Back In Those Days, in Korea

Once upon a time in 1998, my then fourteen-year-old son and I had the good fortune to be the guest of honor at a neighborhood gathering in Cho'nan, in ChungChongNamDo province in Korea. My son was born in South Korea and I adopted him when he was one-year old, and it was his first time back. Because he had been diagnosed with cancer at age seven, much of his life he had been too sick to travel. But he was finally healthy again and eager to meet the land of his birth.

The summer of 1998, according to the neighbors in Chonan, was the hottest in recent memory. The family we were staying with didn't speak English. Thirty seconds into our week long home stay visit the neighbor women began to arrive, all with children in tow. Round-faced women, apron-bound, carried pots of ice-cold shikye sweet rice drink, platters of pindaettok mung bean pancakes garnished with green leaves of chrysanthemum and red pepper slices. We were in a tenth floor apartment, large, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, marble floors and spotlessly clean.

Low tables were pulled out, one for the children and another for the women. Everybody sat cross-legged, loose-limbed, all but me. I on the other hand, had one knee propped up like an old bent apple tree. The meal was communal with all of us dipping our chopsticks into the same bowl of kimchi.

After we finished eating, over at the kids’ table, I watched Jay throwing himself into a game of Mancala. Undaunted, Jay taught the group how to play the game. We brought the Mancala game as a gift to our host family, and immediately it was a huge success. The children, communicating only in grunts and shrieks, played for hours.

The afternoon sunlight glimmered from the window and changed from goldenrod to a rosy red sunset while the neighbor women laughed and chatted.

I smiled and nodded my head. This was partly to draw attention away from my lack of verbal abilities. After two years of Korean language school I knew only nouns and verbs. There were benefits, I'd discovered, of abstaining from speech. It gave me time to draw in the raw powerful language that flowed so freely from these women.

Like the others I was content, embraced in the peace of the moment. I could see into the summer of a year in my own childhood. And if only in mind I was again in my grandma's kitchen, gathered with deep-eyed aunties with their high cheeked faces.



Around midnight somebody pulled out a Korean-English dictionary, and I was able to grasp that the plan was to wake up in time for an early morning hike, then go to the bathhouse. I’d never been to a Korean bathhouse, and I loved hiking. I drifted off to sleep looking forward to the morning.

Instead I woke up in the middle of the night with a stomachache. By seven a.m. I was worse, and called for Jay. “Get the Korean dictionary and look up the word for illness, and go get Young Oh's mother. Just say Ohma, and point to the word that means sick.”

I fell asleep and opened my eyes to see many black-haired, high-cheeked women standing over me. It was noon; my skin was grayish.

"You go doctor," one of the women said in English.
"I'll be better in a little while." I argued. I pushed the skin on my leg, and it dented like it was made out of clay. "Okay, doctor." I agreed.

The neighborhood clinic was new and modern, spotlessly clean with a Korean-style squatter toilet. I sank to my knees and vomited again. The doctor didn't speak English. A woman translated for him: the diagnosis was food poisoning, probably from eating at an American style fast food hamburger chain the day before in Seoul. I hadn't wanted to eat hamburgers, I prefer Korean food but our train got in late and the only place open was an Americanized hamburger chain, so that's what we ate.

"You get shot with needle," she translated next. "No needle," I insisted. I felt in control. I was sick, but didn't feel overly worried; I'd taken Imodium, the diarrhea had stopped.
"Little needle, not big one," she reported. "Not hurt."
"Let me see the needle,” I demanded. Then because I didn’t know how else to phrase it I requested a fresh needle, using the word “fresh” in a way that was meant to be spoken at the green grocer’s to ask for fresh vegetables. The doctor brought out a package of unopened, sterilized needles and a new IV bag containing liquid to replace the body fluids I'd lost. He held it up for me to see, the ingredients were listed in English.
"You better fast," the doctor explained.
"Okay," I agreed and held out my arm. The smell of alcohol drifted over me. The neighbor women gathered around me,
"We go home, then come back, get you later ."
Jay flashed me a worried look.
"I'll be fine," I announced, and then off they all went.


Meanwhile, while I was in the Korean hospital, an air conditioner hummed in the corner. Outside it was 105, not counting the waves of heat from the pavement. Inside the clinic, cool air blasted around me. My head rested on a green quilted pillowcase. A small voice in my mind kept saying, maybe I ought to be worried. But I didn't feel worried. I was amused.

For years I had wanted to bring Jay to Korea, but I was afraid to because something might go wrong with his shunt, and then he would need to be hospitalized. Even though he was seven years past a brain tumor, Jay still had a shunt because hydrocephalus persisted. Shunts are such tricky things; like the plumbing in a house they can block and back up or malfunction. Yet here we were in Korea, and I was in the hospital. But instead of feeling worried I felt confident I was receiving care equal to, and probably better than that of many medical clinics at home in America, so I closed my eyes and went to sleep.


Later that afternoon Young Oh's mother and her neighbor friends came to get me as promised. "We go to museums now," one of the women said. The doctor told her to make sure they gave me plenty of water and Gatorade to drink.

Jay pressed his face next to mine, and whispered, "Do we have to go to museums?"
Even though I was feeling a lot better, I explained to the women that I was still much too weak for an afternoon of walking, so we piled together in the car and went home.

The night before I'd slept in the youngest son's bedroom, in a twin bed. Now I was invited to rest in the master bedroom, on the queen sized tol ch'im dae, a stone bed. It had a wood carved head and footboard and instead of a mattress, the sleeping surface was a polished stone slab, expensive looking, beautiful and hard. After about twenty minutes of resting on this bed, I went into the living room and spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the floor.

Rather than holding us apart, my sick day actually strengthened bonds. We were able to share stay-at-home time with our host family in a way that probably wouldn't have happened if I were feeling healthy. With help from the Korean-English dictionary I asked Young Oh's mother if she liked swimming or camping. At first she said ahn chu an hey yo which is a polite way to say she didn't care for either. But I pressed her further; finally she giggled and said the Korean word that meant she hated swimming and camping.

I pointed to myself and said that I liked both. Young Oh's mother fell into the game.
"Indoor girl," she said pointing to herself. "Outdoor girl," she said pointing to me. We laughed. Jay looked up the Korean word for fisherman and pointed to himself. There were moments of real intimacy between us. We had time to rest and shore up. I was fed homey Korean comfort foods, soothing creamed rice dishes, with cucumber kimchi on the side of course. I discovered Mee Hwang delighted in inviting friends over and treating them with her home cooked food. In the neighborhood just the mention of her name made everyone think of her delicious meals.

“Sometimes when I smell rice cooking, and everybody is singing in Korean, I can almost remember being a baby in Korea,” Jay admitted. “It’s not a regular memory I can think about as long as I want. It’s much quicker than that.” At fourteen, Jay was delighted to play big brother to the younger kids. Making paper airplanes and an afternoon of watching Korean cartoons were simple things that still warmed Jay’s heart. The kids pulled board games out of the closet, and the whole house felt warm with our day together. Or maybe it was the kimchi tchigae simmering on the stove. Whatever, it was awfully nice.

I've traveled to Korea four more times since that long ago day, and each time culturally specific memories of growing up Native American sneak up on me unexpectedly. It doesn't matter that the conversations taking place are in Korean, each time I feel the power of togetherness, it needs no translation.

—an excerpt from Pushing up the Sky