I should have known better than to think anyone would listen to me at the Korean beauty salon.
“You want the perm?” asks the stylist in leather pants, running her fingers through my limp hair.
“Uh, I—I was thinking,” I sputter, showing her my phone, “maybe you could give me something like this instead?”
After scrolling through Pinterest for “hairstyle makeover” all week, I’ve settled on this sleek pixie cut. It’s definitely shorter than anything I’ve ever had before, but maybe that’s exactly what I need before seventh grade starts next month. A change. Something bold for the New Me.
Mom emerges from the dressing room in a shiny black robe and plucks the phone from my hands in one swift motion.
“Yumi, no.” She raises a generously penciled-in eyebrow. “Too short. You will look like a boy from BTS!”
“Mom!” I grab my phone back, ignoring the three robed aunties (who aren’t really my aunties) laughing in the chairs next to me. “This is a really popular hairstyle these days.”
“Let me see.” My stylist’s leather pants squeak as she bends over for a closer look. “No good. Your cheeks are too big for this cut.”
I examine the picture again, noticing the model’s sunken cheeks for the first time. I steal a glance at myself in the mirror, subtly sucking in my face.
Leather Pants scrunches my hair in her hands. “You need more volume.” She combs my hair forward, obscuring the sides of my face. “Covers your yeodeureum.”
My Korean isn’t that fluent, but I know she’s talking about my acne.
“She is right,” Mom says.
My stomach twists. “Yeah, but I—I don’t know. That’s not the look I’m—”
Without letting me finish, Leather Pants turns to Mom. “Perm?”
“Yes, much better for her.” She nods her chin to confirm and spins her chair to join the gaggle of gossiping aunties. Before I can object, they’re back to swapping intel.
“Did you hear that Kim moksa-nim from Hosanna Baptist is sending his son to Cornell?”
“How about his other son? Tall lawyer?” Mom gives them a knowing glance. “He’s same age as my older daughter.”
Oh brother, not this again.
Meanwhile, a sharp chemical odor stings my nostrils as strands of my hair are twirled around spools attached to a giant octopus-like machine.
So this is what disappointment smells like. Another perm. So much for the New Me.
When my hair is completely rolled up, the perm machine and I are sent to the ventilated lounge for a half hour to marinate. Good thing I brought my new Super-Secret Comedy Notebook. I take it out from my bag and jot down something I’ve been thinking about.
It's really frustrating that my parents compare me to their friends' kids.
It's always "Why can't you play piano like Grace?" or "Why can't you speak Korean better like Joon?"
The other day they were telling me, "Did you know that Minji got into Harvard?"
I said, "Mom, give me a break. I'm only eleven years old!"
Then she tells me, "Minji is nine!"
Mom approaches, her head covered in enough aluminum foil to transmit radio waves to Mars. I immediately shove my notebook into my bag before she can scold me for “wasting time with that comedy nonsense.”
She scoots the magazines off the chair next to me and sits. “Yumi, I have to tell you something very important.”
I freeze. “About what?”
She picks up her steaming cup of barley tea with both hands. “You know,” she says carefully, “business is not so good at restaurant right now.”
“Uh-huh.” This is not news. It’s pretty much all my parents talk about these days. Ever since the new luxury high-rise condos went up all over Koreatown, foot traffic into our family’s Korean barbecue restaurant has all but stopped. Dad blames the new people for hogging all the parking spots, driving up the rent, not supporting small businesses, and probably even causing global warming.
She blows softly into the celadon teacup, her fingers curled around it. “Yesterday I went to your school to talk to Mr. Beasley.”
I stiffen at the mention of Winston Preparatory Academy’s most crotchety administrator. “Why?”
She draws close and whispers, “To tell him we cannot afford to pay tuition next year.”
“Wait. I don’t have to go to Winston anymore?” A tightness I didn’t even know I was holding in my shoulders magically lifts, and a giant grin spreads across my face. I consider the implications: no more starchy uniforms, no more Latin class, no more snotty cliques, and no more disappointed teachers.
I get a sudden urge to bust out my robot dance moves all over the salon. Not that I’d actually ever do that. Not while anyone was watching, anyway.
Instead I let out a satisfied sigh.
Going to a new school won’t be easy, but at least it’ll be a fresh start. A do-over of sorts. Maybe this time my yearbook will be signed by someone other than my teachers.
But then Mom shakes her head, the tin-foiled flaps rattling. “No, you still go to Winston.” Instantly, my elaborate visions of the New Me skitter away into thin air.
I tug at a roller on my head that’s wound too tightly. “But you just said we can’t afford—”
She shushes me violently like I let it slip that she sometimes cooks with MSG.
“No, listen. Mr. Beasley says if you score at least ninety-eighth percent on exam, you can get the academic scholarship. Attend Winston. For free,” she says, emphasizing the words for free.
“Huh? What exam?”
She scoots her chair closer to mine and pulls up an email on her phone. “Test is called SSAT. Secondary School Admission Test. You take the test on August sixteenth.”
“WHAT?” My neck swings so fast I nearly unplug the giant perm machine. “Mom, that’s in, like, two weeks. I can’t—there’s no way I can—”
Has the hair dye fried her brains? Does she actually expect me to ace a test I’ve never heard of like it’s no big deal?
She clucks her tongue in disbelief. “You can attend best private school in Los Angeles. For free.” She blinks long and hard. “Mommy and Daddy work so hard so you can have opportunities like this. You must do it.”
This is Mom’s go-to move for guilting me into doing something I don’t want to do. Whenever she senses even an ounce of resistance, she busts out with, “We came here from Seoul to work seven days a week, sacrificed everything. Why? For you! So you can (insert undesirable thing here).” Play piano, go to Korean school, learn tae kwon do. It’s like baking soda, useful in so many different scenarios. I’m dying to know what non-immigrant parents say to coerce their kids.
Just then, Leather Pants pops in to check on us. She pokes around my scalp with the pointy end of a comb and readjusts the dials on the machine. “Everything okay?”
“Yes,” I tell her, despite my nerves shooting through the roof.
She leads us to the main room of the salon.
Mom straightens her robe. “Yumi, if you study very hard and graduate with good grades from Winston, you can go to top university like your sister,” she says, this time loud enough for the aunties to hear.
Leave it to Mom to steer this back to my sister and her million and one academic achievements. As if they have anything to do with me. Hello, Yuri is literally a genius. An actual card-carrying member of Mensa with an IQ of 155. And I’m . . . just me. But that doesn’t stop my parents from holding me to her impossible standard to “inspire me.” It’s the most unfair thing ever.
“But I can’t—I’m not—” My scalp is burning. I can’t tell if it’s the chemicals or Mom getting under my skin.
Her posture softens, and she pats my knee. “Do not worry. I signed you up for hagwon to help you prepare for test.”
I recoil. Not hagwon! The last place I want to be on my summer break is in a classroom. My head feels like when the computer mouse arrow turns into the spinning rainbow wheel. “But—but I don’t want to—”
“Studying at hagwon is better than wasting time watching YouTube jokester all day.”
“Jokester?” My breath catches in my throat. “Mom, Jasmine Jasper is not a jokester.”
She’s only the creator of the most hilarious kids’ comedy tutorials on YouTube. Not to mention my personal hero.
“Too much screen time. Rots brain. You need to study.” She pulls down the hair-dryer dome over her head.
The dryer roars to life when she flips the switch, drowning me out completely.
Thanks, Mom, for flushing what’s left of my summer vacation down the toilet.
Swirling, swirling, swirling. FLUSH.
The perm machine emits a series of earsplitting beeps, and Leather Pants scuttles back to take out my rollers. When she’s done, she sprays some fruity-smelling product on my hair and gives it another scrunch-scrunch.
“You like?” She twirls my chair around so I’m facing the mirror.
I run my fingers through the still-wet ringlets on my shoulders, vexed. “It’s . . . just like it was before,” I tell her with a forced smile.
My hair looks like Top Ramen noodles, but I don’t say anything.
Why bother? No one listens to me, anyway.
Copyright © 2020 by Jessica Kim. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.