marvelous career. In playful moods, she would reenact the dance of the caryatid women as she remembered it, flowing like water, her arms a tossing sea, twisting and bending in a series of movements suggesting supplication, resistance, ardor, and grief.
Soon after I was born my parents had their first fight. My mother wanted to name me Isadora, after Isadora Duncan, the modern dancer. My father wanted to name me Myung Hee. I can imagine the way the discussion would go, my father's annoyance spiraling around my mother's cool determination, getting fettered in her obstinacy and confusing feminine allure.
"Isadora? Isadora?" I imagine my father saying, the word in his mouth like a bad taste. "What kind of Korean name is that?"
"No kind," my mother says, shrugging. "We're in America now."
"We're still Koreans," he says.
My mother doesn't answer. She smiles, beguiling him with her silence.
"I don't even know any Americans named Isadora," he grumbles.
"What Americans do you know?" my mother chides him. She pauses. "We could name her Ingrid," she says. "Or Ava. Or . . . Vivian."
"No, no," my father says, waving his hands in front of his face. "Please."
So I was named Isadora Myung Hee Sohn and called Isa by everyone but my father.
My mother wore a wig to conceal her scar. It sat atop a Styrofoam head on her dresser, looking exactly like her real hair, thick and black, styled softly to just beneath the ears. To put it on she slipped both hands inside, fingers splayed as though she were winding yarn, and maneuvered it adroitly atop her head.
The procedure disturbed me, this half head of hair tugged on like a swim cap over my mother's own head, the naked Styrofoam left behind like a bald sentinel. I gouged a face in the Styrofoam with a ballpoint pennose like a lopsided L, kewpie lips, blank eyes the shape and size of pumpkin seeds.
Excerpted from Secondhand World by Katherine Min Copyright © 2006 by Katherine Min. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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