The pale winter moon that laid death onto the fields inspired a man to take the methods of salting fish to vegetables. He tells his wife: Let us salt our vegetables as we salt our fish. He leaves. She rubs the salt on a cabbage leaf and watches how death slows over the course of winter. Kimchee is made by women. They squat above their bowls in perfect kimchee squats, a position my sister and I would take as children, mimicking our mother, walking around the kitchen with our hands behind our backs and knees to our chests. The women make kimchee in stainless-steel bowls washed with the water of a green garden hose. They use tall, heavy jars that reach well above their hips. They pack and pack the kimchee in, layer by layer. They fill the jars with leftover brine and bury them in the ground.
This is our good morning: My mother and I wake up together, and we speak in quiet voices under the construction noises outside our window. It’s late summer. We lie on a jade bed. At night, it warms and warms until my back sweats and I forget that I’m sleeping on stone. In the morning, when the jade has cooled, my right side hurts more than my left side. My uncle says it’s because my alignment is off and I must continue to sleep on the bed. It will fix my body and help my blood circulation. I am starting to forget why I wanted to come here so badly and what I thought it would accomplish.
I look at my mother and she looks up at the ceiling, waiting for my questions: Why did they divorce? What was her name?
We talk in the mornings because we both claim to be too tired at night. [End Page 79] We talk in the mornings because this is the only time my mother will answer my questions. At night, my mother pulls out an extra blanket to place on top of the heating jade. We are not used to having our alignment fixed. “What a day,” my mother says. She turns to her side, away from me, and sleeps.
I pat her arm, which always stays cool and smooth despite the hot jade and the sticky air coming through our window. I ask her about my father’s first wife.
My mother once told me that any successful language needed two basics: agreement and trust. She told me a language formed when two people could agree on a word’s meaning and trust each other to remember it.
She told me I had forgotten too much when I complained about going to Korean language school every Saturday morning. She told me I was lazy when she saw I used honorifics to carry on conversations with a bow of my head and the word “yes.” She told me that I spoke my most fluent Korean when I asked for the bathroom or when I ordered food. But she laughed when I said it was a matter of survival.
Language was a relationship, my mother explained, and I had failed in my relationship with Korean, with Korea. It is a small country that my mother once told me looked like a rabbit cut in two, a country now without its head, its heart divided. “You don’t know anything,” my mother once said, and she left me sitting in the kitchen.
It was panic that made me ask my mother if we could go to Korea to see how much I did not know. I had to try to remake our relationship, before it became forgotten like the Korean words I recognized by sound but not by meaning.
During our summer trip, my mother and I trace the places we visited when I was very young. We start in Suwon, and then we move to Seoul, to Daejeon, to Busan, and then to all the country spaces in between. My family is eager to show me the places I’ve been. You remember? You ate here. Do you remember you liked this park? This...