I turn the cup on its mouth and again learn the pleasure of saying no without saying the word. In Seoul, I find my manners resting on actions and not on words. I don’t need to be understood—it’s only a matter that I understand. So I nod, I bow, I shake my head. This, after years of resting on the habit of listening to Korean and rarely speaking it, keeps me quiet and so my cousins find me delicate.
Last night, I walked down Itaewon with my cousins to play the drinking game of Mini-Mart-ing. At every convenience store, we shared a green bottle of soju, downing it in shots from paper cups, and then left for our next hit. We walked out of the 7-Elevens, the FamilyMarts, the GS25s, the Ministops, the Best Alls, and even the Anytime 24s. I lost the game when I stumbled, bound by layers of winter apparel and a pair of boots I could never break in, and when I fell, I saw my cousins walk down the street without me. I called out to them.
When I try to speak, something happens between mind and tongue. The words disappear and I am left with the sounds I cry out, sounds that always miss their mark. When I ask for directions to a restaurant where the food is prepared in the tastes and restrictions of Buddhist monks, I am told the restaurant is very good. When I ask for the rate of my cell phone contract, I am told that Korea has very good service, even in the subways. When I receive a text message for a package I did not order, I respond, “Who are you? You might have the wrong person,” and then I’m hit with the next text: “Stop playing around and pick it up.” When I go to pick it up, the lobbyman tells me there is no package, never was a package. I show him my phone, still buzzing with incoming texts, now with words I don’t know, but he shakes his head and shoos me from his station. I tell my cousins my frustrations, of my ghost package and my desperate want to know what it was, who it was, but they also shake their heads. I take these as reminders that my Korean is half of what it should be. “I know that,” I want to shout, “I’ve known that,” but I don’t have the Korean words to say it.
Burned tongue and heavy lipped, the kernel of voice still at rest, I sit and refuse another offer of tea from the doctor’s assistant by shaking my head. I don’t like the taste, but taste should never be the concern, my cousins tell me. At this teahouse, tea is medicine, tea is religion, and tea is best served by a Chinese herbal doctor who wears a white lab coat and who studies your throat as you drink. “Mmhmm. You had a bad last night,” he said, watching as I struggled not to gag on the black tea thick with mushrooms.
Perhaps on my throat he saw the circus of night, strangely velvet under the street signage that released the torrent of words I don’t recognize. He saw the emerald glass I broke on the street when I fell. The bleed on my hand. The laughter of my cousins as they poured soju over my cut and how they tipped the rest of the bottle from its broken neck into my mouth. He saw the smile on my face.
It is quiet here in this teahouse, heavy with sunlight and judgment. My cousins eye my downturned cup and now whisper, in English, that I should try to have another, and then we will continue to heal our hangovers with pork neck soup and hot peppers until we sweat and then sleep. But words, even English words, won’t break this feeling and knowing of being done. I have already flipped those onion-thin pages of a Bible, slapped it shut, and then opened it just as quickly to score a page that might hold some wisdom for me, and found only names and names that begot more names.