Hahl-muh-nee* woke me up with the sun and told me to get ready for school. I pretended not to hear her and squeezed my eyes shut. Though I could feel the sunlight hitting my face, the cold night air lingered in my room. I swept the covers over my head. Even so, I could hear the water running in the kitchen and a chorus of summer’s cicadas keening outside my window. I smelled that Hahl-muh-nee was frying eggs for me downstairs, and my stomach began to rumble uncomfortably. I rolled over onto my side.
“Sun-Young! Hurry up and wake up, or you’ll miss your bus!” Hahl-muh-nee yelled from the kitchen.
I opened my eyes still inside my cocoon and stared for a moment at the soft folds of my blanket, allowing my breath to waft over my face and nose as I sighed. I counted to ten and then I jumped from the bed and stumbled over to the bathroom.
After brushing my teeth and splashing my face with a few drops of water, I rubbed my cheeks dry with the plush pink towel that hung next to the shower. I glanced at myself in the mirror and smiled at the glowing redness that spread across my face. I ran my finger across my right cheek.
I wanted to go straight to the kitchen, but I could see Hahl-muh-nee rustling through my drawers. I had already picked out what I would wear for my first day of school: my favorite spring blue dress and my red beaded necklace. I opened my mouth to tell Hahl-muh-nee, but before I could bring the words to my lips, she began tugging an ugly white sok-neh-bok** dotted with tiny flowers over my head as soon as I walked through the door. I tried to resist, but she lifted my arms roughly without saying a word in response to my muffled protests. When she finally got my arms through the top portion of the sok-neh-bok, I crossed them across my chest, glaring at the small mirror that hung next to the door. When she grabbed for my foot while holding the matching white pants, I said rather stiffly, “Hahl-muh-nee, it is not cold enough to wear sok-neh-bok. Besides, I am too old to wear them.” She sniffed and said, “Don’t talk nonsense. Do you want to catch a cold?” and proceeded to shove my feet through the length of each cotton leg. Afterwards, she pulled out a hideous yellow shirt with green and blue stripes, but this time, I lifted my arms for her. There was no point in fighting Hahl-muh-nee.
I was completely dressed and hungry, but my Hahl-muh-nee ordered me to sit down and wait on the floor while she found a comb and some rubber bands. I crossed by legs, leaning against the soft quilts of the bed, and ran my fingers through my black hair, my chubby fingertips peeking between the locks.
She sat down behind me on the edge of the bed and pulled my hair together with her right hand. After smoothening out all the bumps and ripples, she let go of it, making it fan out across the back of my shoulders. While she gripped the top of my head, she began to comb, reaching the tips of my hairs without slowing for any knots or tangles; my head pulled back roughly with the motion of her hand. She began parting my hair; I could feel the corners of my eyes lifting to either side of my head.
All of the sudden, I felt her shift. Her hands grew gentle, and she said, almost embarrassed, “I was watching Sesame Street yesterday with your baby brother. I saw this very pretty Korean girl, who wore her hair in pigtails. She reminded me of my Sun-Young, so I will do your hair like hers.”
When I reached the kitchen, a plate of one fried egg and a boiled hot dog, along with a tall and formidable glass of milk were waiting for me. I took one metal chopstick to test my yolk—to make sure it would not break and was pleased to find that it was hard with a tinge of green, just the way I liked it. I alternated between bites of egg and hot dog, ignoring the milk. I wasn’t thirsty.
After finishing my breakfast, I took my plate to the sink and turned around to leave the kitchen and grab my bag for school. But my Hahl-muh-nee stood at the doorway and looked pointedly at my untouched glass of milk. I turned around, picked up my morning nemesis, and gulped it town while training one defiant eye on Hahl-muh-nee over the rim of the cup. While still wiping my lips, she hustled me out of the door, lifting my small backpack onto my shoulders.
“Listen to your teacher and come home safely,” she said. When I looked back halfway to the bus stop, I saw her standing there still, watching me.
Teacher had big red toenails that stuck out of her sandals. She looked like a white hahl-muh-nee, but she smiled a lot and talked really loud. I did not understand what she was saying. She was speaking the Dominick’s language, the words my mother and father spoke at the grocery store. I once saw my father sign his name on a piece of paper, with big loops and curling letters, just like the glowing orange letters of the Dominick’s sign–just like the letters scrawled across the chalkboard. But I smiled at Teacher when she said something to me, and bobbed my head as if on cue so that I could tell Hahl-muh-nee that I had followed her parting instructions when I came home.
The other children at school were different from and the same as me. Some had hair the color of kimchi or the bright yellow radishes Hahl-muh-nee would wrap into kimbap, others had blue eyes and pale skin, like the kids in Sesame Street. They seemed to laugh a lot, like Teacher. They were beautiful to look at, and my eyes wandered often to one girl with long yellow hair the color of Cinderella’s and a high-pitched giggle that reminded me of a nest of birds that lived in the oak tree in our front yard. I did not speak to them, though, since they were all speaking the Dominick’s language, and I could not. Instead, I let Teacher file me from one classroom to the next, whispered “A” and “B” and “C” when told, and otherwise rested my chin in my hands as I stared uncomprehending at the chalkboard, while wondering whether Hahl-muh-nee was going to meet me at the bus stop when I got home.
It was lunch time. So I followed the rest of my class to the end of the room, where our belongings were stacked neatly underneath our assigned coat hangers. I pulled out the brown bag my Hahl-muh-nee must have packed when I wasn’t looking, and peeked inside. Kim-bop. Hahl-muh-nee knew this was one of my favorites.
For lunch, Teacher had us sit in a circle on a gigantic rug with the letters of the alphabet zig-zagging across it. While gingerly fingering the top of my brown bag, I saw that the girl next to me, the one with the yellow hair, was eating a sandwich, like the ones my Hahl-muh-nee would make for breakfast. I had never eaten one for lunch before. I looked around and found that no one was eating rice and ban-chan; everyone else had sandwiches, little baggies of fruits or cookies, and juice boxes. I quickly closed my brown bag with a tight fist. What was wrong with Hahl-muh-nee? Didn’t she know what was proper to bring for lunch? I looked down at the colorful carpeting and waited quietly for everyone to finish eating before throwing the brown bag into the garbage with everyone else’s trash.
After lunch, Teacher said it was time to go home. So we went to the end of the room again and began gathering our things. I sat down and began pulling my pant leg up to put on my shoes. The yellow-haired girl came next to me with another boy and looked down at me. She said something and pointed at my leg.
I noticed then that, while pulling up my pant leg, I had revealed my sok-neh-bok. She pointed at it again, and said something, but I shrugged and shook my head. She began to laugh, pointing at me now, urging the boy next to her to look at my sok-neh-bok. They both began to laugh. I shoved my shoes on, turned my face from them while putting on my jacket, and vowed—swore!—that I would never wear sok-neh-bok again, no matter what Hahl-muh-nee said.
While sitting on the crowded bus, I stared out the window with my chin resting on my fist, trying my best to ignore my reflection. I did not look at the yellow-haired girl who was giggling with her friends in the very back. I stepped off the bus—I was glad that Hahl-muh-nee was not there waiting for me—and stalked home, not slowing down to pretend I was coming home from a grand adventure, as I did when Hahl-muh-nee and I walked back from the park.
She was waiting for me at the door. I did not greet her as I should have, but walked inside, took my shoes off, and ran to my room. I threw my bag into the corner of my closet and rushed to the mirror. I pulled roughly at the rubber bands that Hahl-muh-nee had put into my hair that morning, until it flowed down my back, trying to imagine that it was golden yellow. I laughed out loud, trying to imitate that high-pitched giggle and stringed together what few words of the Dominick’s language I managed to snatch from school that morning. But it did not work. My hair was a dark, course black and my eyes would always be small and brown. I would never look like the girls at school, I would never be able to master their bright colored words, I would never ever be one of them.
I dropped my head to my chest while my face became wet, but I did not want to cry.
I heard someone behind me. I looked up into the mirror again, and started at the set of eyes that stood next to my own. They looked so much like mine.
“Come. I’ve made a fresh batch of kim-bhop. Come, before they get cold.” Hahl-muh-nee smiled and turned to walk to the kitchen. I looked back at the mirror once more, and smiled too.
I turned away and followed in her footsteps.
My grandmother was a hard woman. She was a single mother of five children; her husband, the grandfather I never knew, died sometime during the Korean War. She did not speak of it, but I have heard hushed stories of them hiding in caves and running in the night to avoid being captured by some nameless Enemy. My father tells me he used to catch fireflies in the dark, and when I think of those nights, of them being chased by something unknown to them really, I see the fireflies alighting on my father’s shoulders while he ran.
On the bitter grey morning my father stepped onto the train destined for the hotbed of the Vietnam War, my grandmother gripped his hand from the platform and prayed. She stayed apace with the train as long as she could, while the snow landed on their outstretched hands and her voice chased my father’s heart into the jungles of Vietnam. The image of my grandmother standing on the cold and laden platform that morning as the train took him to war has stayed with my father all these years. Maybe, like me, he wondered whether she would wait for him there when he returned, while he grasped her prayers that morning like a talisman, to keep him safe. The only time I’ve ever seen my father weep was the morning she died.
I miss my grandmother, especially at night. When I was little, I could hear her whispering prayers while I pretended to sleep, tracing the strange patterns the streetlamp outside my window splashed across my legs. The lights and patterns are still there, but I cannot hear her whispering anymore.
*hahl-muh-nee translates to “grandma.”
**sok-neh-bok translates to “long underwear.”