This is what happens when you don’t finish your short story in time: you go through your old college homework and pick out something. I had grand plans about posting something of creative worth this week, but a very short essay from my memoir class is what you get instead. This is a memory (or a collection of memories) from when I lived in Thailand.
The last time I talked to Yun Kyung she was shouting over a bad phone connection, a call that had to cross over the Pacific Ocean to reach me. I was delighted to hear from her, even if I couldn’t hear very well, and there was a fifteen minute shouted conversation about how we needed to email each more often. I had tried, but the emails kept bouncing back.
Yunni was one of my best friends in Thailand, a Korean girl with the shiniest black hair I had ever seen, neatly cut around her round face. She told big stories, and I could never tell where they split from truth into exaggeration. There was one about the pet hamster she’d flushed down the toilet, still alive (she’d been trying to clean it off, by all accounts, and flushing the toilet had proved to be a disastrous method), and another about the Chihuahua that had disappeared in her room, never to be seen again. It had yelped once, Yunni told me with wide eyes, half grinning but serious, but she never could find it in the messy piles that surrounded her bed. She believed every story she told, and because she told them, I believed them too.
I learned all the best gossip from Yunni, juicy bits of information that may or may not have been true. There was an element of hyperbole to every rumor she told me, and I gasped in horrified delight at the darkest secrets, like the one about the schoolmate who’d gotten his girlfriend pregnant. They never spread beyond me because 1.) secrets between friends were more fun, 2.) some of the rumors (like the girlfriend) were damaging, whether true or false, and 3.) they had likely grown far beyond themselves already, without my help. I knew how the game of telephone worked.
This was a lesson I learned in 9th grade, when she told me that my sister was on a diet. I talked to my sister, amused but kind of startled, and she huffed with irritation, said that she had refused Yunni’s offer of peanut M&Ms in the middle of Spanish class (she loved plain M&Ms but hated the peanut kind), which had apparently convinced my friend that she was on a diet. Yun Kyung honestly believed it, no matter how many times I assured her my thin-mint sister wasn’t anorexic.
She was absolutely and brilliantly absurd, and she was my friend the instant I met her. I was in 6th grade at the time, the new girl in class, and feeling utterly bewildered by the unfamiliar sound of nearly everyone speaking languages I didn’t understand in the halls between class periods. I was standing at the top of the stairs, headed for the bathroom while I had the chance, when into the scene rushed this girl like a bat out of hell. She headed right for me – clearly on a mission – and immediately demanded:
“What country do you think I’m from?”
I stared at her, and made a noise like, “Uh…”
“No really,” she said. “Chinese? Japanese? Korean? You think I’m Chinese don’t you? Everybody thinks I’m Chinese.”
I’d been living in Thailand for two weeks, and hadn’t yet learned to recognize Asians by their country of origin. I shook my head no, because I didn’t want her to think that I thought she was Chinese (in point of fact, I had no opinion on the matter) when she clearly found the thought offensive.
“I’m Korean,” she said. “My name is Yun Kyung. It’s okay if you can’t pronounce it.”
I grinned, told her I’d never, not even for a second, thought she was Chinese, and realized that this country wasn’t so bad after all.