The ajumma comes to the end of her story – the slicing of a giant onion into irregular chunks – and looks up at me as if I am about to leave. The truth is, I just sat down. She tosses the white stories into a pink plastic tub and picks up a second tale. I pick at my kim chi like it’s an excuse someone’s about to give me, and which I do not want to hear. But the truth is, I’ve heard it a thousand times before, and this time the kim chi tastes just as vinegary, just as spicy as the last one. I look up at the old man cooking pork on the little grill and mistake him for someone I once saw at my grandfather’s funeral – leathery, small, beaten down by time. The truth is, I have seen him before. He’s the guy who tried to shake my hand in the laneway and tickled his index finger against my palm, like a small worm against my skin. He recoils from me now, anticipating my inevitable reaction, and goes on turning the small slices of meat story. The old man looks up and sees a friend out in the street, goes to get up and then thinks better of it, looking sadly instead at the small glass of soju with no companion. It could be crime to eat alone here. Between the cracks of boisterous social encounters, however, the small seeds of loneliness and isolation shoot up like outcast weeds (him, me). The small glass of soju – I can see the exterior of the glass is dusted, from lack of use) twinkles in the intermittent strobing of the light behind the wall fan, wishing itself empty, knowing that in truth this is not its purpose – a soju glass should always be full. The half-empty bottle stares at the glass balefully, all the while aching for the warmth of the old man’s palm, knowing also, in all truthfulness, that its fate will be to be thrown into a crate of empty brothers and sisters, then transported back to the bottling plant, either to be smashed and reformed as another green glass story, or to be simply washed clean and free of human prints and then filled, just like the last time, with the clear and glacial liquid that keeps old men warm and conversations flowing. The room looks at us all with its usual ambiguity, its hangul signage worn and crusted from corrections, cancellations and sad amendments to the list of a dish’s ingredients. The hangul characters, red and orange against their teakwood skins, radiate an uber-cool aloofness, existing on a plane beyond menus and orders, beyond conversation even, though in truth the conversations themselves attempt to mimic the script’s everyday practicality, its scientific charm. The air forgets us all, forgets even the scent of the onion, the pork fat frying, the cigarette smoke slithering, the dust gathering on wood and glass, the incense in its corner. The incense has no story. The plastic chairs have no story. The glass windows will have no story until evening falls, and the world turns neon, giving them something to reflect. The ajumma continues slicing her stories into small white chunks, irregular but million-fold. They will be placed into small white storyless bowls, and green shoots added to them, along with the now-familiar vinegar saga. We will make stories from the pork and vinegar, roll these in the plotlines of sesame and salt, dip once into the ever-changing vinegar bowl, now greasy with pork fat, picking up where we first left off, being sure also to grab in our shining silver chopsticks without story or meaning a small sliver of white onion, and then taste the whole mysterious historical combination on the ever-unfolding storyboards of our pink wet tongues.
First published in Peril, Issue #2 (October 2006).