I was thirteen years old and spending the night on a farm. We arrived after dark, and in the darkness that smelled like manure and grass, I could hear my Reebok high tops sucking mud as we approached the door of a humble house.
“These are distant relatives,” I was told. The distant relatives greeted my brother and me–to him, they said, “So very very handsome!” and to me, they said, “She looks so sturdy!” This, before they sat us down to eat rice steamed with beans. My brother and I looked at my mom, helpless.
“This is special rice,” said Mom, “they cooked it especially for you.” Which was her way of saying, “You better f*cking eat this rice.”
So I ate a bowl. Finished it. And then they gave me ANOTHER bowl of that damn rice. I finished it. And they gave me another. It turned out that if you don’t want another bowl, you’re supposed to leave a spoonful of rice in the bowl.
If they thought I was sturdy before, I was getting sturdier with every bowl of rice and beans.
At dawn, my mom woke up with stomach pains from an ulcer. She was doubled over whimpering. I heard dogs howling in the distance. They hadn’t stopped howling throughout the night.
So many dogs.
What were they? Who has so many pets, I asked, wishing to distract my mother from her pain.
“They’re not pets,” my mom said, before she commenced telling me where she hid all her jewelry and valuables at home. I held her hand.
Oh. So it was true. “Dogs for eating?”
“For eating,” she said.
I was aghast. Did they know they would be eaten? What were the conditions in which they lived?
My mother’s pain subsided by the time the sun cleared the horizon and shed a bright and filtered light into our room through the rice paper windows, illuminating the peeling wallpaper and worn blankets. She wasn’t happy to be here, I knew. She didn’t like my uncle, who had brought us here to visit the graves of relatives. He was trying to convince us to move my grandmother’s body from the U.S. to this place. Dinner, aside from the rice and beans, had been polite yet tense, replete with terse responses. Nobody made eye contact, not only because of cultural norms, but because it was preferred.
I had to use the bathroom. I’d held my bladder long enough, trying to avoid a trip to the facilities, a ramshackle outhouse a little ways away. My shoes sucked mud again, despite my careful steps on the path. The landscape was beautiful, even in early Spring–horizon farther than I could see. The air smelled like shit.
The outhouse was made of wood. There was no seat, just a hole in the ground, topped with a fat wooden plank with a rough circle sawed into it years prior. I looked for toilet paper, and was glad I had a pocketful of facial tissues. I was grateful the air was cold, because it lessened the effluvium. I hoped I wouldn’t fall in as I pulled down my pants and squatted and peed; so much was strange, the least of which was hearing my urine hit ground below as opposed to water. I was glad we were leaving in the afternoon.
My mother, despite her improvement, was unable to leave her bed. So only my brother and I accompanied our uncle to the grave sites to pay respect to our ancestors. Paying respect involved kowtowing, forehead to ground, in front of each grave. I knew how to do this, because of Lunar New Year traditions and jesa anniversaries. Knees on ground, backs of both hands to forehead, and hands and forehead to ground. Pause. Back on knees. Stand. Then knees again.
My brother did not do this. I do not know why, or perhaps he tried and did not do it properly. But my uncle snapped. He grabbed my brother by the back of his neck and pushed his face into the ground. “You dog, do it right!”
My brother looked on in shock. He was only eleven years old. I stood up. “Don’t talk to my brother that way.”
“I’ll talk to him as I please,” said my uncle.
My uncle never liked me. I looked like my mother, the sister-in-law he despised, which did not help matters any further. I did not like my uncle. I hated preparing his cocktails as a child. I hated that he was mean. I did not like him back.
“I’m telling my dad what you did.”
“Go ahead,” he said, letting go my brother of my brother’s neck. “Who will your father believe?”
“My father will believe ME,” I said.
My uncle knew what I said was true.
Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers like Susan Ito in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.
4 responses to “O is for Outhouse”
Sounds like you chose your parents well.
From what part of Korea is your family? I’ve traveled around there some, but mostly in Gyeonggi and Gangwon provinces and then down to Gyeongju.
My dad is from ChungChongnam-do. My mom was born in Pyongyang.
I enjoy reading your writing. 🙂