Author Archives

Nicole Chung

‘Just Assimilate Her Into Your Family and Everything Will Be Fine…’

Photo courtesy the author

Nicole Chung | All You Can Ever Know | October 2018 | 14 minutes (3,439 words)

 

My parents’ story together began in the spring of 1973 when they married and struck out west. She was twenty-one, he was twenty-two, and they’d been dating a matter of months when she told him she was leaving Cleveland, a city she had never much liked, for Seattle — where she had always planned to live, and where her own mother had spent the war years, living with her aunt and her uncle, the Swedish fisherman. My mother had not inherited much from her mother, save her red hair, quick temper, and stubborn attachment to the green beauty of provincial Washington State, so different from the smoke and cement of Cleveland and the small farm community outside it where her family lived. She had been to Seattle, carted along on cross-country road trips in the family station wagon, to visit her great-aunt and great-uncle, and she’d never forgotten the pine-scented air or the snow-tipped mountains wreathed in clouds, the hilly city lapped at its edges by a cold saltwater sound. Now she had gotten into nursing school out there — so, was he coming with her or not?

Though their families charged them with desertion, the move had its appeal: they were each one of five siblings, high in the birth order, and in different but defining ways their parents had been hard on them. More than three hundred people attended their wedding. Back then, it was still a little unusual for a Hungarian boy from one neighborhood to marry a Polish girl from another. There were fisticuffs at the reception, and it was generally agreed that the bride’s relatives both began and ended the fight, but everyone was laughing by the time they farewelled the couple.

They did move out west, but not to Seattle; not yet. A printing company had offered him a job in Ketchikan, Alaska, on Revillagigedo Island in the Alexander Archipelago. She found a job at the local hospital. They rented a basement apartment in a cottage on the edge of the Inside Passage, where they could step outside and watch eagles wheeling over the ruffled water. For a pair of born-and-bred Clevelanders, Ketchikan was almost too quaint to be believed with its fishermen and modest tourist trade, its streets and wooden pilings slick with rain one hundred and forty days out of the year. It was not quite the change she had envisioned, but a chance it still was, to escape Ohio and try on a different life. They liked it there, and felt like pioneers.

Still, when the transfer to Seattle came a few years later, they were ready to live in a city again, eager to meet new people. One Sunday, on a whim, they visited a little white-steepled church set into the hills above the neighborhood where they rented an attic apartment. It was nothing like the large, drafty old churches they’d attended as children in Cleveland; everyone wore jeans. The priest’s gentle Polish accent reminded her of her beloved grandfather, but it was someone else at the parish who commandeered their attention: a short, stout nun with blunt brown bangs peeking out from under her minimal wimple, a far cry from the strict, ruler-wielding sisters of their youth. They told Sister Mary Francis they had little interest in organized religion, let alone the church in which they’d both been raised, but the nun somehow convinced them to return. Soon my mother was leading a Bible-study group and my father was running errands for Sister Mary Francis’s elderly mother. They were back in the fold, with barely a token argument raised in their own defense.

This time, though, they were changed: they believed it all. They asked God to move in their lives. They saw his hand at work — in friends met, in jobs found, in day-to-day life — where they had never looked for him before.

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How to Write a Memoir While Grieving

Illustration by Katie Kosma

Nicole Chung | Longreads | March 2018 | 11 minutes (2,845 words)

I am writing a book my father will never see. Not in its entirety, not out in the world. He got through about half of my first draft, my mother said, or maybe a little bit more, sometimes using a magnifying glass to read the manuscript I’d sent in 12-point double-spaced Times. When I heard this, I berated myself — I should have thought of that; I should have sent a larger-print version. “Honey, it wouldn’t have mattered,” Mom said. “He had to use the magnifying glass for all his reading, even the bigger type.”

Why didn’t I know that? Because I was far away, across the country. Because he didn’t read books on the too-rare occasions when we were together; he was focused on spending time with me. Because, while I asked about his health all the time, I never asked, specifically, how does he read these days? One more thing I hadn’t known about my father. One more thing to reproach myself for.

He did read part of my book. I think about that every day. He and my mom would sometimes read it aloud, together, chapter by chapter, working their way through it in the evenings after she got home from work. When my dad died suddenly, six days into the new year, they were still several chapters from the end.

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On American Identity, the Election, and Family Members Who Support Trump

Nicole Chung | “All American,” from Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America | September 2017 | 16 minutes (4,037 words)

There were so many disturbing moments in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election that it’s difficult to identify any particular one as the worst. Up there at the top of the list: Donald Trump narrowing his eyes and shaking his head as he called Hillary Clinton “such a nasty woman,” during the final debate. He probably didn’t count on feminists laying claim to the words he’d used to level an insult. At the post-Inauguration Women’s March on Washington, many women bore signs proudly emblazoned with those words. And on October 3rd, Picador will release Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, an essay anthology edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding, featuring essays by 23 women including Cheryl Strayed, Rebecca Solnit, Jessica Valenti, Katha Pollitt, and Samantha Irby, among others. The following essay from the collection, by writer and Catapult editor Nicole Chung, captures the frustrations of dealing with Trump supporters, including one’s own family members.  

Sari Botton, Longreads Essays Editor

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When I made an appointment to get my hair cut two weeks after the election, it was with a new stylist, a white woman in her 30s with a streak of purple in her hair. She commented on the loose, rumpled waves that show up whenever my hair gets damp, and I explained that the slight curl appeared only after I had children. She welcomed the avenue for small talk: How many kids did I have; how old were they; did I have a photo? I pulled out my phone and showed her the picture on my home screen, my two girls at the beach.

Oh,” she said, visibly surprised. “Is their dad American?” Yes, I told her. So am I. She went on to ask “what” my children were, and whether I thought their coloring was “more olive, or more yellowish like yours?” Later, as she snipped away, she revealed that she and her father and her boyfriend had all voted for Donald Trump.

Though her comments about my kids were the most offensive, it’s her assumption about my nationality that has stuck with me in the weeks since. She identified my husband as “American” when what she meant was “white,” isolating and othering me in the process. There is nothing out of the ordinary about being taken for a foreigner when you’re Asian American; by itself, without years of similar accumulated remarks, her slip might not have bothered me. But in the same month that Donald Trump was elected to our nation’s highest office, this white woman’s unthinking words served as a stinging reminder of just how many people in this country look at me and see not an American, not someone like them, but an outsider, intrinsically different.

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