Noona put the tape recorder to work immediately. She spoke intensely, her long black hair falling around the unit like a cape, her lips floating over the tiny triple slats on the built-in microphone. The first day, she sat in her room and made five 90-minute tapes in a row, seven and a half hours of her fragile voice laid out on thin magnetic ribbon. How could anybody have that much to say? It was a miracle she was able to keep the phone bill under a thousand dollars. When the tapes were ready to be mailed, she insisted on accompanying Father to the post office with as much nervousness as a mother sending her child off to school for the first time.
The reply didnt come for three long weeks. When Noona saw the package from Korea with her name on it, she ripped into it with animal ferocity. There was a quick scribble on an index card and a tape that looked too professional to be an amateur recording. The note read:
Sorry you cant be here
This band is really good
We miss you
My sister listened to the tape once, slipped it back in its case, and buried it deep in her drawer.
She wasnt eating well and losing weight. She chewed her food slowly and carefully, as if her mouth were full of broken glass. If her eyes werent puffy or red, they were black and sleepless.
Mother was worried. I knew this because she came up with ridiculous suggestions.
Maybe you should sleep in the same bed, she said. You know, like when we were in Korea.
Im too old now, I said.
Mother, were in America, I explained. In America, brothers and sisters dont sleep in same beds.
Mother nodded, stared at her hands, sighed. Her few stray grays had multiplied since our move. She looked old and scratched up like my second-hand dresser.
It was hard enough being Noonas roommate, let alone sharing the same bed. Nights were the worst. From the other side of the room, I heard her lingering sobs, how they seemed to come automatically, without any provocation. I tried not to be rude, but after a week of running short on sleep, I had to push off the covers and yell, Can you please stop crying?
She stopped. I couldnt believe it worked, just like that. Thats better, I said half-jokingly, but no response was forthcoming. I felt bad for yelling at her, but in an instant I was dreaming of sitting plush in a candy-striped La-Z-Boy on a soccer field, munching on barbeque potato chips, my new favorite food.
The next day was my twelfth birthday, when she did the knife-and-pill thing, so suffice it to say, I was not pleased with myself.
When Father returned from New York that day, Mother merely told him that Noona was a noon-mool bah-dah, a sea of tears, and thats all she would say. But Father was no dummy. He knew sadness when he saw it.
Tell me, Joon-a, he said, cornering me in the kitchen, the refrigerator cold on my back. He resorted to using my nickname whenever he wanted something.
Why dont you ask Mother?
Good son, he countered in English. My good son.
He knew I liked hearing these words from him, but he was using them too frequently. Six weeks ago, Father had been nothing more than a picture in Mothers album of black and white photographs, a man who stood beside her in various poses behind various backgrounds. Hed left five years ago to make us a new, better life in America, and now here he was, in the flesh. In the pictures, he looked taller than he actually was, maybe because Mother was sitting down while he hovered over her, but everything else was exactly the same: his hair still short and parted to one side, his dark-framed eyeglasses too big for his face. He seemed harmless enough, but then Id catch him on the phone talking to his wholesalers, looking sideways at me as he spoke, giving me a wink - and suddenly he looked like a different person, a fake.
Excerpted from Everything Asian by Sung J. Woo. Copyright © 2006 by Sung J. Woo. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books, a division of Macmillan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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