KR OnlineFiction

Fish Head

From the Kenyon Review, New Series, Spring 1992, Vol. XIV, No. 2

My brother’s wife is cooking the dinner. She had to look in the cookbook to figure out how to cook the turkey. American style. God knows what she would have done with the bird. Anyway, she’s an FOB. Imported straight from Korea, Fresh Off the Boat. She probably thinks I should be in the kitchen with her slaving over the stove. Well, I’m glad Dad didn’t come for dinner because he would’ve made me help her. Whatever she’s making in there certainly doesn’t smell like turkey.

Dad didn’t have to pay the joong-mae too much money for her work in fixing the marriage because she is a friend of Mom’s from high school. They used to sneak off during the morning Mass together. Mom and her friend the joong-mae, that is. That’s how Dad saw Mom, in her school uniform, hair straight and short, right below the ears. At least, that’s how I would imagine it to be, I guess; I don’t know.

They had a regular marriage, that I know. No joong-mae in between or anything like that. They met on their own, at a bus stop maybe, or at the ice rink. My mother’s face would have been flushed, and she would have tripped over her skates. And Dad would, well, I don’t know. Why on earth would they be at an ice rink, for chrissakes, in the first place.

My sister-in-law comes out. As usual, her jeans are too loose and too short. And a really funny pink. I look at her and smile. She smiles back, a small one, as if she’s afraid her teeth will show. Well, they do show and they’re ugly.

“Do you know how long the pie takes to set? The bottom’s burning and I’m not sure . . .”

The question’s directed to me, of course, but she keeps on looking at my brother. He turns and looks at me.

“Do you know?” He asks me in Korean.

“No.” I answer, in English.

“Don’t worry about it,” he tells her, not moving from the couch. “If it’s too bad we could go to the store and buy a made one and you could heat it up.” He smiles at her. She goes back to the kitchen and he turns back to the TV.

It makes me sick. I thought bondage went out of fashion, but I guess not in Asia. I wouldn’t be surprised if she scrubbed the kitchen floor every night on her hands and knees. Exchanging pictures through the joong-mae to set up the marriage. My God. My friends would never believe me even if I told them. Not that I would, of course. And my stupid sister-in-law doesn’t even have the decency to dislike what’s going on. Born for it, I guess. Well, sorta. Groomed for it, I suppose I should say.

We learned something about that in eighth grade science last year. How the way a person’s raised can change everything.

I can imagine the two of them, at their first meeting, staring at the menu, saying nothing. The woman standing as joong-mae would introduce the two, and then leave.

I think that’s the way it would work, I’m not really sure. Maybe I’ll ask my sister-in-law sometime what they did when they met.

I remember Dad showing me her picture. “Your future sister-in-law,” he introduced her. Damn, she sure looked different in that picture. Her college graduation picture, I think it was. Economics major, I think she was. Minoring in English Literature. I found that out along with the other stuff, like height, age, and such. I forgot those though. I wasn’t really listening anyway. She had smiled into the camera, showing her crooked teeth. I’d never seen a grown person with crooked teeth before. She got contact lenses though, so the joong-mae told me, because men don’t marry women with glasses. I was lucky, she said, that my vision was good enough. Pretty stupid, if you ask me.

Well, no one’s asked me, so it doesn’t matter, I guess.

The joong-mae told me that she left after the introductions, so the couple would be alone to talk. It’s more civilized this way. The young people nowadays have so much freedom. Imagine meeting a man alone and sipping tea, for chrissakes. The joong-mae told me that it’s not considered forward anymore for the couple to have dinner alone by themselves at their first meeting. It’s very rare, though, because that would mean a sure match. Instant love, that is.

What if she was hungry? And wanted to eat. I suppose the woman was called a goddamn whore in the old days if she ever had dinner with a man.

I bet Mom wouldn’t have arranged something so stupid.

My brother keeps on fiddling with the channel on the TV. One of those gadgets that switch the channel from far away. He fidgets with it whenever the commercial comes on. There’s this movie I really want to see, and it’s really annoying. I mean, if he’s going to watch that stupid football game, he might as well watch it, and not piss me by letting me see just what the hell I’m missing.

Well, Dad wouldn’t have gotten the stupid idea of having my brother be married if Mom were around in the first place. I don’t see why it’s so important to have a woman in the family anyway.

There’s a small TV in the kitchen and my sister-in-law isn’t watching it, but I would have to help with the damn turkey if I went into the kitchen. Just walking in and watching the TV without offering to help would be really rude. There’s no way I’m helping with the cooking. She can be a slave, for all I care, but I won’t. Damn. So I guess I’m stuck here watching the stupid football.

I wish she would hurry up. I am so hungry. What is taking her so long. I should go see. Maybe she burned the turkey and doesn’t know what to do about it. Could be just sitting there crying her eyeballs out. Damn. I’m thirsty, too. I wish I could go into the kitchen. Get myself a cup of o.j. But I would have to offer to help if I went in there.

 

“Wanna help?” Mom’s in the kitchen. Her hair is up in a bun, the way she wears it when she’s cooking something major. It smells good, and I’m hungry. “Yeah,” I say. She’ll pinch me off a little slice, or scoop off a spoonful, and offer me a taste. I know she doesn’t need me to tell her, especially since I like things saltier than everybody else. As usual I tell her it’s too bland. She smiles and dashes some ground red pepper in. Or some sugar, or maybe soy sauce. Not enough to make a real difference.

 

He’s turned the channel again. I get up and pretend to go to the bathroom because I have nowhere else to go. I wish I were back at school at the dorm, in my own room. Mrs. Jenkins, the dorm mother, said she was going to make turkey for the girls who were stuck at school.

I’m not sure what to do, so I put the lid down and sit on the bowl and flush.

It’s not like we’re a real family anyway.

There’s this Chinese restaurant that we used to go to all the time that had the deep fried sea bass in sweet and sour sauce. We went there one Thanksgiving; it was the only restaurant open, so we didn’t have any choice anyway. The usual handful of white people were home, and the place belonged to us.

One time we were there for someone’s birthday, or maybe New Year’s, I don’t remember; we watched the waiter carry a flaming dish out from the kitchen and put it out, suffocating it with the cover. When the waiter came over to our table, Dad pointed to the rising smoke, and the waiter understood at once. “You want deep fried sea bass,” he said. We nodded. It came whole, the eyes staring, unblinking, half covered by the flour mixture. The head had to be covered with the flaky mix because it was the tastiest part. The tail, on the other hand, was not, and the scales blackened by the blinking flames stood out in the cloudy mass of fried dough. Mom ate the head, prying open the shoulders with her index finger, breaking off and cracking open the skull.

The last time we went to the restaurant was last winter. Maybe Christmas, maybe someone’s birthday. It was just after, when I was still living at home with Dad. Dad ordered the fish, but no one ate the head. We left the table—Dad, my brother and I—and the fish stared at us through the round hole, little pieces of discarded bone scattered here and there all over the table, the soft thin pieces ground and eaten with the rice, the round hard ones spat out and left for the dish boy.

The soft fish meat reminds of the pudgy whiteness of my sister-in-law’s arms, the flesh swinging and jiggling when she scrubs the burnt rice from the bottom of the pot.

 

I could smell it outside in the hallway. No one would answer the bell, but I kept on smelling it as I maneuvered the key into the lock and pushed in. Mom in the kitchen. Sweat on her neck, wet hair plastered to her forehead. In November. In front of the gas range, on full blast.

 

She is starting to set the table, laying down forks and knives, next to the flat dishes for the turkey. I don’t think I’ve seen them before. I bet she bought them for the occasion, her first Thanksgiving. Feeling like a real damned Pilgrim, I bet. Except I don’t think they had pressure cookers back then. I see now that she has a new perm: God, I hope, not for the occasion. I don’t know where she gets these stupid notions from. I mean, it makes no sense. With the clothes she wears, what’s the point? She might as well have spent the money on a new pair of jeans. Though God knows she’d probably buy something that only an FOB would wear. Like those new shoes she bought. At some hosh-posh department store when they were having a 70 percent off Spring Clearance Sale. “They’re Italian,” she said, the pride in the statement matched only by “He weighed eight pounds at birth.” I had nodded politely and smiled, feverishly praying that she wouldn’t wear them to the dinner with family friends.

Well, she did wear them that night, with a baggy green dress and white stockings, and sat where Mom used to sit and the old men around the table called her Mrs. Kim and used two hands to fill her wineglass.

My sister-in-law also bought the cookbook that day, I think, where she figures out how to make food, American style. They’re usually pretty bad because she never puts enough spices and herbs in.

I once read a Korean cookbook at the library, and it had a picture of plastic kimchi on the cover. Pickled cabbage, the book called it. In two weeks it turns sour and produces vinegar. It can be eaten very fast or thrown out. At least that’s what the cookbook said. It had lots of pictures of Korean food and explained what each food was in English. For white people, I suppose, or people like me. But the problem with me is that I know what things are supposed to look like and taste like, and those picture books are usually wrong. The pickled cabbage was way too white in those glossy eight by ten pictures, and the seaweed soup too brown. I knew from looking at the pages that it would be too bland and too bitter. The tangy red pepper would be watered down, and the heads of the anchovies cut off and the insides gutted.

I try to imagine what they would taste like without heads. I imagine the little fish swimming around, without heads, around and around, not knowing where to go.

My sister-in-law’s cookbook says that the insides of the turkey have to be removed, replaced by the stuffing. The idea of sticking a hand inside the bird and filling it with onion, celery, and other colorful things make me sick.

Sister-in-law is putting out the Coke, probably the American Classic: the brown liquid gushing and pushing, full of air.

 

Eggs would be broken in perfect halves, stirred until the color turned like the sunset, bits of big pieces of red pepper, some pale cabbage, sort of pink. She would use her hands, and when she was done mixing and rid of all the white clumps, her hands would be pink and bloated from the pepper sauce. They would sting for three days, but one time the swelling didn’t go down for five. That was the time Mom made me the especially spicy batch for my birthday.

Mom would heat up the skillet and pour the sesame oil on top. When the oil started to sizzle and sparkle, she would grab a handful of the dough and drop it onto the skillet, letting the dough sit for a little while, then pushing down and flattening it. When the dough was brown all over, she would bring it over to the dish and start all over again, till all the mixture in the bucket next to her was flattened out and fried.

I would grab a dish and the nearest pair of chopsticks, stack up my plate, and begin eating. Blowing and eating, alternately sighing and burning my tongue. I would fish out a cup and fill it with iced wheat tea, gulping, the cold- ness soothing the gut.

 

And I know the glossy eight-by-ten pictures were wrong because the book said to mix five cups of sifted flour with two cups of chopped pickled cabbage, slowly stirring in three eggs, which had to be broken and stirred with a fork in advance. They should be fried till golden brown, says the book, with a teaspoon of oil for every third pancake, each one five inches in diameter.

I think of the hollow anchovy, robbed of its insides, its backbone as well as its bladder.

My sister-in-law’s finished setting the table. She calls us, and we walk over to the table and sit. All we’re missing is the turkey.

“Have the salad first,” she says, so we begin eating the salad. Lettuce, carrots, and celery. Green peppers, bread crumbs.

My brother is still watching the football game. “Turn the TV off,” she says, and he grumbles something. “The TV,” she repeats, and he gets up from the table and pushes the knob in.

 

Next to Mom is the shiny carcass of the bird. The big stew pot is next to her. We didn’t finish it three days ago, and stuck it in the fridge, leaving no room for the box of mandarin oranges. She strips the bones shiny, and cuts them into pieces as big as her pinky finger. She dumps the whole lot into the pot with some water. She adds two spoonfuls of fermented soybean. The water turns the color of brick. She takes some tofu from the fridge and cuts it into half-inch slices. Scallions, potatoes, and red pepper seasoning. I watch. Will it taste like turkey when it’s done, I wonder. Or will it taste like fermented soy-bean stew with turkey slices in it.

She lets the pot simmer, and we watch the Dating Game on TV. The host tells us the winning couple from last month’s show, Ed and Clara, have gotten married. Everybody is happy.

Soon the pot bubbles again and she takes out a spoon and fills it with the brown liquid. She blows on it several times, then hands me the spoon to taste. Too bland, I tell her. It was neither taste: not turkey not fermented soybeans. She adds a half spoonful more of fermented soybean sauce.

 

My sister-in-law brings out the turkey. Enough of this leafy rabbit food. I grab my knife, ready to dig in. I hope the cookbook did her good. I should’ve helped, even a little bit.

The turkey is planted in the middle of the table like a centerpiece with missing flowers.

I put my knife down and pick up the fork. Maybe that, too, would be useless. The plate’s filled with turkey, all right. The meat, that is, in shredded little pieces as big as my pinky finger stacked up high on the plate. I ask for a pair of chopsticks, and she hands me a pair. I pick up a piece and stick the tip into a little bowl of gravy as I would dip sushi into soy sauce.

The murky gravy looks like the bottom of a dirty pond.

 

One Thanksgiving Mom got sick of making turkey and decided to make shrimp instead. We sat around the sink and shelled two bags of jumbo shrimps. First, we cut off the head, then got a grip on the little legs and tore the plasticky layer off, snapping the shell at the tail. The tail has to be left so you have something to grab onto when you bite the shrimp off. You have to peel the final layer of the shrimp, the section right above the tail, and get to the meat under it. A lot of people miss it, because they either don’t know or are too lazy to peel off the layer.

I remember going to Beefsteak Charlie’s and eating a plateful of shrimp, like in the commercials. They were little shrimps, and came shelled. Some people took two, or three, and I saw one woman eat the shrimp with the shell and spit it out after eating the meat, and I thought it was really funny. Anyway, I was too full to finish the steak when it came, so we doggie-bagged it home. I can’t remember what happened to it, but it probably ended up in some stew or soup or something like that.

Anyway, this one year we had shrimp and potato tempura. And fried crabmeat rolled up in egg, and three different kinds of pickled cabbage. I ate three bowls of sticky rice that day, and drank too many cups of iced ginger juice. The next day Mom went out and bought two family-size birds on sale and made turkey soybean stew that lasted for two weeks.

Kenyon Review logo
Chu Kim is a journalist based in Seoul. Her works include a short film about the tribulations of modern-day toilets.