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Sometimes I Feel Lonely in the Diaspora by Minyoung Lee

Image is a photograph of green mangos in a dark bowl; title card for the new flash essay "Sometimes I Feel Lonely in the Diaspora Because I Don't Have a Mango Poem, So I Wrote a Mango Story" by Minyoung Lee.

Minyoung Lee opens her nonfiction flash “Sometimes I Feel Lonely in the Diaspora Because I Don’t Have a Mango Poem, So I Wrote a Mango Story” with multiple border crossings and more than one fruit—most memorably, an anecdote wherein her grandmother eats an entire bag of oranges rather than surrender them to customs officials upon her return to Korea. If oranges were “liquid gold” in Korea at the time, and bananas “so rare and expensive you only got to taste [them] when you were sick and lying in a hospital bed,” mangoes have always symbolized home for nostalgic South Asian expatriates the world over. In an article in Granta on “How to Write About Pakistan,” Mohsin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Kamila Shamsie made ten tongue-in-cheek suggestions, all relating to mangoes. First, “Must have mangoes.” Last, “Mangoes that ripen in creative writing workshops must be rushed to the market before they go bad.” As Salman Rushdie later commented, “I have a rule that I offer to young writers. There must be no tropical fruits in the title. No mangoes. No guavas. None of those. Tropical animals are also problematic. Peacock, etc. Avoid that shit.”

Lee situates her playful mango story in that context, alluding to the history of mango poetry (“sometimes ridiculed as an overused metaphor”) as a Korean-American writer who has sampled the fruits of both Korea and the US and for whom different foods have figured in her experiences in different ways. “This is a story about oranges,” she tells us. “This is a story about rice.” “But as promised, this is a story about mangoes.” (See her author’s note on the irrelevance of the mango to an immigrant from Korea, “a country whose climate has been compared to that of Chicago,” and why the fruit has taken on “symbolic meaning” for her nevertheless.) Utilizing stylized repetitions with variation (what Gertrude Stein called “insistence”) as well as a conversational tone, Lee performs a neat reversal of diasporic tropes by the end of her flash, always with humor and a light touch. The closing lines of this “sweet” and “juicy” flash will make you smile.  —CRAFT


 

This is a story about oranges. The fruit the rich kids ate when the rest of us ate mandarins. Those kids were nicknamed Orenji-jok and rode fancy cars in Apgujeong. We waited for the winter to buy boxes of Jeju gamgyul we stored on the cold veranda to eat all season long.

For a brief five years when I was a child, our family lived in America, the land of oranges, any time of the year—a rich country full of rich opportunity. When my grandmother visited, she made sure to bring back a bag of oranges on her way home, a souvenir of the American sun and the black American soil. Security at SFO stopped her, said no fruit across borders. So she ate the whole bag of oranges on the spot. She flew home with her stomach full of liquid gold.


This is a story about bananas. The fruit so rare and expensive you only got to taste it when you were sick and lying in a hospital bed. The nineties equivalent of the wild Cornus berries that a worried father picked in the dead of winter so his sick child could be well.

When our family came back to Korea, my uncle bought us bananas, a generous homecoming gift. I didn’t know I was supposed to be impressed, humbled, grateful, and happy. I feel embarrassed now, writing this sentence. My parents must have felt embarrassed then. And now that bananas are cheaper in Korea, I wonder what my uncle feels about what happened to us and bananas.


This is a story about rice. The grain used synonymously as food, family wealth, and security. When our family started a new life, it started with rice, or at least that’s how we told the story—like how our grandfather only had a sack of rice on his back when he came down South from Pyongyang during the War. Or when my mother realized I would have to live on my own sooner than she’d expected, she first taught me how to cook rice from a small stainless steel pot that she then packed in my bag.

When I came back to America as a young adult, this time by myself, I didn’t realize how many varieties of rice there were out in the world. My parents had warned me beforehand—Don’t buy the rice that will fly around even when cooked!—told me to look for the Kookbo (Kokuho) brand. It was sixteen years later, during the start of the pandemic, when my rice storage was low but this brand of rice was unavailable everywhere, when I first bought a bag of jasmine rice. I cooked it and realized I’d eaten this rice in Thai restaurants before. I’d tried Thai food for the first time in America as a college student—Thai restaurants were more prolific than Korean ones and tasted more Asian than Applebee’s. I associated this flavor with America.


But as promised, this is a story about mangoes. A fruit many in America seem to feel starving nostalgia for. Sometimes ridiculed as an overused metaphor, but one I suspect has a good reason for its overuse.

The first time I tried a mango was in 2006, in Berkeley, California. I was visiting a high school friend for Thanksgiving, the closest person I had to family in America. We walked around Downtown Berkeley, browsed a used record store, ate at a very college-town Korean restaurant, perused a grocery store. She picked up a mango.

Have you ever tried one? she asked. I had not ever tried a mango, never dared to even touch this strange, poisonous-looking fruit whenever I walked past it in the produce aisle.

My friend bought one mango. We came back to her apartment, where she washed and peeled the fruit.  

Is this how you peel a mango? I asked.

Is there a proper way to cut fruit? she said. As long as you can eat the inside.

She placed the plate of soft yellow spears between us.

Careful not to eat the pulp in the center, she said. I watched her stab a piece with her fork and put it in her mouth. I did the same.

The mango was sweet, juicy, and tropical-flavored. It tasted like being an American.

 


MINYOUNG LEE writes fiction and essays in Oakland, California. Her work appears or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, North American Review, and Passages North, among others, and has been anthologized in Best Microfiction 2021. Minyoung is an alum of Tin House Summer Workshop, American Short Fiction Workshop, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her prose chapbook, Claim Your Space, was published by Fear No Lit Press in March 2020. Find Minyoung on Twitter @minyoungleeis.

 

Featured image by Kaysha courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

A sentiment many of my fellow Korean immigrants share is that we didn’t realize we were Asian until we came to America. “Asian” is simply not how you’d think of yourself as a Korean person who’d only lived in Korea. You wouldn’t feel solidarity with a person in Japan, a country that fairly recently colonized your homeland, nor would you think of someone from Thailand, a country whose alphabet, food, and Buddhism are totally different from yours, as “one of us.”

That all changes once you arrive in America. Identifying yourself as “Asian” is one of the first steps to becoming “American.” One day, you realize you are Asian first, Korean second. The Taiwanese aunties at work adopt you as one of their own and invite you to Sunday potlucks. You go to Japanese restaurants to eat food that feels familiar (though many Japanese restaurants in the US are, in fact, owned by Korean Americans). You learn about mooncakes, boba, butter chicken, and phở—and start to form nostalgic associations with these once-foreign food items. And when you become an Asian-American writer, you learn about the importance of the mango as a symbol of the homeland.

The mango, a tropical fruit, is not something I’d have encountered much in Korea, a country whose climate has been compared to that of Chicago. As a Korean person, I didn’t think I had any business writing about the mango at all. But as an Asian-American person, I realized the mango does have symbolic meaning to me as well, albeit not in the way many diasporic poems describe it.

I decided to become yet another diaspora writer who writes about the mango but from my specific perspective. This is why I made the conscious choice to keep in-line explanations as minimal as possible, to write as if most people reading this would have almost the exact same cultural context as me—I wanted to write a piece that is as close to my experience as possible because this is my individual story within the broader diaspora community. There’s enough diversity in Asian America for us to celebrate the differences as well as the commonalities.

 


MINYOUNG LEE writes fiction and essays in Oakland, California. Her work appears or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, North American Review, and Passages North, among others, and has been anthologized in Best Microfiction 2021. Minyoung is an alum of Tin House Summer Workshop, American Short Fiction Workshop, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Her prose chapbook, Claim Your Space, was published by Fear No Lit Press in March 2020. Find Minyoung on Twitter @minyoungleeis.