Written by Kaley Curtis
I live in the small moments. I do not remember the details of my first date or that trip to China my family took sometime in high school. But I can tell you about the exact moment when I was 6 years old crossing the LA River on Pacific Street and my sister said her first word (“uh-oh”) as she heard sirens in the distance. I remember sitting under a crooked tree in Providence, opening my Fulbright acceptance packet with a friend. The comfortable familiarity of having sat together exactly like this countless times before, suddenly interrupted by the realization that my college days of midnight walking and ninja gardening were coming to a close. Why do people leave after they’ve found providence, when they’ve woven scraps of family into a blanket to fold around you on cold nights?
I came home to LA before leaving for Korea. I went to my dad’s softball game for the first time and saw seals and dolphins at Zuma Beach with my mom – too-fast summer memories like fragmentary glimpses between speeding trains. I remember reading after everyone was asleep and banging my shins on the furniture in the dark. Thinking this is what I get for having twin lives on two coasts, and finding one answer to that nagging question what is home? A place you can navigate in the dark.
Korea began sticky and sweaty at a marble university tucked in green mountains and rice fields. Orientation like summer camp: dorm rooms, after-school clubs, excursions out of town. And then one day camp was over and it was time to start new lives with homes and families, and this was also Korea. The first night I asked my host parents what I should call them. Unsure, they looked at each other and laughed until my host dad finally suggested, “King and queen?” So I put them in my phone as 왕 and 여왕 and called them that for months. And so my first semester passed in a blur of resolving awkwardness with humor, figuring out what to call people, when to bow, how to stumble through Korean, how to teach, how to deal with crying and bleeding and yelling children, how to be a sister and daughter and teacher.
Small moments teased from the tumble and tangle of home and family in Korea:
my host siblings asking permission to pull blonde hairs from my head, running around the house yelling “We found gold! We’re rich!” The kindergartener who does a full insa to each lunch lady reaching to pat my head and say Merry Christmas. A conversation with a first grader: “Does Spiderman really live in America?” “Yes.” “Really? For real?” “Yes.” Having the same conversation the next two days. Taking a break from New Year’s cooking to lay under warm blankets with my host mom and aunts, gossiping about husbands, food, beauty. Thinking I could learn to love these women, love this life.
I don’t know what you call a place you never expected to call home, where none of your oatmeal banana chocolate chip pancake friends can follow you. Leaving home for a country town where time moves slowly along the riverbank on the way home from school, pausing for a flower, ice fractaling across a puddle, leaving the naming country.
I’ve written so many letters to friends, trying to explain my life here. Dear friend, let me prepare a feast for you. To your right is the soup, usually ocean-derived and salty, reminding me of the California coast and family I am missing back home. In front is the rice, precisely measured by my Korean mother based on how hungry I am that day. She makes the most delicious rice in Korea, a careful blend of sticky rice, dry rice, and red beans. Before you are the side dishes: radish and cabbage kimchi, dried fish in caramelized peanuts, sesame-dipped beans, boiled radish leaves, whole poached fish lovingly prepared by our grandmother. We nibble bits and pieces throughout the meal and I have come to love:
This bird-like way of eating,
kimchi stew, country life,
this Korean family who loves me,
the host mother who carries
happiness like sunshine
my American family
stupidly steep Providence hills
musical pirates, friends sipping
late-night dark and stormies
on unsound porches
All these twin truths, love spilling from so many countries. These are the pieces I have of them here tonight, little moments tied to my wrist with string, pieces of home bobbing across continents.
Kaley Curtis is a 2012-2014 ETA at Cheonan Yong-So Elementary School in Cheonan, Chuncheongbuk-do. The title of this piece is from the poem “The Diverse Causes” by Michael Ondaatje.