I didn’t choose to become a swimmer; the sea chose me.
I’m born in Pusan, my mother’s city. My father, who worked at the prosecutor’s office, got muted from Seoul to Pusan after a case that didn’t end well.
He met my mother at the seaside here. Mom was an elementary teacher, and she sometimes worked at my grandmother’s restaurant. Min Ho and I loved listening to the story my parents encounter. We were like to ahjumma’s in front of a TVN drama when each of them took turns to explain.
It was love at first sight for my mother, and for my father, it was the time that got the best of him. Mom didn’t run after him, dad just came and ate at my gran’s restaurant daily, and he fell in love little by little.
Dad would say love came in waves and swept him away.
They got married, and I was born. They said I was special. I loved baths, and I would cry when they took me out. They told me that the first time I saw the sea, I ran to it. My favorite anime was 崖の上のポニョ [Gake no ue no Ponyo=Ponyo of the cliff]. I would watch it all day again and again while complaining about how stupid Ponyo is to want to leave the sea. Then I decided to become a fish. I would hold my breath under the water in my bath tube. It drove my mom crazy.
I was seven when I got scouted, Min Ho was a baby, and mom was a full-time housewife, and she spent her time taking me to all my competitions. My parents and my grandmother made a lot of sacrifices so I could succeed.
On my father’s side of the family in Seoul, they were just proud to say the national team would select me for the Olympics, and I’d become the next Ian Thorpe or Micheal Phelps.
At age 14, I moved to Seoul without my parents, who would come with dishes prepared by my granny; some teamates wouldn’t even eat on that day, awaiting the dishes made by my halmeoni.
I discovered that my halmeoni, too, was a good swimmer and diver, so I guess I resemble her a lot.
When the accident occurred, my gran tried to help me, but I shut her out.
Still, gran asked people she knew who came to Seoul to bring me dishes. She’s a brave woman, and she holds her restaurant like a captain.
Today, I came to see her; it’s been a while; three years is long.
I’m ashamed, and my stomach growls with knots of anxiety. I wonder how she’ll greet me.
“Omo, halemoni, halemoni, come quickly,” Young Ae, one of my gran employees and friend, says.
“Why are you screaming, Young-Ae? You scared the life out of me, you know I don’t want to die before seeing the face of my Tae ㅡ.”
She stops when she sees me, the tears well in her eyes as she advances to slap her hands on my chest, ” aigoo, you evil child, nappeun nomi [bad guy], aigoo, how can you leave me like, this, aigoo.”
Her accent is strong, the purest Pusan accent you can find. Halma mumbles things as she cries on my chest.
Young-Ae can’t help but cry as she watches me engulf the small woman in a hug, “mian halmeoni, I’m sorry.”
“Aigoo, nae saekki.”
Sorrow, so much, I thought my heart couldn’t break again, but here it goes shattering again like a windowpane.
Gran lifts her head and brings her hands to my face; I bend so that she doesn’t need to stretch too much.
“Neo qwenchana [are you okay?]” gran says while she strokes my face and my hair.
“Come, come to sit down, Young-Ae; let’s prepare some lovely dishes for uri [our] Tae Won.”
Half an hour later, the table is garnished with the best of traditional Busan dishes:
Ganjang Gejang (간장게장)
Godeunggeo Gui (고등어구이)
Jogae Gui (조개구이)
My Halma remembers everything I love, leaving out the Hongeo, a dish I never liked because of the smell.
“Mani beogeot,” [eat a lot=bonne appetit] young-Ae says as she poses the last dish and goes to attend to other customers while my grandma sits across me and watches me take my first bites.
“You’ve grown so much, you look good, are you eating well? You seem happy, are you happy? Did something good happen? Something good must have occurred for you to be here.”
I stop to ponder whether I should tell her about the driver.
“Halma, It must be Soo Ae. I heard they are back together,” Young Ae says as she passes my table.
I can’t believe the gossip made its way to Pusan.
“Is that so? I’m so happy for you.”
“No, grandma, we’re not back together. Nothing special has happened. I’ve just made a friend.”
Halma frowns, “a friend, what type a friend?”
“She better be prettier than Soo Ae or else,” Young-Ae says.
Does this woman have supersonic ears?
“She’s American, and she has helped me a lot in these last few months.”
My gran’s eyes shine, I don’t say anything else, but she must be reading in my eyes.
“American, you say?”
I don’t know why, but I feel a rush of panic as I foresee the remarks. But nothing comes. My gran just smiles and pushes me to eat. She doesn’t even ask more questions; it leaves me a strange feeling for once. I would have liked to talk openly about Jane.
Somehow, I feel that my gran’s benediction over our friendship will cleanse it from all the negativity people have been saying.
I spend the day there helping and out at the restaurant, taking orders, and washing dishes.
Around 7 PM, I get ready to leave.
“Aren’t you staying the night?”
“I can’t; I promised my friend I’ll see her tomorrow.”
“You are so like your father; he never broke a promise.”
I smile; it’s all I can do.
I start to put on my shoes, and gran leans on one of the columns, “come with her.”
I’m not sure I heard adequately. I turn to face Halma, and she repeats,” come here with your friend next time. I’ll cook a good meal for her.”
My gran's words hit me like a tidal wave; she has no idea what they represent for me. Jane is becoming someone dear until now. I haven’t been able to talk or express my feelings with anyone, and here my gran, without me promoting Jane’s virtues, accepts her. It’s such a relief, and I think my gran can read it on my face.
“Wait,” she says.
She goes and comes back, “make your friend taste these.”
I’m glad I came. Pusan is home, the place where my mother grew, where I grew. It’s where I’ve buried a part of my heart like a hidden treasure and where my gran waits for me.
I hope one day, I’ll keep my promise and bring Jane here.