Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bhan-Chan

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Siobhan was an enigma. She was the only white girl who’d ever worked as a waitress at Hana, a Korean restaurant where I was waiting tables. She slipped in to my life one day, and before I got a chance to really get to know her, she was history. Just like that.
It was a cold Saturday evening in late October when Siobhan first showed up. She was dressed in classy clothes, except for her blue backpack, which didn’t suit her at all. I took her for an adventurous young connoisseur of foreign food. Back then, Korean food fad hadn’t caught up yet with the general New York public. Even though there had been some lunch takeouts by white office workers nearby, a white woman alone coming in for a dinner was a rarity in a Korean restaurant in the heart of Koreatown on 32nd Street, Manhattan. Man-soo, our most seasoned waiter, with his forever smiling face, was there at the door to greet her. She bowed a little like a Korean girl and said hello in perfect Korean. She was inquiring about a job. This surprised Man-soo to no end.

So you are looking for a waitress. She said it in non-inflected Korean.

Well, not at the moment… Man-soo hesitated.

Siobhan pointed her slender finger to the door where the hand written sign was taped up: “Waitress needed. Must speak English. Inquire Within” – in Korean, She bowed again.

Oh, excuse me, but, did I make a mistake? She said smiling.

Man-soo scratched the top of his head. His smile was still intact.

Uh, ok. Give me your contact number and we’ll call you. He said it but not meant it.

Siobhan took out a pen from the blue backpack with a fox patch stitched on above where the Northface logo had been. A couple of customers came in and Man-soo had to sit them.

Give it to Moon. Man-soo said, waving at my direction.

She saw me watching her, smiled and bowed at my direction. I bowed back. She came over to me.

Can I borrow your back? She held up her pen.

It took me about a minute or so to realize what she meant. I turned around. She put her number down and I memorized it on my skin.

We had a busy week and a lack of another wait staff really showed. And that’s how Siobhan, a white girl, got hired as a waitress at Hana, a full out, unabashedly Korean restaurant. Siobhan got into the action pretty quickly. We were all surprised at her for how fast she adapted to her surroundings. Not that waiting tables there was the most difficult job in the world, but she was quick witted and personable. And her Korean was exquisite. The idea of a white girl yelling orders across the room in Korean we all had to get used to. Soon, we started calling her (Sio)Bhan-chan. Ban-chan in Korean means those little side dishes that come with a main order: usually couple of different kinds of kimchee(pickled cabbages, radishes), dried, candied anchovies, fried tofu, marinated bean sprouts, dried shredded squid in hot pepper and so on. She had taken some Korean classes in college, went backpacking in South Korea and had Korean roommates. "One of my few useless talents," she once said.

She even warmed up to our oldest female wait staff, the forever bachelorette, Hye-eun, who’s been known for her territorial pissing (she scared off at least three younger waitresses in tears, as I recall). Soon I saw her chatting and laughing with Bhan-chan over soon-dubu(spicy, silky tofu sea food stew) lunch.

Bhan-chan never missed her shift. She was a tireless worker. It took very short time for all of us at Hana to fall for her. But she was also a mystery. Not that she was unreachable, but her being white prevented us from asking her too many questions. All we knew about her were that she was from New England some where, college educated and loved Korean food.

She is a good waitress and that is good enough for me, Man-soo said once to the girls after overhearing them gossiping about Bhan-chan.

I saw Bhan-chan on the subway platform one night after work. Apparently we were going the same direction, or so I thought. She saw me waving at her and came to me. She looked very different than in the restaurant.

Bhan-chan, you look very different. I said, admiring her beauty.
It’s just clothes, Moon. It’s same old me. She winked.
It’s just that, I never see you after work.
Well, here I am. She turned around slowly and laughed. I adored her.
Moon, you don’t remember me do you?
What do you mean?
The reason I work at Hana is because of you.

Apparently, Bhan-chan had seen me before, making a delivery to her previous job, an art gallery on the Westside. Her boss, a crazy Cuban, was nuts about Korean food.

That’s how I remembered Hana when I was looking for a job.
Really? I surely would’ve remembered you. If you were-
I was different then, not quite me yet. She said, lowering her eyes.
Why waitress?
I wanted to do something physical, to tire me out.

She was a mystery wrapped in enigma in a foggy day, like a turducken.
It was almost new years and all the wait staff were gearing up for the end of the year party one night after work. Man-soo assigned me the task of asking Bhan-chan out for the night of drinking and Karaoke. He asked me not only because everyone was uncomfortable asking Bhan-chan anything, but also she and I were about the same age and I was the only male wait staff without a date. Maybe he also noticed the way I had been looking at her.
I approached Bhan-chan, who was ringing up an order. She turned to face me and said:

Yes I will.
What? I asked incredulously. I didn’t even ask you anything.
I hear things, She said. I have ears. You Korean man don’t believe in whispers. She smiled.
Damn you Siobhan. You are too smart for us.

Siobhan could drink. She drank up Soju(Korean vodka) like an Irish sailor. Even Man-soo couldn’t keep up and passed out in the sofa of a tiny noraebang(karaoke room). Bhan-chan sang “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and “Rock You Like a Hurricane” badly. By the time she took the stage with her rendition of “Sweet Child of Mine”, many of us already have petered out and called it a night. It was two thirty in the morning. It was me, Bhan-chan and Mansoo. She stretched out the microphone for “Where do we go now?” chorus part. I sang along. I clapped as she finished her soprano screaming. She threw the mic and collapsed against me on the sofa, panting and wet from perspiration. She finally calmed down, breathing on my chin regularly. I downed the last shot of soju to cover up my big gulp and looked at her. She was looking straight at me with her big green eyes. We kissed. Then she whispered into my ear:

Don’t fall in love with me, in English. My heart ached.
You don’t have a nerve to say it in Korean, huh? I retorted bitterly.

She just stared at me for a long time, then looked away.

I’m leaving soon. She said.
Where are you going? I asked.
Up north. Alaska.
What’s up there?
Solitude.

I got a handmade postcard from Siobhan in early summer next year. It was the picture of the icy Bering Strait.

4 comments:

  1. In this some fantasy girl that you made up?

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  2. You asked me to read the new story, so I did.

    Getting the laughs out from the previous comment... some grammatical errors aside, I think it was another lovely little slice of youth and longing in the city. The content nature your characters generally show in regards to lost opportunities, fleeting experiences etc. is rare and hard to sum up in words.

    A very good thing.

    In some way or another this reminded me of that piece that took place in the gallery, "Smudge."
    Something with the mood.

    At any rate, if you want to make an editorial pass to tweak a few lopsided phrases or words, go ahead. Or you can just wait when you're putting the short story collection manuscript together.
    And I'm serious, that is something you still need to do.

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  3. Thanks for reading Ben. I just might try to put the short story collection together after I reach about 50 stories, which is not far.

    Much appreciated. As always.

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  4. Where is you short story collection? I'd love to get one!

    ReplyDelete