Out of concern for the author’s identity, this piece has been published anonymously.
The ahjumma at the roadside cafe smiles kindly at me as I sit sipping my coffee. My friends, brandishing a DSLR, have just left to explore the streets of Ewha Maeul, a colorfully painted tourist attraction on the streets on Hyehwa.
I feel tired and self-conscious. I haven’t been outside and active in a month.
I impatiently wait for my coffee to cool. The faster it cools, the faster I can slip on my mask and leave.
“It’s too bad,” the Korean woman chirps as she straightens a plant beside me. “If your face wasn’t like that you could go out and take pictures with them,” she says sympathetically.
The sun is shining too brightly on my face. I wish very hard for her to go away before smiling and saying nothing.
“But all for the price of beauty,” she chuckles. “Where are you from? China? We have a lot of tourists from China who come for that.”
“No, I’m American,” I answer quickly before snapping my face mask back on. She looks surprised as I quickly bow and exit the shop.
A few hours later, a Chinese shop assistant asks me the same thing.
“What’d you get done?” she questions, peering curiously at my face mask. “Your nose?”
I pause before telling her the truth. “I didn’t get plastic surgery; I was in an accident.”
She looks at me skeptically. “So you were in an accident and you decided to come here and get your nose done?”
“No,” I answer curtly, leaving the shop.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to talk. My once-clear pronunciation has deteriorated into a slight lisp. I suppose I should have expected it when I lost half of my teeth.
“Where do you want to go again?” the taxi ahjusshi asks again.
I try, for the tenth time, to enunciate clearly for him my destination, but between my mask-muffled words and garbled pronunciation, he looks very confused indeed. Finally, my non-Korean speaking brother impatiently imitates my words before the taxi driver finally understands.
“No one can understand you like that,” he snaps irritably.
My first day of Korean class went off without a hitch, but ten minutes into my second my Korean teacher asks me to take off my mask.
“Can you take it off? You were wearing it yesterday too, right? Do you have a cold? It’s just that it’s hard to hear you with it on. Your voice is all muffled.”
I pause. “I don’t have a cold; I was in an accident.”
“A biking accident,” I hesitate, “I rode down a hill and ended up falling off of a cliff. I split my face open… I’m wearing bandages.”
She pauses and looks directly at me in the eyes. “I see.”
Her voice is soft, strong, and slow as she speaks the next words, “You know, it’s okay. We won’t care about such things. If it’s okay with you, will you take off your mask?”
I quietly take it off; from my left I hear the creak of my classmate’s desk as he leans forward to get a better look of my uncovered face.
My teacher looks at me. “See, it’s okay? We’re okay with this, right?” One of my classmates nods silently in agreement.
A friend of mine is complaining about her day.
“Ugh, I’m just so sick and stressed out,” she wheedles as we sit together.
I listen, comforting her as she continues on, but after twenty minutes of complaining about her school, her health, and how her life is the worst, I’ve reached my limit.
“My goodness, I just feel like I’m dying, like ser-”
“Trust me, you’re not dying. I know the feeling of almost dying.”
She stares at me before quickly backpedaling, “Well, I know I’m not actually going to die but still…”
“You’ll get past this; trust me, it’ll be OK.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
I’m running late to my first piano class. Rushing through the door, I quickly greet my teacher before stripping off coat, backpack, and mask in rapid succession.
I turn to her and flash a smile before introducing myself.
She returns my smile, and points to the music.
“Turn to page four…”
“You haven’t seen your nose yet, right?” my doctor says excitedly as he begins peeling back the bandages from my latest surgery—the fourth I’ve had post-accident.
He immediately calls for a mirror as I shake my head no.
“Look, it’s much better! We’ve fixed the nasal deformity at your nostril—I mean, it’s not perfect, but much better! We cleaned up some of the scarring on your face too… well… not all of it… but next time we can do more!”
He is obviously very proud of himself.
I look at myself in the mirror for the first time with my “new” nose. The long scars across my face have faded to a slight pinkish color over time. A few are covered in stitches from my latest surgery.
My nose, well, it certainly looks different. I’m not sure what I expected, but maybe it was this?
My doctor hovers eagerly over me, his eyes shining.
“It looks good, right, right? Not bad!”
He laughs and pats me on the back.
June 2015 — Now
Since returning home to Dayton my mask lies buried somewhere in the pile of suitcases I have yet to unpack. Disembarking from my flight, one curious look from the customs agent was all it took to do away with it. The need to be covered doesn’t exist in me as strongly as it did before — or maybe I just don’t fear being judged as much.
My relatives and friends all call me “strong” or “courageous” for going through this ordeal, but it feels strange to be labeled as such. I don’t think I should be rewarded or praised for going through my accident.
After all, should I really be commended for something that I, or anyone else in the same position, would have to do?
A few days before the one year anniversary of my accident, one of my friends asked me: if I had known that I would go through this situation, would I still have chosen to come to Korea?
I think the “me” right after the accident would have chosen, without a doubt, to not have come. Faced with the prospect of reconstructing the pieces of my life—and face—it would have been much easier just to “pass” on the whole experience. But as for the current “me,” I’m not so sure.
Healing wasn’t — isn’t — easy. But, it was only when I was putting the fragments of my life back together that I realized who and what was most important to me and what I really cared about.
So now even though my mother sighs when she looks at me — “You were so beautiful” — I’m okay.
What more could I be doing?