An intro-level Korean language course is enough to survive in Korea for the summer.
But the best way to truly master Korean is to arrive at first day of internship and to discover that the only person who can speak English is the director you work for.
Most people, even taxi drivers, are kind once they realize that you can’t speak very well. The effort that you put into applying the Korean you learned from last semester makes them speak slower and wait patiently for you while you take the time to compute correct conjugations in your brain and conjure proper pronunciations out of your throat.
Getting sick in a foreign land really sucks because even though you rehearse what you’re going to say ten times in your head as you enter the clinic, when you actually sit down with the doctor, your fever is so high, your tonsils so swollen, that you forget the word for “tonsils,” leaving the impatient doctor hanging. He gives you some medicine, and even though you can’t read the label, you nod and walk out of the room hoping that whatever he gave you works.
You go to the clinic two more times. Each time it’s disheartening, as you are unable to describe what hurts nor can really understand what he’s saying or what medicine he’s prescribing you. You ask him if he can speak English and he gives you this helpless look so you just say, “It’s okay,” and hope whatever he gives you this time works. Finally it does, thank God.
You meet your biological father. You haven’t talked to him since you were five, the last time you left Korea. All you remember from then is saying goodbye as your mom held your hand and led you to the plane to America as he just stood there, waving, becoming smaller and smaller as you walked further away to your gate.
After two weeks of trying to contact him upon your arrival this summer, he finally calls you: “Where are you? I’ll come there by car, just wait there.”
You sit nervously at a cafe for 30 minutes, your head jerking every time the door swings open.
How do I look? Should I hug him when he comes? Is that appropriate? How can a semester of intro-level Korean course possibly allow me to explain the past 16 years of my life growing up in America that he missed? Would I even be able to speak?
But when you see his face peering through the glass door of the cafe, you instantly hop up and open the door for him. It would be impossible not to recognize him right away. After all, you have the same nose and eyes.
It turns out, a semester of Korean is enough because, sometimes, what needs to be said is actually quite simple. When the time is right, the words just come easily from your mother tongue to say the things you’ve been dreaming of saying all these years you’ve been away.
It’s Sunday morning and you decide to sleep in. At 11:30, you rub the sleep out of your eyes and check your phone. You see that you missed a call from your dad.
You call him back half still asleep and he answers, explaining that he called because he was wondering what you were up to. When he asks you if you have work today, you ask if he realizes that it’s Sunday. He sheepishly responds, “아 그렇구나 (Ah, that’s right).”
You ask him if he’s eaten lunch yet, and where he is. He’s at his office. You don’t stop to wonder why he’d be there on a Sunday. You just ask if you can come see him.
He smiles when he sees you at the subway stop in front of his office building. His face looks so much younger when he smiles. You hold his hand as you both enter his office. Inside, he excitedly offers you instant coffee, and takes you on a tour of his small office. There’s a balcony with two green chairs facing out to the street. You sit there for a while, drinking coffee in a small paper cup, and talk about the people hurriedly walking to and fro on the streets. He says that when he sees these people he realizes that they’re walking about with such hurry because they are busy living life, far from dead. You silently mull over that sentence because that kind of observation can only come from a person who has contemplated death quite regularly.
He asks if you want to phone your brother, since international calls are free with his office phone. He starts dialing the number before you can remind him that it’s late at that hour in the U.S.
He hands you the phone and you hear your brother pick up on the other side. You feel surprised by his voice — you realize you haven’t actually heard it in a long time. He asks where you are and you answer that you’re at your dad’s office. He says he’s been there too when he last visited, the same two chairs, the same instant coffee in small paper cups, the same exact office. You start crying because at that moment, you realize you miss your brother terribly. “오빠 보고싶어 (I miss you, my brother)”
The boy you grew up with that drove you to school when your mom couldn’t, now the man who found his path as oral surgeon and with a wife and a child to come. You suddenly think that this should have been a trip for both of you together to see your dad, so that when you leave his office later, you wouldn’t be gripped by these feelings in the subway alone. But then you feel selfish for thinking so. Still, you tell him you miss him. That you wish he was here.
He pauses for a second before saying, “I know exactly where you are,” and tells you not to be sad because you’re not alone. You suddenly feel his presence with you in the small office as he describes how he’s been there at the same place with your dad, drinking the same shitty instant coffee, sitting together on two green chairs and talking. He tells you that he loves you and that he’s so proud of you for making the effort to see him and for sitting in the exact same chair he sat in. You tell him you love him too and that you’ll see him soon when you return to America.
Your dad, who mysteriously disappeared throughout that call, now slips back into the office and suggests getting lunch together. Over food, you talk about what you’re studying (You like math? Well yes, that’s why I’m studying it. Ah I did too, you must have gotten it from me, your mother was quite bad at math, but I guess the art thing came from your mother), your boyfriend (Is he kind to you? Is he a good man? Yes. Yes.), what you want to do when you graduate (Being an artist is too hard, just get a job doing math). All the things that you realize a normal parent asks their child. You feel your chest grow warm as you stare at your empty bowl.
Your dad tells you that he’s healthy, that he runs one hour everyday, occasionally runs marathons, too. His wish is to keep living without pain and continue running to see 20 more springs, and then die straight away. He says to lie on a bed for 20 years, sick, waiting to die is not living at all. You just look out the window and nod.
He drops you off at the subway and this time, before you turn to leave, you hug him. A long, deep hug. Your heart stills when he hesitates for a second but then reciprocates the hug warmly. When you pull away you can feel the tears bubbling again, God damn it, so you turn to run through the turnstiles. But you look back just once more and see him waving at you. You wave back before running up to catch your train. You later text him that you should run together before you leave and he says that would be very nice.
You meet up with your dad to go running. You go to this big outdoor track with a soccer field in the middle. Everything is astroturf, he says, and that sometimes he runs with just his socks. He tells you to breathe in deep all the way to the bottom of your lungs so that the ends of your shriveled lungs extend all the way out and gets exercised. This is the most important part about running, and also the reason that he still smokes. You tell him he should quit, but he assures you that he only smokes three cigarettes a day now, better than before.
After running, you go to the outdoor sink next to the track and dunk your heads under the cold tap. Refreshed, you both laugh with water streaming all over your face. He washes his hair with some soap, then he lathers up yours and washes it for you. Your head is still under the tap and your heart feels really strange and you can’t tell if it’s from all the running or these smallest yet most endearing gestures that wrench your heart so.
Later, he smokes a cigarette while you drink beer together. While sipping your beer, he looks away and just says, “You’re leaving in two weeks? There’s not much time left then.” Not knowing what to say in response, you simply raise your glass to click your drinks and sip some more.
You go back to his place to change your clothes before heading back to yours. You linger in his room for a while before proceeding to write him a note, saying how you liked running with him, accompanied by a small drawing of a cat running and sweating.
He insists on accompanying you all the way to your place and carries your bag. He jokes that it is as heavy as the backpack he had to wear during his years at the army. You make sure not to cry when he drops you off. You keep turning around as you walk away to see if he is looking back as well but he doesn’t and the third time you turn, his back is already lost in the crowd.
You have a week left. Your dad asks if you want to go to 국화도 [geokhwado], a set of islands an hour away by car from Seoul followed with a short ferry ride, before you leave Korea. You ask your uncle, then your mother, then your brother if it’s ok. Your brother says, “Why are you asking for permission? You’re an adult. If you want to do it, then you should. You don’t have forever with him.”
You dad comes to pick you up from your uncle’s apartment early in the morning on the way to the ferry station. He brings a whole plastic bag full of snacks and food. He asks if you ate breakfast and has a moment of overdue parental panic when he realizes you hadn’t eaten breakfast. He tells you breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
No one is at the island. The shorelines are full of washed up seashells, white and small, rolling in the slopes of the rocky sand. You take pictures together with him while you hike to the next of the three neighboring islands. You tell him some more about your school and your boyfriend — he declares that the most important thing is to have someone who is your equal and will treat you with respect.
You ask him if he was like that to your mom. He looks away while smoking his cigarette and says that just because he wasn’t able to do well for her doesn’t mean that you don’t deserve better. You just keep looking out to the ocean trying to find words. After two months in Korea, you’ve become conversational. But no language, Korean or English, can prepare you for moments like these, and you find yourself at total loss for words.
The next day, he wakes up first and wakes you up to go for a run and to see the sunrise. Then you pack up and catch the ferry back. On the ride, you gaze at the islands disappearing from your view, one by one, and start to cry.
Time passes so quickly, every minute, second slipping through your fingers all too smoothly, swiftly. Your time with someone you just met, someone who you know loves you more than almost anything in the world besides your brother, will slip away to the other side of the planet once you step inside the plane that will carry you back to America.
He watches you like this, with his eyebrows drawn together and a weak smile on his face. “Why are you crying already? We’re not even back in Seoul.”
He continues, “You see those islands? I’m like that island: I will always be standing still, waiting for your return. You can remember our shared times when you come back. And you, you will be like that lighthouse, illuminating the path for so many people. That’s what you have this life to do.”
All you can do is keep his hand in yours, afraid to let go because you just want to stay a small girl with her dad on this island for just a bit longer.
When he drops you off again in front of your uncle’s apartment, he stays standing, watching while you walk towards the building. You keep turning back to wave at him, and he waves back each time. This time, he doesn’t walk away first when you part ways. He’s the one to see your back this time as you disappear into the building. You reach into your pocket and feel a seashell that he picked for you from the millions of seashells on that shore. On it, he wrote, “To my daughter, whom I love.” And you realize that over the 16 years that he’s been gone from your life, that is the only thing you’ve wanted to hear all along.