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A month of stories…Day #5

Waygookin
Written by Chelsea Marie Hicks

“I’ll have uhh…hana of that,” Kevin pointed at the menu filled with symbols of undecipherable text.
“I thought you were vegetarian,” Shin Ji Won asked, pronouncing veggie “bay-gee.”
“I am,” he responded, sensing through the implication of her question that he most likely just ordered the entire head of a pig, the feet of a chicken and/or the stomach lining of a cow stuffed with several other meats and referred to lovingly as a delicacy. She giggled at his mistake and told him not worry.

“I ordered kimchi jigae, so we trade.”
Though he had no idea what jee-gay was, he was well-acquainted with kimchi. It was impossible to set foot in Korea and not be made keenly aware of kimchi’s presence, its unmistakable scent being breathed into the air by citizens at all hours of the day and night, weaving its tangy smell permanently into every cloth fiber draped from the shoulders of businessmen in polished suits and age-defying supermodel women in short, figure hugging dresses that walk along every single sidewalk and live around every corner.

Kevin, like most men that discover utopia crossing the road at every intersection in Seoul, found it impossible not to be taken aback by the women that surrounded him. Shin Ji Won was, he thought, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen until he realized that he had been seeing her everywhere he went. There was a Shin Ji Won at the Family Mart and there she was waiting to catch the subway at Sadang station and then he saw her again in the park with an iced coffee or maybe it was a black tea in her hand. He saw another woman just like her, but with slightly longer legs and daring to done slightly taller heels, sharing with a friend food eaten with sticks at a cart operating out in the heat of the summer night. Women like Shin Ji Won were understandably rare to him in the middle America town he spent his whole life growing up in, but in Korea she was almost every woman and this understandably shocked him.

“Do you like? Not too spicy?” She eagerly asked in the middle of devouring the tuna fried rice he had apparently ordered for her.
“It’s really good. A little spicy, but not too much,” he replied much to her chagrin.
“Really!? Wow!” She appeared both impressed and surprised to have found a waygookin not overwhelmed by the standard flavor of Korean cuisine–hot.
“So, you like kimchi? That’s very good. Kimchi very good for health and important to Korean diet.”

Kevin noticed and found adorable the way she left out certain articles when talking. He knew this was a natural occurrence for some when speaking a foreign tongue, it certainly happened to him whenever he used the Spanish he learned in high school, but he had yet to understand that this was also a complicated and logical language mishap for Koreans learning English as their language lacked most of the articles he was so accustomed to.

“Mmmm, yes. Kimchi very good and very delicious.”

He also recognized his own English language skills deteriorating in conversations where he took on this broken English way of conversing with other Koreans, despite his employment being dependent upon a proficiency in such skills. It was also rather rude and nonsensical to raise the volume of his voice and speak in minimalistic, butchered phrases whenever forced to ask Koreans questions in English, but this was something that he always acknowledged only once everything had been said. “BAR SOAP, HAVE YOU?!” he had shouted at an older female employee at E-Mart before the woman pointed to the bottom shelf and told him “it’s right there sir,” successfully making him feel like an idiot and an asshole for the rest of that afternoon.

“You want more?” She was already shouting joe-gee-yo to grab the attention of the fierce women working the kitchen and it sounded as though she had ordered them an entire feast, again. This seemed to be the way they do it here, he thought.

In time he would understand some of what she had shouted to the women laboring over the delights of his stomach and would be able to read the menus to discern what fit into his difficult-to-maintain vegetarian diet. In time he would be able to order dinner for both of them and to appropriately show his appreciation for the women playing with spices and fire. For now though, he reveled in this moment in which he sat with the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen in a place where the nights grew bright with neon and where, instead of calling him Kevin, the people called him waygookin.

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“Walking An Inch Off The Ground”

I just finished reading Let the Great World Spin and aside from being struck by the beauty of the stories word weaving housed in this novel, I find myself especially drawn to a tale told following the end of the book. The edition I own contains a reader’s guide that features an interview of Colum McCann by Nathan Englander along with some further insight into what inspired and, I suppose, brought air to the lungs of this novel’s many interlaced characters and their narrative. Regardless of whether you’ve read Let the Great World Spin or not, this is a tale worth your few moments.

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“I still have my father-in-law’s shoes in a box in a cupboard of my writing room. I haven’t looked at them in a couple of years, but they’re there, covered in the dust of the World Trade Center towers. Sometimes I wonder why I keep them at all, but it was in these shoes that, in 2001, he made his way down from the fifty-ninth floor of the north tower. He sloshed through the water at the bottom of the building. Already the neighboring tower was down. He made his way through the storm of debris. He still recalls the strange calm of it all: thousands of people moving in the new white atlas of downtown.

He walked all the way uptown to the apartment on Seventy-first Street where my wife and I and our two young children waited for him. My daughter, Isabella, jumped into his arms. She recoiled from the hug and asked if he was burning and, when he told her that it was just the smell of the smoke on his clothes from the buildings that had collapsed, she said, no, no, that he must be burning from the inside out.

My father-in-law immediately swapped his clothes. He couldn’t stand the thought of the suit, the shirt, the tie–what they held, what they carried. He threw the clothes away, but left his shoes by our door. They stood there for weeks, until we finally figured that we had kept them there precisely because they had carried him out and away to safety. They were, in whatever small way, a beacon of hope.

It is still a difficult thing, these days, to pull out the shoes. I still think that every touch of them loses a little more dust. I am paralyzed by the notion of what the dust might contain–a resume, a concrete girder, Sheetrock, a briefcase, a pummeled earring, an eyelash, another man’s shoe. They sit in a cupboard behind me, in my writing room, over my left shoulder, a responsibility to the past.”

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