Sight-reading Korean

In which I’ve never known how to prioritize

On a Monday my dad calls asking that I help my uncles move the remainder of my grandpa’s stuff to a low-income senior home for Koreans somewhere in the Valley. Of course, I tell him, I’d love to, I lie. I don’t want to, but feel indebted because earlier that day I texted him asking for money which he not only wired to me within a moment’s notice but tripled the figure I initially asked for: not much, but enough to make a temporarily unemployed dropout blush. I ask him when. He says he’ll give me more details tomorrow, but most likely Saturday. I was hoping he’d say Saturday because I have to pick my mom up from LAX on Saturday which would mean exemption. Then it’s ok if that’s the case, he assures me.

The next day he calls to say they’ll need me on Sunday actually. I tell him that’s fine. Whether it was or it wasn’t, I was already duty-bound and had no circumstantial skirt to hide behind this time. Before we hang up, as if in passing, he asks me to drop off money and a card to the family of his recently deceased friend. I ask who. He says I know him but doesn’t give me a name. I ask who. He says he’ll text me the address along with the number of the niece to let me into the building. I ask who. “Mr. Lee,” he says. Sometimes my dad can be erroneously efficient in his speech, with a high probability of miscommunication and apoplexy, but this was not one of those times, for basically every other Korean I know is called Mr. Lee, and so I understand my dad’s decision to not want to waste time having to explain who the man was, and I was grateful. Yet I ask what Mr. Lee did. He says Mr. Lee was a handyman, hammered nails, fixed roofs, painted houses, brings up the time I helped him work on my grandpa’s house. Every other Mr. Lee I know is a handyman who hammers nails, fixes roofs, and paints houses all of whom I’ve helped work on my grandpa’s house with, so the only question left to ask is how he died.

“Oh, from cancer,” he says, as casual as any Tuesday. Had I been anyone else I would’ve been offended by the lightness of his tone but I knew of the dark and heavy history that necessitated it, so I understood as much as I could. I’ve only ever heard whispers and murmurs concerning my dad’s upbringing, stripped dignity and forced to survive, but only from others, never straight from the source. He never talks about his past except in the vague, wise, finger-wagging fashion with brief parables starting with “When I was your age” or “Back in my day” or “I don’t think I have any children I don’t know about, but…” No, he epitomizes stoicism: his upper lip’s stiffer than Maggie Thatcher’s and he measures impending despair in his own special unit of shrugs. I remember just how casual he was at the care home in the penultimate days of his mother’s, my grandma’s, life. No trace of sadness, nor even apathy. Might as well have been barbecueing at the beach. Although, on the day of her funeral, when he caught sight of her in the casket, I saw him cry. For the first and only time. A brief but terrible spasm. He walked over to where people weren’t standing, with his face turned away. I walked over to him because I never had the privilege to console my dad, never got to tell him things would be okay, always wondering when he last confided his loneliness to someone, or if he ever has. I put my arms around him, asked if he was ok, and from zero to sixty in three he reeled the tears right back into his eyes, along with any trace of redness, said he was fine, as if he was sampling sadness at Costco and asking about the product without any intention to buy, and walked back to everyone else. I didn’t have the urge to cry the whole day except in that moment, but I took his lead and once again gave in to the theatrics of masculinity.

I say ok and we hang up.

Come Saturday my mom Kakaos me to inform me her flight’s been postponed to Sunday, which means, again, exemption. I don’t know why, but I don’t tell my dad. I figure I’ll call him on my way to LAX , but I won’t. So I spend the rest of the day picturing myself writing for three breakless hours, about what? who’s to say?, finishing Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger) in its original French text (I’m kidding; I’m not like that; I wish I was like that maybe, is why I’m picturing myself doing it, but not actually; and I can barely speak Korean as it is, so what good would it do to learn French?), making zines about something relevant, like impending doom, practicing piano for another three breakless hours, maybe finally learn the ends to pieces learned back in ’09, among an assortment of other productive and creative activities with which I can cultivate my better self. But about that gram and edible I bought the night before with the money I didn’t earn… and about that smoking habit I caved back into after a successful month of quitting against six prior years of being the risks of getting cancer’s main bitch… and about Louis Theroux’s Scientology documentary finally on Netflix and first in my queue already having given it a thumbs up rating even though I haven’t even watched it yet… and about that overall return to bad habits in general, that self-destructive cycle of lethargy and dwelling commonly seen in independent movies about white upper-middle class twenty-something year olds with no backstory as to how they’re able to live in a spacious flat in New York or LA without a job or a displayed relationship with their parents, the kind of conflict that’s not really a conflict so much as a privilege gone sour. But no, yeah, Saturday’s smeared into a haze, and in looking back, I can’t.

Emerging from the fog from the night before I find myself already in a bad mood and an hour away from LAX, listening to a collaborative playlist on Spotify with someone I’ve been talking to but currently not on speaking terms with at the moment on account of my insufferable disposition, and other details not quite relevant to this particular story. I mean, everything is interconnected and stuff, I know that, and the details are actually quite pertinent to the story, or at least to my psyche and why I think the things I think, but it’s a subject deserving of its own focus for a later time when certain chemicals have returned from their respective imbalances and thoughts have been processed and filed. Maybe my body is craving a cigarette or a Black & Mild and am currently experiencing withdrawals. Maybe I hate myself for not having spent my time wisely throughout the past four weeks but having wasted it on substances and media to take the corners off and help me rock and roll out of control for reasons no more drastic than a hurt butt instead.

It’s good to see my mom again but now I’m ridden with anxiety and have gone numb. She never fails to pick up on this and never fails to point it out, out of love I know but I can’t help but get irritated every time, further losing myself into an emotional abyss seemingly impossible to navigate through, further complicating the matter. Why don’t you just vent, Austin? Why don’t I? The whole time I keep thinking about The Stranger and the nonchalance of Meursault over his maman’s death. Before reading it, it was not uncommon that I imagine my own mom’s death, the way my lip would tremble as I deliver the eulogy, the shell-shocked stare out into nowhere in particular throughout the following weeks or months, the empty fridge and the lack of song, and it’s not as though I’m rehearsing as I’m sure my emotions from that series finale will be unpredictable, but in a way to remind myself of the present, to take advantage of the fact that we’re still alive and living, still here. And yet, though I fear the absolute worst outcomes when she’s away, especially with how much traveling she does for her job, that I wouldn’t get to eat homemade kimchi jjigae anymore or go to the movies with her or receive counsel when I need it most, to the point of tears with the fear of my calling out to her being met with the most oppressive silence, the maternal silence, I give her attitude the whole day, like an asshole with a stick up his face. And without asking how her trip was I tell her to listen to Arcade Fire’s latest song where the lyrics mention suicide because I know how she feels about suicide given a history not worth detailing right now.

She buys me lunch at a restaurant she’s been dying to take me, some Korean BBQ joint below a church she sometimes attends and translates for. She naturally gets excited over everything because she views the world with childlike wonder, every day being better than the last, so she has a tendency to sometimes hype things up, which I point out to her at the restaurant. She tells me that when you enjoy something you want to share that thing with the people closest to you, that while she may appear to hype, she’s just more concerned with sharing than anything. I feel bad for saying what I said. And after the initial taste test of all the banchan and of the soup and of the pork ribs, perhaps she didn’t hype up the restaurant enough. But I don’t tell her this. I do, but not in the right way. The way I say it sounds obligatory, resentful, lacking color, but I truly mean the words: “’s good, thanks.” And throughout the meal and throughout the ride home she is able, as always, to get me to spill the beans of my deeper difficulties. And I feel a bit better.

After I drop her off at home I drive to the bank to withdraw the money my dad wired to me to give to the family of his recently deceased friend. Then I go to Target to pick out a card. I spend a good two minutes picking out a card. Two minutes doesn’t seem like a considerate amount of time to choose a card especially in dealing with loss, but one, it’s just a card (material condolences should never be worth more than what it symbolizes) and two, even if it did matter, any and every card I ever received from a Korean was either from a bundle pack of Christmas-themed Unicef cards from the sales rack at Pier 1 Imports or from a bundle pack of Thanksgiving-themed Unicef cards from the sales rack at Pier 1 Imports. I didn’t know Thanksgiving Cards were a thing until my fifteenth birthday in August. Also, any and every card Koreans give to each other is always filled with money, not words, never with any denominations less than or equal to twenty. The card is merely a formality, always was and never will be anything more. It doesn’t matter what’s on it so much as what it carries. I wonder how the greeting card industry in Korea is doing, if it even exists. But I pick a card, a good and unoppressive card with Christian motifs and soft pastel undertones and a poem I’m sure is nice but don’t bother to read. I put the money in the card and the card in the envelope, lick the bitter sticky and then close it.

I park outside the apartment complex. The neighborhood, over on 18th street by the antique stores and the shelterless mass sprawled out across the park, isn’t entirely the greatest, but I’m not necessarily dressed the greatest either and feel security in this thought. An old man sits out on his mini porch smoking a cheap cigarette. I love the smell of cigarettes but not of cheap cigarettes. I’ve always associated the smell of cheap cigarettes with being at the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t know why.

I call the number my dad gave me to be let in but I’m forwarded to voicemail four times. If I’m unable to get in then I’d be unable to give the card with the money in it to the family of the recently deceased man thus unable to say hi to all of my dad’s old friends as he requested I do and the only thing left to do would be to go back home. How long is the appropriate amount of time one should wait for a returned call before leaving? I remember in the hallways of the humanities building at SFSU some guy told another guy that if your professor didn’t show up for ten minutes, you were legally free to leave without tarnishing your perfect attendance record. He didn’t actually share concern over his attendance record but I thought it’d be funny. So I decide on five minutes because I was already here for like six minutes and called four times.

Six minutes pass, I put the key in the ignition, tune out of NPR because it’s Sunday Baroque and all that oboe/recorder fluttering sounds like music to accompany a bloodletting, thumb through my CD case and double down on Thank Your Lucky Stars by Beach House, skip directly to song 9, “Somewhere Tonight,” sort through the orders of the evening and decide I need another gram from the shop, put my car in reverse, and obviously, as if on cue, I get a call back from the niece of the recently deceased man. I answer in Korean and so does she, but I switch to English because I don’t know what to say other than, “I’m here to drop off a card.” I notice the surprise in her voice at my rough transition. She says she’ll let me in, in English. I’m already waiting in the lobby now thanks to some other tenants and hear a door creak open in the distance, shut close, and then a small pair of footsteps drag along the floor, gradually getting louder and louder like maracas repurposed to build tension and not stereotypes. And finally after what seems like however long the runtime of all of Quentin Tarantino’s Mexican stand-off scenes are together, the unmistakable acoustic change in the room that announces someone’s presence.

The niece, probably my age, hard to say, looks like an anime character. She has long, straight, jet black hair, thick eyebrows, and a permanent look of curiosity and innocence engrained into her expression. She’s all in black, all in Adidas. I give her the card with the money in it, wonder if any of this will end up in her wallet, tell her I’m sorry for her loss. She says thanks and leads me to the apartment, still dragging her feet and I wonder how often she has to buy new shoes or if this dragging of the feet is simply her unique way of mourning. I feel like an ass for thinking that. I notice she also uses the same shampoo as an ex from San Francisco and that the hallways smell of dorm dayz, of stale bleach and Febreeze and pancakes and butter and cigarettes and weed, and suddenly it feels like I’m back at school again, penniless, weedless, about to shed whatever dignity I have left to trade a quarter for a cigarette bearing the logo of a brand I’d refuse to smoke otherwise. And now I’m anxious again.

Which faces from years past are hiding behind this coming door? I feel a sinking in my stomach and a swelling in my throat and suddenly forget all my Korean. I feel my tongue wither away. But it’s not bad as I think. In fact, it’s never as bad as I think. Sometimes I think I secretly hope for melodrama or even tragedy behind my own back, because I’m a little disappointed that it feels like it won’t be awkward in here, that there’ll be nothing worth writing home about, that I’ll have to use my imagination and doctor some of the details for the sake of laughs. But what am I worrying about? All I ever need to do is let my presence be known, get over with it, and in hindsight decide if there’s a story.

Upon entering I’m back in Korea: the scent of steaming rice and mosquito repellent, the absence of furniture, arbitrary art that either came with the place or from Target, hung up with no intention, overall packed but not cramped. This apartment is so far removed from the reality of its locality, you can convince guests they need passports to gain entry. Everyone is sitting on the floor (there are five; two of whom are sitting behind the kitchen counter I have yet to walk past, and one of whom whose voice I recognize). There is only one person crying who I assume is the widow and beside her is a man and woman who has to be the niece’s parents. The man (who I learn is Mr. Lee’s brother) looks like a pastor in his short-sleeved button-up and black tie, but like a pastor with some lusty past because there is no possible way one can live a life of purity with a jaw line like his; the woman, somewhere in her mid to late 40’s, looks like she belongs on the silver screen, reminding me of Lauren Bacall in Written on the Wind (1956). I can’t look away, but I do. I don’t want to, but I have to. I redirect my gaze to their daughter and remember I’m not really into my own kind, except maybe if it was her mother. But I always remember my friend with whom I’m currently not on speaking terms and my own promise to be true, even though I don’t know what the heck is going on or even how I’m supposed to conduct myself.

I bow and say hello. They say hello back, except for the Korean Lauren Bacall who acknowledges me with a cursory glance à la the Kubrick stare which I can’t help but interpret as a pronouncement of disapproval. After all, I am in a banana-infested knock-off Tommy Bahama shirt one size too big and gym shorts with a hole burnt through it near the crotch, and once I take my shoes off they’ll see my Shin Ramen socks, though when I do take my shoes off, I quickly rip the socks off and stuff them into my back pocket for the rest of the evening. And then the body belonging to the voice I recognized stands up and greets me with surprise: it is my aunt. And next to her is a woman who I, for as long as I can remember, thought was a man. My aunt swoops in front of me and immediately the cameras of this episode go Dutch; I wait for Terry Gilliam to call cut, but figure, if anything, this scene seems more appropriate under Todd Solondz’s direction, considering the intimacy of the situation and all. She asks, in English, how I’m doing, how my mom is (as if she cares), asks why my mom went to Korea and how the drive was, says I look tired, doesn’t really give a me chance to answer but I manage to explain how I literally got back from LA like an hour ago because my mom’s flight was delayed which explains why I look tired, because I am. Then she sucks at her teeth the way Koreans suck at their teeth before waxing subjunctive: my uncles were supposed to help my grandpa move on Sunday, today, as my dad informed me, but, in fact, did it yesterday, Saturday, when I was home partying alone on the couch, not having to drive to LA just yet. She then details the difficulties of the day, no longer just to me but also to the lady I used to think was a man, and to anyone else who’ll listen. And not that I didn’t know, but I never acknowledged to myself until now when I remembered I was currently at a Wake and not a dinner party that my family has a penchant for establishing ourselves as the center of the universe in any given circumstance, usually by the timbre of our voices, me being no exception. Even in our humility we smirk. What even is this “self-efficacy” thing? I sneak a glance at the Korean Lauren Bacall and this time she looks in my general direction the way a Trans-Atlantic accent would look at a Southern Drawl, with irritable contempt.

Then, with more consternation than concern, my aunt asks me if I brought anything, with a glint in her eye hoping I didn’t so as to look as bad as I already appeared, but maybe I’m just projecting. I either reassure her or disappoint her that I did bring a card and that I gave it to the girl. But for some reason, my aunt needs to actually see the thing so she asks the girl where she put it. The girl picks it up from behind the counter beside the rice cooker. My aunt asks me how much is in it. I tell her to ask my dad.

And then without warning, I get volunteered to be the one to commence the evening with the bowing ritual I haven’t executed since I was like seven. We didn’t even have to do it when my grandma died. So I ask for help because I don’t remember exactly how I’m supposed to do it.

First, you light the incense and place it in the bowl of sand. Then you step back before the portrait of whomever you’re paying your respects to and bow three times: twice on all fours with the top of your head to the ground and once standing. The order of three bows reminds me of the three deaths: “First when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”

When I walk up to the portrait, I realize that it isn’t at all the Mr. Lee I thought my dad was talking about who died but another Mr. Lee who I thought was in good health who did. And now it feels like two people died, even though one’s unofficially back from the dead. It’s not like I care more for the man in the picture behind the draped black ribbons than the man I’ve been imagining this whole time, but this abrupt shift in cognizance shakes me more than I care to admit. I don’t know why. But I do the bows and wonder why I had to do it first, even before Mr. Lee’s own family.

For the next ten minutes there’ll be knocking at the door and more people will start to show to pay their respects. I want to leave because the weed store is closing soon and I want to get a gram and dab for the night as I decided on earlier and because my mom texted me asking for a clove of garlic and an onion, but more and more people filter into the already small apartment and it’s virtually impossible to bow past all my dad’s old friends and people I used to go to church with towards the exit, and my aunt, noticing my eyeing the door, intervenes my escape plan, urging me to stay. But my uncle who shows up with a horde of other folks plays the devil, or I suppose for my sake, the angel, on my shoulder in this game of conscience, allowing leave without reprimand. All the while I look over again to Korean Lauren Bacall and she gives me an indecipherable look: it either reads “Take me now” or “Get the fuck out.” And then the argument flips and my uncle begins to agree with my aunt that perhaps it’s best for me that I stay whereas my aunt now sees where my uncle is coming from and says I can leave. But I settle to stay as everyone is already sitting and the priest leads us in prayer; in other words, it’s already too late, and I’d be the asshole leaving a wake to buy weed, though they wouldn’t and won’t ever know that. Unless they read this of course.

In staying, little black leather-bound hymnals are passed out and we begin with two hymns. I love hymns. There’s something about them that transcends the very faith they were written for to celebrate, elements of it even secular artists can utilize to their creative fulfillment. Maybe I love jazz because I love hymns. After the two songs, the priest announces from henceforth rather than sing, we will chant the following verses.

The chanting reminds me of when Louis mistakenly brings fried chicken to a cult gathering and leaves it there on accident rather than at the potluck he was meaning to attend. And for the remainder of the time I feel like Louis, not just a sore thumb, but a sore thumbs down. I try to keep up with the chanting but have to accept that I’m better at sight-reading music, even in G-sharp major, than I can my own language. A fact I’m so aware of and have been meaning to change, especially since coming back from Korea. I remember wherever I went whether by foot, taxi, or bus trying to read every passing sign as precisely and accurately as I could, but also how incapable I was in delving into the deeper parts of the hearts and minds of the ones I love. But it’s always easier regretting fucking around in Korean school than actually doing something about it. I skip ahead and learn the upcoming lines but I throw myself off after getting excited about getting it right that I forget my place and go silent again. I wonder if anyone notices my voice fading in and out of the chorus, with confidence and then shame, confidence and then shame, and if anyone does notice, what they think.

Sometime after my frustration and determination dissipates to boredom, I look up from my hymnal at the Korean Lauren Bacall, then at her daughter, then at the husband with the jaw line, then at the portrait of the departed, though never at the widow. I don’t know why. The whole family is good-looking. The dead man reminds me of Picasso with his bulbous nose and severe eyes and bald head. Except Picasso didn’t die from cancer nor did he paint houses, or at least not that I know of.

Somewhere in the midst of my boredom I take my phone out to record the chanting of this apartment space with the intention of posting it on Instagram and joking how I felt like Louis when he mistakenly brought fried chicken to a cult gathering, leaving it there. But then I’d be the asshole who fiddles with his phone at a wake, far worse than those who Snapchat live music the whole night they’re there, of which I’m also guilty. And I would learn at the end of the wake that the man who is sitting next to me is another brother of the dead man, having just come in from Dallas for the weekend. Yet on I fiddle.

Children are more or less the reputation of their parents’. I’ve always held a pristine record for my parents in the way I’d act and behave and finish my food and how I’d laugh, at least back when my parents were together and when we were, if not active, then at least participant in the Korean community. But after spending some time in a liberal arts college and hanging around non-Koreans for most of my life, I forgot how to present myself in these circumstances and so I wonder if I give off the wrong impression to the family of the deceased. I haven’t heard back from my dad about it but he’s always kept his judgment private. I’m sure this quirk plays some role in my search for The Father Figure in my life, though I have to remind myself that I already have one, that he’s always there for me. Especially when I need something. Whereas my cherry-picked paternal figures are all dead and famous, and all they can afford me are beautiful lines of prose and poetry on which I can dwell and wish I wrote.

I leave without saying goodbye once the ceremony ends and everyone is back on their feet discussing where to meet for dinner. Why was there rice prepared then? But as I get to my car I remember leaving my hat inside, the way Louis leaves his fried chicken, except I have to go back, because it’s my pretentious JSTOR hat, and I need it, and like some cutesy court order from Fate, I’m forced to pass each and every one of my dad’s old friends and people I used to go to church with, all of whom I didn’t say bye to but have to now, down this brightly lit acoustic hallway. On their side of the hall they’re all in black ties where on my side behind me is an old woman in a faux-minx coat, too-high heels, and an invisible cloak of stale cigarette smoke and most likely Febreeze as perfume, and behind her, a man in a big white shirt and sagging jean shorts. I forgot all about G-Unit until I saw the logo on his back. I slip into the apartment without anyone noticing, get a good look at the Korean Lauren Bacall for the last time as I know she’ll be going back to San Francisco with her husband and daughter, and slip back out to my car with Instagram open, considering if it’s right to publish the fifteen seconds of disrespect for the sake of a couple likes and the hope that the person I’m talking to but indefinitely not on speaking terms with at the moment would see my presence back on the internet even though I posted something earlier that day and saw that she posted her own photos too, liked other posts except for mine, which is understandable because again, we’re not on speaking terms, but it still got under my skin. I hate how Instagram lets you see what people like. It’s so easy to nurture your insecurities and cultivate paranoia that way. But thank God for the new bookmark feature, right?

Anyway, I go to the weed store, get what I need, then to Albertsons, and then finally back home with one white onion and a clove of garlic. I ask my mom if she wants to see a movie, specifically Baby Driver (2017), which I already saw with my friend Gabe when it first came out but I have a long-standing relationship with re-watching movies in theaters so she says yes. We decide to go to the last showing at 10:45 (I miss New York where you could catch a movie at 3 in the morning and it’d still be packed).

I don’t enjoy the second viewing as much as I thought I would especially since all of Edgar Wright’s movies are worth re-watching a million times over (I watch Hot Fuzz at least once a week), but I pick up on details that seemed too obvious at first, though given the circumstance of the day and with what I read, I can’t help but identify with Baby’s attitude towards death and its dealers. The film draws attention to death as an actual event, whether in memory, contemplation, or in the moment, no arbitrariness in the lives lost on screen just for the sake of action, but to slowly re-sensitize us to, and recapitulate the importance of, death. If we’re de-sensitized to death, then naturally we must be de-sensitized to its opposite as well, right? Death around us helps us see the life still present and gleaming. I’m going to have to revisit this thought for another time.

After the movie we go home, say good night. I lay in bed for a while, thinking about my grandpa’s moving, how I stopped visiting him after he badmouthed my mom and her family because he’s old and needs to complain about things to forget that his wife of 60 years basically died two seconds ago, how he’d eat instant ramen daily and reject others’ homemade kimchi out of some protest highlighting his longing for the food which sustained him up until now, perhaps plotting to reunite with her as soon as he can without despair. I missed her food too. And I think about the food my mom prepares me while she’s out for weeks and months at a time saving souls, cities, and countries, how sometimes I let it go bad and throw it away and lie that I ate it when she asks because I feel bad for having not eaten what she spent her time preparing for me out of love so that I don’t starve to death, so that I may live and do good. Not that I don’t want to eat her food, she’s the best cook I know, but because, I don’t know. I never have an appetite when I’m alone. So then why am I alone most of the time and weigh 207 lbs.?

I used to imagine my parents’ deaths to get myself to cry. I’ve become desensitized to those thoughts, of the eulogy I’d deliver at the funeral, of the crying in a dark room being justified in my mourning so as not to have to be nice to those around me, forgetting about my friends who have actually lost their parents and how much they must miss them. I imagine how they will look with the life out of their eyes, but I don’t cry anymore.

I learned that if I want to cry, I just have to spend time with them.

I open Spotify, creep on what my friend with whom I’m currently not on speaking terms recently listened to, put the most recent artist on shuffle, and close my eyes.