Erin Choi’s column “A Summer Abroad” pieces together recollections from her pilgrimage back to Korea.
There is a hard-boiled egg in the microwave, about to explode. I don’t know that yet, because I’m five years old, and I just wanted to warm up my egg before I ate it. I like eggs, but only when hot, because cold eggs feel slimy in my mouth. The obvious course of action was to drag a chair to the microwave, clamber up, put my egg in and press start.
Seconds later, I climb up the chair again and open the microwave. But before I’m able to take it out, it’s clear that something grotesque has happened to my egg. As if it’s come alive, the egg trembles once, twice and rolls around in my pink Hello Kitty bowl. I half expect it to hatch, and then it explodes, the steaming shrapnel of white and yellow shooting everywhere — on the chair, the ground, my face. Half a second later, I feel my skin on fire. I scream. No one hears me. I’m alone.
The explosion is over within a moment, but a more gruesome fate awaits. Exploded egg is remarkably difficult to clean, I find, the yolk chunks rubbing into smaller crumbs the more and more I scrub. I don’t tell my mum, in fear that she would get mad, like last time, when I knocked a glass of milk onto the floor. Besides, the debris is mostly gone, other than a slightly chalky underfoot sensation. But the next day, magically sensing my botched clean-up job, a train of ants streams into our condo. They have sniffed out the remains. They are headed toward our microwave, the site of my crime.
“Erin,” my mum asks, tight-lipped. “Did you spill something on the floor?”
“No! I didn’t!” She gives me a suspicious eyebrow raise. “I promise!” There is still a faint smell of egg.
My dad takes this as an opportunity to show me something funny. “Erin, watch this. Watch me. Watch my finger.” He has wrapped a paper towel around his finger, and is swiping along the line of ants. The carcasses pile, the bodies stacking on bodies, legs scrambling in mute terror to untangle from each other. “어,어? 요놈들 봐라?” — Haha, look. Look at the suckers.
Dad invites me to squish one straggler. “No, no,” I refuse. I’m scared of them, they are so fragile. But my dad takes my finger in his steady, warm hand and pushes down on the ant. It doesn’t struggle. Just gives. I see its broken imprint in the cold tile before my dad wipes it away.
My first murder is a joint operation.
The next victim is also an ant. At the toy shop on the bottom floor of the Koreatown Galleria, my dad has bought me a science kit, which comes with a pink Hello Kitty magnifying glass and several squares of black and white paper. I didn’t know what the point of the paper was; I’d only begged for the glass because it looked pretty. My dad, though, takes me outside, out of our condo. It’s afternoon. The sun is directly above us, brutal on our backs. He points the pink glass at the black piece of paper, and the light burns it through. The white paper, though, remains unblemished. Too unaffected, it’s not exciting enough.
We run out of black paper to burn.
“Do you wanna see something fun?” My dad shoots me a mischievous smile.
A trail of ants on the sidewalk. My dad raises the magnifying glass over their tiny bodies. He is faster than I can stop. The sun, condensed into one ruthless point, penetrates them effortlessly. They go up in smoke, nothing left but nuclear shadows.
When my dad was young, he was weird. At least, that’s my understanding of him based on what I’ve heard.
“There were no toys when I was young,” my dad often said. “So we would take dragonflies and make them into toys.” He would tell me that every time we saw one flipping in the air.
The process was easy, my dad said, of turning a dragonfly into a toy. You only needed a pair of scissors, to snip the connective membranes between the hindwings and the forewings. In the case that you had no scissors, your hands worked too, tearing through the wings like you would tear paper. The dragonfly, try as it might, would no longer be able to propel itself through air, anchored to the ground until the rest of its wretched life.
“Does it hurt the dragonfly? Can it live after that?”
My dad shrugged.
“I don’t know. We played with them for a couple minutes. I don’t know after that.”
Knowing my father, he was probably joking. But I didn’t know that then.
I’m in Korea, on my grandmother’s lawn. The grass is swarming with insects. This is about the summer of 2010, before the ultrafine dust in Korea killed off all the butterflies and other airborne pests. I’m six years old, bored and alone because the neighborhood kids are still in school. I see a chili-red dragonfly perched on one of my grandma’s prized green onions. In a single deft motion, the way my dad taught me, I grab it by the wings. I try to separate the left wings and right wings, forewings and hindwings, rubbing them apart like the opening of a cheap plastic bag.
My hands are struggling to separate the wings and tear them at the same time. I grab the left forewings, then the right hindwings, and I try to pull apart diagonally, and I think it’s about to work but I tear too fast. The dragonfly splits right down the middle, eyes to tail. Perfect symmetry.
For a brief moment, the halved dragonfly is in my hands. Its organs, iridescent in the Gyeongsangdo sunlight, are still squirming. The legs twitching, fast, then slowing down. I only realize how hard its body had been thrashing until it falls still. Horrified at the situation, or maybe at myself, I hurl the stiff carcass down and run back into the house, stumbling over the shower shoes to get to the sink.
I dunk my hands in scalding water until they bloat. They are long past the point of pruning. My fingerprints, I hope, are unrecognizable.
A couple weeks later, my grandma insists I go with her to the monastery she frequents, to meet her monk friend, a friendly woman who always gives me yakgwa, deep-fried honey biscuits.
The bad news was that the temple was located in the deeply forested mountains nearby, next to a river, which guaranteed the presence of bugs. It had a lotus flower pond, with huge pads of green leaves covering the dark, stagnant water underneath. The lotus flower, in Buddhist philosophy, is a symbol of rebirth. It submerges at night, and at the break of day, reblooms to meet the sunlight. To me, it only signaled the coming presence of dragonflies, which especially like to perch on the blooms, their twiggy legs skimming the water as they whizz around.
While my grandma made her rounds around the temple, bowing to Buddhas and lighting smoky sticks of incense, another friend of the monk, an older grandpa, takes it upon himself to entertain me. We go out to the garden, which is full of flowers and some potted bonsai trees.
“Look!” he says, pointing out some dragonflies. “See how pretty they are.”
I give an uneasy nod. Maybe it was something in the mountain air, but these dragonflies were massive, almost the size of Snicker bars. Their unblinking, pupilless eyes seemed to gawk at me: You murderer. You killed our friend.
“Let me catch one for you.” Before I can protest, he plucks one off the nearby flower.
The grandpa asks me to fetch him a water bottle. I run back to the kitchen and ask for one, a plastic Samdasoo bottle with a colorful blue-green label. He’s still holding it by the wings when I come back, a little less lifeless than before. Through the bottle’s open mouth, the entrance not much bigger than a quarter, he crams the dragonfly’s abdomen through, then its crumpled wings, then its head. Screws on the cap.
“There. Here. Play with it.” He puts the dragonfly, now enclosed, into my hands, like a monstrous baby rattle. Feeble, ridden of oxygen, it buzzes, thrashes against an invisible boundary it cannot comprehend. Separated only by a thin layer of plastic, I can’t stand to keep it in my hands. I consider opening the cap, but I’m afraid of its vengeance. Before I set it down for someone else to clean, I notice one of its wings has fallen off.
Now, I am nineteen years old and still afraid of bugs. My mom likes to tease me about the irony of it.
“After all,” she would say, “the bugs are so much smaller than you. They should be more afraid of you!”
Yes. Yes, and that terrifies me. They should be more afraid of me. They are so weak. Six-legged, but a brush of my hand can take them all off. They are so driven by a will to live that it is grotesque. If I revealed this sentiment to my dad, he would probably laugh: “Just give me the damn tissue, Erin.”
I remember the time a colossal spider had spun a web in the corner of my room. I couldn’t bear to use a tissue and risk feeling its outline with my bare hands, so I used a pair of disposable chopsticks to pick it up. The plan was to carry it outside. But even once-removed via a wooden medium, I felt the sensations, the tremors as the spider wrenched itself out of my pseudo-grip on its abdomen, plucking its own legs out in exertion.
Sick, I threw the struggling body into the nearby toilet, chopsticks and all, and flushed, praying that it would stay flushed. Praying that it would give up.
I know I should be more sympathetic to these creatures. They just want to live. Why do I hate them for wanting to fulfill such a basic instinct? How do I justify this feeling, this seemingly irrational reaction? I still can’t see pictures of dragonflies without feeling terror pierce through my spine, the muscles on my back clenching into a ball. They seem poised and ready to leap out of my screen, aiming straight for my head.
And even worse than the entire dragonfly is its face in isolation, which is round and cartoonish, and perhaps a little humanoid. Typing “dragonfly face” and pressing enter sends me spiraling, cowering with my fingers over my eyes — and on my screen, these images are small, the size of a thumbnail. Magnified even more, face-to-face, I don’t know what I might do. Maybe beg for forgiveness, sobbing, “Sorry, sorry, I didn’t know.”
Maybe it’s the guilt, the knowing I did something wrong.