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Today, more than 100,000 people of Korean descent live in the Washington area, but when author and chocolatier Frances Park was growing up in Silver Spring, in the ’70s, hers was the only Korean family she knew of anywhere. The first other Koreans she met in the States were the first-generation-American students at her college who asked her to join their pingpong club. As a result, she and her sister, Ginger, grew up “always feeling uncomfortable and not understanding or having a way to explain it to ourselves,” says Park. “There was a quiet racism that we grew up with that we never talked about. We were eight years apart, and we dealt with it very differently.”
Having thought she was funny-looking as a child because of her Asian features, Park says she was completely surprised as a teenager when she discovered that men found her attractive. “I was very quiet and nice until I was about 17 or 18, and then I suddenly broke out of that. Maybe all that quietness forced the wild streak,” she recalls. “My little sister was very much in awe of me and wanted to be just like me….In her mind, if she could just be more like me, [maybe] she would fit in better. The problem was, I had more problems than she did….I handled my insecurities in an almost self-destructive manner.”
Park says that her new novel, When My Sister Was Cleopatra Moon, marks her attempt “to go back into the past and revisit a time period I once lived in.” The story, which unfolds right off the Beltway in fictional Glover, Va., in the ’70s, takes a joy ride in a red Mustang through the suburban adolescence of two sisters. It’s summer, and the older sister, Cleo, is hell on wheels: skimpy tops and heavy eyeliner, a tongue that could cut diamonds, and more boyfriends than there are letters in the new name she gives herself: Cleopatra. Cleo’s younger sister, Marcy, tells the tale; she is more thoughtful and studious, but admires Cleo to no end. Through the pages of the book, Marcy slowly discovers Cleo’s facade as she herself struggles with coming of age and the difficult baggage her parents carry from war-torn Korea.
Today, Park and her sister own the Chocolate, Chocolate store in downtown D.C. and have just co-authored a novel, To Swim Across the World. “We’re very close,” she says. Of their writing, Park adds, “[Ginger] is the architect, and I’m the interior designer.” —Robin Bingham