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Jul/Aug 2009 Fiction

Reminders of Absalom

by Thomas Lee


"Koreans are the new Goth. At school, everyone's asking me about Virginia Tech," my daughter Mary said as she sat next to me on our stale orange couch and watched the evening news anchor speak over a close-up of Cho Seung Hui. The angelic Korean face responsible for the murderous rampage at Virginia Tech looked bizarre and out of place on my nineteen-inch TV.

I did not understand what my daughter meant. "Goth? What's that?"

"Remember? Goth kids shot up Columbine. After Columbine, everyone was asking about Goth. Now, everyone's into us Koreans."

She was joking. I was sickened when the news anchor said "Korean" and "worst mass shooting in American history" in the same sentence, but Mary seemed detached, like she was talking about war in the Middle East. Her words made me wonder if I really knew my own daughter. How could a Korean, even one who spent all her life in America, make jokes about this?

"Aren't you worried?" I asked her.

"Worried, why? I didn't do anything," Mary answered.

"Don't you feel sad? Angry?" I wished her mother were alive so she could help me express myself.

"Dad, you're acting like we knew that boy. We didn't."

The next morning, I asked her to stay home because I was afraid of revenge attacks, but she laughed at me. As a graduate student in elementary education at City University, she took the subway from our cramped two-bedroom in outer Queens into Manhattan every day and had no fear of New York streets.

As I minded my liquor store on the ground floor of a brownstone in Spanish Harlem, I worried about her safety, until I returned home at 11 p.m. and saw her asleep on the couch with the TV tuned to more coverage of Virginia Tech. When I stopped worrying about her safety, I started to worry about her attitude.

Though I am a Christian man who believes all people are the same in God's eyes, I must admit that they are not the same in mine. When I saw that murdering Korean boy in the news, I could not help but feel repentant for his horrifying failings. And when I thought of that boy's parents, I sympathized with their sorrow as if they were my kin. I could not sleep for days. Why didn't Mary care?

 

I was born in 1953 in a muddy farming village outside Daegu, South Korea. Back then, long before South Korea's economic miracle, my family was so poor that I wore the same clothes to school everyday, only adding layers in winter for warmth.

When I was a child, even my mother told me I was ugly. I don't resent her for it because she was only trying to encourage me to improve other aspects of myself. I had a dark, flat face with bead-like eyes and a scrawny body that was all ribs and joints. Because of my looks, the other boys in school called me pancake-face and refused to let me play with them unless the teacher forced them.

My only joy in childhood was a pig-tailed girl named Nayoung. Short and boney with a round, large-cheeked face, she resembled a lollipop early in her life. I stared at her in classes for years but never spoke to her, as I thought that all girls would laugh if I approached them.

The day that sixth grade ended, because boys and girls would be separated into same-sex schools the next school year, I feared I might never see Nayoung again. To extend our last moments together, I followed her home from school at a comfortable distance on the lone dirt path that led to our village.

About halfway home, a beige Jindo dog about my size ran out from a neighbor's house and started to chase Nayoung. At first, I thought the dog was just playing, but when I saw murder in its eyes, I screamed for Nayoung to run. Nayoung sprinted, but the wiry dog quickly caught up and took her down with a quick leap. I picked up a fist-sized rock and attacked, though I was certainly no fighter. When I hit the dog in the head with my rock, it jumped on me and bit the right side of my face, tugging my cheek like it was the last bit of tasty meat on a bone. I pounded its head with my rock, but its teeth remained clamped to my tearing flesh. Hearing my screams, a neighbor high school boy ran out of his house and beat the dog with a shovel until it rolled off me, dead. Lying on my back, I thought half the skin had been ripped off my face.

An elderly farmer took my parents and me in the back of his rusty truck to a bunker-sized country hospital miles away. I was led by nurses into what seemed like a concrete gymnasium filled with dozens of patients lying on cots.

"Painkillers. Give him painkillers!" My mother screamed as she refused the young doctor's pleas to wait outside.

"There's no money for painkillers," the doctor responded. Following the doctor's orders, two men stood on each side of me and put their whole weight on my arms and head, pinning me still. Then, the doctor put a tightly rolled-up towel that tasted like salt water in my mouth.

As the doctor stitched my face back together, his silver needle, so slow and deliberate, seemed to burn through every nerve in my face. As I screamed, I bit down so hard into that dirty towel that I thought I felt my teeth meet.

"Nae ah dul! Nae ah dul!" My son! My son! Over and over again, my mom yelled, our agonized voices mixing. The only way for me to get through that ordeal was to focus on my mother's voice and feel her pain more than my own.

The next day, Nayoung came to visit me at the hospital carrying a colorful package of fruit and rice cakes. She cried when she saw my face, which was bandaged so heavily that I could barely breathe. To see her tears in sympathy for my pain, I was convinced I'd met the love of my life.

Nayoung said, "Now if you're ugly, it will be all my fault."

It wasn't her fault. I was already ugly. I did not grow much, standing barely five-foot-four as an adult. During my teen years my face became covered with acne, which left pockmarks after it receded. The bite scars became a maze of purple rivers running from my cheek to my chin. I remained as skinny as a wild rooster. But still, Nayoung married me ten years after the dog attack. I think she did so because of guilt, but she said it was because she knew I would always put those I loved ahead of me, and that was the only thing important in a man.

Our home village started growing into a sprawling city not long after we were married. I drove a rickety compact cab to support us. Every month another concrete building filled with people rose, another highway lined with cars headed nowhere snaked around the hillsides, and another billboard selling junk no one needed appeared. Everyone talked about Korea becoming great, but I only saw my wages shrink as dozens of cab companies employing armies of poor country boys sprouted. When we were unable to support ourselves on my wages any longer, Nayoung and I decided to leave for America, sponsored by her sister who had married an American G.I. Though I left Korea, I knew it would forever remain my homeland, where harsh times forged me into who I am and will always be.

 

"I'm only going for you, dad. Because you said you needed me," Mary told me as we rode the subway to my little church, which was Armenian Orthodox in the morning and Korean Presbyterian in the afternoon.

"Church is just like learning anything else, and you like learning," I responded.

She gave me a smirk. She was just starting to look like an attractive woman to me instead of a cute little girl, just like her mother when I married her, graceful and glowing. Since the only physical trait she inherited from me was thinness, I wondered if Mary was too pretty to understand her father. Born six years after I came to America, she did not have to live with scars from faraway places or the memories of how they came to be.

"You know how much I hate church, Dad," she responded.

I did not get angry at her for belittling my beliefs. Pudgy teachers in New York public schools, who called themselves "radicals" even though they looked like they would cry in a real fight, made her think she knew more than me. I was brainwashed by Confucian ways, she told me after I urged her to try to get married right after college. I thought she was brainwashed by overfed complainers.

"You won't be sorry. You'll see when you're around other Koreans. You'll see what I've been talking about." I was an elder at the church, and the minister informed me earlier in the week that we would be having a service focused on Virginia Tech. I tried to explain the importance of the service to Mary, but I only managed a confused rambling about her mother, my country, and my face. I thought at church, where she would see many Koreans come together to make sense of the tragedy, she might learn to sympathize with her people. She refused to go at first but relented when I told her I absolutely needed her at my side.

"I don't know what you're expecting me to see," she said when we were halfway to our subway stop.

"He was Korean. That means so much to me. To all of us."

"We've been through this, Dad. That's so tribal. I shouldn't be defined by my ethnicity."

She rattled on, something about identity. I only half listened to her. In fact, we both stopped listening to each other years ago. Mary only spoke to me when there was something she needed to say and no one else was around. At those times, I thought it was better to act like I didn't quite understand her, because I didn't know how to respond to her in the ways that she needed. I thought perhaps our relationship might be better if her mother was still alive.

"Look, mommy," said a little black girl with pigtails sitting on her mother's lap across from us on the train.

"Don't point. It's rude," her skinny mother said, her face brightening with embarrassment.

"Something happened to his face," the girl said, her wide curious eyes gazing at my scars.

"Stop it!" Her mom gave her a quick shake on the arm.

I smiled at the little girl. "It's ok. This side is bad," I said pointing at my right cheek. "And this side is only a little bit better," I said as I turned my face.

 

On a cold November morning in 1990, I was taking inventory of whiskey at the Spanish Harlem liquor store I had just opened after a few years of driving a cab around Manhattan. Manesh, the young clerk from Pakistan, ran in to tell me the hospital called. Nayoung had been walking home from grocery shopping when a drunk driver ran a red light and hit her in the crosswalk.

I jumped into my car, grabbed Mary out of kindergarten, and sped to the hospital. In the emergency room, a shriveled Caucasian doctor told me that Nayoung was in a coma and had little chance of recovery. For hours, well after the sun went down, Mary and I sat in the waiting area crying and praying for Nayoung's recovery.

"Mommy needs a new coat, Daddy. Make sure you buy her one tomorrow," Mary told me at midnight before she closed her reddened eyes and crumpled herself next to me.
When Mary fell asleep, I was all alone. At night, the large window on the opposite side of the room that looked into the parking lot became a mirror reflecting the drab waiting area. In it, I could see all the room's varied faces.

In the window's reflection, I noticed a scrawny, middle-aged Asian woman looking at me from the most distant corner of the room. She was in a worn, tan trench coat that could be mistaken for a beggar's.

"Are you Korean?" she asked in broken English from across the room when I looked at her.

"Yes, I am Korean." I nodded, a bit nervous.

She practically ran toward me and sat in a cracked plastic chair next to mine. A flood of Korean words came out of her in a weeping jumble. There had been a fire in her apartment complex. Her son was burned over half his body and was barely holding on to life. She had no husband, as she had left him after years of physical abuse. Her son was all she had in the world, and he was dying.

"Nae ah dul! Nae ah dul!" My son! My son! She screamed, filling the waiting room with her high child-like voice. Her eyes were closed and dripping tears as her arms reached for me.

I spoke to her in Korean as I held her, "Your accent. It's like mine. You're from Daegu?"

"Yes. I lived there until I was twenty," she responded and opened her wet eyes.

There was more connection than just language. When she looked at me, a man about her age from Daegu, she knew I had suffered in Korea in the same ways she had suffered. To bite down, to feel much more than we did in America, because we had to cope with life without painkillers. Though Korean custom forbade me from embracing a female stranger, I cried and held her close to my chest, like I wanted to hold my wife. Her tiny hands tightly gripped my neck and shoulders.

As I embraced her and shared her grief, I saw a reflection of my weeping face in the window across the room. For the first time in my life, I did not feel like I was ugly. I saw in a face that not even my mother could find redeemable, a faint but unmistakable hint of beauty. I wanted to stop it before it vanished, capture it and put it in a box so I could look back at it when I needed to remember what was truly important.

 

When we arrived at my church in Astoria, I led Mary into one of the pews toward the front. I started attending that little church of about 50 Koreans after Nayoung died because I needed to turn to God to figure out how to continue living.

The minister had a kind voice, and he tried to calm his parishioners, most of whom looked scared as they sat in the pews, like judgment day was on the horizon and they had unforgiven sins. I had taught Mary some Korean over the years, so I guessed she understood about half of what the minister was saying. The minister repeated "Vuh-jin-yah Tek" and "Cho Seung Hui" several times during the first prayer, so even someone who didn't know any Korean would have generally understood what the service was about. During the service, when the minister mentioned the boy's parents, many parishioners sobbed.

I hoped Mary could see how the actions of one Korean could so profoundly affect so many of her people. But while Mary was respectful during most of the service, nodding her head for prayers, her arms were crossed and she sang the hymns with a distant, unfeeling voice. When the minister asked God to forgive us all for the crimes of a boy none of us knew, she shook her head in disagreement.

Halfway through the minister's sermon, a young blonde woman about Mary's age came in wearing an expensive, dark blue suit. The whole congregation took notice of her when she sat down near the back of the room. She was carrying a pad and paper and examined us like we were curiosities in a zoo.

 

By the time Mary was in the fourth grade, she was befriending Jews, Irish, and Italians instead of her own people in Queens. As soon as I let her buy records, she idolized bands that sounded like airport noise to me. Early in her teens, though she left for school without a hint of makeup, she returned home with remnants of lipstick and rouge on her face.

She was nineteen years old and an English major at Queens College when I started taking her to the store on weekends and paying her minimum wage. Some members of my church said I was being reckless by letting my daughter go to Harlem, but she wanted a job and I needed the extra help. Perhaps I was being a little selfish, too. With most of my time spent at the store and Mary refusing to go to church, our longest hours awake together were spent side-by-side behind the liquor store counter.

Mary liked the job, and she had fun watching all the men and women stroll in looking to get drunk. She interacted well with the customers, but she played a game with herself all day, trying to guess whether a customer was "Dumped," "Fired," or "Loner."

"Why do you do that?" I said when she said "Dumped" after a pretty black woman left with two bottles of our cheapest zinfandel.

"Everyone who comes in here drinks alone. If they wanted to drink with someone else, they'd go to a bar. It's kinda fun to guess what brings them here."

Most of my customers were black or Mexican. Occasionally, during daylight hours, whites walked in, but Koreans almost never risked venturing into our store's neighborhood. However, one afternoon, not long after Mary started working at the store, a chubby Korean man in a plumber's uniform entered. He bowed, spoke a formal Korean greeting, and picked a bottle of cheap vodka from a stand near the front.

"Fourteen dollars," Mary said when he strolled up to the counter smiling.

"No," I told her. "For him, it's ten."

"Why did you do that? That's racist," Mary snapped when the man left.

"He is Korean, and so am I," I told her.

"That's the definition of racism, Dad," she said.

"Koreans are supposed to help each other. You are Korean, too, Mary. You should understand that." I could not believe that she had drifted so far from me that I had to explain that to her.

I must have said something that offended Mary, because she was cold to me the rest of the afternoon. Early in the evening, when I saw her reading a book called Absalom! Absalom! while manning the cash register, I tried to strike a conversation to mend our differences. I recognized the name Absalom from one of the Bible passages the minister had assigned to church elders several months before.

"You are reading about God?" I asked.

"No, far from it. It's Faulkner," she said smirking at me like I was a child.

"Absalom was the son of David. It's my favorite story in the Bible. He dies and his father screams, 'Absalom! My son! My son! If only I could've died instead of you.'"

"That's not what it's about, Dad."

"Then why use that name?"

"It's just the title, Dad. It's got nothing to do with Jesus."

"No, not Jesus. David. It's not about David? Absalom was the son of David."

Mary rolled her eyes and continued to read.

 

The blonde woman who came to our church was a reporter looking for Koreans to interview for a story on how Koreans were reacting to the Virginia Tech murders. After the service, she approached many of us with a polite smile and bow. Those who could not speak English smiled back and shuffled quickly away; those who could speak English pretended they could not.

Mary was the only one who walked up to the reporter. "Hello. What paper are you with?" she asked without apprehension.

The reporter seemed relieved to hear Mary's unaccented English. "The Times. Can I ask you a few questions?" The reporter lifted her notepad and prepared to write. Mary nodded.

"How do you feel today? About this service?" the reported asked.

"I think many Koreans are saddened and scared. I think they have experienced discrimination and hardship in the past, and they are afraid of retribution from those who think in terms of race instead of individuality."

Mary's words were in the twenty-third page of the Metro section the next day. She bought ten copies and cut out her quote to show friends at school.

I'm proud to have an intelligent daughter who can speak so eloquently, but one of her words struck me harshly: "they." Why did she say "they" and not "we"? Did she see nothing at church? I wanted so badly for her to feel communion with her people, to have this tragedy carry her into the most painful corners of her own memory, but clearly I had failed.

The only time Mary ever saw Korea was when she was six years old and we went to bury her mother near our old village. By then the village had become a city so modern, so much like New York, that I could not even recognize a single block of it. My country shack had been transformed into a shiny computer store. I comforted myself by thinking that somewhere underneath the foundations of all those glass and concrete buildings was the soil where I had shed blood for Nayoung. So I tell myself now that somewhere in Mary is buried the essence that I believe I share with every Korean. And she will find it someday, surely she will, even if it is the day she buries her father in Korea, if by then there is still room for a poor man's grave.

 

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