by Candy Lee, ETA ’15-’16
“If you had the entire day free, how would you spend it?” our Korean language teacher asked us.
We go around the room, offering up answers in Korean. When it’s my turn, I say, “If I had the whole day free I would talk to my Grandma all day.”
I’ve always longed to have a conversation with my Grandma, but the Korean I learned growing up was only functional. I knew how to ask where the spoons were or how much something cost, but my knowledge wasn’t deep enough to understand the nuances of the traditional Korean my Grandma spoke. During the five weeks of our Korean language course at Jungwon University, I felt that there was so much at stake for me. If I could improve my Korean, I could better communicate with my extended family, including my Grandma.
I didn’t know much about her, except for the fact that she was my dad’s mom and she lived alone in Seoul. She has an apartment building filled with beautiful potted plants, a small T.V., and one of those old-fashioned telephones that you have to swirl your finger around to get to the right number. I didn’t know if she owned a cellphone. I wasn’t sure what she did with her day. The more I thought about it, the more I realized my Grandma is a mystery to me.
“Have you called your grandma yet? She’s wondering how you’re doing.”
It’s August, and I’ve just moved to my placement in Naju. The summer weather is unbearably humid. I’m speaking to my mom on the phone. Even though we are fourteen hours apart, she still finds ways to nag me and I still find ways to make excuses.
“No…” I trail off, trying to think of an excuse. I can’t think of one.
“Well, call her! She must be so sad not hearing from her granddaughter.”
“Yeah, okay,” I say, knowing that I probably won’t.
And I don’t. I’m too busy. Busy planning lessons for my energetic all-boys middle school, busy meeting other ETAs after school, busy watching Korean dramas with my host family. I entertain myself throughout the day and push Grandma far into the back of my mind, along with other things I keep forgetting to do.
“Have you called your Grandma yet? She said you haven’t called,” my mom tells me yet again. This time it’s October. The danpung[1. A Korean word for the leaves changing color in autumn] covers the mountains and the weather has turned crisp. It’s been over two months since I’ve settled down in Naju. I am an hour away from Gwangju, where my mom’s side of the family lives and a KTX ride away from Seoul, where my grandma lives.
“It’s just hard for me to understand what she’s saying sometimes,” I say. It’s a feeble excuse, and my mom knows it. I think of how lucky I am to be living in Korea and how excited I was to reconnect with my family. Now it doesn’t feel like excitement. It feels like a burden.
Growing up, I never missed my extended family because I just didn’t know what it was like to live around people related to you. Sometimes, however, I would watch a movie or read a book and marvel at the relationships I saw between girls and their grandmothers, how protective and strong and sweet it was. The picture of unconditional love. I liked to imagine that my own Grandma would be like that when I met her. I didn’t know what I was missing out on, but sometimes I would see our family of four—Mom, Dad, Cindy and me—and feel that we were too small of a family, like a little island that drifted too far away from its continent.
When I was eleven, my parents told me and my sister that they decided to fly us to Korea for the summer—without them. I hated the idea. My friends would all have two months of glorious summer vacation doing nothing besides watching TV, while my sister and I had to spend our entire two months in a place I didn’t remember, with family we had never met. With the exception of one of my uncles, none of my extended family knew any English.
I’ll never forget what my mom said to me. We were both sitting in my parent’s room, on the floor. I had had another crying fit, screaming that I wouldn’t go.
“You know I want to go to Korea,” my mom said. “I haven’t been there since you were born. All my family and friends are there. Of course I want to go, but your dad and I have to work. We want you and Cindy to go instead of us. Is that okay?”
I nodded silently, speechless, because this was the first time I saw my mom cry.
That summer, I saw Korea for the first time. It was strange how out of place I felt, even if I looked like I fit right in. It wouldn’t be until I opened my mouth and English poured out that people realized I was a gyopo[2. Definitions vary; broadly speaking, an ethnic Korean who has lived the majority of his life in another country]. I was confused at how “un-Korean” I felt. In America everyone identified me as Korean, but in Korea I was too American to fully belong.
This year, I’ve often wondered what my life would have been like if my parents had never gotten on the plane to California. I would have grown up in Korea, never speaking English as I do now. I would’ve attended hagwon[3. Cram school; many Korean students attend these academies after school for supplementary education] after school and would’ve spent my free time going to the noraebang[4. Karaoke/singing room] or PC bang[5. Computer room] with my friends after school. Maybe I would have been like my host sister and fan-girled over K-pop bands. It would have been a different life. I would be able to talk to my relatives perfectly, with no language barriers. I would see my aunts and uncles during Chuseok[6. A traditional Korean holiday celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar]. Maybe I would have bought gifts for my younger cousins. I wouldn’t feel this pressure to call my grandma because I would have grown up knowing her.
In the end, it’s all a fantasy. My parents made their choice a long time ago. The only regrets we have are being far from the family we left behind. My parents left behind their loved ones; Cindy and I never had a chance to know them. That’s why I came back here, why I sought out this chance for myself to know the people that would have been in my life if I stayed.
It’s December in Naju. The first snow has come and gone. The semester is winding down and as the weather becomes colder, my students become calmer. Maybe it’s the sight of the snow drifting down, but things feel quieter.
“Have you called your grandma?” my mom asks. Every time I call my mom, I hope she doesn’t remember to ask me this. She remembers every time.
My answer is the same. I apologize as usual and write it down on a post-it note on my desk. Call grandma. Do yoga. Listen to a sermon. I end up doing none of these. I am always making up excuses. Maybe she’s asleep. Maybe she’s out of the house. There is something preventing me from picking up the phone and calling, and I’m not sure what it is.
The weather is getting colder. It’s a countdown until Christmas. It seems like the seasons are changing rapidly outside the gyomusil[7. Teachers’ office] window. A year passes by in the span of one evening, grey then cold then sunny then bright. I wonder what the window will show the day I leave. I wonder if I will leave Korea closer to my family, or if I will continue to make excuses. I start to think maybe I am afraid of what will happen when I call. I’m not sure what I’m afraid of.
Maybe it’s the potential closeness. Maybe it’s the realization that when I call, the illusions I’ve been making about my Grandma will begin to crack. Maybe I was able to make her the perfect grandmother in my head because I never had a chance to know her. Maybe this phone call won’t be as great as I think and maybe I won’t be able to understand a word of the old Korean she speaks. Maybe I will realize my grandmother is a stranger.
It’s the confrontation of old illusions with reality that shakes some dream deep within—a childish hope I was holding onto. Even though I grew up on the other side of the world from the rest of my family, being able to imagine them gave my childhood self something to fabricate– an alternate life wherein I never left Korea and never left my family. But sometimes reality can be greater than your dreams, and real love better than imagined love. Real love from your grandmother who uses old Korean words you don’t understand, who is glad you called even if you have nothing to say, who might have been waiting to hear your voice for the past four months. When she picks up, it’ll be like the past four months never happened, because grandmas love their granddaughters and even if reality isn’t like the movies… well, sometimes the movies get it right.
I pick up the phone to call Grandma.
Candy Lee is a 2015-2016 ETA in Yongsan Boys’ Middle School in Naju, Jeollanam-do.