After she was married for four years and no children seemed to be coming, my mother did what any good Catholic girl in the 1960s would do: she prayed to the Blessed Mother. She promised if she had a little girl, she’d name her Elizabeth Ann, for Mary’s cousin and mother. She promised she’d name a boy Michael, after the archangel. Then she and my father went to the Angel Guardian Home and applied to adopt.
A few months later, a nun from the adoption agency called and said they had a little girl for my parents, and her name was Elizabeth Ann. A few years after that, the adoption agency called again and said they had a little boy for us named Michael. And in 1998, the story of our names was published in a book called Mary Miraculous: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary People Touched by Our Lady.
At the moment of my adoption, I was merged into this family abounding with grandmothers, aunts, uncles, first cousins, second cousins, third, and replete with stories—stories that neatly subsumed the existence of my first family. My father told stories about my great-grandparents immigrating to New Orleans and later to New York, and of my grandfather walking over the Brooklyn Bridge every day to his job on the Journal-American newspaper. He told me stories about his own childhood growing up with his three sisters and dozens of cousins on E. 2nd Street in Brooklyn—the same street they brought me home to from the adoption agency, the same cousins running to meet me.
Those stories led up to stories about me and Mike. That a cosmic, God-like force brought us together was explained right there in the book my parents read to us when we were young.
“Then suddenly one day the Lady at the Home called up and said: “We have three fine babies for you to choose from. Will you both come and see them?” So the very next day the Man and his Wife, feeling very excited, hurried to the Home. The Lady told them all about the babies.
“The first baby was a little boy with blue eyes and curly blond hair. He laughed and played with a rattle. The Man and his Wife watched the baby, then they shook their heads and said, ‘This is a beautiful child, but we know it is not our baby.’ And they were taken to see the next.”
Valentina P. Wasson, The Chosen Baby, 1939
What happened, I wondered years later, to the unchosen baby?
There is a freedom—and maybe a bit of paralysis—in not having a hereditary path. I have no genetic path to follow, no ancestors to take after, or reject.
When I am fifty years old, I realize my birth mother, too, is aging, and I hire an adoption investigator to find her. I am grown, mature, my life already in motion, but I am still a little shocked that she exists. When I talk about the things that I love, reading, writing, teaching, and she says, “You didn’t get that from me,” or “Are you sure you’re mine?” I feel a strange sort of pride.
But. I am looking, constantly, always listening, for ways that we—my birth mother, my half-sisters, and my half-brother—are the same.
The sparseness of my eyebrows, and Kerry’s, delights me. That Shannon’s hair goes grey in the same places mine does. That we all started out with the same overbite. I ask who else has my wonky, wavy middle fingernail on each hand.
Who has asthma and who burns but never tans in the sun?
When I first find my birth mother, I feel possibilities narrowing, all my imaginings of her ending. I think at first that this is okay, that wonderful new and true stories are coming, but they don’t. Conversations are shut down. There are things I cannot tell her, about growing up with a mentally ill mother. I cannot tell my birth mother about my frustration that she doesn’t remember anything about my birth father—“I met him at a party. . .we were drinking. . .I never saw him again”—and my adult but childlike hurt that she married so quickly and had five more babies, the first one born just 21 months after I was. There are things she will not tell me.
I become the keeper of secrets, the whitewasher of my past. I tell her only happy things, memories of growing up surrounded by cousins and friends; big, grassy backyards shaded by old oak trees, swing sets and barbecues and collies; playing Manhunt in the woods every summer night; and scaring ourselves silly trying to contact the dead with our Ouija Boards from Toys R Us.
I breeze over the screaming matches in high school and college, the suspicions, the accusations that still happen:
“I know you and your brother talk about me behind my back.”
“I know you love your father more than me.”
“I know you tell your friends bad things about me.”
The bedroom searches for signs of drugs and alcohol and sex, things we aren’t doing yet. My brother and I pitted against each other over and over:
“You are both staying in your rooms until one of you admits you lost the house key/let the cat out/took the Tupperware to school and never brought it back.”
Hours spent in our rooms as punishment for things my mother had done herself.
I say, “My mom and I get along much better when we don’t live together.”
I say, “I had a blast in high school,” and I did.
The mornings I stormed out of the house, slammed the front door, cried on the bus and in the bathroom at school, the knot in my stomach when it was time to go home, just broken parts of the story neatly recessed.
I say, “I know! Ridiculous that I lived on campus during college, five miles from my house. But I loved the dorms!”
I cringe when my birth mother thanks my adoptive mother for raising me.
My birth mother, in turn, keeps from me her relationship with my birth father. She says she doesn’t remember telling the adoption agency anything at all about him. She lets me believe the adoption agency created a detailed story of their relationship and of his life, his family.
I find my birth father’s family, and find out everything my birth mother told the adoption agency at the time was in fact true. We both say, “Wow. Weird,” that the adoption agency says she gave them this information and she doesn’t remember anything about it. I am careful to keep any accusation out of my voice.
She does remember that her roommate’s brother was a priest and that he arranged the adoption. She does not remember that my birth father had blond hair and blue eyes.
She remembers her job at the airline. She does not remember meeting my father at that job. She does not remember that he told her that his parents died when he was young, that he was sending money home to help his aunt raise his sisters, that he was from Ohio, that he enlisted in the Army in May 1966 and went to Germany, just a month after I was conceived.
As narrators of our story, we are both unreliable.
Everywhere are dirt roads. Even when there is a concrete road, dirt invades the edges and blows across like leaves. Dust flies into your eyes and cloaks your ankles and is a bitch to get off even with thick soap and the toughest washcloth. Cattle moo and moan in the backdrop as people walk by and school kids chatter and a man sleeps in a car’s front seat under a tree.
Amidst this dirt are incredible colors of plants and trees. Lone jacarandas, tropical-like trees blooming magenta flowers, slender ones topped with white, flicking petals like snowflakes with the sway of the wind.
A boy comes in with a white pressed button-down. He untucks it for the exam and the stain on his shirttail is revealed. The clothes are hand-me-downs, yet washed and ironed in every corner. A Motswana colleague describes the tedious chore of washing clothes by hand as a child, simultaneously rubbing fabric clean and hands raw. The boy’s ribs stick out like speed bumps. I ask what he eats for breakfast. Bread, porridge if someone wakes up to heat it, or nothing. I ask if he has butter at home. No. I ask about cooking oil. Yes. I tell him to add it to the porridge or bread for calories. Then lunch. He gets lunch at school. Rice. Rice. Three times a week there is beef with the rice. Then dinner: bread and tea. I tell him to add oil to the bread. I ask if his mum could buy peanut butter to layer the bread. He says yes or no. I don’t know if I can trust yes.
I am walking across a bridge from Zimbabwe to Zambia. There is a mix of tourists and locals. Two young locals are chatting alongside me to convince me that their copper necklaces for sale are worth $50 but they will sell them for $5. At some point they ask what I do.
Really, kids get sick in the U.S.?
Yeah, I say.
With what? Kwashiokor, polio? Suddenly he walks with his legs turned inwards in a stumbling gait to demonstrate polio.
I’m stumbling through these blatant yet neglected absurdities in my own mind now.
I have HIV.
Why should I care about my HIV?
The government cares about my HIV; I have free HAART.
A pizza in the capital Gaborone is $20.
I make $50 a month and two other people live on this.
I can’t buy enough food.
So I am starving.
The government cares about my HIV but not about my future.
Upstate New York
I am back in the United States two years later.
I don’t have HIV.
I live in the U.S. as a heterosexual woman who has been screened for HIV at an annual visit. I see elementary aged children on antipsychotics whose psychiatrist at the public mental health facility said they are doing so well that their pediatrician can take over prescribing their meds. I then upset parents because I do not feel comfortable with this plan.
Now I am at a different job with Polynesian and Micronesian kids who aren’t on antipsychotics but look like strep. They come in for their monthly bicillin shot. They eat cheap chips and chicken nuggets and end up with obesity that tips their already insufficient valve-ridden heart backwards.
Upstate New York
The blurred relationships in the room wreak poverty. Two cousins, their grandmother and a 20-year old mother are sitting in the exam room. One cousin is a kindergarten-aged boy, with stained jeans falling above his ankles. The other is an anemic fat toddler with rotting teeth who drinks gallons of milk a day.
The toddler has a cold. The older boy has a sore throat.
“He felt hot. Not warm, hot, the other night.”
They didn’t measure it with a thermometer.
“Runny nose, stuffy nose?”
“Anyone else sick?” Duh, his cousin is right here, dammit.
“Oh he has a headache, too.”
His throat is red and big, like small pieces of chewed up meat, with bleeding polka dots scattered across the roof of his mouth. When I pull out the throat swab and tongue depressor he flinches and cries, “No.” His grandmother tells him that this must be done. He cries some more. I have the feeling that his grandmother will have to hold him. But then he puts on a perspicacious face and asks, with the insight of a grieving adult, to allow him a few seconds. He sits himself up, straight against the wall, tells me he is ready, and keeps his mouth open while sobbing. It is as though he is already resigned to the life ahead of him.
Chuseok fell in early September that year. In Korea, it is a day for families to gather together and celebrate. Like Thanksgiving, it is a harvest festival, but unlike Thanksgiving, it lasts three days instead of one. Since it is a major holiday, Wonderland, the school in which I was teaching, closed for a week. Many of my American colleagues, teachers who had already been working several months, had booked flights to awesome places, places I’d have loved to travel to myself: Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. But having only arrived three weeks earlier and having very little money, I intended to stay in Seoul. There I planned to get better acquainted with the city that would be my home until mid-summer. However, my new friends, Jake, Lauren and Lindsey, were intent on a vacation and they chose Jejudo—an Island off the Southern coast of South Korea—as their destination. When they first invited me to join them, I was hesitant, uncertain that I’d have enough money to last me until my first pay check. But the thought of going somewhere different—somewhere close enough that the airfare wouldn’t break me—proved to be too much of a temptation, and I quickly relinquished my plans to stay behind.
I don’t remember who initiated the trip, who conceived of going somewhere inexpensive, but Jake, who had backpacked and camped extensively through Europe, suggested that we camp in order to make the trip even more cost efficient. So one Sunday, our one day off from work—our school ran on six-day work week—Jake and I ventured out searching for a tent large enough to accommodate all of us. It was no easy feat. With each store we visited, Jake grew increasingly frustrated and disgruntled.
“Cheap! Cheap! They’re all cheap.” His fingers poking, prodding and slapping the nylon and polyester of every tent in every store. “If it rains, we’ll get soaked. And if we have to take it down and put it back up, it will fall apart.” He found not a single tent acceptable. Then finally, after a long day of walking through much of the city, he settled on a green four man tent. It would shelter us until it fell apart, and if that happened before our holiday ended, we’d figure something else out. Though there was no point in worrying about it just yet, Jake continued to grumble as he pocketed his receipt—certain the store, the manufacturer, the sales clerk had ripped him off. He continued to vent as we headed to the subway, the tent tucked tightly under his arm.
In our group, only I traveled with an oversized duffle bag. I felt conspicuous walking through the airport since all my friends carried backpacks. But a duffle bag was all I had. Of the five of us boarding the plane, I had the least amount of travel experience. Except for Canada, Korea was the only other country I had ever visited. The others had at least experienced parts of Europe. They knew how to feel their way through unfamiliar cultures and foreign cities without having the right words with which to communicate. I wore my naiveté like a bright scarlet letter stitched across my chest—and face. Whenever possible, I tried to dissolve into the crowd, make myself invisible. I didn’t want to be seen, not the way I saw myself: confused, unsure and anxious. I had never been to an airport alone and so I had never been forced to pay attention. I didn’t know where to go. What to say. And so I followed my friends, letting them guide me while doing my best to mask my ignorance. If they caught on, they were gracious enough not to call my attention to it. If perchance we got separated or if they got tired of me and cut me loose, I’d most certainly be lost, scrambling blindly to feel my way. No, I didn’t have confidence in myself nor my abilities, a fault that has always infected me.
The flight was short, about an hour, which left me no time to get bored. It seemed we barely reached our cruising altitude when the pilot began his descent. None of us had thought to make reservations anywhere for our first night. Even if I had thought of it, I’m not sure how I’d have gone about doing it. In 1996, almost no one had a cell phone, and Google was a future convenience. As a kid, I remembered my parents pulling out the AAA books before a vacation and combing through the listings. Once they settled on places that seemed acceptable, mom or dad would call to make reservations. Sometimes, if our plans changed mid-trip, we’d stop along the way at a tourist information center, and someone there would make suggestions and call around until they found a place with a vacancy. But there were no AAA books for international travel—or were there? And it would be another six or seven months until I walked into a bookstore and discovered the Lonely Planet, the backpacker’s Bible.
We collected our luggage from the baggage claim carousel and then stood around staring at each other, all wondering the same thing, “Now what?” Jake, always the most outgoing, randomly started talking to a couple of Canadians, and we knew they were Canadian because of the flags stitched prominently on the front of their rucksacks .
“We’re looking for a place to crash tonight; any idea where we might go?” Jake cornered them, beginning the conversation as he so often did, as if he and whomever he addressed had been friends forever. “Nothing fancy—a bed, a shower.”
“Are you here for the holiday?” The shorter of the two guys asked.
“Yeah, we’re teaching English at Wonderland. No school this week.”
“You’ve heard of it?”
“We have. There’s a Wonderland on the other side of the Island. That’s the crazy school with bathrooms for classrooms—right?”
“Yeah, sort of.” Some genius thought it would be a good idea to put non-functioning toilets in classrooms to encourage kids to say “pee” and “poop” in English.
“Friend of ours teach there,” the taller guy added.
An announcement echoed through the airport and the Canadians glanced up at the monitor, “We have to go.” They started to walk towards the terminal, then the shorter one looked back over his shoulder, “Grab a taxi. Go to the center of Jeju City. You’ll find plenty of places to stay.”
The taxi line was easy enough to find. Communicating where we wanted to go presented more of a challenge. But somehow, with the aid of a phrase book and charades, we conveyed where we wanted to go.
It was late in the afternoon by the time we found a hotel. We dropped off our things and then reconvened to begin our exploration of the island. Stepping back outside, I inhaled deeply, relishing the smell of salt carried by the sea breeze. It reminded me of home, summers spent on Long Island, swimming in the bay, walking on the boardwalk. I would miss that next summer. It would be my first summer away, my first summer off on my own, and though I was excited to be seeing the world, I couldn’t ignore the subtle pang of loneliness lodged in my consciousness. If I hadn’t made friends, the loneliness, I knew, would be far more pronounced.
“Where to?” Jake asked, as we started to walk without direction since none of us had thought to bring a map.
“How about a noraebong?” Someone else recommended to a consensus of agreement. A noraebong is a singing room. Like karaoke, music plays and lyrics scroll across a screen. But instead of singing in a large public group, participants rent a room for an hour, two, or however long they wish to hang out. Beer and soju (hard alcohol made from rice) are a crucial part of the experience, especially for people like me, people who can’t sing at all and are painfully aware of how much they suck.
“How will we find one?” I asked, still unable to read the oddly shaped Hangul letters, all of which blurred into a pile of what looked like broken sticks.
Lauren again pulled out her phrase book and looked up noraebong. We took turns examining the angular letters, committing them to memory, so that we could attempt to look for a match on the signs hung on the buildings we passed.
After walking a few blocks, we zeroed in on a word that appeared to match the one in the book. In a single file, we entered the front door. Music played in the distance, but the music sounded somber and slow, not the sort of music half-drunk people rowdily sing along to.
Ascending a flight of stairs, the music grew louder. An arrow pointed to the door. Jake grabbed the nob and yanked it open, jovially entering a room full of sobbing women and stoic men. We stumbled in after him, our smiles deflating as it slowly dawned on us that we may have just crashed a funeral or some other somber event. Embarrassed, we whispered our apologies, tripping over one another as we rushed out the door, down the stairs and back into the night.
Eventually, our persistence and a little bit of luck led us to where we wished to be. That was the night I learned that Lauren could sing, that she was quite talented. And not wanting to embarrass myself with a voice that sounded like a flock of sea gulls descending on a cluster of abandoned French fries, I sat in the corner, listening to the others, content to not be alone.
In the morning, we tasked ourselves with finding a campsite to set up our tent and to act as a base from which we could further explore the island. At a complete loss for where to even begin, I hung back while the others discussed our dilemma. They settled on hailing a taxi, and miming, if necessary, where we wanted to go and what we wanted to do. One of us must have had a protective guardian angel hovering nearby since the cab driver who stopped to pick us up spoke a bit of English. We released a collective sigh of relief, then sat back to watch the scenery fly by the open windows. For all we knew, he took us the long way, a route that added miles to the drive, so that the meter earned him a generous fare.
Eventually, the taxi pulled into an empty field. Not a single tent had been pitched anywhere. We—or perhaps only I—were dubious. Had he brought us there to rob us? Kill us? How easily he could abandon us, taking what he wished. But he simply pointed towards a cluster of trees, “There is waterfall. You swim.” We handed him our fare and he drove away, leaving us alone, skeptical and skittish.
Assessing the area, we selected a place to set up the tent. I busied myself helping the others as a wave of discontent, a flood of swear words swelled around us. Jake resumed his offense against the quality of the tent. The poles were flimsy and as we pushed them through the loops we had to take extra care so that they wouldn’t tear the material.
Once the tent was up, we settled our things inside, changed into our swim suits and went off in search of the waterfall. It was small, but somewhat picturesque—aren’t all waterfalls? Large rocks—boulders—surrounded the watering hole and, like kids, Jake and I had to climb them. The sun glinted off the surface of the water, giving off an illusion of warmth, an invitation to enter. Accepting the invitation I dove in, my head freezing immediately upon contact. I hoped that swimming, treading water would warm me up, but it did not. Too cold to remain in the water, I pulled myself up onto the rocks and stretched out so that the warm sun could melt the ice in my bones.
Not long after we arrived, a lone figure, a young Korean man with tattoos spread across an arm like a detailed map and a ring finger missing on his right hand, emerged from the line of trees in the distance. Wearing only swim trunks, he approached the waterfall, and without acknowledging our presence, he dove head first into the water. Seemingly immune to the cold he stood under the waterfall, the water beating against his head. When he’d had enough, he climbed back onto the rocks and with his arms hung loosely at his sides, he surveyed us from a distance.
“It’s Chuseok,” Jake reminded us, his voice low as if he were conveying a secret.
“Yeah, so?” Lindsey snapped.
“There is no one else here. Koreans are supposed to be with their families. Why is he here?”
Lindsey shrugged, Lauren looked up from the rock where she was perched, logging her journal. “Perhaps he doesn’t have family,” Lindsey offered.
“Did you see his tattoos? He’s missing a finger.” Jake’s eyes widened, a fearful scenario taking shape in his mind.
“Yeah, so?” Lindsey repeated, irritation rising in her tone.
“I’ve never seen a Korean with a tattoo or a missing finger. Have you?” Jake stole a furtive glance at the stranger. “Do you think he’s a North Korean spy?” He asked, turning back toward us. “Or does he belong to a gang?”
“Or maybe he’s just a guy who wanted to get away,” Lindsey, now bored with the conversation, yawned. Lauren released an exasperated sigh and my mind wandered. Would he kidnap us? Kill us?
Regardless of the stranger’s purpose, he didn’t leave. He seemed rather interested, too interested, in us. After a while, I could feel his eyes. Though the others said nothing, I could tell by their covert glances, the tapping of their fingers, the pacing that they too were growing apprehensive. When the silence between us became heavy, like storm clouds on a summer afternoon, we retreated to our campsite.
It was Jake who noticed the small single man tent not far from where ours stood. When he started to speak, a shiver ran through me. “If he’s part of a gang—”
“Jake, hush.” Lauren commended.
But he couldn’t help himself, he leaned towards me and whispered, “If he’s a spy, I wonder if he’s part of a nearby cell. Could they have us surrounded?”
“Are we important enough to surround?” I asked, but I didn’t wait around for an answer, worried that I might not be as insignificant as I wanted to be at that moment.
By mid-afternoon, we were all hungry, so we walked up a paved walkway to the main road and caught a taxi into town. None of us were terribly enthralled with Korean food, nor did any of us care to pick our way through town searching for a place to eat. Therefore, when we spotted a pizza place, we collectively turned toward the door and entered. It was relatively empty, but since it was an off hour, somewhere between lunch and dinner, we didn’t overthink it. We ordered a pie and were shocked and dismayed to find it covered in corn. Corn, I’d later learn, was a staple on pizza in Korea. I never did figure out why, but after some time, I at least grew to expect it and did the best I could to ignore it.
Back at the camp site, the temperature cooled and sitting outside, we started to shiver. Someone, I don’t remember who, suggested we build a fire. A marvelous idea and so we set out to scavenge for firewood. Aside of a few sticks, there wasn’t much, and we started to lose hope. Then out of the lengthening shadows, the stranger from the water hole emerged. He tapped Jake on the shoulder and beckoned him to follow. Startled, Jake jumped and swallowed hard, scenarios of scattered body parts flashed through his mind, and desperation flickered in his eyes. But unable to turn away from a good story, a possible adventure, he disappeared behind the mystery man into the woods.
After forty minutes or so they returned, arms laden with wood, enough to start and sustain a fire for a few hours. Setting the wood down, the stranger gathered together a few small sticks and an empty cigarette box. Using his zippo, he started the fire. Once the wood crackled and flames licked the air, the five of us sat on the grass staring at each other until Lauren and Lindsey remembered the Korean phrase books they had packed. Reaching for them, rifling through the pages, they attempted a conversation. Lauren introduced us and then the man pointed to his chest, “Me, Mr. Kim.” Was he for real? Kim was like Smith in America. The most common surname. If he had a need to hide behind an alias, Kim seemed too perfect. And so this introduction did little to put us at ease.
Soon the phrase books grew cumbersome. Our bastardized pronunciations made comprehension impossible. Jake, unwilling to give up, resorted to charades. But even that was a challenge—flapping arms, mimed actions and shadow puppets uncovered nothing. Silence settled around us and when it grew tense and uncomfortable, Mr. Kim reached into his pocket and extracted a cell phone. Don’t forget, this was 1996, years before cell phones became the ubiquitous possessions they are today. I didn’t know anyone with a cell phone, none of us did, and this only seemed to lend credence to Jake’s theories. Dialing a number, Mr. Kim waited impatiently for someone to pick up. A voice answered, and he launched into what sounded like a detailed monologue. When he finished, he stuffed the phone in his pocket and stared meditatively at the fire. We looked around suspiciously, uncertain as what we should do, how we should react.
Then Suddenly, with no warning Mr. Kim jumped up, grabbed Jake’s arm and started running toward the road. Afraid that he was being led to his death, Jake reached for his Swiss Army knife, pulled open the blade and slipped it into his back pocket. The moon cast an eerie glow, as we apprehensively watched Jake dissolve into the night.
Later, Jake told us that once they reached the road, Mr. Kim stopped running. His heart racing, Jake anxiously stood next to him. Within moments, he heard the rumble of a car. The noise grew louder until the vehicle pulled into view, then stopped. Jake held his breath. The doors opened and men began piling bags of food—dried squid, beef, rice, kimchi, lettuce—and alcohol—soju and beer—in Jake’s and Mr. Kim’s arms.
Incredulous, no longer knowing what to think, Jake ambled back to camp where Mr. Kim immediately set to work preparing a feast. We watched in silence, confused as to what was going on while we drank, alternating between soju and beer. A bad idea. The food was decent, the alcohol potent. Mr. Kim kept our plates full and our glasses even fuller. We ate as though we were famished, drank as if we were parched, and somehow, during the course of our meal, we communicated our desire to hike Hallasan—a volcano in the center of the island.
When I finally lay down to sleep, the world spun rapidly around me. I slept restlessly and at some point in the middle of the night, my stomach lurched as a wave of nausea descended upon me. Jumping up, I raced outside to expel the contents of my stomach.
In the morning, we woke up at sunrise. I didn’t want to get up, but I also did not wish to miss Hallasan. I drank a liter of water and still felt ill. My friends ate apples and peanut butter for breakfast, but I knew better than to fill my stomach. It would take a few hours before I could hold down anything substantial.
We were finishing breakfast when Mr. Kim emerged from his tent wearing dress pants and a button down shirt. Weird. But we assumed he was off to work. Then biting into an apple he mimed something about a mountain, and the truth, rather uncomfortably began to settle in. He had been more than kind the previous night, a gracious host and gentlemen, but despite his generosity and eagerness to be friends, none of us could shake the awkward feeling that accompanied his presence. Lauren placed the blame on the language barrier, but I couldn’t shake the fear that Jake had planted: was he a North Korean spy? We pretended we didn’t understand his attempt at charades, but when we turned to head toward the road, he followed. It’s hard, damn near impossible at times, to dismiss someone who makes your life easier.
Mr. Kim negotiated a taxi ride to the base of Hallasan. When we arrived, the sky was blue, cloudless, except for a large cottony one that appeared to be devouring Hallasan’s peak. I looked up in awe; the sight of the volcano, what we could see of it, was breathtaking. It was the first volcano I had ever seen. Jake and I wanted to hike to the summit, but if we understood Mr. Kim correctly, and that was extremely questionable, reaching the top would not be possible. Part of the trail had been closed off to enable the vegetation to restore itself. Oh well, I sighed. Part of the trail was still better than not hiking at all.
Jake, Lindsey, Lauren and I each carried a backpack with a few choco-pies—cream-filled chocolate cakes—and lots of water. Mr. Kim had a pack of cigarettes in his breast pocket, nothing else. As soon as we exited the cab, he lit a cigarette, glanced around to gather his bearing and then charged forward towards the volcano. Jake and I trudged alongside him, but Lauren started to fall behind, and Lindsey kept pace with her.
“Can we stop?” I called out to Mr. Kim, who seemed oblivious to our presence, so focused was he on speed and our intended destination. But my words, to him, were gibberish. I stopped anyway, extracting my camera to take a few pictures. Catching Mr. Kim’s attention, Jake forced him to stop and wait for me. His posture, the tapping of his foot, and the deep drags on his cigarette radiated his impatience, but he never scolded us.
Halfway up and breathing heavily, Lauren had enough of walking and decided to stop. Encouraging us to go ahead, she pulled a book out of her backpack, settled down in a shady spot and commenced reading. We would have moved much more quickly from that point on, but I refused to put the camera away. Someday, I figured, I’d want to remember. Someday I’d want to relive that moment and so I kept as accurate a record as possible.
By the time we reached the end of the trail—the marker allegedly declaring that it was closed from that point on—the single cloud in the sky broke apart, splintering into dozens of smaller ones. The peak, surrounded by lush green plants, emerged, and I felt a pang of disappointment that we could not go any further. After taking a final picture, we turned around. The descent, as always, beat up my joints, especially my knees, far more than the ascent.
Several bottles of water, coupled with the physical exertion, washed away my hangover, leaving me with a grumbling stomach. Famished, I needed to eat. Since I was not alone in my hunger, Mr. Kim led us to a makeshift building in the middle of nowhere, which turned out to be a restaurant with outdoor seating. Without inquiring as to what we might like to eat, he left us resting at an outdoor table and then scrambled inside to order. Considering the language barrier, I suppose asking us what we preferred for lunch wouldn’t have made much difference. After a few short minutes, he returned carrying a tray filled with various types of kimbab—rice wrapped in seaweed and stuffed with vegetables and meat, tuna, kimchi or cheese.
Our hands dug in, and Mr. Kim signaled that we had to eat quickly. He pointed to Lindsey’s nose ring, the tattoo on her shoulder and then back at the proprietor. Wagging the same finger in the air, he made a giant X. We translated his gesture to mean that the owner disapproved of Lindsey, and therefore, he didn’t wish us to hang around longer than necessary. Pissed off about being singled out, Lindsey asked why his missing finger and his tattoos weren’t an issue. He shrugged before she finished speaking, obviously not understanding what she was saying. I couldn’t fault her, but I also took note of Mr. Kim’s long sleeves which conveniently hid his tattoos, and the fact that whenever possible, he kept the hand with the missing finger stashed in his pocket.
On the way home from Hallasan, Mr. Kim stopped for bulgogi and ramen noodles. Before he could cook, he needed a fire. The night before, he and Jake had scavenged all the fallen wood. To have enough for a second fire, he used deadly force on trees that were still standing, trees that were very much alive. At some point in his life, he must have studied some form of martial arts, because his kicks cracked tree trunks—trunks that weren’t too thick, but were solid nonetheless—and his hands chopped the wood into smaller segments. If he used that force on us, we’d be dead. I tried not to envision it, but every once in a while, images flashed in my mind, and I winced. Jake and I followed in Mr. Kim’s wake, collecting the carnage and piling it up near the tent.
Mr. Kim cooked, and the rest of us conversed. We couldn’t have asked for a kinder, more enthusiastic host or guide. But Jake’s suspicions persisted, and the rest of us could find no evidence to contradict him. How much longer would we be safe if we stayed where we were, relying on Mr. Kim?
While we ate, slurping noodles and wrapping beef in lettuce, Mr. Kim lifted a glass of soju, toasted our friendship—or so we hoped—and swallowed the liquid. Placing the glass on the grass, he deliberately pointed to each of us, then hugged his heart, “Love you.” He smiled, his eyes moist and glistening in the light cast by the fire. Perhaps his overt emotion should have endeared him to us, and maybe it did on some level, but mostly it freaked us out. If there had been no language barrier, maybe things would have been different. But not being able to pry into his life and get a sense of who he was, why he was with us and why he had opted to spend a family holiday alone, skepticism successfully reinforced the wall between us. Later that night, laying in our tent, we began whispering about whether we should stay where we were or search for a new campsite.
We slept late, or later than we had the previous day, but when we stepped out into the cool morning air, breakfast awaited us. Mr. Kim, rising earlier than we had, had prepared kimbab along with a sesame-onion potato soup. The soup was delicious and the kimbab better than it had been the previous day at the restaurant. Sipping my soup, guilt wiggled its way into my consciousness. So when we finished eating and Mr. Kim suggested—via charades—that we go to the beach, none of us could find the words, or the heart, to say no.
Following Mr. Kim, we took a bus into town and there he borrowed a car from a friend to drive us to the beach. It was late September, and the water was cold, but I enjoyed swimming. Beaches were very much a part of my childhood, and splashing in the water always transformed me back into a child. While I swam, Lauren and Lindsey sat in the warm sun, reading. Mr. Kim, perhaps searching for ways to enhance our visit, summoned Jake to walk with him along the beach. Carrying a bucket, Mr. Kim searched for snails, plucking them from the sea and dropping them—if alive—into the plastic bucket. He insisted that Jake do the same. Grumbling, but falling into step and doing as told, Jake joined in with the collection.
When Mr. Kim assessed that they had enough—two buckets which they filled together—he sat down on the sand, selected a snail and sucked it from its shell. The look of ecstasy on his face was as stark as the look of disgust on Jake’s the moment Mr. Kim handed him a sail, indicating that he too should eat and enjoy. Jake, generally as adventurous in his eating habits as he was in other aspects of his life, felt so repulsed he found it impossible to acquiesce. Holding out his hands, he shook his head. Lindsey, Lauren and I reacted in a similar fashion, so Mr. Kim, completely unfazed, jumped up and disappeared into one of the snack bars on the beach. Much to our surprise, he persuaded the kitchen staff to steam the snails.
Returning with dead cooked snails, he tried again to feed us an early dinner. Jake feeling as though he owed the guy something, munched on a few. Lauren’s manners were also intact. Like Jake, she politely forced a few snails into her mouth, doing her best to keep her face neutral, and her smile from wilting. Lindsey and I were not so gracious. The thought of ingesting the slimy creature caused us to gag before we could even attempt to be curious. Mr. Kim didn’t seem to mind, or if he did, he didn’t express dismay or disappointment. Instead, he suggested we stop at a pizza joint for dinner. Even though the pizza was soggy with wax like cheese and runny flavorless sauce, it was far preferable to snails, which Mr. Kim, enthusiastically, and Jake, grudgingly, continued to gnaw on throughout the evening.
Back at the campsite, we solidified our plans to jet the following morning. Jake couldn’t handle another round of snails, and we were afraid if we insulted Mr. Kim in any way we’d regret it. Fear, lack of trust, and overly active imagination defeated Mr. Kim’s good intentions, his eagerness to befriend us, and his unselfish generosity. When we explained our desire to see another part of the island, our interest in moving to another campsite, sadness creased his brow as understanding dawned on him. But he didn’t beg us to stay; he didn’t threaten. Instead, he woke us up early for one last expedition. He knew that Jake and I wished to go horseback riding, so before allowing us to depart, he ushered me and Jake onto a bus and took us to the stables.
I hadn’t been horseback riding in a few years, and excitement filled me as we drew close. The horses were small, more like ponies. Jake settled into his saddle and looked like Gulliver in Lilliput. Reaching for the stirrups and realizing I could either let my feet dangle or tuck my knees under my chin, I too felt conspicuously large. Too big for the toy horses that should have been relegated to a child’s park, my excitement instantly withered. I regretted having left camp.
My frustration exploded when a worker, dressed in jeans and a stained white tee-shirt, grabbed the reigns of both horses and gently, slowly, as if we were toddlers out for our first ride, led us around a small track. Two, three, four times the horses slogged around in a circle. I glanced back at Mr. Kim, furious, wondering how he could possibly have thought this would be fun, an adventure to remember. Much to my chagrin, he smiled, beaming at the both of us, completely obvious to how ludicrous this excursion had been. Was horseback riding in Korea always this lame? By the end of our forth rotation, I felt dizzy, nauseous and when the worker led the horses led back to the platform for us to dismount, I felt relieved.
“Let’s get out of here.” As soon as Jake’s feet hit the dirt, he hustled toward the bus, eager to put the awful experience behind us. “What a way to waste our time.” Disgruntled and agitated, he spat the words, his heels kicking up dust, and I struggled to keep up his pace. “We should have stayed at the tent. This sucked.”
I couldn’t argue. I agreed completely. Since Jake expressed my feelings so adequately, he saved me the trouble of having to voice my own complaints.
When we returned to the campsite, and the girls asked us how it was, Jake grunted, curling his lips and baring his teeth like an angry dog.
“That good!” Lauren smiled.
“Let’s get out of here,” and with those words, Jake yanked out the stakes that anchored the tent to the ground.
We helped Jake break camp and then said goodbye to a teary Mr. Kim. He walked with us to the road and waited until the bus squeaked to a stop. From the window, we waved goodbye and watched as he turned, shoulders hunched and head down, to return to the empty site.
The bus ride to the other end of the island felt eternal. I tried to read, but found it impossible. My eyes would scan a few words, but my mind would drift back to Mr. Kim, wondering what he was doing, if he was missing us.
It was dusk when we finally reached our campsite. The sun brushed the tree tops out on the horizon and shadows stretched across the landscape. Small hills dotted the campground and after speculating for some time as to what they were, we convinced ourselves that they were ancient burial grounds. Whether it was true or not was irrelevant. The story we told ourselves, that spirits hovered nearby, roaming the grounds and eternally haunting campers, kept us entertained. At least until we tried to sleep and found that we couldn’t. The absence, or rather our abandonment of Mr. Kim haunted me the most. I pictured him alone, making a fire and thinking of us. Perhaps we shouldn’t have left, but we did, and there was nothing I could do to undo the hurt we might have caused. But leaving eventually, was inevitable. In the morning, we’d pack up once again, board another bus and then a plane in order to return to Seoul and our new—temporary—lives as teachers in Korea.