Originally written in Korean by Hyesun Jwa
Translated Korean into English by Nayun Lee
My grandmother cooked Japchae to place on her son's table every day for three years.
Ever since my father, who was a freshman in college at the time, looked at Japchae on the table and said, “Delicious,” Grandmother said she went through the long and hard process of making it every day by boiling glass noodles, shredding carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and green onions, stir-frying them separately, then mixing the boiled noodles with sesame oil, soy sauce, and sugar. His mother, with a big smile on her face, saying, “My youngest son likes this Japchae,” my father recalls every time he sees the dish that it was impossible for him to say he was tired of it. When my grandmother was having hallucinations due to diabetic complications during her last days at the hospital, I heard later that she would let out her frustration that no one was preparing radishes and cabbages piled next to her bed. In the last moments of her life, when she saw things that were not there, it was nothing but cabbage and radish. When I heard the story, I let out an ambivalent laugh.
Every winter, she would salt napa cabbages and stack them up in a rubber tub half the height of an adult to make Kimchi with three full washbasins of sauce. Each cabbage stuffed with the sauce would be fastened well with its most outer leaf, wrapped in a plastic bag and then a box, and later sent to the homes of three sons, two daughters and two nieces. Her children and their husbands, wives, eight grandsons, and the seven granddaughters were able to eat it without any shortage until the cold wind passed by and the heat arrived.
When my grandmother passed away, people who would eat her Kimchi from all parts of the world took days off and returned home to bow to her portrait at the funeral home. And, ‘like the old days’, they huddled together and ate. There was a lot of food on the table including Kimchi and Japchae, which grandmother always made herself, but this time, made by someone else. People were missing her as they silently ate the food.
After the failure of his business and a divorce, my father made breakfast every morning for his youngest son in high school who was living with him. All he had to do was to warm up the instant steamed rice in the microwave and serve it with Seolleongtang, Yukgaejangor 3 minute meals from the mart. He never missed a day, though, to come back from driving taxi by dawn, wake his son up, wait until he washed up and ate his breakfast, and drop him off at school. My father would stop his taxi far from his son’s school and made him walk a certain distance in case anyone would look down on him to find out the commercial taxi was his father’s. He would watch his son until his eyes could not catch the back of his walking past the school gate.
When my younger brother, who had finished high school, failed to enter all three universities he hoped for, and my sister, who graduated from college, was preparing for a teacher certification exam, I got a house with two rooms and had them stay with me. I bought a gas stove and a refrigerator, made Kimchi and stocked side dishes in the fridge, and prepared breakfast of freshly cooked rice and soup every single day, just like how both my old grandmother and my father did in the old days.
I thought I should do it. It may be something in my blood, or under my skin, that urged me to do it. Or, perhaps, it was something that I saw in a TV drama, or, maybe I reflected something I wanted others to do for me onto my siblings. In any case, my actions gave a sense of security to all of my family members. My parents, sister, and brother thanked me for what I did and kept on going with their job in their places.
However, as I prepared breakfast at every dawn, sometimes I cried sitting in the corner of the kitchen. I would walk with my both hands full of groceries from the market, yet I was crestfallen. I would feel content when a bottle of soy sauce was 500 won discounted. The more I tried hard repeating the housework every day, the more I felt sorry for no reason. I was sorry because the laundry was not dried and because the last dish I made was not of the season. I was sorry that the house I had was nothing special, and I was sorry that I was not their real mother. Such strange feelings would well up sometimes, and I was at a loss not knowing what to do.
It was that kind of a place that I was living in.
It was the place where I would cry because of the endlessly repeated physical labor, cry for my miserable self, cry over not having enough living expenses, and cry again for ceaselessly feeling sorry without any reason.
Ever since my younger siblings accomplished what they hoped for and left my side, I do not wash even a grain of rice with my own hands. I do not bring even a tiny living piece of plant into my house. I would rather give the fridge to a dog on the street. After giving the sets of pots and utensils, which I had painstakingly garnered, to my sister as a wedding gift, I bought two rice bowls from a mart on the way home. Putting them in the cupboard, feeling lighthearted and relieved, I took a look at them for a long time. Concerned that I declared I would only eat something if it is prepared by someone else, my friends brought side dishes they had made, and I still skipped eating since I couldn't be bothered to open the refrigerator. “I am free and easy”, I would talk to myself whenever I opened the window and looked at the sky, and then I wanted to make sure that I fully enjoyed it through and through.
As I live along this way, sometimes I get a feeling that I miss something terribly for no reason. There comes a moment when I am overwhelmed by emotions thinking of the heart burdening responsibilities and those who had laid them on my shoulders. I will not be able to easily answer the question whether it was a hell, or if I regret shedding tears. If you asked me if I could live like that again, or live like that for all my life, I will not be able to answer that either.
I still think of my grandmother whenever I see Japchae. I think about her yearning that compelled her so hard to make food and feed her son for the endless hours of endless labor every day, and the life of her son, which she wanted to protect as perfectly as you can possibly imagine.
*Hyesun Jwa was born in 1984 in Jeju. She has been painting since she was 9 years old and has held two solo exhibitions so far. She got a room with no intention of teaching anything at that time, but she now teaches art to children, and she paints and writes with no goal to share them with anyone. Reading, writing, and teaching children are just enough for her life; not even eating interests her. Despite feeling tired to have belatedly learned that she is not a genius, she is living with the hope that, if she lived for a long time, she may be able to make something real and genuinely good.