Pojangmacha People (Emerging Writer’s Contest Winner: NONFICTION)

Issue #142
Winter 2019-20

In nonfiction, our winner is Jung Hae Chae for her story “Pojangmacha People.”

Of her essay, nonfiction judge Leslie Jamison said, “A searing lyric built of sweat and salt and sorrow, hot soup and deep shame—an ode to the elderly drunk men seeking solace in the “tiny domed cathedral” of every drinking hut along the highway, and to all the women who have spent their lives caring for them. It’s an essay full of pain and grace, both fruits of its uncompromising close attention.”

Jung Hae Chae’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, Calyx Journal, Crab Orchard Review, Third Coast, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction has been anthologized in the 2019 Pushcart Prize XLIII: Best of the Small Presses.


When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

I don’t know that I’ve ever arrived at such a realization. As long as I can remember, though, I’ve always had a deep love and respect for words, their sounds and shapes, how they come together sometimes in unexpected ways to mean something very particular, precisely. I grew up with stories and myths, and sometimes miracles happened around me. As a quiet, almost mute, kid who was left alone a lot, I relied on my imagination and those stories, both within and without, to feel less lonely and more grounded. Then, when my family immigrated to the US from South Korea, I gained a whole new language to describe and understand my (troubled) interior, and how it came to be affected by my chaotic exterior reflected in my family’s (tangled) history. I felt as though I’d been given this powerful, new lexicon to express my situation, to engage with an audience that wouldn’t otherwise have access to such alien landscapes, whether documented or imagined. Like the American Dream, the English language is a language of possibilities, in that its contours are constantly shifting, its borders ever-widening; it’s rewarding in the way that a well-earned ending of a poem feels rewarding. Writing in it is both a pleasure and a privilege.


What is your writing process like?

I’m a bit embarrassed to answer this question because if I were being honest, I would say that I lack any process that truly works. Instead, I will say that my process reflects my personality: slow-brewing, detail-mongering, perfection-seeking, but mostly just slow. Everything takes so much time and care, sometimes, most times, unnecessarily. Alas, life.


What inspired “Pojangmacha People”?

“Pojangmacha People” started out as a poem ten years ago when I was working on my MFA in poetry. Its first line, “I’m thinking of the sad old men I knew,” had been on the tip of my tongue for a long time before then. After I finally put it down on paper, it soon became a catalyst for recalling all kinds of memories that had been stored away intact in the innermost layer of my gut—han, the Korean word for deep lament that defines the soul of the Korean people—that had lived with me my whole life. Pojangmacha, the tiny drinking hut(s) littered along every street corner in South Korea during the 1970s (and even now), this national emblem, became for me a metaphor for depicting the hardened lives borne out by the men and women in my family and the home we left behind. In writing it, I wanted to forgive my own hardness toward the (failed) men in my life and pay tribute to the women who have since passed on—my grandmother and my mother, in particular—the two muses whose sturdy souls haunt me incessantly, but who guide me into the light always. They helped me finish this essay, finally.


Who are you reading? And who informs your work?

I’ve been weaned on poetry, but lately I’ve been reading more prose and some memoir as well. I like works that live between poetry and prose, or stories that are told in the language of the subconscious and the otherworld, in verse and/or sentences. Works I have admired deeply and have tried to borrow from include those by Lia Purpura, Cheryl Strayed, Deborah Digges, Jack Gilbert, Paula Bohince, Christine Schutt, Italo Calvino, and of course, the Great Maxine Hong Kingston.

By my nightstand: Florida by Christine Schutt, Educated by Tara Westover, Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick, How I became a North Korean by Krys Lee, Air Traffic: A Memoir of Ambition and Manhood in America by Gregory Pardlo, Life After Life by Raymond A. Moody Jr., and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong.


Do you have any advice for new writers?

As an emerging writer myself, I would say the best advice I was not given, but should have been, is to write into the thing that you’re most afraid of. If you’re afraid of clichés (in a writerly sense), for example, begin or end your story or poem with a cliché. If you’re a grammarian, forget the Oxford comma and write a sloppy sounding sentence. If you’re afraid to be sentimental, well, be sentimental. Write a cringe-worthy line, for crying out loud. Break a rule. Or two. Break heart(s). Own it, them. It will free you up to write in the way that feels most authentic to you.


What projects are you working on now? Where is your writing headed?

The current project is guided by my lifelong preoccupation with the women in my family: beginning foremost with my maternal grandmother, the ultimate matriarch of my family made up mostly of women. My manuscript (tentatively titled Over the Arirang Pass or Pojangmacha People) is a collection of linked essays that centers on the lives of the women (and men) in my family, and delves into facets of Korean history (beginning with the Korean War and its aftermath), as it traverses time and geography, as my family makes its way to America to seek a better life. My work also tangentially explores how culturally differing notions of femininity/masculinity, family structure, of illness, suffering, and trauma translate to socioeconomic outcomes and lived experiences of people across cultures.

While my abiding interest in these issues is rooted firmly in the personal and is based on familial history, it is equally motivated by a desire to unpack the larger historical narratives with respect to how the two Koreas diverged as nations and people (as illuminated by my own family’s history), and their places within the context of world history.





I am thinking of the sad old men I knew. The salt on their drunken foreheads, a sorrow. Of souls stained deep with glutamine and guilt. O, the beauty of MSG. I’m thinking of comfort, the kind rising out of the bodies of blood soups and strangers. Of longing. Inside the tiny drinking tent, the haloed bodies of haejang-guk, the mother of all soups, the soup that chased away tremors and trauma and money troubles and time and time and more time, that soup. The bodies. The into-the-wee-hour-drinking bodies, the sitting-with-bottoms-touching-is-just-fine bodies, the bodies sweating out their failing livers, those bodies. Tired and failed as they were, huddled together inside this tiny domed cathedral were their tiny lives, powered by a tiny light, the 1970s-oppressive-cum-underground-guerrilla light, powering the dim city and its people and their small dreams, past the curfew. O, how holy was this light and this coterie, the men lurching headlong into this bloodbath of comfort, the guk chasing away their daily hangovers and bad deeds, only to pass on their karmic debt to their only sons, pass down the bloody mess of their lives. How its biliary notes and fraternal bodies bosomed, not mocked, their chronic bad lives and livers.

My father. I’m thinking of him, but not him. Of souls cursed and caressed inside the pojangmachas inside a village. No, not a village but a nation full of sad, sad, old men, with their jaundiced faces riddled with the pock marks of postwar trauma, with their deadly breaths, who lowered their sorry heads into guk after guk, who fawned over their women and children, even as they beat them senseless. The women. I’m thinking of my dead grandmother and my mother, their mothers’ mothers, the women gathered at the hair salon next to my grandmother’s house, the one with the outhouse. The outhouse. I’m thinking of a childhood lost to dreams, of dreams lost, then found scribbled on the walls of an outhouse, a shit hole brimming with no-good fathers and husbands and lovers, and later of sons.

And the women who made them.



When he drank, only when he drank, my father smeared the brown goo with his bare hands all over the wall next to his bed, the smell so terrible it’d wake everybody up, the women. It was a house full of women without husbands or fathers or keepers. The boorish drunk, the women must have thought, who defied even the worst of their imagination about the war they and their mother have had to endure and the bad men made worse by the war. Torn up by years of drinking, his weak constitution would make him go on the bed prepared specially for him by my grandmother. When he drank, and only when he drank, my father broke through a kind of barricade that he’d self-imposed between himself and the world that had become wholly unpredictable; he was enabled, albeit temporarily, to become just a little more authentically terrible than his usual, more guarded, terrible self.

My father and his father and his father’s father all died from an alcohol-induced liver failure in their mid-fifties. While my father was alive, I saw him all of five or six times, and though I couldn’t tell whether he was, in fact, intoxicated each time I saw him, he might as well have been, since he was a most sullen human to be around. He cracked a smile not once. His face, a brown jaundiced earth with its deep grooves and cracked furrows, a once-rich gorge now gone dry, would not have tolerated one. He was unpleasant and awkward around people. More precisely, he was reliably capable of inducing the kind of discomfort felt deep in the bellies of people when confronted, say, with a foul-smelling wounded animal in a cage corner, inspiring, at once, empathy and terror. They want to help and free the hurt animal but aren’t sure whether he is safe to approach. Picture him brooding silently in an unlit corner of a room with the throng busying themselves on the other side of an imaginary fence, a thin yet impenetrable membrane he was hardly able to cross even under the influence. It may have been that he was incapable of handling all the stimuli—physical, mental, emotional, or whatever other kind—or that he simply didn’t care; he’d had enough of other humans. This, all of this, I know to be true, in my own body and mind, because I, too, am often capable of eliciting the same duality of unsafe emotions—of terror and empathy, at once—in those within a striking distance of my anxiety-stricken state. When he drank, only when he drank, he, the wounded animal inside my father, became unleashed from his unlit corner, unafraid to toss around the gooey, brown mess with his forepaws, holding it up to light, in a manner shocking particularly to his women, his preferred audience.

He was known to become violent toward people and animals when he drank. Once, in one of his many drunken stupors, he took a large iron fork, an old rusted tool designed to grab yeontan, the cylindrical coal briquettes used to heat homes in South Korea where I grew up in the 1970s, and stabbed his pet dog with it. My brother snatched the almost-dead dog, his beloved dog, and fled the house late at night with it in his arms, in search of a veterinarian neighbor who might save it. The dog didn’t survive the night. My brother who was then about ten years old never forgave his father for this misdeed, and this one important bad deed among many scores of bad deeds committed by his father would come to define their relationship—he was his only son. Over time, my brother’s hatred for his father grew beyond just him, and defined not only the terms of their relationship but his own sensibilities henceforward toward other people and sentient beings, especially the female kind. With this one stupefying act, our father had ripped open a forgotten wound in the universe, and however small or invisible to the naked consciousness, this generations-defining injury would come to haunt our family. Our father, when he drank, only when he drank, became emboldened to carry out the legacy of misgivings and misfortunes, a carryover from other lifetimes that will, in turn, outlive his and his son’s lifetimes.



Spring. I’m thinking of the outskirts of cities, inside the skirts of mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, generations of mothers’ mothers. My grandmother. I’m thinking of Sunday mornings. Those early morning screeches of cocks at the hands of the skilled butcher next to the liver shop where my grandmother sent me to fetch her a sliver of the freshest raw pig liver with a dash of sesame oil to help with her eyes. My grandmother, the Man of the House, for all three generations of us women, girl-women.

What I remember are the smells, the complex smells of the open, dirt roads against the tall sky, and the unnamed trees whose branches held softly the metamorphosing bodies of caterpillars that fell to their untimely deaths and landed on unsuspecting passersby beneath them. What I smell is the shit, the complexity of it, from inside the outhouse of my grandmother’s house, that lingered after a rain. I feel the tug of the angel whose hands plucked my small body from the abyss, that dark, creature-filled, all-possibilities-filled gaping hole that grabbed at me as I fell into it. I remember the layers of pains of a childhood lost to dreams, in between the layers of myths held untouched and tucked away deep inside her belly.

Inside the giant dome that was the Market, I see the rows of dead fish with their eyes wide open and eyeing back at me as I scurried past them. I hear the shrieks of chickens being picked and primmed and dumped into hot water tanks all in one fell swoop, the cacophony of the black-market vendors haggling or scuffling or cussing or whatever. I see the dirty looks of the old men glaring at my wee-year-old self as I ran away from them. I feel the sweat coming down the foreheads of children, their little hands fastened tight to their mothers’, grandmothers’, great-grandmothers’, aunts’, uncles’, cousins’. The children, with their honey suckle–soaked finger nails, tiny but beautiful hands of girl-children, of glands of children, packs of eager six-year-olds, chasing each other down muddy streets to the nearest hawker stands, inside the tiny domed tents, to fill their unfillable bellies. There, under a shaky parasol, with their not-as-yet-wide hips, little butts touching, wishing to be touched, they sat and lurched over and into bowlfuls of overspiced rice cakes and fish cakes, into paper conefuls of beondegi, roasted silkworm pupa, a perfect after-school snack for growing postwar children.

The rituals. I’m thinking of the rituals, the un-memorable, the un-ceremonious, the un-ritual-est of rituals. Inside the classroom, the prickly-thick clouds up my nostrils, growing like a flooding well, oozing from my lunch or some other kid’s lunch buried among all other lunch—a monument or a totem or a mass grave of aluminum lunchboxes—set atop the wood-burning stove that stood in the center of our classroom universe, orbited by seventy hungry children. Didn’t matter that the bottom-most always burned to a crisp, a small casualty in this prized communal ritual.

This is what I lived for. Every day, for as many days as there was homework and gym—lunch. And the sharing of lunch. And later, of stories.

This was forty years ago in the capital city of the Republic of South Korea, a place where even seven-year-olds talked politics, whispering to each other during recess who assassinated whom, where they were taught to recognize the propaganda flyers airdropped from the North and sing anticommunist lyrics during morning drills, where midnight curfews made the city’s night crawlers scurry to their dens, where the beating of housewives in broad daylight by their drunken-crazed-but-good-hearted husbands was a common spectacle near playgrounds. This was the age of the post-postwar, post-uncles-aunts-first, second, third-cousins-all-living-under-one-roof, post-outhouses, post-orphans and widows left by wars, post-two kinds of Korea. This was the crossroads Korea, the traumatized Korea before K-pop, before Kim Jung Il and his son made the cover of Time. This was the alcoholic and liver-failed Korea. This was the Korea that preferred sons, that then raised them to become no-good men, lovers, fathers that passed on too young. The Korea over the arirang pass where songs of the beloved rained down on the bridge between this life and the next, as the women waited on their men.



It’s the women who told stories. I’m thinking of the women and their seasons. Each autumn, the women from the neighborhood gathered to make kimchi, a slow-fermented and deep-spiced cuisine of national pride, not unlike the women who infused them with their own arirang songs of survival. The women would pry open the bok choy, one leaf at a time, and dab the heavily spiced concoction made of salt, garlic, ginger, shrimp, or oyster sauce, onto its thick middle where it sat saturated over days, turning in its own juices, penetrating through the layers of everyday sorrows, surviving through microbes and come-what-may tribulations, long enough to last through the harsh winter. With the opening and closing of each leaf came a refrain and a lyric, of longing: that of good harvest or a husband come home.

I learned about the sorrows of my people, and those of my women, early on. Next to my grandmother’s house was a hair salon, a microcosm brimming with yet another kind of longing. This was a small, dirty room tucked away in the back of my neighbor’s house, smelling of iodine and perm solution, where I spent all my lazy afternoons listening to the ladies who came to do their hair sit around and talk, just talk. Next to the scissors soaking in alcohol-filled jugs, like a fly stuck on a damp wall, I listened to each woman as she came in and sat in her own chair, to tell her own story or a version of the same story. She—in turn, they—talked about the money they didn’t or would never have enough of, and if somehow they could save a little, how they would put the secret stash away, somewhere their husbands wouldn’t find it. They talked about the men they dreamed of murdering one day even as they loved them, the men who beat them in front of their children but whom they doted on anyway. If only they were gone, with the money they saved they’d open up a little shop in the burgeoning city nearby and keep all the cash and dye their hair. They complained about the bad sex or no-sex life, about their husbands’ mistresses and how they wanted to murder them too. They laughed and laughed out of desperation and despair; they talked and talked about dreams and talked their way into a dream; into the night they talked. It’s the stories; they lived through stories, the stories of their own dreaming. They became the stories they told in order to survive. It’s the stories their ancestors told and now they told. It’s the ancestors who haunted them and now haunt me. It’s the women who told stories. I listened, just listened.



My mother left my father shortly after I was born, the third and final child, whose soul fought to live against all the death wishes bestowed upon it. It’s the women who wished, whose wishes, if not come true, would spell disorder in the skies. In their estimation, my father, ancestrally drunk, couldn’t possibly have anything minuscule to offer my ancestrally beautiful mother, whose immense talent and potential had been sucked out of her by him, a degenerate soul, as far as they could see. None of the savory or unsavory qualities about my father, however, were things I would have known, for a fact, since he didn’t raise me. If it were up to him, he would have chosen not to have anything to do with at least two of his children. My sister was the chosen one, his favorite, the gifted one endowed with equal parts earth, metal, fire, water, wood, in her birth chart. During her first birthday celebration, an important marking ritual in which babies “choose” their destined profession, she gravitated toward won, the Korean currency, a sign of her resourcefulness that my father adored. I was his least favorite, the most unlike him and the most like his failed conquest, my mother.

My soul fought to live in order to tell the buried tales of the women, my women—mothers without husbands or fathers or keepers, who bore the troubled and drunken-crazed nation on their backs, whose own (her)stories are too complex to tell in a single life time. Sit down, and I’ll pour you some soju, and serade you with their arirang chants that could be heard at the crossing between this life and the next, about their untold woes still waiting to be told over the arirang pass. Theirs and now mine. Have a listen, just listen.

I’m thinking of trauma. The kind that strikes and lodges at the soul, that is my family and my homeland. I have lived long enough in this lifetime, and perhaps the one before and the one before that, but not long enough to unburden myself of han, that generations-defining prefix of suffering that belongs to my people, and to all the women who carried on their backs the men who had gone mad and too frail to take care of their land and lair, let alone their selves. Even in madness, there’s a choice; in madness, women dreamed their small dreams, through heartbreaks and seasons, they chanted their arirang songs of survival, of madness. Of han. Why have I been obliged to live by this untranslatable word that is heard only against hard wind, that strikes at my sternum with terror and empathy at once, even as it is sure to fail me? I am singing now because I must, the unfinished lyric of my mother’s and her mother’s life song over the arirang pass, for I am a child of mothers before I am my father’s.

Yes, the trauma. It had lodged unwittingly in the unborn child, as I have come to know. My mother, when she’d become too weakened to have another child, took her pent-up, unspent gall toward her husband, and directed it toward herself while I was growing inside her. When the baby survived, as she took her first breath instead of letting out a joy-cry of exit out of the womb, she exhaled sighs of deep sadness, as if already defeated. When the weakened soul of my mother hovered over her small, frail child, malnourished with bowed legs, she saw that she, too, though lacking in resource, was nonetheless full of lore and light. She left in the middle of the night and took this baby with her.




When my grandmother appeared in my dream recently, she brought her young son with her again, the one who had died in his infancy, the first son my grandmother gave birth to as a young bride at age twenty. He’s always with her. He was an unadorned soul who had come briefly to test my grandmother’s mettle. When he was but a few weeks old, he fell to his death, from a second-floor veranda while my grandmother was tending to my mother, her first-born daughter, whom she would come to resent.

The loss of her first son marked the beginning of her life-long pursuit to do right by her son gods. In 1950, as the Korean War broke out, my grandmother became pregnant with her fifth child, a son. Her husband vanished from the streets of Seoul, presumably kidnapped by the North during a time the North Koreans abducted more than 100,000 South Koreans in an effort to build the newly formed nation of North Korea. It soon became clear that the task of taking care of all four of her children, including the one she was carrying at the time, fell single-handedly to my grandmother. My grandmother—that is to say, women who live through wars and traumas of domestic or national varieties—was a strong one. In those days, strong meant not showing emotion and carrying on about their business, whatever that business was. For my grandmother, this meant taking on sundry jobs for which she had no experience—a (love) letter writer for Korean concubines serving the Japanese businessmen, a seamstress supplying the traditional silken dresses worn by such women, a black-market money dealer, a motel owner, to name a few—all to feed, clothe, and send all four of her children through college. She, like most men and women of her generation, made no secret of the fact that she preferred sons, and would heap all the love and all the resources of the family on that one surviving son, the one she had been carrying at the time her husband disappeared.

My grandmother doted on my uncle, the only man in a house full of women without a father or husband or keepers. At dinners, she served him first, and only the best cut of fish shared by everyone around the table, at a time when even rice was hard to come by. She made sure to praise him for all his gifts, real or imagined, in front of her daughters, some more disposable than others, and instructed them to do the same. As my uncle grew and spoke to her in contempt and demanded material goods from her, instead of denying him, she denied herself. When he married and abandoned his wife and child, she blamed the mother. When he remarried another woman unlike his first wife, and when that wife left him, my grandmother again blamed the mother of his children. When he became despondent, and drank himself to sleep, and as one season folded into another, as my grandmother sang the tunes of her own arirang song, my uncle, the once favorite child of my grandmother and the prize for her son gods, became something of an embarrassment. My grandmother lived into her eighty-eighth year, but had remained vital only until ten years before her death. She had spent the last decade praying to her son gods to restore their faith in her only surviving son, the one who was to carry on the family name, even as it became all but certain that he would die alone and homeless. The last time we heard from him was at my grandmother’s deathbed, when he collect-called to ask for money from the family. Even in death, she is watching over him, with her other son in tow. They will watch over him until he joins them there.



I inherited my grandmother’s slow ways, her mantra of giving over one’s senses to small things intently. The mountains were important to her, as were the birds she became when she danced like a shaman to the shrill-songs of her childhood. I took after, too, her fealty to frail men. When I was five years old, I lived with my grandmother and her grown, unmarried son and daughters, my two aunts and my young uncle, in a traditional Korean home, complete with a courtyard and an outhouse. I loved my grandmother and loved her silence more than anything. The sound of her intense stillness as she worked methodically on small chores taught me to sit quietly with my own longing for my mother. My mother, who had just divorced my father and left her two other children with my father, and me with my grandmother, had been living alone in a one-room apartment and working as a secretary in the big city, hoping that one day soon she could come back to claim all the children once she was able.

My brother, the first-born, was a bright star, the one who was so well-nourished in utero that when he took his first mortal breath, he simply smiled rather than let out a cry of a baby. He, too, longed deeply for my mother, as would a good son gone unnoticed, and would have wished that he was the one she carried in her arms the night she fled my father. Soon after his beloved dog died from the injuries my father caused one night, my brother resigned himself to go his own way.

When he showed up at my grandmother’s house on December 31, 1975, everyone had laid down to sleep. It was a mid-week and maybe it had snowed that day or maybe it hadn’t, but the temperatures were in the minus Celsius and dropping. It must have been my grandmother’s voice I woke to, an uncommon thing to hear. She was asking my brother why he had run away, saying that he needed to go back. He had no coat or jacket on. He had no boots or sneakers on, just some flimsy slippers that were coming off his feet. His cheeks were the color of yam’s skin. My grandmother’s voice was stern and unyielding. I had never heard this sound come out of her before.

By the time I was near enough to my brother to touch him, his legs silken like an icicle, translucent and pink, my heart was already deep in my belly. I was crying but hid it from him, for fear that he would leave me that instant. I thought how oddly beautiful they were, as a rare birthmark is beautiful. I put my small chest, warm from sleep, down whole on his legs and wrapped my arms generously around them, and massaged his hardened toes with my little fingers, careful not to crack them. There, I felt my mortality, as if I could die right then, out of my love for this beleaguered soul, my brother. What was it that I felt but love of a mother, native and awakening in me as if from a deep sleep, that would heal him? I was rooted to the earth and was not scared. I massaged his legs for a while, until I was able to feel the suppleness of his toes, while a prayer sang in my head. Though I was afraid to look up into his eyes, I gazed toward him and uttered these words:

“Oppa, are you here to stay?”

“I don’t know.” He said like a shy boy.

“Don’t leave me. I will take care of you,” I said.



When he wasn’t drinking, my father was capable of loving and being loved by other humans. When he walked around the house only in his underpants, at all times and without commentary, so as to save time dressing and undressing especially given the trouble with his bowels, he was supremely in his element. When he made up nonsensical words or phrases, strung together with words not easily able to be strung together, to create sounds so ludicrous but sticky and pleasurable to my early ears, he was endearing. When he forced too-tight hugs out of his children and my mother, when he was possessively loving, he was unequivocally human.

The man had an order about him. He liked to start each day with a ritual—a visit to the public bath house. If he got there early enough, he would likely have had the main tub all to himself and been able to control the water temperature as he pleased. He would have likely set it as hot as possible, so as to numb the discomfort he’d have felt from his failing liver. Following the redemptive soak, his next stop would have been a neighborhood corner shack, a modest shop up the street that served the men like my father haejang-guk, spicy hot blood soups loaded with MSG, to chase away the previous night’s hangover, only for him to do it all over again later that afternoon. He would have made his way back home, set the radio to his favorite sports channel, then glue himself to reading eight different newspapers to debate state politics with no one. He would’ve been heard ranting all colorful under his bad breath, in the small, warm, unlit corner of his bedroom, the part of his ancestor-gifted home where he felt least uncomfortable. My father didn’t work for a living, and thought working for a living a stupid idea. He liked to play ping pong and eat fish every night. He cooked.

The last time I saw my father was when I visited Korea with my mother one summer, after having left Korea for America a few years earlier. We sat at a restaurant, the three of us. When he spoke to my mother, he didn’t look at her but used highfalutin, high register words peppered with what sounded like made-up curse words that were convincing because of his uniquely expressive tone. His whole being seemed like a contradiction in terms, senile but with flashes of radiance. Sad, yet oddly authentic, emotionally. His bizarre behavior made me feel at once kinship and discomfort. When my mother left me alone with him so we could spend a father-daughter time for a short while, neither of us spoke. The only words spoken were on the bus on the way to his house. He had fallen asleep on the bus, and I must have been worried we’d miss our stop. When I tried waking him to ask about our stop, he ignored me. When the bus suddenly stilled to a halt he bolted up from his seat, and flung himself out of the bus, and me along with him.

Once at the house, the silence took over us and calmed us. He was neither curious about me or my mother nor the ways we were adjusting to our life in America. Or, he just wasn’t into talking about any of it with me. I was eighteen years old, my buds just beginning to open and giving way toward the sun. I stayed with him for three days and three nights, and each night cooked fish for us, both of us drenched in warm-colored silence as we ate, as if in mourning. The only time our silence was broken was when he hollered from the bathroom out in the courtyard because he needed a clean underwear. He must have soiled at least three that afternoon. Like an obedient wife, I cleaned his soiled underwear, asked for some money to do the groceries, and when he wasn’t looking, I primmed up my hair, and spoke very little.

A few summers after that, my father died from falling on the side of a road while walking home alone intoxicated. Though the latter was a routine and the initial injuries he sustained not so severe, because of the delay in getting him to a hospital (he didn’t have an id on him at the time), his brain swelled and he eventually fell into a coma before giving out. He had been living alone at the time, in a house passed down to him by his ancestors, none of whom, dead or alive, would have been proud of what had become of my father. No one was surprised of his passing. According to the women, my father was all but expected to expire much earlier, since his liver had become “paper thin,” and that it had been “any day now” for years. He deserved to die, they must have thought. There’s a saying in Korean, when you die of injuries sustained on the road, your death is likened to that of a dog. My father died a dog’s death, alone, without ritual.



Winter. The snow has finally come. Tonight, I’m thinking of the sad old men I knew. Which is to say, the women and the children and the village of my country as I remember them. What I remember are the warmest, unsanitized hands reaching over the hot pot to serve us, all of us. With her back bent, she reaches over the table to serve the neighborhood kids, the latchkeys, the middlings, the good bland kids that looked forward in earnest to those most holy of communions, the portions always wanting, only just enough to come back for more. On those bruised dark days, under the weight of the domed awning, she is there, with the dim lights on, waiting for us. She listens, just listens, to the sad old, no-good men with failing livers, and the women beholden to them, their small dreams tossed out there in the big city. She is reaching, reaching, in eternity, over the arirang pass, to find the lost fathers, husbands, sons, and the village-run-amok-nation, and the women who made them. She looks like my grandmother, but isn’t my grandmother. It’s the hands of those mothers and grandmothers that had aged, through generations, to serve the men like my father and my uncle and my brother, the sad old men hunched over in rows of pojangmachas, the shabby, late-night drinking tents of the old city, lighting up the dreams and hearts of my people—the men slurring “pour me another one, another one,” their low-hum pitch of sighs sounding the night’s longing, lost in a place no Google maps will find.