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Night And Day

Seoyoung Yoon was an architect with the English name Ivy, a thirty-year-old virgin who’d attempted to separate Brandon and me, but we didn’t know that when we first met her. It was an atypical Saturday night for us. Weekends were reserved for swing dancing at Night and Day, the trendy club in Hapjeong with wooden floors so smooth you could glide over them, and mural paintings of Artie Shaw playing, Ella Fitzgerald singing, and with Frankie Manning dancing the Shim Sham – a place named Night and Day because it never closed, except for renovations on the night we met Ivy. Brandon and I went to Hongdae that night, the artsy Seoul enclave inhabited by college students with dive bars, outside candy shops, and a 24-hour Taco Bell that always had a line out the door no matter the time.

We were at Gr8, a hookah bar with a pink and purple color scheme and blue lava lamps. We shared a potent cardamom shisha when Ivy walked in with a group of other Korean women. I polished off my second Cass, the foamy and bitter but cheap national beer. As Brandon swung his long neck around and huffed out a cloud of smoke, I expect him to choose one of Ivy’s friends who were the perfect models of Korean beauty; Gangnam faces and large round eyes, high cheekbones and feminine rounded jaws compliments of their plastic surgeons, clad in miniskirts and stilettos, despite the cold November weather.

He nudged me. “Banana,” he said.

I rolled my eyes and blew a cloud of smoke in his face. “That’s not my name.”

“Sunny. Get me that girl.”

“Which plastic one?” I asked. I pointed to Ivy’s friends, who were smiling and taking pictures, likely for their Kakao stories.

He pointed to Ivy, the only girl whose face was too flawed and individual to have been the work of any plastic surgeon. With her thick jeans and ugly acrylic sweater that swallowed her willowy frame, she resembled a kindergarten teacher more than a single woman looking for a man.

“That one,” he replied.

“Just like that balboa dancer, or that white girl at Magpie, or that Kiwi?”

“I won’t know until you introduce us.”

I inhaled a long breath of hookah. I didn’t know Ivy, but I knew Brandon, and according to Confucian theory they couldn’t have a relationship without an existing relationship to bridge them. I’d believed Brandon was above this, but he turned into that tired male gyopo cliché of a playboy the moment we’d arrived in Korea. He couldn’t sleep with pretty girls in Tennessee, but his height and American confidence impressed every girl I’d brought to him.

I walked to Ivy’s table and stood across from her. “Come meet my friend,” I said in English, because everyone in Seoul spoke some English. I’d also said it to flatter her, because Koreans saw English speakers as more elegant and sophisticated. “He’s an American gyopo, tall and handsome. He’ll make you smile.”

Ivy followed me to our table and when they shook hands, she smiled like her prayers of married life and quitting her job had been answered. I rolled my eyes. I was exhausted with the predictability of this scene, but it was also because no one looked at me like that – not Brandon, Jun, or even Eoma. I’d fetched girls before at parties and bars, but in Brandon’s eyes I saw a look of love. Not love at first sight, but the sense that love could happen between them. I’d searched for that look my whole life, and at the time was content with teaching, swing dancing, and friends, a nebulous cycle that haunts expats, like the old leathery smell of squid. But when I saw Brandon’s face, I feared we’d separate, because I wouldn’t find that in Korea.

My unhappiness wasn’t because I was in love with my male best friend like a K-drama. I didn’t feel the chemistry when we were shuffled together our junior year at UT-Knoxville. Irritated by my inexperience, my friends convinced me to meet Brandon at a Halloween party, claiming he was just my type. The only reason they set us up is because we’re both Korean. Amidst the Greek god imitators with bed sheets for togas and slutty costumes, Brandon and I drank Jager Bombs out of red plastic cups as we compared stereotypes.

“I’m terrible at math,” I confessed. “You’re supposed to have a black belt in karate.”

“According to the masses, you can’t drive,” he said.

“You can’t speak English-ee properly, with a bad Chinese accent.”

“I’m not Chinese, but we’re all from China. Like toothbrushes."

“Like socks, pens, and everything else we use.”

I thought we’d never speak again when we bowed our goodbyes laughing, but when the DJ played Sublime’s “Doin’ Time,” he added that he liked the original, and I added that Count Basie’s version was the best. Then he invited me to join the campus swing club, because he needed a partner.

“It’d be nice to have another Korean around,” he said.

“It’s not part of my roots,” I replied.

“There’s nothing more American than jazz. It’s the dance of the youth!”

He was right, and closer to his roots than me. My Christian family from Rockwood had adopted me after the lord visited them in prayer, telling them that they must first adopt from a less fortunate country before He’d blessed them with their own child. They chose Korea because adoptions were easy and cheap. The government was giving away illegitimate little girls like me. I studied the Bible instead of Confucian texts. Like most Americans, I only speak English. I ate turkey on Thanksgiving instead of rice cakes on Chuesok. I used silverware instead of metal chopsticks, like Brandon. We’d both left Korea at three, but Brandon left with his parents. He spoke and wrote English outside of home, but Korean and Hangeul inside his home. He’d grown up around jars of kimchi and pickled things. Brandon was a proud Korean American. I was American, but I was not.

Brandon nicknamed me Banana for my Americanized upbringing and disconnect from Korea. For our last two years of college, we danced at weddings and demonstrations, but underneath the fun music and those air steps hid our anxiety about the future. Student loan debt welcomed us into adulthood, but we lacked a clear vision for post graduate lives. We wanted our adolescence to continue, but we didn’t want to return to the childhood beds we’d outgrown. After practice, we ate low rent sushi in the campus center, where he laughed at my poor chopsticks skills.

I asked him, “What if we lived someplace where we used them all the time?”

“Let’s teach English in Korea! Lots of jobs, and we’ll return to our ancestors,” he replied.

We hugged to celebrate our decision. We were going where we’d be like everyone else, instead of being that token Asian girl and guy who no one wanted. I was happy to finally have a direction, but I didn’t tell my parents until later. They expected me to return to Rockwood after graduation and work as the church treasurer or as the Piggly Wiggly baker. I wanted my independence and the new more than the comfort I knew. I longed for real friends, which I hadn’t found in Rockwood. I told my parents during the Easter weekend after the service, when we prepared for the traditional dinner. Our attire was a respectable sea of blues. My younger sister Diane and Mom wore powder blue dresses that matched their delicate eyes, while Dad and I wore navy. Mom and Diane finished cooking the coke baked ham and too sweet hummingbird cake, while Dad and I set the table.

“What are you going to do once you graduate?” he asked me, studying the placemats.

“I’m going to teach abroad,” I said.

“My army travels were the best years of my life,” he said. “Where are you going? Spain, France, or Germany? Berlin was my favorite place.”

I tapped him on the shoulder, and looked at him to not back out. “To Korea.”

Stunned, Dad scrunched up his caterpillar eyebrows. He called Mom and Diane into the dining room.

“Our Sunny has some great news,” he said. His tone obviously meant that I didn’t have great news. “She’s going to teach in Korea.”

“You hate kids,” Diane huffed.

“Where in Korea?” Mom asked.

“Anyang. It’s not too far from Seoul,” I said.

I knew they wouldn’t address Diane’s comment, because she was the daughter they’d prayed for, while I was their blessing. I wanted to tell them that I never felt like part of the family, and I’d find Eoma.

“Let us pray,” Dad said.

We bowed our heads. They closed their eyes. I kept mine open, staring straight at Diane, who’d asked me to choose an American name, like Rachel or Tiffany, because my name sounded like Ling ling or Ting ting. However, I’d never change my name, because it was the only thing I’d had left from Eoma, who’d named me Sun after the goddess. But Diane had stumped me when she asked, why would I keep the name from someone who didn’t want me. I was returning to Korea despite their unsaid wishes. When I looked down at that dinner spread, at the buttery mashed potatoes, and stewed greens, I felt excited to move on, but sick for equivocating, omitting my longing for Eoma because I didn’t want to lose my family’s love. At that familial table, looking at that usual food, I prayed like my parents had that Korea would bring me what I wanted most – love.

I hated little kids, so I taught middle and high school at nights along Hagwon-ga, while Brandon taught kindergartners in Seoul that barely spoke Korean let alone English, who yelled, pulled his hair and ripped the buttons off his shirts during lessons. He lived in a dorm sized flat on the green line close to the clubs, whereas I was under contract to live near work. I couldn’t afford the ten million won key deposit to secure a studio, so my coworker Miso offered to split the rent in her flat. Her loft barely fit us, much less the families of four often crammed into such tiny spaces. It was modern with shiny hardwood floors, with one coffee table that functioned as a dinner table, lesson planning and study space, and heaps of blankets and floor pillows for sitting. Miso told me that Koreans saw furniture as a Western waste of money. In a country where most single women lived with family, Miso never revealed why she lived alone. With her wide, deep set eyes and natural full lips, Miso’s beauty was the subject of gossip by our Korean coworkers, who believed her father found her gorgeous face and glamorous figure on whore cards scattered at Ansan station. Miso was especially judgmental toward our coworkers and English teachers Kayla and Bonnie, who were also roommates.

My first year in Korea was postcard perfect, a continuation of my college years with security and great friends, when time was nebulous and responsibility was low. I devoted Fridays and Saturdays to swing dancing and partying, while Sunday mornings I Skyped mukbang sessions with my parents. While I ate kimchi mandu and they ate pancakes, I gave them the surveyed experience of Korea – I talked about the cat cafes with designer breeds and Myeongdong’s crowded shopping district, as well as small facts, like that pet ownership was new and owners walked their dogs through Anyang’s park without leashes.

“What are the subways like?” My father asked in between bites of soft meatloaf.

“Crowded. Lots of plastic surgery advertisements,” I replied. Miso waved in the background. “My roommate.”

“Wow,” he said. “I guess it’s true that all Asian women are beautiful. Why do you have a roommate?”

“My school didn’t have enough for the key deposit,” I lied.

I still couldn’t tell him about Eoma, how I split the rent to save up for a lawyer, but it became more normal to hide parts of my life from my family. After all, I was an adult with a real job who lived oceans away, where they couldn’t reach me. So I left out the nights when Miso held my hair back as I vomited from too many soju bombs. I didn’t talk about the rampant public urination or puddles of vomit I’d gotten used to stepping over. Nor did I discuss why Westerners came to Korea – that like me, they were lonely and struggled to cope. When my family asked about the best part, I always replied it was the underground creative scene, the music, the swing subculture which would never be as good anywhere else. Korea was jazz, because it was the music of American youth, when the country was still a superpower. The jazz of the swing clubs transformed me into who I longed to be, from being lost and confused about my life to a star, who Jun loved and Eoma soon would.

Korea meant being content, because it was the first time I wanted nothing in my life to change, only improve. Life was an odyssey. Since Brandon encapsulated my past and my present, I assumed he’d be part of my future, but when I brought Ivy into our lives, I realized how foolish my beliefs were.


Christina Marable is an emerging writer who was a Traveling Writing Fellow for the Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) in 2017. A Best of the Net Nominee, she’s been published in Sepia Journal, Midway Journal, and the Metaworker. Reach out to her at . She’d love to hear from you!

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