In the Year of My Birth: 1987

by Kohleun

This summer I am teaching with the university’s adult degree completion program. Students whose average age is 37 are returning to school to earn their bachelor’s degree and I get to be a part of this process. My first class, an individual composition tutorial, concluded today. Hoping to ease my student’s anxiety over workshopping and writing groups, I brought a piece of my own work to share and revise after we took a look at her essay. With my personal laptop still under the care of IT services, I scrolled through old drafts on my external hard drive and came across this short reflection I wrote in a creative nonfiction class as I was becoming more aware of my location in a history of gender norms. The assignment was to write about the year I was born. With the help of my writing student, I’ve polished it up and thought I’d share this with ya’ll. It’s a fun exercise to try.

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Kellye Cash: Miss America 1987
It’s a “scholarship program.”

In the Year of My Birth

The United Nations proclaimed 1986 the International Year of Peace.  There’s little recorded about my biological parents beyond their ages, marital status, heights, and hometowns.  They weren’t married, so I like to think of myself as a love child, conceived in a year of peace.  Maybe American radio programs could be heard crooning “Baby Love,” giving them a little nudge.  Maybe they were young lovers and I was their happy little accident, named Koh Eun—“High Grace.”  But that might not be true.  Maybe I wasn’t born out of love at all, but from violence, not from mutual consent, but the abuse of women.   I do know that I was born into a year of mixed identities for women, and a world trying to find peace.   They (whoever “they” were) shaved one second from 1987 to ease into the Gregorian calendar, and I think it was like pulling a thread from fine silk Charmeuse.  A blemish no one sees because they’re distracted by the sheen.  The sheen in this case happened to be fuchsia bangles and shellacked hairdos.

In the U.S., where Mom and Dad lived in the northwestern state of Washington, Aretha Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, getting the R-E-S-P-E-C-T she sought. At the same time, women were living in what Susan Faludi later called the Backlash against feminism. Women in miniskirts, puffed sleeves, and frizzy hair, permed and teased, spent hours getting into constricting clothing and impractical shoes. Two people waited for me in Seattle, a woman and a man who were married with two children. And they loved each other. She wore pink lipstick and shoulder pads, and he sported a bushy mustache, and called all their friends when they got the word that I was born.

Reagan also got on the phone that year, shouting to Gorbachav, “Tear down this wall,” but not soon enough to let a young girl named Sybiel cross over to West Germany without first “selling” her family’s jewelry to gain passage for her and her sister.  I met Sybiel in Scotland this summer at a bed and breakfast, after flying into the U.K. via Heathrow Airport in London. In that city in the year I was born, Margaret Thatcher began her third term as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. And fire killed 31 people in the Kings Cross Tube station, where I stopped and changed lines the night I went to see Chicago, featuring half-naked women and half-naked men in sequins and stretchy mesh dancing around and singing.

I wonder if either set of my parents were listening when the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica said in his speech, “I say to the poet . . . .The path to peace is difficult, very difficult. We in Central America need everyone’s help to achieve peace.” Did they know I, only a few months old, would take that as a personal address 22 years later? Did they know that I would sing Aretha in the shower and totally mean it?  Or that I would backlash against the Backlash and vow never to wear shoulder pads? Did they know that I would live to see a woman run for the office of Vice President, and another miss a Presidential nomination? Did they know that I would cry my eyes out in a professor’s living room over the rape of a woman I have never met? Do they know that I have missed that anti-Gregorian second all my life?