Today, we highlight a teen volunteer from the Porter Ranch Branch Library. We’d like to call Hannah Cha an all-around teen volunteer, that rare volunteer who considers shelving books therapeutic. Shelving books calms her down, a kind of de-stressing activity from a hectic schedule of AP classes, extra-curricular activities, and friends. But besides maintaining the arrangement of books in the library, Hannah is one of two members of the Rising Star program at Porter Ranch, a program that encourages teens and young adults to read stories to children ten and under. But there’s more, Hannah is the go-to designer when it's time to update and redesign the children’s and teen section display board in the branch. She loves to draw and paint. In fact, she is a contributor to the branch’s online teen magazine, 11371. But Hannah is an artist at heart. She also paints in words. She says poetry allows her to create “a delicate bridge from the crevices of my inner world into the outside world.” Recently, Hannah’s magnet program at Grover Cleveland High School spent the last ten weeks of school analyzing race relations in America. But just before summer vacation started, the country heard the news from Minneapolis. The magnet class and the recent events on our streets inspired Hannah to reflect on the quotidian, family, and her Asian-American identity. Below is a glimpse from the pages of her notebook, and a few samples of her art-work.
Through My Eyes
Peering through the looking glass, which in turn, offered tinted blurs of a petite, Korean woman, dyed, umber hair paired with piercing eyes, an average, stocky Korean man, easy grin gracing headstrong features, two blurs in a spiraling world.
But all I see is the iridescence of my mother’s sunshine smile, vermillion lipstick dancing across crimson words, pecking my thoughts, a never rending consistency, paving alabaster routines in the day’s ridges, comprising the tireless marathon of a mother. Her rapt, sharp Korean words juxtaposed by a language clanging in her mouth, a cutting necessity, bitter to the taste, with its oppressive r’s and f’s, mumblings of “George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson”, her 13 years in the country of opportunity trivial in the face of a measly citizenship test. An acidic world newly opened, a fantasy in shards at her feet, yet flickering joy darts across her scattered freckles as her screen alights with her father’s face, halfway across the world, cultures apart in a secure place left behind, fleeting slots of bittersweet familiarity nestled in the chopped kimchi lovingly slathered in scarlet gochujang, fighting all too human impulses and the pale yellow beckoning of everything comfortable.
My father’s crooked, sapphire smile, a young face betraying the rooted toil of poverty, cobalt nights of cleaning since 9th grade, vast patience stretching across oceans, dangerously thin, calloused hands, weathered by the on pour of inequity, an easy, infectious laugh, creating an epidemic of joy, daily cereal escapades at 2 am, the aftermath of crooked work hours, reserved, bursts of affection and the rare “I love you”, a stranded sailor, lost in a sea of hard work, relentless nights of prayer, illuminating three brothers and a mother left behind, a father in Alaska, green card obtained under the umbrella of legal marriage finally an exhilarating trip, a celebratory glory of the melting pot, just to have buds clipped by shears of broken English and bankruptcy, drooping shoulders held high through earthquakes of the underprivileged, unfazed at a lack of bare provisions, a steeled resolve, fortified with the robust alloy of faith, the spiraling string of prayer forever leashing him to a world above his own, a pastor without a church, but not a shepherd without his sheep.
And when I ask them for their stories bubbles of coveted shame dissipates in the face of their braced determination, hard work woven into the fibers of their being, crossing mountains of despair in weightless bounds, sunshine that I can’t understand frolicking on worn skin.
“Do you remember prayer mountain?” a casually tossed question, but my eyes crack open in the marigold infancy of the day and the cozy bungalow materializes around me, mother, father, sister, still woozy from sleep in our two beds, Holiness gracing the shining morning, I run like a sinner down winding dirt roads, treading malicious, curling weeds, sepia mountains and ochre boulders matching my every step with the occasional hiss of the brooding rattlesnake, smudges on my pink and white dress from my frenzied sprint, Tommy waves as I pass, grinning from his own bungalow, salutations cheerfully offered in his white tank top, Korean murmurs fill my ears as we stream into the church for daily renewal, baring our spirits before my father and his reverberating words, I buzz with anticipation as groaning prayers rumble through the ground linking a sacred thread through our cloak of feathered faith. The clock hits 12, shrieking laughter erupts as the chapel opens its door, obedient sheep following its shepherd, we reach the kitchen the sharp tongue of Pam peppers me with rapt words, but she scoops me a bowl of rice all the same. I perch on the cerulean swings of a silent playground until Samuel Oppa promises me a lollipop to help him find the newborn puppies, but I want to visit Jenny, who gave me a tiny dog just the day before, complete with tiny fabric ears and a bone that cutely declared “I love you!” her smile spreading warm, roseate tingles through my body, there I was, city girl turned mountain child, tanning in the beating summer sun, brushing fingertips with God, hoping in the yellow sunflowers of youth, tied down to nothing but my heart and the open sky; This was My prayer mountain. But now, years later, all it takes to snip the pale feathers of a child’s dream is my father looking me in the eye, recalling the dull moon as he picked up unconscious, penniless, Jenny at the casino, drunk out of her mind, or how Tommy had sold all he owned to feed a monstrous hunger inside called “heroin” or how we lived there with nowhere to turn, a safe haven woven from desperation, blood trickling from hands pinned down to the cross of hopelessness by prickling nails of poverty, and I shake my head because that’s not my prayer mountain. So instead we share wistful smiles just thinking of all.
The bubble of bliss woven around me popped into disappointing suds of ethnic difference on my first day of first grade. The reek of my rice tucked in with blankets of kimchi, long embedded under my Korean radar, effectively lured in piercing comments, and my name spat out from scrunched, narrow faces.
The very next day, I brought in a chicken Caesar salad from Trader Joe’s. Slathering myself in the white, overpowering dressing of assimilation, I hoped the other kids wouldn’t taste the romaine lettuce of my Korean accent, or the bitter spinach of my poverty, but would pick out and savor their favorite croutons of intellect and creativity instead, the only ingredients I learned to be proud of.
Just as I stubbornly picked cherry tomatoes out of my salad, I tossed away my Korean-ness, my voice, my happiness, picking and choosing ingredients to become the most delectable version of myself. So, I squeezed the lemon juice of compliance on my flaws, coating myself with complementary Parmesan cheese of silence, and drowned in the safe olive oil of accomplishments, praying their flavors could mask my oriental face, until I became nothing more than a soggy mix of limp lettuce heads, pruned in the false promises of acculturation.
A Poem about Physics
If the gravitational acceleration of Earth is 9.81 meters per second squared, and if it took me 2.3 seconds to breathe in your voice, clogging my lungs with glimpses of a future, calculate the velocity of my thoughts spiraling in the sunshine radiance of you.
If my heartbeat flickers and flutters on buoyant wings beating 4,800 times a single hour, but decides to soar through light-years of infatuation upon the slightest blink of your eyes what is the acceleration of me, falling for you?
If every force has an equal and opposite reaction force, tell me why my being staggers under the mass of your laughter, and goosebumps scatter on my skin in the cool wind that whispers your name, while you remain so clearly unfazed.
Tell me why, if you are just 5 feet and 11 inches, just 68 kilograms (graced with the orchestra of your grin that play me symphonies of euphoria), your gravity reels me in more than your mass should allow, why should a single text “hey” steal my breath away, and feed it in the swooping beak of infatuation?
What really is the law of attraction? Certainly, it has something to do with the way you paint a smile on my face too easily, the way I’m desperately in orbit, gravity drawing me in so close, yet so far, leaving me teetering on the brink of the universe.
If the period of a pendulum depends on length and gravity, calculate the time in which my mind oscillates between heaven and hell, between your eyes and your smile, between a promise and a white dress as I fall deeper into God’s blessing that is you.
I’m no physics expert, but I can’t deny the loud evidence that you and me, we’re just meant to
I am from the sluggish sun of Saturday mornings To the bustling Sundays of a pastor’s daughter, From the “unsurprising” emphasis on grades And from constant flights up and downstairs, a dizzying back and forth narrative, I’m from a deceptive Korean pride as They Slid a screen of “Cultural Appreciation” over prior disdain, From the rackets of siblings in and out of my bedroom to my parents who sacrificed much more than blood, sweat, and tears.
I am from an underappreciation of my current state, From visits to cafes with friends, dissolving bubbles of Happiness amidst a larger, demanding ocean, I’m from a guilty shame shadowing visits to my home Of my cultural shortcomings, canceling my careful facade of stability, From gatherings laced with envy and pride, Under the guise of “family” and smiles (stretching a little too wide).
I am from “You’re pretty, but not with that hair”, Or “Do what you want, but not like that”, From heightened expectations channeling into Feelings of inadequacies, a fear of disappointing, And a constant need for reassurance, I am from turbulent insecurities bubbling Under my “cute Korean aesthetic” and my “charming Korean eyes”.
I am from three-week-long “vacations” in hotel rooms, From four people (two parents and two sisters) and one bungalow, From escaping evictions without bounds, in Atlanta, Seattle, Riverside, and more. I am from the pennies my father scraped up (dirty looks from the cashier and all), Trying to get in the last $1.00 of gas, To the veil of happiness my parents wove before my eyes, Making the white bread and butter for a week taste of nothing less than sunshine.
I’m from “What kind of Asian are you?” To an “Aw, I was guessing Japanese”, From wide-eyed, curious classmates absorbing the exoticness of my being, I am from “How can you be sad your dog died? Don’t you guys eat dogs?” from classmates who “meant well” But whose curious eyes had grown into nothing short of malice, I am from being different, accomplishments concealing Me
I am from falling in love with everyone I meet, A frenzied search for love without self-love, Tinkering to perfection always one step out of reach, A product of my circumstances, Cocooned away, wrapped up in the temporary, Searching through the sifting times Just how do I spread my wings?
Hannah Cha will be a senior at Grover Cleveland High School. She is an aspiring artist.
—Michael Baradi, Young Adult Librarian, Porter Ranch Branch Library