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20 May 2023

Papaya by Jimin Kang

Wasafiri is pleased to publish the pieces shortlisted for the 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. The poems, essays, and short stories in this series showcase the best new writing from the best new writers across the globe – in all their diversity and complexity. Set against the deceptively simple backdrop of a university party, Jimin Kang's engrossing short story comments on racist microaggressions and the unspoken social contract with humour, acumen, and a well-aimed plate of fruit.

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. You can read the full terms and conditions and submit here.

I find it entirely justified what I did, to tell you the truth. Mary disagreed. She asked me to leave her party without asking why I had thrown the papaya at Joe, leaving wet, sticky entrails of orange fruit muddying her brand-new carpet. When I looked around the room, everyone’s faces were as blank as plates. It isn’t that I don’t believe what I did was inappropriate, just that the entire affair was less about Joe and more about something deeper that everyone in the room had touched. But as I had on many occasions that day, I found that my mouth would not cooperate with the churning vat of my thoughts, and so I left the party without so much as looking back.   

What happened was that the papayas were on clearance at Sainsbury’s that day, so I had bought the rest of the crate and brought them to Mary’s. Mary was hosting a housewarming party, and her new home was just across the road from the store. By the time I arrived, three other guests had been standing in the kitchen, none of whom I recognised except for a boy who looked vaguely familiar in the way many men do in Oxford: tall and curly-blond with a grey knitted vest. The boy raised his blond eyebrows when he saw me, and whether the expression was one of recognition or surprise I couldn’t tell. But before I could ask, I saw that one of my papayas was leaking and juice was dripping out from a small hole in my plastic bag.   

It occurred to me then that he was raising his eyebrows not because of me, but the bag.    

‘Whatcha bring?’ the boy said as I hauled the bags onto the counter. The boy — an American, I gathered from his accent — grabbed a handful of napkins and threw them on the kitchen floor, where I noticed that he had kept his shoes on. Mine were by the front door, where I had asked Mary if I should take them off, and she had said that I could do whatever I liked. Because Mary had her shoes off, I had taken mine off as well, but when I noticed the boy’s shoes and the papaya juice on the floor, I wished that I’d chosen differently. 

They were papayas from Sainsbury’s, I said. 

‘The things you can get there these days!’ The boy laughed knowingly, and I took note of the fact that he spoke as if he’d been in England for a while.  

On the counter, where Mary had been cutting limes for lime soda, I pushed aside the little green wedges to make room for the first papaya, which I cut lengthwise down the centre around the circumference of the fruit. Then I took hold of the shell in both hands and gently teased apart the two halves such that the black gummy seeds wouldn’t scatter everywhere along Mary’s new kitchen counter. The papaya was a larger-than-average fruit, and because of its ripeness it smelled thick and cloying and monstruous. The fact of it taking up so much space embarrassed me a little, to be honest. I hadn’t known Mary for very long. I’d met her at a life-drawing class in Jericho, where she had sat motionless on a chair for several hours as our model. She had invited me and several others to her upcoming housewarming during the cocktails after class. I hadn’t expected her to follow up with me, but she did a few days later via WhatsApp with a line of smiley-face emojis and Hey, nice to meet you the other day! I’m looking forward to catching up at my party, Tuna. Then, immediately after, oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!!!! Yuna*** I meant Yuna — a crying-face emoji — stupid autocorrect.  

That night, I had clicked on the circular icon containing her face, which was heart-shaped and near-perfectly symmetrical. She had rich, dark hair that fell around her shoulders, arched eyebrows, and lips that had been coloured a deep red, the same colour as the collar of her dress. I found her both beautiful and sophisticated, which meant that, before the party, I spent more hours than usual debating what to bring to the event. For a while, all I could think of was food: fruit, umma said, in Korea people brought fruit. In England, bottles of wine. Candles, maybe. A dessert. I realised that my friendship demographic — broke DPhils scraping by on Tesco meal deals — precluded me from any need to impress, so I decided to go the Korean way and buy whatever looked good at the store. What looked good that day happened to be papayas, papayas that were also on sale, but because they were on sale my conscience dictated that I buy at least more than enough. And this is how I ended up at Mary’s party cutting four large papayas beside blond-haired and grey-vested Joe, who told me his name and asked if I was a student at the university. 

When I affirmed his hypothesis, his face brightened. ‘Studying what?’ he asked, and his eyes lightened up even more when I told him I studied American confessional poets, mainly Plath. Joe confirmed that he was, indeed, from America — Wisconsin, if you must know — then he asked why I would study American literature in England when I could’ve gotten better funding in America. But as if realizing I could technically ask him the same question in return, he quickly digressed, asking, ‘So what’s your connection to the US of A?’  

You must understand that the way he said it — US of A — reminded me of something I’d read on a dating app once, a bio belonging to an American in England, who had punctuated the end of his self-aggrandizing description with an American flag. I took a screenshot and returned to it whenever I was bored from reading or feeling slightly depressed about teaching. On most occasions I found the confidence hilarious, but on the odd night when I would be up late picking through my camera roll for something to send to a friend, I would scroll past the screenshot and feel this hollowness where self-satisfaction had previously reigned.  

 I have no real connection to America. Well, not more than the average person who grows up with American media, which seems to be most people of a certain social crust wherever you are, Bangkok or Prague or Rio. Uttering the same Americanisms from all the same movies, describing runs in miles but refusing weather conversions while complaining that Fahrenheit is stupid. At least that was the case at the international school I attended in Seoul, but I haven’t lived there for seven years. In England, I receive a stipend in pounds and manage to lose my 30-day Korean SIM card after each brief trip home, which is in part why it isn’t ever worth making a permanent number. Instead, I make do with returning to the third floor of a near-windowless walk-up tenement in the back alleys of Hongdae, where a woman at a desk issues me a temporary SIM card as she does for tourists. But I didn’t mention much of this to Joe, of course. I continued to cut the papayas, one by one, and when I asked Joe whether he was also a student at the university, he said yes, he studied global and imperial history. I was secretly glad to notice he sounded sheepish when he said the word imperial, which was another one of those shocking Britishisms like the ubiquity of the word oriental for everything that denotes Asianness: Oriental Studies, the Orient Café, and beautiful oriental eyes, for which someone had complimented me on the same dating app where I had seen the cringey American. But who was to blame, really? I could have predicted it all along. On that man’s profile was a picture of him standing beneath the red pillars of some famous shrine in Kyoto, which was artfully placed atop a professed love for K-pop, manga, and Train to Busan. An ex once claimed the same film reminded him of me because I looked like the pregnant woman in the movie. She was also the only woman in the movie with any meaningful role, but he had meant it as a compliment, so who was I to complain? 

As Joe was explaining to me that he focused on Cambodian military history, Mary came into the kitchen and told us that we should join everyone outside. It was then I realized that she was wearing the same red dress as in her WhatsApp picture, except it was less formal than I thought, with its sweeping hem that swayed widely like the petals of a poppy in the wind. I wondered, as I had before, what she saw in me that was interesting enough to merit an invitation to her party. She was older than me, an administrator at the business school, and she was so effortlessly stunning at that. I didn’t know her too well, only that she admired my drawing and that she had friends — ‘literary types’, she had said — who she wanted me to meet. 

Joe and I took the sliced papaya and entered the living room, where by now eight or so people mingled around eating Walkers crisps from colourful IKEA bowls. Save for a girl wearing a t-shirt printed with the Oxford crest, the room felt fairly but ambiguously British: corduroy, suede boots, button-downs, summer dresses with flowers. I looked around and tried to guess which ones were Mary’s ‘literary types’, and noticed that most people were older, in their thirties and early forties at least, and all of them were white. But that last detail didn’t faze me. After seven years, the ethnic breakdown of rooms had become just another observation I made upon entering new spaces, like whether there was free coffee or if it was raining. As I walked in with Joe, several people turned around and gave us soft toothless smiles frozen mid-bite, and an older man wearing a paisley suit said, rather loudly, ‘Ah Joe, you brought your girlfriend!’  

I turned to look at Joe. His cheeks were already reddening to the same hue of the fruit I held in my hands. Mostly I was amused, but a sinking pit in my stomach suggested that I was also deeply horrified about what had happened. In my head flashed a montage of scarlet shrine pillars, which cut to a group of long-legged women in sailor suits, something-something-Naruto, and finally, that pregnant woman from Train to Busan, who was the kind of beautiful that could belong to anyone. But before Joe could correct the old man’s mistake, Mary jumped in between us and flashed a wide smile. ‘Those papayas look delicious, Yuna,’ she said, taking the plate from my hands. She laid it at the end of the table, beside the crisps, and I felt the crawling anxiety that everyone in the room was watching our interaction to see what turn it would take. ‘Where did you get them from?’ 

Sainsbury’s, I said. A quiet chortle went around the room like small fires running along a continuous fuse, which simultaneously served to confirm my anxiety and nullify it. The party quickly resumed, the tension having presumably been broken, and people turned to talk to each other save for myself and Joe, who I expected to speak first although we had been both branded by the presence of the other.  

‘I know what you’re thinking,’ he finally remarked, after a brief silence, ‘and trust me, I’m more embarrassed than you are.’ 

By this point we were standing alone, just the two of us in the corner of the room, while the rest of the party carried on. I noticed that nobody was reaching for the papaya. I wondered if I should walk up and grab a plate to show people how it was done. The possibility that no-one in the room had tried a papaya before burned in me like electricity, but I tried not to show it. Even thinking it felt petty, like a child’s game, so instead I turned to Joe and asked who the old man was.  

‘He’s an old friend of Mary’s,’ he said, still looking away. ‘I house-sat for him while he and his wife went on vacation last year, and my girlfriend at the time came to stay with me.’  

There was another brief silence. Then—  

‘Sorry, is this awkward?’ He turned to face me.   


He sighed.  

From across the room, I noticed Mary stopping by the papaya with a plate in her right hand. But instead of loading the fruit onto her plate, she took a half slice before moving on to the cheeses and crackers on the table. At the end of the line, she started chatting with the girl in the Oxford t-shirt. Watching them made me feel like I had somehow left the room and re-entered it in someone else’s body, with someone else’s reason to be present, watching the scene unfold like a cloth without being able to stop its seams from falling apart.   

‘Look, I know what it’s like,’ Joe said. ‘I’ve been confused for other Americans before. And all because of what I sound like, apparently.’ 

After talking with the girl, Mary stood alone, for a moment, at the end of the table. Daintily, she slid the tines of her wooden fork into a papaya slice and lifted it in the direction of her face. But where I had expected the papaya to enter her small, elegant, red-lipped mouth, it went instead to her nose, and I watched as Mary sniffed the fruit once, drew her head back with a furrow between her brows, and again, before she put the fork back onto her plate and disappeared into the kitchen.  

 ‘Now I’m not trying to say it’s the exact same thing, of course,’ Joe went on, but his voice entered my left ear and reverberated in a chamber deep in the back of my brain, where thoughts would not register coherently until much later. ‘But people get confused all the time, and it’s mostly in good faith, you know what I mean?’ 

Mary returned, this time without a plate in her hands but a paper cup. She looked around the room, appraising the party for what it was. Suddenly our eyes locked, her doe-eyes flashing bright, and she swiftly broke into her beautiful business-school-Mary smile, life-drawing-model-Mary smile, and I knew then that she was the type of woman who never had to doubt the power she held. The type of woman who could go her entire life without trying a papaya because no-one exhorted her to be more than what she already was, which was the skin and the country she was born into, and it would always be this way, no matter how many foreigners were invited into her home, or who etched her beautiful face onto their canvases until they got it just right. 

How to say it? Seeing that untouched papaya nauseated me. As Joe continued, feeling increasingly sorry for himself, I could see myself as if from the perspective of those standing around me, except there was little to see because I was quite literally gone, dissipated into Mary’s new walls, new kitchen, new carpets covered in old shoes and older feet. It was like getting sucked into a vacuum or flushed down the drain, except on each occasion my hands were wielding the vacuum, my fingers pulling down the plastic cord. What it would mean to be able to slide a peeler down the sides of my body, letting the speckled orange flesh fall, to reveal the pungency of all that I am in a space where I have never been or perhaps never meant to belong.  

Do you know what I mean?  

‘Let’s talk about something else,’ Joe was saying, ‘Would you like something to eat?’  

But I wasn’t listening, not really. Instead, I noticed that Queen had begun to play on the sound system. From the kitchen, there was the sound of a cork popping from a bottle of what I presumed to be prosecco. There was laughter. There was unintelligible talk. And then there was Joe walking towards me with a plate full of papaya and two forks, but what did it mean? Was it supposed to be reconciliatory? A triumph I could claim as my own? He slid a fork into a slice of fruit and brought it towards his mouth. He stopped, lifted the fork to his nose, and sniffed as Mary had done. I felt a deep freeze clenching my throat. I looked at the papaya. I sniffed. It reeked. 

‘Yuna, I think these are off,’ he quietly said. Then I looked at his face, teeming then with endless apology, and I felt the impossible need to believe that the fault was purely his. I took the plate from his hands. And you already know what happened next.    

The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here. Cover photo by Isaac N.C. on Unsplash

Jimin Kang is a Seoul-born, Hong Kong-raised, and England-based writer and journalist now studying environmental theory at the University of Oxford. Her work has previously been published in The New York Times, Asymptote , Off Assignment and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, among other outlets.
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