“That’s Rachel, whose daughter takes violin lessons. They live two floors below us.” I dip my head, and she returns the bow. We’re out for an afternoon walk, and the local ajuhmas enjoy precious free time before their children return home from school. Soon, their evening will fill with private lessons, classes, and cram school. Korean mothers have a busy life.
“Good morning, Gray-shee!” Rachel yanks the leash of her gray Lhasa Apso yipping at a spider. “Graciela” is hard for Koreans to pronounce, and “Gracie” means they add a “shh” sound to the last syllable. I asked Rachel to choose a Korean name for me, the way they all requested an English name for themselves, but I can’t pronounce it. Eun-hye. It’s the Korean word for “grace” and a popular girl’s name, but the first syllable is too hard. Not un-hay or in-hay, but something in between. Plus, they giggle when they use a Korean name for me, attaching all sorts of honorifics. So, Gray-shee it is.
“Hi, Rachel.” Trinity holds out her hand. “Your dog is beautiful.”
Rachel beams and twitches the leash. “Soju! Say hello.”
Trinity squats on the sidewalk to pet the long fur. “Such cute red ribbons. What is her name? So-joo?”
“Soju.” Rachel covers her smile and looks to me for explanation. Her English is almost perfect, but she gets embarrassed by questions.
“Uh, soju is a kind of Korean alcohol, like vodka. Cheap and strong.” My co-workers made me try the stuff when I first arrived, but I decided it made better floor cleaner.
Trinity laughs. “So her name is vodka in Korean?” Soju sniffs Trinity’s hand before giving it an enthusiastic tongue bath.
“Your friend can hold Soju if she likes.” Rachel explains to me in Korean, but I’m not letting her off that easily.
“You say you have to study English, but you only use Korean with me. Why don’t you try to speak directly with Trinity?” From the pained expression on Rachel’s face, I seem to have conveyed my meaning despite my atrocious Korean. Trinity watches us both, looking frustrated. She’s never learned any other language, not even a few words of Spanish on Sesame Street. From what I can tell, the jerk known legally as her father decried foreign languages as tongues of the devil.
Rachel shakes her head, giggling some more. It took me a while to understand the difference between nervous and polite laughter, just like the smiles of polite anger. Yet I encounter inebriated passengers on the subway who puke up their guts. It’s a funny country, Korea, but I’ve come to love it. It’s not what I wanted for myself as a child, but it’s a life separated from bad memories. I hope someday that Trinity can feel the same way, but will she want to return? She might not think so now, but homesickness will set in eventually. I wonder, for a sickening moment, what it’s like to yearn for a home to which she can never return.
Looking at Trinity cuddling the teeny dog, I make the decision I’ve been putting off for weeks. Years, really. I can’t tell Trinity to face up to her past if I’m not willing to do the same.
“Yes, yes.” Trinity nods, encouraging each word from Rachel. “Your daughter chose the name Soju because she didn’t understand what it meant?”
Trinity speaks too quickly, and Rachel flounders before continuing. “Understand…Soju…Yes.” She breaks into frustrated Korean. “How do you say it? My English is so bad!”
Before I can translate or step in, Trinity picks up Soju and plays with the ribbons. “Your English is tons better than my Korean. How did you learn?”
When they smile at each other, the idea is so obvious I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to see it. “Of course! Why don’t you help each other? Rachel can practice her English by teaching you Korean, Trinity.” And Trinity can be grateful for a teacher who will praise instead of punish.
Trinity groans. “Can’t I teach you English instead? Korean is too hard!”
“Hangul is a scientific alphabet. King Sejong invented it so anyone can learn…”
Watching Rachel’s bright, happy face as she chatters to Trinity, I take Soju’s leash and let her back onto the ground. A few curious onlookers join in, correcting Trinity’s pronunciation and praising her for saying kamsa hamnida. Someone offers her Xylitol, the popular chewing gum made with sugar-free sweetener. The hard squares look like pale Chiclets. Pretty soon Trinity will be swarmed with would-be tutors eager to teach the foreigner. It happened to me ten years ago, and it will happen for her as well.
In the meantime, I have a phone call to make. “I’ll head back and let you chat,” I say to Trinity and Rachel.
“Oh, but—” Trinity looks hesitant until Rachel touches her arm.
“Do you like Korean food? I’ll make bulgogi and invite you for lunch.” Rachel chatters with the other ahjumas, and they argue what food is best for a foreigner. One suggests chap chae with its vegetables and clear noodles, while Ginny says kimbap is best. No, says another. Foreigners don’t like seaweed.
“Gray-shee, you’ll have to come, too!” Ever courteous, Rachel bows as I take my leave. I should have thought of this long ago. The ahjumas will make Trinity feel useful, and they won’t let her get away with shenanigans. I’d rather fight with a wild lion than an angry Korean mother. They’ll feed her, spoil her, and put her in her place.
As I head back to my building and jab the elevator buttons, my stomach feels as if it’s fallen down the shaft. She will be easy to find. The last name is unusual, and Mom has hinted at keeping in touch.
Danvers. It takes only a few searches before I locate her online profile, complete with current city. It takes a few calls to get her number from directory assistance, and I take a deep breath. I expect voice mail, but instead she picks up.
It’s been ten years, but it could have been yesterday.
“Hi, Jessie. It’s Gracie.”