Chinhominey's Secret: A Novel

Chinhominey's Secret: A Novel

by Nancy Kim


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


In this moving first novel, a Korean-American family faces not only intergenerational cultural conflicts between immigrant parents and their Americanized daughters, but also the results of a terrible prophecy, made by a fortune-teller 20 years earlier to Chinhominey, the long-estranged grandmother.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781882593491
Publisher: Bridgeworks
Publication date: 10/15/2001
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.24(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.68(d)

About the Author

Nancy Kim, a corporate lawyer living in San Francisco, was born in Korea, raised in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Myung Hee Choi has not seen her mother-in-law since she and her husband Yung Chul left Korea for the United States 22 years ago. They brought nothing with them but three suitcases, heads full of dreams, and hearts full of hope. Myung Hee had a dress custom made for the occasion—gold sleeveless silk with silver embroidery along the hemline. They were moving to Los Angeles, a mythical place where the sun always shone, movie stars drove around in convertibles and anybody could swim in the ocean.

    She boarded the plane that would take them to the United States, holding her two-year-old baby girl in her arms, her husband following closely behind her. Never once did she question the rightness of her decision. She had the utmost confidence in Yung Chul, knew that he would take care of her and their two children, the one she held in her arms, and the one she carried in her stomach. But as she climbed the steps of the Pan Am aircraft in her gold silk dress, the wind whipping her hair about, she hesitated. Her husband placed one hand on his beautiful wife's shoulder and asked gently, "What is the matter?" Myung Hee didn't turn around, afraid that her gentle loving husband, so brave and full of adventure, would misinterpret the fear in her eyes. For it wasn't the fear of the unknown that stopped her, it was the fear of what she already knew, of what she was afraid she wouldn't be able to forget. Her mother-in-law's words still rang in her ears: Your marriage is doomed.

    Yung Chul kept his hand on her shoulder, his fingers soft as a whisper, not pushing yet notpulling away. For a brief moment, the couple stood frozen, unable to move forward, unwilling to go back. Then Myung Hee felt a movement from her womb, powerful in its fluidity, surprising in its intimacy, and she was reminded of what she was doing and why. She looked down and into the face of her little daughter who, feeling the movement in her mother's belly, smiled up at Myung Hee with the secret knowledge of babies. Myung Hee glanced over her shoulder at her husband, who was still waiting patiently, anxiously, his eyes searching hers for an indication of what she wanted, what she might need, what he could possibly do to encourage her. Myung Hee lowered her eyes demurely, the corners of her full lips curving upward with pleasure, her smooth soft cheeks now rosy with pride. She turned and with determination climbed the remaining steps into the plane.

Myung Hee shakes the memory out of her head as briskly as she shakes the pillows into their cases, but she can't keep from wondering what her mother-in-law will think when she sees them again after so many years. What will she think of their modest three bedroom stucco house on a quiet, tree-lined street in West Los Angeles? Will she wonder why they don't live in a Beverly Hills mansion with a swimming pool? What will she think of their three cars, a Lexus, a Ford, and a Honda? Will she be impressed, or will she wonder why they don't have a Mercedes, a BMW, and a Porsche? Will she think they had made the right decision in coming here, to the land of opportunity? Or will her visit confirm her belief that the Fortune Teller was right?

    "When your mother comes, I hope she doesn't expect me to entertain her all by myself," Myung Hee tells her husband.

    "Don't worry. She would not want you to."

    Myung Hee looks at her husband out of the corner of her eye, but his face reveals nothing. There is no tenderness there. His face is impassive, as though he were discussing the weather with a stranger in an elevator.

    "Do you find it strange that she is coming to visit now, after all this time?" she asks. "It is more than twenty years."

    Yung Chul looks at the carpet before responding, each word spoken deliberately, carefully, "She said only that it was time that she come. She wants to see her granddaughters."

    "Both of them?" Myung Hee asks, her voice rising sharply. Yung Chul lifts his head, looking his wife in the face. "Things change. People can change."

    His wife turns her head away and plumps the pillows silently.

    Yung Chul, dressed in a gray pinstriped suit, picks up his briefcase and heads for the door.

    "Before you go," Myung Hee says, "Help me move the bed."

    "Move the bed?" he sighs. "But my back won't allow me to lift such heavy objects."

    She rolls her eyes. "It allows you to play eighteen holes of golf without problem."

    "Wife, don't criticize me about the one thing that gives me a little pleasure. You can't expect me to sit at my desk every day."

    "Okay. Forget it then. Your mother will have to sleep with her head pointing north."

    Yung Chul sighs and puts his briefcase down.

    "No, no, your back, husband, I don't want you to hurt your back. Then you will lie groaning in bed for a week!"

    "My back feels fine today. It's very strange."

    "But a minute ago you complained that you might strain your back."

    "Yes, but it feels fine now. Maybe it will hurt later, but let's take advantage of my good health while we can, shall we?"

    She pushes, and he pulls the queen-sized bed until it is turned in the opposite direction. Myung Hee can see Yung Chul's scalp through his thinning hair.

    Yung Chul straightens up, places one hand on his left hip, and stretches backwards, breathing out a tremendous "Ooof!" as he does so. He walks out the door without kissing Myung Hee goodbye.

    After Myung Hee hears his car drive down the street, she runs downstairs. She opens the stereo cabinet in the living room. She inserts a CD and music fills the room.

    She circles the room, lifting her faded cotton housedress with her hands as she shuffles her feet, moving her shoulders to the left, to the right, rolling them forward, then backward, just like she saw on MTV. She holds an imaginary microphone to her lips, snapping her fingers up above her head, moving her arms to the left and to the right, then bringing her arms low, first to one side of her hip and then the other.

    There was a time when her husband would have joined her. He used to love to dance. He would hold her in his arms and waltz her across the room, his perfectly round, usually smiling face so serious, watching her with that soft tender look in his eyes, as though he might start crying, a look that made her avert her gaze, humbled and amazed at her power over him. Or he would take her by the hand and twirl her around so her hair would tumble out of its carefully constructed upsweep and the room would spin faster and faster until they both fell, laughing until they cried. Or he might put on an old Chubby Checker record and show her how to twist, his thick black hair combed back until it gleamed, his hands splayed out in front of him as his torso twisted from side to side, his mouth opened in an exaggerated grin so that she had to laugh, he looked so silly!

    But now, he complains that she makes too much dust when she dances.

    It is when she is dancing that Myung Hee feels the most free. When her feet are moving, her mind has no time to worry, her heart has no time to ache. No energy to feel the shattered dreams, shards of disappointment which every now and then make fresh cuts inside. No desire to cling to hope like a drowning person to a lifesaver, like a newlywed to wedding vows, like an immigrant to the promises of a great land.

    Hope — the fairy that was too slow and dimwitted to escape Pandora's box. The one that had sunk its sharp little teeth into Myung Hee's once long and succulent neck and then flown far, far away. But not before sucking all the blood out of her veins, and poisoning her with dreams that had yet to be fulfilled.

    Too many dreams unfulfilled breed bitterness. And sometimes, when she compares the way she expected her life to be with the way it is going, it is all Myung Hee can do to keep from dancing out the door.

The paperwork continues to pile up on Yung Chul's desk even as he desperately tries to keep pace with the stream of forms that pours into his In box. He knows that the work will only get worse as the end of the year approaches. The hours will grow longer. His back will ache. His mind will wander. He will start imagining what his life would have been like if ... if ...

    He picks up a sheet of stationery and runs his fingertips over the engraved letterhead. Choi & Lee, LLP Certified Public Accountants. He never intended to be an accountant. He had bigger ideas when he left Korea. This was America. Anything was possible. A poor man could become rich. An unfortunate man could become lucky.

    The accounting job was only supposed to be temporary. He needed some way to support his pregnant wife and his baby girl. He would work as an accountant only until they had saved enough money to start their own business, importing celadon pottery perhaps, or opening a chain of Korean restaurants. He would join the legions of other immigrant multimillionaire entrepreneurs who had made the American dream a reality.

    But babies cost money, they need to be clothed and fed, and there never seemed to be anything left to save after the groceries were bought and the bills were paid. They were barely making ends meet although he was working fifty, sixty hours a week. But he kept going and going, because if he didn't, who would provide for them? For his darling daughters, his babies who kept him awake at night with their crying, his little girls who ate too much and grew too fast, needing new clothes every other week, and his beautiful wife, his wife who smiled less and less, the love of his life who turned away from him now when he switched off the light, who pretended always to be asleep. He knew she was pretending because she made a light snoring sound, and she never snored when she was really asleep.

    Funny how some things changed so little in twenty-five years, while others changed so much. From the outside, his wife looks almost exactly as the day he met her. Yung Chul believes that he can still encircle her waist with both of his hands. He believes this, but he isn't sure since it has been years since he has held his wife that way, dancing with her across the living room floor after their two babies had gone to bed, unable to take his eyes from Myung Hee, or move his hands from her narrow waist, still unable to believe his luck: This beautiful woman is my wife! He would have the good fortune of awakening each morning next to this graceful beauty with the moist doe eyes and long movie star lashes. She made him want to sing like Frank Sinatra and dance like Fred Astaire. With a woman like her by his side, his life would be just like the American movies he saw as a youth, movies that always had happy endings.

    Yes, to the casual observer Myung Hee looks much the same as she did when she was twenty-one, but Yung Chul knows that she is growing. Her presence now occupies more air, her unhappiness demands more space. The shield around her creates more distance each day, pushing him further and further away. Soon, the barrier surrounding her will take up the entire bed, and he will have to sleep on the sofa in the living room. Her unhappiness will continue to grow. She will fill up their bedroom, and then the upper level of the house, so his children will have to join him on the sofa. They will huddle together for safety and warmth, as the force field around his wife grows, filling up the entire house until finally, the three of them will all have to move away while his wife will stay, occupying every crack and crevice, pushing out the walls with her unfulfilled desires, breaking the windows with her frustrated ambition, hungry for something, always something more.

    She wanted a new car, a new refrigerator, a new dishwasher. And when she had those things, she found other things to want. A microwave oven, a cellular phone, a big-screen television. And when he agreed to those, she wanted a bigger car, a colder refrigerator, a quieter dishwasher.

    And then one day when his daughters were still in grade school, his wife told him, told him, didn't ask him or discuss it with him, but told him that she had decided to give piano lessons to earn some extra money, looking at him with eyes that seemed to say, Because you are failing us, because you cannot do what you had promised to do when you married me and told me that you loved me oh so many years ago. Words that she would never say but which she was surely thinking, how could she not? The words were true, weren't they? Yes, they were. He had failed them, failed her. He was a failure, as a husband and a father. And a son.

    That's when Yung Chul quit listening and started to play more golf. He had spent so many years working more, sleeping less, paying larger bills, yet nothing he did seemed to satisfy his wife. He hadn't meant to give up. He only intended to take a break, try to figure out a better way. There had to be a better way! He couldn't help wondering whether this was what the Fortune Teller meant when she told his mother that he was destined to live his life in unhappiness with the woman he loved so much, but seemed to know less and less each day. Was there anything he could do? Or was it beyond his control, just as his mother had warned?

    His wife's arms became large and strong as she lifted the sofa, the table, the television set, rearranging the living room to look bigger, always wanting to improve everything. She began to eat more — consuming raw squid dipped in chili paste, pigs feet pickled in salted vinegar, rice cakes shaped in long cylindrical tubes — and talk less. No longer did she whisper to him words of love and support, or even, as she did later, words of discontent and envy. Now, she fills the air with silence, a constant stream of words unspoken that fills the empty space between them. How he misses her, the woman he married, who he knows is hiding somewhere within the form next to him pretending to be asleep.

    Around the time that his younger daughter Grace entered junior high school, he would awaken to find his wife staring at him.

    "What are you looking at?" he would ask, in alarm.

    "Go to sleep," she replied, staring at him with eyes like saucers.

    "I can't sleep when you're staring at me like that."

    "Then stay awake with me."

    Which, of course, he could not do. He could not bear to watch as she fell out of love, but how to stop it? He had tried everything to keep her, but it was somehow never enough. Never enough! He just wanted to rest, just a few minutes of rest, and he would address his wife's unhappiness later, in the morning, the next day, the next week, the next year, at some time when he had more strength, some time other than now. So he turned away and closed his eyes, and eventually fell asleep, feeling her eyes drilling holes into his back.

    About the time that his older daughter Christina entered U.C. Irvine, his wife stopped staring at him. Instead, she sat upright in bed for hours, staring into space, a blank expression on her face. He always pretended to be asleep, feeling as though he had caught her doing something shameful. He knew what she was thinking. She, too, was questioning their ability to fight fate, to forge their own destiny despite the Fortune Teller's predictions.

    At about the same time that Myung Hee began to grow, her voice changed. When they first met, it was soft and lilting, as sweet and refreshing as shikae. After they moved to the States, it became more like chige — comforting, yet still hot and spicy. Now, it is like kimchee juice — sour as vinegar with a ripe odor that lingers for hours.

    Her discontentment grows every day, follows him to work, lingers in the corners of the house, in his car, reveals itself in every glance, every word, every movement. Her hunger — for what? — makes him want to shrink, make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible. And always, in the back of his mind, he hears his mother's words: This marriage is doomed. It will not last.

Customer Reviews