“Why all the middle-aged men, Mike?” my writing professor asked me one afternoon during my junior year of college. She was curious (concerned? baffled?) why, in the two semesters we had spent together, my stories were often about white men twice my age. While my peers wrote about college and high school kids doing college and high school things, I veered toward chronicling the failures and half-measures of middle-aged men. My professor asked whether I had ever thought to write about my own life, my unusual background—my mother is Korean and my father is Appalachian. I remember feeling squeamish at the thought. It had occurred to me, but I wasn’t ready to write about it. I told her maybe I would when my parents had passed on, but that wasn’t the only reason. In many ways, I had never fully felt half Korean, which is an odd thing to say, to be fully half of something. But what I mean is, I identified then as mostly white and Appalachian and my being half Korean, though undeniable in my features, seemed secondary. What seems extraordinary about our lives to others is often ordinary to ourselves. I could see why my professor might see the fertile ground in such stories, but they held little appeal to me.
Around this same time, I came across a short story set in India in a national magazine. I disliked the story and thought that the only reason it had been published was because of its unique setting. It was as if our struggles back home, all the poverty and hardship in Appalachia, were givens, not worth reading about—surely not the stuff of the stories that the New York publishing world seemed to crave. In the late days of the twentieth century, at the small state college I attended in Bowling Green, Kentucky, there was not a lot of talk about agency, representation in literature, or appropriation. I could have been wrong about the exoticism I perceived in that story in the magazine, but I don’t think so. It made me think that if I wrote about my parents, myself, what it had been like to grow up half Korean in a town with an ugly racist past, my stories would be published only for that content and not for their prose. I feared that if that happened, I would be trading on my heritage and exploiting it. So I hunkered down into white male characters and the white male writers who taught me how to write about white men.
“This is gonna be trouble,” I said to my friend over the phone. “Trouble?” he said. “So what? Think about the story you’ll write later.” Joanna ran me over—hard. For a long time, I let myself believe that I’d gotten my heart broken for the sake of my fiction. Near the end of it, when I was home visiting my parents, my mother asked what was wrong. She had noticed a stoop in my carriage, my preoccupied thoughts. So I told her, finally, that I’d had a hard year. I’d fallen in love with this woman and it hadn’t worked out. “Where does she live?” Mom asked. “Paris,” I said. “Kentucky?” Her voice rose in surprise and alarm when she said it. “No, Mom. The real Paris,” I told her. “Well,” she said, her voice and features both softening, “it may work out. It did for your dad and me.”
I was almost thirty years old and maybe it will seem odd that I had never considered before then what it meant to be a hyphenated American, but I hadn’t. Not until I was working a job that required me to travel up and down both coasts did I realize how odd my person was to strangers: a large, half-Asian man with a thick Southern accent. It didn’t occur to me how strange my childhood seemed from the outside until everyone I met kept asking me about it. Shortly after I returned to Cleveland, where I was then living, I wrote the story “Slope.” It’s still the most autobiographical story I’ve ever written. It begins, “Wren Asher is nearing thirty and over the summer, like his father before him, he’s fallen in love with a woman who lives in another country. But that is where all similarities end.” Like most writers, I write to understand my confusion. The breakup with this woman had become a turning point in my life, a moment for me to explore who I was and who I wanted to be. So Wren, a half-Korean boy from a small southeastern Kentucky town, was born, and I explored his fraught relationship with a woman who broke his heart, who exoticized his Appalachian roots and forced him to think hard about the only place he had ever called home.
“Slope” was the first time I ever tackled head on what it had been like to grow up in Corbin, Kentucky—named Fordyce in the story. Though I had eschewed writing about it, my life had been informed by it. From the time in second grade when a boy pulled down the corners of his eyes and called me Japanese, to a year later, when my mother, dropping me off at school, put the car in park to confront some older kids who had been making mock karate kicks and jabs at us as we pulled up. “You want me to show you some real karate?” she said to them. I lived my high school years on edge, waiting on a moment to turn, for someone to drop a slur. It didn’t matter that I was a varsity athlete or that I was in the “cool” clique. Someone would find a reason to remind me who I was and what I wasn’t. I might have mostly self-identified as a white Appalachian male, but only mostly. I lived in between cultures.
“Slope” also forced me to look at Appalachian culture. I had spent so many summer weekends at a cabin my father had built with his brothers. We’d leave the town of Corbin behind and head into the mountains, to an even slower place, blanketed in the ever-present whine of cicadas. There, with my cousins and uncles, I tromped through the forest, learned to fire a rifle before I knew my ABCs, sipped my first beer, shot at squirrels, looked at Playboy, and watched the men play cards and drink. When winter came, we still went to the cabin, standing in the cold living room, shoulder to shoulder, man to child, watching Kentucky games on the fuzzy television screen. I was surrounded by men, men who said little except to kid one another, a brother and cousins, who taught me how to hunt and fish, how to mark a path so as not to get lost. I learned that to be a man was to close yourself up as tight as a fist, to bear your pain—physical and emotional—in silence.
And as I got older, and drifted into the emotional world of fiction, and into the depth of my feelings for all things, I found that I was no longer numb to the racism. There is a moment in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen when she describes being in line at a pharmacy and a man cuts in front of her. Realizing his mistake, he says, “I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.” Rankine repeats that last sentence as a refrain. I didn’t see you. I didn’t see you. I didn’t see you. Living in Corbin, it had been easy for me to not see that racism, but when I moved away, I saw with stinging clarity how ignorant—in the truest sense of the word—and damning it was. I saw my mother’s strength in a way I hadn’t before. Some good people I grew up with would say they saw us only as us, they didn’t see our race, but Rankine teaches us that to see someone is to see all of them. I had to learn to see myself.
When I return now to the mountains of Appalachia, I feel the security of home, of the landscape that marked the sight lines of my boyhood. But I know, now, that I won’t ever move back to that placed that shaped me, and I find that I feel homeless. Homeless like my mother does when she thinks about the country she left behind and the one she has claimed. I don’t pretend our similarities go beyond that, but I am reminded that where there is pain there is also love. Those opposing forces forged me into the man I am now.
I sometimes feel as if I have been cast off into the world and must search my way back to a destination that is a mystery to me. Perhaps this restlessness comes from middle age, but my reading and writing have turned toward the half of myself I ignored for years. Novels and history books on Korea are stacked atop my nightstand. To make sense of the world, I now turn inward, toward my heritage, toward the half of me I’ve finally embraced and yet still must learn to understand.
Michael Croley is the author of Any Other Place. He teaches creative writing at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.