Jae Won Chung, How Harold Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Han

‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Two hours a day is all I need to maintain my kick-ass GPA. I build equations that launch curvaceous asymptotes, which are eternal. I do one hundred crunch-ups every morning hanging upside down, shooting joyous pangs of improvement through my abs. I rap lyrics of suffering over the percussive picking of the strings by my muscular and agile digits. I date the fuck out of girls of various origins who are sexy and inspiring, whose needs I caress with my doleful eyes. I am the hippest Class President and a co-founder of LET’S NOT GET AIDS. It is my dream to sashay through the corridors of Washington, shooting invisible bullets of hello at co-elite passersby and be genially shot back. Because aren’t we the generation of mixing the cool with the grave? We are forever mixing for a better tomorrow.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎My sole life-burden is Dustin, my older brother, or hyung, as he likes to call himself. As in “Harold! Is that any way to be talking to your hyung?” But, okay, if there is one thing you should not mix, it is language.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎So Dustin is Dustin and not hyung, though he remembers a time when I called him that. Sure I have glimpses of those years but I also have glimpses of calling a tiger a kittie and pointing to Florida on the map and thinking it was my country of origin.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎We make mistakes. We correct and move on.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎But what if Dustin makes them more often than I? Because he is older but lesser. He is the unsexy kind of brooder, and if you can get him out of his room long enough, he will mutter dribbling downer words until you want to slap his cheeks full of optimism and soaring. Anything is possible if you spend mornings on crunch-ups and involve yourself in the community by tutoring kids whose countries of origin have measly per-capita incomes, which leads to a more malodorous diet and a dowdier global image.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Plus I have seen Dustin fight, and I know I can take him. He confuses fights with fierce huggings.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎And that is precisely how he gets himself kicked out of college. This is a major bummer and means Dustin has to pay out-of-state tuition for his in-state college education. (Though we have lived in the United States for years and years, we are still not citizens.) Mom’s been working overtime for as long as I can remember, and in the morning, all I see of her is the elaborate breakfast spread with the Travel & Leisure section blotched in places by the soup steam. She won’t return till eight or nine, and when she does, she will immediately begin clattering around the kitchen to cook. Any decent human being would make note of the sacrifice and make the most out of college, but not Dustin. He decides to throw it all away on a fight he can’t even win.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎There’s great sadness in our household on the night of Dustin’s expulsion. Mom is like, “What am I going to do with you?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎And when she says I, note the singular, meaning spousal absence, for she is a single parent. It gets ugly quick when she slaps Dustin on the forehead with the meaty base of her palm. Dustin’s head snaps back then returns to place, his expression glazed in zombie-like indifference, like it’s all part of a tiresome routine.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Look at your younger brother,” Mom says, taking Dustin’s huge cheeks in her hand and turning his face to me. “If you could be at least one-fourth of what your brother is, I would be satisfied. One-fourth!”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I understand the pain he must feel, because both he and I know she means that number. Like, if we were to quantify my achievements and his, and he accomplished a fourth of what I have, Mom would go, “This, I can live with.” I am perfectly aware, also, that Mom’s explicit comparison only stokes the embers of Dustin’s brooding, but I do not overstep my filial boundaries.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Because isn’t that what makes a parent? Having the right to parent poorly if the mood so strikes?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎She keeps getting shoutier until she grabs Dustin by the hair and drags him around the carpet, which is a considerable ouch even for the onlooker.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎For the next few months, Dustin does nothing except drive out to his old campus to fraternize with his church friends. I no longer go to church, because sitting through service is like stewing in a long, conscience-curdling hypocrisy bath. Mom has always felt I should gain admission into both an elite east coast university and heaven, but one event during youth group happened to crumble not my faith, but my tolerance for it.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎We’d just come from service, where an old lady sang in the traditional Korean style. It didn’t have a slamming beat but it was full of mournful longing, her vocals mighty and haunting. Dustin got teary-eyed and excused himself and Mom slept through the whole thing. After the performance, our Youth Group Leader held a discussion section, and introduced a word I had never heard before: han.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“It’s the essence of who we are as a people.” Then he looked right at me before saying, “You might not know han, but han knows you,” which is a fucked up thing to say in my book.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎So I went home and took down the massive dual-language dictionary in Mom’s bedroom, and after going through like sixteen different kinds of hans, I found the one I was looking for, which meant grudge, resentment, a bitter feeling, hatred, rancor, a mixed feeling of sorrow and regret. This is our legacy of a five thousand year old family? Doesn’t the church cite among its deadly sins, anger, pride and envy? And if you think for second about han, isn’t it basically slabs of anger sandwiched between pride and envy in a very undelicious way?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎So that is why I don’t go to church and do not much care for any “bond” or “fellowship” that comes out of that place.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎And it isn’t surprising that Dustin, after hanging out with these shallow believers, would suddenly want to go back to his country of origin to “get in touch with his heritage” and “improve his first language,” as if he has his second down, which he didn’t, as evidenced by his SAT verbal. This means Mom will have to pay for his plane ticket along with what is sure to be a lifestyle of mediocrity until he can stand on his own two feet. As if he hadn’t wasted enough of our family’s money?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Are you going to the motherland to find yourself? Are you going to sample exotic dishes and ladies of our origin and remark, ‘That is so interesting!’ Because that is like so predictable.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎He shrugs, eyeing me like a lowing cow. It occurs to me that his bits of brooding are like massive flecks of ash in freshly cooked rice, and that rice is America.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎To my surprise, Mom nods mysteriously, saying, “You’re so much like your father,” and promises to let him go as soon as we get our citizenship.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎At which point, I am like WTF? But that is not the end of it.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Because Dustin says, “If we get it,” filling me with terror.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎That is exactly the kind of shit that bars Dustin from being my hyung proper, in my opinion. Because what kind of hyung makes a joke like that? Joking about being deported when we might actually get deported? About saying bye bye to the only life we’ve known?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎That’s the thing about Dustin. He can be so childish. When we were in elementary school, and fresh American arrivals, he and I would play a game called ‘stinger’ which involved putting our hands together as if in prayer and raising our index finger like a steeple. The game entailed thrusting the fingers deep within the buttocks of an unexpected party to cause pain and humiliation in the stung person.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎The name of the game in literal translation was ‘excrement indicator’ but he said ‘stinger’ had a better ring to it. I told him again and again how the game might not be palatable to American youth, but he adapted it as a form of tag. “Instead of tagging,” he said, “we can sting.” Somehow, the game caught on like crazy and for a time it was up there with hide & seek and kickball. The older boys put a stop to this when they caught wind of it. Everyone, including Dustin, was made to denounce it as homo. I am glad those days are over with.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎A month later we get a letter in the mail in English so official Mom can’t understand it. She shows it to me and I leap with mirth and tell her the news and tell Dustin the news and Mom frames it after making seventeen photocopies of it and mailing it to extended family in Houston, Busan, Vancouver and Rio, just for safekeeping.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎We’ve been invited to a naturalization oath ceremony at a local high school.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎A district judge seated on stage of the auditorium gives a long speech about his mother’s immigrant journey from Poland. I am seated between Dustin and an Iranian man. He is watching episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond on his portable viewing device and cracking up gently, showing his pearly row of teeth. It suddenly blows my mind that this man is about to become, right before my eyes, Iranian-American, which is a marvelous idea—both Iranian AND American—and I am grateful to have the privilege of witnessing the change come over him, like the growth of an additional, awesome appendage, when we are all sworn in.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎But I am deprived of this pleasure because of something Dustin does, which becomes an instant Dustin-classic.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎The judge asks us to raise our right hand to our chest and repeat after his words, words I am more than happy to repeat and believe. Then I see, to my left, Dustin’s hand, which is held up lackadaisically to begin with, sneakily beginning to droop, and I stick my elbow in his side and whisper sharply, “Get it up!” but he doesn’t. Then he stops repeating after the judge! I am outraged by this because fair is fair. They will let us live in this great country and enjoy its shopalicious bounty if we recite these words they’ve prepared for us and what is more reasonable than that? What takes less effort, you dumbass, than raising your right hand and repeating these beautifully solemn words in unison with other aspiring soon-to-be Americans?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Why didn’t you do it?” I interrogate him during our drive home from the ceremony.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“I didn’t feel like it.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“You didn’t feel like it? Do you realize what can happen if they find out you didn’t take the oath?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“The whole thing was pointless. Like they were listening anyway.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I cannot believe what I am hearing.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Your father was like that,” Mom weighs in, which is completely unhelpful.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Like what? He was stupid? Lazy? Dishonest? With weak arm muscles?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“What a beautiful day!” Mom says. “We should go out for a steak dinner.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I look out the window for relief, only to catch a rude glimpse of myself snarling in the sideview mirror. I hear what sounds like a chortle hurled from deep within, and Dustin says, “What if it was all a trick?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“What?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“I mean, what if it was all a setup, and we get home and Homeland Security agents are waiting for us, and we’re all deported by tomorrow morning?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I cannot believe the glee in Dustin’s voice as he imagines this horror and I keep reminding myself to let it go because Dustin is an idiot.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“What if they send us back and you have to relearn Korean and your grades are shit because you don’t even understand what your teachers are saying? What if you end up going to one of those rural colleges amidst the rice paddies in the middle of nowhere? And what if you can never return to the U.S., and even if you do, you can’t get a decent job because nobody’s heard of your college, and by then, your English is a joke and people keep saying to you, ‘Welcome to America. Where do you come from? How long have you been in the United States? Two months?’”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Like that would ever happen.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Why not?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Because idiot, you’re the one who didn’t take the oath. I should report your ass so you get what you deserve. I took the oath. I have my citizenship. They can’t just take that away.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Didn’t you hear about that guard from Auschwitz who was recently stripped of his U.S. citizenship? He’d been an American for decades but it didn’t matter.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Motherfucker, I’m not a Nazi!”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“You would do well no matter where you were,” Mom says in that blandly reassuring way. “You would always excel.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“That’s right,” Dustin says. “You don’t have to go to an Ivy League school.” That is a sly way of getting under my skin, because Dustin knows I have been stressing about college admissions.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎The reason I tell you about Dustin’s half-assed oath taking is because something that transpires at dinner a few weeks later. He makes an announcement of the blood-freezing variety. He declares, “I want to join the army.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎And I’m asking myself, Why? With his citizenship, he can vote and apply for prestigious government fellowships and travel freely without worrying about Customs Officers glaring at his shabby green passport, and he’s going to join the army?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Then I get to thinking maybe this is the future? Because didn’t I see, not too long ago, a young police officer about Dustin’s age from our country of origin? And I was like, Really? Your parents let you do that? Then I saw another one a few days later, and I was like, Wow! I barely noticed it this time. So maybe the same thing for the army? Then I begin kicking myself. Why didn’t you think of this sooner? Because when do Americans get all soggy-eyed about being Americans? When they talk about what they sacrificed in war. They say, “My grandfather bumrushed the Nazis in Normandy” or “My uncle lost the bottom half of his face in Vietnam.” So why not this?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Because who can beat a story like that, told with feeling?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Then I realize he is talking about something else. He isn’t joining the U.S. army, he’s joining the Korean army. So I sigh and explain to him how that is totally prohibited for a U.S. citizen to join the army of another sovereign nation.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“I realize that,” Dustin says.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎There is a beat before Mom says, “Do you know that politicians will lie and risk their careers to keep their kids from going to the army? You lose two years of your life and you will have to play lackey to people you don’t respect at all, and you will be singled out for harassment since they will consider you a Yankee.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“I’ve been thinking,” Dustin says. “Hypothetically, what if we go to war with America? Who would I fight for?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎So I ask, “what exactly is the meaning of ‘we’ in your question?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎According to Dustin, this is something he’s been reflecting on deeply since our oath taking. Now I see the trouble of free thought. Some people are in chains of stupidity, to which they are blind, so that they must be dragged against their will to the grassy hillocks of good sense. I want to tell Dustin he is acting rashly without proper information. Research shows that South Korea is a regional chum to America, and a handy little buffer-state between two world powers.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎It is time for a historical reality check.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Hypothetically,” Dustin says. “I’m saying if it’s between us and them, they are going to annihilate us, no doubt about that. Don’t forget what they did to the Japanese.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I am like, yes, thanks for that reference, which is so tenth grade. The internment camps were unfortunate, as Mr. Kilbride taught us in AP History, but we learned our lessons, didn’t we? Because did we round up Arabs and make them sell their property at below-market prices even during that fabulous housing boom? Practically all of them were left alone after 9/11 weren’t they? And next time we’ll do even better because that is the kind of country this is.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎That is when Mom steps in. She tells me to go upstairs so she and Dustin can talk. So like a good son, I obey.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎It takes a little time for me to work out the potential repercussions of Dustin’s treasonous musings. Because what if there is a showdown between my country of origin and my country of citizenship? It wouldn’t happen any time soon, but it could happen way down the line when I am like thirty years old and married, climbing the ladder of power when a well-meaning superior taps me on the shoulder and says, “Oops, it says here your brother defected from our great nation to join a defiant enemy state and recent studies have shown that younger siblings of defectors are sixty-three percent more likely to behave in unpatriotic ways.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I storm downstairs to give Dustin a piece of my mind, but it’s just Mom. Dustin’s gone for a drive, and she says it’s going to be okay.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“What’s been decided?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Mom says what Dustin needs is structure in his life, a way to solidify his manhood and become an adult. He can do that here, in America, without renouncing his U.S. citizenship. He will join the U.S. Army or the National Guard or the Marines. He will join something, but he will do it here.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎And that is how Dustin joins the U.S. Army.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Dustin shaves his head, sheds his gut, erects his posture. He is manning up. Seeing him after his training, I cannot help but be impressed. The transformation is undeniable. I ask him how it happened, but he will not tell me. So I read this book called Becoming an American Soldier: A Journey. I learn the meaning of “G.I.” which is Government Issue. It’s interesting to learn who owns what. Our house belongs to Mom. My jeans belong to me. The air belongs to nobody. Dustin belongs to the U.S. Army.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎He is deployed to a faraway land with a ton of sand, blown out buildings and angry men. It is not impossible that he will die, be maimed, et cetera.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Curiously, the sight of Mom’s weeping reminds me of her joy. How she reacted, for example, when I won an essay contest in seventh grade for my “On the Importance of Azaleas and Lampreys in the Country of My Origin.” Mom went whooping and kicking in the aisles of the auditorium, bending her lower limbs in improbable angles both peasant and bestial, and didn’t the sight coil feelings of shame around my pride like a toxic Twizzler of the heart, which I had to assiduously and unbitterly uncoil?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I ask myself how I would feel if Dustin were killed. Would it destroy me? In which knowable ways? Will I weep the way she does?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I am proud of my brother, he is risking his life for our country. I am not old enough to go to a bar but if we are still at war by the time I get to college, I would be proud to boast to any drunk American elder about my brother.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I write a well-balanced essay called “On the Importance of Humanism and Reconciliation and Victory for the United States and the World” and am awarded the Hur Prize for Promising Students of Government, so that I am called down to the counselor’s office.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎The man who is waiting for me has black hair and is in a green Polo shirt and slacks. He could be any number of middle-aged dudes from Mom’s church, but he is not. He is Jason Hur, the same Jason Hur from his Wikipedia page, which shows him in front of all of those skinny microphones looking relaxed and unflappable. He is an alum of our high school, graduate of Kennedy School of Government, a human rights activist and a legal counselor to the State Department. When I sit down with Jason Hur, he says he’s read my essay several times.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“I’ve been keeping an eye on you, Harold. I created this scholarship to cultivate young talent such as yourself.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Thank you, sir.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎This is the first time, since my grocery-bagging summers of yore, that I have used the word sir. Back then it felt like a game, like I was making a mockery of both the customer and the word sir, but here, before the presence of Hur, it is right, like the word was invented precisely for this moment.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎He says things about my essay, first enumerating its remarkable strengths, but also noting possible areas for improvement, whose very existence cause me, I cannot lie, some scintilla of distress and self-doubt.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I ask him, “Do you think the essay needs to be revised?” My voice is trembling.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎He tells me that will be the easy part.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎So I ask him what will be the hard part.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Harold,” he says. “Have you heard of the concept of han?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I tell him yes, as a matter of fact I have and boy have I ever, many times. He proceeds to say that he could detect in my essay, though it was not about han, my complicated attitudes regarding han. He tells me that my feelings towards han, in fact, are feelings of han towards han, a kind of meta-han. Which, while it might sound awesome and transcendent, eventually leads to a vicious cycle of funk and brooding, which amounts to your run-of-the-mill first-order han.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“I was like you, Harold. What you don’t yet understand is that you see han as a liability, something that will hold you back. But when you see something so wet, wiggly and alive, you have to roll up your sleeves and grab it. You can’t just turn away from it and say, ‘I do not understand it’ or ‘That is not me.’”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“I don’t know if I understand what this has to do with the war in the Middle East.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“How are you going to get people to listen to you talk about people going through pain and suffering of history, if you cannot talk about the pain and suffering of your own people?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“But…I don’t really see Koreans as my people.” Saying it, even though I have believed it for a long time, still feels like heresy, like I have poked Mom with something very sharp, and huge, even though she is not even here.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎This is me throwing myself before Hur’s judgment, hoping that he will understand, that he will say it’s okay.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎The way he answers takes me aback, because it’s like what I said was nothing, a common mistake, like the failure to carry the one.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“They can be your people if you need them to be,” he says. “People always talk about how han is a fundamentally Korean emotion. Okay, but it’s also the pain and grief of human history itself. The trick is in how you use it, for its benefit, so that the memory of your people’s pain becomes the ground of your authority, so that people will open their hearts and listen.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎The way he smiles at me, I see this is supposed to be an understanding moment. I feel like we’re at the cusp of something, and I smile just to let him know I’m teetering along with him.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“When you go home tonight, after you’re done with your homework, ask yourself this, ‘What can han do for me? What can han do for America? What can han do for the world?’ It’s like a Rubik’s cube, Harold. Make the sides match. Any answer that doesn’t consider these questions as three different ways of asking the same thing isn’t the correct one.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎When I come out of the office, I am reeling with shame and excitement and learning.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I get home and I want to tell Mom what happened, but I literally do not have the words.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎As it turns out, she is on videochat with Dustin. “Your face looks good,” Mom is saying to him, which is code for you are getting fat. I too can make out the chub, even through the grainy pixelage. I am already educated about this phenomenon from articles and blogs, according to which “this is that rare war where soldiers gain weight.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“The webcam adds five pounds,” Dustin says.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎He is joking but his face is joyless. You can tell that is what they all say.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎I tell him, “I am working on an essay for graduation, about Iraq and you. Would you like to contribute something? Like an anecdote that ties it all together? What the war means for you and us as a people? Both American and Korean? Something hopeful? Balanced by tragedy? But in a hopeful order?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Part of me wants to tell him about my epiphany via Jason Hur, but the more judicious part of me tells me to keep it hush.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“What time do you go to bed at night?” Mom says. “Make sure to get to bed at a reasonable hour. Also, dress in layers. It gets really cold in the desert. Did you know that?”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎That is classic Mom. Acting like she is an expert on the desert when she has never been to one. Dustin and I exchange furtive glances of meaning. Leave it to Mom’s momness to occasionally unite the brothers.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Any important missions of late?” I ask.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“You know I can’t talk about that.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎“Any regrets?” I say.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎He gives me a look like I tried to pick his nose with my finger. Then, after a silence that is of the tortured sort, but also maybe pregnant with awesome material to include in my essay, he says, “war is not the kind of thing, which, at the end of it, you say, I am glad I went.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎That’s a new tone for Dustin, one of calm, manly knowing. But wow, is that really the kind of language suitable for the public ear? For one, it’s not even a real sentence. And is that really the message we need when the whole world is mired in crisis?
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎If I am disappointed, do I show it? No way, because if anything, I am in fact thankful for Dustin’s tangled verbiage, since it is clear now how I am needed. Because when graduation day has come, and the auditorium fills with good Americans with anxious hearts, I shall stand there as a beacon of reassurance and promise. Because I will speak in complete sentences. Because I will tell them the story of my people and our han, and how only in the United States of America could a people, burdened by a five-thousand years of shitty luck, shed the shackles of the past, to become free, lovers of hope—true horizon-gazers. I will be radiant with self-belief, and with me in their sights, their American hearts engorged with promise, they will find in themselves something to believe in too.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎So I tell Dustin, “Stay safe, hyung, and come home soon.” I say.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎He nods.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎Mom says, “Make sure to keep your toes, armpits and asshole clean.”
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎He nods again and the screen goes black.
‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‏‏‎ ‎‎And you know it’s not so bad calling your older brother hyung? All it does is give respect where respect is due. There’s genuine pleasure there. And you get respect in return for conferring respect, like recursive respect, self-respect. And what better word for that kind of conferral than hyung?