I’m back in Korea, at my aunt’s house, where my grandmother now lives. This is the first time my sister and I have visited here with my mom, which means that we get to finally ask her all kinds of questions about the village and Korean life that we couldn’t quite translate before. This also means that my mom’s head is close to exploding from the effort of keeping up with everyone around her, translating for everyone, and trying to speak in each language. Earlier today, she got a very serious look on her face as she tried to compose the right words to ask my uncle something, and all her words came out in English, so she had to laugh and start all over in Korean.
It’s already winter here, so the leaves were lined with frost our first morning as we waited at the bus stop to go to the market. Once there, I bought a Yakult probiotic drink from a streetside vendor, which was sweeter than I remembered, and a glutinous rice donut from Paris Baguette, which was chewier and oilier than the ones I used to get at Ewha. Small disappointments. But the market was just as bustling as I remembered, bundled vendors selling hundreds of socks, or a dozen different kinds of rice cake, or shining heaps of fish. My aunt bought a huge quantity of green onions, enough that my sister and I had to trade off carrying them, and had to sort of shift them to the side to see over their spiky green tops.
My grandmother knit the second half of a green sweater since we arrived, and is already about halfway through another. She’s wearing a purple cardigan my mom brought for her. We brought her lots of gifts, and have had to be a little careful about what we give her based on how excited she is about them, because she has a serious tendency to regift. My mom bought her a beautiful quilted jacket once, then spent the year happily imagining my grandmother wearing that jacket to church every Sunday, only to discover that my grandmother had given it away so long ago that she didn’t even remember that she’d been given a jacket in the first place. Still, we brought her as much as we could cram into our suitcases: polartec jackets, veggie straws, playing cards, hair gel, barrettes, chocolate candies, soft fleece blankets, photobooks, and an entire suitcase full of yarn.
Much of what we’re eating here – rice, persimmons, onions, garlic, cabbage, peppers – came directly from my aunt’s fields and garden. Every spare inch of earth in the village is used to grow something useful: chestnut trees, mulberry bushes, pepper plants. Even my aunt’s front yard has a strawberry patch, persimmon tree, and pine logs in the corner which she’s seeded with mushrooms. While we walked today with our mom, aunt, and uncle, they pointed out the fat ginkgo berries that had fallen all over the ground, that my aunt wanted to return for. And then, on a mostly empty field, my aunt left us to pick bitter roots that she spotted between the furrows.
My Aunt Mija’s granddaughters grew up in the house where we’re staying. She spent all day with them while their father worked in Seoul and their mother worked in town. Their parents were determined to give them an American education, so they left just over three years ago, and haven’t been back since. There are pictures of them all over the house, and their old toys, pencils, and clothes still fill all the drawers and cabinets. But I can’t help feeling that at this point, they’ve outgrown the kids they were, and if they were to return, all these toys would be artifacts of who they were. Back in September, the little one mailed me a ‘Flat Stanley’, a paper doll she’d colored in that I was supposed to take on adventures. I went back and forth over whether I should bring Flat Stanley to Korea, wondering if it would be painful for her to see Stanley in all the places she loved, but I finally just brought him along. I decided, finally, that she might like seeing her Stanley with her grandmother, in her yard. I could be wrong, but I hope not.
As always, my mother and sister and I have fallen into a comfortable place whenever we’re around my grandmother. We eat the delicious foods my aunt whips up for every meal, we cut and eat fruit to share, we read and knit and watch TV. My sister and I can’t talk to my grandmother because we’ve still never learned enough of Korean to speak more than hello and delicious. Instead, we just sit in the same room as her, and that’s a kind of warm home that exists only with my grandmother, wherever she is in the world.