Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Mismatched Socks

I remember my wedding as a bright and fluid thing. Like watching a waterfall in the sunlight, trying to watch the individual drops falling. It was a collage of guests, parties, presents, and expectations. I was twenty-three. That was thirty years ago.

I was lucky, for marriage was a game of chance in Korea in the 1960s, before the West started to exert powerful forces of cultural change on Asia. I had met my husband three times before marrying him. My husband was a good man, a kind and powerful man, funny and loving and childish and irritating all at the same time. I loved him like one loves the tides - always present, but sometimes in and sometimes out. As much as any couple could be, we were happy.

Like all Korean men, after working late he would drinking with his friends. They would go to clubs and bars and soju tents on the street, drinking beer and makoli and soju, singing and vomiting and being idiots until the early morning. Like all Korean women, I would chain lock the door so he would have to beg me to let him in the house. Sometimes I let him in because he was a demon in bed. Sometimes I didn’t, and he had to sleep on the doormat until the sunrise.

Sometimes he didn’t come home at all. There are places where the dancing girls would do more than dance, and they all knew him by name. He flirted with the coffee shop girls and I know he had a few mistresses, but he was smart enough not to get caught.

Together my husband and I had four strong children, one son: Yoonjoong, and three daughters: Sunah, Mia and Jinah. We would all lay in bed on Sunday mornings, watching TV and eating tasty kyul, arguing and joking and laughing. Sometimes he would lift up his leg and let out a vicious fart, point to my son and say “That one’s for you!”

He worked hard to be the ideal husband, to provide for the children and I. His hair was always combed and his collar straight. He owned several businesses, and was even mayor of our town. Back then nothing happened without bribes, and he got a piece of every one. Men would come to our house sweating in new suits. They would bring birthday cake boxes filled with money, my husband would nod, and the deal was done. He was powerful and important. He knew it and I loved it.

As he got older he drank a little less and stayed home a little more, where I could get my claws into him. We fought constantly about little things - I think that sometimes the fighting substituted for our diminished drive to make love - but in the end, we had the ties that bind.

The ending was inevitable. It came in the form of stomach cancer, from too much drinking and long hours of work. He tried to fight the sickness, kept going back to the hospital, took special Chinese medicines and ate special foods, but he just got weaker and weaker. Finally he quit work and just stayed at home with me and the children, and for a few quiet months we stayed together like a family should. We didn’t argue anymore, just joked and smiled and remembered.

It came the middle of the night. We were talking together, when he told me that the pain had disappeared. The children were sleeping nearby. We remembered the good times and laughed about the bad times. We talked about the children, and their future. I cried. He wiped away my tears. I held his hand and prayed. He said goodbye, and closed his eyes.

That was four years ago. He was fifty-three when he died, far too young. We visit his grave four times a year, offering meat, fruits and soju alcohol to his spirit, and then have a picnic with what remains, because when spirits eat the food does not disappear.

His ghost still stays with me, coming home late at night and hanging his coat on the rack, sitting in the chair in front of the television, or reading his silly martial arts novels. He doesn’t speak as much as he did when he was alive, but his comforting presence remains.


The time has come, and my oldest daughter was getting married. My son Yoonjoong is already married and has a child, but that’s not the same feeling as having one’s daughter get married. That combination of happiness and sorrow is hard to describe. My little Sunah was going to be leaving my home. She wasn’t going to be my baby anymore, she was going to be a strange man’s wife.

Sometimes I call her my favorite, but sometimes I don’t. Sunah is the black sheep of the family; beautiful and intelligent, but strong-willed and arrogant, just like her father. She is certainly the most unusual of my children, and the one most destined for happiness and sorrow, for great deeds and pain.

Sunah is smart, a little too smart. She got a degree from one of the best universities in Korea, understands computers and speaks three languages, but she lacks common sense. Mia and I are always trying to keep her out of the kitchen, because whenever she starts cooking it’s a nightmare. Not that the food is bad, but she works like a whirlwind for hours and dirties every dish in the house. Everything about her is magic and wonder - reality has little bearing on her life.

She had told us all that she wouldn’t be married until she was thirty-nine. Not forty, but thirty-nine. I tried to tell her that life doesn’t always work that way, but of course, she had to learn on her own.


My two oldest daughters lived with me in Seoul. Jinah was still attending the University in Taejon, staying with her aunt.

My son Yoonjoong often came to visit, bringing my grandchild Sunoo. He was five years old, a spinning sugar-cube of creative destructive energy, bent on knowledge and conquest of his growing world. His fat little face was filled with wonder and sarcasm. At five he was already a comic. He was like Sunah, just a little bit too smart for his own good.

I spent my days cooking and cleaning or going out with my friends. We went out shopping, to the hair salon, or get drunk on soju and go out for karaoke in the middle of the afternoon. My nights were for my family. Together, they were the light and liveliness in my world of crumbling traditions.


It was one week ago that Mia asked me innocently “What if Sunah wanted to marry a man with long hair, an earring, and wore socks that didn’t match?”

I said “Absolutely not!”.

I love my daughter, and I respect her independent streak, but there are certain things that are not acceptable. Korea’s history is over five thousand years old, and tradition is one of the strongest binding forces in our society.

Little did I know that Sunah already had such a man in mind. I guess that I too had to learn on my own. Love is the bullet. You can’t run or dodge or defend.

They met on the bus. I still laugh to myself when I hear this. They were stting next to each other and just struck up a conversation. That’s my Sunah. That was only three months ago.

I’ve heard quite a bit about this young man. He was young, only twenty-five; three years Sunah’s junior. For starters, he was mi-gook-saram, an American. He had long hair, and he did wear an earring. He was extremely tall, almost two meters. My Sunah must have felt like a child next to him!

He worked as an English teacher in Seoul. Does he want to teach English the rest of his life? I asked her. Being a teacher was a very respected position in Korean society. She shook her head.

"He’s going to school to be a doctor, Mother, but I think he wants to be a writer."

He was a kind boy. He called her almost every day. He wrote her poems (in English, of course.) and sang to her. At least he sang better then she did.

I saw pictures of them together, when they went to Chunchon for the weekend. The photos of them together were little tears of time. I would probably look at these pictures in ten years and smile. Together, they were laughing and playing. They looked very happy.

Still, long hair? An earring? I couldn’t help but be concerned.


I think that I coped with the issue very well. The first thing I did was to get very, very drunk. I had three bottles of wine that night, and I don’t remember what I did. The next morning, I regretted my decision to drown my sorrows in alcohol, but what else could I do?

I visited the fortune teller, in his little box near the subway. He was a smiling little man with three rotting teeth and soju from last night still on his breath. He sat on a stool, surrounded by his magical texts, calligraphy pens and seals. We chatted and drank tea while he consulted ancient astrological books.

I couldn’t contain my nerves while the fortune teller hummed to himself. Even the most important weddings had been cancelled because of a bad match. No one wants bad luck. I wondered if my Sunah would be too proud to call off the wedding. What would I do?

The fortune teller clapped his hands together once with a boozy grin. Sunah and her fiance had Kung-hap; a lucky match. I was delighted.

My next task was to break the news to my family and friends, in the most subtle way possible. I called my brother-in-laws. I tried to be as subtle as I could, to gauge their reactions. I said something like “what if your daughter wanted to marry a foreigner?”

One said, “Why not?” The other said, “Why would she do such a thing to me?”

Next, I talked to my best friend. I knew that she would give me a straight answer, good or bad. She told me that she had two daughters married to Americans. Both of them lived in the United States now, and both were very happy. That made me feel a little better.

Then I asked her, “Do your sons-in-law have long hair, or earrings?

“Of course not,” she said with a rising tone, as if offended by the question, “They are both very nice boys, with good jobs and good families.”


We were going to meet him that Saturday. I was so nervous about meeting this boy that would take my daughter away from me. He didn’t speak more then a few words of Korean. I wouldn’t even be able to talk to him. Sunah, whose English is almost perfect, said that she would translate for me. Still it would be uncomfortable.

The house was a mess. That was my first, most immediate concern. This boy that wanted to marry my daughter may be an angel or a criminal, but he wouldn’t find my house dirty. It was time to clean the place up. We had been talking about putting on a fresh coat of paint for years. Why not make it an event? Men in dirty coveralls came and tore up the house, pulling the furniture away from the walls, putting down speckled dropcloths, pulling off the old wallpaper, sanding the old paint smooth. Every night that week we went out to dinner because we couldn’t cook in the kitchen. Sunah and Mia both complained about the noise and confusion, but in secret, they were delighted with the imagined results.

My husband, no longer affected by the currents of the physical world, seemed to ignore chaos that ruled the house. He came home at the usual time every day and sat in his favorite chair. The television had been moved, so he just read his martial arts novels. I never understood why he liked those books.

The men worked like mice in a cage, always moving and shouting at one another. I stayed close by, directing their every move, like a master conductor. My house had to be perfect, and I wasn’t going to rely on them to do it themselves.

In the end, it turned out wonderfully, the walls as white and smooth as a new baby. Then the cleaning begun. The clothes were tossed out of sight, the shelves arranged. Brooms and vacuums groaned like angry soldiers attacking dirt. I went into a frenzy, burying all of my anxiety and excitement into the task.


Yoonjung came over Friday night, the night before the event, bringing my little Sunoo with him. As I was in the kitchen talking on the phone, I overhead Sunoo talking to Sunah. Sunah mussed his hair and picked him up, carrying him around the room.

Sunoo said, “I’m going to teach Eric how to speak Korean. If he says one, I’m going to say hana. If he says two, I’m going to say duge”.

Sunoo was going to be in for a surprise. This would be the first time he’s ever met a foreigner. It would be the first time for me, as well. Oh, sure, I’ve taken group tours to other countries and seen foreigners, but this would be the first time that I really met someone who had not lived their entire life in Korea.

All I really know about Americans is what I see on television, in the movies, or what I hear from others. They seem terrifying, loud, obnoxious, violent. I had a sudden image of my daughter, a delicate vision of loveliness dressed all in flowing white, standing in front of the altar with Arnold Schwartenegger, wearing torn jeans and a naked chest, his muscles oiled and bulging, a machine gun resting on his shoulder.

I was a little worried.


Saturday morning, I woke early. I had a mission. I did my hair and decided to wear a red blouse with a black dress. Sunah told me that he likes red.

The kitchen was busy at nine o’clock, and would stay that way until his arrival at six. Meat was diced and browned, vegetables prepared, soups stewed. Mia and I chatted while we cooked, watched TV, drank tea, and had a great time. Friends came and went, brining little wrapped gifts and nervous smiles. I forgot entirely about the purpose of our efforts, until the clock chimed five.

He would be here soon.


The doorbell rang innocently at ten after six, and I heard Sunah’s voice floating through the door. They were here. I was very nervous. I straightened my outfit, patted down my hair, and opened the door.

I looked up and up and up at him. Eric was very tall, with pale skin, round eyes and an enormous long nose like the head of a trout. He wore a nice shirt and slacks, but his hair was tied back into a ponytail, and I could see a small gold stud in his left ear. I found out later that Sunah had given it to him. He was a little clumsy taking off his shoes.

I couldn’t believe it. His socks really didn’t match. I thought that she was joking about that. One was black and the other was white. They were thin and threadbare, the white one had a tiny hole near the big toe. I tried not to stare at them.

Eric greeted me with, “Anyong-hasayo,” like that was the only Korean word that he knew. I said “Hello,” with my hands clasped together to keep them from shaking.

“#%*&%)*(&,” he said in English. I smiled and pretended to understand. We both were smiling like idiots, desperately trying to make a good impression.

“Would you like something to drink?” I asked him. Sunah translated. He said he wanted coffee. I prepared him a cup, and sat down across from him. The room vibrated with tension. I asked him a few innocent questions, about his family and the like. After a few minutes, we started to relax. In person, he didn’t look so...foreign. He was just like me, nervous and uncomfortable, trying desperately to please.

I told Sunah, “I feel a lot better now that I’ve met him.”

Eric smiled when he heard the translation, and replied in English. I understood the meaning without knowing the words. “Me, too,” he had said.

He called me Omonie, mother, as if testing it on for size. I smiled and nodded my approval.


Sunoo sat in his chair and refused to greet the stranger. He was sullen, all limp and mean-looking, staring at the television without looking up.

Sunah diagnosed the problem immediately. Sunoo was jealous. Sunah was his favorite aunt, his playmate and friend. She would wrestle with him like a man would and take him to the park and the zoo. She talked to him as an equal, not as a child. Now, this huge foreign man was taking her away from him. I felt pangs of empathy. I knew exactly how he felt.

We tried to cheer and cajole him, but nothing would work. Even when dinner was called, he just sat at the edge of living room, staring at the floor.


The dinner was a grand feast that had taken hours to prepare. It was worthy of a king. The entire set of tables were covered with small white dishes of kim-chee, salads, vegetables, fruit, meats, noodles, and rice. Sunah had told me many stories of Eric’s legendary appetite.

I picked up the chopsticks and tried to show him how to hold them. He picked up his own chopsticks with perfect form and plucked up a piece of meat to demonstrate.

I poked Mia in the ribs, “He uses chopsticks better then Sunah.”

Sunah sat down next to Eric and started explaining the food to him, in English. He smiled in that way that said, I know. He listened to her with half an ear while eating like a voracious squirrel, picking at little bits of food at a constant rate which didn’t slow for thirty minutes.

All was going well, but I looked at my watch covertly. Where is Jinah? I worried. She was supposed to be here an hour ago. Is her train late? Is she afraid to meet Eric?

No, that didn’t sound like her. Maybe it just didn’t seem like such a special event for her. I could hear her voice clearly in the back of my mind. “Mother, people get married to foreigners all the time these days. It’s not like Korea is the only country on Earth.”

I turned my head when I heard Sunah laughing, almost spewing out a face full of food. Eric puffed up and raised his eyebrows, gesturing grandly with his chopsticks. Mia saw the way that they were joking around and said. “He is just like Sunah.” Sunah translated her comment to English, and Eric smiled. Then Mia added with a devilish grin. “That’s not supposed to be a complement.”

At that moment, Sunoo walked up to Eric, and without a word, stroked the hair on his arm. Koreans have a mixed fascination with body hair. Sunoo just wanted to know what it would feel like.

After dinner, Sunah took me aside.

“So?” she asked, her face filled with nervous expectation.

I could see how much this meant to her. I looked out at Eric, who was still eating and was trading mangled Korean phrases with Sunoo. He was so strange, alien, and yet he had that special quality of...specialness...that my Sunah had. “He seems nice,” I said.

She jumped up and hugged me.


Mia and I cleaned up the dishes, while Eric and Sunah went upstairs to her room. Minutes later, Sunoo clomped up the stairs to join them. After a few minutes, Sunoo dissolved into peals of laughter. I could hear Sunah’s laughter, Eric’s low rumbling chuckle. The roughhousing, laughing and thumping went on for an hour.

Finally, Sunoo’s mother called him down. He said he didn’t want to come down. Eventually he did, but he kept looking for excuses to go back up to the loft.

“I left my socks up there.” he finally managed.

He went back up, and the laughter and thumping started once more. His mother shrugged helplessly. They are all children, I thought, let them play. Then, Sunoo squealed, in feigned fright. I heard him say, “Show me again,” then Sunoo squealed even louder.

His mother called up, “Come down, Sunoo!”

Sunoo thumped down the stairs in that clumsy, five-year-old way, vibrating with excitement. “What was all that noise about?” his mother asked.

“Mom, I’ve got a secret for you.” Sunoo said in his loudest whisper. “The man is covered all over with monkey hair!”


That Sunday I went shopping for some special gifts. When I arrived, Eric and Sunah were sitting on the floor, watching a video. His head was in her lap, and she was stroking his long hair. Her other hand was holding his, their fingers twisted together. They acted exactly like I expected young lovers to act - always wanting to touch and stroke and kiss each other, always wanting to be together. Their heads were probably filled with wide hopes of tomorrows, of joys and laughter and bewonderment.

My baby was leaving me. Despite it’s aching newness, the thought no longer scared me. I was excited for my daughter. She deserved to be in love. She was that special kind of person that is allowed to have a special kind of love, like the kind in stories and movies. From what she told me, they kiss all the time, even in public places. They were the kind of couple that walks in the rain, holding hands, unaware of the raindrops falling from the sky.

My baby was not a baby anymore. She was a woman, and she loved a man, and they would move halfway across the world from me to start their new life.

I opened my bag, and dropped ten pairs of brand new socks on his lap. They would live and learn and grow together, through hardship and pain, love and joy. He probably would not cut his hair, or take out his earring. But at least he would wear matched socks.

My husband, sitting in his favorite chair watching the television, long dead but still not completely aware of it, nodded his approval.

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