Approaching the New Year, I note the obvious: gems, witchcraft-lite and tarot cards are ubiquitous. We are clearly looking for guidance and some assurance about our future and these things are easier to acquire and gift than sessions with a therapist. Visiting friends in the New Jersey suburbs not too long ago, I picked up an Inspiration candle at a charming witchcraft store that my friend’s teenage daughter showed us. My purchase lay dormant for months. (Maybe a surprise to the countless friends and acquaintances who have pegged me a candle person, I normally only light them for religious holiday observance). But the other night, hoping for creative energy, I lit up the above candle with its rose petals, vanilla notes and one encrusted gem to write and, voila, i wrote steadily for two hours! I’m an easy convert! (So keep those candles coming!)
But Tarot cards and their wacky, arcane explanation books are another matter. (Though I do enjoy the illustrations on tarot cards. See my own drawn Kdrama-themed tarot card. above). Tarot cards and fortune tellers remind me of the sleepy UES neighborhood on York Avenue where I lived for years of my childhood. Between a hair salon that routinely gave me an Asian bob that aged me, and a drab supermarket, was a small tarot/fortune telling store owned by a Romani couple. Their storefront had the telltale signs of failure—-dusty velour curtains and few patrons. The fortune tellers had four tween/teenage daughters who were dark-haired, lanky and otherwise unremarkable in appearance. The girls always traveled in a pack and this pack delighted in following me, a quiet 8 year old Korean-American adoptee, around the neighborhood and teasing me. (To be fair, they were generous bullies, they messed with a lot of neighborhood kids including my white friends; however, the sisters didn’t insert race for my friends so their jeers seemed more innocuous). This quartet was strangely brazen, calling out “hey eggroll!” as my mom and I entered the neighborhood’s newspaper store– somehow loud enough for me to hear, but not my mother. (It’s like they spoke to me in dog whistle and I was the dog). I don’t remember telling my mother about their taunts. I was probably ashamed how their mild, silly insults caused me disproportional distress/self-loathing. How remarkable to me now that these scrawny, low-key bullies whose most biting epithet was “egg roll” were viewed as a calamitous, powerful force in our neighborhood. For me, the sisters’ jeers were the most blatant reminder that I, a Korean girl adopted by a white, Jewish mother, did not belong. I may have hated them.
My friends and I used to call them “The Gypsy Girls” but not in their presence; even in the 1970’s, we knew it wasn’t a kind way to address them. My best friends Wendy, Maya and Zoe and I, all York Avenue kids, were not precocious–a naive, innocent lot. For amusement, we used to gather our most dilapidated, reject toys and try to sell them to strangers who walked by the corner of York Avenue and 90th street where Wendy’s high rise building stood. Quite remarkable to me as a parent now, our parents back then let us exchange money with strangers on this quiet corner at the end of a long driveway, far from any responsible adult. With great fanfare, we’d lay our toys on a blanket and sit cross legged, one of us Lord of the metal cash box filled with petty cash and coins. Surprisingly, pitying parents or dim-witted children would, on occasion, purchase our toys for pittance. On weekends that we had no toys to surrender, we made dopey, earnest greeting cards with printer paper, markers and crayons and would try to sell them. (When I say that none of us evidenced any early artistic abilities that is an understatement.). We were, indeed, an easy target for the Romani sisters. On one occasion, the oldest sister shadowed our blanket, convincingly cooed over our cards and then explained she would return with cash in an hour. We watched with pride and titillation as she scooped up a row–basically our entire inventory– of sloppy greeting cards and carefully placed them in a shopping bag. Not one of us arched a brow or raised the specter of duplicity. Instead, we waited on our blanket. One hour. Two. Possibly more. When we packed up for the day, no sister in sight, we were certain of their #1 enemy status. Notably, our mood was strangely chipper, each of us invigorated by our collective outrage.
Decades later, traveling with my husband to Rome, I gasped in a mix of revulsion and empathy at the vision of a Romani woman seated before the Vatican entrance with a one foot high tumor growing from the top of her bald head- like a real life Dr. Seuss drawing. My adult understanding of the tragic plight of the Romani made me re-evaluate the infamous York Avenue gang. Looking back at the pretty silly “epithets” the sisters hurled at me, I wonder if they were misunderstood. Were they just lonely, slightly neglected kids who wanted to be our friends and only knew the preschool method of pulling at our pigtails? The slights of childhood were surely amplified and distorted by us in echo. We never knew their names, despite our formative years in their presence, because it seemed unnecessary at the time so my current piqued curiosity cannot be satisfied. One day, they will appear in a story I write and I will give them colorful, rich trajectories.
Though I shun New Year’s resolutions when they are a silly bucket list of things to do/buy/attain, the above middling recollection reminds me that it’s good to consider the status and struggles of the “villains” before joining the masses to vilify them. (My friends and I were the ones who never learned the sisters’ names and who called them the “Gypsy girls” after all). I don’t imagine I can achieve this generous spirit all the time when people are offensive/hurtful to me but maybe more of the time is a good start in 2022. (I can’t say I associate Generosity of Spirit and the year 2021. Take the recent stabbing of Drakeo the Ruler by all accounts a skilled rapper who has been criticized for some ugly, anti-Asian lyrics. On a popular site dedicated to fighting anti Asian hate, one writer wrote how Drakeo’s lyrics may have encouraged a rash of burglaries that targeted Asian-Americans and therefore, karma got him. A rash of commenters applauded this sentiment. Ugh. We as Asian-Americans, even in in our anger at anti asian crimes and ideas, have to do better. There’s no room for us to be short-sighted and racist. It’s ruinous.
Another thing I want for 2022 is certainty, which I realize is never in the best of times possible. This ranges from the minutiae of wanting to know how many bulk KN95s, home COVID tests and paper towels makes me a detestable hoarder, to some big picture questions, i.e. when will most of us have to return to the Huis Close of office life? Listening to my employer’s Zoom meeting in which management told us staff about the return to the office policy in 2022, I remarked on what seems like a generational divide: older attorneys (mostly management with offices) who miss office life and speak of the amorphous benefits of showing up to the office and the younger generation (mostly in cubicles) who has less affection for office culture, greater comfort with Zoom and technology and a sizable fear of sardining indoors during COVID times. Though I am no longer in the younger group by age, I cheered on my mostly younger cohorts who raised concerns about the forced return to the office in early 2022. (And this Zoom happened days before Omicron’s surge).
Have I, these past two years of working remotely missed the inevitable office trifecta of carpal tunnel syndrome, curved posture and excess poundage from eating snacks all day in a seated, glossy-eyed trance? No. In fact, this past year, I started running early in the morning for the first time in decades, lost 35 lbs in a healthy manner and hopefully will keep Diabetes etc at bay. (It seems, I had not heeded the advice of a much older coworker who once saw me eating cookies at my desk and pointed at her own thighs to say “You better switch those out for carrots or this will be you”).
Nor have I longed for the sad spectacle of humans wearing headphones in small cubicles to drown out coworkers or how the smart few who used a standing desk or brought in their own aerodynamic chairs were labeled precious/demanding. I recall feeling self conscious keeping a yoga mat in a visible corner of my shared office as if it was something subversive/akin to George Costanza sleeping beneath his desk. I certainly hope more employers amp up their concern and resources for employee health, both physical and mental. Now’s the time.
How can we ring in 2022? For me and my family, it’ll be a quiet New Year’s. Watching a new Kdrama, the Red Sleeve set in the Joseon era, I was taken by a scene in which the royal court lady who is smitten for the young king learns of a plot against him as she’s taking a walk in the woods; in lickety-split time, she constructs a signal kite to warn her man of imminent attack. (She puts me and most crafters to shame. How did she gather glue/double sided tape, perfect bamboo sticks, strong paper, ink and string?) This scene certainly educated me about kites as I had thought they were simply the maddening toys that unhinge me; see me violently pulling kite string off of tree branches in Central park as my child paces. Indeed, kites have been used in warfare to convey military directions and issue warnings in many countries including China and Korea. As someone who still laments the end of snail mail, the idea of communicating with kites appeals to me. Only instead of warning a king of pending ambush, send a kite in the air to signal more mundane things, i.e. “Danger: tourist bus of anti vaxxers headed your way” or “Save me from this group of boring, self involved parents!” You get my drift.
I attempted to make one of these modern signal kites tonight but I failed. (See below for my fiasco). Hope this kite isn’t symbolic for my year ahead! Happy New Year’s! Be safe, healthy and generous in spirit (when possible)!!