B is for Boys


I am tired from starting off my first semester teaching community college. Wow. It really takes a lot out of you–but you go to bed happy and then wake up to a stack of papers to grade and lesson plans to create. Still, I make time to write for a few hours, two days a week. Even though today, I’m so tired, I’m not sure what to do with the Muse if she should happen to visit me during vigil.

But it’s time to jog my head back from teaching to the world of writing…

And thus, I will blog the 2nd installment of Alphabet: A History. I’ve done A (for Aub Zam Zam), it is time for the letter B.

Having just written a a post called My Berkeley, Berkeley is taken. I riffle through the B’s in my life: Beijing, Barcelona, brioche, bologna, butter, Barney Lake, Burgundy (the region, not the wine), burgundy (the wine, not the region), Berkeley Bowl, bees,blue, butter, believe…

(I wrote the above list because I couldn’t let any of the other B’s of my life go without at least a mention).


My first best friend was my brother. We were inseparable, and once someone asked if were twins, and I thought that was just brilliant. We began pawning ourselves off as twins from that point on, even going so far as to tell our nursery school/daycare that we were twins.

When my brother’s birthday in February rolled around, the teacher assistants asked me, “How come it’s not your birthday? Aren’t you twins?”

I had to think fast. “My birthday is a few months later,” thinking that twins just meant being the same age. “My birthday is in August,” not realizing that the human gestation period would not allow one child to be born in February and then another in August, six months later, from the same mother.

“Ohhh,” said the lady. I was six, my brother was celebrating his fifth birthday. I felt something unsettled in the air. I stopped telling people we were twins after that.


My second best friend was a boy named R******. We still keep in touch today, although being opposite gender, married, and living four hundred miles away (and now across continents, for he has moved to Australia), keeps us at quite a distance. He was a groomsman in my wedding.

I was new to the school. I was seven. When the teacher gave mimeograph worksheets and asked students to pass them down the row, the girl next to me made sure to tear the corner off my sheet before handing mine to me. Her name was Bonnie. I did not know exactly why she did that, only that she did it to my paper and no other, on a consistent basis.

I didn’t know with whom to play at recess and with whom to eat at lunchtime. I’d always lived in cities, and this was my first (and last time) living in the suburbs. I remember staring at the expanse of the playground and feeling very very small. There was so much space that everyone seemed to be standing very apart, even if they were standing next to each other.

I missed the city. I missed a classroom in which no one tore my paper before handing it to me.

A boy came up to me. He said his name was R****** He looked like Opie, strawberry blonde hair and all. “Hi, my name is R******. Do you want to play together?” I grabbed his hand. We ate lunch. We walked around the playground, holding hands to the melody of other kids singing, “R****** and ____ sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g!”

We weren’t kissing. What were they talking about? We ignored them, and played in the dirt below the trees. I remember one thing we used to do was take a kitchen magnet and run it through the dusty soil…what emerged were a million particles of metal hanging onto the magnet, like fuzzy hair. We collected the metallic dust into plastic sandwich bags. For what purpose, I do not remember. It was just fun, and I thought, interesting.

No one talked to me except for R****** and for that, he was my best friend. He was also the smartest boy in our class, and we got top awards throughout elementary school. He and I were crowned “king and queen” academic achievers at the end of sixth grade.

When puberty hit, my parents said I could no longer be friends with him. I thought that was unfair, and I did not understand their reasoning. They didn’t tell me their reasoning, but I knew, years later, what they feared: that I would become romantically involved with him. He was a good boy, but I was not allowed to date. And he was not Korean.

(Our separation was otherwise convenient–R****** was moving, and going to attend junior high school in a different school district).

Later, I would date. And I would marry someone who was not Korean, and who was Jewish. Haha.

Also decades later, R****** told me, “I was new to school that year, too.”

What? I asked.

“Yah, I had just arrived the week before.”

Two new kids. Best friends.


I was not allowed to date boys. Whenever a boy called the house, my father would get on the other line, and listen, only to invade a few minutes in and say, “Hang up.” A boy could only call me for a strictly pragmatic purpose: to ask for the homework assignment, to inform me of some official event, and that was it. No chatting.

I snuck out on one date during high school. I liked him–I felt he could see through my bitter/emo facade somehow. My square/academic clique friends were horrified by him (he smoked, he was brash, he said things that no one else dared to say, he put his feet up on his desk when he was in class), but I was not. I felt he was a very good person, underneath his “I go smoke in my car during lunchtime bad boy” facade. (At my high school, smoking in your car at lunchtime was a big indicator that you were “bad.”)

We went to El Torito. I had never had a fajita before. I was so nervous I ate like, ten fajitas. I think I didn’t stop talking. It was, by every definition, a horrible date. I felt a cloud of apology swell inside of me. All I wanted to say was “I’m so sorry, I suck at this.” But I couldn’t “be real,” whatever was inside me that needed to be said, was being stuffed down by fajita after fajita.

I learned on that date that fajitas were delicious.

He took me home. I said, “Please don’t walk me to the door,” knowing I could not be discovered by my parents.

J*** insisted on walking me to the door. I wanted to throw up all the fajitas.

My dad opened the door. J*** stuck out his hand to greet my father. My father slapped his hand away and ushered me inside. “I’m sorry, J***,” I said, the apology finally out, as I waved bye to him.

I just reconnected with J*** on Facebook. He is now a rabbi (he wrote me, self-mockingly, “Can you believe it? I’m a rabbi now!”). And as good a person as ever–and who was gracious when he said he remembered me and said he rather enjoyed that date.

I told my dad that the guy I snuck out with was now a rabbi. I told my dad, what difference would it have made for me to have had a little fun in high school? I would still have been just fine.

“I didn’t know,” said my dad, apologetically.


Joining Charlotte’s Web in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

Previous letters:



Filed under Alphabet: A History, Life, Memes, Memories

23 responses to “B is for Boys

  1. Violeta

    Ooh, I loved this one!

  2. lucas green

    This is seriously good.

    • Thank you, Lucas and Violeta…

      Your compliments…are like cocaine for my writer’s ego. πŸ™‚ Thank you. (and thank you, Lucas, for the emphatic compliment…oh, I shall bask in that all afternoon as I face my novel!)

      Sometimes I wonder why it is I can more easily write on this blog than on my novel. I wonder if I should just write my novel in wordpress format, fields and “submit post” button and all.

      • lucas green

        Maybe the blog allows for both honesty and formal risk-taking beyond what would spontaneously come to you confronted with an empty page of the novel.

        I think there’s interesting writing in my novel-in-progress, but I’m never freer, never more interestingly dangerous, than I am on my blog. There’s nothing to lose in a blog post, and I act like it. The trick would be to find a way to side-step the subconscious self-censorship that robs our more “serious” work of its power.

        The cocaine, by the way, is on the house, and is of the highest grade. Snort away.

  3. Amyable

    I love all your posts but this one (and the Berkeley one) are so damned good! I’ve said this before but I feel like I’m there when you write like this.

  4. I write better in blog form too — don’t know what it is, but it’s more comfortable.

    I’m very curious about what your dad’s last line means — to him, and to you.

    • I’m curious as to what you think that last line might mean. πŸ™‚ I thought about continuing, but left it at that last line. I don’t like stories to be too “neat”–I like them to be a tad messy, and that line seemed a good place to stop writing, at least to me, because it leaves the piece up for interpretation (and structurally speaking, brought the desire for apology full circle)…

      • I like the way it ends — I’m just curious, from a behind-the-story standpoint, what the line means to each person. I’m surprised by the apologetic tone, too. Did it surprise you?

        • It surprised me. But my dad’s old (by every definition), and I’m grown up and doing fine, and we both have the gift of hindsight…so in a sense, it would not have surprised me as much as if he’d apologized 20 years earlier.

  5. 5redpandas

    Wow. Great post. Makes me want to tackle the alphabet. Great challenge.

  6. RealHousewifeInSiliconValley

    brilliant. I really enjoyed reading this.

  7. anonwupfan

    If you are sleeping during your teaching debut, you are way ahead of the game.

    Sure your Bad Boy turned out to be a rabbi, but I bet he must have been floored when you told him when his Brainy Korean Girl ended up Jewish!

  8. 5redpandas and Real Housewife: thank you. πŸ™‚ I’m looking forward to C-Z! Well, not so much X…or even U, or believe it or not, I. (What on earth can I think of for “X?!”)

    anonwupfan: The sleep is a MUST. And huh: yah, I never thought about that though he did express surprise at my having studied with an Orthodox Rabbi. Weird how life meanders like that.

  9. Ooh, I loved this one, as I loved “A”. How lovely that you reconnected with that boy, and that he is now a rabbi. Also glad your dad apologised.

  10. this was so good. can’t wait to read the next installments!

    also, wanted to link you this call for short stories anthology by asian writers that was fwd’ed to me this morning: http://asiancha.blogspot.com/2009/08/call-for-short-stories.html

    keep it up JP!

  11. Hindsight is terrific when you and your parents have it πŸ™‚

  12. chefkelly

    I really enjoyed reading your “B”. I could totally relate to the story as I too had a overly strict dad who just didn’t get it nor showed much love/emotion as Korean parents often do. Thanks for sharing~

    • Hi chefkelly–my dad was overly effusive and strict and overbearing (he said he wanted to be the opposite of his own father)…but I have found, from speaking to my other very good Korean American friends…that it has had the SAME effect as fathers who are distant, strict, and withholding of emotions. I love my dad, but may our generation do better! πŸ™‚

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