Summer Contest 2021, 2nd Place
The Hockaday School
Banchan, 반찬: small, circular side dishes to be eaten with the main course.
My Korean name, Nayoung, draws to mind my Halmoni’s sharp scent and the steam of soulongtang.
Of the Korean that flies around my grandparents’ dinner table, of the Korean that brushes the petals of my ear, of the Korean that I nudge my mom to translate.
“Mom, mom, what did Hadabogi say?”
“Oh,” She snaps from the other world, “just something about his garden.”
I pull my voice off the table.
I feel Nayoung slip off my shoulders.
It was two inches. It was two inches that you scooted away from me, then squirmed with relief in your newfound, cold bus seat, away from the sure hotbed of writhing bacteria next to me.
Two inches induces hot, vile hatred to rile in my throat. Two inches makes me want to cough, make your two inches useless, make you gasp and stare at my narrowed eyes in terror, makes me want the power you hold in your two inches.
That power, I’ve never had that before.
That power makes me squirm, the backs of my legs making suctioning noises against my warm, sweaty seat.
Routine and rhythm center on things observable and measurable, on things round and repulsively real.
A series of concentric circles, some swirling, others stationary. Of spheres. Of sickness spinning through the sounds of speaking. Of bubbles surfacing in text messages, then dissipating, then a sinking stone in my stomach. Of virtual prayer circles, separated into a row of grids. Of dark moons under eyes, mourning the bodies used and disposed of. Of the dizzying rings my head runs through, where is halmoni and did someone hurt her and when did simply being become terrifying. Of coiling next to my mother, some dormant part of me stirring, remembering the comfort of womb, the circular cascade of fluids cradling pliant, pulsing skin.
When my little sister comes home crying, I think: someone must die. She refuses to tell me why though I push and pry, until two days later, she releases it over the dinner table, giggles aerating her pain.
Halfway through the school year, her teacher does not know her from the other Asian girl's. To cope, she and the girl string an elaborate tale: they are identical twins who live apart but reunite at school. They were thrown over the 38th Parallel as infants. And the class eats it up.
Jal meokkessumnida. 잘 먹겠습니다. I will eat well. A Korean phrase stated before eating, a courtesy.
Almonds aren’t actually nuts: they’re seeds encased in a fruit skin. Stones swathed in satin. A patina. A hoodwink.
I never understood why people described Asian eyes as almond-shaped. Like something small and salty to snack on, something to tide you over before the main course.
When we were younger, my mom used to take my sister and I along to H-Mart, the Korean grocery store. We liked to roam the aisles, balance on the shopping cart, see who could stand in front of the freezer the longest, and gape at the live lobsters in the seafood section. I remember being disappointed that none of the lobsters were red and that their claws were tied with rubber bands.
There was also a whole aisle of Korean snacks, and we were allowed one each. I liked the onion rings and shrimp fries, salty savory snacks that lingered on my fingertips and breath. My sister liked the banana kicks and sweet potato crunches, sweet snappy snacks that liquefied on the tongue.
At the register, we always lingered at the candy display. I debated whether or not to trade out my chips for a package of Hi-Chews, pastel gummy rectangles that I could divide among the church girls to multiply my popularity.
I decided against it. I liked things that would last.
The town was red corduroy, stretched thin and long and flat, buttoned by squat brown houses. We would drive over the torn seam of a rocky, unpaved road until we arrived, folded into my grandmother’s arms, patted by my grandfather’s denim-rough hands. Their house was small, divided into little sewing-kit compartments: the kitchen with its thimble-like table, the bedroom with its pincushion bed, and, behind the house, a bolt of red silk silt, pinned by needly date trees.
I hated it there, in that red corduroy town. I hated the wifi that refused to drip from the threaded power lines. I hated the dense smell of herringbone heat waves. I hated the red dust that dyed my sneakers. I found relief in knowing these stays would be quick and temporary, basting to be released.
But my grandparents gathered scraps of English, arranged them in mismatched patterns. I slowly smiled and held up my own poorly-pieced Korean.
They doled out trays of red-ribbon kimchi, rusty safety-pin anchovies, strips of golden glass noodles. They handed me round dates that looked like glistening rubies. I treasured them, marveled at the pale green satin sweetness inside.
Now, the brown button house and red silk silt belong to someone else. Do the new owners hem the tree branches? Do the new owners stand in silence outside as red corduroy bleeds into their shoes?
My mother humming off key in between chops of spurting tomatoes. The sister scribbling monotone worlds from charcoal and printer paper.
It’s the sounds I remember.
I can read the Korean alphabet using a complex system of my own invention. For example, ㅅ makes the “s” sound, and, to me, the letter looks like a roof, pointing to the “s”ky. ㅁ, or “m,” mimics a full moon. ㅎ, “h,” a little head wearing a hat.
Reading the Korean alphabet is the easy part. It’s the understanding that’s difficult. The Korean newspaper at my local H-Mart? I can’t understand. My grandfather’s echoing, ecclesiastical prayers? I can’t understand.
Funny, when someone says “your language,” they have no idea it isn’t. They shove it at me, and I stand there, a thief in a night of moons and skies.
The heart is not circular, it cannot roll or float or spin away. The heart is an ovate thing, a lumpy, leaky inconvenience.
I also struggle to speak a second language with family members, so the moment where the narrator holds up their pieces of Korean to the grandparents holding up their pieces of English absolutely hits me. It's such a powerful moment in that both sides are clearly trying to get through to one another despite all of the barriers between them.
Every moment is beautiful in and of itself, in isolation, and yet builds to create an even more stunning narrative.
Editorial Praise from Beth Kohl, CNF Judge:
The author of Banchan, through clever turns of phrase, incisive metaphors, and precisely narrated moments of personal significance, posits a dialectic between the neatness of measurable routine versus the leaky lumpiness of the human heart. Through clever turns of phrase and cultural signifiers, food and clothing as both prosaic and profound, the domestic stuff of life are symbols for cultural continuity and divide. Almonds aren’t just almonds, they’re the purported shape of Asian eyes, a saying that the writer questions, the fact they aren’t nuts but, actually, seeds a “hoodwink” that ties eyes to linguistic precision and marginalization, salty snacks rather than the main event. Using food as cultural signifier is an especially evocative tool with which to explore inclusion, displacement and longing.
Like food, clothing and fabric are deployed to describe one’s relative position to various cultures, an extended section describing the grandparents’ Korean home is as charming as it is brilliant, with the narrator and their grandparents patching together mismatched lingual quilts as homespun as it is multi-layered.
The sense of being an imposter – a thief in the night of moons and skies, like a seed mistaken for a nut – informs this remarkable essay that I’m honored to name this year’s winner of the Claudia Ann Seaman Award for Creative Nonfiction.
Madeline Chun is a Korean-American writer from Dallas, Texas. She is a junior at the Hockaday School and an alumna of the Kenyon Young Writers Workshop. When she’s not writing, she’s either rehearsing with her string quartet or reading a historical fiction novel.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR