Excerpt of Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung
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There's a theorem in mathematics that says if you take something
the size of an onion and cut it into small enough pieces,
you can take those pieces and construct something larger than the
sun. In those first months after Hannah went missing, we learned
to be careful around my mother. We had no past. Everything was
off limits. Coming home was entering oblivion - my father was
obsessed with my last conversations with Hannah, and my mother
resolutely surrounded herself with silence. So when she came
padding into the kitchen, I slapped a smile onto my face, same as
To be honest, I never really understood what Hannah had
against my parents. Sure they'd made mistakes, but nothing we
shouldn't be able to get over. They had tried their best. When Hannah
left for college in Chicago, I was already in my junior year
at the University of Michigan. My dorm was a forty- five- minute
drive from our house, and I came home every other weekend to
visit. The summer before Hannah left for school, she broke curfew
nearly every night. At first my parents waited up for her. As the
summer wore on, they waited until morning to pound on her door.
How she slept through all that pounding, I'll never know. I woke
up after two seconds of it. I'd jump into the shower to drown out
the noise. Besides, I knew what came next. After several minutes
my father would call, "I'm coming in!" and pick her lock open with
a toothpick. Then my parents would stand over Hannah's defiantly
sleeping body, prodding her shoulders to wake her up. And Hannah
would turn, scowling, hugging her pillow over her head.
"Let me sleep," she murmured. "Go away."
In the end it was her unwillingness to engage that defeated my
parents. Even when she was awake she didn't argue, a polite little
smile frozen to her face. "I got into college, what more do you
want from me?" she asked at breakfast one morning after a late
My mother unleashed a tirade about gratitude, filial duty, and
"I guess I just don't agree," Hannah said, as if there was nothing
more to say.
When she left for college she wouldn't even let my parents
drive her. She took her own beat-up Corolla packed full of
clothes and books and music. "I don't need anything else," she said
when my parents insisted on going with her. "I'll be fine."
My mother cried the day Hannah left, but Hannah pulled away.
"I'll call you when I get there," she mumbled, shaking my father's
hand. Then she got into her car and pulled the door shut. My parents
and I stood on the driveway, watching her. She started the car
and didn't look back, but opened the window and waved once.
Then her arm relaxed as though all the good- byes she had to make
were taken care of, and she let her arm hang limply out the window
as she drove away.
You'll never understand," she said the last time we came home
together for Thanksgiving. "They were useless as parents - when did they give us what we needed?" The sleeves of her red
shirt were pulled over her hands; her thumbs beginning to wear
familiar holes along the seams.
"They gave us food," I said. "They gave us water, shelter, life."
"Whatever." Hannah waved those things away. "Big deal."
I'm not sure when things changed for her, but until Hannah
forgot how to speak Korean, we had spent hours pretending to
be our parents in their youth: it had been the best and deepest of
mysteries to us. Long ago, my father used to jump trains as they
passed. He was very poor and lived in the mountains: walking to
school took over an hour. If there was a train going by he jumped
on and took it as far as he could and jumped off. He had shown us
the scar on his hand from a particularly bad fall.
Hannah and I pretended that our swing set, which our father
had built for us, was a train. We ran at the swings, yelling, "We
have to catch this one if we're going to make it on time!"
Sometimes Hannah missed the swing on purpose. "Give me
your hand!" I yelled, pulling her along until she leaped up. "That
was a close call," we said to each other, wiping our brows. We
didn't know then that wiping your brow meant that you'd been
sweating. We had just seen movie actors do it after tense situations,
and it felt grown-up and dramatic. Then we'd swing, standing
up, until I cried, "It's time to jump! Clear the track!" and off
we leaped, rolling into the grass.
Excerpted from Forgotten Country
by Catherine Chung. Copyright © 2012 by Catherine Chung.
Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted
without permission in writing from the publisher.