Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Excerpt: Broken Gourd

My father, not the type to tell stories, tells only one story. Just one and only story, over and over again. The story is about me, his one and only daughter, and, according to him, the term daughter is up for interpretation. He says I am more son than daughter, but more broken gourd than son.

The story evolves, grows tumors of extra details that has never been there in the years passed. In fact, the story has grown so much with passing time that even my father gets increasingly more surprised by the new versions that come out of his mouth. There are hundreds of versions of it drifting in time, but no one can uncover the truth because whatever was has transformed to what is now and whatever now could be infinitely different then.

And in the purest form, the story goes:

Eunju Namkung, age six, punched Ian Park, age eight, in the nose. His nose bled and he cried. Eunju cried too, because she was afraid of getting into trouble.

And this is a version that has been spoken sometime between then and now:

Eunju Namkung, a mere age six, a sweet little kindergartner, was playing with Ian Park, who was in second grade, but had no friends of his own age to play with. He had said something stupid with his goofy mouth and stupid big front teeth and stupid monkey ears, all curled at the edges, with the weird mole mounted on his right ear. He was making fun of her for being smaller, for being a girl. She was standing there, her cute fists balled tight, letting his voice trail off, watching him shake his head and smirk a smirk that asked for no forgiveness. Her braided pigtails got tighter and tighter, constricting by the power of her rage. The force seeped outward and outward, rippling from the stain of anger, a marble in her body, thinning away so that her cells could feel the dose of venom, while the mind lost track of the central fact of his injustice. Eyes closed, without a word, she got up, came to him, gave her hand to his face-- his goofy face was lit with bonging and alarms. Her knuckles met his nose and he shrieked. As a wimp, he couldn't tolerate the pain in his nose as both of his nostrils trickled blood, a "twin nosebleed" as it is referred to in Korean. What made him run to his mother crying was not the pain in his nose, but the pain he felt from the metaphorical castration of his boy body. Eunju cried too, because she was afraid of getting into trouble, that clever devil.

And this is a true story that I hear as I grow up. Though the stories may have been skewed, I know it is not fiction because I can still feel the residue of the punch boiling in my hand. I know that I was indeed smaller and weaker, and thus nothing, and that I still am the same powerless girl of age six. But, at that moment, against Ian, I was everything. Even if it was a blind shot, Ian heard what I had to say without me saying anything. Each time my father tells me this story, it becomes more elaborate, little Eunju more brave, a little more painful for the broken gourd to listen to. I shrink and feel his words poke me in the ribs. I am ashamed that I am not the girl who my dad speaks so proudly of.

Like how he brings home a soccer ball whose seams have frayed. I take it in my hands and look it over, disturbed by the messy hexagons of black and white. I wonder if I should tell him what I really think. I decide not to, because I know what the soccer ball means. My father is telling me that although he isn't too happy about it, he will allow me to play soccer.

So I play soccer, but can't even score the winning goals. I tell my parents scoring is a hard thing to do as defense, but they say "It possible." They tell me that daughters don't play soccer and sons score winning goals. I frown and moan and run onto the field thinking that the powerful red I feel surging through my body can help me in the game. I kick the ball, which, not surprisingly, goes a few feet out of bounds. Although I don't look in their direction, I can hear the intensity of my parent's necks cracking as they shake their heads muttering "Broken gourd. Broken gourd. Our daughter broken gourd."

I pick up on violent competition that exists as a subset of soccer games. I learn the skill of pushing without being caught, and that is only the start. My specialty is body checking someone with massive force, but in an elegant manner which appears to be harmless and accidental. The best fouls are the ones you make, but for which the other team gets penalized. This is how it is. I throw girls onto the ground. I un-tuck my jersey to annoy the ref. I make sure the goalie gets hit hard anyway even if it seems like the ball will miss the net by a mile. And sometimes I feel bad, but when I see my parents on the sidelines and remember the tattered soccer ball my dad gave me, my apologies are empty and my mind rages with a desire to get back on the field. I am, after all, a broken gourd. I stir up the dirt that makes the air hazy and hard to breath. When the dust settles, I wonder if my dad is watching me with the eyes that he has when he tells the story of Little Eunju and the Twin Nosebleed. Usually, he doesn't answer my beckoning stares.

Like how he goes to Korea and brings home traditional tops at my brother's request and no stuffed animal, against my request. I know I am beyond the age of stuffed animals, but I want them anyway. Generally, I don't care for stuffed animals, particularly at night when I make sure to store all of them, their beady eyes and all, in the closet, where I will not see them and they will not stare back. I just want to see my dad walk through the doorway with large suitcases, one filled with his clothes the other with a stuffed animal so large it would not be able to sleep in the bed with me. It is a fair and simple test that I specifically design with the intention of my father to pass. So when he doesn't bring home the one thing that I ask of him this one time, he fails the test, and I fail just as badly. I ask him, "Where is what I asked for?" He says, "You never asked for it before so I thought you wouldn't need it now." I wonder if he will ever hear me.

At least the tops, the things that my brother ask for, even though he too is beyond the age of playing with toys, bring harmonious joy to my brother and father. They wrap the leashes around the top, tongues dangling, panting like two dogs racing for a bone. Hurling, unraveling, releasing, and launching these tops into the air. The tops scatter like dragonflies with strange hums and disturbing metallic shine. Once they land on the ground, they spin and circle each other, just as how my brother and father circle around the battle of the tops. Together they are hunched, gorilla-like, literally patting the floor then punching the sky.

"Beat him." Fist up, my brother shouts at his top.

"Spin faster!" Both fists up, my father urges his top.

I can tell who wins by his growl of victory, as the other one scurries to pick up their immobile, defeated top. Again they race to relaunch, and again they circle their tops, yelling strategies to the earless tins, and again someone growls. Then repeat, then repeat. That is until I get hit in the head by a heavy chunk of spinning metal, which brings them harmonious joy plus uncontrollable laughter. I can feel the rage accumulating in my muscles, the cry waiting to be released from my throat, but just for my gleeful brother and father, whose ingredient to getting along are simple tops, just for this beautiful sight, I'll quietly smile. The broken gourd can risk a few more cracks.

Like how he brings home pink jackets which he thinks I'll wear, but I tell him, No. They're only for Asian girls who wear glasses and have no lives. But of course "have no lives" doesn't translate well in Korean, literally meaning, "their bodies are lifeless." So again I become the weird American child who says such terrible satanic words. But really, he's just a bit upset about my rejection of his pink jacket, which could possibly be the only time he thought to buy me clothes.

Whenever I do see pink jackets on the street, puffy with down and warm with embarrassing color, I feel a little colder and the wind strikes me across the face. Whatever jacket I am wearing at the time, be it brown suede or blue windbreaker, becomes a veil that waves so gingerly in the sharp wind. My bones rattle with the biting feeling of a gust that comes from no storm or passing wave, but from the memory of my lost chance that drifts further with passing time. In the pink, I see the image of my father putting the jacket aside, surprising me with the lost look in his eyes.

Like how he brings home remote control mini car racers that are supposed to be mine. They are for me, a girl at the age of 15, and they are not for my brother, much older, an age too old to be playing with cars, who takes them anyway. I wanted to keep them, to keep them to fill in the void left by the stuffed animals that were never bought, to keep them to right the wrong of the pink jackets.

I imagine my father bought the cars from a greasy Korean man wearing a black coat that every poor Korean man owns, sporting tough workman gloves with red rubber palms, which when put together, palms thrusting outwards, looks like a baboon's ass. The man, nearly a peddler, offers my father the cars and my father buys them to give to me. But is he thinking of me or is he thinking of this other man's daughter, who for all I know could be wearing a pink jacket? We are the same daughter. My father is giving for himself, even as he pulls out his weathered wallet with rounded corners and limp leather, even as he puts a faded green bill onto the hungry red rubber, and even as their gloves touch, business transaction.

Like how he brings home black bits of rubber in his hair. He's a greasy Korean man, greasy from lying supine below cars dripping fluids, from drinking oil and antifreeze, who lies beneath a Lexus, maybe a Toyota. Brake pads, oil, engine head, pistons, cylinders, transmission, differential, tire pressure gauge, windshield. Yes, I know such parts and can even point them out. For a week I am his assistant. He makes me sweep, but it is not possible to fit the entire Earth's supply of dirt in a dustpan, even with multiple trips to the trash can and blisters numbing my hands. But every hour I make my rounds, picking up pounds of blackness. Black bits that eventually make their way into his hair, which has developed into a nasty hybrid of black, white, and brown. Shame on him for trying to hide his wisdom hairs with commercial dyes that say, Look I'm aging and I'm insecure about it. As a daughter, I sit behind him, straddling my legs onto his shoulders, searching as a monkey fingers through the fur of another to find black bugs, dinner.

And one day, he brings home a cane, that special branch. He goes to work in Woodside and drives back to the Bronx and he brings home a wooden stick. Maybe it was a fusion of lightning and tree that made the branch wrangled, twisted, and curved as ugly things are. But as most ugly things in nature are, it is beautiful. A shepherd could have used it, maybe the ancient civil rights activist who asked pharaoh oh so kindly to let his people go. I can smell the Red Sea, feel the narrow escape. Its shaft has scars that tell the story of how a blessed flock was saved from beastly wolves. The Moses stick, as it comes to be known, is sturdy and solid.

It comes down on me one day and I definitely feel the lightning and the tree. I don't feel the pain, and don't even know if there is any, because the fear within me grows like a large hole and makes everything not matter. All I did was talk to my dad the way I wanted to, finally. I told him, No I would not like to change the channel. I said, My friend's dad bought her Valentine's Day chocolate. I asked, Can you put down the newspaper for a second? I knew my words were pronounced with a swiftness, a subtle chill that I hoped would go unheard, but somehow detected by my father's soul. That one time that I decided to dare and break the silence, I became a silly girl fallen into an even larger well of silence, where the walls are slimy and the water dark.

The hook looms above me drawing ellipses in the air as the other half of it colors me purple. My mother's face is in the shadows, which isn't possible in the brightly lit room. I wonder why her eyes look at me with pity when her voice echoes with anger. Dad must be in the other room listening carefully, assessing the severity of the situation. The voice, the cries, the cracking of the Moses stick, they must all satisfy him. He does not need to come in.

My mom's right, it's better her than him. She was right when she heard my father's growl. She was right when she dropped the dishes and left the sink water running. She was right on time when my father had thrown down his newspapers, considering for a second if a daughter could be hit. Sons could, but daughters, or maybe broken gourds? I trust that she is right as she pulls me, violently, but somehow with a grasp of salvation. She pulls into the room, yells the words that my father would have said. I am glad it is my mother wielding the Moses stick. My father is right for staying in the other room, sitting on his couch, continuing reading his news. If he were here, I would never be able to look at him again, never be able to say I was the monkey upon his shoulders.

Like how my father brings home discord. He sighs before he walks though the doors with a bag of newspapers, takes off his grease-bottomed shoes, and sighs again as he lies on the couch, smothering the remote which he'll yell at me to find later. Watching the news as he reads the newspapers: I don't get why he tries to know the entire world when he doesn't even know his home. My day at school, the remote's proximity, he doesn't know anything.

He doesn't know my brother hit me in the back of my head so hard, so hard my face got numb. Not a sting, but a subtle numbness which washes up onto my face, as seaweed does at the beach. It appears, disappears, only to reappear, then remain. And thus the numbness crept. First above my upper lip, then no numbness. Then forehead, then no numbness. Then the cheeks, then nothing. Then the numbness floods in, humming a vibrato across my skin. My face felt so light it might float away, almost a pleasant feeling, if it hadn't been from my brother hitting me.

I imagine that it was a frightening strike, some sort of blitzing technique that he learned from his friend, Monday Night Football, maybe it was Saturday-Afternoon-Cut-Into-Cartoons College Football. Speed, pushing of door, swift strike. It's all very good except for poor little me, whose poor little head became a physics problem with his elbow or water bottle, whatever it was. He the lion, me the gazelle, our home a African dry-land, seemingly peaceful but poisoned with tension. It is my life as prey.

At the sound of the collision my mother scurries in, tired. My brother's mother looks frightened, to death. My mother and his mother are standing in the same spot, torn which to be first. One arm over me, the other arm holding him back, it is terrible what we are doing to her. She's dying on the inside, splitting in two, and favoring us both. My father walks in, and as instantly as his head bobs through the doorway, he bobs back out. He knows nothing and therefore can say nothing.

It's funny, because I can only think of the Moses stick. When my mom stood over me, wielding it above me as if I were the sea, I recall my brother intervening and holding my mother back. He held her back. And just like then, my father is on the couch reading the newspaper, just waiting until someone could help him find the remote. I hear the slow rustles of the black-and-white print violently sweep into the room whenever I take a breath and my crying seizes.

My father brings home newspapers. I wait in anticipation for him to ring the bell. When I hear his heavy boots climbing up the steps, I fling the door open and watch his hands hoping they will be empty. Although he searches for my eyes to look into his own, I look at his hands. Everyday he carries plastic bags, their handles lightly wrapped around his coarse, dirtied fingers.

"Take these," he sighs. He extends his arms to me. I take them from him and we both linger in front of the doorway for a few seconds. He expects a bow, but he should know that I have stopped bowing years ago. I consider it for a second. I see a girl whose black hair slides off her shoulders and hangs limply from the surface of her scalp. Her bowed head looks like it is hanging from a ceiling. I decide I do not want to bow. I walk away to put his newspapers on the couch, and I can hear him closing the door, taking off his shoes, sighing, Broken gourd.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit

Eunju Namkung