In the mornings, han-gugo seeps through her sleep like a radio alarm. Blink, blink, go her eyes as the local butcher sounds words through her window.

O-channon. O-channon. Mulk-kogi. O-channon.

Sleep is the same here. So are windows and floors. In the kitchen, there is running water, a refrigerator, a sink.

Chan-woo cleans his change with baking soda and vinegar each night. He keeps jars by his bed and drops the coins in, watching them fizz.

Jenna lies on her back. Sometimes she crawls onto the heated floor and listens:

“Want to rent a movie?” Ian is saying. “How about some Chinese?”

She remembers the words but not the sounds. His voice is Korean. Solid and guttural. A song.

Annyong haseyo, he is saying. Annyongghi kyeseyo. “Want to go to the store? How about a trip to the Met?”

Even in his sleep, Chan-woo is always driving. He is shifting gears, inching past red lights, watching the world pass in his rearview mirror.

Yobo. Yobo.” His wife shakes him from sleep. “Wake up. Wake up. You’re driving my arm, again. Please.”

“Sorry. Sorry. I didn’t know.”

“Close your eyes and dream of something else,” she tells him. “There are no limits.”

But soon, he is driving again. He is pulling away from traffic, clicking on the meter.

“Where to?” he asks.

Bae-gun-dong. Bong-sun-dong. Sang-moo-gee-goo.

In the bathroom, Jenna wears sandals. She washes her hair and watches the suds sink past her feet.

It is springtime, and the dust is yellow. It sticks to car windows, to office doors. Jenna imagines it floating above her like seed from a dandelion. She has yet to see it on her skin. In the shower, she imagines washing the dust away.

“What does it feel like?” Ian wants to know.

“Feel like?” Jenna asks when he calls.

If Ian could watch from the sky, he might know. “Oh, I see. It’s like that,” he would say, the dust falling on the town below.

Chan-woo dresses in suits. If he sold fish like Mi-sun, he would dress in trousers and a white undershirt. The seats inside his cab are made of leather. There is a color TV.

Chan-woo cleans his change with baking soda and vinegar each night. He keeps jars by his bed and drops the coins in, watching them fizz.

“Why do you do that?” Mi-sun asks as she brushes her hair.

“It is dignity,” Chan-woo wants to tell his wife. “Dignity.”

When they go to bed, he can smell the fish on her skin.

At the street corner, an ah-joo-ma sells hapless pears. The skin on the fruit is the skin on the woman, wrinkled and brown. Short hair crumples across her face.

On her first day here, Jenna bit into a loaf of bread. The inside was filled with a sweet red paste.

“Why would you do that?” she asked Ian on the phone later. “Ruin a perfectly good piece of bread?”

“Don’t worry about the bread,” he told her. “Just come home,” he said.

Jenna can hear her voice echoing through the line: “But, why?” she says. “Why?”

“My daughter is a surgeon,” Chan-woo tells his cousins when Yeon-hwa visits from overseas.

Aboji. Please,” she tells him. She stuffs her face with kimchi and fried rice. “I work for an orthodontist.”

“Tell me. In what way have you changed the world today?” he asks her over lunch.

“It’s not like that,” says his daughter. “I clean other people’s teeth.”

After lunch, Yeon-hwa pays the bill. “So you don’t have to work so hard,” she tells him.

His daughter uses all of the correct words. Aboji, hap-se-da, mullonimnida. She saves him the last roll of kim-bap before getting up to leave.

Jenna waits on the corner by the Kook-min Bank. She steps off the sidewalk, holds out her hand, and waits for a cab.

Mi-guk. Mi-guk saram,” a group of schoolgirls point as they pass her on the street.

Jenna’s hair is blonde. At the school, the students want to touch it.

“Ehhh. Like silk,” they say, when she lets them.

“Good,” says Jenna. “Can I touch your hair now?”

Chan-woo passes an old woman selling fruit on the street corner. “Ah-joo-ma,” he calls out, passing her a coin for a pear.

Up ahead, Chan-woo stops and picks up a passenger. He looks down at his coins. There’s a dirty one now, mixed in with the newly washed ones. He sees the crumpled bills his daughter gave him.

He sent Yeon-hwa overseas and she came back a foreigner, handing him money as if he were a peasant.

“Look at your mother,” he tells his daughter each time she visits. “All that work. Her back will never be straight. Kiss her and tell her you are grateful.”

“Why won’t you kiss me?” Mi-sun asks at night when he turns out the light.

Because you have scales. You smell like the ocean.

The inside of the car smells like vinegar.

“Where to?” the driver asks.

Bong-sun-dong,” Jenna points. Straight ahead.

“Come home,” Ian said over the phone last night. “You’ve been gone long enough.”

Jenna wanted to tell him about the stands they have in winter.

“A little hut,” she would say. “A woman pours pancake batter into the griddle below. They come out in the shape of fish.”

“But, Jenna—” Ian would say.

“And they pour soup while you wait. Everyone drinks it together.”

“Come home,” he says.

“But don’t you want to know what it tastes like?”

In the summer, Mi-sun walks with a parasol. The foreigners wear low-cut shirts, the sleeves falling off their shoulders.

“They think we’re crazy,” Yeon-hwa once told him. “Wanting white skin when ours is so beautifully tan.”

The woman in the cab is American. She wants to sit in the front.

Annyong haseyo,” she says, her voice like a child’s.

Mi-guk saram?” he asks her.

“What color was her hair?” Mi-sun will want to know.

“Blonde,” he will tell her. “It was blonde.”

There are no seat belts in the cab. The driver smells like ginseng, an old man.

He creeps past the red light, pausing to see if anyone’s coming, accelerating through the intersection.

“Stop,” Jenna wants to tell the driver. “You’ll kill us both,” but the words don’t come fast enough.

Jenna watches as a motorbike speeds past them. The girl in the back is sitting sidesaddle in a skirt and high heels.

“No safety regulations,” she tells Ian. “People just do what they want.”

“Where should I stop?” Chan-woo wants to ask the foreigner. He forgets the words in English.

“Lotte Mart?” he says pointing out the window. “Big Mart?” Maybe she wants to go to the bank.

“You want to stop?” Chan-woo asks the woman in English. He points out the window.

“I don’t want to stop there,” Jenna tries to tell the driver. “Why do you keep asking me that?”

When she first arrived in Gwangju, Jenna tried to use a public phone outside an ice cream parlor.

“Do you speak English?” she asked the girls behind the counter. Two of them pointed to a girl in the center. They giggled.

“English?” she asked again.

The girls laughed.

Jenna took out a thousand won from her pocket.

“Phone?” Jenna said, holding up her hand to her face. “Coins,” she said, showing the girl the thousand won.

If Mi-sun were in the car, she would want to sit next to the foreigner.

“U.S.A?” she would ask the girl. “How many months in Korea?”

“I don’t know where to drop her off,” Chan-woo would say, looking at Mi-sun in the rearview mirror.

Yobo, who cares,” Mi-sun would say. “You drive around the block.”

Chan-woo puts on his blinker and pulls to the side.

Aniyo,” says the girl, pointing straight in front of her.

“Get out,” Chan-woo says, pointing to the curb, reaching his hand back to open the door.

Why is he letting me out here? Jenna thinks.

Mollayo,” says the driver.

Jenna hands him two thousand won. She points farther down the road.

Before she came to Korea she read a guidebook. The Seoul of Korea, it was called. A Big Guide to a Small Country.

Do not wear sleeveless shirts in the summer, the book advised. Always take your shoes off before entering a home.

“Americans usually don’t fit into our clothes,” a representative from the school advised her. “Make sure you bring enough for all four seasons.”

Chan-woo drives farther down the road.

More crumpled bills, he thinks, looking down at the foreigner’s money. He digs his fingers into the coins beside him. After this, I will have to get rid of the dirty ones.

He wonders if the girl still has money from America.

“Quarter?” he could ask her. “Dime?”

But the girl is already confused.

Koreans do not tip at restaurants. Give the taxi driver a few extra coins.

“What else was in your guidebook?” Ian asks. “What about the dog soup?”

“Ian,” she says. “Only old men eat that.”

There are so many things he doesn’t know.

“We eat dinner on the floor,” she tells him. “There is cold soup in the summer.”

“Okay,” he would say.

“I don’t understand myself,” she says. “Every day, I see something new.”

“This shouldn’t bother you,” Mi-sun would tell him. “You drive the girl around. You make extra money.”

“It’s hard enough to lie down flat at night,” Chan-woo tells his wife. “I don’t want to drive anymore than I have to.”

“Only a few more years,” Mi-sun says.

“Okay. Then what?”

Chan-woo looks back at the girl. He puts on his blinker and pulls over.

Sam-channon,” he says, stopping the meter. He holds up three fingers.

The man’s face is lost to the strange underpass, the broken sidewalk. Where am I?

“Don’t you remember?” Ian asks.

“I’ve just never seen this underpass before.”

“Call the police. Call someone.”

Jenna steps out of the cab. The sidewalk is full of holes. She walks past orange cones. Broken cement. Dirt. Trash.

“You’d get lost in your own closet,” Ian tells her. “Put you in there, spin you around— you’d come out thinking you were in another country.”

I’ll wait for another cab, Jenna tells herself, sitting down. She puts out her hand. Someone will come.

The foreigner’s skin matches the sidewalk. Her arm sticks out like a fallen sign.

That’s unsafe, he thinks. ‘The drivers—they might run you over.’

Yeon-hwa once waited for him outside the recreation center for forty-five minutes. When Chan-woo finally arrived, Yeon-hwa opened the car door and sat down.

“I had to pick up another customer,” he told her.

The streetlights lit his daughter’s blue face. He could see her black hair dripping from the pool.

Above her, there is a tiny cartoon. A girl with squinty eyes and black pigtails.

Kwi-yeop-da,” her students would say. “Cute.”

“Yes,” Jenna agrees.

But here, the cartoon stares back. Its fist pointed up.

Guk,” Jenna reads. “Taehanmin-guk.”

There are more characters. She reads the sounds but does not understand their meaning.

“How many more months in Korea?” Ian asks over the phone.

“Four,” she tells him.

“Come home, Jenna. Come home.”

Chan-woo drops coins into the dish for cleaning.

“That silly ritual,” Mi-sun says. “You need to stop.”

You don’t know how humiliated I am, he wants to tells her. In my own country.

“I’m always driving that cab,” Chan-woo says. “I should be able to choose who sits in it.”

“No, you shouldn’t,” Mi-sun tells him. She picks up a coin. “It’s all the same money.”

Chan-woo’s wife turns off the light. In the dark, he imagines her silk dress. He takes out his brush.

Each coin must be cleaned, he whispers to himself. Chan-woo lifts one from the jar. He imagines the face of the admiral, Yi Sun-sin.

“Your face,” Chan-woo says. “I will clean it, sir.”

The admiral smiles back at him. Chan-woo polishes the coin like silver in the dark.

Pages: 1 2 3 | Single Page