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FICTION

Elementary Korean

  • onJuly 1, 2021
  • Vol.52 Summer 2021
  • byJi Hyuck Moon
Elementary Korean
2020

Adam Hong sent me an email out of the blue. He didn’t bother with any formalities. There were no magical phrases designed to put the reader at ease, like “By the way, I was wondering
if . . .,” either. The email was no-nonsense and to the point. Come to think of it, he was much like his mother. According to Adam, his mother’s birthday was coming up and he wanted to write her a letter in Korean. He was asking me to have a look at it. Funny how it’s always the most disobedient, troublesome students who later go on to make the most demands. At that point, I only had a few days left in the US and was pretty much a “non-existent” person. Did I really need to respond to him?

Out of a sense of self-imposed duty, however, I re-read his email, slowly this time. According to the English language draft of the letter, Adam’s parents were divorced, and his father was killed during the September 11 attacks. In his letter, Adam wrote of his late father and offered words of condolences to his mother. Reading his words, I didn’t think he had to translate them into Korean. He didn’t need to, nor could he do justice to them even if he tried.

Adam had also sent me an email attachment. It was a photograph taken of the graveyard at St. Paul’s Chapel that stood next to the former World Trade Center. I remember visiting St. Paul’s, which was located on the way to Wall Street. In the aftermath of 9/11, the church had become famous for having remained intact with not a single broken window, even after the Twin Towers came crashing down just across the street and caused damage to countless other buildings nearby. Some say that the trees planted in the chapel’s garden had protected the church from the tons of debris that had flown toward it. I was a corporal at the time in faraway Korea, watching the breaking news from my army barracks and worrying whether these terrorist attacks in a foreign country would mean that I’d have to cancel my planned leave.

I downloaded the photograph. Gravestones strewn across the field like fallen soldiers were basking in sunshine. The trees that had protected the church from the surrounding crashes broke up the sunlight and scattered it in pieces that fell like solitary islands on the grass. At the center of the photograph stood an ash gray tombstone in clear focus, with the words THEY ARE IN PEACE carved on the surface. I understood this must be the message Adam wanted to say to his mother.

I decided to translate that last phrase, and only that phrase, into Korean.

Mom, Dad is in peace.

 

©Jenny Kwak

 

*

 

I called W. In a voice that sounded much more cheerful than it did the last time we spoke, he asked me when I was going to come see him again.

“Isn’t it almost winter break for you guys?” he asked, before going on to list all the things one could do only in New Hampshire. For example, New Hampshire didn’t have sales tax, which made it the perfect place for buying pricier items like laptops. The bridge leading from the back gates of W’s campus lay between New Hampshire and Vermont, which meant that different state laws applied depending on where you were on the bridge: you could legally dive off the bridge up to a certain point but past that point, any diving would be considered illegal. Since W had taken to yachting recently, he suggested we could take a yacht out on the lake during my next visit and enjoy a barbeque. Listening to W go on and on, I almost forgot my current situation.

I told W I was leaving the US soon.

Silence.

After a while, W said, “You’ll do well anywhere you go. Good luck.”

 

*

 

I couldn’t bring myself to call Aya. Instead, every night in the dining room, I played the CD she gave me. Throwing open the windows, I gazed at the reddening skies and listened to the guitar strumming of Kotaro Oshio. After a while, I found myself imagining, rather foolishly, that everything was going to be okay.

The title of the third song on the CD, which I would listen to over and over again until darkness had settled all around me, was “珋狀狗初矽蒢忺.” Before I could fall asleep, I suddenly felt the urge to look up the meaning behind those words. I brought my phone’s translation app up to the Japanese words and within three seconds, I had the result.

The Time You Gave Me.

 

*

 

I went for a walk on the last night of 2012, as I did every night. The neighbors had decorated their front yards with Santa Claus, the Virgin Mary, and Baby Jesus, but because Christmas had already come and gone, the decorations looked rather sad and lonely. I took my usual route in the direction of Englewood Cliffs where I saw fewer LED lights and Christmas ornaments but more darkness and stillness that had settled in their place. The residents here must not feel the need to celebrate any birthdays or commemorate anyone’s passing.

I came to a stop on a wedge of sidewalk where the light from the streetlamps didn’t reach and stood staring into the darkness. Just then, I saw something moving in the shadows and felt as if I might keel over.

It was a deer.

The deer, whose sex and age I couldn’t determine, took a few steps out of the shadows and looked up at me. I stood there locking eyes with the animal, as if I’d been caught in an act or as if I was possessed. No one had told me what to do in the event of meeting a deer. I felt as if I were having a conversation with this animal at the intersection where pitch darkness and shadowy light met. It was the sort of chance meeting I’d never understand or ever remember.

Soon, I turned and headed slowly down the hill. When I reached the foot of the hill and looked back up, there was nothing there.

 

*

 

I went through my furniture and other belongings. I gave away some of my things to the people I knew from church, then sold what I could on HeyKorean.com or Craigslist. Lastly, I took the remaining items to the neighborhood recycling center, where anyone was free to come and take things they needed. As for my 2010 Volkswagen Golf, I sold it to the highest bidding used car salesman. Just like that, the car that I’d bought for 18,000 dollars was sold off for 8,900.

When I first came to the US, all my belongings could fit inside two black, expandable travel bags with spinner wheels that I’d bought in Namdaemun market. After going through all my things and letting go of most of them, I was once again left with the same two bags.

 

*

 

On the morning of January 7, 2013, a Monday, I called a Korean cab driver to take me to JFK Airport. After giving most of the cash I had left to the driver, along with a tip, it hit me that I was in fact leaving this country. My phone, which was still working since I hadn’t canceled my service yet, rang with a call from my cousin in Raleigh. “Why didn’t you come see us?”

After I hung up, I imagined the things my younger nephew might be saying in broken Korean. “Samchon left. Samchon went to Korea.”

After getting past immigration, I was waiting around to board my plane when I suddenly noticed a commotion around the gate. I stood up, thinking that maybe I might catch a glimpse of a celebrity, when I noticed a small Asian man waiting before the gate to board first class. The man, who was smiling faintly while surrounded by huge, black bodyguards, was PSY, the singer and entertainer. This was around the same time that “Gangnam Style” was a phenomenon in the US He must’ve been on his way home, after performing his hit Korean song with the members of the TV show Infinite Challenge at the Times Square New Year’s Eve event, which I’d seen on the news. Seeing PSY, I realized that at least for now, the most popular Korean word in the world must be gangnam.

Finally, boarding began. Passengers with first-class tickets were invited to board the plane first. Watching PSY board the plane from where I stood in line for economy class passengers, I took out my phone and attempted to take a quick photograph. Just then, my phone connected to the erratic airport WiFi and managed to receive a message from Jihye. Reading the blue iMessage bubble, I learned that I had forever lost a beloved word in my mother language.

 

 

Translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim

 

Elementary Korean 
Minumsa, 2020