How a preacher’s daughter refuses to get married, travels the world, and learns to shoot
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“A truly extraordinary life and a truly unique voice. More than any other book I know, Deer Hunting in Paris
explores the tendons and gristle of life.”
—Michael Chwe, author of Jane Austen, Game Theorist
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Sneezing madly from hay fever, a Korean-American preacher’s daughter refuses to get married, travels the world, and ends up learning how to hunt from her boyfriend’s conservative family in Maine. From Paris, France, to Paris, Maine, Deer Hunting in Paris is an unexpectedly funny exploration of a vanishing way of life in a complex, cosmopolitan world. As she navigates the perils of an unlikely romantic relationship, Lee skewers human foibles while she celebrates hunting, DIY food culture, and what it means to be a carnivore. She finds herself trying to keep from being “mistaken” for a deer and getting shot at the clothesline, while also avoiding becoming dinner for bears, and shopping for ammo. Along the way, this former vegetarian finds lessons about life, love, and loss in a hacksaw and a haunch of venison.
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“From the rugged backwoods of Maine to the streets of Paris, Paula Young Lee takes you on an unexpected journey. Through deep insight, arresting imagery, and deft turns of phrase, she reveals the meat, blood, and bone of our hungers, dark and true.”
— Tara Austen Weaver, author of The Butcher & The Vegetarian
“Not many narratives have you laughing, wincing, and weeping at the same time. Deer Hunting in Paris is pure prose genius. Smart and smart-alecky, a delight on every page.”
— Gary Buslik, author of A Rotten Person Travels the Caribbean and Akhmed and the Atomic Matzo Balls
“Paula Young Lee is M.F.K. Fisher with a gun, Julia Child prepping roadkill.”
— Marcy Gordon, editor, Leave the Lipstick, Take the Iguana
“Paula Young Lee takes us on an intriguing whirl through a Paris most of us have never seen—a Paris of Republicans, rifle-toting New Englanders, and riotous tales of hunting. Your stomach will ache from laughter and hunger at the same time.”
— David Farley, author of An Irreverent Curiosity
Parishioners believed he could heal them with his hands. As a kid, I knew my father was different, and it had nothing to do with the fact that he was a preacher. His legs were shriveled down to bone and he walked funny, sometimes with a cane. His face beamed. He forgot to eat. He liked Maine, because the rocky terrain reminded him of home. He and my mother came to the U.S. from Korea after the war. At first, there were four of us, and then there were five: my father, my mother, my brother, my sister, and me in the middle. My older brother and I fought mean and hard, locked in a death match from the day I was born. Oblivious to the slugfest, my baby sister sat back and let the adults admire her. She was the pretty one, and could never figure out why I was so furious all the time. She was born with grace. Predictably, her Korean name, Young-Mi, means “flower.” Mine is Young-Nan. It means “egg.”
Together, the three of us practiced our musical instruments, spoke English at home, and got straight Al’s in school. We grew up ringing church bells every Sunday, pulling down the ropes and flying up into the belfry. My sister and I sang in the choir as my brother pummeled toccatas and fugues out of the organ. There was Sunday school, bible study, and neighborly visits to the nursing home, but the part I liked about church was Christmas, and the fancy food.
I could cook before I could read. I could read before I was four, because I was mad that my older brother was Sacred Cow Oldest Number One Son, and he got to do everything first. From birth, I knew the weight of karmic injustice, and I knew what that meant thanks to those theological discussions at dinner. Not only would I never be older than him, he would always be smarter. And a boy. His Korean name began with “Ho,” which in English means “Great.” Humph. What’s so great about him? “How come he gets to be a Ho?” I would howl, a pudgy ball of rage stamping angrily on tabletops. “It’s not fair! I want to be a Ho!” Sure, he could make electric generators out of Tinker Toy sets, but I could make layer cakes, and I had friends. So there. Cakes win.
With “Auntie” Ima the babysitter, I baked coffee cakes and apple pies. With my mother, I made mondu (dumplings) and nangmyun (noodles). The church ladies taught me how to knead dough and whip cream. I didn’t eat the goodies that I made. Nothing about me was sweet, including my teeth. My great food love was meat, the kind of meat that demands a sharp knife and a taste for blood. We never seemed to have much. I suppose we were dirt poor, but so was everyone else. Poor was normal. Poverty was too. Instead of plastic reindeer glowing on front yards, winter meant gutted deer hanging off porch roofs, hovering lightly in the blue air, black noses sniffing the ground. I’d extend a searching hand, flicking away flakes, and stick my nose in where it didn’t belong. Like magic, the deer’s length and heft became food and it was Good, the body and blood of Amen, a serving of flesh tying the community together through the violence of hunger. Deer and hunter walked the same paths through the woods. I wanted to follow them.
Sunday dinners at the parsonage, guests would discard the gristle, the cartilage, the marrow, and the rind, all the stuff that pale priests and thickening colonels refused to touch in mixed company. I’d serve and clear the table, acting the perfect hostess as my baby sister sat quietly, basking in her cuteness, and my savant brother played young Christ before the Elders. Back in the kitchen where no one would see me, I’d grab bones off dirtied plates and gnaw off that bulbous white knob at the end, my favorite part, a tasty tidbit that only appeared after the commonplace had been excavated. Lollipops for carnivores. It wasn’t meat that I really craved. I loved liver and heart, along with the tangled tissues that connected the big sheets of muscle together. The offal fed to animals was the stuff I wanted to chew, because I was more contrary than Mary, not Mary mother of God but the stubborn one that ruled Scotland before she lost her head.
So, Mistress Mary, how does your garden grow?
Oh, very well, thanks to the corpse of my murdered husband fertilizing the marigolds.
Nursery rhymes mask vicious politics. So does a wellcooked meal.
A giblet was a meat pacifier, rubbery and melting at the same time. It resisted. It put up a fight. I cherished its toughness as I gnawed and glowered in the kitchen, a fat feral gnome surrounded by the aromas of love and yeast and holy ghosts I did not believe in.
“It does not matter if you believe in God,” my father said with infuriating patience. “Because God believes in you.”
“But I’m an iconoclast,” I protested loudly, trying out my interesting new word.
“So was Martin Luther,” my father responded placidly. “You’re a Protestant through and through.”
“No, I’m not!”
“Yes, you are.”
And so I was boxed into a corner.
At bedtime, my mom tucked me and my sister into our respective twin beds with matching quilts that she and the quilting bee ladies had made. Then she’d make me say my prayers. “Dear God,” I’d start obediently. And stop. Patiently, my mother waited while I struggled to free my arms from the leaden weight of white sheets so I could clasp my hands in the correct form, shaping them into a steeple pointing toward heaven. “Dear God,” I’d start again, with a heavy sigh. “Thank you for my mom, my dad, my baby sister,”—at which point, my baby sister would look like she just won a puppy—“and my brother who is the worst brother ever but I’m not supposed to say that so I’M NOT, and thank you for the really good turkey that we had for dinner tonight. Amen.” Satisfied, my mother would return my struggling arms back under the covers and re-tuck the sheets so tightly that I felt like a PEZ dispenser ready to poop out little turds of peppermint candy. Carefully, she’d turn out the light, plunging the room into darkness, and close the bedroom door behind her as she left to repeat the ritual with my brother, who got his own room, just like he got his own bike and his own underwear. Clutching her beloved stuffed animal to her chest, my sister would immediately close her eyes, fall asleep, and start drooling, not necessarily in that order. I would wait one, two, three seconds for her adenoids to be fully charged, and then I’d struggle free of my swaddling, grab the flashlight hidden beneath my pillow, reach for the books I’d stashed under my bed, duck under the covers, and start reading.
I slept on books too. To this day, I prefer a very hard mattress.
A Kormic Explanation
“How is my grammar?” asked the yellow hen, anxiously. “Do I speak quite properly, in your judgment?”
— Billina the Yellow Hen, from Frank L. Baum, Ozma of Oz, 1907
This is a love story for grownups. There is sex, death, and snoring. A happy ending is not guaranteed. And so, it is a story about hunting. The real kind that starts with hunger and ends with guts being spilled.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The first year that I’d spent in the capital city of France, I was conducting dissertation research on a dutifully obscure topic interesting to five people in the world, all of whom enjoy arguing a great deal about it. Along with all the other university students, I was living in the 5th arrondissement on the kind of money that turns up under the couch cushions. Fellowships from private institutions paid for these trips, but the sums were barely enough to support a cat, let alone cover rent and food for a human being. I didn’t care. Still in my twenties, I was young enough that starving in attics seemed a perfectly reasonable way to live. I was Mimi in La Bohème! George Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris! How lucky could I be? Not only was I living in the actual attic of a five-story walkup, but my neighbor wore a black beret and slunk around with a Gaulois dangling from his scowling lips, just like the evil French henchmen in the Flint movies.
Lest you think that I am exaggerating my delight, consider these interesting details about my building. When I opened my door, I greeted a tubby, sparkling-white, pink-nosed cat. Every day, rain or shine, she came and waited quietly on my doorstep until I let her in. She’d march ponderously around the perimeter of the entire room, look at me, meow loudly just once, settle onto the bed, and go to sleep. I’d get dressed, toss Mimi back out the door, and head out for the day. No one knew who owned her. I had no idea why she insisted on visiting me every day.
On the wall between the stairwell and my doormat, there was a small locked door about the size of a fuse box. One day, as I trudged up the stairs, I was surprised to find a queue of workmen lining up in front of this miniature portal, then leaning over and disappearing into it, one by one. When my turn came to go through, I held back and peeked: inside, there was a staircase snaking up to a storage space beneath the rafters. The workmen were turning this triangular wedge into an apartment. A few weeks later, a new tenant moved in: she was a Japanese student half my height and unnervingly silent. The pup tent had no bathroom or plumbing. At the top of the staircase, there was a chemical toilet.
As the months wore on, I realized that the old ladies who lived in the building couldn’t tell me apart from the midget camping in the rafters. It was as if my imagination had vomited up the fetal twin of my subconscious and turned her into a pigeon pooping on my pretentions. It was a real-life version of the filthy joke about the rented outhouse and the television (if you don’t know it, I’m not going to tell you), but it all boils down to this: when the conversations literally go over your head, be grateful that the joke isn’t on you.
Every evening, after I’d finished chasing down documents in the archives, I’d go for my daily constitutional in the Jardin des Plantes across the street. To the great amusement of the gardeners, I would run in large circles, treating the plant beds as if they were an outdoor racetrack. They could not understand why anyone would want to go around and around through life, repeating the same route and getting nowhere at the same time, but it became a nightly ritual: me, jouncing past the roses, and them, waving affably at me, la chinoise (sigh) who obviously misunderstood the purpose of exercise since I ran without smoking a cigarette. Depending on my research agenda for the day, I also cut through the Jardin des Plantes to get to the Métro station, and it was on one of these bumblebee excursions that I was approached by a fidgeting little girl, maybe six or seven years old, in the pleated skirt and white blouse of a traditional school uniform.
“Excusez-moi, mademoiselle,” she nervously asked her shoes, “but do you speak French?”
“Yes,” I affirmed, wondering if she was lost. “What’s this about?”
“I’m on a scavenger hunt!” she told me. “See?” she exclaimed, thrusting a laminated list in my face. I took the list from her hands and skimmed it quickly. It requested the usual items, such as a four-leaf clover, a pure white feather, and a letter with a stamp from a foreign country. She pointed a chubby pink finger at the upper part of the page. “I have to get a foreigner to sing a song in her native language.”
Yes, there it was, item 32 on the 100-item list.
She fidgeted some more, and then blurted, “Would you most kindly sing for me?”
Who could refuse such politeness? “Sure,” I agreed. What the heck. It was for a school project.
She jumped up and clapped her hands, overjoyed.
“Do I start singing now?” I asked.
“No,” she replied firmly. “I must get the teacher.”
That made sense. Otherwise how does she prove that she really got a foreigner to sing for her?
Retrieving her list, she started to head off, then turned and eyed me doubtfully. “You aren’t going to go away?”
“Don’t worry,” I nodded reassuringly, “I’ll stay right here.” I sat down on one of the wooden benches at the head of the garden. As she disappeared, I started rustling around in my tote bag for a stray song I might have tossed in there.
“Arirang”? “Doraji”? These are Korean folk songs my mother used as lullabies. Bad idea, because they’ll put me to sleep.
“Three Blind Mice”? It’s a round. That requires coordination. No good.
“Joy to the World”? It’s the wrong season for Christmas carols.
Hymns? Pop songs? “Happy Birthday to You”?
When I finally emerged from the murky depths of my bag, where I’d turned up a bottle of antihistamines, a bottle of water, a copy of Plan de Paris par arrondissement, three broken mechanical pencils, a cough drop, a skeleton key, a dozen library cards, a crumpled brochure from the Hôtel des Arènes, and the all-important packet of toilet paper but no lyric sheets or karaoke cassettes, I was greeted by the terrifying sight of twenty uniformed girls heading straight for me.
In seven minutes, one French schoolgirl had multiplied like a rabbit, and a warren of warm and fuzzy creatures was determinedly hopping my way.
This was not in the plan. I’d agreed to sing for one person. Now I was singing to an entire crèche.
The original girl came running over to me, pulling me off the bench, and dragging me over to meet her classmates. She was clearly the Girl of the Moment, having bravely asked a total stranger to sing and getting a positive response. “See! Here she is!” my little friend declared, gesturing dramatically towards me as if I was a unicorn she’d discovered lurking under her bed. “She’s going to sing for us!” More clapping and hopping ensued.
The exhausted teacher greeted me with as much enthusiasm as she could muster. “What will you sing for us?” she asked tiredly, shushing the giggling girls who’d surrounded me, trapping me inside a straightjacket made of sugar and spice. Grubby fingers intertwined and patent-leather feet thumped away in anticipation. Who knew such cuddly creatures could be so scary? Run away, run away . . .
Up until then, I hadn’t known what song I would sing. At that moment, I was inspired. “I’m going to sing ‘Do Re Mi,’” I announced triumphantly. “You know, from The Sound of Music.”
The teacher gave me a puzzled look. “Isn’t that an American song?”
“Yes, but you said native language, and I was raised speaking English.”
Ooohs and ahhs of surprise from the girls.
“Well, it doesn’t really matter,” the teacher sighed. “The main point is that you’re a foreigner.”
“True,” I agreed. “I’m not French.”
More ooohing and ahhing from big-eyed girls. The teacher shushed them again.
I took a deep breath and started the song:
Do, a deer, a female deer,
Re, some stuff about the sun
Mi, a girl who likes to run
Fa, La, Ti, etc.
By the time the second stanza landed back on “Do,” the girls started singing along on cue. The weirdness of the situation hit me between Mi and Fa the second time around. Here I was, a Korean-American graduate student, singing an English song from an American movie set in wartime Salzburg to twenty French six-year-olds and their teacher in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. I felt like a combination of Julie Andrews as Sister Maria, and Bugs Bunny as Maestro Toscanini. By the time we’d built the song up to its big crescendo, we’d become a gleefully possessed chorus. Nothing like a bit of singing to unify the masses! We’d also gathered a little audience of confused tourists struggling to decipher the performance. I would have been very pleased if at least one tourist mistook us for busking musicians, but nobody threw us a few centimes or anything.
When the song finished and we’d caught our breath, the teacher thanked me and briskly checked off her list. Twenty schoolgirls echoed her in chorus, “Merci beaucoup mademoiselle!” and off they scattered, vanishing with alarming swiftness behind the rows of linden trees. A few Germans hung around, waiting to see what would happen next, so I shooed them off in French, announcing, “That’s all, folks!” Then I gave them a big, toothy, American smile, gathered up my things, and skipped down the path.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was casting a spell on myself, singing a song that set out my destiny, starting off with Do, a deer, a female deer and ending with a triumphant Do!
Do what, exactly?
A deer, dummy.
The French schoolgirls knew all the words to the song but not their meaning, and so we understood each other perfectly. One of the perks of speaking a foreign language in a foreign country is that nobody expects to understand you. To the small pink ears of my fluffy new friends, Rogers & Hammerstein’s definitions for the Sounds of Solfeggio were as good as any in a city where wombats jirbled while lunting. (These are actual words, by the way, taken from Jeffrey Kacirk’s nonfiction book, The Word Museum. Jirble: “To pour a drink with an unsteady hand.” Lunting: “Walking while smoking a pipe.” Wombats are crepuscular marsupials with stubby legs. I have been accused of bearing a certain resemblance to them.) Like the schoolgirls, I thought I was on a scavenger hunt, scrounging for items that were terribly important at the time. If I’d been paying attention, I would have realized that the girls were doing the hunting, and the Do they’d found was Mi. Now, there are millions of deer on the planet, but they’re oddballs in the city. Do deer like shopping? Will they stay for lunch? No, they flee into the nearest woods, until they find something they can eat. That is how, by going around and around in circles and running a very long way, I ended up in a totally different place from where I started, because where things began, and where they ended, were both in Paris. One Paris was in France. The other was in Maine.
It would have been a more efficient use of my time on earth if I’d just figured it out right then, headed back to my home state, and started hunting for deer instead of singing show tunes about them to schoolgirls bestowing buttery kisses on my cheeks. But there is one thing that I’d learned from cooking my own meals: you can’t rush the process or the dish will get burned. So I carried on in the archives, dutifully conducting research and feeding my curiosity, the only appetite I could indulge freely without worrying about emergency trips to the bathroom.