Photo by Ying Bonny Cai
My host mom brings me tea. She offers me tangerines, three in one hand, poking between her fingers.
I accept one of them, tell her I already ate two, let her hum routinely before closing the door. I stick my finger in the jar of peanut butter on my desk that I just told myself I wasn’t hungry for.
I can’t tell her I’m trying to eat healthier because she’ll swallow the words and regurgitate them as “diet,” which means offering me half a bowl of rice instead of a full one with dinner. She’ll laugh like she always does after she says something in English, and I’ll wish I’d just quietly avoided every dish on the table.
When she blends a smoothie in a glass swirled with agave syrup, it doesn’t feel like a choice. She pushes it across the table and reassures me that it is “low fat,” and this time, I laugh. I hold the final gulp in my mouth until I can spit it into the toilet, shower running, my semblance of control audible to no one but me.
I purposely eat breakfast first, time my runs so I return in the middle of dinner. We repeat our lines every night. Hers: “We ate first.” Mine: “No worries.” I’ll take a shower, take my time, but even if I silently sneak chopsticks out of the drawer, she’ll appear opposite me, eyeing my choices.
On my birthday, she tells me she didn’t prepare a gift; she’ll cook me a meal of my choice instead. I laugh and dismiss it, “I don’t care about my birthday anyway,” because I know she doesn’t mean it, will never mention it again.
I wonder if she is tired of meeting me three-quarters of the way. I lock my bedroom door, stop going out with them on the weekends.
She knows something’s wrong with the way I crawl onto my bedroom floor every night at 7 and sleep shortly after 9, but her concern is difficult to translate. Or maybe caring is cautionary when I’m a monthly paycheck taking up space in her kids’ home.
“This is your home,” she said, once.
Once, her husband poked his head into my bedroom on a Saturday morning, announced we would be attending the Bangeo Festival at Moseulpohang Port, a forty minute drive from the apartment. I had no excuses prepared, so I pulled a sweatshirt over my head and piled into the car, sandwiched between my host brother and sister in the backseat, my host mom riding shotgun.
When we finally find parking in the overcrowded lot and exit the car, we approach two swimming-pool sized water tanks, filled with people stomping around in rubber overalls. This is the main event of the festival–an opportunity to catch the bangeo with your own hands.
Somehow, it is my host mom and me who wind up in the tank, uniformed in knee-high boots and textured gloves, coarse enough to trap the fish in the tank between our hands. The water sits just above my belly button, safe under a thick layer of rubber.
At the blow of a whistle, my host mom, me, and eight other rubberized attendees scramble over each other to chase down the fish, darting in every possible direction. A fish grazes my leg, and I reach after it futilely, stumbling behind my host mom who is commanding the center of the tank. She latches onto one with her right hand, wringing it out of the water as it struggles to break free from her grip. She tosses it to her husband standing at the water’s edge and brusquely reenters the arena, fish clamoring for escape along the curves of the tank.
I freeze, suddenly aware of the inevitable end. I turn to look beyond the tank, at the within-reach ocean waters from which the fish were caught. I wonder if the ones swirling around me, desperately searching for an exit, realize their fate. My host mom latches onto another. Then, another. Soon, there are no fish left.
We emerge from the tank and her husband takes our picture. I lean into her, half-expecting an arm to wrap around my shoulder, but she gestures to her husband instead, two thumbs up.
After we grill the fish at a station next to the tanks, my host mom presents them on a dining table for us to eat. She leans back as her husband and children begin devouring the meal, a compliment to her triumph. Feeling like I am still waist-deep in the water, I poke around the bones with my chopsticks but can’t bring the flesh to my lips. I know she notices I haven’t taken a bite, but she doesn’t voice it aloud, doesn’t push me to eat.
Her husband holds a piece up for her to take, but she refuses.
My host mom starts to leave on weekends, to prepare the nearby apartment they own and rent through AirBnB. She is gone before I wake up, the kids too, her husband forever at work.
My host mom texts me that there is rice in the cooker, fried spam in the fridge, cereal in the drawer, ice cream in the freezer. Alone in the apartment, I eat everything, spread open tupperware containers across the kitchen counter to dip my chopsticks into, procure tiny spoons to taste the interior of every jar in the fridge. I check and re-check the lock on the front door, afraid someone might come home unexpectedly and witness my overindulgence, crumbs stuck to my face. My freedom feels phony, still contained in their apartment.
When she and the kids come home Sunday evening, I leave the door to my bedroom cracked and watch their shadows stretch beneath it. I pull the covers up to my chin in bed, feel my eyes fill with tears. I wait for the waves to wash over me, but they don’t come. I stare at the ceiling above me until it curves outward, edgeless.
My host mom nudges her head through the door, tea cup in hand, and asks, “Are you hungry?”
Maggie Deagon was a 2016 – 2017 ETA at Jeju Jungang Girls High School in Jeju City. When she is not writing poems about lost love, she is chronicling her wandering food adventures at femalegraze.food.blog.