At seven o’clock every day, the stairway that led down into the Jefferson Street subway station swarmed with people. They were the blood that pumped through the city’s underground veins. The long-established stairway protocol that mimicked traffic laws lent an air of intelligent design to the chaotic shuffling of feet and bumping of shoulders. On most days, this process went off without a hitch and thousands of people departed or arrived on the subway trains.
But now, old Mr. Han dammed up the river of flesh flowing down the stairs.
Both of his hands clutched the guiderail tighter than he ever held a bottle, hanging on for dear life against the constant jostling. He knew that, at any moment, a massive shove threatened to break his grip and send him tumbling to his death. Since the day he and his wife arrived in the city, he dreamed of being trampled to death by Americans, fearing the spiked shoes that American women wore the most. The terror was so real that his jaw clenched whenever he heard the click-clacking of sharp heels on the sidewalk creeping up behind him. When he did risk a step, he eased one foot down like he was checking the temperature of the next stair with his toe, then his sole, until his heel finally touched, and it was time to bring his other foot down.
The other commuters wrestled themselves and their bags around him, veering into the oncoming traffic and crushing Mr. Han against the handrail until he couldn’t breathe. They all had cellphones fused to their skulls, and instead of excusing themselves to Mr. Han they would only speak into their phone as they passed.
“Ugh, hold on. There’s some guy on the stairs,” they said.
“Samsung is Korean. LG, too,” Mr. Han said in Korean. He didn’t remember where he’d read that, but now he felt proud of those companies. The American news always talked about how China was taking over the world, but all the while Korea kept busy doing the real hard work. Mr. Han imagined his countrymen even now inventing new technologies and finding new ways to exploit the old ones, huddled together in boardrooms or laboratories or wherever such things were done. “And we have the fastest internet in the world,” he said.
“Ugh, hold on,” they said.
“Who are you talking to?” Mr. Han said. He made no effort to speak English even though he’d learned the language as a boy during the war. Instead, he liked to spout Korean in American crowds, especially if he’d been drinking. It made them ignore him even more than usual. “Who listens to you all day?” he said.
Mr. Han’s own phone only had two numbers saved: his wife’s and his daughter’s. He and his wife never called each other unless there was an emergency, and his daughter – he would erase that number if he knew how. But it seemed Americans couldn’t stand to be in public without blabbing to somebody about something. In the rare event anybody did hang up, they just popped small earplugs in and waited until the next annoying ring, staring and poking at the screen like apes pretending to be human. Mr. Han liked to think that some of these people were just pretending. He hoped that one day he would find someone talking to nobody, listening to nothing with earplugs. Sometimes, he stood close and listened hard for the tinny sound of electric noise, trying to catch someone in the act of ignoring the world. There was an old Korean saying that it is more fortunate to have one bad apple than a bad barrel that was full of them. Mr. Han wanted some proof that America wasn’t a bad barrel, that the rotten apples surrounding him were just the soft fruit that had turned early.
If he knew where to buy those earplugs, he would wear them every day.
By the time Mr. Han reached the bottom of the stairwell, there was nobody else around. He knew that meant he’d missed his train and had a long wait before the next one. He took the last cautious step onto level ground and released the guardrail, his old forearms still tight from the strain. He mumbled thanks that he’d survived another stampede. Most days he tried to beat the rush, but today he lost track of the time in a bar while trying to decide how to tell his wife that their visas were not being renewed, that it was time to go home. He knew she would not appreciate the news, but it was easy enough on her in this country. She rushed into the first salon that would hire her even though Mr. Han had forbidden it. He remembered when she stormed in and demanded an audience with him.
“I didn’t join the army, so my wife could file nails all day,” he said.
“I didn’t come to America to sit in our apartment all day. Besides, you enlisted after the Korean War was over,” she said. Those were the things Mr. Han regretted about marrying a woman so much younger than he was. Her generation was already so Westernized that they called it the Korean War. She even watched M.A.S.H. as a girl. She’d adapted Western clothes since they moved to America, which Mr. Han hated.
“Don’t call it that. Besides, I was only a boy then. You don’t remember things like the Bodo League massacre,” he said.
“Don’t change the subject,” she said.
Now she spent her days gluing fake nails on American hands and wearing a mask to guard against the fumes. Mr. Han tried to visit her but he couldn’t stand it there, surrounded by shrieking women jabbering about American television. He didn’t even like American television.
Besides, Mr. Park was always at the salon.
Mr. Park always waited until Mrs. Park had been at work for about an hour before he showed up, like it was some big coincidence. He even pretended he was surprised to see her, that he didn’t know that she would be there. He stared at any American women who came in to get their nails painted. He stood near the magazine rack like he might pick one at any moment. He tried to join in on the women’s conversation but was always ignored. Mr. Han felt bad for Mr. Park. As terrible as it felt to admit, the salon was the only thing left for old men like them. There was nowhere for the old immigrants to go anymore. Younger Korean husbands already staffed the Chinese restaurants, Chinese groceries, and Chinese souvenir shops. They performed as Chinese acrobats and celebrated Chinese New Year. Korean men older than Mr. Han played Chinese Mahjong and Chinese Sic Bo to pass the time.
And the Americans still called the neighborhood Chinatown.
Mr. Han doubted there had ever been Chinese people there. It was certainly Koreatown now, just as it had certainly been Vietnamtown when the Han’s first arrived. Back then, Mr. Han found a good job cleaning fish for an old Vietnamese man whose hands shook too savagely to hold a knife. Those were peaceful days, the two men cleaning and cooking in silence because neither understood the other’s language. Then the old man died and a Korean family bought the store. They wanted to keep Mr. Han, but he couldn’t stand the thought of talking with them all day after the peace and quiet he had known.
Instead, Mr. Han spent his days buying magazines and flipping through them. He didn’t read any of the words, he just searched them for pictures of Asian men and women. Every one of these he would examine with his little reading lens to determine if the person still had a single eyelid above their eyes or, like so many young Koreans, had undergone plastic surgery for the appearance of double eyelids. It was such a little thing to do for the sake of looking more like a Westerner, more American, or even just to suggest that their mother or father had perhaps been American. He circled every pair of eyes that he determined had been altered and threw away the magazines when he was finished. The sheer volume of circles drove him into bars after a long day. He felt like a Korean Archimedes, drawing circles in the sand and doomed to die defending them. It made him wonder if he should be saving the magazines. Much like Archimedes, the circles might be the only important thing for him to leave behind, but he could never risk his wife finding them. His task of circling eyes began to take him far away from Chinatown and her domain, always searching for better magazines with more Asians to study, searching for just one where he wouldn’t find any eyelids to circle.
He liked to sit at bus stops and circle while listening to the harsh noises of traffic going past until his ears started to ring. As a soldier, he’d been taught to appreciate that ringing because, when it stopped, he would never hear that pitch again. So far, he could still hear every blaring car horn, but he hadn’t given up hope. When the noise became overwhelming he would go into the nearest diner. Sometimes the waiters tried to make small talk while he circled.
“Wow, cool photo. Where is that, China?” they said.
“No, so sorry.”
“Oh. Well, you would know better than me,” they said.
He longed to be back in a place where nobody would think he was Chinese or, even worse, Japanese ever again. A place where nobody would assume he meant North Korea after he corrected them the first time. Americans only knew about North Korea.
“Oh, wow. How did you get out of there?” they said. Mr. Han would tell them no, so sorry, but I’m from the other one. He tried not to say the better one, but that’s always what he meant. If they kept bothering him he switched to Korean until they left.
We even had the Olympics. It wasn’t so long ago,” Mr. Han said. Out of habit he was still speaking in Korean even though he was alone in the subway. If it weren’t for those Olympic Games, the Hans never would have moved to America. Mr. Han had just retired from the army, and anything seemed possible with the whole world watching his beautiful homeland, with his people winning gold medals, with his dear wife beside him. That was when he and Mrs. Han conceived their daughter, even though he was past fifty at the time. Like all children of her generation, she would grow up fascinated with the West and decide to attend an American university. Like so many children, she would die in a car accident.
But that came later.
She’d been away in America just four months when Mrs. Han stormed in and demanded an audience with him.
“I miss our daughter. We are moving to America to live near Soo-jin,” she said. He remembered it was the last time she wore a hanbock, the colorful gown that kimonos strive to imitate. She didn’t even pack them when the Han’s moved.
“OK, but we have to get papers to travel. It will take time.”
“We don’t need papers. We need visas,” she said.
“Suddenly you know all about visas? Fine, go get us some visas.”
The first thing their daughter said to them in America was to call her Sue, not Soo-jin. The second thing was to try and speak English. Nobody mentioned that she had an extra lid over each eye.
Mr. Han moved down the empty platform and compared the time on a giant digital clock to the subway schedule. It would be midnight before he reached his apartment. The alcohol in him made him think of calling his wife, but that wasn’t their way. They hadn’t spoken on the phone since their daughter’s accident, the last emergency that made it necessary, the only emergency.
Calling his wife would probably send her into hysterics such that she wouldn’t be able to answer. A single phone call might even mean her death from a heart attack or stroke. Mr. Han didn’t know how he would react if his phone ever rang again. He wondered why he carried it at all, why he charged it at night. Why he stared at that last answered call, remembered what his daughter said to him. He remembered it in slow-motion, lasting longer than the two minutes and seven seconds on his call log. He wondered how long she talked to her mother and which of her parents she called first. How soon after crashing did she call, how soon after hanging up did she die.
She had an American memorial service, so her university friends could mourn her. Lots of blonde women said they were her sisters and cried. Lots of men said they were her boyfriend and tried not to cry. The Hans cremated her remains and kept a shrine in their bedroom.
Mr. Han wiped his eyes and hummed the Korean anthem to clear his thoughts. He imagined fishing again in his small boat on the Tong Hai Sea, the Pakdoo Mountain reflected on the water. It had been a good life for him, a respectable job for a husband and father. He wondered what it would have been like to have a son. He might be able to teach him to fish, teach him to love Korea. Maybe the Hans would never have had a reason to move to America. He closed his eyes to help picture the countryside and swayed a little in his joy. When he reached the climactic final stanza, he leaned too far forward and lost his balance, falling onto the subway tracks and striking his head on the metal.
Mr. Han’s first hazy thought was that his nightmare was finally happening, and he braced himself for the high-heels coming to stab into his back. When he didn’t feel anything, he opened his eyes and raised himself to his knees. It seemed very rude of the American ground to rise up so suddenly and strike him in the face. He recalled the comparative softness of his native Korean soil, much gentler on old men with weak legs, and wondered if that difference alone explained the rudeness of Americans in general. In this country, the very earth trembled with stifled laughter at Mr. Han’s distress.
He rose to his feet too fast for an old man with alcohol in his legs. He wiped a hand across his forehead, and it came away bloody. As he shook the spins out of his vision, he was assaulted by a relentless flashing lamp that was murder on his new headache. He cursed this strange gadfly in Korean and turned away only to be confronted by another light, growing brighter than the first but, at least, not as flashy. He thought of a Korean fable about the first moth. It overslept in its cocoon throughout the day and only woke up after the sun went down. It flew toward the moon, but that light was too dim, so it chased after candles instead, trying to stay awake for the sunrise but always failing. He didn’t remember the moral of the story, but eventually the moth was eaten by a bat. Mr. Han slurred out the final refrain celebrating the moth’s death. He decided that both antagonizing lights should be avoided and tried to distance himself from their glare.
He took a step but tripped over an iron bar sticking out of the ground like the roots of a Naamsaan pine. He was saved from another fall, instead stumbling against a ledge that only struck him in the chest. The impact knocked the air out of his lungs, and he started a coughing fit. Mr. Han felt the earth rattling under his feet, no doubt angry that he’d escaped a second fall. He coughed a last time and tried to jump over the ledge but came up short. Still determined, he tried to swing his leg over the top but the ledge was too high, his limbs too old. Before leaving Korea, he had taken his family to see the film, “Dear Wife, I Have Foolishly Miniaturized Our Children,” and laughed that perhaps he was now a miniature Mr. Han being foiled by a regular-sized stair. His own dear wife hated the movie, but Soo-jin loved it. Even then she was already developing a taste for the West. On her graduation day, she stormed in and demanded an audience with him.
“I’m going to America for college. I have some things for you to sign,” she said.
“Absolutely not. What’s college?”
“That’s what they call university,” she said. She was wearing jean pants and a hooded sweater with the letters NYU across the front. Her hair was cut short and that day it was dyed with blue streaks that matched her sweater. Mr. Han was embarrassed when they went out as a family, even though all the children looked just like her and all the old fathers looked just as disappointed as he did.
“I forbid it. Put some decent clothes on.”
“Sign here,” she said.
Mr. and Mrs. Han spent almost two years with her in America. They saw each other most days for lunch or dinner and even met one of Soo-jin’s boyfriends. She didn’t always answer when her parents called, even though that was their agreement. She didn’t always make time to meet them, even though they only wanted to see her. She stopped dying her hair, and even let it grow long again. She wore colorful dresses that looked like hanbocks. But the Hans’ phones rang anyway.
He crouched low and made a mighty leap, finally managing to raise himself and lock his elbows, and for a glorious moment he knew that he’d cleared the obstacle, but his shaky arms were betrayed by the shaking ledge and he fell again before he could roll his body onto the platform. Exhausted, he closed his eyes and leaned his face against the cool ground, his teeth chattering to the rhythm of the mini-earthquake. Blood dripped down his nose and made a puddle. His rest was thwarted by a thunderous noise that drowned out all other sounds and replaced the pulse in Mr. Han’s ears. He could still hear it even after the trumpeting ceased and smiled because he knew he would never be able to hear it again. Mr. Han opened his eyes and saw that the source of constant light was close, very close now, and he squinted his eyes against the glare.
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