A short prose about a young Korean woman's hilarious efforts to hide her American boyfriend from her 'racially selective' family, who walk in on them at the most unfortunate timing.
“Oh god, hurry hurry HURRY!!”
My heart skipped a beat, and then crashed down into my stomach the instant I heard the familiar noise of footsteps and jingling keys. I felt the panic and shame of high school kids being caught with their pants down while the parents are out to work – because that was what it was. Except that I was 26, living on my own, and my boyfriend was not some good-for-nothing punk. Nope. Sean was everything parents could wish for. A brilliant, successful man topped with charming manners and excellent background. ‘…But a foreigner,’ whispered a voice in my head, as I saw his pale Caucasian ass dart into the nearest closet.
It certainly isn’t the brightest idea to secretly bring your American boyfriend along to visit your home country and into your old house. And certainly never a good plan to get it on in your conservative racist parents’ bed. At the time, though, it seemed like a funny joke to let their mattress witness all the teachings about tradition and ‘preserving the bloodline’ dissipate in their worst nightmare. Their daughter falling for a white devil. But whether or not I agreed with their extreme ways, it happened, and now I had no choice but to force a smile as my unexpected mother opened the door. I was seriously hoping I didn't have sex hair.
“Hi, Mom, you’re.. early. I.. thought your tea class ends at six? It’s only four.”
“When it’s my only daughter’s first birthday at home in twelve years? Nonsense!”
Oh yeah, my birthday. According to the traditional lunar calendar, my mother says, my birthday is today. Whoever uses that anymore? And with that, my mother thrusted a bunch of bags towards me, all filled with what I could not begin to guess. Hastily, she proceeded to the kitchen, snatched the bags from me and poured out the gigantic packs of rice cake, seaweed, fish, and dumplings. Oh wow. I had forgotten how we celebrated events. The smell of food filled my nostrils as they went up to my brain, triggering childhood memories. Actually, I had always liked the big, family dinners that we had on birthdays. I just didn't have a guy hidden in the closet to worry me back then.
“The guests will be here, and we have no time to waste. Kyung-Hee, hand me the soy sauce from the cabinet!”
I quickly handed the bottle to her and slid back towards her room. This may be the only chance to save Sean. Just as I saw his pleading eye glistening through the cracked open closet doors, I hear the doorbell ring.
“Kyung-Hee! Get that for me, it’s your aunts!”
This shit just got fucking worse. Weeping inside, I let my aunts and their bags of food inside. Since the kitchen is too small for five people, my aunts each find a corner to sit around the house taking a pack of whatever that was needed to be prepared. They seem like those rotating surveillance cameras in stealth mission video games. Sighing, I look down at the fish that my mother gave me to chop. Its wet, googly eyes remind me of Sean, begging me to free him from this misery. As I chop, I simulate every possible escape route in my head, every one of them failing on account of the aunt-bots.
Perhaps I could come clean and appeal to my mother ’s better nature. I mean, I have been living in America for over a decade. Maybe she wouldn't expect me to follow her ways anymore. Then I glance at my mother in her enormous traditional Han-Bok dress. I think of how hard it was to reconcile with her after I announced that I’d go live in the U.S. It is probable that this woman may have never encountered a single foreigner in her life, in this tiny disconnected town that is only inhibited by the ‘pure’ descendants of King Kim Su-Ro. She might freak out and start throwing ritual salt and maybe even take down the family honor sword from the wall, to defeat my poor, white...
“Beast! That’s what he is.”
My mother’s accusation snaps me back from my thoughts. I panic. Did Sean break down and walk out of the closet? Then I look at my mother and aunts.
“I can’t believe he’s trying to hand our land to those American troops, betraying his ancestors like that. He has no rights to stay as an elder in this town!”
On and on they go, bringing justice to this ‘elder’ with their heated verbal damnation. Relieved, I return to my dismembered fish. Just then, my mother asks my aunts about her confusion in one of Granny’s old recipes. This miraculously sends all of them into the kitchen arguing, crowded around the recipe sheet. Thank you, Granny, for your superb ambiguity with words! I cannot waste this chance. I rush to open the closet door, and Sean hugs me, his sweat seeping into my apron.
“Oh thank god you’re here, I was totally suffoc..”
“Quiet! No time. Follow me quickly.”
I grab his clothes from under the dresser and lead him out. I do not have the time to think of how he’d dress himself before heading out the door. This is a private house enclosed in thick trees. My smart guy will figure something out. Carefully, we walk out into the living room when I hear my mother and aunts reaching an agreement. Oh please. They've spent all their lives arguing about the smallest things to no end, but apparently they had to come up with a quick resolution when I’m counting on it the most. Footsteps are closing in, and I feel my muscles tighten to an adrenaline rush. Not enough time to make it out the door! Acting on instinct, I stuff Sean and his clothes into any box-like furniture I find and lock the opening, realizing afterwards that it is a centuries-old huge, empty rice chest that has been sitting in our living room as family treasure. I try to recover and act as though nothing happened.
Seconds later, Little Aunt walks up from behind.
“Is everything alright, Kyung-Hee?”
“Yes, Auntie! Everything is fine. How is the cooking?”
“Good, good. Nice of you to help, even though you don’t know Korean cooking.”
Then she notices the rice chest in front of me, and walks closer. She starts caressing the edges of the chest with her fingers.
“Ah, you were looking at this, eh? Such a magnificent piece of tradition.” Then her hand travels down towards the latch on the chest. My hand shoots out.
“The uh, decorations on this part are so beautiful! “ Keep calm, and bullshit on.
“Yes, yes, this is all handmade, of course. By the way, do you know the story of the Tragic Prince of Chosun Dynasty?” I try to look interested, to distract her away from the latch.
“His father, the king, believed him to have been scheming against him. So the prince was locked in a rice chest to die, by his own father!”
Oh great, so apparently people trapped in rice chests can die. Little Aunt notices my very, very genuine grimace. She smiles, satisfied that she has told such a riveting story.
Just when I thought I’d break down from despair, my mother walks to the front door to let the guests and finally my father inside. Koreans don’t know the concept of being fashionably late, I think to myself. By now, I had started to lose it, blankly letting myself surrender to the events of dinner. I try hard not to faint as I join the guests, pretending to chat and put food in my mouth. This incident alone will scare Sean away from me. Why was I so stupidly bold as to bring him here?
“Attention please,” My father says, clinking his glass with a chopstick.
“My daughter has finally returned after 12 years of wandering,” You mean 12 years of total liberation, I think silently.
“It has been tough for all of us, but she has at last acknowledged her true self and has come back to us,” my father continues. I don’t have the strength to correct him that I’m just visiting.
My mother, who sat beside me, affectionately squeezes my hand in hers.
“I am glad you are here, Kyung-Hee. We all missed you very much,” she whispers to me. For a moment, I feel her love and I feel ashamed. Not because I have a white boyfriend, but because I had basically shunned my family out of my life for the most part. I knew they loved me, even after I left them. If I hadn't stopped talking to them all this time, maybe we could have understood each other more. After all, I came here because I actually missed them a bit.
But then my eyes fixate on the rice chest behind my father's seat. Sean, are you alright? Suddenly, the panic returns, sending my heart off on a parkour run inside my rib cage.
“We thank you all for joining us in celebrating our family's reconciliation, on none other than our beloved Kyung-Hee’s birthday.”
What if he’s already dead? Would continuous anxiety do that? Maybe he’s losing air. Maybe that tight chest is blocking his circulation, and he’s going brain dead or something. How long has it been since I locked him inside? The chopsticks in my hand tremble, tinkling against my bowl. Please, god, please don’t let me kill him, oh please don’t, please, please…
“May all of our loved ones prosper in happiness.” “…b-b-b-B-R-REPPPPP!!”
The unmistakable sound of fart came roaring out from behind my father. People that were bored with his speech immediately turned to look at him. My father, on the other hand, turned to the rice chest. He slowly advanced his hand towards it, straining as if the tip of his hand was pushing out of the bubble of silence that surrounded all of us. This is it, I thought as his hands closed around the handle. My eyes gave the sword on the wall a brief glimpse.
The chest opens up to reveal my Sean, crumpled up in a fetal pose. I notice his futile attempt at putting his clothes on, jeans only up to his knees and his head and arm both coming out from the neck of his shirt.
“Uh.. ‘sup.. how’s it going guys..? Sorry, I had yogurt this morning…”
Oh Sean. I always tell you that I love you for being exceptionally laid back, but this is bad. I couldn't tell which was greater, the dreaded fear of what my parents will do, or relief that Sean was alive. For now.