Study Guide

A Step from Heaven Foreignness

By An Na

Foreignness

Who is that girl? She cannot be me. Her hair is too big. It stands up big as a bush, just like the hair of the toy man with the rainbow face. Uhmma did not tell me this was curly hair. She said it would look like the sea. But it does not. I am a Mi Gook girl with big ugly toy-man hair. (5.58)

Young Ju isn't even in America yet and already she's confronted with what America is all about: a total change in her appearance. Not that America has to be about changing what she looks like, but Young Ju doesn't know that just yet—all she knows is that she doesn't look like herself, and not in a good way. Think of this moment as a foreshadowing of how foreign she'll end up feeling once she gets to America.

In the big room, Apa is sitting next to Sahmchun, who is a Mi Gook person with big round money eyes like in the picture of God. Only his money eyes are not dark as night. They are daytime, sun-is-shining, sky-color eyes. His hair is wavy brown seaweed. He says to call him Uhing Kel Thim. That is Mi Gook talk for Sahmchun, but my mouth does not want to make those words. He says it is fine to call him Sahmchun until my mouth is ready to learn. (7.6)

If you haven't figured it out already, Sahmchun is Korean for uncle and Uhing Kel Thim is actually Young Ju trying to pronounce Uncle Tim with her broken English. Uncle Tim seems like a pretty cool guy. After all, he's totally accepting of Young Ju's inability to say his name… although… would it really be so bad if Young Ju spoke broken English or called her uncle Sahmchun and not Uncle Tim?

The lady with the cloud hair is my teacher? But she is a giant person like in the long-ago stories Halmoni used to tell me so I would be a good girl. My teacher looks like the old witch who ate bad children for dinner. (8.5)

Just imagine: you're a new kid in a new country at a new school and right in front of you is a teacher of a totally different race, speaking a completely different language. How else might you understand your new situation? For Young Ju, her closest reference just happens to be a story that seems to feature a big, witchy, white woman as a villainess. Hey, it's not just Western stories that feature stereotypes of other races.

Sometimes Amanda says things I do not understand. Yesterday she told me that she and her parents went apple picking and they had doughnuts and hot cider. "I love cider," Amanda said. "Don't you?"

I nodded and said yes, even though I did not know what cider was. Amanda has been my best friend ever since the time I lied about Joon dying and she gave me a Lifesaver, but that does not mean I tell her everything. (13.1-2)

How does an immigrant teenager deal with being different? She hides it, even from her best friend. You've got to wonder, by the way, how deep Young Ju's friendship with Amanda can be if Young Ju isn't comfortable revealing anything about her Koreanness (or lack of Americanness).

I have found that the dictionary doesn't always explain everything. Like "going." Ever since the beginning of fourth grade, Amanda and some of the girls in my class talk about going with this boy, Jimmy. "Who do you think he wants to go with" they ask. I pretend to understand, but in the dictionary it says "go" and "going" mean action, moving, and lots of other things like business transactions. None of it makes any sense to me. Where would Jimmy go with someone? (13.3)

Young Ju makes a really good point here. Where does the term going with come from anyway? And why is English so weird?

Uhmma and Grill Woman spoke in a language of mixed and chopped Korean and Japanese, glued together with pieces of English.

"Suna, kinoo that ahjimma scratch car," Grill Woman said, her eyes small and bright, the size of new pennies.

"Aigoo. Fix takai?"

"No, scratch chiisai."… Uhmma was quick to laugh at all of her friend's words. Her squeaky-shoes laugh was back and her face shone bright as a full moon on cold, clear nights. Sometimes when she was speaking fast, she put her cup down and her hands waved and danced in the steamy air.

This was a different Uhmma. Not a sad, tired Uhmma who cooked and cleaned and sometimes yelled, but a stranger who had a friend and a secret language all her own. Not my Uhmma. A Suna. (15.17-21)

We think this is a pretty cool scene and here's why: not only does Uhmma have this whole separate life where she's friends with a Japanese woman, but Young Ju gets to see Uhmma as a completely different person. Someone strange and new—a woman who isn't only defined by her mother and wife status. This is a rare (and valuable) sight for a girl who's only ever experienced foreignness as a bad thing.

Apa notices Spencer's movements and gives him a wide, only-for-guests smile. "Shu-pen-cher," Apa says. "Time you go home now. Joon Ho back soon."

"Sure, Mr. Park," Spencer says, ducking his head and rubbing the fuzz above his ear.

"Good boy," Apa says, the same smile stuck to his face.

"See ya, Joon." Spencer takes off around the side of the house, leaving behind his Lego set.

Apa waits for Spencer to disappear and then turns back to Joon. The smile flies off his lips faster than a door slamming. (16.46-50)

Who's the foreigner here—Spencer, who clearly doesn't belong in the Park household and gets the foreigner treatment from Apa, or Apa, who shows his own foreignness through his broken English as he makes Spencer feel like an outsider? Maybe the point is that they're both foreigners to each other because they're don't know each other.

Uhmma loves her pennies, collects them like flowers in an old glass vase she found at a garage sale. More than once Uhmma's pennies have saved the weekly groceries. I am embarrassed when Uhmma puts down a million pennies and the clerk snarls as she counts out the change. I inch away from Uhmma, pretend I am not that woman's daughter. Not a poor Oriental who saves pennies like gold. (18.8)

All right—we know you've felt this way at some point about your mom or dad. Young Ju's just adding an immigrant spin to a classic moment of teenage mortification. Like so many teenagers, she doesn't want others to view her as different, and for her, that means not appearing "Oriental." Who's even more Oriental than she is? Her mom with all her pennies, of course, which makes Young Ju cringe.

Uhmma squints at the kids. Are those not your friends over there? I turn my head away from her and look out my window at the long stretch of sand. I lie softly, That is another group. You can drop me off here and I will look around for Amanda. She said they would be near the pier. (23.34)

Do you feel bad for Uhmma? We kind of do. Uhmma's letting Young Ju go to Amanda's party at the beach, but instead of being grateful for the opportunity, Young Ju is embarrassed by her mother and her foreignness.

I spin around and around trying to make myself dizzy. Empty the fears that spring inside my head every time I think about leaving home. Uhmma and Joon. What if I don't like it at college? What if I stand out like an alien? What if I am disappointed? (30.8)

Young Ju's about to set off to college, so it's no wonder she's feeling insecure. But she's got more going on than the typical college jitters—she's worried about being "like an alien," which is a clear reference to the politics surrounding immigration policies and the use of the un-pc term illegal aliens. Even though Young Ju isn't illegal herself, her feeling of "alienness" reminds us that the words we use to describe people of different races inevitably impacts the way they view themselves.