Updated: Apr 8
sometimes, i wish you would just die. life would be much easier without everyone asking is that your grandpa?
this is what i wrote in my journal when i was 8.
it was 6 pm, our class was picking mulberries outside. rows of mulberry trees lined the parking lot and we picked the little fruits off the branches and popped them right into our mouths. when we went back to the lobby, you were waiting for me, standing hunched over your white cane. an indescribable feeling washed over me -- was it disappointment? shame? i wanted umma to pick me up, not you. is your grandpa sick? why does he look like that? disgusting. monster.
don’t pick me up ever again.
when i was eight, i visited korea and made a new friend at the trampoline park. she thought i was cool for being a foreigner. we went down giant slides that turned our stomachs into mush, we stabbed the bubbles floating past our heads, we tried to bounce back up from our knees on the trampoline.
we entered the sand building area where other kids and adults were molding castles out of colorful sand. you limped over and sat down next to me.
what’s this old man doing here? do you know him?
no. i don’t. then, i turned my body away from you and met her eyes with a smile.
let’s keep building.
i just wanted to be gia the cool foreigner, not gia the granddaughter of a sick geezer.
i’ve never felt korean in korea, american in america. when i was in kindergarten, i went to an after-school program for korean children whose parents were at work. i was the only student in the class who couldn’t speak english so i had a teacher’s assistant who served as my personal translator. that day, i had finished my school work early so we moved on to the classwork assigned by the after-school. i took a worksheet--we were learning how to count coins. a quarter is 25, a nickel is 5. do you know how to count coins? no. then you don’t need to do this worksheet. there were other kids who needed help and i guess she didn’t feel like sitting next to me, teaching me how to count coins. i wanted to learn, but i couldn’t. my classmates at after-school always translated their conversations around me, asked do you understand what i just said.
i started speaking english at home until talking to my parents in korean felt unnatural. i buried my native language deeper and deeper into the depths of my mind. then when my parents sent me to korean school in 4th grade, i was placed in the basics class, back to kindergarten.
our palms on the grass, our foreheads resting against the backs of our hands
we drove hours to the countryside, arriving at the cemetery. you told us that if we bowed to the tombstone, money would rain. so davin and i kneeled, our palms on the grass, our foreheads resting against the backs of our hands. the grass was prickly. i took a small peek from my arms, kind of like how i did while playing 7-Up at summer school. and there it was. a yellow 50000 won -- 50 dollars -- in front of me. i immediately snatched it up and thanked the sun, the clouds, the sky.
what i realize now
i didn’t thank you. i stumbled upon a photograph of that day, one that grandma took. you stand behind us, your head is slightly bowed, and your cap lays neatly folded on the grass. i wonder who it is that we were paying our respects to -- is it any of your four siblings? is it your father who passed when you were a kid? is it your mother who struggled to keep the household from falling apart?
a phone call in korean, 3.5.2019
i’m calling haraboji. be polite when you talk to him. oh, hello?
hello? hello? i can’t really hear. how are you?
we’re good. gia wants to talk to you.
i shake my head and squirm away from my mom as she pushes the phone towards me. what do i say to him, i don’t remember the last time i spoke in korean, how do i even start a conversation. i don’t want to talk to him, but she gives me the look and i reluctantly take the phone from her.
hello? is this gia? are you studying well?
do you hate haraboji?
no, i don’t hate you.
yes you do, i know you do.
my mom laughs as if he just told a ridiculously funny knock-knock joke and i shake my head. i wasn’t surprised, he asks the same questions every conversation. we would go back and forth like plucking petals off a flower--she loves me, she loves me not.
the day before i got sent to korean school
my father told me in korean: you should practice korean. you seem more ladylike and proper.
i told him in english: why should i, we’re in america right now. i’ll speak korean once i get to korea.
what i didn’t tell him: i don’t want to talk in korean because then i would have to speak more to my grandfather. i have an excuse for not getting to know him better, i wouldn’t get attached to him.
haraboji in the backyard
whenever you visited our house in the summer, you were most likely 1) sleeping, 2) reading the newspaper with a magnifying glass, or 3) exploring the backyard.
you weeded out our front yard crouched over in your purple crocs and a white tank top. the tanktop was tattered. the crocs were an ugly purple, like the color of crocuses. at 3 pm when elementary school let out, kids walking by our house would try to sneak glances at your face. i always rushed across the yard to get to the door before they could see me. but you would look up at me, stand up, put your calloused hand on my back and walk me into the house. i would squirm at your touch and run into the house, closing the door shut. you would turn back around, flimsy tank top exposing your spotted, translucent skin. you went back to squatting in the yard, pulling out the weeds.
you would plant perilla in the backyard, setting up the sprinkler every morning when even the songbirds were still half asleep.
you would drag out a chair and from the side, watch me and davin run back and forth through the sprinklers, trying to chase down the spray.
a conversation between umma and me
why doesn’t haraboji want to get laser surgery?
i don’t know. maybe it’s because he wants to live life the way it was meant to be.
we’re christians, our bodies are sacred and not meant to be tampered with.
the mulberry tree
it was your last day in america. despite what i told you last time, you came to pick me up. you came when my all my classmates already left we went over to the mulberry trees, and you watched me pick the little fruit ofMulf the branches and pop it right into my mouth. you helped me reach the ones i couldn’t. we collected berries until my hands were stained purple, a pretty purple, like the color of crocuses.
the patch on your face reminded me of those mulberries. a dark purple staining the right half of your face, like a permanent black eye.
we played rock paper scissors goes as far back as i can remember. whether we were in korea or america, you always made that whoosh sound when we yielded our signs. whoosh, rock. whoosh, paper. whoosh, rock. sometimes, your spit went flying into my eye but it was our way of playing the game.
once i reached the age of eight, i didn’t want to play with you anymore. i forced davin to do it instead. i bribed him with blue jolly ranchers until he got tired of playing, too.
you would stick out your hand and say, aksu. handshake. i grabbed your calloused hand and you would shake it up and down forcefully, crushing my fingers while my arm hung there limp and lifeless.
even if i did apologize, i wouldn’t ever know how i would do it. i’m not even sure what to apologize for.
do i do it
in a letter? over the phone?
sorrow, the bitter feeling in your heart when you want to say something but you can’t.
This is a very personal piece I've always wanted to write, but never had the courage to until now. Growing up Asian in America, I felt the need to suppress my native culture and did everything possible to seem "more American." My Korean grandfather, who often visited America, had a facial disability which I was always ashamed of when I was younger. This piece illustrates the increasing disconnection of my culture ultimately leading to the disconnection of me and my grandfather.
Author's Biography: Gia Shin is a sophomore from New Jersey. She enjoys writing creative nonfiction and journalistic pieces that express her unspoken thoughts. Her writing has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, The Incandescent Review, and TeenInk. Gia is the founder of a teen mental health organization which you can visit at urnotalone.org. In her free time, she likes to journal and doodle while listening to chill KRnB.
Cover photo source: https://chestnuthilltreefarm.com/shop/black-mulberry-2/