Everyone looks as my grandmother walks bowlegged down the aisles of Shop-n-Save. They pretend they’re not, glancing out the corners of their eyes, peering behind boxes of corn flakes and laundry detergent, but I see them staring. One little kid in a Yankees cap points right at her. His mother scolds him, then sneaks a peek herself as they wheel around the corner.
I am following behind with my mother, pushing the shopping cart as slowly as possible. Adam is bagging groceries at the front of the store. I saw him when we came in, and I’m not wearing the red tank top I bought at the mall because my grandmother thought it was indecent. I keep my eyes on the floor, which is green and white, with skid mark ribbons from the rubber wheels of the carts.
My grandmother is from Korea, which is a long way farther than the grandmothers of my friends, who come from Palm Beach or Hilton Head, fresh from winters of golf and bridge. She doesn’t look like the other grandmothers either, with their carefully permed hair and pink lipstick, their stretch knit pantsuits and pastel cardigans.
My grandmother wears a traditional Korean dress, pale green with a silky skirt that flows to the ground in many folds and a short matching jacket that ties in front in a half-bow. It’s pretty, but not what you normally see in Shop-n-Save on Saturday mornings. And her shoes are made of greenish rubber in the shape of canoes. Her hair is mostly gray with black streaks and is very thin; you can see the pink scalp beneath it.
She’s a small person, bent at the waist—from calcium deficiency, my Dad says—but the fluorescent lights and high ceilings make her seem tiny. She shuffles down the aisles staring at all the stuff piled high above her and all around, staring like the people stare at her, like she’s never seen Duncan Hines cake mix before, which she probably hasn’t.
She arrived a month ago and, since I can’t speak much Korean and she can’t speak English, we smile at each other a lot. I let her pat my hand, which she likes to do. Mostly, to tell you the truth, I’ve ignored her — it’s the summer and there’re a lot of parties and I’ve got this job at the mall scooping ice cream — and she’s pretty much stayed out of my way.
Until this morning when I come downstairs in my new red tank (very skimpy with lace edging) — it’s eighty out and I know Adam’s working today — and I see my grandmother look me over. Her face is flat, her eyes seem to move from behind a wall. She looks like one of those predatory birds, a hawk or an eagle, and I don’t need to speak the language to know she disapproves. She says something to my mom and my mom tells me to go up and change. “Halmoni says it’s indecent to show so much of yourself,” she says. “But this is America,” I say. “Just go change, my mother says, “your grandmother wants you to.” “She’s the one who should change,” I say. “She’ll look ridiculous in Shop-n-Save dressed like that.” My mother sighs and tells me to change. I do, but I’m not happy about it.
My grandmother is discussing something with my mother. I recognize the Korean word for bread – bhang, with a very hard “b” sound like a small explosion on your lips. Korean always sounds angry to me. When my parents speak it, I think they’re fighting.
While my mother and grandmother are talking, this old lady wheels her cart right up to ours, bumps into it, and stares at us. She’s wearing this heavy brown dress even though it’s sweltering outside, and she has glasses hanging from strings on the top of her nose. She leans over with one ear cocked toward my grandmother like she’s trying to figure out what language she’s speaking. Then she looks at me and beams like, Isn’t this nice? International day at the Shop-n-save! And she nods her head at me in this sympathetic way. I notice all she has in her cart is cat food.
I turn away and see Adam coming down the aisle wheeling a dolly stacked with cardboard boxes. He’s wearing a white apron over his jeans and he’s holding a pricing gun in his hand.
“Hi, Gina,” he says. “Who’s that?” He motions with his head. My grandmother and mother are moving down to the end of the aisle.
“My grandmother,” I say, wondering if the part in my hair is straight (I’ve let my bangs fall in my face a little). “She’s from Korea and she’s never been here.”
“Here in America, or here in Shop-n-Save?” Adam asks.
I feel my face flush. “Both,” I say. We laugh.
Adam punches prices onto his hand by pressing the trigger of his gun, the first couple come out blank, little white sticky labels with Shop-n-Save on them, but then come the ones with $1.29 in purple ink. He starts shooting them onto the tops of the cans in the boxes, very fast, ka-chunk, ka-chunk, ka-chunk.
I rub my hands along the plastic handle of the shopping cart, spinning it, wishing I were wearing my red tank instead of this old blue blouse with the smocked front. And I wish other things, things I know I shouldn’t, like that my grandmother was just a normal person like everybody else, and that my parents were, and that I had frizzy blonde hair and blue eyes like Diana Kearns, the most popular girl in my class.
Adam looks at me and smiles. “It must be fun showing her around,” he says. His eyes are green with yellow sparks.
I see my mother motioning to me from up front. They’re already in line. My grandmother is watching the groceries move along the conveyer belt, staring as the cashier pushes each item through the electric eye and sends it down the chute. “I better go,” I say.
Adam straightens up. “You want to go out sometime?”
I glance down at the floor. “Yeah,” I say.
He nods and points the pricing gun at me. “I’ll call you.”
I walk toward the check-out and my heart is pounding. I can feel that my cheeks are hot. My grandmother is watching me; her face is elastic, her ears drop as she smiles, all the wrinkles in her cheeks rearranging themselves upward. She says something to my mother, who looks over at me. They both laugh.
“What?” I ask.
“She thinks you’re in love,” my mother says.
Watching VH-1 with my grandmother is a riot. She’s fascinated by it. She stares at the screen and her eyes get bigger and bigger. A lot of times, like when Mick Jagger or somebody is dancing around and there’s a huge close-up of his lips mouthing into the microphone, my grandmother cracks up. She giggles completely out of control in this high-pitched way that sounds like a little girl.
They were interviewing these guys, members of some band, White Snake, or some group I’m not into. Anyway, they were wearing make-up and earrings and their hair was long and teased out. My grandmother asked me if they were boys or girls, and when I said they were boys, she couldn’t believe it. She just threw back her head and laughed for a long time, until tiny tears fell out the creases at the corners of her eyes.
It occurred to me how strange it must seem to her — not just guys in earrings and make-up, or Mick Jagger doing pelvic thrusts — but everything. Television, the supermarket, rock and roll. It made me sort of admire her in a way. There she was, laughing hysterically at all the things she couldn’t really understand — all the stuff that, if you think about it, really is kind of funny.
My grandmother spends most of her time here working around the house. She has this obsession with cleaning. She’s down on her hands and knees washing the flagstones on the back terrace or straining on tiptoe to reach the dust along the door frames. She even straightens the shoes in the hallway so they all face the same direction in neat rows of pairs.
And she’s always in our driveway, at least twice a day, sweeping acorns with a push broom. We have these big oak trees in our front yard, so acorns are always falling onto our driveway. My parents never bother to sweep them off; they just run over them. But even with her arthritic leg, my grandmother gets out there, in her billowing Korean dresses and rubber canoe shoes, sweeping with short, even strokes, pushing the acorns to the end of the drive and onto the side of our lawn. It doesn’t seem to faze her at all when, sometime later, she comes back out and more acorns have fallen. Maybe it’s satisfying to her in some way, knowing there’ll always be more to do.
Adam calls on Wednesday. I can’t believe it. It’s been a couple weeks since Shop-n-Save and I haven’t seen him around.
“How’s your grandmother?” he asks right away.
“Fine,” I say. “She thinks America’s a pretty strange place.”
“So do I,” he says, and I laugh.
“Want to go see Ghost Saturday night? It’s at the Mohawk Mall.”
“Sure,” I say.
“Great. Pick you up at seven.”
“Okay.” I’m uneasy as I hang up the phone. My parents are strict about me going out with boys. They think they’re still back in Korea.
I come down to the kitchen where my mother and grandmother are making dinner. There is a smell I’ll remember all my life— even if I get Alzheimer’s and forget everything else — and that’s the smell of Korean cooking, of sesame oil, garlic, chopped scallions and soy sauce. It’s the best smell in the world.
My grandmother is making mandu, little meat dumplings to be pan-fried. They’re my favorite. She holds a round dumpling skin in the flat palm of one hand, plops a teaspoon of filling in the middle, and rubs around the edge of the skin with warm water. Then she seals it closed, pressing the edge of the dumpling between her thumb and forefinger. When she’s done, she puts them in rows on a plate, little halfmoon shapes overlapping.
She beckons for me to help her and I sit down. This is a job I can do pretty well, though compared to my grandmother, I’m slow. She does three for my every one, and they’re good, too, sealed tight so they won’t fall apart in the electric skillet.
“Who was that on the phone?” my mother asks.
“Adam,” I say, nonchalant.
My mother raises one eyebrow over the short ribs. She is scoring them with a butcher’s knife, cutting deep ridges for the marinade to settle into.
My mother opens her mouth, but whatever she’s going to say is interrupted when my grandmother gets up suddenly, leans over my mother’s shoulder, and points to the kalbi marinade. She says something, her voice full of urgency, and we all stare at the liquid, but it looks like it’s supposed to, black from the soy sauce, with chopped-up green scallions floating in it.
My mother starts to say something and my grandmother interrupts her. They have a short discussion. My mother finally nods and reaches for the salt. She shakes it over the bowl while my grandmother watches eagle-eyed, nodding. My mother’s lips are pressed together tightly and she shakes the salt too hard for too long.
Korean meals are always extravagant, with all the food spread out on the table all at once. We grab things with our chopsticks and eat them over bowls of rice. There is the kalbi, marinated and now grilled, and the mandu, crisp fried and golden-brown, and chapchae, a rice noodle salad with vegetables and beef, and grilled salmon steaks, and, of course, kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage with garlic and red peppers that Koreans eat three times a day. It’s very hot and makes your breath smell terrible, but I love it.
My grandmother is telling embarrassing stories about my father when he was little. I like it when she does this. Of course my father has to translate, but my grandmother’s voice is very expressive and she giggles a lot.
She tells about the time my father was being punished for wetting his bed. They put a bamboo rice sifter on his head and he was supposed to parade around the neighborhood as a sign of his disgrace. But my father took the sifter off his head and went to a neighbor’s house pretending he was sent to borrow some rice. My grandmother says my father was a troublemaker.
This seems to remind my father of something because, out of the blue, he asks what I’m planning to do this weekend. I tell him about the movie. My heart is already sinking because I hear my mother say something to him about Adam.
“Who else is going?” he asks, and I name a bunch of my friends I know he likes.
It’s like he’s a one-man inquisition. I swallow slowly and say, “Adam, but he’s a very safe driver.”
“How old is he?”
There’s another little conference and then my father says,
“You should stay home Saturday night, Gina. Your grandmother is leaving early Sunday morning.”
I know it’s stupid, but I have to blink hard to keep from crying. I mean, it’s so unfair. What would I do with my grandmother anyway, except sit on the couch and smile? And what will Adam think if I can’t go?
I’m about to make a scene — yell, argue, plead my case like they do in television courtroom dramas—only I’m so mad I can’t think of the words to say. He’s always doing this, my father, always vetoing my plans at the last moment with his arbitrary pronouncements.
I’m still fuming, trying to keep back tears, when my grandmother says something to my father. They have a small discussion, none of which I understand, except that my father’s voice becomes softer as my grandmother’s grows more forceful.
And I see them as they must have looked years ago: my father, a tall boy with big ears in a black school uniform, standing shamefaced before my grandmother, who is young and beautiful with long, thick hair and dark eyes that spark in anger.
My father shrugs. “Well, okay,” he says. “Halmoni insists you go out with your friends. Thank her, Gina.”
I can’t believe it. My grandmother reaches for my hand. I smile and say thank you in Korean. She smiles back and her eyes are warm. It makes me feel a little guilty that I want to go out, instead of spending her last night at home with her, but she understands. She doesn’t even speak English, and she understands how much this means to me.
My grandmother moves slowly toward the blue plastic furniture in the airport waiting room. She takes a seat, placing her purse on her lap, and signals for me to sit next to her. My father is following behind with a flight bag full of Marlboro cigarettes and packets of dry roasted nuts that my grandmother is taking back to my uncle and cousins.
She holds my hand, strokes it lightly as she gazes out the window at the runway. In the car I tried to explain, in my butchered Korean, about the time difference — that she would get on the airplane on Sunday morning and arrive in Seoul, 18 hours later, on Tuesday afternoon; the opposite of when she came. But she just giggled and said she didn’t understand. How could it be morning here and night in Korea at the same time? What happened to Monday? I gave up.
Last night Adam and I talked about my being Korean. He’s really interested. He said it made me special to be part of two countries instead of just one, and he wished he had some other identity besides plain WASP American. This embarrassed me. I told him I don’t feel different from anybody else most of the time — only occasionally, like when everyone’s staring at my grandmother in Shop-n-Save, or when my parents expect me to live by Korean rules.
We were sitting in his car in my driveway, listening to the radio. I was nervous, worried that my father was spying at us from the picture window. Adam kissed me and I decided I was glad I wasn’t Diana Kearns after all.
They announce my grandmother’s flight and we all get up to help her toward the boarding area. Her eyes have tears in them as she hugs me goodbye. She holds on to my arm and her grip is strong. She tells me to be good, to study hard and help my parents.
She reaches over to shake my mother’s hand, then clutches my father’s elbow. He’s so tall he has to bend down. She says something to him in a stern voice and my father grunts in reply. She’s probably reminding him to change his underwear every day like she did when she first got here. Then she pats my arm once again and is out the door.
We watch her walk toward the plane, and she looks so small next to it, so lost, that it makes me feel sad for a moment. I mean, she has no idea how the whole thing works — flying across time zones in 747s — it’s like she’s entrusting herself to magic. I wave to her through the glass.
My grandmother disappears inside the plane. I’m wondering if I’ll ever see her again, hoping I will, when I get this weird feeling. We’re walking out of the terminal and there are all these cars everywhere and — maybe it’s the sun or something in my eye—but it all looks strange to me, like I’ve never really seen any of it before. The parking lots, the cars, the billboards, they’re all different from what I remembered when we came in. There’s this light sitting on top of everything like a kind of aura around it all. And I feel like I’ve just arrived in a foreign country, a little dazed from the long journey but excited by the newness. It takes me a little longer to look at everything because I’m seeing it all for the first time.
In a Foreign Country was published in Confrontation in Winter/Spring 1994.