Little Brown Creatures
WRITTEN BY HEESEO LEE
Did you know that cicadas spend up to seventeen years burrowing themselves in the earth before they manage to find their way aboveground? Perhaps they find peace in the stillness of the rock, happy to coexist with silt and stone. Perhaps it takes them seventeen years to dredge up the courage to peek up at the sky. I wonder, when those little brown heads take in their first breaths of air unobscured, are they frightened of how fresh it tastes? When they first experience a world that is not dark and still, is it that they are so overwhelmed by it all that they wail like a newborn babe?
Sometimes, I like to picture myself as a cicada. A little brown creature, without a clue of what the world has to offer, satisfied with my place in the dirt, muddying my tiny hands and knees under Californian sun. A little cicada, climbed out of the earth’s core and dropped into an alien environment. Eleven years or seventeen—my journey to South Korea and a cicada’s to the surface are not so different.
There were a lot of things I felt when I first came to South Korea. I was happy that I was one year older—a grand total of twelve. I didn’t like the paler color of the sky. I gripped my mother’s shoulders and bit down on my heart in my throat as my first summer storms rattled the windows. But one of the things I felt most conscious of was respect.
There were rules I didn’t know that seemed inherent to everybody else. Where to put your hands. How low you have to bow. When it is right to put 요 at the ends of your sentences. You shouldn’t start eating until your grandfather has taken a bite, my father told me, disapproving. You should greet your elders before leaving the house.
Respect. How difficult a thing it is. How confusing.
Maybe it would come easier to me if I had been told these kinds of things earlier. If I had met my grandparents when I had been but a baby cicada under the earth, knee-deep in Californian mud. Maybe if I had proper grandparents to teach me, I could be the perfect Korean granddaughter. Maybe if I had proper grandparents, I could understand. A grandfather’s voice as he reads me a book. A grandmother’s warm hands. A grandmother’s cooking.
I have two grandmothers and two grandfathers. If I keep counting I had three grandmothers, total, but maybe, I don’t really have any grandmothers at all.
My first grandmother on my father's side. My biological grandmother. I would have liked to meet her. I think she would have liked me. I hope she would have liked me, the little cicada who bows too low, but if I am to be completely honest, I don’t think she would have. A strong woman with a strong hand. A woman with four sons and no daughters, who raised all four by herself until she could no longer bring herself to raise any more. Sometimes, I morbidly wonder how it is that she killed herself. I wonder who found her. I wonder if it was my father, thirteen years old at the time, who walked in through the door and saw her hanging. Like a thread. Like a doll.
My grandfather eventually remarried, of course. Four sons, no daughters, and two wives, one of which he could no longer meet. I wonder what my father felt, then, about the mother who wasn’t really his mother—the grandmother I see now when I go down to visit. She’s a small woman, with wrinkles that become more pronounced when she smiles. The wrinkles that grow when she sees me, laughing about how much I’ve grown in the six years I’ve been in Korea. My father always bows low when he meets her, so I do too. He smiles at her, and she smiles back, and I wonder if sometimes he sees someone else’s face, the face I don’t know, layered atop hers like an old record.
My grandmother on my mother’s side. I hear that she partially raised me, moving across countries to do so. That she changed my diapers as a child and that she held my hand when I first rose on two feet. I wish she could have raised me longer. I wish I knew what it is like to eat her homemade 찌게 after a long day at highschool, and I wish I knew what it is like to have her congratulate me at middle school graduation.
I wish I could forget the sight of her silhouette, outlined in the midnight as she pees on the floor like a dog. I wish I could forget the sound of her unintelligible screams, her voice as she calls me a name that is not mine. I wish I could forget the sight of her back as my mother bends to tie her shoes—my last image of her before she was to be carted away, and I would not see her again until I could gather up enough courage to ask.
What I do know is this: the scent of a hospital smells like hand sanitizer. The 면회실 is always noisy with people who are trying to smile when they want to cry. My grandmother has a tube protruding out of her stomach because she doesn't know how to eat. Short hair does not look good on her. She looks even smaller than she actually is underneath the innocent pink color of the hospital bed sheets. We can only see my grandmother once every two weeks. I haven’t seen her in two years.
희서 왔어, my mother says, leaning over my grandmother’s bed and smiling. Always smiling. My grandmother stares up at the ceiling. There are three lights reflected in her eyes. She’s a highschooler now, my mother continues, as if she can hear an invisible answer. She’ll be going to college next year. My grandmother looks around and lifts her eyebrow. She doesn’t stop shaking, as if stuck in a perpetual cold.
I think about my grandmother’s 물김치. I think about how I don’t remember how it tastes, but no matter how many 물김치 I eat at restaurants, none of them ever taste the same. I think about the good memories I have of her. I can count them all on one hand. I think about calling her. About saying 할머니, with the same wide smile my mother has on as if my grandmother is a child. I wish I’d written out the things I want to tell her beforehand, like a script I can read out. I don’t know what I would have written. I don’t think I could have spoken them anyway. I don’t want to call her with my own voice. I don’t want to speak directly to her and have her blink back at me with those eyes that could have been exactly the same as eight years ago if not for the shaved hair and the hospital sheets. I don’t want to have it confirmed that she doesn’t know me. The child she raised as if her own.
Are you cold? my mother asks her, carrying on the conversation with only one speaker. My grandmother keeps shivering and looking up at the ceiling as if her daughter is up there and not right next to her. It’s winter right now, so it’s cold. In the spring, maybe you can get on a wheelchair and we can go outside. My mother keeps smiling. I grip onto the railing of the bed, and I think that maybe my mother is strong. Maybe I am weak. I blink, and then I blink again. Somehow, I feel like crying even though I haven’t said anything. Even though I know nothing about my own grandmother. It’s hot. Behind us, another family is talking in that same too sweet voice to an old woman who is staring up at the ceiling. It’s all the same.
When we step outside, the sun is shining. When I take in a breath, the air is fresh, and I think about cicadas. I feel small enough to be a cicada. I feel afraid enough, with the strange grief that has made home in my chest. I feel as though I want to wail so loud everybody can hear, into this world that looks so beautiful.
The car ride home is silent. I look out the window, staring into the sky that is too pale. We pass a huge Korean flag that waves in the wind. It flutters, shadows changing with every ruffle of wind, thick black lines imposing. It looks grand, like a symbol of something I was supposed to be—unnamable, like a once-lovely painting smeared beyond recognition. I am a South Korean granddaughter.
I wish I knew how to be one.
When we arrive, I have to go to my math academy. My mother walks with me, and we both walk hand in hand in the cold February air. The sun shines down, and I wonder how life can just continue on like this when everything feels as if it has taken two steps to the left.
I think you’re amazing, I tell my mother, quiet.
Hm? my mother replies, looking at the red streetlight, magenta reflected on her cheeks.
I think you’re amazing. I repeat, louder. My mother is silent for a moment as the earth continues to turn.
…I used to cry every time, she says. The light turns green, and we start walking. One foot in front of the other.
Really? I ask. She smiles a little. This one might be real.
I didn’t cry this time because you were there. We keep walking. I squeeze her hand. The silence continues, and when I look down at my feet, the tiles on the streets are the same as they’ve always been. South Korean sidewalks are white and black, in little squares.
I think maybe, both of us—my mother and I—we are both cicadas. We are both afraid, and the world is unchanging. I think maybe everybody is a cicada, struggling with different sufferings but the same emotions.
I look down at my hands. There are bits of me ripped like paper mache and glued back on in strips of Californian sun and American soil cracked by drought, but my core has been passed down to me from thousands of ancestors in a line of faith—tilling earth in search of rice and crossing 한복 right over left to tie all the strings together. I have walked black and white streets and spent hours learning the intricacies of flipping the 공기 just right to catch on one hand the same way I have smudged grass on my knees after chasing friends in tag and gotten cones at Baskin-Robbins to watch the sun set over a long horizon.
Which parts of those lie closer to my heart? That, even I don’t know.
At the end of the day, I am South Korean, and I am a granddaughter, touched by American sun.
Maybe I don’t need to know any more than that.
Heeseo Lee is an eleventh-grader attending Korea International School in Seoul, South Korea. She is currently putting together her writing portfolio and was recently accepted into the Iowa Young Writers' Studio and the Kenyon Young Writers Workshop. In the past, she has attended both the Emerson Creative Writers Pre-college Program and the Juniper Young Writers Institute. She has been published in various literary magazines in the past and is a gold medalist of the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. In her free time, she enjoys reading webnovels and researching neurobiology.