CH1 Grandpa Choi once sat me down and said, you’ve got a face that begs to study. “Jang Mi-in, you’ve got a face that needs education.” Needs. There wasn’t wiggle room in his vernacular. I knew what he meant;…
Recently, I came by a coupon for a cold reading on my name. It would be based on the traditional fortune-telling practice of saju—the four pillars of destiny—and best of all, by phone. Scheduling was easy. Nowadays, most Korean shamans and psychics are online, reachable through apps endorsed by K-conglomerates. But when I heard the elderly man’s voice, it triggered a memory. It was of my best friend in middle school, whose grandfather had once sat her down and said, you’ve got a face that needs education.
The novel starts with a name because many of our encounters just do. The name is our front entrance, the door on which restaurants paste takeout menus. I focused on the idea of first impressions because we rarely get to decide on how they affect us, especially as a child. A name, face, or even the date and hour of birth may destine us for certain uncertainties, regardless of personal beliefs. It works as a framing device.
I also focused on distance. Mi-in is troubled by her name because she feels it doesn’t belong to her. It may be an integral part of her life but is strange and distant. And much like her name, the people in her life are far-removed from each other. Despite having seen each other’s most intimate and vulnerable moments, they care little to know about “the other.”
This breakdown in communication sprouted the moment Mi-in was given an addendum name. Nineteen-ninety was the Year of the White Horse in the Chinese zodiac. It was also the year of a great shift in the gender ratio of Korea (116.5:100). Girls born that year were thought to be headstrong and destined for a hard life. The ’90s were also a time when personal computers began floating into Korean homes, when the traditional extended family was broken up into nuclear families , and decades later, micro-nuclear ones. So the many distances that arise in the novel are both circumstantial and intentional.
This brings us to the title. The “strangers” are not the benevolent souls of the film A Streetcar Named Desire, where Vivien Leigh depends on the kindness of strangers. They apply to family, friends, acquaintances, and even our own selves. Familiarity is at odds with the idea of strangers yet makes perfect sense when we bring into it our many distances. In this manner, I wanted to tie everything back to names.
Returning to the cold reading, I’m sad to say my name is a tad unlucky. Every letter is fighting with one another. I must be on incredibly bad terms with my father. When I exclaimed, “oh not at all,” the fortune teller countered: “Life is long.” I wish to take heed of not the dig but the sentiment. Mi-in would say the same.
SENA MOON is the recipient of the 2020 Pen/Robert J. Das Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers and the 2019 Boulevard Short Fiction Award for Emerging Writers. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Quarterly West, Boulevard, and The Fiddlehead. She obtained her MFA from the Helen Zell Writers’ Program in 2018 and hails from Seoul, South Korea.