Every spring and winter, certain colonies of New England WASPS¹ migrate south. They alight, buzzing mildly about the flight and the cab ride, on the private beaches of the Hillsboro Club, at 901 Hillsboro Mile, Hillsboro Beach, Florida. It is the sort of place that capitalizes the names of all its amenities in the description on its website: the Spa, the Garden View Suite, the Living Room at Malcolm House (where afternoon tea is served). There are also ten tennis courts, a pitch-n-putt course, and a Deep Sea Fishing Weekend. Almost all of the cleaning and dining staff are from Eastern Europe or the Caribbean — they speak with accents, or are black, or both. It’s one of those places that costs thousands of dollars a year to belong to and serves the kind of food a retirement home might. It’s the shabby-chic Mar-a-Lago of the refined old-money set.
I hate Hillsboro the way I hate all country clubs, because I hate the WASPs that dine and excurse and pitch-n-putt there. I hate all WASPs, in fact. I hate them because I am one.
At least, part of me is. My mom was born in Korea, but my dad, my paternal grandparents, and my aunts and uncles and cousins on that side are WASPs from the North Shore of Massachusetts. My grandparents — Gammy and Gaffer, we call them — go to Hillsboro every year. They used to take us with them, us meaning my mom, dad, and my younger siblings and me. Everything was always paid for. This meant two things: there was nothing there we didn’t get to do, and nothing we could say no to.
When I was a kid I thought Hillsboro was the nicest place I’d ever been, although now I see it differently. It is the kind of place where people introduce themselves, the way Gammy did, as “Eloise Hodges, of Beacon Hill.” (At Hillsboro the New England WASPs look down on the New Yorkers, so they need to be able to place people with some precision.) The big community event of the day was Dinner, when families who knew each other from what to me, then, were mysterious places called “Milton” and “the Cape” gathered to dine by candlelight. The dining room was massive, staffed by smiling immigrant waiters in sharp bow ties, who if you left the table to go to the bathroom would expertly re-crimp your cloth napkin into an accordion or butterfly. When you were a kid it was very scary and thrilling, because you had to dress up and be on your best behavior, or else Gaffer would get mad. At home we ate casually, especially when we had Korean food; everything was family style, and you ate as much as you could hold. Here the menus were posted on little printed cards that changed daily, and there were “Chef Specials.” Chef Specials! I remember ordering the “consommé,” which sounded like the fanciest thing in the world but turned out to be nothing more than a bouillon cube dissolved in tepid water. Still, every night I ordered it as my appetizer. That was the other thing — I didn’t know till then that meals could be more than one course, that you could have consommé and chicken cordon bleu and cubed Jello in a fancy dish all in one sitting. The richness was intoxicating, the whiteness exotic, and I wanted to eat it all up. What I didn’t know was that with WASPs, unlike Koreans, you’re not supposed to.
One night, while I was enjoying my third “after-dinner chocolate,” almost oblivious to Gaffer’s annoyed stare, Gammy exclaimed so the whole Oceanside Dining Room, it seemed, could hear: “Goodness, Natalie, aren’t you a little piggy-wiggy!”
My mother immigrated to Colorado from South Korea when she was two, with her parents and her older sister, and even when she was working multiple jobs by age fifteen it wasn’t always certain that there would be rice to cook when she got home at night. A pound of cherries, brought home by her mother, Halmoni, when she had the flu, or a can of black olives, were luxuries to be savored and exclaimed over together as a family. She remembers the way her father, who was dying of tuberculosis, once made her a pancake in the shape of a gingerbread man. She couldn’t eat it. She wrapped the gingerbread man tenderly in a napkin and carried him to her room, where he resided on her dresser until he eventually crumbled away.
My mother’s attempts at assimilation have been myriad and lifelong. She made it in to Harvard, where she worked in the serving line at the Freshman Union, offering food to her classmates while decked out in plastic gloves and a hairnet. But it was also in college that she met my dad, Mr. President of the Porcellian Club from Essex, Mass., whose forebears had come over on the Mayflower and funded a dorm and a professorship and a boathouse. At their wedding in 1989, one of my father’s great uncles, tipsy or dotty or ignorant or whatever you want to call it, went up to Gammy and cordially remarked, “Charming party, darling, really — but what are all these Orientals doing here?” Mom thought she was marrying up.
When you’re the biracial, white-passing child of an immigrant, the problem of trying to assimilate yourself is mostly inside your head. The humiliation in elementary school of always getting out first in Dodgeball somehow becomes linked, in your mind, to your Asian-ness, because the kids who are good at it and go after you — pick you off because you’re easy — have blonde parents and tennis lessons at the country club. Then there’s the clichéd anxiety over the stinky salmon-and-rice balls in your lunchbox. That sense of inferiority, though, is absorbed from your mother’s stories of discrimination, the ones she’s told you and the ones you watch her living. You, yourself, don’t really face any of it. The tennis kids go for you because, well, you suck at Dodgeball.
But it is a different pain altogether to watch your parent keep trying to assimilate, still, after all these years. You are born belonging to a club she can’t be a member of, and you feel like you are excluding her, leaving her behind. This was true for my siblings and me, because we look mostly white. Our mom, meanwhile, wasn’t allowed to belong, even at home. My dad would make fun of Asian accents or Asian eyes or Asian driving, carelessly in front of her, and even though I’d bite my lip sometimes a throttled laugh would escape. I hated myself for it.
When Gammy and Gaffer made their biennial holiday visit to Denver, every meal carried the risk for my mom to fail. She knew they knew she didn’t belong, but god forbid she serve or say the wrong thing and confirm it. She always pulled those meals off beautifully. She’d recreate their shabby-chic aesthetic to a T, and then transcend it: at lunch, bountiful arrangements of fresh ciabatta and deli meats (the non-nitrite kind, since her kids were eating), potato chips in a fancy bowl. This was nothing like what we normally ate at home, the sloppy delicious pungent Korean stews that we downed with such haste and gusto, their bright red remnants dotting all the tablecloths we didn’t use for company. And it was nothing like what we ate at Gammy and Gaffer’s summer house in Essex, either, where for lunch they’d strew their kitchen island with a jar of expired mayo, cold cuts from Crosby’s, and a half-empty bag of Pepperidge Farm white bread and tell us to help ourselves. When Gammy and Gaffer or any of dad’s family came over, my mom tried to out-WASP them all. I don’t think she did it to impress them, nor was it out of any delusion that they would accept her. Rather, I think she refashioned herself so that she would blend in, as though into the walls of our house, which she repainted in colors she thought Gammy would approve. She wanted to stand against those walls and fade into the safety of self-erasure, no longer a blot on their exalted family pedigree, an Oriental who was out of place. In a way I think that’s what betrayed her: she played her part too well. She’d serve asparagus, which they love, but she would cook it perfectly, wouldn’t turn it into something you could gum with dentures. She would never sip wine while letting guests help themselves, or serve meager portions, because that’s not who she is. In Korean culture food is about bounty, and hosting about laying yourself at your guests’ feet. She couldn’t emulate the fundamental couldn’t-care-less-ness of WASP style. She did care. She cared so very much.
I know they looked down on it all, in their perverse way: they perceived her effort and curled their lips in scorn. They knew how to wound her. “We have much fresher corn at home,” Gaffer said one time over dinner at our house. There were flecks of chewed-up corn all over his lips. “Not like this wimpy corn you’re serving here.” My mother bowed her head in shame. This was what had burdened her all her married life, and what she had worked so hard to protect us from. She wanted only not to disappoint them, and for her children to be able to move with confidence and ease in their world, in a way she never could, would never be permitted to. Gammy and Gaffer sat down and tucked in and made their little quips about how she had gone “overboard,” how in fact it was really all kind of “excessive,” while she bustled about the kitchen with a furrowed brow and anxious smile, keeping the fruit platter replenished and immaculate. Watching her serve them, and letting her serve me, I felt the heartbreak of knowing that whatever she did, it would never be enough.
At Hillsboro, Mom fit in more with the Southeast-Asian nannies who followed the blonde mothers to the beach, golden-haired children clinging to each rough brown hand. We’d pass them on the deck or in the children’s dining room, and a look of recognition would flicker between them and Mom. They’d look at her, at us; they could detect the halfies² hiding in the seersucker. They would talk with Mom, sometimes, but never for long; the kids were dragging on them, pulling them away.
When I was in elementary school, more than a decade after they married, Mom officially took Dad’s last name. She went to the Social Security office and got it changed from “Sunhee Juhon” to “Sunhee Juhon Hodges.” She hadn’t taken it when they first married because she wanted to continue practicing law — she was a federal prosecutor — under her own name. And, too, I think she wanted to keep her name because she and her sister would be the last to have it: none of the Juhons had living sons, and once she and her sister married the name would die out. The reason she became Sunhee Juhon Hodges was that when she was picking me up from school, other parents would ask her who my mother was. They figured she was my nanny. She had quit practicing law a few years before that, so that she could take care of us full time, trading in her identity for our sake. She’d lost her first child, a baby boy, Alexander, when he was five days old, and it made her realize that there’s no time to lose, not when you’re raising kids, anyway. Dad and Gaffer and Gammy would get angry with her at Hillsboro because she didn’t want to leave us all day at Nana’s Cottage, the kiddie crafts center staffed by full-time nannies or the immigrant seasonal workers. When you’ve lost a kid you’re less okay with dropping the rest of them off at Nana’s Cottage while you go sip cocktails on the terrace.
One day on the beach, when I was about nine, one of the little blonde girls trotted over from her nanny and plopped herself next to my sand fort. We dug for a while in silence. Then she looked up, squinted her eyes, and gestured to my mother, who wasn’t lounging under the cabana but was waist-deep in sand, digging a hole with my sister and brothers. I thought she looked like a movie star, so thin and beautiful and glamorous in her big sunglasses. Her hair was still all black, then.
The girl pointed at her. “Is that your mom?” she asked. I nodded, my heart bursting with pride.
“You’re half Jap,” she announced solemnly, and then we turned back to our buckets and continued digging in the sand. I don’t think she meant to be mean; anyway I wasn’t hurt by it. I was only bothered because she hadn’t gotten the kind of Asian right. I’m half-Korean, I wanted to say, my mom is from Korea. I kept trying to tell her. Each time the words caught in my throat. Eventually the sand fort was done and she left and it was time to go inside for lunch.
The one part of Hillsboro that my mom really could take pleasure in was the lunchtime Seafood Buffet. The other meals were gross — overcooked and undersalted, mushy asparagus and steak charred to a crust — but from the gleaming ice towers of the Seafood Buffet you could pluck fresh shrimp and clams and sometimes even lobster, delicacies we couldn’t afford at home. The thing my mom liked best, though, was the seaweed salad, glistening green and dressed in sesame oil and sesame seeds, which to her tasted something like home, the seaweed Halmoni would cook for her in huge batches of muk guk when she was pregnant, seaweed soup that’s good for your baby’s blood and brain and bones.
The other reason lunch came as something of a relief was that, because it was a buffet and didn’t require your host to reserve a table for you, we could go downstairs and eat without the rest of the family. That is to say, Dad’s family. Mom and Eloise and Eliot and I, one of us holding baby Aidan, would find a table on the shady part of the deck and things would be easy for a while. No one got yelled at for not scooting their chair in (“sitting straight,” it was called); you could rest your elbows on the table.
That is, until Gaffer sat down. Of all of them, he had a knack for finding us, or at least it seemed that way, maybe because we dreaded his arrival more than anyone else’s.
He’d sit down with a grunt; everyone quickly moved elbows off the table and smoothed napkins in laps. There would be idle chitchat about the weather.
One particularly fine afternoon, when we were sitting with Gammy and my dad and a smattering of cousins too, Gaffer laid down his fork and proceeded to watch my mother eat. His eyes were very narrow, the way my dad’s can be. After about two minutes of intent staring, he said, “Sunhee, do you ever stop eating?”
My mom stopped mid-chew; I was afraid she was going to spit out her food. Instead she swallowed, wiped her mouth daintily, and obediently pushed away her plate. I looked over at my dad, hoping surely he would say something. No one said a word.
It was only seaweed salad. She didn’t touch it for the rest of our trip. In fact, she barely ate anything at all, after that.
I not welcome at the Hillsboro Club anymore. My dad left our family earlier this year to start another one, cursing my mother and my siblings and me for years of unhappiness, years he has compared, no joke, to living in a concentration camp. He says he’s never gotten to do the things he wanted to do, because of us. But what about Hillsboro, I want to ask, when you would play golf and tennis with Gammy and Gaffer, and we would go there gratefully and play our part? But again the words catch in my throat. That’s the thing about the Hillsboro Club — it’s not enough to play the part; you have to belong.
¹ WASP = White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Can an Anglo-Saxon be anything but white? The acronym is either redundant or really wants to emphasize whiteness. Perhaps the alternative, ASP, is associated with something too reptilian, foreign and low…or would just be a little too revealing.
² Slang for “mixed-race,” as in, for example, Junot Díaz’s 1995 short story, “How to Date a Brown Girl, Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie.”