Haircut in the Third Degree
by Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2004. All rights reserved.
The engine of the number 51 bus roared like the last wild South Korean tiger roared in defiance of the hunters who laid him to rest with their rifles over sixty years ago. As the green bus climbed up the last steep hill before the stop in Haewoondeagu where Jacob would finally be able to get off, the sound of the over-worked engine drowned out the sound of Jacob’s heavy breathing, and Jacob felt that he, like the last Korean tiger, was forever pursued and harassed by the onward march of civilization and progress. This bus ride would kill him, he thought, and if that didn’t happen then surely some other device of modern man like his cell phone would give him a tumor in his brain, and that would certainly be the end of him.
Jacob’s stop was at the bottom of the hill. So while the bus slowly but loudly ascended, Jacob prepared himself for the precipitous decent by bracing his lower body against the seat to his left, holding on to the top of the seat with one hand, while the other reached up above for the hanging safety bar. The Korean designer dress shirt he had carefully picked out from among the row of clean and neatly pressed dress shirts hanging in his closet back in the apartment on the campus of Pusan National University was soaked in perspiration since the number 51 bus lacked air conditioning and the Koreans crammed inside and around Jacob refused to open the windows in heavy traffic due to the smog and exhaust fumes outside. They were as drenched in sweat as he was as it was the middle of July, but they would rather have died of heat stroke than asphyxiation, or so it seemed to Jacob. His closely clipped black hair with visible but dignified streaks of gray was as wet as his shirt, and the beads of sweat rolled from his receding but still respectable hairline, down his furrowed forehead, under his wire rimmed glasses with the small circular lenses, and into his eyes leaving a uncomfortable stinging sensation. Jacob was standing in the aisle along with what seemed to be two-dozen Koreans of all ages who, like Jacob, had not been so fortunate as to find one of the coveted seats vacant when they boarded the bus.
Actually, when Jacob had stepped onto the number 51 back in Jangjundong near the front gate of Pusan National University, he had in fact spotted an open seat, but he allowed the seat to be taken by the stooped ajuma clutching her tub of dried ojinga between her arms. The old woman carried the large, round, heavy red plastic container and also a weighty toddler who was old enough to walk but refused to do so because he preferred to sleep in grandma’s arms, while she did the work of hauling and lugging and bearing the weight of the world. For most of the 90-minute crawl through the dense traffic of crowded Pusan, the old woman had smiled widely up at Jacob and offered him a free cuttle fish for his polite sacrifice and respect for the aged. Jacob had smiled back and politely refused, not because he disliked squid, but because he knew the taste and smell of sun-dried seafood would exacerbate the motion sickness that predictably overcame him every time he took the number 51 from Jangjundong to Haewoondeagu. The route was full of hills and curves and the maze of traffic which to the standard Pusan bus driver was something to be gotten around with the dangerous impatience of daring swears and maniacal weaving in and out followed by full throttle thrusts into oncoming traffic and through hazardous intersections. Jacob was no longer so young as he had once been and as the feelings of dizziness, queasiness, and exhaustion steadily increased, he had silently chastised himself for not taking a taxi or at least having the patience to wait back in Jangjundong for an air-conditioned bus with plenty of open seats for young and old, Koreans and foreigners alike.
As the bus reached the top of the steep hill Jacob braced himself for the descent. Unfortunately, there was a considerable gap in the traffic ahead of the bus and the driver had free reign for the length of the long decline. Jacob closed his eyes and mumbled a silent prayer in Hebrew as the number 51 sped down the hill. Finally, after a seemingly endless period of dropping and sinking into what felt to Jacob like the groundless, weightless void, the bus stopped and Jacob squeezed himself though the maze of wet Korean bodies in the aisle and exited the bus muttering a prayer of thanks to the God of the Jews in the language of his great grandfathers, while not neglecting to politely thank the bus driver in the language of the Koreans even though he was sure that lunatic had nearly killed him and the forty other innocent people on the bus a dozen times over on the route from Jangjundong to Haewoondeagu.
He stood at the curb and watched the bus roll away while taking in the familiar surroundings. He was standing at the bottom of a small mountain that was so distinct from the great wild beautiful forested mountains of the national parks he had visited at Chirisan, Soraksan, and Odeasan, as to raise serious questions regarding whether this elevation even deserved to be called a mountain. While the awe-inspiring peaks of the Korean countryside and national parks were covered in white-flowered acacia, pink cherry blossoms, junipers, jagged cliffs stunning in their magnificence, and clear mountain streams, this urban height was covered from the bottom to nearly the very top with apartment complexes, an assortment of small family-run stores, coffee shops, bakeries, and neighborhood restaurants selling cold spicy noodles, fried rice, barbecued pork, and raw fish. Concrete, cement, brick, glass, and a surplus of humanity had replaced hardwood, pine, and boulder; narrow asphalt roads wound their way down from the large apartment towers where once rugged streams had cut rocky beds from the summit to the valley below. And what was left of that valley which in the ancient past was home to striped Siberians who visited the streams at dusk to catch watering deer and crush their necks between powerful jaws equipped with massive canines? The valley was now just another concrete jungle in a ceaselessly developing land of ever expanding concrete, asphalt, steel, and glass. Where predator once hunted prey between mountain, stream, and vale, now cars, trucks, and buses roared and clamored through a maze of asphalt, while defenseless pedestrians carefully darted across the rivers of black and gray when the vehicular predators at the top of the modern food chain of the urban concrete jungle rested for a red light or a traffic bottleneck. Beyond the valley were other mountains, some scarred like this one with the habitats and progress of modern man, still others yet green with forested verdure, as this was the edge of the great city of Pusan, beyond which were towns and suburbs with more of a country feel to them, although inevitably they too would someday fall victim to concrete, steel, glass, asphalt, and progress.
Jacob looked up the mountain and could see Hee Young’s apartment tower near the very top, its 23 stories looking more like 50 when set atop the height of the mountain. Yet the mountain itself was not so high as to make the walk up the winding mountain road to Hee Young’s apartment much longer than 50 minutes, even on a hot and humid July day like this one. But after the harrowing bus ride Jacob was in no mood for exercise, so he flagged down a taxi and told the driver to take him to Hee Young’s apartment tower at the top of the mountain. “Jangsundonguk Apart ga chuseyo,” he said as clearly as he could in his faulty Korean which was no place near the level it should have been after seven long years of practice and living in Korea.
Despite the glaring errors in Jacob’s diction and inflection, the taxi driver was able to interpret the request and sped away up the mountain road as soon as Jacob climbed in, but before he had a chance to fasten his safety belt. As he struggled to quickly locate and fasten the belt with his delicate and soft scholar’s hands, and as he rode in the back of the comfortably air-conditioned taxi climbing the steep road leading up this most urbanized of mountains, Jacob again chastised himself for not taking a taxi all the way from the gates of Pusan National University to Hee Young’s apartment here in Haewoondaegu. The effect of the air-conditioning on his sweat-soaked body was positively chilling. He shivered as he asked himself a series of accusatory questions. Why did he always take the bus when there was no reason why a man of his age and position as Visiting Professor of English should not take a taxi? Why did he subject himself to motion sickness and the real possibility of heatstroke when it was so easy to avoid such discomfort and risk? Was he to forever torture himself in this manner, or would he someday permit himself to enjoy a momentary indulgence in one of life’s mundane luxuries, a simple ride in a taxi? Sure, a taxi would be expensive at this time of day on a Saturday afternoon when the traffic was practically at a standstill. If the taxi drivers were no better than the bus drivers in terms of their unequivocal embrace of all forms of risk while driving, at least in a taxi Jacob could strap himself in with a seatbelt and pretend he was buckled into a well-engineered roller coaster for which safety measures had been given adequate consideration. By contrast, standing up on the bus with only the hanging safety bar to steady himself, Jacob felt tossed about by uncontrolled forces of nature that confounded the design of man, much as if he were attempting to stand up on a surfboard in the middle of the East Sea during one of the seasonal typhoons. Cooling off in the air-conditioned cab Jacob tried again, as he had been trying for months on end now, to convince himself that things were going to change dramatically for him, and not just for him since he was no longer alone in the world. Yes, everything was going to change for the both of them, for Jacob and his new wife of five months, and all in just a few weeks.
The apartment towers, shops, restaurants, and people drifted by outside the window as the taxi steadily climbed up the mountain, and as he watched the passing scene Jacob had to convince himself once again that this time the job offer from America was a genuine offer that would not be belatedly withdrawn due to a shortage of departmental funds or an unforeseen complication with the grant. The small but prestigious Midwestern liberal arts college really wanted him to join the faculty, and this time no one was going to change their mind because the grant dried up or enrollment was down or because his sex and ethnicity were not officially listed in the “historically disadvantaged” category. There was really no need for Jacob to subject himself to the discomfort of a nerve-wracking bus ride in the middle of July, crammed into a bus with forty sweaty Koreans smelling of kimchi and fish like a bunch of sardines in a can when his good friend Leonard Koslowski from graduate school at Northwestern was now a tenured professor and chair of the new faculty search committee for the philosophy department at the small prestigious liberal arts college in Minnesota. Koslowski had called Jacob personally to offer him the position back in April. Jacob accepted immediately, and as soon as he hung up the phone went to notify Park Soo Ahn, the English Department Chair at Pusan National University and Jacob’s dear friend and colleague for the past seven years, of his immanent departure at the end of the summer semester. While Park Soo Ahn was terribly sad to hear that Jacob would be leaving Pusan National University so soon, that had not stopped him from pulling out a bottle of potent soju from his desk drawer and toasting to Jacob’s future in America. Everything was set and organized for the move to Minnesota. He had already sent most of his possessions, neatly packed into cardboard boxes, back to the states via container ship. Hee Young purchased the airplane tickets two weeks ago. Everything was in order and the job offer was real this time. So why not take a taxi instead of the bus? Why not ride in style instead of subjecting himself to the storm and tempest of a stop-and-go-sauna-sweat-bath Pusan bus ride? He continued to harass himself with these questions as the taxi climbed the twisting and turning mountain road.
Outside the taxi window, Jacob saw an old woman walking up the road with a brown plastic tub of some sort of edible herb balanced atop her head. The herb, which resembled twisted dried twigs, protruded from the top of the plastic tub. Behind the woman skipped a boy and a girl with multicolored oversized squirt guns resembling weapons from a bad science-fiction movie, which the children joyfully trained upon one another and emptied with the ardor of overheated youth seeking a means to cool off on an unbearably hot and humid July afternoon. Jacob thought the young ones might be brother and sister from the intimate distance they maintained between one another as they emptied the water pistols into each other’s faces. They became so intent on giving one another a shower there in the street that they forgot to continue skipping up the hill after grandmother, whereupon the old woman with the brown tub of twisted dried twigs (which were really some form of edible root that Jacob was sure he should have known by name, but for some reason he was unable to match the thing with the proper Korean word in his mind) turned around while balancing the tub on her head and scolded the children just as the taxi sped past her. Jacob turned to look out the back window just in time to see the little ones agree to a momentary truce in their little water pistol war and scurry up the road to follow the path of grandmother’s heels. As he watched the scene outside on the road Jacob wondered if Hee Young and her own brother and sister Jae Dong and Soo Young had once resembled the children with the squirt guns. Jacob remembered the photo albums Hee Young had brought to the apartment on the campus in Jangjundong after the wedding in March. She had spent what seemed like uncountable hours carefully describing and providing the background required to understand each photo several times over. Remembering their precious time together, Jacob was now certain that yes, Hee Young and her siblings had of course resembled the kids on the road in all of their synchronized vigor and intimacy.
What about the grandmother? Did she resemble the grandmother of Hee Young whose photograph he had seen on several occasions? It was impossible to tell, not because the taxi sped away and left the old woman too far off in the distance to see, but because no one in Hee Young’s family had seen Hee Young’s paternal grandmother since the Korean War. Jacob remembered several black and white photos of the mother of Hee Young’s father that Hee Young had carefully explicated as she and Jacob sat at the small Formica kitchen table in the tiny campus apartment. The young women in her late teens in the photo wore the traditional white hanbok and looked exquisitely beautiful, but also awkwardly stern and cross, as though she did not understand that one was supposed to smile for the camera's eye. There were no photos in Hee Young’s album of her grandmother as on older woman. In fact, the photos of her in her late teens were the most recent ones Hee Young’s family possessed, as the unfortunate beautiful eighteen-year-old mother had disappeared in the great confusion and catastrophe of June 1950. While her husband and her son, Hee Young’s father, had made it safely to the Pusan perimeter, the last line of defense after the devastating invasion of the communists from the north, Hee Young’s grandmother had been lost by Hee Young’s grandfather amid a panicked crowd in the night as thousands of refugees fled bombs and the advancing North Korean troops. Hee Young’s family always maintained that her grandmother had somehow been transported to safety in the north, but the unspoken suspicion was that she had been laid to rest by strangers in an unmarked grave after perishing at an unknown time in an unknown place in circumstances that were mysterious in every respect save the certainty of horrific pain and anguish. Whenever Jacob and Hee Young studied the photograph of the beautiful young woman with the solemn aspect, Hee Young was always noticeably touched with a sense of loss she could not fully gauge since she never could be sure just what had been denied to her by the irrevocable forces of history. Jacob responded the only way he knew how, by reaching across the small Formica table to gently hold Hee Young’s hand and by speaking of his confidence in an eternal afterlife where all family and friends of good people will inevitably be reunited in some sphere ruled by justice and love.
The grandmother on the road with her grandchildren appeared to shrink as the distance between them and the taxi increased, and then the multi-generational trio disappeared around a turn and Hee Young’s apartment came into clear view about a half-mile up the twisted road. The 23 stories seemed both much higher than 23 stories and oddly out of place there near the top of the mountain. Jacob wondered how the Korean construction workers who had built the apartment tower had managed to transport all the building materials and heavy equipment up the narrow mountain road. How many difficult trips up and down the road by how many vehicles with straining engines had been necessary for the completion of Hee Young’s apartment? Hundreds? No, certainly more, perhaps a thousand. And her apartment was just one of more than a dozen identically designed apartments rising up out of the mountainside, each man-made precipice a testament to the ability of the people of a land that is 70-percent mountainous to cope with their environment. How many doggedly persistent trips up and down the mountain road had been required to cover the entire mountainside with a village of apartment dwellers? And how many assiduous trips up and down a thousand other mountains like this one all across Korea had been required to build thousands of dwellings for hundreds of thousands of Koreans who were so intent on realizing their dreams of home ownership that they were willing to purchase their homes high above the clouds? The engineering required to build these apartment towers was extraordinary, and the effort required to get the job done was monumental, even if the apartment towers themselves, in their monotonous homogeny, had the distinctly dreary appearance of dull uniformity. They were all-white in color with the same blue and red stripes running down the sides. Only the large blue numbers identifying the addresses distinguished one tower from the others. Hee Young’s apartment tower, with the large blue number 506, was up the road just about a half-mile by the time Jacob was finished marveling at the logistics of its construction.
Jacob pulled out his cell phone and quickly dialed Hee Young’s number.
“Anyounghaseyo,” she said in her pleasant voice.
“It’s me Jacob. My taxi will be pulling into the parking lot any minute now.”
“Terrific,” said the pleasant voice, this time in English. “I’ll tell Abugi and Umoni. They’ve been waiting all morning for you.”
“I know,” Jacob said apologetically. “Traffic was terrible as usual. I took the bus again when I should have taken a taxi. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry, husband. Abugi and Umoni always take the bus. Even though Abugi has his own car now, he never takes a taxi. He says now that he knows all about driving, he understands better how terribly the taxi driver is always driving. He says the taxi driver is terrible really and the bus driver is the better one and safer. Umoni takes the bus because she fears a taxi driver with bad intentions for the woman passenger.”
“I know your father and mother take the bus, but I still don’t understand why. Why doesn’t Abugi drive now that he has his own car?”
“He is afraid he will make an accident and crash his new car.”
“I thought you said he thinks he is a good driver. Why is he afraid of having an accident?”
“Abugi is a great driver. The best. But the roads are full of lunatics who always bali bali bali, you know, hurry hurry hurry. Abugi is afraid a taxi will smash his car that he paid so much for to buy. Anyway, don’t you worry about Abugi and Umoni.”
“I am very worried about them,” confessed Jacob. “What will they do after I take their oldest daughter away from them?”
“They will live like they have lived before,” Hee Young said after a short pause, “Perhaps not so happily and complete, but they will live. Anyhow, I told you a thousand times already not to worry about them. We will be happy and they will learn to call me and write e-mail. My brother will teach them about the wonders of modern technology so they will learn. Oh my husband, right now I am standing at the window and I can see a taxi heading towards the parking lot. Here comes my Jacob I think, if that is you inside. Probably that is you, so I will leave here now and come out and meet you in the parking lot.”
Jacob put away his cell phone, one of the few luxuries he allowed himself in Korea. Actually, a cell phone was not so much a luxury in this country where it seemed that almost everyone had one. Given the gusto with which the country had embraced the cell phone craze and in fact all new technologies of the computer age, having a cell phone of your own in the first year of the millennium in Korea was more like a necessity required to please those closest to you who demanded constant accessibility.
The taxi sped on for a few more moments as Hee Young‘s apartment loomed larger, very close now, and then disappeared completely from Jacob's view for a brief moment when the taxi made a sharp turn and another apartment tower obscured the view. Finally, the cab whipped around the obscuring building and there was the parking lot to Hee Young’s building, full of cars, mostly Hyundais and Kias, with a smattering of Daewoos and Samsungs parked in neat rows, bumper to bumper in some places. Just before the cab pulled up to the front entrance, it passed a small shelter in the middle of the lot built for the apartment security guard. The security guard looked through the open doorway of the shelter to vigilantly scrutinize the taxi and its passenger after turning his view briefly away from a shelf of black-and-white closed-circuit security monitors. The older security guard in his blue uniform stood up lazily and peeked his head out of the open door of the shelter to watch Jacob exit the cab, seeking to determine if the white man posed a threat to the inhabitants of the building he was in charge of watching and protecting from all the menace and peril a world of strangers held for the families and other residents under his watch. When Hee Young ran out to meet Jacob in the lot and took his black imitation leather overnight bag away from him, the security guard, recognizing Hee Young and then a moment later Jacob as Hee Young’s frequent foreign guest, was satisfied there was no threat posed by the tall, lean, bespectacled American with the shortly cropped black hair with distinguished streaks of gray. This did not mean that the security guard, who had no knowledge of the fact that the two lovers were legally married and assumed that that were not, approved of the foreigner’s frequent visits to the home in which he knew three Korean women, two of them young and therefore in his mind obligatorily innocent, resided. Something deep inside of him, call it love of Korean virtue or call it prejudice, in fact made him feel reluctant to let the American pass into the building, but he recognized that in this day and age in an ever-changing Korea that was so different from the Korea he knew as a child, a man of his station no longer had the authority to interfere in the personal matters of the residents of his building.
Hee Young, a full fifteen years younger than Jacob, had long straight black hair that was as untouched by the signs of age as were her entire countenance and inner spirit. Her face was large and round, as were her eyes, and both her face and eyes were possessed of a striking beauty, which was at once robust and sturdy. When she was angry her face resembled the face of her grandmother in the old black-and-white photograph in that its beauty conveyed a powerful resolve that was close to hardness but lacked the menacing rawness of unadorned vigor. She was not more than five feet three inches tall and when in a cheerful mood and merrily walking double time to keep astride the thin and narrow six-foot-two Jacob, all of her sternness melted away into a captivating exquisiteness, and one would dare say a downright lovable cuteness, until she looked quite the enchanted pixie next to her awkwardly lanky mate.
Jacob in contrast to Hee Young had nothing so zestful or magically charming about his appearance. Although he was still attractive and trim in physique, he was not a man to stand out as the most handsome one in a crowd. His thin form was due more to his finicky eating habits and a habitual nervousness which at times played havoc with his appetite, than to any proclivity towards physical exercise. A peculiar confluence of masculine and feminine qualities were as apparent in Jacob’s visage as they were in Hee Young’s, and without intending to be in any way discourteous to Hee Young, one would certainly have to agree after having seen the husband and wife together on more than a few occasions that Jacob was the more delicate, indeed the more fragile-looking, of the two.
Hee Young held the black imitation leather overnight bag in one hand and Jacob’s hand in the other when she led him into the entrance of the apartment building as the old security guard shook his head while thinking of a time and Korea long past gone, smoothed out the wrinkles in his blue uniform, and returned to his shelter in the middle of the lot with its shelf of black-and-white security monitors.
Hee Young and Jacob exchanged greetings in the elevator as they rode it up to the 15th floor, which was really the 14th floor but was numbered as the 15th floor since the Korean residents of the building considered the number 14, like the number 4, to be bad luck.
“My husband. I am overjoyed to see you. I am complete in my happiness when we are together,” Hee Young said.
“I love you too, Hee Young,” said Jacob, finding it hard to believe that he was saying such words to a woman again, even though he had been saying them to Hee Young almost daily for a year now. After his divorce with Natasha several years before he never imagined that he would be able to bring himself to speak tenderly and romantically to another woman. Natasha, who had stuck with Jacob all through graduate school, dissertation, post doc, and several years of sub-poverty-line adjunct posts with different Midwestern institutions, was unwilling to commit herself to a life of academic exile in Korea, after Jacob decided to leave his native land behind and came to the Far East to teach English after finding it impossible to land a full-time post with a philosophy department in the States. Natasha had lasted all of seven months in Korea before she had enough of the inconvenience and isolation of living life as a foreigner. The pretty undergraduates who followed Jacob around campus in their mini skirts and tried to invite him out for coffee were an annoyance, which perhaps she could have tolerated in America, but was unable to look past in Korea, when pleasing Jacob was the sole reason why she had agreed to subject herself to what she considered to be a second-class existence as an expatriate. Even her teaching post at a private language institute near the Pusan National University campus was not sufficiently rewarding to distract her from her severe culture shock and homesickness. There are some people who embrace the adventures of travel in foreign lands with an optimistic curiosity for everything exotic and new. Other people see each day away from home, familiar surroundings, and loved ones as an unbearably bewildering and intolerable extended sentence more taxing to the psyche than solitary confinement. Natasha fell into this second category of forlorn travelers. To make things worse, she had dreams of getting into the real estate business back home in a big way and consequently felt teaching Koreans the rudiments of English conversation was far beneath her capabilities and aspirations. Finally, it was impossible for Natasha to live a Jewish life in a country with no synagogues and fewer than 100 Jews in the entire republic, and when every weekend students at the University, eager to establish contact with foreigners, begged Jacob and Natasha to join them for a celebratory meal of deji kalbi, Korean barbecued pork. It always irked Natasha that Jacob never refused these invitations, even though he knew Natasha would limit her meal to white rice and bitter peppers, while all the rest, including Jacob, who decided to set aside what he had learned long ago in Hebrew day school in order to please his students, feasted on the deji kalbi.
Natasha was so convinced she had to leave Korea that she made up her mind to leave with or without Jacob as soon as she could book a flight. Because she loved Jacob, she at first had tried to bargain with him, even promising to vigorously commit herself to learning everything there was to learn about real estate so she could become a success back home and assume the role of primary wage earner, if only he would agree to return to America with her. But Jacob refused to compromise and return to the precarious and humiliating life of an adjunct philosophy professor earning less in one year than was required to pay even the cheapest rent in the least fashionable of neighborhoods. There were several weeks of nightly quarrels, which degenerated into screaming matches waking up the neighbors in the faculty apartment complex at Pusan National University. At the end of these taxing weeks, Natasha was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Jacob purchased the plane ticket himself, helped her pack her bags, and rode with her in the taxi through heavy traffic to the airport. At the airport he said goodbye and “I love you,” believing that might be the last time he uttered those words to a woman. But here he was speaking to Hee Young in the manner he had spoken to Natasha twenty years ago in Evanston as they had strolled along the beautiful shores of Lake Michigan near the campus of Northwestern University.
“You know I can’t exist without you,” Jacob said to Hee Young in the elevator.
“Yes, but we have been separated for two weeks already, although it has seemed like two months or two years. It’s been two weeks since you sent me to visit my family. My family thanks you for that kind gesture before I leave for America. We, my parents, my brother, my sister, and I had many affectionate and sad moments during these two weeks, but we were joyful to be together for this final time as one whole family. Even though they showed me their great love each of these fourteen days, I thought more often about you than them because I missed you dearly and painfully, so much that the two weeks went by slowly. I see you still exist as you were before, because I see you standing there in front of me as you did when you dropped me off. You exist the same and are unchanged by our separation, but for me it has been a severe trial.”
“But I called you each evening. We talked every night,” Jacob protested. He sounded a bit hurt by Hee Young’s melodramatic displeasure, but actually he cherished her excess of emotion.
“Yes, you called, but not every night,” Hee Young plainly stated.
“I’m sure I called each night before I went to bed,” Jacob dissented.
“It was not as you say, husband,” she said again, this time sternly.
“Are you sure? I thought I called each night.”
“You did not call the first Tuesday or Thursday. Again you did not call the next Monday or Friday.”
“I’m sorry Hee Young. I thought I remembered.”
“Your memory is not so strong, I think. You forgot to call me four days of the last fourteen.”
“Four days out of fourteen,” Jacob proffered, “That is not so terrible, is it Hee Young?”
“Perhaps you think so. You are used to living alone, and love and marriage are familiar to you since I am neither your first lover nor your first wife. Yes, that is why you still exist unchanged as you were before you left me two weeks ago so I could visit my family. But you must understand my situation is entirely different from yours. You are my first and only love. I never was with any man before you, not even in college when all of my seniors wanted to date with me. I snubbed them all because I refused to subject myself to the influence of any man. I was certain I would never marry because I thought I would never meet a man who would respect my will to be independent of all masculine guidance and control. But then I met you and you showed me your sincere heart and promised to treat me as your equal. I believed you and everything you said to me was like God’s truth from the sky. I believed you came to me from heaven and was thankful for the destiny that brought me to you. But now I am disappointed because your love has not been equal to mine these past two weeks. Why did you not call? For a new wife to be separated from her new husband for so long is so terrible and beyond my capacity to endure. I needed to talk to you and hear your voice each day.”
“I’m sorry Hee Young. What else can I say? I’m sorry I forgot to call a few times.”
“Not a few times. Four times. Tuesday and Thursday and again Monday and Friday. But don’t apologize, Jacob. Now you are here in person, and now we can talk each moment. I am full of happiness and overcome with the joy of married life.”
“It will take time for you to adjust to that life, Hee Young. You are only 24 and have never been married before, while I am almost 40 and am not a stranger to marriage. Soon your separation anxiety will pass and you will learn to cope with a short vacation from your husband. Everything will get easier with time. You’ll see.”
“So you think the problem is with my inexperience and not your weak memory and forgetfulness. Perhaps you are right, but must you remind me of your previous marriage and your previous life with Natasha? Why is your memory so strong for her when it is so weak for me? Why must you speak of her and so force me to think of her? I hate to think of her. I hate Natasha.“
“You never even met Natasha, and I did not mention her name just now, you did.”
“Even so, I hate her and would kill her if I could. Did you love her more than you love me? Please answer directly this time.”
“Hee Young,” Jacob said noticeable annoyed but trying to also sound full of understanding and compassion. “I never mentioned Natasha and do not think of her constantly as you do. I have told you a million times that we don’t have to talk about that time in my life if you don’t want to. Darling, you can help yourself a great deal by not asking me ridiculous questions.”
“Now it is I who am sorry, Jacob. It is I who must remember, must remember not to ask ridiculous questions which upset both you and me. Hold my hand and let’s get ready to greet Abugi and Umoni.”
Jacob could only comply with the request as he knew only full compliance would pacify his wife. The elevator brought them up to the fifteenth floor which was really the fourteenth floor, and they had been talking for several minutes in front of the door to Hee Young’s apartment, which was actually the apartment where Hee Young had lived with her parents and her younger brother and sister before her marriage to Jacob. Hee Young knocked on the door and cried out in a Korean sing song voice, “Umoni, open the door. Jacob is here.” A few seconds later the door opened and there was Hee Young’s twenty-year-old younger brother Jea Dong, smiling a sheepish smile and wearing a face that was remarkably similar to Hee Young’s in her pixie stage.
“Hello, Jacob. So nice to see you another time,” he said as he reached out his arm to awkwardly shake hands with Jacob. He was obviously more accustomed to bowing, as evidenced by the strange angle with which his hand met Jacob’s and the weakness of his grip. He turned around and in the same sing-song voice Hee Young had used a moment ago, a voice which sounded like a melodic and not at all disagreeable whine or moan, Jae Dong sung out, “Umoni. Abugi. Jacob is here.” Then he again addressed Jacob.
“How was your travel from Pusan National University Jacob,” Jae Dong asked in English that was not as good as Hee Young’s, but still perfectly comprehensible.
“Traffic was terrible as usual,” Jacob answered.
“I see it was. I think you must have taken the bus. Your shirt is wet like you jumped into the swimming pool with your clothes on,” Jae Dong continued. Then he laughed aloud. “You should have taken a taxi. You are a professor, not a barber.”
Jacob self-consciously felt his shirt with his hands. My God, Jacob thought, Jae Dong was right. His shirt was still drenched from the suffocatingly hot bus ride. Jacob rubbed his hand across his head through his shortly cropped black hair. His hair, like his shirt, was wet with perspiration. Jacob was embarrassed in the sudden realization that, soaked as he was in his own sweat and the sweat of the dozens of Koreans who had squeezed with him into the smelly sardine can bus, he needed a good shower and heavy dose of strong deodorant. He felt the need to excuse himself, throw off his shoes, take off his shirt, and run to the bathroom to rinse his body in the cold water of the shower. The apartment was not air-conditioned, and the two fans whirling in the small family room might cool his body, but would do little for the smell which Jacob was positive he now sensed through his nostrils.
“I’m so sorry,” Jacob stammered. “I know I should have taken a taxi. Please excuse me, Jae Dong.”
Jae Dong laughed uneasily at the obvious embarrassment he had caused the man who was so much older and accomplished than he. Jae Dong knew that Jacob was a professor with a PhD from a famous American university, while he, Jae Dong, was just a mere high school graduate still studying for his college entrance exams after two years of rejected applications to Pusan National University, the very school where Jacob taught English. Jacob was also the husband of Jae Dong’s sister and was to be treated with the love and respect a family member deserved. Who am I, Jae Dong thought to himself, the son of a barber, to inflict such humiliation upon my only brother-in-law?
Jacob heard Jae Dong’s laugh and was sorry that his embarrassment had caused so much discomfort for Hee Young’s brother. Jacob sensed his own awkwardness around Hee Young’s family. Jae Dong continued to smile, trying hard to make Jacob feel comfortable. The language barrier made communication between the brothers-in-law difficult. Smiling back at Jae Dong, inside Jacob feared even this simplest of greetings with the twenty-year-old kid, Jae Dong, like it was an intricate philosophical dialog with a faculty search committee full of irritated tenured professors who relished their prerogative in judging his professional competence. Jacob tried to calm himself down. So his shirt was wet and he didn’t exactly smell like a bouquet of roses. So Jae Dong was standing there in front of him biting his lip and smiling, not sure what to say next. Things had been much worse. The first time Jacob had paid a visit to the family, Jae Dong had slammed the door in Jacob’s face after calling him a Babo Kojengee Yankee, which translated to a stupid big-nosed American. But after his marriage to Hee Young, Jae Dong and the rest of Hee Young’s family had fully embraced Jacob as a dear brother and son; they treated him like family when Jacob knew they could have treated him so much worse. Jacob had heard numerous stories from his expatriate colleagues at Pusan National University about the Korean mothers and fathers who unequivocally rejected and refused to meet or even acknowledge the western spouses of their Korean daughters and sons, and who sometimes went so far as to renounce their very own children for marrying foreigners. For Hee Young’s family, such narrow-minded behavior was unthinkable. The humble barber, housewife, and their polite and considerate children were possessed far too much of the simple dignity of good honest folk to allow themselves to sink to such bigotry. Nonetheless, Jacob understood that he was an American, and what’s more a Jew, and therefore necessarily also a thing of great mystery and fascination for Hee Young’s family. Certain issues would never be fully resolved.
Just then Abugi entered the foyer, and with a wide smile on his face the tiny father of Hee Young welcomed Jacob with a handshake that, unlike Jae Dong’s, was firm and deliberate. He looked genuinely pleased to see his son-in-law, slapping Jacob on the back repeatedly with his free hand, while saying over and over again barely comprehensible greetings in the faltering smattering of English slang he had picked up from the American service men and other foreigners who sometimes visited his barbershop near Camp Hieleah, the American military base in the Choub district of Pusan. “Jacob. Long times no see. Watchya gonna do? No sweat. How’s going?” Abugi said warmly.
“I’m doing fine Abugi,” said Jacob, using the same appellation for Hee Young’s father that Hee Young and her siblings used. Before the wedding, Jacob had called Hee Young’s parents Mr. and Mrs. Park, but after they were married Hee Young insisted Jacob use the more familiar Abugi and Umoni when addressing her parents. “I’m very glad to see you Abugi.”
“No sweat.” said Abugi, still slapping Jacob on the back.
“Not no sweat. Many sweats,” Jae Dong said timidly.
“Ah, I see, I see,” Abugi conceded. “Yes, yes, many sweats on Jacob. Jacob’s shirt wet like a sponge. Too hot outside in Korea now time, Jacob. Special too hot here place in Pusan. You need to cool down. Take a breather. Catcha breeze. Ok ok?”
“I’m sorry,” Jacob said with a contriteness that was indisputably authentic. “I mean, I’m terribly sorry. What I mean to say really is that I probably, I mean, I definitely should have taken a taxi but I took the bus instead for some reason. I don’t know why I was so foolish, but now there’s nothing for me to do but to ask for your forgiveness, Abugi.”
“No sweat. No sweat. Take a relax and catcha breeze,” said Abugi. “How about take a cold shower and then change a shirt?”
“Yes Jacob,” Hee Young chimed in. “Abugi has a good plan. Take a shower and I’ll get you a nice shirt from your overnight bag. Then when you are cool and clean, you can talk a long time to Abugi. Maybe Abugi can cut your hairs.”
“Well, ok,” Jacob assented. “I definitely could use a good washing. I’m not sure about the haircut though,” he continued as he ran his fingers through his soaked but already closely cut black hair with distinguished streaks of gray. “I mean, Abugi did cut my hair the last time I was here, and that was only two weeks ago when I came to drop Hee Young off.”
“No sweat. No sweat,” insisted Abugi. I make a good haircut for you Jacob. Go now to shower and I go get my scissors. Ok ok? Ok ok!”
“Well, alright. I guess I can stand a bit of a trim,” Jacob said only to please Abugi. Meanwhile he thought to himself, that’s all I need, another haircut from Abugi. I’ve been losing my hair slowly for the past few years and Abugi wants to help speed up the process of my decline into middle age. Then Jacob rebuked himself for being so unkind to his father-in-law, even if only in his thoughts. “I’ll go take a shower and then Abugi can take a tad off the top and trim my sideburns.”
Hee Young kicked off her shoes and placed them in a sort of shoe closet in the foyer, and then she kneeled down to pull off Jacobs’s shoes one at time and placed them next to hers in the closet. She took Jacob by the hand and led him across the tiny living room of the modest three-bedroom apartment to the bathroom. She turned on the shower and tested it with her fingers to make sure it was cold enough. She looked for a clean towel on the towel rack next to the bathroom sink, but finding that the towel hanging there was not fresh, she called out in Korean to Umoni to bring her a clean one. Waiting for her mother to come with the towel, Hee Young tested the water again with her finger and then flicked a few drops into Jacob’s face, causing Jacob to flinch in surprise as he had not expected Hee Young’s teasing sprinkle. A moment later Umoni stood before the bathroom door with the fresh bath towel. She was hesitant to enter, afraid of intruding upon the privacy of her oldest daughter and her son-in-law. Umoni spoke absolutely no English and was even scared to endeavor to test out the new phrases like “Hello Jacob” or “See you later Jacob” which Jae Dong and Soo Young had been trying to teach to her over the past several months. However, since this was the first time Umoni had seen Jacob that afternoon, she said anyounghaseyo and then handed the clean towel to Hee Young. Hee Young took the towel and moaned a reprimand to Umoni for not trying to greet Jacob in English. The short Umoni, who was as small in stature as Abugi, politely nodded her head in a quick bow Korean-style and apologized in Korean to Jacob for her regrettably poor English. She would study hard and learn to speak English soon, she promised in Korean that Hee Young but not Jacob could understand, not for herself but for her son-in-law, so she could tell him how much she cared about him and admonish him to take good care of her oldest daughter. Then Umoni went back to her work in the kitchen where she was preparing Jacob’s favorite Korean dish of kalbi tang, a delicious soup made with beef ribs, green onions, red pepper paste, and seasoning. In the bathroom Hee Young tossed the towel into Jacob’s face and told him that the water was ready, nice and cold. “Go wash yourself perfectly,” she ordered. “Wash away all your sweat and dirty bad smell. Make sure you use soap and wash away all traces and memories of the women you loved before you met me. Take a good wash up and be fresh and clean for Umoni and Abugi.”
After Hee Young shut the bathroom door, Jacob was alone with the water running from the faucet. He stripped bare, first unbuttoning and pulling off the wet and smelly designer shirt with great relief, and then pulling his spindly legs out of the dark-brown cotton Korean imitation Dockers he had been wearing. He hung both the shirt and the pants on the towel rack until he noticed that the imitation Dockers showed signs of excessive perspiration in an embarrassing location, namely at the seat of his pants where there was a small, but noticeably wet, impression of his buttocks starting several inches below the fake Dockers tag. Upon discovering the discomforting sweat marks on the seat of his pants, he let out a low exasperated moan which expressed his complete and utter mortification, then he grabbed the pants to examine the wet spots more closely. After scrutinizing the wet marks carefully for several minutes, gazing down at them with all of the concentration required to study a philosophical text, he finally convinced himself that, yes, Jae Dong, Abugi and the rest of them had all seen the wet marks. He grabbed the pants in disgust, tore them off the towel rack and threw them on to the bathroom floor in the corner so he would not have to be reminded of them. Shaking his head back and forth and muttering recriminations to himself, he turned to face the mirror above the sink.
He studied his face in the mirror for a few minutes and touched the gray streaks in his black hair in order to convince himself they were real. Those streaks would only be getting bigger he thought to himself, and he wondered if it was time for him to consider purchasing some cream or treatment which would return them to their former youthful black. He imagined that the face of the person staring back at him from the mirror looked older than it had the last time he had studied it, and he could have sworn it was transforming itself and aging by the second before his very eyes. However, his dread and fear and sense of mortality abated somewhat when he recognized that he could still be pleased and even a bit proud that, in spite of the fact that the glorious days of his youthful vigor were now behind him, his face remained tolerably attractive even if no longer the mug of the not unhandsome youth he had been back in the day when he and Natasha had examined their faces together in the bathroom mirror before showering together in their tiny grad student apartment in Evanston. As he tore himself away from the mirror and stepped into the cold shower he wondered if Hee Young would ever shower with him the way Natasha had. First, he would have to invite Hee Young to bathe with him, and before he did that he would have to overcome his embarrassment at the visible weakness half a decade without physical exercise had imparted to his muscles.
The shock of the cold water intensified his focus on his body; shortening his breath and making him feel alive and energetic again. Simultaneously, the activity of his mind seemed to accelerate with one thought jumping to the next with lightening speed and no single thought lasting for more than a few seconds, as if it were unable to withstand the drop in temperature. As the feelings of youthful vitality were temporarily restored by the cold shower, Jacob shifted his weight from leg to leg in a sort of comical dance under the cold spray. He felt he had to move, shake, and take quick short breaths or else turn to an immovable block of ice. He must move his body. Action and movement were the things. He told himself that the first thing he would do after he returned to the States and got himself situated on the campus of the small but competitive liberal arts college in Minnesota was to get himself a faculty pass to the physical education center so he could work out and get into shape and restore movement to his body. He would exercise with a religious regularity until he looked like he had looked ten years earlier. Then he would ask his wife to join him in the shower. They would play together. He would caress her breasts and she would scrub and stroke his body and feel how large and solid his muscles were. Afterwards he would teach her how to make love standing up, and like a couple of oversexed undergraduates, intent on erotic experimentation and the discovery of new and exotic lovemaking positions they would devote entire afternoons to pleasure making and increasing their water bill. As a full time professor of philosophy, he would have no trouble paying the increased water bill and all his anxieties about finances and his ability to support his wife would evaporate. He might even be so bold as to brag about his water bills to his good friend and colleague Leonard Koslowski. But maybe that would not be such a good idea since Leonard might tell someone in the philosophy department, or even worse a student, and people might start talking. That would be embarrassing and it might even adversely impact his career. How could they see him as a philosopher and scholar if they knew about his shenanigans with his wife in the shower? Yes, if they found out about it he would be finished. If they knew what he was thinking about this moment they would certainly have him arrested. But on second thought, if she were his wife, were their activities in the shower really shenanigans? Could a man have shenanigans with his wife or was that simply impossible because illogical. Didn’t Leonard take showers with and make love to his own wife standing up? Surely he did. Everyone did that. Didn’t they?
These were the thoughts that the cold water caused to race through Jacob’s mind as he showered in the apartment of his wife’s father and mother.
All of a sudden, over the sound of the shower, Jacob heard Abugi loudly call out something in Korean to Umoni. It was possible to hear Abugi because the water pressure was not that strong and Abugi was sitting on the couch in the family room, which was adjacent to the bathroom in the modest and small apartment. Jacob heard Umoni shout something just as loudly in response to Abugi’s remark. Then Jacob heard the voice of a younger Korean female whine an annoyed complaint, but he was not sure whether the voice was that of Hee Young or her younger sister Soo Young. The sounds from outside of the bathroom shook Jacob from his jumbled train of thought so much so that he was immediately overcome with the fear that the people in the living room could somehow read his mind and were at that very moment fervently discussing the inappropriateness of everything Jacob had thought about during his shower. Overhearing the sound of the family outside the bathroom door, he began to feel that his nakedness left him exposed to the critical view of the entire world even though the door was shut and he was alone inside the bathroom. Wanting the self-conscious, paranoid feelings of compromised exposure to disappear as quickly as possible, he turned off the water and began to vigorously dry himself with the towel, rubbing the towel against his skin like an abrasive sponge against a dirty frying pan. After he was completely dry, he wrapped the towel around his waist and felt much more secure and unobserved. He searched through the cabinet behind the mirror for a clean new razor and shaving cream and then, after the cleaning the mirror with his hand, started to shave for the second time that day.
Out in the living room, Hee Young, who was involved in a heated discussion with her family about the romantic life of a noted Korean pop singer who happened to be singing his latest hit song on the television that very moment, heard the water stop running when Jacob shut off the shower. She ran from the living room to the foyer to find Jacob’s overnight bag and pull out a clean cotton Korean imitation Ralph Lauren polo shirt and a clean pair of fake Calvin Klein khakis, the clothes Jacob would change into after he dried off. Hee Young was proud of herself when she read the fake labels on the clothes. Jacob had saved a lot of money buying these Korean pirated imitation brands after she had convinced him that they were as good as the originals. He had saved even more money on the dozens of pirated music CDs and software discs which she had also convinced him to purchase after several drawn out philosophical arguments about the nature of theft and the morality of supporting those who made their living by stealing others’ creative works and ideas. Hee Young had won the argument by pointing out the inescapable fact that pirated goods were so ubiquitous in Korea that it was impossible to know for sure if any brand name products they bought in even the best stores were genuine. Hee Young examined the shirt and pants with a cute, self-satisfied smile that revealed her pride in the small victory she had won by convincing Jacob to set aside his principles and buy the pirated clothes. With all the money they had saved from purchasing these clothes and other clothes like these, Jacob should buy her lovely things like chocolate or fresh cut daisies, or so thought Hee Young. Looking for wrinkles she held up the shirt and pants and tried to count in her head the number of times Jacob had purchased lovely things for her since they were married five months ago in March. Jacob had indeed brought home flowers and special Korean treats on a few occasions which she was happy to remember, but what a new wife needed she believed were far far more chocolates and daisies. Her aspect of cheerful pride was transformed into a sullen frown which was no less cute but expressed, with all of the melodrama she possessed, her disappointment with the differences between her own life and the images of romance and true love she had seen portrayed in Hollywood movies and in romance novels. There had been a time in her life when she believed all American men were like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt in affairs of the heart, but her short experience as a married woman had taught her that her Jacob would never be so suave or passionate. Still, he said he adored her and she loved him dearly even while she playfully muttered her grief at the fact that his shirt and pants were hopelessly wrinkled and would need a good ironing.
Hee Young cried out to Umoni in the kitchen to fetch the iron so she could make Jacob’s shirt and pants presentable for Abugi. Umoni left the food she had been preparing on the stove after turning off the gas. She scampered over to the short hallway between the living room and her and Abugi’s bedroom, and then she retrieved the iron from the hall closet. She took a clean towel from the closet with the iron and came to Hee Young by the foyer where she kneeled down to lay the towel on the floor and plug in the iron. She told Hee Young to hand her the wrinkled clothes, to which instruction Hee Young vehemently protested, telling Umoni that she must not iron the clothes since Hee Young insisted that she could take care of her husband’s ironing and other domestic needs by herself.
“Go back to the kitchen, Umoni, and make sure Abugi’s supper is delicious. I can take care of Jacob’s ironing myself.”
“I am more experienced in making clothes free of all wrinkles,” said Umoni. “You might burn them or make some other irreversible mistake.”
“Umoni,” Hee Young said, her voice rising in anger, “I know how to iron these clothes. I helped Jacob buy these clothes. Give me the iron.”
“Let your mother do her son-in-law a favor and iron his pants and shirt. Give me the overnight bag. I will iron everything in there. It gives me pleasure to help my children as I best can.”
“Umoni!” shouted Hee Young. “You have had more than enough to do today in the kitchen. I know how to iron perfectly well by myself. Do you think I am a stupid child who does not know how to iron a shirt? Why must you always treat me like a little girl?”
“I have more skill and experience in these matters. Bring me the overnight bag and go back to the living room to talk with your brother and sister.”
“I must iron the clothes myself. I am a married woman, not a child.”
“You are still my child. Go talk with Jae Dong and Soo Young. You will leave them in a week. They will miss their Nuna, their older sister.”
Umoni was visibly upset after she said this. Hee Young saw the tears well up in her round eyes and roll down her cheeks flushed red with emotion. Hee Young stopped yelling and spoke softly but emphatically to her mother.
“Umoni. I will call every week and write e-mail every day.”
“I don’t know how to read e-mail. I do not know how to use the computer.”
“Jae Dong and Soo Young will teach you about e-mail like they are teaching you English. E-mail and computers are not so difficult. This is the twenty-first century. You can learn to write e-mail for your daughter. But if you want you can just write me a letter on ordinary paper, and I will write back the same way.”
“What good are letters and phone calls when I can not see your smile in my own house or stroke your hair with my own hands.”
“I already promised you I would visit you. I will visit you. I am not going to melt into the air and disappear forever. I am only going to America in an airplane. If I can go there in one airplane, another airplane can bring me back to you just as easily.”
“How often will you visit? Will you visit us on Chusok and Lunar New Year?”
“I do not know. Americans do not celebrate those holidays. When I find my job in America my boss will make me work on Chusok and Lunar New Year. I am not sure when I will be able to visit Umoni. I will visit when I can and when Jacob and I can afford it. Please don’t worry. I may not visit as often as you would wish, but I promise I will visit.”
“If you can’t afford to visit we will pay for your flight.”
Hearing this Hee Young shook her head and sat down on the floor cross-legged beside her mother.
“Umoni,’ she said, “You and Abugi are not a millionaires. Abugi is getting older and before you know it he will not have many years of work left in him. Already his fingers ache and are swollen from 30 years of cutting strangers’ hair with his scissors day in and day out. How can you possibly afford to pay for my ticket?”
“I will find a way to pay for my daughter and give myself true happiness in the company of my children.”
“How will you pay? You hardly had the money to pay for Abugi’s new car which he never drives.”
“I will take a job?”
Hee Young laughed aloud at her mother’s assertion, but all the same she handed over Jacob’s wrinkled shirt and pants to Umoni who was still kneeling on the floor before the iron and towel. Hee Young reached over and hugged Umoni tightly and told her she was the greatest Umoni in the world.
“You are the greatest Umoni in the world, but you will never find a job. Abugi will never allow it. Besides, you already have a job. You must work hard every day to take care of Abugi, Jae Dong, and Soo Young.”
“They are not babies,” Umoni protested. “They can learn to cook and clean when I am at work. Someday Soo Young will get married and she will move away from us so I will no longer have to take care of her. Hopefully one day Jae Dong will bring his future wife to live in our home and she will help me with the housework.”
“They will never allow it,” Hee Young stated. “Especially Abugi will not have his wife work,” she laughed.
“Why do you laugh at me?” Umoni cried. “You are leaving us. Are you so happy that you will never see your family again? What will we do without you? How can I go on living without my oldest daughter and best friend by my side? Life is so cruel and unfair.”
Hee Young hugged Umoni again.
“Umoni, you must not think that way. I said I would visit you and I will keep my promise. You must believe me. Now please, just iron Jacob’s clothes and don’t worry about money for any flight. Just relax and make these clothes lovely for your son-in-law.”
Umoni took the shirt and pants from Hee Young and prepared them to be ironed. Seeing the fake Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein labels, she consoled herself with the thought that her daughter would not want for money and perhaps might even earn her fortune in America. America was such a rich country, she had heard Hee Young tell her many times, full of endless opportunities for anyone willing to work hard. Surely her daughter, who had once again proved her commitment to hard work when she won a scholarship to Pusan National University for graduate studies in English Literature (the very scholarship that hard work and fate had arranged for her so that she would meet her husband Jacob in her English class) would make a good and happy life together with her intelligent professor husband in that beautiful country Minnesota. So what if Umoni did not know where Minnesota was, or the difference between New York and Minneapolis for that matter. America was a great country and her children would be prosperous and contented there. But if they had money problems, if for some reason Jacob lost his job at the college, the two of them were welcome to move in with her and Abugi back in Pusan. Umoni and Abugi would help them as much as they could. And Umoni really would find a job if her daughter needed her to, she told herself as a determined grin swept across her face. Despite what Hee Young had said about Abugi never allowing it, she would get a job. And if Hee Young would not accept her money for an airplane ticket, she would fly to America herself to visit her children in beautiful Minnesota. It would be difficult figuring out how to navigate through the airports and reading all the English signs, but for her daughter she would overcome her fear of English and travel, and she would fly to Minnesota by herself if necessary.
Umoni pushed the iron over the pants leg and with each even rhythmic stroke she thought of each thing she must do in order to make her trip to Minnesota possible. Teach Abugi to wash the laundry and dishes. Stroke. Teach Jae Dong to cook kalbi tang. Stroke. Find Jae Dong a match so he could get married and bring his wife to live with him and help her mother-in-law with the housework. Stroke. Study English day and night with Soo Young. Stroke. Find a job. No. First convince Abugi she could find a job. Stroke. Then find a job. Stroke. And so on, until the pants and shirt looked like they had been pressed at the dry cleaners.
When Umoni finished ironing the clothes, Hee Young took them to Jacob in the bathroom who was finished shaving for the second time that day. She told Jacob he looked very clean, young, and handsome, clad only in his towel, to which compliment Jacob responded with a polite but unenthusiastic “thank you,” since he believed her flattery had its source in her unconditional love for him rather than in any singular attribute of his appearance. Hee Young told Jacob to hurry up and get dressed, which he did as soon as she shut the bathroom door.
A few minutes later Jacob was sitting in his fresh clothes on the living room couch in between Abugi and Hee Young. The extra soft cushion of the couch thankfully gave way easily underneath Jacob, allowing the tall professor to sink down low and feel more on the same level with his wife and father-in-law on either side of him who were both so much shorter than he. Jae Dong and Soo Young were sitting cross-legged on the floor while Umoni had returned to the kitchen to finish preparing Jacob’s favorite Korean dishes for supper after picking up Jacob's dirty clothes from off the bathroom floor, exactly where Jacob had left them, and throwing them into the wash. The TV was on, tuned into the music program with the same pop star singing whose scandalous love life had generated such heated debate among the family when Jacob was in the shower. It was the family’s shouted assertions, remember, all about the impropriety of the playboyish pop star in maintaining not one or two but rather four girlfriends, which had awoken Jacob from the jumbled progression of confused daydreams, which could also have been termed scandalous, at least if we followed the tortured logic of Jacob’s mind during his brief moments of extreme discomfiture and paranoia in the shower. Using the word scandalous to refer to both the pop star’s romantic intrigues and to Jacob’s passing fantasies in the shower is perchance less than entirely appropriate when one considers that in the first case of the pop star, no one had actually been informed by the prudish Korean media of the precise sexual nature of his relationships with his coterie of female admirers, and in the second case of Jacob, the long-legged and self-doubting professor in his confusion in the shower had not been able to settle on a clear, convincing, and valid definition of the term “shenanigans,” and therefore the existence of a verifiable scandal was in serious doubt. Nonetheless, it was, in truth, peculiar how both men, the pop star and Jacob, although living lives that were diametrically opposed if measured according to some scale of passion, excitement, and adventure, both men were possessed of an aura of inflated Eros that kept them ever preoccupied by a highly sexualized imagination, even if in Jacob’s case this quality had begun to fade into modest romanticism as he approached his forties and his intensely academic bearing in time mooted all the natural and healthy eroticism of his youth.
Though the pop star was obviously the one who exuded more of the essential magnetism which famous stars and talents are known to possess in limitless quantities, it was Jacob and not the gifted singer on television upon whom the family members gathered in the living room focused their attention after Jacob took his seat on the couch. Watching the pop star and debating his indiscretions had been entertaining while they patiently waited for Jacob to finish his shower, but now all eyes and ears were trained on Jacob as the family waited for him to speak of his plans for himself and Hee Young in America. Soo Young even grabbed the remote control and turned down the volume on the television so that while the family watched Jacob, and he in his habitual nervousness sought to avert his gaze from their searching eyes by staring at the television screen, Jacob saw but could not hear the young singer gallivanting about on a disco fog-covered stage with a troop of dancers clad in shiny hip-hop jump suits Bright lights, trendy clothes, the latest sounds and moves were now sold and eagerly consumed the world over in this age of globalization, Jacob told himself as he wondered whether Hee Young or her sister, Soo Young, could dance like the lively young women jumping, gliding, and sliding all about the television screen. His attention was drawn away from the TV and back towards the family when Jae Dong spoke to him.
"How was your shower Jacob? Do you feel nice and cool now?" asked Jae Dong.
"Fine, thank you. I feel brand new," Jacob answered.
"You look very clean and fresh," said Soo Young, "My sister is very lucky to have such a handsome and clean husband."
"Thank you. It is I who am lucky to have your sister as my beautiful wife."
"She is beautiful and you are lucky," Soo Young, the sprightly teenager, agreed. "Especially you are lucky because she is so young and pure of heart while you are not so young and are a man with much experience. Your body is clean and handsome, but what about your mind. My sister is a true and good person and you must remember always to give her your whole love.”
“I promise I will always do my best for her.”
“That is what you must do to be a good man. But tell me Jacob, there are many beautiful and lovely women in Korea and American and in every country. What will you do if you meet a beautiful woman on the street in America, and she invites you to join her in the coffee shop or bar?"
"Yes yes," Jea Dong chimed in as he joined his sister, Soo Young, in her examination of Jacob’s intentions and trustworthiness. "What will you do when the most beautiful woman in Minnesota, maybe she will be your young and sexy student, she will propose to meet you in a top-secret place? Will you go there with her?"
Hee Young smiled when she heard her sister’s and brother’s questions. She had asked Jacob the same sort of questions herself on countless occasions. She knew that such questions always made Jacob slightly irritated though his answers were always aimed to please her, soothe her fears of abandonment, and as was also obvious to the perceptive and sharp Hee Young, pacify her. She wanted to answer the question for Jacob, because she felt somewhat embarrassed that her younger sister and brother had the verve to grill her husband the way Hee Young had so often done herself. But then she recognized that soon her entire family would join in and take part in this final interrogation of poor Jacob in order to reassure themselves that he was in fact the honest and well-intentioned man Hee Young said he was. They were not about to let him take their Hee Young across the ocean to America without cross-examining him to make certain that he could be trusted to give their beloved sister and daughter all the attention and devotion they demanded for her. She was precious, delicate, and fragile in their eyes, though Jacob knew she was made of sturdier mettle, and they insisted he handle her with the prudent care required for a so priceless a jewel. Understanding their anxiety, but also sympathizing a great deal for the uncomfortable situation their concern presented for Jacob, Hee Young answered her siblings' questions while Jacob still sat muttering indecisive assurances of his fidelity, without clearly responding, because he had been caught off guard, in spite of the fact that these inquiries were nothing new to him.
"I would never, never hurt...” Jacob stuttered.
“Will you follow the beautiful woman to the secret place?” Jae Dong asked again.
"Jacob will do what I have taught him to do," said Hee Young.
"That's right. I couldn't, I wouldn't think of..."
"He will do what I have trained him to do in that situation, when the beautiful sexy woman meets him on the street."
"What did you teach him to do in that situation, Nuna?" Soo Young asked eagerly.
"Yes, Nuna, tell us what you taught the brilliant professor?" insisted Jae Dong.
"Ok. Jacob, show me what I taught you to do when the beautiful woman approaches you on the street or on the bus or in the coffee shop or anyplace. Remember how we practiced?"
Jacob tried to figure out what his wife was talking about, but this was one of the times when either Hee Young's heavy Korean accent or his own faulty memory prevented him from fully comprehending her speech. Perhaps he had not been paying attention weeks ago when she had forced him to practice for the eventuality of his meeting a tempting rival of his wife on the street. He tried to remember what Hee Young had trained him to do but could only vaguely recall the specifics of their conversation, though he did clearly remember the look of urgency in her eyes as she had conducted her lesson having something to do with his legs, or so he thought.
“I’m sorry,” Jacob apologized. “Right now I can’t remember what we practiced.”
“Jacob, your memory is not good,” Hee Young chastised him with rising perturbation. “We practiced our plan to avoid the other woman many times since we were married. How can you forget my instructions and training for our happy life together?”
“I don’t know why I can’t remember it this second. Does it have to do something my legs? Am I supposed to run away from a woman who approaches me with an indecent proposition? You told me I have to run away, right?”
“Not run away!” shouted the exasperated Hee Young, who by now had forgotten all of the sympathy for her husband that her family has inspired in her by giving him the third degree. Now she was ready to join them in their cross examination. “I never told you to do anything with your legs or to run. Sure, you can run away if you like, but that beautiful woman and everyone else watching you will laugh and call you a strange man. And you are a strange man because you never listen to me when I tell you something important for our future life and happiness. So you think I told you to run away when I said nothing about that. You will look so funny running away from a woman like she is something so fearful. Everyone will say you are not a man. Are you really so afraid of a beautiful woman that you cannot look her in the face and retain your composure? Am I so unattractive and ordinary that you must flee from the presence of beauty in order to keep your love for me pure? I thought your love for me was more enduring. Is your love so shaky that you have to work so hard to preserve it?”
“Now Hee Young,” Jacob pleaded, “You know I love you and think you are the most beautiful woman in Korea and the world. My love for you is unshakable.”
“Is that what you said once to Natasha? Why can’t you remember what we spent so many hours practicing? You are a professor and a genius but you do not remember very simple and basic instructions that are necessary for our happiness. But I am finished talking about that now because it is rude for us to argue like this in front of my family. I will talk to you about this later.”
“Yes, you should not talk to your husband like a common uneducated person in front of us. You must be a role model for your younger siblings,” said Soo Young, who suddenly decided that she would defend Jacob against her sister’s criticism. Jacob thought Soo Young’s assistance was rather belated since she was the one who had sent the conversation down the contentious path it had taken with her initial question about Jacob’s intended response to a proposition from some beautiful woman who Soo Young believed Jacob was destined to meet someday on the street. The audacity of the teenager in asking him such a cheeky question had reminded him of his wife, so much so that he decided to accept her Soo Young’s support in order to please as many of the family members present as he possibly could.
“Your sister is right, Hee Young,” Jacob said. “If we argue in front of her, she will have a bad image of us when we are gone.”
“You should be happy, Hee Young,” added Jae Dong, who like Soo Young decided to support Jacob after seeing him attacked by Hee Young, “Because Jacob said you are the most beautiful woman in Korea. You are lucky to be married to a man who thinks you are more beautiful than Miss Korea. You are not Miss Korea. That is the truth.”
“Jae Dong is right,” continued Soo Young in Korean. “You talk to your husband like you think you are a princess. I think maybe you have the princess disease, the illness that makes a woman expect royal treatment from everyone, especially from men. The woman with the princess disease thinks no compliment is worthy of her beauty, no gift rich enough to satisfy her insatiable need for tribute. She expects to be venerated and praised like a goddess and is ignorant of the fact that she is an imperfect being like the rest of us. You must come back down to this earth and leave behind the heavenly palace of you imagination because it does not exist in this world. Your younger sister and brother will be lead in the wrong direction if we follow your bad example.”
“Yes,” Jae Dong agreed, “Our mother and father did not raise us to place ourselves above other people like you place yourself above your husband. You should be more subservient and less contentious, following the style of the older generation.”
“Not subservient. A woman is not a man’s slave,” said Soo Young. “You must respect your husband, but do that so you can demand his same respect for you. Then you will have true equality in your marriage. That is the style of young people today, even in Korea.”
“I think the better way is the way of our parents and their older generation. Obedience is necessary for a peaceful household. A woman must work hard to avoid arguments and dissension with her man. Three women talking will break all the dishes in the house. This is a traditional proverb which shows us that a woman’s tongue is born of strife. A good wife knows how to keep quiet.”
“That proverb is stupid, Jae Dong, and you are even more stupid because you believe in it,” Soo Young said angrily. “You should remember another proverb. If a man talks too much he will lose his organ and become a woman. That should happen to you, Jae Dong, so you can find out how it feels when a stupid man tells a smarter woman to keep quiet. Why should we have to keep quiet when so much that you men say is foolish and unwarranted? You are the ones with the loose tongues which you should learn to keep to yourselves.”
While the war of the sexes raged on Korean style between the two representatives of the younger generation, Jae Dong and Soo Young, Abugi, representing the older generation finally, after keeping silent for most of the time that his children argued, was moved to speak in an effort to restore calm and order to the assembly gathered in the living room. Meanwhile Hee Young continued to sulk and badger Jacob because he was unable to remember what she had taught him to do in case he were approached on the street by a beautiful woman. Speaking over Hee Young’s voice until she silenced herself out of respect for her father, Abugi made the following appeal, speaking in Korean to his children.
“Children, you must not argue like this in front of your father. I am old and cannot tolerate your bickering. Do you want to give me stress and sap my energy with your heartbreaking immodesty? I just want to enjoy my time with my family, especially when my oldest daughter is about to leave for the United States with her new husband and my new son-in-law. We must all be happy during our final time together as one whole family in our home. Jae Dong, you say you like the style of the older generation. If that were really true you would respect your father and give him some peace on a hot afternoon when he finally has a day off from work to spend with his children. And Soo Young, you say woman is equal to man. In the year 2001 perhaps that is true, but if you really believed that you would not question the intentions of your brother-in-law and imagine that some stranger woman will steal him away from your sister after he has promised to love her forever. Your sister is smart and a good judge of character. She would not marry an immoral and dishonest man. We must trust her judgment and trust that Jacob will take care of Hee Young in America, just as your mother and I have taken care of her in Korea for 24 years. Please don’t embarrass your father by making Jacob so uncomfortable in my home.”
Then, turning towards Jacob Abugi continued in English.
“Jacob. No sweat. You not listening to little sister and little brother. They talk like children. Father want to believe in you and hope you take good care of Hee Young in America Minnesota State. You must be a good man. Please. Work hard, make a good job and have a happy life with Hee Young. Ok ok? No sweat. Ok ok.”
After listening to Abugi, Hee Young took hold of Jacob’s hand while telling Abugi that he did not have to worry about Jacob and her in America. She said she would make sure that Jacob treated her right. All of Abugi’s faith in Jacob made her feel strong and confident about her future in America and she was sure that it was good luck and propitious for her parents to be free of worry while she was gone. Sure, sometimes Jacob was forgetful and unable to concentrate on her as exclusively as she focused all of her energies on him, but that was because he was older and as a professor had many more responsibilities and profoundly deep and important thoughts occupying his mind. Abugi and Umoni did not have to worry, Hee Young told Abugi. Although Jacob divorced his first wife, he would never allow his marriage to Hee Young to falter. He had learned from his mistakes in love and life and would die before he left Hee Young or allowed her to leave him.
Seeing that Abugi was somewhat comforted by her words, Hee Young turned again towards her husband and resumed her accusatory tone and questions about the lesson she had taught him and he had forgotten.
“Jacob, give me your hand and I will make you remember what I taught you for our happy life. Can you do this for me?”
Jacob complied with the command and placed his right hand in Hee Young’s left.
“No. Not that hand. Give me the other one, your left hand.”
“Sorry,” he said as he withdrew his right hand and gave her his left.
“Very good, my husband. Now watch carefully and see me.”
Hee Young held up Jacob’s left hand in front of his face. With her free hand she grabbed the fingers of his other hand and held them tightly, so tightly that it almost hurt Jacob.
“What are you doing?” asked Jae Dong.
“Is this an American game?” Soo Young inquired.
“Will you perform a magic trick?” Abugi asked.
“Just see me very closely, everyone. Jacob, pretend you are in America Minnesota walking on the campus path to your class. You are alone by yourself, and I am far away at home or at work. Coming towards you on the campus path is your most beautiful female student. She has long black hair like mine, she is very tall and sexy, and she is far more beautiful than I. She is not short and flat-chested like me. Instead she has the biggest chest and the longest legs in your college. In class, she is brilliant and always looks at you and smiles. After class she follows you to your office and asks you to meet her for coffee. But you know she wants more than coffee. She is so young and innocent looking that you think she must be a virgin. Now Jacob, tell me what you will do in that situation with that student.”
Stammering and searching for the answer he knew his wife was waiting for but could not think of himself, Jacob was only able to provide an unsatisfactory response. Meanwhile, Hee Young continued to hold up his left hand in front of his face as she tightened her grip on the fingers of his other hand.
“Hee Young,” Jacob managed to get out, “I don’t know why you like to torture yourself like this. This is not a real situation you are talking about.”
“It is real! Do you think I am the only beautiful woman in the world? Of course you will see other woman who will move you like I did when you first saw me in your class at Pusan National University. I am not so stupid as to imagine that you have gone blind now that we are married. In America beautiful women are as plentiful as leaves on a tree, so you will have many chances to make comparisons against me. Now tell me, what did I teach you to do in this situation.”
“I’m sorry, Hee Young. I can’t remember.”
“I hope your resolve is stronger than your weak memory when the beautiful virgin approaches you.”
“There are no virgins left on American college campuses,” Jacob stated soberly.
“Be careful not to become too much like the Americans, my daughter,” Abugi interjected.
“America is very free,” said the amazed Jae Dong.
“You wish you were American, Jae Dong,” said Soo Young.
“Jacob, watch me carefully and pay attention this time,” Hee Young demanded. Still holding up Jacob’s left hand in front of his face, she took the index finger of his right hand in her tiny fist and pointed it at the ring finger of his left hand. Guiding his index finger, she forced Jacob to touch his wedding ring repeatedly until his memory of practicing this action with Hee Young on numerous occasions was triggered.
“Of course,” he almost shouted, “Now I remember. How could I have forgotten? You showed me how to do this many times. I don’t know why I could not remember this.”
“Your mind is occupied with weighty thoughts, so you easily forget what even a small child can remember. Forget about your philosophy for a second and pay attention to your wife when she teaches you something important for our happy life. You just do this,” Hee Young instructed as she continued to touch Jacob’s index finger to the wedding ring on his hand held up before his face, which was now relieved of some of the look of embarrassment and awkwardness his faulty memory had formerly inspired.
“This is easy. I can remember this,” Jacob proudly announced to all in the room.
“You have a good teacher,” said Abugi. “You must not forget her lesson.”
“I won’t,” Jacob said.
“You have trained him like a dog, Hee Young,” laughed Jae Dong.
“Don’t say anything to the other woman. Just do this and keep on walking to your class,” Hee Young demanded.
“I will. I will, don’t worry. I promise I will do as you wish,” Jacob promised.
“Never speak to that woman outside of your class and never forget to show her your wedding ring, which you gave to me according to the laws of your Moses,” Hee Young almost pleaded while referring to the sacred promise Jacob had made at the quasi-Jewish wedding Jacob convinced the Jewish army chaplain at Camp Hialeah to perform in a rented wedding hall back in March. He had been able to obtain the rabbi’s services only after promising to the ultra-modern reconstructionist that Hee Young would convert to Judaism when they got their lives in order in the states.
“I promise I will not forget to point to my ring, just like I will never forget what we promised to each other on our wedding day.”
Later in the afternoon, when everyone was seated on cushions on the living room floor around a low table which Umoni had completely covered from end to end with small bowls and plates of Jacob’s favorite Korean foods, everyone was more relaxed and in a festive mood. Jacob’s mouth watered in anticipation of the beef rib soup called kalbi tang, the fried peppers stuffed with rice and tofu called gochu twigim, the clear rice noodles with beef and mushrooms called chop chae, the fried rice, the kimchi, and many other tasty dishes that filled the table and room with a colorful variety of cuisine emitting strong but delicious odors. Usually Jacob was a finicky eater, but Hee Young had made certain that her mother prepared only those Korean dishes that Jacob enjoyed. Umoni served the food as Jacob and the rest of the family ate heartily and conversed in a more relaxed tone than had characterized the interrogation Jacob had been forced to endure earlier.
While they consumed the delicious meal, Hee Young’s brother and sister asked endless questions about the environment, people, culture, holidays, schools, foods, and daily routines of life in the faraway, exotic, and beautiful land called Minnesota. They were particularly interested in finding out as much as they could about the lives of young people in that country to which Jacob would soon be taking their older sister. Did American high school students have to study as hard as Korean high school students? How many hours a night did they sleep? More than the four or five hours that was customary for Korean students during the difficult and stressful years of preparation for the grueling standardized national college entrance exams? Did they have more freedom to play sports, socialize, date, and stay out late as they pleased? Was it really true that some American high school students, and sometime even middle school students, became pregnant and gave birth to fatherless babies? Who took care of all of those babies and their young mothers? To what extent were drug use and abuse of alcohol a part of American youth culture? Did children have to live with their parents before they got married as they did in Korea? Would they take care of their parents in their old age as was the custom in Korea, or did all the son and daughters of America send their parents to nursing homes? What did Americans think about Korea and Koreans? Would Hee Young be able to find kimchi and other essential Korean foods in Minnesota? Jacob tried to answer these not at all simple questions as honestly as he could, striving to present a balanced and realistic picture of life in America that would not appear overly exotic or alien to Jae Dong and Soo Young. He tried to stress the similarities between Koreans and Americans rather than the differences, because his goal was to emphasize the common trials, struggles, and ambitions that unified all of humanity rather than give Hee Young’s siblings the impression that the American life their sister would soon be leading was bound to be hopelessly exotic, incomprehensible, and frightening when compared to the life they knew as young people in Korea. Young Americans, Jacob explained, just like their counterparts in Korea, longed to receive their share of fair credit and respect from their parents, teachers, and other adults who were often sadly ignorant of the maturity and good will of so may young people who worked so hard to bravely meet and sometimes just muddle through life’s many bewildering challenges.
Abugi listened to the children’s questions and Jacob’s answers with great interest and concern, and from time to time he called out to Umoni in the kitchen to take a short rest from her work of serving and waiting upon her family in order to listen to her son-in-law’s fascinating descriptions of the country which would soon be the home of their eldest child. He also asked Hee Young to translate a good part of what Jacob said since the smattering of English Abugi had picked up from cutting the hair of foreigners at his barbershop near Camp Hialeah was far from sufficient to allow him to comprehend English as quickly as Jacob could speak it. From the kitchen, Umoni shouted that she had far too much work to do in there to join the family at the table, and that she was not about to let her children and Jacob go hungry on such a momentous occasion. She had not cooked all day long only to let the product of her efforts grow cold and stale and subject to the criticism of her children and her guest Jacob who was now, as her son-in-law, also one of her children and deserved to be treated with all of the love she reserved for the children born of her womb. Everything had to be served piping hot and fresh so that the delicious flavors would have the intensity required to create a lasting memory of the small sacrifice Umoni was only too glad to make on behalf of her family. Besides, she could hear everything said in the living room quite clearly as she shuttled back and forth from the kitchen and living room in order to make sure every bowl and plate was full and refreshed with the hot food. She promised she would take her meal after the rest of the family finished, as was her usual manner.
Abugi was not satisfied with his wife’s answer to his request and continued to insist that she take her seat on the floor in the living room, if only for a minute, so she could politely lend her son-in-law an ear. Abugi even got up once and walked to the kitchen to exchange a few anxious words with Umoni in private, all to no avail since Umoni adamantly refused to take even a moment’s rest. It was only after Hee Young warned Abugi that Jacob might feel uncomfortable if he were forced to watch Abugi and Umoni argue over him that Abugi let up on Umoni and accepted that on this evening she was resigned to do as she would see fit, at least for the remainder of the meal. Hee Young was happy to see her father give in and thought for a moment that perhaps some day her mother really would be able to convince Abugi to allow her to work and save her money for a trip to America, just as Umoni had announced she would do when she had cried to Hee Young over Jacob’s ironing. She just might persuade Abugi to allow her to help out the librarian at the culture center where she studied calligraphy for an hour each Thursday morning, or she might earn a few thousand won (which is not so much and equals only a few American dollars) a day by shopping and cooking for some of the elderly grandmothers in her building whose children had moved away from Pusan to other cities like Seoul and Inchon in search of better jobs. Teaching father to cook his own kalbi tang and gochu twigim would be more difficult if not impossible, but who could tell how things at home might change after Hee Young shook her parents’ world from its foundations, and as it was prudent to say, turned that world upside down by leaving the comfortable safety of her family and their home in Pusan for a new life in America full to an equal degree of endless possibilities and unknown hazards.
Jacob continued to describe the beauty and virtues of America and Americans, speaking of the country’s vast national parks like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canon, and Sequoia which left one speechless, and also of the magnificent metropolises like New York and his native Chicago, with their towering skyscrapers and wealth of diversity and culture. Even more breathtaking were the people’s jealous love of freedom, rights, liberty, equality, and the democracy that made all of these incalculably valuable and inalienable things possible. Abugi’s fascination and absorption in everything Jacob said about America, but in particular his concern regarding the troubling sense of permissiveness and looseness that permeated Jacob’s descriptions of the manner in which American’s viewed their personal freedoms, moved him to interrupt his children on more than one occasion to ask a pointed question or two that revealed both his deep concern for the welfare of his oldest daughter and his unshakeable faith in the essential trustworthiness and virtue of his son-in-law. One such question was so revealing of Abugi’s totally exposed vulnerability in the presence of the man who would now take over his role as protector and primary provider for Hee Young that it brought the old man to tears. Sometimes he spoke directly in his broken English to Jacob, while at other times when he did not know the words which he considered to be so important and essential now when there was so little time before Hee Young and Jacob would be on their way to America, he spoke in Korean and asked Hee Young to translate for him.
“You will take good care of Hee Young in Minnesota state, ok ok?” Abugi asked Jacob with a look of the most serious concern and anxiety on his face.
“Of course I will Abugi. I will take care of her. I give you my word,” Jacob promised.
“I thank you for that. I think you are the good man Jacob. I think you are different from most American men,” said Abugi.
“Abugi thinks most American men can not be trusted,” said Soo Young. “He hopes you are not like that.”
“Quiet, Soo Young,” said Jae Dong, “You are insulting your brother-in-law by speaking so poorly of his county’s people.”
“Don’t worry Jae Dong,” said Hee Young, “Though you are amazed and impressed by Jacob’s descriptions of America, Jacob knows his country and its people are not perfect. He is smart enough to know that no country and no people exist in the world that are without fault. Abugi,” continued Hee Young, “Jacob is not like any other man in America or Korea. He is not perfect but he is true and honest. He could not dream of hurting me. He will never leave me.”
“I promise I will do everything in my power to make sure Hee Young and I live happily together in America,” Jacob again promised.
“I believe you are telling me the truth,” said Abugi in Korean with Hee Young translating for him. “You must be telling me the truth. Because if you are not telling me the truth, if you are lying to me, if you some day forget about all of your promises you make to me today and the many other promises you have made to me on other occasions when you have spoken to me of your intentions for my daughter, and if you love another woman, then you will be like a murderer for me. If you should ever hurt my daughter in that way, you will make an old man cry and take away his strength for life and his faith in humanity. I promise you I will kill myself on that day because I trusted you and gave you all the power over the most precious thing in my life and you responded to my faith in you by treating my lovely princess, who was pure and innocent when you found her, like she was a common whore. Jacob, you are a foreigner and an American. Nonetheless, I say you are my son and I let you eat with me at my table in my home with my children because we are all one whole family together. You must know that I will be utterly shattered and destroyed if you are ever cruel to my daughter. If you ignore my love for you and hurt my little girl, I swear to you I will slice my throat with the sharpest scissors I own which I have used all these years to cut foreigners’ hair in order to support my family, bring them food, give them an education so they will not have to work in a common job like mine and provide them with this modest apartment in which to live a decent and virtuous life.”
It was not easy for Jacob to look at the older man as he pleaded in this manner for Jacob’s good treatment of his daughter. The tears in Abugi’s eyes revealed the seriousness of his words. Deep down, Jacob knew Abugi trusted him, and he was certain that his desperate promise had been intended as more of a soliloquy than a threat, but it was still very troubling for Jacob to hear the father of his wife speak this way. The only thing Jacob could do in this situation was to listen intently to Abugi and make a point of putting his arm around Hee Young’s shoulder and grasping her hand tightly in order to visibly demonstrate the strength of his love for her and the indissolubility of the bonds of marriage which held the two of them together and united all present in the wholeness of a family.
Later in the evening, long after everyone had finished dinner and returned to the living room couch to recover from the meal, long after even Umoni had finished eating at the kitchen table accompanied only by Hee Young who insisted on keeping her mother company as she silently ate, and after Soo Young, Hee Young, and Umoni had worked together to clear the low table in the living room of the multitude of small bowls and dishes and then washed them all in the kitchen sink, it was finally time for Abugi to bestow upon Jacob that singular gift it had been his custom to bestow upon Jacob nearly every time he visited Hee Young’s family. Jae Dong fetched one of the chairs from the kitchen and Soo Young found a folded blue-and-red-striped barber’s apron in the closet, while Abugi took out his kit of barber’s instruments, opened it up and began to inspect and finger the combs, scissors, clippers, and other assorted tools of his trade neatly packed in the black velvet-lined compartments inside. Jacob sat down in the kitchen chair looking rather tall and awkward with no table in front of him. Abugi vigorously shook open the folded blue-and-red-striped apron in the air and guided it with expertise and experience as it lightly floated down over Jacob’s torso. Abugi fastened the apron behind Jacob’s back after tucking in a clean small white bath towel around Jacob’s neck to ensure that not a single hair fell down the back of his shirt to trouble him with an annoying itch. The extreme heat of the day had somewhat abated with the coming of the night, but it was still uncomfortably hot in the apartment, even with the two fans running full speed in the living room, and the towel around Jacob’s neck did not do much to alleviate his sensation of his own steadily rising body temperature. He felt like excusing himself from the haircut and running off to the shower again. He reasoned that while such an impulsive move would certainly be interpreted as rude because it would deny to Abugi the opportunity to lavish his favor upon Jacob in the manner he was most capable of, it certainly would not be entirely unjustified since Jacob did not need a haircut because Abugi had cut Jacob’s hair only two weeks earlier when he had come to drop off Hee Young for her visit with her family. Of course these passing thoughts were inconsequential as the entire family gathered around Jacob and Abugi to watch and make suggestions concerning how Abugi could make the American look more handsome. Jea Dong suggested that Abugi leave the sideburns long in the style of the younger generation, while his sister Soo Young cautioned Abugi not to take too much off the top because that would make Jacob’s receding hairline more noticeable. Umoni wondered aloud if she had any treatment in the bathroom that would take care of the streaks of gray, to which query Hee Young responded that she preferred to leave the streaks as they were, since they were quite professor-like and she loathed the thought of imposing an unnatural chemical solution on such a minor problem. Abugi nodded and muttered “Yeah yeah. Yeah yeah.” Though he listened to his family’s advice, he intended to pay no attention to it because he had his own ideas about an appropriately dignified haircut for his son-in-law. He took out his sharpest pair of scissors, tested them in the air, filling the room with the high-pitched sound of blade rubbing against blade. The experienced barber could tell just how sharp the blades were by the sound they made when he squeezed them shut.
Satisfied the blades were sharp enough, he commenced with his artistry.