The Great Middle - Nina Yun

Winner of the 2015 Pinch Literary Nonfiction Contest. For information about how to enter 2016 Pinch Literary Contest, click here.

Bacchanal below the rooftop: The emerald bottles of soju. Fried chicken. Beer. The cheering of Russians who find each other on streets named in Hangul and in English. Thin slices of beef dipped in sesame oil that is thickly salted. Ceramic bowls filled with soup still boiling. Pinches of plastic cups filled with water. The women who crouch down into squats with their heads between their knees, their cigarettes up in the air, as their whiskey flows on the street. The men who hold back the hair of their women, laughing then shouting. Pastel lights shine from karaoke bars that have glass exteriors. Men grasp their girlfriends tightly against their hips as they wait in line, rocking. Some women will continue to vomit next to the sandaled feet of children who are guided by their parents. There is 24/7 self-serve frozen yogurt. There is shoe shopping at 2 a.m. Club bouncers stand in a line and thrust their hips as they shout, “Night! Night! Night!”

I stand on the roof of my apartment building. It isn’t high enough. It isn’t pleasant. I can feel the city’s dust on my elbows. I can smell the urine and beer from up here. If they found me on the ground, would they know it is not my urine, not my sickness, but the city’s? I am torn by which corner of the building would be best. Where there is the least pedestrian traffic. But that means trucks with long beds filled with boxes of radishes. I can’t fall into a bed of radish.

An email from the U.S. Embassy Seoul Consular tells me it is the monsoon season, but I shouldn’t let that keep me from travelling for chuseok. I write an email to a friend who grew up with me in landlocked Missouri, “It is moonsoon season here.” Although I notice it before I click send, I do not correct my spelling. I reply without waiting for her response: “Do you see? Like it’s coming for us. Soon!” Later, my friend replies that I need to get out more.

At a café that overlooks the Hangang River, we sit and discuss how Korean nationals tend to proclaim about being “the best” and how they measure themselves against the successes of other countries, especially the United States. I say, “Oh yes, when I first arrived in Seoul, my uncle drove me to my apartment. He pointed to the tallest buildings and he would say, 'This is POSCO. Number one steel company!' and 'Ah, the Samsung building. Number one electronics company!'” I shake my head when I say, holding my cup with two hands now, “And he only buys American.” How shameful, you think, and this you don’t have to voice because you mirror the shaking of my head. “Why must they judge themselves to a Western standard?” you ask. At this opportunity, I set my coffee cup down on the table and say, “Exactly. I know what you mean. It’s sad, really.” Little do we know we are being rightly judged by our waiter: We are idiots who know nothing about it. We are the worst. We are every ex-pat who likes to put on a hat and play anthropologist. I, especially, don’t know anything about it at all, and you are nothing but the reflection I see, a watery image made by the river and my loneliness. I don’t speak Korean fluently. I don’t even drink coffee. And I don’t have friends here. Here I am really in this café: I sit alone with my tea by the window staring at the empty chair in front of me when a waiter asks if I don’t mind moving to the bar so a party of four may have a view of the river. I do that thing where I say yes, but I should say no.

In the morning, I take a taxi to my aunt’s condo and think of how I will endure a bus, a train, and a car ride with my cousin who speaks English well enough to go beyond likes and dislikes. If I am lucky, we will just play the name game where she points to something and I name it in English and then she tells me its Korean counterpart and fusses over my pronunciation. My anxiety would fare better in the sleepy, bored silences made by long distance travel, but I feel grateful when my cousin kisses my cheek and tells me I am a good person to do this.

I bought my cousin’s mother an orchid as a thank you gift for arranging my travel for me. It was potted with bits of jade stone, gold pebbles, a tiny frog figurine, also jaded, and a fallen bloom encased in a glass orb. It seemed to accurately represent the money I spent on it. It was gauche, but my aunt took it from my hands and placed it next to her other orchids, next to her bonsais, larger and elegant, that smelled so much of dirt and rain that I almost didn’t notice what looked like loose diamonds resting on the soil.

Our bus is delayed so my cousin tells me facts she learned in school that she loved enough to remember: A tree struck by lightning will bear scars in its time rings even if a thousand years pass. Scientists found an eel in the Pacific Ocean that was closer in biology to its fossilized brethren than the eels that swim today. Plutarch and other historians often pin the destruction of The Library of Alexandria on to Julius Caesar, although that’s fairly inaccurate. Even so, she likes how Plutarch makes note of Caesar’s great regret. I like this much better than the name game. As long as we’re sharing our fascinations, I tell her I always think someone from the past who travelled to our present would first notice a surplus of dumpsters. She raises an eyebrow and interrupts, “Do you know where Taiwan is?” She tells me she recently returned from Taipei and hands me her phone and I see many photos of green mountains, foggy mornings, and jellied candies.

The moon, somewhere unseen, turns. The great shaved coconut drifts into the names of bars, lotions, shoes, blotting powder, and dishwashing soap here. On the bus to the train station, my cousin leans towards me and says with slow confidence, “The moon is the oldest clock.” She is transformed with this sentence. She is wise. She is beautiful. But then she points out the window. She is reading from an advertisement on the bus driving parallel to us.

I am going to celebrate chuseok, to act in my father’s place in the harvest ceremony of ancestral worship. A month ago I’d received a text message from my eldest uncle announcing that my attendance was mandatory. This trip was business. I knew I would bring gifts from my father and receive money for myself. My father had warned me, but I hated being beckoned, hated standing in the position for him, for someone who had been absent for too long and owed too much.

During this harvest and kimchi-making season, there is a cabbage shortage. There are treacherous, fake cabbages being sold as cabbage. Instead of the sturdy, furled leaves of Napa, the licensed markets suggest overgrown, watery iceberg lettuce, and people curse the president, who pleads on television that iceberg lettuce is a good substitute. There is a black market for the real thing running out of my cousin’s condominium so I buy three Napa cabbages for my uncle and wrap them in a gold silk scarf I buy for his wife.

Monsoon rain slips from the mountains and divides the rice fields into contained floods. The new, small lakes pool and collect what the mountains give them: waters floating just over the fields, bloating the rice. My eldest uncle picks us up at the train station and silently guides us to his car after we have bowed. As my uncle drives, I notice people on the mountainside examining ginseng root on their knees and elbows, slipping in mud. The roots are best at six years of age, and these roots, mushy with rain, will never recover. I tell my cousin, but she says she already knows this.

What is chuseok: ancient hanjin for The Great Middle of Autumn, the Korean Thanksgiving set by the harvest moon, a harvest celebration, when department stores are flooded with gift boxes of spam, pears, and ginseng tonic, all wrapped in silk, when Seoul is a ghost town, when the countryside is full, when traffic stacks in lineages of sleek black sedans, and when remote roads are littered with seaweed snack wrappings and crusty grains of rice, when we march to do gravesite maintenance, when we bow deeply to the dead, when we make offerings to the dead, and remember the dead.

Ten, shiny, silvery buckets filled with water rest outside the house’s door. Each bucket, overworked and rusty from the monsoon season, holds the moon in its mouth. My cousin pushes me through the front door, but no one notices me until my cousin announces that I’m here. They all say hello and return to their dinner preparations or, if they are men, to their drinking.

My eldest uncle and I do business. I bow again, this time with both of my hands cupped together, as he gives me an envelope thin with cash. I give him a suitcase filled with vitamins, pine nuts, ibuprofen, chia seeds, and wheatgrass powder—gifts bought by my father in Missouri and sent by my father in a message of good health. My uncle is dying.

I toss persimmon seeds, flat as bedbugs, into the buckets of water during the storm’s pause. I watch them float until they don’t. No one talks to me very much here, but that is because my Korean is poor and we’ve already discussed where I should put my bags, where the bathroom is, and where I can find food to eat. I hear the television show King Star playing in the background to intermittent conversation, I smell incense, and when I see my cousin joining me, I am wholly grateful for her English and decide to tell her a fact I learned in school that I loved enough to remember: The capital of New York is Albany, which you can remember if you think of a group of bunnies touring the top of the Empire State Building and one bunny being sad and jumping off and then all the bunnies jumping off too.

Finally, I hand my uncle the three Napa cabbages. He unwraps the scarf and hands it to his wife, who is pleased. He gives one of the cabbages back to me. I think he is also pleased, but then I make the mistake of saying these are also from my father, but he sees the lie and laughs.

The rain begins again as we begin the ceremony. We will bow to our dead and present food in their honor to show our wealth in harvest, in life, even if outside is drowned and our table is light. My cousin writes the names of our grandparents, of their grandparents, and so on, in red pen on strips of white paper that hang behind the low table set with food: rice cakes, dumplings, fruit, and fried pancakes made with squid and scallions. Two heads of Napa cabbage are stacked on top of the pancakes. Before I can ask if I should add my cabbage to the table, my eldest uncle pours rice wine from a tin kettle into a tin cup. My uncles and I form a line behind him as he bows, fully prostrated on his knees and his arms extended with his hands flat on the floor, and then he rises to drink the shot from the tin cup. And so on, until me because I’m last. I bow like women do, like I’ve been taught all my life, with one knee on the ground and the other leg bent like a sprinter, head angled down, and my arms resting at my side. And then I bow like my uncles, like my father would have done if he were here, as if I’ve fallen with my head and hands splayed on the ground.

As we eat the food first served to our dead, my youngest uncle complains that he and his brothers did more for their parents in death than their parents ever did for them in life. My eldest uncle takes the last dumpling and drops it on my plate as he announces, “Everyone knows his debts here, especially you.” He could have directed these words to my father, to me, but it is my youngest uncle who leaves early in drunken embarrassment while the moon and rain still hold heavy.

In the morning, my uncle gives me another envelope, thick with cash. I push the leftover cabbage towards him. I had slept by it, not knowing where I should put it and I did not want to keep it. We are, I think, in our own way negotiating—apologizing—finding a way to save face with these objects of temporary relief and value. We refuse, fuss, and then ultimately submit to these proffered things. In the end, I will leave with the cash and the cabbage, and he will die before I return again.

Of course, I know where Taiwan is, I think, sitting beside my cousin on the bus, the cabbage now in my suitcase, as I wish her goodnight after our long days of travel, as I walk from the bus station to my apartment, as I remove my muddy sneakers, as I shower, as I drink tea, as I brush my teeth, as I lie in bed, as I wake, as I look up Taiwan’s latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates while the harvest moon wanes.

 


 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

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Nina Yun is an MFA candidate at The Ohio State University. Her work has appeared in Drunken Boat and Fourth Genre. She received a notable in The Best American Essays 2013.