Excerpt of Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung
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Sometimes we reenacted our father's injury by smearing berry
juice on Hannah's hand. "It hurts!" she said.
I peered at it worriedly. "I think it's going to leave a scar."
Other days, we played the Dead Auntie game. My mother's
sister had died when my mother was still a child. When we still
lived in Korea, we followed our parents up the mountains to the
graves of our ancestors to offer them food and wine on the day of
the harvest moon, and I wondered why we left my aunt's burial
mound unattended. In front of the other graves we shouted out
"Grandfather, we are here! Haejini and Jeehyuni! We are saying
We bowed to our grandparents, then to their parents, then
to the seven generations of ancestors buried on that mountain.
The path to my aunt's burial mound was overgrown, full of snakes
and biting insects. We did not bow in front of her grave, or call
out our names. My mother quietly trimmed the grass that grew
over the mound with her long curved blade, chanting the Buddha's
Once Hannah cried out exuberantly, "Auntie, we've come to
visit you!" and my mother knelt and slapped her in the face. After
that we were not allowed to visit that grave, but waited for my
parents at the edge of the path and played among the trees that
shaded the mountain, tapping long sticks on the ground to keep
the snakes away. Hannah swore she saw a woman following them
once, picking her way through the overgrown path, her long white
dress catching on the brush underneath and snagging on the trees
around her. Hannah swore she heard her singing as she braided her
long black hair.
The adults would never tell us how our auntie had died. But
alone, we pretended I was Auntie, and Hannah was our mother.
Sometimes we switched roles so I could play the bad guys who
killed her, or the doctor who diagnosed her with a fatal disease.
We would actually weep as we played this game, imagining my
mother's family at the news that our auntie was dead. I always
played our auntie brave, never giving up hope to the very last,
never betraying national secrets to the North Korean spies, always
standing up for what she believed in and protecting those she
The year I became a math major, Hannah and I started growing
apart. She never understood my chosen field, and considered
it a defection to my father's fortress of reason and logic.
"You can't even divide up a bill," she said. "You're horrible with
I tried to tell her about complex and imaginary numbers,
primes and transcendentals, numbers with families and personalities,
but she rolled her eyes.
"I don't know how you can think any of that is important," she
said. She was studying to become a biologist, deep in the gunk of
life and committed to saving the earth, and could see no beauty
in what I did.
But math had come with me from Korea to America, and its
familiarity had pulled me through those first bewildering years.
I liked its solidity, the possibility of discovering a truth around
which no further argument need swirl. And Hannah was right to
feel left behind, maybe even betrayed. Because something changed
between my father and me when I started talking shop with him.
My father had always wanted a son. We women were unreliable
creatures, prone to fits of emotion and flights from logic that
generally ended with him at the receiving end of a pointed finger.
"Yes!" he'd said, when I told him I'd decided to study math. He
reached out his hand and said, "Shake!" While he pumped my hand
up and down, he said, "Math lasts."
One day in the summer after my sophomore year of college, my
father and I tried to construct the seventeen-gon with a straightedge
and compass. As we talked, something in him eased up and
fell away. He laughed, made jokes about our family in mathematical
terminology. When we talked math, the words flowed, pure
and easy. Here were rules we could both abide by, here was a language that was eloquent, and spoke to us about the world.
Later, we sat in our backyard going over what I thought at the
time was a particularly complex proof. My mother's roses were in
bloom at the edge of our lawn, and we could smell them faintly,
their perfume drifting over on the occasional breeze. A beetle flew
onto the picnic table and landed on our paper.
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.