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The Ants in This Room

Yunseo Chung

The Ants in This Room
a short story by Yunseo Chung

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.

My hands are sweaty. I wipe them on the sides of my Old Navy dress.

It takes a couple tries, but soon the rehearsal begins.

Lindsey’s parents and grandparents dance down the aisle, followed by the groom’s parents and grandparents, light and bright. I make a mental note to call my halmeoni later.

There are a few mishaps with the timing and the Facebook live, but soon, everyone is gathered at the end of the aisle. It looks like a movie still. Lindsey’s guests circled around her in an arc, light and bright. The hot pink qipao is blinding.

I’m not a guest – I’m only playing violin for the wedding. So, I sit in the pews, in the shadows, and keep the ants company. In front of me, Lindsey’s friends chatter away like I’ve never been able to. Lindsey’s mom is arguing with the wedding planner. I blink and for a second, I see my mom instead. She’s incredibly detail-oriented, too. She’d argue with everyone in her way if it meant I would get the perfect wedding.

When my vision clears, all I hear is English.

American flags hang heavy from the ceiling, regal and striking against the wedding party below. Above me, they feel weighty and dark.

This is what it is to live in America, they whisper. Heavy and conflicting – but you don’t exactly belong in your own country, either, do you?

Lindsey’s qipao must weigh a pound, max. The constant burden of being a Korean girl in an American society weighs at least ten metaphorical kilograms. And it never goes away.

I’ve always known this. I was eight years old when I learned and I’ve known it ever since. Still, it culminates this day. It culminates in the realization that I will be trying to bridge two worlds on my own even on my wedding day. Lindsey wears her hot pink qipao and poses, giggling, for her friends.

There’s an ant crawling on one of the pews. I watch as it falls off the edge. When I look up, everyone’s gone and I see my family there. Rigid and still and tense, out of place under the heavy foreign flags. My dad’s holding stiff English conversation and my mom waves me over.

“This is your day,” she tells me.

She pats my shoulders, “Don’t worry about me.”

Her eyes are sad. I can read her thoughts: maybe we should’ve stayed.

Maybe I should’ve stayed in Korea. Maybe I should’ve spent my days studying until dawn and visiting my halmeoni on the weekends. Maybe I should’ve gone to church on Sundays and turned right around to preach twisted morals in the name of faith with the confidence that I was doing the right thing. Maybe it would’ve been simpler that way.

At least that way, I wouldn’t be here. Because when the ants swarm over our arms, Leslie can take off her dress. I’m stuck with the stickiness and I’ll end up spilling my kimchi all over the island. And it’ll stain the newspapers, red and pungent.

Cover photo source:

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