Authors: David Yoon
Mom-n-Dad’s store also has two names, like me and Hanna.
Its official name is Fiesta Hoy Market, which I won’t even bother to translate because goddamn, what a stupid name. Its second name is simply The Store. The Store is its name-name.
Mom-n-Dad work at The Store every day, from morning to evening, on weekends, holidays, New Year’s Day, 365 days out of every year without a single vacation for as long as me and Hanna have been alive.
Mom-n-Dad inherited The Store from an older Korean couple of that first wave who came over in the sixties. No written contracts or anything. Just an introduction from a good friend, then tea, then dinners, and finally many deep bows, culminating in warm, two-handed handshakes. They wanted to make sure The Store was kept in good hands. Good, Korean hands.
The Store is an hour-long drive from the dystopian
perfection of my suburban home of Playa Mesa. It’s in a poor, sun-crumbled part of Southern California largely populated by Mexican- and African-Americans. A world away.
The poor customers give Mom-n-Dad food stamps, which become money, which becomes college tuition for me.
It’s the latest version of the American dream.
I hope the next version of the American dream doesn’t involve gouging people for food stamps.
I’m at The Store now. I’m leaning against the counter. Its varnish is worn in the middle like a tree ring, showing the history of every transaction that’s ever been slid across its surface: candy and beer and diapers and milk and beer and ice cream and beer and beer.
“At the airport,” I once explained to Q, “they hand out title deeds by ethnicity. So the Greeks get diners, the Chinese get laundromats, and the Koreans get liquor stores.”
how America works,” said Q, taking a deeply ironic bite of his burrito.
It’s hot in The Store. I’m wearing a Hardfloor tee shirt perforated with moth holes in cool black, to match my cool-black utility shorts. Not all blacks are the same. There is warm black and brown black and purple black. My wristbands are a rainbow of blacks. All garments above the ankles must be black. Shoes can be anything, however. Like my caution-yellow sneakers.
Dad refuses to turn on the air-conditioning, because the only things affected by the heat are the chocolate-based candies, and he’s already stashed those in the walk-in cooler.
Meanwhile, I’m sweating. I watch a trio of flies trace an
endless series of right angles in midair with a nonstop zimzim sound. I snap a photo and post it with the caption:
Flies are the only creature named after their main mode of mobility.
It makes no sense that I’m helping Mom-n-Dad at The Store. My whole life they’ve never let me have a job.
“Study hard, become doctor maybe,” Dad would say.
“Or a famous newscaster,” Mom would say.
I still don’t get that last one.
Anyway: I’m at The Store only one day a week, on Sundays, and only to work the register—no lifting, sorting, cleaning, tagging, or dealing with vendors. Mom’s home resting from her morning shift, leaving me and Dad alone for his turn. I suspect all this is Mom’s ploy to get me to bond with Dad in my last year before I head off to college. Spend father-n-son time. Engage in deep conversation.
Dad straps on a weight belt and muscles a hand truck loaded with boxes of malt liquor. He looks a bit like a Hobbit, stocky and strong and thick legged, with a box cutter on his belt instead of a velvet sachet of precious coins. He has all his hair still, even in his late forties. To think, he earned a bachelor’s degree in Seoul and wound up here. I wonder how many immigrants there are like him, working a blue-collar job while secretly owning a white-collar degree.
He slams his way out of the dark howling maw of the walk-in cooler.
“You eat,” he says.
“Okay, Dad,” I say.
“You go taco. Next door. Money, here.”
He hands me a twenty.
a lot to Dad. It doesn’t get much deeper than that for the most part. For the most part, it can’t. Dad’s English isn’t great, and my Korean is almost nonexistent. I grew up on video games and indie films, and Dad grew up on I-don’t-know-what.
I used to ask him about his childhood. Or about basic things, like how he was able to afford a luxury like college. He grew up poor, after all, poorer than poor. Both my parents did, before Korea’s economic supernova in the late eighties. Dad said he would go fishing for river crabs when food ran low. Lots of people in the sticks did.
“Tiny crabby, they all crawling inside my net,” he told me. “All crawling crawling crawling over each other, they stepping on each other face, try to get on top.”
“Okay,” I said.
“That’s Korea,” he said.
When I asked him what that meant, he just closed the conversation with:
“Anyway America better. Better you going college here, learn English. More opportunity.”
That’s his checkmate move for most conversations, even ones that start out innocently enough like,
How come we never kept up with speaking Korean in the house?
Why do old Korean dudes worship Chivas Regal?
So for the most part, he and I have made a habit of leaving things at
“Okay, Dad,” I say.
I grab my phone and step into the even hotter heat outside. Corrido music is bombarding the empty parking lot from the carnicería next door. The music is meant to convey festivity, to entice customers inside. It’s not working.
Buzz-buzz. It’s Q.
Pip pip, old chap, let’s go up to LA. It’s free museum night. Bunch of us are going.
Deepest regrets, old bean,
Got a Gathering.
I shall miss your companionship, fine sir,
And I yours, my good man.
Q knows what I mean when I say
I’m talking about a gathering of five families, which sounds like a mafia thing but really is just Mom-n-Dad’s friends getting together for a rotating house dinner.
It’s an event that’s simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary: ordinary in that hey, it’s just dinner, but extraordinary in that all five couples met at university in Seoul, became friends, moved to Southern California together to start new lives, and have managed to see each other and their families every month literally for decades.
The day ends. Dad changes shirts, trading his shop owner persona for a more Gathering-appropriate one: a new heather-gray polo that exudes success and prosperity. We lock up, turn out the lights. Then we drive forty minutes to the Kims’.
It’s the Kim family’s turn to host the Gathering this time, and they’ve gone all out: a Brazilian barbecue carving station manned by real Brazilians drilling everyone on the word of
the night (
), plus a wine-tasting station, plus a seventy-inch television in the great room with brand-new VR headsets for the little kids to play ocean explorer with.
It all screams:
We’re doing great in America. How about you?
Included among these totems of success are the children themselves, especially us older kids. We were all born pretty much at the same time. We’re all in the same year in school. We are talked and talked about, like minor celebrities.
So-and-so made academic pentathlon team captain. So-and-so got valedictorian.
Being a totem is a tiresome role, and so we hide away in the game room or wherever while outside, the littler kids run amok and the adults get drunk and sing twenty-year-old Korean pop songs that none of us understand. In this way we have gradually formed the strangest of friendships:
We only sit together like this for four hours once a month.
We never leave the room during this time, except for food.
We never hang out outside the Gatherings.
The Gatherings are a world unto themselves. Each one is a version of Korea forever trapped in a bubble of amber—the early-nineties Korea that Mom-n-Dad and the rest of their friends brought over to the States years ago after the bubble burst. Meanwhile, the Koreans in Korea have moved on,
become more affluent, more savvy. Meanwhile, just outside the Kims’ front door, American kids are dance-gaming to K-pop on their big-screens.
But inside the Gathering, time freezes for a few hours. We children are here only because of our parents, after all. Would we normally hang out otherwise? Probably not. But we can’t exactly sit around ignoring each other, because that would be boring. So we jibber-jabber and philosophize until it’s time to leave. Then we are released back into the reality awaiting us outside the Gathering, where time unfreezes and resumes.
I call us the Limbos.
Every month I dread going to these awkward reunions with the Limbos, to wait out time in between worlds. But every month I’m also reminded that most of the Limbos are actually pretty cool.
Like John Lim (character count: seven), who made his own game that’s selling pretty well on the app store.
Or Ella Chang (nine), who shreds at the cello.
Or Andrew Kim (nine), who cowrote a pretty popular book with his YouTube partner.
I used to think the character count in our names was a weird Korean thing.
But it wasn’t a weird Korean thing. It was just weird.
I think the type of person who is willing to live in a totally different country is also willing to make up their own weird traditions. Weird makes weird.
Weird also makes for incredibly lucky lives for us kids, and for that I’m always grateful. For real.
At tonight’s Gathering the Limbos are holed up in Andrew’s room, playing a multiplayer brawler game.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hey,” they say.
There’s John Lim steering his controller in the air, as if that will help anything. There’s Andrew Kim, hissing with effort. There’s Ella Chang, calmly kicking everyone’s ass from behind her horn rims.
“Wanna play?” drawls Ella.
“In a sec.”
One of the Limbos is missing. I wander around the house until I find her: Joy Song, sitting alone among big Lego bricks in the pastel room of Andrew Kim’s little sister.
Joy Song (character count: seven), second name Yu-Jin Song (nine).
When we were five, six, seven, Joy and I used to sneak the crispy bits off the barbecue table before it was time to eat. We used to stand on our chairs, hold noodles as high as we could, and lower them into each other’s open mouths below. We used to put blades of grass down each other’s pants, until one day I caught a glimpse of her front and understood that it was now time to be afraid of girls. I’ve been afraid ever since.
Now Joy Song sits in the corner smelling her upper lip. She glances up at me—
oh, it’s just Frank
—and keeps her upper lip curled. It adds an edge of defiance to a face otherwise made up of simple ovalettes. She returns to what she was doing: arranging the Lego bricks in a line.
She’s also listening to music through her tiny phone speakers. It sounds like bugs shouting.
“Isn’t that just the best way to listen to music?” I say. “Really respects the artistic intent of the musicians.”
“Hi, Frank,” says Joy, joylessly.
“How you been?”
“Oh, not much,” she says, answering some other question in her head.
I sit at the pile of Lego and feel like I’m ten. “You wanna build something?”
“It’s just that the solid ones are ABS plastic, and the clear pieces are polycarbonate.”
“Oh-kay.” I notice that Joy has changed her hair. On the outside it’s the usual ink-brown shell, but the inside layer has been dyed a lime green that’s visible only in flashes.
She runs her hand through her hair—green flash—and stops, holding her head sideways. Lost in thought. “You can’t 3D-print ABS or polycarbonate. At least I can’t. I don’t have the requisite tech.”
She releases her hair, and the green layer becomes hidden again.
Me and Joy both go to Palomino High. Our classes never intersect. No one outside the Limbos knows we’re Gathering friends. When we pass in the hallways, we just kind of look at each other and move along.
Now that I think about it, why
we Limbos hang out outside Gatherings?
“Let’s make a tower,” she says.
We fall into an old habit: building a four-by-four tower with the colors ascending in spectral ROYGBIV order. Chk, chk, brick by brick. We do this for a long time, in silence.
The noise of the party phase-shifts, and I look up to see my mom peering in from the doorway. She doesn’t have to say anything. All she has to do is look at me, then at Joy, and smile this corny tilted smile.
After Mom vanishes, Joy rolls her eyes hard and groans to the heavens.
“Joy, will you marry me so that House Li and House Song may finally be joined as one?” I say.
“Shut the fuck up,” she says, and throws a Lego at me.
She’s got a bizarre laugh, kind of like a herd of squirrels.
“God, I’m so screwed,” she says finally.
“What’s going on?”
“Wu—you know Wu.”
Of course I know Wu. Wu is Chinese-American, third gen. Wu is six two, 190 pounds of fighting muscle; a hawk-eyed warrior prince somehow lost in the American high school wilderness. A single glance from him frequently makes girls walk face-first into their lockers.
Wu is 99 percent likely to go to the University of Southern California, which is in Los Angeles. His dad went to USC. His mom went to USC. They have USC license-plate frames on their cars. They still go to the football games.
I once saw Wu and Joy making out between a pair of columns, and the sight of her ovalette jaw moving with his angular one produced that paralyzing mixture of revulsion and fascination you get when you’re seeing something you know must surely exist but never thought you’d see with your own eyes.
Q thinks Joy is gorgeous. As a non-Gathering friend, Q is allowed to think that.
Wu’s full name is Wu Tang.
Joy continues. “Wu’s all,
I want to meet your parents.
but he keeps insisting. We had this big fight.”