An essay on disparate language families touching, Korean slang signaling social hierarchies, Sam slipping between formal and intimate, and contrapuntal forces erupting anew.

S as in Samsam

by Sowon Kwon

Digital Project Published on June 7, 2016


She tears up when she sees me in the museum lobby and approaches. Me too, but I choke back the emotion with a dumb chuckle. Eunjinie, the elder daughter of my younger uncle, has traveled alone to New York, having just left a computer-programming stint in Tokyo. She will reveal nothing more specific about her job than that, but I do know that eventually she will have to face the necessity of moving back home, to Anyang. On consanguinity tables, a cousin is four chon related or removed, depending on how you look at it. An uncle, three. By the time Eunjinie arrives, I have shaken the morbid thought—not exactly a fantasy, since an actual aspect of neo-Confucian law—that if I had been convicted of a capital crime during the Joseon period, say treason, Eunjinie would have been toast, too. Third cousins twice and thrice removed, at ten and eleven chon, would have been spared, just making the cutoff.

I recognize my first cousin immediately, even without plaits and ribbons or the chin-bobbing bounce in conversation that little girls lose just before middle school, seemingly overnight and en masse.

Uncle always uses the formal jondaemal [존대말] (the vous form, so to speak) with my mom, so I know it will be awkward if I do not go with the less formal banmal [반말] when I address Eunjinie. A relief, as there are even more grades of formality within jondaemal, signaling distinct social hierarchies (and different speech levels to be used to address the king, your parents, your boss, strangers, etc.) and therefore establishing the correct amount of distance between you and another. The “correct amount” is perhaps less strict these days, but in some ways negotiating it can be trickier, it seems to me … Banmal (literally “half speech”) is easier, but not without nuance. Used to address those younger than you, those under your charge, or intimates, it closes distance, making the other more familiar or equal, while at the same time affirming existing hierarchies of social order (age, rank, authority, gender, etc.). So banmal used “incorrectly” is also handy if you need to insult or upend!

She will have the grilled mushroom panini, too, her first, but with cranberry juice and not peppermint tea. Sipping, she asks in a flurry, “What is connoted in ‘sweetie’?” (The proprietor of the hostel kept addressing her that way.) “Where do you live?” “How old are your sons?” She continues, winsome, not nosy, “Where do you teach?” Here is my cue. As someone attuned to thinking through unlikely things in tandem, the coincidence of the homophony of the Korean slang term of respect and affection for teacher, Romanized as sam, and the diminutive of the English/Hebrew proper name Samuel, had been making merry in my mind for quite a while. I am drawn to Sam’s freshness and economy, the name’s warmth and informality, and to how succinctly the abbreviated Korean honorific speaks to a very complex social relationship. In contracting sunsaengnim [선생님] to sam, is not an almost familial endearment suggested, slipping forth then back and between jondaemal and banmal, at once formal and intimate? Can disparate language families (Indo-European, Altaic, Algic) touch? How many teachers (sams) do I know named Sam? I wonder about the convergence of the professional and the personal, the hierarchical and the idiomatic … I falter as I sometimes do in speaking Korean, but Eunjinie seems to understand very well. She hopes to introduce me to her friend, an embroidery and quilting teacher, who is fondly called sam by students of different generations. I imagine a chorus of septuagenarians, a spectrum of salty to prudish, who encircle the backlit heroine, as on the Korean soaps! Has she seen the one about the hapless high school teacher, called I am Sam? The one with TOP (née Choi Seung-hyun) as a young hood, before his band Big Bang was all that? Does she also find TOP very packaged yet feral and sexy? (Does she also hear something like Roland Barthes’s le grain in his baritone?) Eunjinie giggles and jots down a URL for me, a site on which you can watch more current K-drama productions, closer to the real time of broadcast.

In the souvenir shop after a puzzled but patient perusal of the exhibition, she chooses as my gift to her a cup like so many others, peddled in as many cities. It looks like disposable paper but is actually ceramic. Of two postcards I purchase, I slip into her bag the one of scrubbed fingers changing the shutter speed, and keep the sagittal-section Nikon.

Uncle’s banmal has an anachronistic lilt, more intaglio than ink-jet, so to speak. He emails a few days later expressing worry that Eunjinie sleeps so much and says so little, other than that she hearts New York.


At age eight I do not speak for a full year. But I draw: a precise if lumpy line becoming Snoopy supine on his roof; the contours and gaps between mouse ears to distinguish Mighty from Mickey; that singular combination of crew cut/pug nose/elbow patch for friends to recognize Sluggo, with or without Nancy. In pencil or chalk. You do not have to speak to be friends.

Nearing the winter holidays during seventh grade, though, I find pluck enough to volunteer a caricature of incumbent president Jimmy Carter to Mr. Palmer for the homeroom door-decorating contest. Mr. Palmer is surprised by my offer, I can tell. Mr. Carl Palmer, who cuts a regal figure, very tall and slim, aloof, imperious even, with Angela Davis hair. One of my best friends, Akiko, who also has a line drawing repertoire (of all manner of dingbat and marginalia that frame onomatopoeia in cartoons, as well as disembodied and androgyne smileys and frownies, proto-emoji I could say now) never seems as excited as I am that her all-time-favorite drummer and our social studies teacher could have the same name. Two Carl Palmers are forever linked for me, as they are in turn, to two Gangs of Four. Let me explain.

Asserting for a time that I learned of the Maoist Cultural Revolution through British university art students, in the context of scrappy and urgent music, dancing, attitude and smarts must have provided me with something. A rationale? A narrative rubric? A certain respite from the influence of anxiety [sic] about origins, more like. The need to organize or make sense of things (in this case, the history of a certain political awareness on my part) gives way to realization about how elusive such order can be. Things go back even further than feels comfortable or “cool.” Middle school, not even college. For example, there is that movie on a rare day in Mr. Palmer’s class. When we enter the classroom the blinds are closed and a screen is at the ready. (Is the screen wall mounted and pull-down, or is it the portable kind on a tripod that is pulled upward to latch?) Mr. Palmer, usually so self-possessed, fumbles at the projector. Threading 16 mm film is not something he does often, I can tell. This prolongs our anticipation and excitement, which fades fast, despite Mr. Palmer’s insistence that this long march, this great leap, this famine, are some of the most significant events of our time. (Few can vouch for the rhetorical efficacy of blurry black-and-white footage with droning voiceover.) But Mr. Palmer’s incredulity then disappointment at our boredom, then restlessness, is shaming, and I try to focus. That effort yields an image that lingers with me still: The camera hovers from above (how did it get there?) and pans across a crowd. Some in the crowd are holding signs with text running vertically here, horizontally there. It strikes me that the orientation does not seem to matter. Do I recognize any hanja [한자] ideograms? That I cannot remember. Any chance that someone in the crowd might still have a long Manchu ponytail hairstyle like Ah Q? That I cannot tell.

At home after school, I draw a bigger smile than in Carter’s photograph, almost a Joker smile. Then two or three more lines radiating out in quick succession around it on each side. Adding more teeth is a thought, but since the bottom row is not visible, I choose instead to slightly enlarge the ones that are. This suggests a pronounced overbite. How little it takes to exaggerate, to distort. Just a smidge, a hairline shift, is enough to undo years of presidential orthodontia. How various and elastic are the forms of “resemblance.” Also how paradoxical and mysterious, because such variety can only mock, offend, lampoon, entertain (or gratefully, silence) the standard, with its implied consensus about the unequivocal singularity of the subject. There is a sweet spot in portraiture, elastic but not indefinite.

Two or three more lines radiating out from the corner of the eyes and some shadows (gradated) to add more volume below. A sweep of wavy gray hair above the brow to cover most of the forehead. A folded cone in waxy red (crayon and tailor’s chalk) and pulled cotton balls, to approximate a Santa hat. I also make plans for a wreath of holly (green batwings cut out of construction paper), punctuated with peanuts rather than berries. It is all going so well, until in trying to caption the image, a sinking feeling starts to set in. Neither Jimmy Claus nor Santa Carter will do. And then when I bring in my drawing, on standard 8 ½ x 11" bond with extraneous background cut away, I realize with crushing disappointment that it is too small. Even with the wreath, there is such an expanse of door to fill. But Mr. Palmer says we do not need words. And when he adheres the drawing slightly off center, it does not look careless, but very much intentional. The emptiness of the door does not engulf the image but makes it a focal point, enhances it, especially when the wreath is opened around it at a loose diagonal, more like a garland. An early lesson in the (modernist) use of negative space in design, I could say now! When just before winter break Mr. Palmer tells me, very matter-of-factly, Your drawing won it for us, he means it. I can tell.

Many schools since, I know that Mr. Palmer’s afro looked similar to others. Boom Boom Washington’s and Dante DeBlasio’s for example. But in shape and color and texture and volume I believe it bore the most resemblance to Kathleen Cleaver’s afro. I also believe that Mr. Palmer knew, as his students did not, that while Kathleen Cleaver was attending Columbia University and working for the New York office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), just months before the great purges in the Peoples’ Republic of China began, another young activist, Sammy Younge, Jr., was shot and killed in another white-owned gasoline station in Tuskegee, Alabama. As a Navy veteran Younge had served his country to defend freedom abroad but had been denied it at home. His murderer was acquitted. According to Professor Cleaver, this injustice led directly to SNCC’s public opposition to US involvement in the Vietnam War, the first gesture of this kind by an American civil rights organization. Jimmy Carter, also a Navy veteran, would have been serving his second term as a Georgia State Senator then, also chairing the state’s Education Committee and harboring national ambitions.


The Verb List and Corpus are in the same English-teacher cursive to my eye. As if both Richard Serra (you can often tell left-handers by their lowercase t’s) and Mary Kelly got very good marks in third-grade handwriting class and kept on. Jimmie Durham’s script is quite good too. But his appears more deliberate, as if written more slowly than the other two. Orthodox penmanship is somehow always already ironic and painfully earnest in Durham’s case. Even so, the notion that anyone’s handwriting holds the key to his or her character feels suspect. During ninth-grade French for example, I taught myself to write, if not exactly as, then pretty convincingly like, Ms. Monaghan (née Tramitière but she married Irish). Pretty sure I can still do it.

Nous avons organisé un pique-nique
à la Place Vendôme (with left-handed circonflexe)
à Montmartre, à Sacré Coeur, au Mont Saint-Michel

Ms. Petrovich taught French in tenth grade, but her handwriting held little interest.


Professor Saloni Mathur has not had to say, “s as in Sam” to help people with her given name, but rather “n as in Nancy” to clarify, lest they assume Salome. I imagine Saloni’s skill as a seasoned teacher kicking in, honed as it must be in breaking things down into simpler bits with the end of facilitating comprehension. Teachers can find themselves in a bind. The more “expert” they are, the more they run the risk of losing touch with that empathic sense, what it is not to know that thing. Does this dynamic account for the persistence of erroneous associations despite repeated corrections? Can the very act of correcting paradoxically invite and stubbornly reinforce the mistake? What if we let the mistake be, while also tweaking it, tempting and conjuring as expected, but also not as expected? Dancing professors—can they unleash something more and something else through their moves? Something that enacts as much as explicates? Something that might appear as unsettling abandon but in actuality has the transformative power of what Professor Edward Said has identified as a contrapuntal force erupting anew? Do advanced degrees and a sense of rhythm have to be mutually exclusive? Lock yes, but then by all means, pop. Veils optional.

Speaking of Salome, I don’t know much about Gustave Moreau. Even less about Caravaggio. But I do know Aubrey Beardsley was considered to be someone who could see an absolutely Japanese effect in Piccadilly per Vivian, or was it Cyril, in Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying.” But then how exactly does it follow that the proper aim of art is to never express anything but itself? In following some of Beardsley’s fluvial, finessed, and filigreed linear contours, I have thought for not insignificant amounts of time that Salome was John the Baptist and John was the Medusa! In case contours in music are comparable, I watch Götz Friedrich’s 1974 film of the Vienna Philharmonic production of Richard Strauss’s opera Salome. No such confusion about who is who there but Teresa Stratas’s makeup does recall a Noh mask and Divine (eyebrows sloping up, to there). To sing and to act for a true soprano is feat enough, but then to also add dance! That has to be mad stamina. Iokannan/John, as object of desire, doesn’t have to do too much relatively speaking. His coloring, more Snow White than Semitic, is turn-on enough. The besotted then suicidal guard is still Syrian and the looming Executioner still a negro. It takes little effort to notice that, but the dutiful attempt to listen for the famous dissonant chord is in vain. I miss it completely. Must have been distracted at a crucial moment.

Speaking of weird hair (Medusa) wasn’t Delilah seductress to another Sam? A quick search and I find songs by Saint-Saens and Handel and Gershwin, paintings by Rubens. And one of Gwen Wakeling’s assignments post–Academy Award for costume design in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1950), starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr, is Barbara Eden’s outfit in I Dream of Jeannie (1965–70). For TV Wakeling has to make do with more modesty in both the budget and belly-button departments … I click again and the chained and bejeweled tan chiffon sleeveless worn by Rita Hayworth in Columbia Pictures’ Salome (1953) is being auctioned this weekend from Debbie Reynolds’s collection, valued at $12–15K, Lot 312 … I suppose Jeannie’s brunette sister, also Jeannie, looks a bit more like Hedy Lamarr. Née Kiesler, Hedwig was Austrian and held US Patent No. 2,292,387 with her former neighbor George Antheil for a “frequency hopping spread spectrum invention” controlled by a player-piano mechanism like the one he used to score music for Fernand Léger’s Ballet mécanique. Their work has apparently been instrumental in the development of wireless data systems. Another bookmark, another Hedwig: Hedwig Lachmann, Mike Nichols’s grandmother, the German translator of Lord Alfred Douglas’s, then Wilde’s own, English version of Salome, both of which inspired Strauss’s libretto. Did Gwen Wakeling also design for Larry Hagman, whose mom was Peter Pan, Mary Martin? In I Dream of Jeannie, Fifteen Years Later (1985), Hagman’s Anthony Nelson was played by Trapper John, Wayne Rogers, because the shooting schedule around Dallas precluded Hagman’s presence on Coco Beach. Maybe he didn’t want to reprise his role anyway and the popularity of his new character, J. R. Ewing, was a good excuse. Don’t know who played Major Nelson in I Still Dream of Jeannie (1991).

Speaking of J. R. and epic fantasists, I don’t know much about Professor C. S. Lewis. Even less about Anglican theology. But I do know that for Lewis, before lion, witch, or wardrobe, came Boxen, a land summoned in childhood by uniting Clive Staples’s “Animal-Land” with his older brother Warnie’s “India.” Animal-Land had to be geographically related to my brother’s India, and India consequently lifted out of its place in the real world, Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy (1955). Why consequently? And what is served by lifting India out?

I also know that Professor Tolkien was offended by a 1958 film treatment of The Lord of the Rings in which Orcs have beaks and feathers, because Orcs are to be corruptions of the “human” form seen in Elves and Men … squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the … least lovely Mongol types. All Orcs? Even Saruman’s Uruk’hai? Not that I believe history to be all determining and culture only symptomatic, nor do I believe that Life imitates Art, as Vivian would have it. J. R. R. was famously a World War I veteran, and TLotR was written during World War II (the Japanese an Axis enemy) and the struggle for Indian independence. Soon, just a few months after Gwen Wakeling’s Oscar win, North Korean forces invade Seoul, inciting the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 83 as a police action to meet the aggression (a Fellowship of the Ring of a kind, if you entertain such things). If at the time the Soviet Union had not been boycotting the UN because of its recognition of Taiwan, all sorts of ruminations seem unlikely. And I would also submit that to an Oxford don of letters who had suffered unspeakable band-of-brothers loss, all of these things would have taken a toll …

And what of Frodo’s Sam? He is noble but not savage, so it is probably glib to invoke a white Tonto. It has been a long while already since Jimmie Durham’s calculation that the Lone Ranger would have eaten Tonto by then anyway. (Just after Margarita Hayworth’s marriages to Orson Welles and then to Prince Aly Khan, and substantially before Hedy Lamarr’s arrest for shoplifting laxatives and eyedrops.) Even so, let me venture further out on a limb: From E. Nesbitt and Fabian Bland to Neverland to Hogwarts, the British fantasy novel is also a postcolonial novel. Avant la lettre. Postcolonial consciousness is “belated” (Professor Homi Bhabha); the past is a kind of territory, “the past is infinite” (Professor Toni Morrison); time is multiple rather than linear (Professor Charles Xavier). Let’s grandfather, or, as the case may be, grandson, that in for now, into the whole genre.

An assignment: India + Narnia = Nindia. Design a flag and crest for Nindia and, for extra credit, costumes for Nindians. If employing Photoshop, make sure to use the rubber stamp stamp stamp tool. We can call this project N as in Nancy.


At a post-opening dinner, a tipsy curator tells me that I look aristocratic—as in a Renaissance portrait—except that my nose has a slight bend, a hook in profile like a hawk, which he delineates in ballpoint on the endpaper of a catalog. Uh, has he seen the Duke of Urbino? But the raptor reference does have resonance. Another face-reader once told my father that he was a winter hawk; Max Ernst’s Loplop has always compelled more than Picasso’s minotaur; and sometimes it does happen that a physical detail appears to me so sharp, almost as if everything else surrounding it has receded.

On our first flight to Los Angeles via Honolulu, for example, my mom, harried with two tots in tow, and in her great relief and excitement to see her old friend Mrs. Byun, retrieves the wrong light-blue Samsonite suitcase. Same make, same size, the same blue as the one my grandmother had lent her for the trip, but the sheen of the lock is unmistakably duller. I feel shy about interrupting the reunion to tell her, but also know time is of the essence so I push on. Receiving my mom’s praise in baggage claim that night is as proud as I’ve ever felt. Prefer Kestreleye to Hawkeye though. Smaller. Even greater economy of means.

I am also good with faces. But even from the back, the upturned jean-jacket collar just askew and grazing his ear was enough. I could see that it was disconcerting for him to bump into me there, at the bottom of the basement stairwell amid Belgian linens and portable easels. And those hammerhead canvas-stretching pliers with ribbed or serrated jaws at different price points (Shu Uemura curlers on steroids!). He didn’t exactly rush by me with his purchase, but there was some haste. No embrace or laughter, which surprised me. Maybe he was embarrassed because on some of our past excursions looking at art together he had scoffed at artists adorned in paint-splattered denim and smokes, or other accoutrements that rehearse “transcendent” (alcoholic) machismo or en plein air avec beret fantasies. Would he feel differently about medical interns yawning in green scrubs on the subway? What about new moms in Lululemon black, with yoga mats and pert gaits, determined to protect “me” time? Maybe instead it was because a part of him believed, like James McNeill Whistler, A picture is finished when all trace of the means used to bring about the end has disappeared. I suspect that he had already begun the careful graphite grids on thin gesso ground by then. With steady lines like Agnes Martin. But smaller. Greater economy of means. Some of his lines were also unflinchingly and unambiguously in decline.

I had strolled downstairs that day out of habit from school daze [sic] more than anything else. My favorite floor was actually the third, with the mezzanine. Up the few steps onto the landing (metal sheeting with raised treads like Talking Heads’ Fear of Music cover) and into the adjoining sunlit room with all the pawed and dog-eared samples on display, the oversize four-ply museum boards behind the counter, and artisanal papers in big wooden drawers. Arches and Rives, Fabriano and Yasutomo and Tetin. An amusement here was to test the spatial intelligence of folks packing the papers up for you, from advice about rolled vs. flat and on. The pleasure in watching people wrap unwieldy things with varying degrees of ingenuity is a reminder that there is more leisurely wait time and conversation in you than you thought.

It is not on that day but one like it that I challenge myself to pick out the same hue of blue that he had for “Untitled” (Loverboy). The most beautiful blue, one more beautiful I had not seen before or since, with which he had begun to show us a way from information to meaning, no less. Not confident about my choice, I bring it home all the same to compare to the sheet I had carefully pulled from the stack in the gallery. Big fail. Hah, not even close, not such a kestreleye after all! My blue is so much more dusky and weathered looking. The texture is as if cold pressed, nubbly, to hold powder pastels without primer perhaps, not offset inks.

I do not think of that paper for years, not until after the death of my grandmother, when on a visit home my mom bequeaths to me the small Samsonite suitcase. It is a nubbly, Canson sky blue, much more dusky and weathered looking than in Los Angeles.

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