The path to your house is so steep that I’m out of breath before I’m halfway there. I’m not out of shape, but I can’t keep up a regular pace; this path is far more strenuous than stairs. The uneven cement is full of grooves and bumps, all tilted at an unnatural angle. I can’t imagine you ever making this trek.
I arrived at your house for the first time tired, sweaty and nervous. My anticipation at meeting you had turned sour that morning, as I repeatedly woke up from anxiety-induced nightmares. After scaling the cement mountain that was your neighborhood, your doorstep was both a welcome relief and a spike to my nerves. The noisy buzzer to your house startled me and your gate clanged open haphazardly, old and sturdy but somehow appearing loose and flighty, with a mind of its own.
Inside your house there was a smell, and a shaky wooden door slid open to reveal two faces, worn and wrinkled. My nerves and the pressure to do a proper insa – especially with you and grandfather being at the top of the family hierarchy – ruined me; my shaky greeting was hardly clear. My fears were soon confirmed by your first words to, or rather, about me: “You really can’t speak Korean.”
I understood that sentence just fine, but had nothing to say in return. I know? I’m sorry? I didn’t have the time to form a response in any case. Your words continued, sharp and jumbled; their unfamiliar lilt rushed past my ears without warning. Beside me, my aunt who’d arrived with me did the talking, although I’d also just met her that day and she often couldn’t understand me either.
After she left, I went upstairs, the second floor of your house all to myself. My mind was a complicated jumble of emotions that night; it was hard to fall asleep.
The next morning, I slid open the bedroom door to say good morning and soon after, you hurled a remark in my direction. “You look better after a shower.” A little incredulous, it took time for me to process that, yes, I had understood you correctly. I wanted to laugh, dismissing your remark as a very Korean thing to say, but there was no one around who’d understand what was so funny.
Perhaps my desire to laugh was just my instincts trying to erase leftover sentiment from a tearful night. That first night at your house I’d cried, feeling something like guilt, even though I’d done nothing wrong. Your neighborhood was so poor, the landscape itself hardened and neglected. How could you possibly walk up and down these mountainous paths merely masquerading as sidewalks? The answer, of course, is that you couldn’t. Not even fearless motorcycle delivery boys ventured up here. You didn’t venture out either; you couldn’t walk. I never got the details, and wouldn’t have understood them if I had. I only saw that your large bulk was decidedly un-Korean. Your hair was all but shaved off, no ajumma1 perm to be seen here. You always remained seated or lying down; your teeth were bad, but you liked mix coffee, a cloyingly sweet replica of what I would drink in America.
If you lived in America, I thought, you might have a wheelchair. You might live somewhere with level ground, go outside as long as someone was there to help. You’d get fresh air. A fresh view. See friends. Have dentures. Here you have to crawl, never going beyond the walls of your house. A bucket and toilet seat frame serve as a makeshift bathroom for you in the hall. In comparing my standards and yours, maybe it’s not guilt welling up, but a pity you don’t deserve.
When I visit you, all I can do is listen. Although I can’t understand what you’re saying, Mom tells me you like to talk. When I’m there you seem pleased to have an audience, though sometimes you’re dissatisfied with me. You stop speaking mid-thought and your barbed tongue takes a swat at me, an easy target. “You can’t even understand, huh?” But then it takes strenuous effort for you to get out the door to your hallway bathroom. You don’t want help; it’s just the way things are. I pretend I’m not watching you leave. How can I hold your sharp words against you?
Even when my lack of words fails us, you decide to keep talking. I watch TV with you too, although you only ever seem to watch wildlife documentaries or daytime soaps. Your clunky silver box is small by today’s standards, and half the time I can’t understand the words coming out of it either. Sometimes you tune into programs that feature traditional folk songs and remark to no one in particular that you know that song, and you can sing it too. You always prove it.
Once in a while you have enough faith in my language ability or a strong enough curiosity to ask me a question. Or perhaps you’ve just momentarily forgotten who it is you’re talking to – someone who struggles to comprehend the sounds coming out of your mouth and after that, must push her brain to work in double time to serve back an appropriate response. I nod, giving emphatic ums and ahs like no other when words fail me.
Afternoons with you drag by, but sometimes, when we can communicate, it’s like a spark of warmth between us. But not too much. You are a Busan halmoni2, after all, tough and commanding. I keep my satisfaction to myself and your attention returns to the actors on TV.
I probably don’t visit you as much as a good granddaughter should, especially one who’s now living in the same city. But last Seollal, over a year since we first met, the whole family gathered once again. In the midst of polite small talk and reunited siblings catching up, your sharp tongue took my side. You interrupted the chatter, glanced in my direction and remarked, “Monica speaks Korean really well.”
Monica Heilman is a 2014-2016 ETA at Yeongdo Girls High School in Busan. She previously taught at Gimhae Jeil High School in Gimhae, Gyeongsangnam-do.