Wong Halmoni

I knew Wong Halmoni¹ through my mother’s stories. From these stories I gathered two images of her: she had given everything to her church even while she was poor, and she once took my mother “shopping” to buy a live chicken from the market and cook it into soup. My mother and her brother cried inconsolably, their tears mixing with the glistening oils of the stock as they spooned the steamed chicken into their mouths. Later they would profess that there was nothing else like it.

As we drove to meet Wong Halmoni in Hwe-in, her hometown, I turned these stories over and over in my mind, the same way I rolled skipping stones in my hands before flinging them into the river. The kind of stones that fit right into your palm, the kind you could wrap your fingers around and press into every fissure and smooth surface–firm, tangible, knowable. Not like Wong Halmoni. My impression of her was little more than “generous old woman.”

The radio songs began to crackle with static, signaling our nearing arrival–Hwe-in had poor reception. It was yet another isolating factor for Wong Halmoni, who already lived by herself in a small rural town. As the soft static hummed through the air, my excitement to meet Wong Halmoni trickled into curiosity towards this woman who seemed to be a saint and yet also quite alone. 

“Why have I never met her before?” I asked my mother. 

She paused.

“I guess it’s because she lives in Korea and we don’t,” she said.

“Do her kids visit her?”

“I think they do,” she hesitated, “maybe once a year. They live in the city, about an hour away, but I’m sure they could visit more…”

She trailed off. We sat the rest of the car ride in silence. 

When we arrived, Wong Halmoni greeted us without stepping out of her house. A smile touched her eyes. Come in, come in, she motioned. I peered into the room. Her floor was made of substrate and dirt. She began moving on her hands and knees, swinging her elbows in jerky movements to inch her body forward, her legs dragging behind like dead weight. My mother asked her what she was doing, but she just kept walking–no, crawling–and in the next moment our confused silence was splintered by my mother’s stammers in Korean and abrupt ruptures into the English that I could understand.

“…When did this…”

“…Your legs…”

“…Nobody told me…”

They spoke back and forth in rapid Korean, and I strained my ears to understand a word or two. My mother later translated what Wong Halmoni said: she fell, the surgery wasn’t good, she couldn’t use her legs, but she was managing just fine, praise God. With that, Wong Halmoni carried on pulling herself across the floor with her elbows, and all I could hear was dragging and scraping, all I could think was where are her children?

Then I saw them on her walls, their photos everywhere. I was everywhere, alongside them. There were pictures from when I was born to my first day of school to my last birthday. A light peeked through the window, washing over the photos in a warm yellow. It was a wall common enough in our family to recognize it: this was a prayer wall. This was where she visited every morning and every night, asking God to keep her children’s health, to keep our strength. I took in her figure beside me–her white gossamer hairs that caught the light, her creased hands, her back hunkered over, her shallow breaths in and out, never uttering a word of complaint. Before I ever knew her, I realized, before she ever knew me, she had been praying for me. 

In that moment I sat beside her with a rising sense of suffocation, as I fumbled with all the words I would say to her if only I could speak Korean. I wanted to take her papery hands in mine, the way my mother did. Tell her that I missed her and was glad to see her, the way my mother did. But my mother’s relationship with Wong Halmoni was different the way her Korean was different from mine–the syllables were soft and loose and smooth in her mouth, while mine were clumsy, brief. At one point Wong Halmoni tilted her chin towards me and called me yeppuda. Pretty. I thanked her in broken Korean, smiling more than was natural to compensate for my blundering accent. For the rest of the afternoon I sat wedged in between them, too embarrassed to ask my mother to translate word for word, studying their expressions instead to make sense of their conversation. Wong Halmoni kept her gaze even, her voice gravelly. Mother reached forward to touch her wrist every now and then. I nodded along, not quite understanding. And when it was time to leave, I couldn’t help but feel that despite discovering that my great-grandmother had loved me my whole life, I hardly knew her enough. 

Some time later, after we left Korea, I would stop by the river to find a skipping stone. Examine it, then fling it far away. Watch it grow smaller and smaller until it becomes a dot in a space I can never reach. Hold my breath as it sinks into the deep blue, slipping out my field of vision like a memory.


¹Korean for “great-grandmother”


Miye Sugino is a seventeen-year-old who grew up in Tokyo and now lives in LA. Her work is published or forthcoming in Parallax Online, Cathartic Youth Literary Magazine, and HS Insider, among others. She will be attending the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop this summer.

Visual Art By: Heidi Songqian Li

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The Symbolism behind Driving into an Underpass on the Garden State Parkway

One time, while driving home from a Tuesday grocery trip at the Little India produce market, you wiped the last fragment of boiled spaghetti away from your lips with a Chipotle napkin and said that only things that bluntly resemble the form of humans can have symbolism. Take the trees, you said, and see how their branches jut out like frozen twizzlers from the lean figure-eight waist — it all looks distinctly like the silhouette of a human body. This is why there are so many poems littered with metaphors about trees. And look ahead at the chipped brick underpass, you said, there is no symbolism in this thing, no blunt resemblance to humankind, just a loaf of carved brick designed to spare our Chevy truck from the humming Jersey rain for a few seconds. Pay no heed to the underpass, pay heed to the trees, you said. 

Now I don’t understand what this Garden State underpass has done to you to be named the most un-symbolic thing on the planet, but, then again, I don’t get a lot of things. For example, how did we two people, one a believer and the other an atheist, find ourselves together in the midst of a wedding. We announced our commitment to each other somewhere in the local mango fields, property of a fruit farmer who was not invited to our ceremony. I did not fancy stealing another man’s oxygen and trespassing like this, but you said that it did no harm, and so we exchanged rings on another man’s property unbeknownst to that man. 

The mangoes of the tree we stood under decorated the tufts of leaves like hairpins and your soft fingers did not hesitate to plunder a fruit from this tree for your lips to bite into, water syrup forming rivers through the lace of your gentle fingers like poetry. I was stunned when you did this. The fruit, mango, was nothing more than a complicated collection of particles to you, but I saw clearly that it was a child of the tree and the property of a man we both didn’t know. In the taxi your brother paid for, I pressed you for a reason as to why plundering the forbidden fruit was the arch for sharing my life with you and you said that it was just a mango, that it didn’t matter, that we shouldn’t fight on our wedding day. 

But our first night together, we fought anyway, this time with pieces of hips and elbows for the first right to the bathroom sink and, in the end, we had to share, like children. In between toothbrushes and shaving cream, with mouth foaming with listerine, dental floss, and toothpaste, I turned to you and said that I would love to be a liquefied mango, or any fruit for that matter, because it would be nice to be able to just disappear down the sink drain sometimes. Except, the part about being a liquefied mango is important because it would be quite horrid to flow down the drain like regular bathroom water. And you spat out a puddle of Colgate toothpaste into the sink and told me that you didn’t understand how mangos could possibly matter. I must have looked crazed to you, defending an eaten mango and then announcing that I want to be a liquified mango. But I didn’t want to tire you with my theory about the universe so what I said, instead, is that I guess what I mean is that I want an overripe mango for breakfast. 

Then dawned the days when you used to bike to Chinatown every morning, through dim sum palaces and dumpling dens, to buy a pound of fresh mangos for me, wearing nothing but husky trousers and that oversized gray Santa Cruz hoodie you once left on the couch and missed a flight to retrieve. And even though you never bothered to fix that brake lever, even New York City traffic didn’t keep you from your bike. Thinking of you one day as you had gone, I came to the conclusion that your Santa Cruz hoodie and your bike spend more time together than your lungs do with air. I wondered what a love letter from your Santa Cruz hoodie to your bicycle would sound like, maybe something like this: 


     Dear Bob the bicycle, 

I fell in love with the perfect curves of your tires that carry your full lust. I can fit into any space you allow me to. I wish for our dust to dance together like charcoal at the end of each day, when you’ve tired yourself and return from the dirt and grime of the winding streets.


Your Santa Cruz hoodie 


I thought the love letter was quite clever, but when I gave it to you, you said that I have this unsettling tendency to pay attention to things that don’t matter, like bicycles, sweatshirts, and pigeons. Stealing a mango from a plastic grocery bag, you said that the rooster windbreaker with a missing “W” and the Chinese minimalists shopping for vegan tofu in China Town don’t matter in the grand scheme of life and the universe. So the next morning, I really tried to not think of the symbolism behind your tongue pushing water through the tube of your throat after 59 push-ups in the foyer, or the meaning behind a person who cuts an apple pie with the knife tilted up at 90, instead of a flat 180 degrees angle, or the symbolism behind the strange way in which you eat spaghetti and meatballs because you, My Lord, are the only living being who can get drunk off of dipping spaghetti, like nachos, into a tomato sauce with eggplant and zucchini. Now the truth of the matter is that I tried to pay no heed to the underlying symbolism of things for about two days, before rolling over and accepting defeat and the fact that cheesecake somehow represents the birth of a child. (A cheesecake is heavy and burdensome on the stomach, buttery, satisfying like the feeling one has after birthing a newborn, but touch the crust, and it crumbles to reveal a world of sin.) 

But you never got how these things could possibly matter because you never cared about the mango from the tree that did not belong to you, or the rooster windbreaker with the missing “W,” or the Chinese minimalists. You don’t remember the three people who always stood leaning on the tar hill cascading around the price pole for diesel in that gas station that bordered our flat. You don’t remember what the moon looked like, crescent or full, that night we built a cardboard airplane out of the cereal boxes in our pantry. That night, I told you that the reason our marriage collapsed was because of the mango and you laughed and asked again how mangos could possibly matter. The truth is that if you had cared about the mango, then the walls of the world would have leaned closer to you, given pieces of itself to you, and held you like honey with the gentlest of arms and lips. 

But the world and its things obviously never mattered to My Lord, you, who never hesitated to plunder and pluck the forbidden fruit and drink the soul of the mango leaves that were summoned to protect you and I, the paired pigeons, from the rest of the world. The people vomited sins and you spat back in the name of the holy Scripture. I am bitter. I wish that the fruit farmer had awoken our marriage night and thrown us both, like Adam and his beloved Eve, with the complementary threats and curses, to the cumbersome paved streets for drinking his property’s air. 

Now if we’re going back to the underpass, My Lord, there is lots of symbolism behind that Garden State underpass. The underpass broke the slaps of the rain as we drove underneath and somewhere in between, I grew up. That underpass is a symbol for our marriage, above all things. We drove Ferraris and Mercedes through each other as if we were somehow able to still stand even with an arching hole simmered through our pooling belly buttons. As we ate the fruits and beets, the things of this world fell from our throats through our bellies and out, though the difference is that I tasted it and you shoved it down your throat. You are like the underpass. You don’t stop to think about the cars and trunks that pass through you. You stand and assert your strength and courage by pushing something as gentle as rain away. The truth is that no one will care when that Garden State Parkway underpass is torn down one day and built into a better, stronger underpass, and the underpass knows that and maybe that’s why it’s so bitter. The underpass breathes, My Lord, just like the mangos breathe. The world beyond our bubble breathes, full inhales and exhales, drunk on the taste of air. It carries lessons and meaning and that’s why something as prosperous as mangos matter to the overarching scheme of the universe. 


Zoha Arif is a 16-year-old high school student studying computer science and programming at the Academy for Information Technology. She currently lives in New Jersey and enjoys spilling her strangest ideas into her works of fiction in her free time. She is also an editor for her school newspaper, Polyphony Lit, and E&GJ Press.

Visual arts by Ordy Chen

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Sunday Dinner

The family comes bubble wrapped, prepped to eat over synthetic discourse.
Prayer first. The future’s passed around; patrons pile on the collection
plate. The oven is hot and the timer cheats. Women leap at the beep,
unrehearsed in their assembled domestic burst. Another spring chicken:
underdone meat, dry like chalk. She’ll learn. The men are robust with
compensating promises, raises and grease simmering at the table, lingering
green outside the confession booth. They lurch. A bubble pops and the
curtain drops. Chairs adjust, scrape back singed skin. Faith and heat

Fiora Elbers-Tibbits
A senior creative writing major at Walnut Hill School for the Arts.

Art by Florence Liu

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