Written by Teri Bunce
I stood, winding and unwinding the cord to my window shades around my index finger as she spoke. “It’s not good, honey. They say these are probably signs of heart failure…” Tears well in my eyes as I press my forehead against the cool glass, pushing her voice out of my head.
Feeling the heavy, balmy summer heat, I scooch closer to the passenger door, and reach for the crank handle. My bare legs are stuck to the faded brown vinyl seats, and it requires all the strength of my eight-year old arms to lower the window of his 1986 Volvo. As the breeze hits my face he says, “Sorry hun, you know this thing don’t have AC.”
“I know.” I reply, “I don’t mind.” And I really don’t. I lay my face on the windowsill, my right arm lazily swooping and cutting through the air as we drive. How many hours have we spent this way? Driving around with nowhere in particular to go, winding down the dirt roads of Wayne County, Georgia, lazily watching the cotton and tobacco grow.
“Do you want to head home now, sweetie?”
“No. I want it to be just you and me a bit longer, Grandpa.”
I open my eyes now and the flat endless fields of Georgia cotton that fill my memories have been replaced with the ceaseless mountain peaks of Korea. They’re speckled with the last, persistent buds of pink and white cherry blossoms, and I can begin to make out the brightest hue of green across the prickly mountains. The view is a reminder of how far from home I’ve come. I remember the cell phone in my hand and interrupt, “I’ve got to go, Mom. I’ll be late…” I lie.
I hang up the phone guiltily and walk towards my bathroom. I turn on the shower as I push away the streams of self-criticism that fill my head. Selfish. Heartless. Cowardly. Under the streams of hot water and self-criticism, I collapse against the cool tile with burning skin. I close my eyes and attempt to block out my thoughts for a moment, but ultimately a scene from earlier in the day creeps up.
Steam swirled, but I could still see them across the room. She wasn’t more than 16, and her halmeoni must’ve been over 80. I couldn’t seem to tear my eyes from them, the way the girl lowered her grandmother in and out of the warm, steamy baths. I watched as she gently washed her grandmother’s back and arms. Stared as she tenderly rinsed the shampoo from what was left of halmoni’s wispy hair — careful not to let any suds drip down onto her face.
Sitting alone in that jimjilbang , I was aware of how very different I was from the Koreans that surrounded me. And not in the usual, superficial ways I was used to. I tried to remember a single time with my grandfather, whom I consider the most important and influential man in my life, that was as selfless and caring as the moment I was witnessing. I tried to remember a single moment when our relationship wasn’t centered on my happiness or well-being, but his. Yet here was this teenage girl, choosing to devote her Saturday afternoon to caring for her grandmother.
효 (hyo), the word for filial piety in Korean, is one of the most enduring influences of Confucianism in Korean culture. The cultural value of hyo was so strong that Yi Sun Sin, the most revered admiral in Korean history, retired in the middle of a war when his grandparents passed away. Until the 1950s it was common for Koreans to visit their familial and ancestral tombs, daily, to show respect and appreciation. While today, this practice has diminished in frequency, the value of hyo still dominates Korean life. To allow your grandparents or parents to grow old alone is unfathomable; to be considered bulhyo, or un-hyo, is one of the worst crimes you can commit.
In Korea I am reminded of how very un-hyo I am. I moved a world away from my family, in their time of need, to chase my own dreams. I wonder if I am the type of person who can ever be hyo — if my self-imposed distance from my grandpa, as his life runs out, is a convenience I gladly hide behind. I consider if it is easier for me to avoid his illness and seek refuge in our memories. The weight of these thoughts feels too much to bear.
I stand up to turn off the water and make my way to my bed. Collapsing, I wrap my comforter around my wet body and bury my face into my pillows. “6,000 miles…” I tell myself. What could I possibly do from over 6,000 miles away?
I wake up to the sound of rain, and my eyes drift to the framed photographs on my desk — three in a row. Me beaming, sitting in my Easter dress on a proud, strong grandfather’s lap, clutching my kindergarten diploma. An 18-year-old me, a bit too obviously posing in a tight, short dress under my high-school graduation gown, held close by an even prouder grandpa. The most recent photo reveals his steep decline. At my college graduation only four years later, his hair is entirely white, and he leans on me to steady himself. He smiles, but his eyes look tired.
I wrap my blankets around me tightly, looking back to the man from the first photo. Suddenly, I feel like a small child again, hoping grandpa can solve my problems. I reach for my phone and dial, biting my nails as it rings. He answers, and although I have so many fears and his greeting barely masks the weakness in his voice- I exhale and say, “Hi, grandpa, it’s me.”
Teri Bunce is a 2014-2015 ETA at Yeunnam Elementary School in Sejong City.
 Korean public bathhouse