In Praise of the First Daughter’s Name
When filling out any document, there’s always a place to write out her name. First name: Grace, last name: Yi. There’s a small allotted space for the initial of her middle name: A. The initial, “A,” is a name that stands for “the middle child,” but it is hidden, never said out loud. It is only spoken by those who knew her before she was given to him. There’s a reason why she’s always hiding in between Grace and Yi. She does not want to be seen or heard. Instead, she shadows Grace in hopes that Grace will shine brighter and prosper. She is 아람 (Ah-rahm). When written out, she looks like scribbles and squiggles, but to her and to him, it is a title, a position that is supposed to be taken with the most honor. She is the foundation to his perfect plan.
People will ask her if Ah-rahm is the Korean equivalent of Grace. It is not. Ah-rahm, according to the majority of the random Korean websites that pop up on Google,means “the fruit that has been ripened; maturity.” One website, however, defines Ah-rahm as “a circumference made by a person rounding his arms.” By combining the two definitions, Ah-rahm becomes “the fruit that has been ripened in his arms.” She sounds beautiful; 아름 (Ah-reum). She wants to believe that she is beautiful. But if she takes a good look, she is not beautiful, nor is she Grace. She is Ah-rahm, the first daughter, the martyr.
To be the first daughter does not necessarily mean she is first, nor does it mean that she puts herself first. It means she puts her family first so that her younger siblings can rise above her. If she (bravely) decides to put herself first, she may be revoked of the name Ah-rahm and find herself hated, abandoned, and alone.
But the feeling is familiar.
Ah-rahm puts on the same ugly orange vest and the same fake smile every day, greeting the same type of people with the same damn line: “Hi, this is Hmart. How can I help you?” She types the code for the green onions, 2498, carrots, 2173, Napa cabbage, 2195, and the occasional pack of shin ramen, 3114601352, without missing a beat. They praise Ah-rahm for being able to hold down a full-time job. She tells them that she is the first daughter, and of course they repeat the damn phrase “당연하지” or “naturally.” Why is this natural for them? She should not be working at a grocery store, dealing with people she hates under a name she cannot stand to hear.
Ah-rahm comes home from work exhausted, like everyone who works a thirteen-hour shift. But when she comes home, the orange vest comes off and her hair goes up. It’s time for her to take up her next shift not as a customer service representative, but as the first daughter. She cooks the family a meal that she is too burnt out to eat and cleans up the dishes she never touches. The clock reads 12:30; she has another shift in eight hours. She looks to her brother, sleeping like he should, and makes sure his homework is packed before doing the same for her baby sister. The seventeen-year-old sister, the genius of the house, watches her practice her routine.
“Would it kill you to help?”
“Yeah, look how dead you are,” the damn genius replies.
Ah-rahm works, but she gets to keep nothing. The money she earns goes to the brother, her baby sister, the genius, and of course, to him. He is the reason she is still there because he made her the first daughter. She never spends time with him alone, except inside the car, where they both say nothing. He would ask her why she’s always trying to leave, why she’s so insistent on hating her family, and would remind her that she NEEDS him. He might be the reason why she gets her driver’s license so late. He might have planned that all along, so she wouldn’t leave, so she would continue ripening within his arms. He might be the reason why she hates Ah-rahm so much.
Ah-rahm does the dishes every morning after breakfast. He comes down the stairs, like a manager checking on his employee to make sure she still knows her place. He walks away to get dressed, leaving her to her work. When he comes out, he gives her a time limit: “I’ll be back in twenty minutes.” She keeps working, giving him no response, and waits for the footsteps to go back up the stairs and to his room or out the front door. It doesn’t matter where he is going just as long as he is gone. The door shuts with a reassuring creek and slam. Without the manager around, she can once again breathe, inhaling serenity and exhaling anxiety; he can’t hurt her if he’s not near her.
But when she turns around, she sees him still at the bottom of the stairs, his eyes fixated on her. Panic and fear flood her, her chest burns and her mind melts into chaos as she attempts to process his physical presence still in the room and not out the door.
Why is he still here?
Is he mad? What did I do wrong?
Her cheek stings. A water bottle has magically appeared by her foot. For a moment, it is silent, only the running water in the sink breaking the eerie emptiness. The pain and heat from her cheek helps Ah-rahm regain control over her thoughts.
He has thrown the bottle at her. He wants to physically hurt her—something he has promised he would never do.
The screaming starts, but he is not the one who initiates it. No, it is the genius who shatters the silence and asks him the billion-dollar question: “What’s WRONG with you?”
He walks towards the genius and attempts to touch her. But Ah-rahm is there instead. Being the first daughter, she tells him, “Don’t touch her.”
It is her first act of defiance.
She freezes as he stares her down. How dare she speak to him like that? She stares back not at him, but at his arms. They get closer and closer, and then she feels his hands close around her neck; she is within his arms.
She pries his arms off, expecting him to try again. His arms push her down to the ground, and they go on a rampage, flipping tables, breaking bowls.
As the first daughter, she must obey, so she leaves.
She needs to find somewhere to go. As the first daughter, Ah-rahm had a house, food. She tried to make peace with her life. But Ah-rahm is no longer the first daughter. She is not mature. She is not beautiful. She is not Grace. She is alone and abandoned, just like she expected.
But her name is Grace, not Ah-rahm. Grace means “a quality of God: benevolence towards humanity, bestowed freely and without regard to merit, and which manifests in the giving of blessings and grating of salvation,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.Maybe if she prays hard enough, she will be in God’s good graces.
Grace is not alone. She has a family, not of the same blood, but of the same experiences. No one is the first daughter in this family. They are all daughters, and they all put themselves first; no one calls them selfish or a traitor. If Grace is her first name and she is no longer Ah-rahm, does that mean she is allowed to put her own needs first?
There is one more definition that she finds: Ah-rahm means prosperity. But she realizes that Ah-rahm never prospered. She is not gone, though. She still exists behind Grace and sits like a blank silhouette. Maybe Ah-rahm was never meant to prosper. Maybe she breathes so that Grace may live and actually succeed.
The next time she fills out a document, she’ll write down her first name: Grace, her last name: Yi, and the space for her middle name will no longer be filled in with the letter “A.” The space will remain blank because Ah-rahm needs time to heal. Until her name is ready to be spoken again, she will protect herself. No one will trap her within his arms again.
© Grace Yi
Grace Yi is an English Literature student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. This is her first published work of creative nonfiction.