‘Free Korean Dinner’ by A.D. Thompson (USA)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

She put down her Bible and picked up her Depression Clinic Handbook: “Everybody needs to feel that they have a sense of purpose. To this end it is important to make goals, no matter how small.” A list of possible sample goals was offered, things like: “I will check the mail each day.”

She chose: “I will comb my hair each day.”

Her hair was really bothering her. It cost her some effort to get it right. Although she was exhausted after this – too exhausted to face laundry – she felt that she really ought to check the mail after all. How long had it been? She was afraid of bills but needed a check. So she put on dirty clothes with aversion and descended the winding stairs to the entryway of the seminary dorm where the mailboxes were. It was very close to outdoors.

***

The mail was a daily disappointment. Nonetheless she stuck to her new routine of combing her hair and checking, much in the same way as she stuck to her old routine of reading her Bible. After several days, maybe into the second week of checking, she was surprised:

“Are you Korean?”

“Huh?”

“Are you Korean?”

“Yes.”

“That must be your wonderful cooking I smell.”

“Okay.”

The smiley girl asked her another question she could not understand so she retreated without her mail, without even a “bye.” She was disappointed in her English. Then she realized that she had not heard English spoken since she stopped attending classes. She watched Arirang dvds like the Merchant of Joseon series in Korean. She had not heard Korean spoken live either, since she had stopped going to church. And the last time she had gone to the Korean grocery she had run into a church member.

“We did not see you for some time.”

“What I am learning is making it hard juseyo.”

“What you are learning in seminary is making it hard for you to come to church?’

“Hard to… believe.”

“Sounds like you have a lot to think about. I would not mention such doubts to others from the church. You may endanger your scholarship.”

“Thank you.”

She no longer went to the Korean grocery although she longed for certain things. The corner store carried only noodles or boil-in-the-bag curries. It could not have been her Korean cooking that the girl with the white, white teeth had smelled.

***

She read in her Depression Clinic Handbook: “One symptom of depression may be a difficulty in enjoying small pleasures that one once enjoyed. Clinical depression is an illness. It is more than a mood.” Weeks later she felt definitely depressed.

“Excuse me, miss?”

She stared at her mail in order to avoid replying.

“Are you, perchance, the person who plays the violin so beautifully?”

“Me? No.”

It was another smiley seminarian, this one male.

“It is just that I hear this beautiful violin playing. I have been asking around the dorm. I wanted to thank the person.”

“Not me. Sorry.”

“Excuse me for bothering you.”

“It is no bother.”

“You study here? Or your husband does?”

“I study here. And you?”

“Oh me, no, no. My wife is a student here.”

“Do you have children?”

“No.”

“Well, nice to meet you.”

“You too.”

She was satisfied with her English exchange this time. Back in her room she opened her violin case. In fact, it was the first time she had opened it in America. She had not wanted to bring it but her mother had insisted.

“You will play it when you feel home sick.”

“I have not played in years.”

“You will. We paid for your lessons. You will not abandon it.”

“I do not believe I will suffer culture shock. I am strong.”

“I did not say culture shock. I said home sickness.”

So she began to play again. It was not beautiful at first and she felt sorry for her neighbors and ashamed of herself. But after some time she improved. In fact, it was in playing the violin that she had found her way back to God.

***

She read in her Depression Clinic Handbook: “When we anticipate a positive activity we increase our enjoyment of the activity because we enjoy the activity itself as well as the anticipation. For this reason it is important to engage in Planned Positive Activities (PPAs).”

FREE KOREAN DINNER
FOR MY NEIGHBORS
ON MON. 6PM ROOM 321

She saw her own sign with some surprise each day as she went down to the entryway to check her mail. She would have to go to the Korean grocery for some of the ingredients: samjang and perhaps five kimchis. She used to love to cook – with finger care. Cooking too was a form of worship for her. But she still had not been back to church.

“You have neglected us.”

“We missed you.”

“Are you well?”

She was prepared for any number of greetings should she run into someone from her church. She did: the lady they all called Ajuma in her giant visor. She had to offer her respects. But the bent old lady bustled by her without seeing – or perhaps not wanting to see.

***

At seven that night, Monday night, she began to chew her bulgogi, slowly, accepting that nobody was coming to dinner. After a few mouthfuls – she could stomach no more – she picked up her violin. She decided she would let her violin do her crying for her. She had never dared test the acoustics in the closed cement stairwell. The strains of her music surged up and down praising and blaming God – but sotto, sotto.

Glossary:

bulgogi: Korean dish that usually consists of marinated barbecued beef
juseyo:
a polite Korean form of the verb ‘to give’
kimchis:
traditional fermented Korean dish made of vegetables with varied seasonings
samjang:
a thick, spicy paste used with food wrapped in a leaf in Korean cuisine
sotto, sotto
: Latin music phrase for: slowly; softly

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author:

A.D. Thompson is an American writer and former Bangkok resident born in 1971 and reared (not bred) in Texas. In 2007 he published Diner Dharma – A Monk in Trouble in West Texas, a roman à clef, a novel within a novel, considered by some his “enduring masterpiece.” His short story, A Single Step, was published in the 2010 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology. Read more of his work at www.adthompson.com.

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