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The Ants in This Room

Updated: Apr 2

My kitchen island is covered in newspapers – because I keep making a mess, my mom says. They spill over the granite, grim and gray. The Korean characters march across the pages like ants. One by one by one, they inch across the island to where I’ve overturned my dolsot. They carry the grains of rice off, one by one by one.

Somewhere in this flood of gray, there’s an article titled “Be Aware of These Mushrooms!” in bold Korean words. It reads like a conspiracy theory, complete with a picture of an innocuous brown mushroom captioned, “seemingly safe, but deadly!” Halmeoni used to hang onto every word of these exaggerated stories. When I close my eyes, I see her bent over a supermarket aisle, bagging mushrooms by the handful. She waves me over.

“Yunseo,” she says, “You have to be careful. You wouldn’t believe how many bad mushrooms there are.”

I take the bag from her and smile. I promise to be careful – I don’t like mushrooms, anyway. She shakes her finger at me and moves on to bag green onions.

When I open my eyes, she disappears and the kitchen lights are bright. I’ve spilled my yogurt again. The ants feast.

I read the papers, these American stories in Korean, while I eat and my bowl overflows. Then the ants come alive to devour me whole, a Korean girl ravaged by American words. They’re harsh and biting. The ants blind my eyes and I overturn my plate.

There’s a story buried within these pages. This time, it’s mine. The ants come in droves and it’s suffocating. I open my eyes to a church. This is suffocating.

I’m late to the rehearsal dinner. I took too long asking for and translating directions, so here I am. Late. I push open the door to see everyone lined up: loud, excited, bright, and white. I look down to step over their heels and my flats feel plain. I look up to greet them and my skin feels shadowy.

The bride brushes past me and I see a vague blur of hot pink.

There’s a beat, then my vision sharpens. There are ants on the floor of this church. The bride is wearing a qipao – of some sorts – and there are ants on the floor of this church.

Her name is Lindsey. She’s tall, blonde, and pretty. Her parents are kind. I’ve known them since seventh grade. Lindsey has a younger brother. He’s the teacher’s favorite, the star of the school. We used to eat lunch together. We were friends. He used to tell me I wasn’t very good at English, back in eighth grade. I’d watch the ants crawl across the table while he quizzed me on words he thought I wouldn’t know. I let him because we were friends. His sister, Lindsey, is the star of the day. She’s wearing a qipao and it’s hot pink.

The qipao was worn by women of the Manchu upper-class during the Chinese Qing Dynasty. Later, it evolved to become a symbol of gender equality for Chinese housewives. Its hem reaches down to the ankles and the fabric is traditionally worn loose. The qipao is often recognized by its distinctive collar.

It has nothing to do with Korea, though I doubt anyone at the dinner would have been able to tell the difference. This isn’t my culture and this shouldn’t feel as personal as it does. Still, Lindsey’s dress is skin-tight and reaches halfway past her thighs. This comes during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, when the eyes of the world’s hatred is focused on China. There’s a twisted, cinematic irony here. The Korean girl in the corner of the room, watching Asia drip down the white girl’s legs.