I was waiting to audition for the starring role of Thomas Jefferson in our high school musical when I was suddenly bum-rushed by a beautiful and pregnant black girl. Sitting recklessly close to me in the next auditorium seat over, Rochelle R. reached across my face and ran her fingers through my straight black Korean bangs. The touch of her soft hand sent an electric buzz through my 13-year-old frame just as a teacher announced, “Steven, you’re up. Please take the stage.”
“You’re going to ace this audition,” Rochelle whispered to me with a sly smile. I stared back at her in shock and wondered if she had made some basic mistake about who I was. As if to answer, she whispered —
“I see you sweetie. I see you. And you have great hair.”
Heart racing, I rode the shockwaves of my first legitimate romantic encounter up to the stage to sing my version of “Light My Candle” from Rent.
I‘d always had a deep singing voice that surprised people. But because of what had just gone down, I smoked the audition. I nailed every inch of the number, singing both the Roger and Mimi parts and deflating the hopes of the half dozen other would-be Thomas Jeffersons still waiting to audition. As I triumphantly exited stage left, I scanned the auditorium looking for Rochelle. But she had disappeared. I could still smell the vanilla-scented lotion from her hand.
In the early ’90s, I was the only Korean kid at our high school in Lynchburg, VA. Barely 5 feet tall, I was an inscrutable cipher to girls. To boys, I was a tantalizing target for macro-aggressions in the hallways. I could never muster a response to their constant taunts, the most ingenious of which appropriated the commercial tag for that late ’80s over-the-counter pain reliever, Nuprin. “Little. Yellow. Different.”
Earlier that year, I decided that I needed something else to sharpen than the butter-knife edge that was my rep. So during freshman year, I immersed myself in hip-hop, particularly Public Enemy, Ice-T and the group I considered first among equals: N.W.A. “Straight Outta Compton, “F*ck the Police”. Just reading the track list thrilled me. I proudly rocked a black N.W.A T-shirt, hoping that the visual statement tantalized others as much as the music excited me. I was precisely at that age when you think having interests makes you interesting.
Rochelle was different. She could hardly make a move that wasn’t interesting. She had transferred from a school in Washington D.C. She rocked a tight Afro with bright pink lipstick and would recite poetry to herself as she walked the halls. While I wore my hip-hop fandom on my sleeve, she was a bona fide literature fan with a weakness for the Beat Generation. Within days of her arrival, she was posing provocative questions during class in her confident and unrushed way that caused a stir among our conservative teachers. Days before her starring turn in my life, she scandalized the entire school when she announced that she was pregnant.
After the audition, we were inseparable. She cast me in a skit assignment for English class where we were supposed to dramatize a proverb. Dressing me up as a cat with whiskers as she held a small cloth bag festooned with silver stars, she directed me to paw at her heels while asking over and over, “What’s in the bag?!” After the fifth time I asked, Rochelle pulled out a toy cap pistol and shot me three times. She fired the last shot right near my head after I had feigned a collapse. Finally, she glared at our wide-eyed classmates and declared, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked. Curiosity killed the cat. Scene.”
I was in love. Every day for two weeks, I walked her home, which wasn’t far from our family’s convenience store where I worked after school. She invited me inside her house a couple times but I worried what my parents would think. I had caught my mother trying to throw away my N.W.A t-shirt more than once. And I was terrified that if we were alone together, we might actually kiss. I never asked her how she got pregnant. I was so much more interested in why she liked me. She always said, “Your hair.”
On our last walk home together, just as we reached her house, Rochelle suddenly doubled over in pain. Luckily, her mother was home and we both helped Rochelle into the car and they rushed to the hospital. As they drove away, Rochelle shot me the same sly smile from the day of the audition. That night, I called her at the hospital and she told me that there were some complications with the pregnancy — that she would be “incogNegro” for a while as the doctors did their thing. I told her that I missed her already. She told me that I was going to be great in the musical.
A week later, a bunch of us who had tried out for the musical waited outside the auditorium for the cast list to be revealed. When my English teacher posted the cast list, I couldn’t believe it. This kid named Alex S. had gotten the lead role of Thomas Jefferson. And I was given a spot in the chorus. Alex was a tall redhead who also happened to be one of the only boys in my grade that year that hadn’t called me “chink.” He was a sweet, decent kid with a voice like Justin Timberlake. As my knees went weak with frustration and disappointment, Alex gently patted me on the shoulder.
“You had a great audition,” he said to me. “For real, I thought you were going to get it.”
I should have thanked him and walked away, head high. I should have quietly vowed to try out again the next year. I should have taken a deep breath. But instead, I looked up at this polite fellow student, seething, and spat the most vile thing.
“N*GGA PLEASE!” I declared angrily, channeling my inner Ice Cube. “THEY were NEVER going to give me this part.”
Everyone fell silent and stared at me. I had done it. I had lent hip-hop voice to my most anguished thoughts. Everyone was stunned. I could feel in my throat that I had overstepped a sickeningly offensive line in the sand. But I defiantly stared back at everyone, emboldened and satisfied that I had finally confounded their milquetoast image of me.
But there was another mic yet to drop.
“Steven … ” a pained voice called out. I looked around and could see Rochelle standing just a few steps away from the crowd. Her sickened expression told me that she had heard everything. As tears streamed down my face, her expression grew angrier and angrier. I stared back speechless. She turned and walked away.
For the next month, I called her house every day but she never came to the phone. At school, she quietly avoided me, never saying a word. During every performance of the musical, I checked the crowd for Rochelle from deep within the chorus, but she was nowhere to be seen.
Later that year, Rochelle left school to have her baby. I never got to tell her that I was sorry.
Almost 30 years later, I still love hip-hop. The beats, the rhymes and immediacy, although my adult tastes run more toward The Roots and Common. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area now, a world away from central Virginia. The local high school put on a talent show last year, and half of the acts featured a K-pop cover. It seems a young Korean here can be a provocateur, a tastemaker and a cool kid.
Last week, the local throwback station played “Express Yourself” by N.W.A. My head bobbed to that familiar Dre beat, and my thoughts drifted to the sound of Rochelle reciting Allen Ginsberg on our walks home, her voice matching the track beat for beat.
Photo courtesy of author.