Sooner or later it’s going to happen to you. You forget the hand-me-down hanboks, blaring F-84s, stitched up sacks of half empty barley portions from a bustling market stocked with rows of mung beans and buchu. You weave through scenes of shirts drenched in sticky blood and machine guns shooting your neighbors down to become spine-chilling nightmares. You become another identity that hopes to forget the feeling of a complete family—a sort of silent-lipped desire that keeps you from proudly marching into Olympic Mart with your mother for a touch of authenticity you desperately want to forget. You force yourself to grow up to match the number of times you ate seaweed soup on your birthday, fourteen, to keep your ripped up photographs tightly shut in your safe.
Anna, get yourself together, it’ll be fine, I recited in my head. Whirls of anger brewed in me as I grasped the already ripping photograph. It was the only one I had left of my father: my mother, father, and I squinting to the flash of the box brownie my mother had emptied her wallet for. It was the day before we would leave Korea, a day of melancholia embroidered with golden specks of our dream of happiness. That was ten years ago. I pocketed the photo and turned the corner to Olympic Mart. My mother had sent me on an errand to get some more mung beans for tonight’s dinner. It’s been a while since I have been in Koreatown.
I grabbed one of those green baskets with wilting letters of promotional ads and went to the canned goods section. I could feel my body’s involuntary shivers as I passed by the frozen goods of a place I could never call home, simply because everywhere I turned, it reminded me of everything I wished to never remember.
“Anna!” exclaimed a lady wearing a purple beanie, “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you!”
Hi, how have you been, I wanted to say. But those words wouldn’t come out; instead, I gave her a tight-lipped nod and hastily made my way to the bean corner. As I reached over for the brown can, I noticed a corner with a sack of barley.
No, Anna, no. Everything’s fine now.
My breathing became staggered as I struggled to keep my consciousness afloat.
“Anna, it’s time for dinner!” father shouted with a smile on his face, “Come back home.”
“DAD, just five more minutes!” I exclaimed, picking up another twig, “What’s for dinner?”
“Barley,” he hesitantly replied, “and oh, mung beans, your favorite!”
My father stared at the ground waiting for me like a prisoner waiting for his sentence.
“I’m sorry, Anna. It was the best I could do,” he whispered.
I ignored him and went back to building my twig fort—a handmade luxury to replace the doll house my father couldn’t buy me.
I could’ve been a better daughter. I could’ve been there for him. If only it wasn’t for me, if only… then maybe he would have lived happily with mother like a fairytale with no villains. I’m sorry Dad.
“Dad?” Waves piled over our tangled bodies. Bodies moved left and right, pushing me towards the ledge. Our screams were perfectly muffled by the salty swells. I reached out for his hand, for my mother’s hand—just a hand to quell my wails into hiccups.
“Dad,” I screamed over the roaring waves. I watched my mother lean over the slanted rails and grasp his hand. Everyone’s sweaty bodies trying to fight the waves had pushed my father off the boat, and I knew I had been the one to squeeze him towards the edge.
She cried streams of agony. I knew she was calling out his name, refusing to let go of his hands.
“Appa, please no, please,” I stuttered, “just a little more and we can make it to America.” I could make out him saying 괜찮아 before his hand slipped out of her grasp, disentangling the knot keeping our family together.
I kept my despair bottled in shut as I forced my sobbing mother from the railings. Anger, betrayal, refusal. He was gone.
My heart skipped a beat, oxygen unable to force itself into my body. I felt trapped, like I was drowning in a bottomless ocean, suffocating until my lungs burst out of my chest.
Arms, legs, sweat pushed my numb body around the boat. But I was cornered in my mind, a bundle of nerves. I looked at the ledge again. Dad…
I took a step back from the shelf, trying to steady myself on the chipped railing.
Breathe, in and out, in and out. Remember to breathe.
My hands trembled, and my eyes watered. I couldn’t stop myself. I wasn’t in control. Something had taken over my body, manipulating me, bruising me like a ruthless puppet master adamant on torturing me. I collapsed to the floor, a heap of a tangled mess I couldn’t repair.
Dad, appa, I wailed in the confines of my overcrowded thoughts.
“Are you okay?” someone asked, “Anna? You there?”
I tried to click out of my anguish like the camera that captured our deceptive happiness. But I found myself anchored to a memory I couldn’t fix.
“I’m fine, I’m really fine,” I muttered to who seemed to be the purple beanie lady.
“Honey,” she started, “Is everything okay? Here, take this handkerchief. Tell your mother I said hi.”
I rushed out of the mart with the embroidery that seemed to be more put together than myself and reached for the photograph. A white spot was forming where I kept rubbing his head. It was my way of thinking of him, of repaying my guilt to him by always remembering him. I told myself I should keep it locked under, but I couldn’t help myself.
I continued to walk down the street trying to forget those memories by conjuring stories behind each person’s expression. The man carrying his suitcase with a stoic expression seems to have had a rough day at work. Or, perhaps things didn’t work out with his lover? The lady holding the grocery bag with the yellow smiley face. She looks so similar to my mother—wait, the mung beans.
Perhaps it was my mind’s way of begging me to just let go, re-form the knot that had disentangled when I lost my father. And so I made my way back for the mung beans to slowly weave myself into an identity closer to home.
5 thoughts on “Mung Beans and Happiness by Emily Khym”
A very moving piece and beautifully written. I lived in Korea for a few years and the mention of hanboks, mung beans, and marts, took me back. Beautiful writing – thank you.
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So many people seem to crave “authenticity” –a perverted desire for relevance through irreparable pain. That is the ultimate in spoiled; a gentrification of suffering.
Your harrowing story tells what a horror life can be. There’s PTSD and guilt and a future of black embroidered silver clouds. Wonderful first story.
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The underlying emotion is done very well
This is a very accomplished piece of writing.
You have been professional and courteous to work with and if you continue to conduct yourself in such a manner, you will give yourself every chance of a lot more success.
All the very best.
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Poignant and powerful. Each word seems carefully weighed and placed to produce just the right tone. Excellent.
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Well-crafted and evocative. The MC doesn’t deserve the guilt she feels, but there’s likely no getting over it.
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