Of Near Silence

By Josh Brandon, ETA ’16-’17

Nuna 1 points to fish heads sitting on the curb on a large sheet of paper—
“Ghost food.”
She finds the English to say that ancestors will eat what’s been left over—discarded.
I want to see this supposed event unfold—
apparitions making themselves known.
Translucent sheets fading between here and their new home.

And suddenly the fish heads disappear.

I wonder how they would conjugate their verbs.

• • •

The school bus passes over flecks of gravel and dirt
each pushing its body into the tires,
never quite puncturing the rubber.
An old woman inches to the side of the road to make way for us.
As the bus draws nearer and her side profile
is exposed, it’s apparent that she’s pushing a baby stroller,
only no baby
just a bundle of sticks with presumably peanuts hanging from them.
Before the bus passes,
she grabs the stick bundle from the stroller
and cradles it as she waits from within the blast of tailwind from the bus.

• • •

A student asks me, “Teacher, what’s the meaning of life?”
I burden him with the wait as I
form my diplomatic answer,
that our purpose is to impact at least one other person’s life.
A pause, “I think,” he replies, “life is like smoke.
You must eat, drink and sleep to stay,
if you don’t, like smoke, you disappear.”

Next month, the same student imparts more knowledge:
This time, the amount of stray dogs that roam the country

(6,000, apparently)

• • •

Home feels like a far-off planet right around the corner.
I try to bite each consonant as it escapes my mouth
make it shorter, crisper

but the bites make them crumble instead,
each syllable falls to the ground in shatters.
I spend seven minutes finding five different ways to say the name
of a closed subway station to the taxi driver
hoping he clings to one well enough to understand.

• • •

I watch as the baby’s mother drowns kimchi before feeding it to him,
specks of red pepper just grazing his tongue.
At times, he’s bubbles and unabashed affection
where others may shy away from a minor hello
at the sight of my face.
Others, he’s inconsolable tears
and I ask why always knowing the answer to be incomprehensible
even if he spoke my language—
even if the red pepper didn’t muddle his own.

I watch this child’s eyes glisten as the mart inches closer.
His unwavering desire to be the first inside the noraebang.2
His family and I sit patiently
around beer poured in small paper
cups as he stands in front of the TV.
Sugared sounds flow into the microphone as
his favorite cartoon penguin tumbles across the screen.
I smile, cheer him on.
Not out of any sense of obligation, but
because there’s a strange comfort in the nonsense—
because it’s nonsense to everyone.

• • •

I find myself massaging my shoulders at times, remembering
how I used to give so many hugs when I was younger
to friends, family, strangers.
The language of affection.

The frequency of hugs gradually decreased over time,
then, dropped off completely before 23,
entering a culture that replaces this custom with a bow.
Leaving dinner gatherings with a quick arm
around another’s shoulder mumbling goodbyes
and I’ll-miss-you’s
changed to lights in buildings pouring down
into the sidewalk and a cup of mixed coffee
in my periphery as I stand
parallel to another head in the same 45 degree position.

A change I chose,
welcomed even, but
still I reach to touch the shoulder
on the opposite side of my body
emulating that familiar warmth.

And I don’t feel sadness,
just a little chilly sometimes.

• • •

A visit to Namji and
the same pack of three stray dogs that’s always here
on the other side of the street
pressing their noses into garbage bags left for pickup.

• • •

An older neighbor visits.
And with her, a bird whose wings scrape the declining blacktop
as its neck hangs through a red ribbon, solemnly—
a cause to hinder it from escape.
A pheasant, as I had to discover by translating its name in Korean.
Is this really the first time I’ve seen a pheasant?
Two states of being:
complacent (perhaps surrender), and (attempted) escape.
I can never understand this woman,
but want so desperately to in this moment
Is this her pet?
A giggle.
The bird sits still, the baby tries to touch it,
it flutters, panics, dreams of escaping into the rice
reaching to touch the sky a few kilometers southeast.

The next morning, just the ribbon tied to a fence
perched over the same rice field
the bird
so desperately desired, a single feather in its noosed end.

• • •

Somewhere along the river in this somewhere
where I’ve been dropped like a pin on a map I can’t read,
riding between familiar mountains that boast
forest greens over perfectly divided rice fields
and fire-stone houses and roofs with corners
turned up towards the clouds,
my bike inclines above the road on its own path
to the other side—a dip of land with a tree. More trees
with short, stout trunks
my foot slams to the ground and the wheels halt
as I witness
grass untouched by tanned fingers and
wildlands pouring towards the river
lurching over the edge, along its
surface, and kissing the water
where it babbles.



Josh Brandon is a 2016-2017 ETA at Docheon Elementary School in Changnyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do.


  1. Older sister
  2. Singing room