Room for the New
(Published in Meetinghouse Magazine)
Soup from the morning: clear bone broth, translucent rectangles of radish simmered into a melting marinade, tender cubes of beef, slim slivers of green onion. Three kinds of kimchi heaped in their individual plates: spicy cabbage kimchi, white water kimchi, cubed radish kimchi. White rice, each grain glistening with a heavenly sheen.
My grandmother sits across from me, watching me eat, a silent smile covering her face. “It brings me such joy,” she says, “To see you eat so much.”
“It is really good,” I say with my mouth full.
“Eat everything, then eat more. I have plenty of food. You must be hungry and tired from traveling around so much.” I am hungry and tired from traveling, from weeks of grimy hostels, from an overnight flight from Seoul and a two-hour bus ride from Cheonan this morning, but I do not tell her. Instead, I drink the soup with both palms on the bowl and then ask for another bowl of rice. “I am so happy to be here now eating your food.”
“I am sorry I could not make you something more. You arrived earlier than I expected.”
“What do you mean? This is amazing. Did you make all the kimchi yourself?”
“Of course, I make everything in this house. Although this is nothing special. I eat this all of the time, it is so simple to make. But since the New Year is tomorrow, we can celebrate and make a lot of special food together.”
“Yes! I will eat everything. New Year, and also new decade!”
“Even though it is not the Lunar New Year, we can do our own little celebration. Do you want to make dumplings? You know there is nothing your halmuni cannot make. Except for spaghetti. Do you know how to make spaghetti?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Your cousin came by a few months ago and made me spaghetti because I told her I was craving it. It was very good. I have spent my whole life making only Korean food. But because I do not know how to make spaghetti, I cannot eat that whenever I want.”
The apartment is clouded in the dirt and dust unearthed by the yellowing pages of cracked-spine tattered-cover missing-paged books that fill the cardboard boxes slouching in the doorway. My uncle leans against the doorframe, props the door open, picks up the boxes of books, loads them into the elevator.
My grandmother says, “He is throwing out your dad’s old books from high school and college. He has been working all morning. I had to stop watching. Throwing away your dad’s old things makes me feel like I am throwing away my son.” My uncle’s voice creeps from among the dust of three decades. “Mother, no one has looked at these since he moved out. You will be happier once we move the new desk in.”
My grandmother looks away. “It still feels like I am throwing out my son.”
A basket of sticky rice soaking in water for six hours, the grains expanding with the absorbed water. A basket of sticky rice poured into a steamer whose fat steel bottom takes up the entire stove top, the lid is replaced with a thick faded white cloth. The rice, steamed and steaming, scooped out with a large wooden spoon into an aluminum bowl. Walnuts, chopped; dates, halved; chestnuts, boiled and peeled. Soy sauce, dark and shiny, made in this very kitchen a few weeks ago; sesame oil, made in this very kitchen a few months ago.
My grandmother says, “You have never eaten yaksik before, have you?”
“They have yaksik in America?”
“Sometimes they have it at the Korean supermarkets. But I have never made it before.”
“I used to make it with your dad all the time when he was little. Now, I do not know anyone who makes this from scratch anymore. It is a lot of work.”
She nods to each ingredient on the counter. “The rice was gifted to me by my friend who works in the fields. The walnuts and dates and chestnuts I got from a farmer I know at the market. The only thing that is store-bought is the brown sugar, and we will not use too much of it.”
She turns two pink rubber dishwashing gloves inside out and hands them to me. “Keep turning the rice,” she says. “You ready? It is really hot.”
The steam fogs my glasses until the lenses are thick, opaque screens. I blindly fold the rice, slowly, heat on my palms, feeling each individual grain sticky and warm between my fingers. She pours in the ingredients as I mix and fold. The sweet-smelling steam of the rice, the richness of the nuts, the gleam of the oil, the brownness of the sugar, the blackness of the soy sauce.
“Using your hands is the only way to get it to taste the best. It will never taste the same if you use a spoon to mix. Keep turning. Keep turning until there is no white rice left.”
I fold and sift and push and fold until she is satisfied and tells me to take the gloves off. I wipe my glasses and look at the transformed rice. It is a golden nutty brown in color; it is sticky and gleams with a healthy sheen. My grandmother picks up a globule with her fingers, squishes it into a ball, shoves it in my mouth. A dull saltiness from the soy sauce sits at the back of my throat, the oily texture of the sesame oil coats the inside of my mouth, and the sweet softness of the boiled chestnut bites cleanly between my teeth. I can feel the textures of each grain of rice.
She grins. “Good, right? Let me taste some.”
My grandmother takes a large flat tray, covers it with a transparent sheet of wax paper, scoops the mixed rice from the bowl to the tray and flattens it with her fingers so that it is an inch or two thick and the surface is smooth. She moves the tray to the balcony, where the December air can quickly cool the rice cakes.
More soup: beef broth recycled from the morning, this time filled with flat elliptical slices of white glutinous rice cakes. Several packs of beef and pork, organized on Styrofoam plates, the plastic wrapping peeled back. Strips of meat sizzling on the electric grill in the middle of the table, its juices mixing with those of halved mushrooms, sliced peppers, whole garlic, julienned onion. A container of dipping sauce made with homemade bean paste, chili paste, and minced garlic. A basket of lettuce, fresh from the market, its large green leaves ready to wrap the meat-vegetables-rice-sauce in the Korean way.
My grandfather says, “I got the most expensive cuts from the butcher.”
My grandmother says, “We could never afford meat when we were growing up. We only got it once a year. It is not like now, when we can eat meat anytime we want.”
We take turns flipping the slices of meat with our chopsticks. My grandmother says, “I like my new desk.”
My grandfather grins. “After all that complaining that you did not need one and that we should not throw out all those books.”
“Well, now that I have it, I like it. Can a person not change their mind? I have space to put all my books and I have a lot of light. I have drawers and shelves so I do not need to keep everything in my backpack.”
“It is for school, right?” I ask. “What kind of things do you learn at school?”
She raises her hand, counts off and folds a finger for each item on her list. “Korean language, history, science, math, and one more thing. English.”
“You are learning English at school?”
“Yes. The other grandmothers at school do not like learning English – they say, ‘What am I going to use this for?’ But I like it. It is really hard. It took me months before I could get all those curly letters right. But the challenge is what makes it so fun.”
My grandfather looks up from the grill and grimaces. He says, “When she was in the hospital because of her lower back surgery earlier this year, she was out of school for two months. I told her to sleep and get some damn rest but she stayed up every night practicing her ABCs on the bed sheets.”
“I drove him crazy. But I did not want to stop learning, even though I could not go to school. I spent so many years not going to school. Now that I am finally going to school, I could not just stop learning. So I practiced. Like this. It is kind of fun. Look.”
She takes my hand, flips it over so she can peer clearly at the lifelines on my palm. She takes a finger and starts tracing. A, B, C.
“What a world we live in now,” my grandfather says, polishing off his bowl of soup, leaning back in his chair, sipping a cup of lukewarm barely tea. “When we were younger, women did not get an education, women did not own their own books. But now your grandmother has a desk of her own and now she can learn anything and everything she desires – even English!”
“When I was younger,” my grandmother says, “Women were not even allowed to eat with the men. We had to eat in the kitchen, like we were hiding. Even though we were the ones who made all of the food!”
My grandfather bows his head. “Yes, many things did not make sense then. But now men and women sit together and eat together and study together, so the world is a much better place.”
The low coffee table in the living room is crammed with: yaksik rice cakes from the morning, cooled and cut into squares; Clementines from the market; grapes as large as the circle made by your thumb and forefinger; crackers; dried mangoes I bought duty-free at the Cebu City airport before coming to my grandparents’ apartment this morning.
My grandfather has gone to play gateball with his friends. My grandmother sits on the couch and I sit on the floor, and, granddaughter like grandmother, our fingers bring new treats to our lips, filling our mouths with various bits of chewy and slimy and sweet and salty. She says, “My stomach hurts. I ate too much,” and sticks a dried mango between her teeth, pulls with her jaw clenched, chews, swallows.
“How long did you use the new desk today?”
“Not, long, maybe ten minutes before dinner? I am happy about it, though. You know, I was very embarrassed about going to school in the beginning. That I have two sons with PhDs, that all of my granddaughters are in college. That I am 78 years old and going to elementary school. But now I am not embarrassed. Everyone tells me not to be – your father, your grandfather, your cousins. Even the teachers. They all say, halmuni, look how amazing, that someone your age could be going to school. And I always reply the same way: I love learning. Learning is fun. So, as long as my body can follow, I will finish elementary school. I will finish middle school, then high school. And then after, I will go to college. I will go as far as I can.”
I slide another rice cake into my mouth. “Are there a lot of people at your school? Do you have friends?”
“Sure, there are plenty of other grandmothers and grandfathers who also grew up really poor in rural Korea and never got to finish school. I used to think that I was the only one not allowed to go to school when I was little, but now that I am in school I know that it was not just me. It was so hard to even go to school back then. But now, all I have to do is show up. The school provides me the location, the teachers, the notebooks, the tables, the pencils. I only have to bring my body.”
I swallow and ask, “How long did you go to school for when you were little?”
“I finished the first grade. I liked first grade a lot. I was eight years old, and then the Korean War broke out and we hid in the woods for a while. Luckily, living in the countryside meant that the war did not affect us too much, and we did not spend too much time in the woods. But when we came back my mother hid my backpack so that I could not go. She would not tell me where she put it. And I did not want to go to school without my backpack and notebooks, when everyone else has notebooks. I was embarrassed everyone would make fun of me. So I stayed at home. Apparently, they called my name in roll for two more months.”
She is looking down at her hands. She takes a rag from the floor, starts rubbing the surface of the table. I ask, “But why did your mother hide your backpack?”
“She wanted me to help around the house, to take care of the children. Who told her to have that many kids? But I did not stop practicing. I took a rock and smashed it to make a tip and practiced writing my numbers in the dirt. I had learned to write 1 to 100 and so I practiced that, over and over. I drew a large square on the dirt like a chalkboard and I practiced writing with my stone. When my younger brothers came home from school they would sing songs and memorize their times table and I would do it with them, because I wanted to learn. But I was too embarrassed to go to school without a backpack and notebooks. Looking back now I should have gone anyway, but I did not know that then.”
She sighs loudly, deeply. She says, “There are some grandmothers at the school who never even learned to read their name. At least I learned how to read. But writing is so hard. My handwriting looks like a child’s. They say I am improving but it feels like I will write like a child for the rest of my life.”
Her eyes are glistening. She says, “We threw out your father’s old books so that I can write like a child. Was it really worth it?”
“No, stop thinking about that. He has not looked at those in forever. He probably does not even know those are here. Anyway, this way, we can get rid of the old to make room for the new.”
“I suppose so. Anyway. I will work extra hard now. I want to be able to write a letter to your father in America. That is what I think about, each time I write out my Korean language homework and think about how shaky my handwriting looks, to be able to write a letter to your father. What kind of mother cannot write a letter to her own son? But soon, I will be able to.”
In the large aluminum bowl: ground pork, soy sauce, minced garlic, minced ginger, two types of chopped-up homemade kimchi (cabbage kimchi, green onion kimchi), sesame oil, perilla oil, plum syrup, glass noodles, tofu. On the cutting board sprinkled white with flour: a lump of dough, and beside it a thin strip of dough,flattened with the rolling pin.
It is the first meal of the new decade. I sit around the table with my grandparents making dumplings. My grandmother rolls the dough and my grandfather and I scoop the filling into the thin pouches, pinch the corners with our fingertips, lay out the raw dumplings on a plate.
My grandfather says, “I am the best dumpling maker in the house!”
My grandmother smirks. “He used to never do any work around the house. But when I turned 60, I had to go to the hospital for a long time. For over a month. He thought I was going to die and that is when he started helping around the house.”
He says, “I get all of the things that she needs that are heavy or too high. I make the rice in the mornings. I boil the water for the tea. And I make the dumplings. Look how well I wrap them. No one wraps dumplings as well as I do.”
Early this morning, sometime after we slipped from one year to the next, from one decade to the next, I slipped out of my bedroom to use the bathroom. The door of my grandparents’ bedroom was cracked open, and when I walked past I saw them lying in bed, sharing a blanket, facing each other, speaking in low voices. My grandparents, married at 21 in an arranged marriage, two young strangers from the rural countryside of a poor country, sharing, fifty years later, the quiet moments of the morning together. I returned to my room and pretended to sleep for longer until I heard them stir and prepare the materials for making the dumplings. Only then did I emerge and exchange “Happy New Year” greetings.
We steam the dumplings until the dough is squishy and the insides are hot and delicious. We dip them in soy sauce and eat until our stomachs are bulging. Except for my grandmother. She eats only one.
On the cutting board: chopped celery, garlic, onions, carrots. In the saucepan: tomato-basil sauce dumped from the jar. In the pot: thin Italian noodles, cooked al dente.
The reason my grandmother ate only one dumpling at breakfast was so that she would have enough room in her stomach for spaghetti. I mix the noodles with the sauce and serve a bowl to my grandmother, who is seated at the table, waiting excitedly. She eats three bowls. Then she eats out of the pan.
She slurps noodles until flecks of tomato sauce land on her nose. “My friends think I am modern,” she says, “Because I like things like spaghetti and pizza and hamburgers. Some of my friends even refuse to eat cheese! But I like cheese, and I like pizza, and I like spaghetti.”
And when she smiles it is like the sun smiling, because her face is very round and her eyes are small and her cheeks are glowing. Her cheeks are red from the warmth of the spaghetti, red like gochujang and kimchi, red like tomato sauce and dates. When she smiles it reminds me of when my dad smiles. Tentatively at first, as if shy, as if unfamiliar with the physical sensation of the muscles working in that way, but then brightly and happily and unceasingly. And I smile too, my father’s smile, my grandmother’s smile, smiling because sometimes throwing out old books makes room for new learning, smiling because there was a time when we were hungry but now we are full, smiling with the joy of having a meal made for us and of making a meal for another.