My family of five migrated down
to Cheju island during the Korean War. Elder sister was six, and
younger one, only five months old, born in the midst of bombing in
Seoul. I was only three years old, and mistook air raids as hide
and seek games.
One morning on the island, my
mother dressed me in a purple satin smock, urging me to follow uncle
Mei. I was skipping to pace with his long strides holding his
thumb. We watched lady divers arising from the tides with a basket
full of abalone. The squirmy slippery creatures were hard to chew.
But, still, I always wanted more.
Uncle Mei guided me into a
brick building across the shore. Inside was a mirrored hall. He
draped his bare body with a white towel, then, helped me to undress.
He glided the door to the right; my gaze fixed, and my jaw dropped.
He pulled me in. All the men sat naked on a cement floor. Gray
misty light filled the room above a rectangular steaming tub. Dark
tangled yarn crunched between their thighs. Their tubes, ten times
larger than my index finger, were lodged in the middle.
Few families had private baths
at home in the late 1950s in Seoul. My parents built a large cast
iron tub, which was heated by burning wood from outside. Its
rounded bottom was too hot to touch; mother placed a wooden sieve
under our feet. With a matching lid, it reminded me of a giant
steamed dumpling pot.
Mother established a special
bathing practice, separating the family of seven into two groups.
Father, younger sister, and I were the first group. Mother and two
little brothers formed the second group. Big sister was an assistant
to mother. She was 13.
Somewhere in-between the
transition, I was left alone with father. He turned his back toward
me, squatted, and aimed at the drain. I craned my neck to peek at
him: between his two fingers, I saw his private part. That was my
last day in the first group.
My friend Hai and I got up at 6
am every Sunday morning to beat the public bath crowd. I was
rooming at her parents’ to attend a better junior high school. My
conical breasts had become fuller; I flinched at the thought of
being naked in the public bath.
One woman with sagging breasts
and stretch marks all over her stomach swaggered like a duck, while
the other with layers of warbling pouches waved her daughter to come
in. An old wrinkled lady yanked his grandson. “Why are you standing
there like a log? Hurry in to get a good spot,” Hei yelled at me.
Hei demonstrated how to scrub
every inch of the skin, folding a rough wash cloth into a ball. She
was a perfectionist; her way was the right way. After peeling our
dead skins, we did each others’ backs. I did hers first. “Harder.
You’re doing a half-assed job.” I rubbed more briskly to please
her. I had to obey her: she was two years older than me. Now, it
was my turn. Hurting a lot, but, I endured.
I held two hand mirrors to
check my back at home the next day: a galaxy of tiny red scabs all
over my back. Aching and burning.
When we arrived at a honeymoon
suite in Cheju island, the sun was about to go down. It was my
second visit to the island since the War. We ordered oysters, sea
cucumbers, and abalone from the room service, and relaxed over rice
wine while looking at the dark sea.
“I will go first,” he murmured
closing a bathroom door behind. I was relieved not to be naked with
a stranger so soon. We hadn’t hugged, or kissed yet, although we had
gone to concerts, dined out with families, and saw several foreign
films. Was it normal? I had read about first night rituals, even
heard stories about the proof of women’s virginity on the first night. In the old
days, the bridegroom had to bring blood stained gauze back to his
His soon to be ordained brother
matched us; I was a research assistant at the laboratory where he
had pursued his doctoral dissertation on parasites. He used to
bring me daisies, art books, and coffee. The colleagues made bets:
“He won’t make it to be a priest. Why didn’t he proposed to Kay?”
No. He wanted to be a brother-in-law to Kay, that was I. His
generosity and devotion blinded my conviction: I protested against
human grooming, as well as arranged marriages.The morning after the
silent sleep, he delivered a statement: “I shouldn’t have
married.... But, I was afraid that my brother would fail
to be a priest if I...our
family honor is important...” “Why didn’t you tell me that two days
ago? We could have canceled our ceremony.” I felt dizzy, nauseated,
unsteady, yet calmly assertive: “it’s over. It’s OK. Thanks for
being honest. I am going back home alone.” He sobbed, burying his
head into the hands. I pulled a diamond ring and band from my
trembling finger, and placed them on his bible.
My official husband, stranger
than an alien, ordered abalone porridge for me, begging me to stay.
“So sorry, forgive me, give me another chance, everything will be
fine. I shouldn’t have said that to you.”
I left the room alone heading
to the airport. I was still a virgin.
Catherine Residence Hall
During my first graduate year
in the United States, I had shared a dormitory apartment with an
Italian roommate, Mary. She had a thick mopey hair, majored in
anthropology, practiced Arabic, and watched Johnny Carson every
night. I had heard her belly laugh while I studied late into the
night, electronic transfer, sodium pump, transfer RNA, etc.
Mary with water melon breasts
lugged my 98 lb. frame in her black Thunderbird every Sunday for the
weekly grocery shopping. I paid half the bill, ate a quarter. She
was a chef and I was a dishwasher. In five months, I puffed up to
Nothing much to complain about
this guardian angel except one thing: her duffle bag in the
bathroom, where all her soiled clothes and underwear were dumped
together. Back home, our maid did the laundry so neatly every day.
I couldn’t help feeling queasy passing the bag. I imagined her
underwear fermenting with her feminine discharge.
However, I slowly got used to
collecting my laundry in a wicker hamper, although I hand washed
socks and underwear daily in the tub. I hung them on the shower
curtain rod like flags. Mary never complained, nor followed my
practice. I found myself accumulating my underwear in the hamper at
the end of the year.
Berkeley graduate housing had
no bathtub, only a boxy shower stall in which my four year old
daughter, Hana, and I barely squeezed ourselves. Under the dim
light, she asked, “ when do I get those furs you have under the arms
and down there?” “Not furs, hairs. You’ll surely get them when you
grow up.” “I want now, like you.” Then she found my
dimples on the buttocks. “I
want these too.” “They are scars! You won’t get them.” “I want
them. I like to be like you.”
I managed to find an olive
green plastic tub that fit diagonally inside the shower. At least,
Hana had a tub. I squatted on the floor soaping her soft back, when
I heard my husband raise his voice across the hall. “Are you
done? I have been waiting for...” “Why don’t you read more of
Karl Marx, or fiscal policy?” I cringed at my “geisha” duty. It’s 10
pm. I had to get up at 5:30 am to catch the commuter bus leaving for
Palo Alto. A mountain of dirty dishes still in the sink. In-laws had
already turned off the light!
“You’re not sleeping,” his hot
breath crept up my neck. I didn’t straighten my curled body as his
hand grasped my waist like a snake. “No. No weekdays. We had
agreed.” He pulled down my underwear. I popped up like a
Jack-in-the-Box, possessed by an uncontrollable rage, and blurted
something so foreign to myself: “I will sharpen a kitchen knife, cut
your dick into slices, stir fry them with virgin olive oil
sprinkled with salt and
pepper. I will feed them to the dog down stairs.”
My college friend Suni invited
me to a mineral spring One Moon. I packed my turquoise bathing suit
just in case. Three decades had passed since I went to a public
bath. When we arrived at the spa, she and her friend, a prominent
feminist, undressed quickly and walked right in, leaving me in the
hall. A pile of skeletons wrapped in skin tent followed Suni’s plump
body. Finally, I changed into my bathing suit in the lady’s room.
I spotted my friends among forty-some naked bodies. Swiftly I
Suni shook her head several
times staring at my bathing suit. “You’re really brave. Look
around. No one but you came in with the swimsuit. Every one turned
their heads when you entered.” I wished that I had had a pair of
sunglasses as well.
“I only have a couple more
weeks to go,” my father said, as I prepared to leave him and fly
back home. It was one week before his 65th birthday. An avid
tennis player and physician, he had been diagnosed with a stomach
cancer. It was already too late for surgery.
Only a seven months ago he had
visited Washington, DC and described his grand retirement plan to
me. He wanted to write a novel at his seaside condo looking over
the ocean. He would also enjoy fishing, another passion. “I am
young. I will retire next birthday. I still have two decades to
The young man with unfinished
dreams had become the family’s patient. He refused a hospital bed.
Mother became a day nurse, and I, a night guard. We brought towel
baths to his bed regularly. One night after the wet bath, he asked
me to hand him a bed pan. I supported his frail shoulders turning my
head to the side. I heard him trying to urinate.
I caught his hand directing the
flow. When he had finished, I stared at the dark window which
reflected the silhouette of my father and I.
The birthing room nurse at the
New York Hospital demonstrated how to wash my infant son in a blue
plastic container, a medium sized mixing bowl. I missed my
ex-mother in law who had masterfully handled Hana’s slippery body 13
years ago. She had delivered all her nine children by herself back
home, without the help of a midwife or her husband.
Hana stood next to her baby
brother holding a hooded blanket as I bathed him in the world’s
smallest bathtub. Her slanted eyes spread wide. She said, “is that
it? What’s the big deal?” She scrutinized Michael’s penis and
asked, “how can such a soft thing go into a woman?” She had never
seen the male thing before.
I twist and turn like a dolphin
in my oversized whirlpool bath, pushing the 4th button to let all
the bubbles charge from the jets. The room is larger than my first
studio apartment. Creamy terra cotta marbles with calcite hair
lines that simulate Greek ruins, gleam under the halogen lights.
Colored glass candle holders from Murano on the corner, large pink
conch shells from Hawaii by the window, and Navaho vessels from
Santa Fe on the table. A shot of whisky and Billie Holiday.
No husband, no dogs, no
backyard, no job, but my own dream bath all to myself at last.