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An excerpt from the novel Secondhand World
by Katherine Min

Though Korea and my relatives were things spoken of but not seen, I formulated an idea of a country of specific strangeness, where people lived behind high, thick walls, in houses with sliding mulberry paper doors with wooden latticework; where they ate spicy red pepper dishes and rice with engraved silver chopsticks; and slept on thin roll-up mattresses with bean-filled pillows on heated ondol floors.

The language of my parents' country sounded harsh to my ears, a vocabulary of scolding, of rebuke. Mae-majeulae, Do you want a spanking? Uttered my father with his flat palm raised. Babo, stupid, as we went over math problems together, his middle knuckle boring into my head as if to drill the answer into my skull.

My mother did her best to intervene. Her beauty intoxicated my father; it made him dizzy.

"Yeobo," she would say, resting a hand on his forearm, "Gwaenchana." It's okay. And his anger would evaporate. I would be off the hook. The smile she would reward him with was cunning and quick. She would look at me as if to say, "Pay attention. This is how it is done." But I would only slink away, grateful and envious, knowing what my mother did I could not replicate.

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Last updated: January 4, 2005

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