"Chinese, Japanese- Not Difference"


chapter from the upcoming book
WOODY ALLEN ATE MY KIMCHI

I was twenty-two when I took a job as a delivery boy at China China. I had recently been dumped by Angie, my high school sweetheart, for a boy who was – she made a point of declaring this in her last voice message – “much better looking" than me, but whom my friends immediately insisted was my intellectual inferior. That they said this without ever having met him has never sat very well with me.
China China was a shoebox-sized restaurant four doors down from 519, the Gay Community Centre, on Church Street, and owned by my sixth aunt and her husband, Yang Soonal-Yual, or Uncle for short. It specialized in anything that sounded remotely Asian and if Asian wasn’t your thing, there was a smorgasbord of fallbacks including burgers, chicken wings, fettucine Alfredo, and – my Uncle proudly articulated – Ukrainian perogies. That he knew the difference between Polish or Latvian or Ukrainian perogies was never brought up for discussion for fear that he might lose face in front of our cook. Jimmy, an aging bachelor, was from a village in some remote northeastern part of China that I could never pronounce, famous for its exotic food. One day Jimmy brought along some photos he had taken on a recent trip back home. These were delicacies of his hometown, he explained, waxing nostalgically about the skewered giant dung beetles, roasted black scorpions and deep-fried deer testicles. One photo had what appeared to be a dark mushy stew in a stone pot.
"What's that?" I asked.
"That dog brain soup," he said, his eyes misting over.
There was a rat infestation on our block that summer. In both body type and general outlook on life, the rats had more in common with the rabid wolverine than their genetic cousin, the hamster. The source of the infestation was a large garbage bin in the back parking lot that China China shared with Pizza Pizza. My uncle blamed the Lebanese manager of Pizza Pizza for not double-bagging the Italian sausages and the Lebanese manager in turn accused my Korean uncle of dumping unwrapped Vietnamese vegetables into the bin. Neither of them could have passed a grade two English proficiency test, not to speak of a cultural identity exam, so they spent a lot of time furiously wagging fingers at each other and swearing in their native tongues. We brought in spring-loaded traps, steel traps and bucket traps from Chinatown but nothing seemed to work. Some of the rats were so big that they swaggered around the lot donning their glue traps like flip-flops. The infestation got pretty nasty that summer and my uncle considered shutting the restaurant down. Meanwhile, I kept looking over Jimmy’s shoulder, hoping that his nostalgia for his native cuisine would not get the better of him.
It was my aunt’s idea to get a cat, so one day she returned with a morbidly obese tabby from the Humane Society. With its orange and black stripes, it brought to mind a tiger, and was intended to inspire fear and dread in the rodents. I named him P.P., a clever acronym, I thought, for Pied Piper, and envisioned big things for him. He would be a storied feline resistance fighter, his prowess and determination to rid the world of pestilence turned into a blockbuster animation film, by Hayao Miyazaki. I imagined him on the cover of Maclean’s magazine, profiled in David Suzuki’s ‘The Nature of Things’, and whispered in the same breath as Terry Fox and Wayne Gretzky at the annual Greatest Canadian Of All Time gala.  But P.P failed to live up to expectations. He did little more than nap all day in the small patch of sun at the storefront, rolling onto his back and purring at the first sign of a sucker coming into the restaurant. When he did manage to stagger onto all fours, it was to eat and defecate, the only activities he engaged in with any sense of purpose.
One night, after a platoon of rats brazenly raided our pantry while my uncle stood on top of the stove banging his spatula against a pan, I picked P.P up by the scruff and dumped him in the back lot. With my ears pressed to the door, I cheered when I heard him hissing and clawing, the empty plastic oil buckets being tossed around. Once the noise subsided, I opened the door and could see shadows scurrying toward the garbage bin. I looked around, but P.P was nowhere in sight. Tufts of orange and white fur drifted in the air. I walked around the parking lot whistling and calling out his name. I checked under the Pizza Pizza delivery cars, behind the hardware store tool shed, inside the landlord’s garage.
"P.P, where are you? P.P, come on out!" 
A voice barked out from a second-floor apartment.
"Use your own toilet, you fuckin' drunk!"
Fueled by guilt-ridden courage, I approached the garbage bin, slapping the ground with a broken hockey stick and growling like a grizzly bear. I stopped when I heard the rumble of charging rat feet, and then, with my courage evaporating quicker than a snowflake in the desert, I resigned myself to poor P.P.’s fate, tossed the hockey stick aside and headed back to the restaurant. It was then that I heard a feeble meow coming from somewhere above my head. I looked up to see P.P trembling like a leaf on a branch of the maple tree. How the morbidly obese cat managed to get himself up there is anybody's guess. I swore at him and went inside.
*          *          *
A colorful cast of characters dropped by the restaurant, including a small band of Rice Queens who dropped in for lunch at least twice a week, each one outdoing the other in order to be the first to charm and deflower me. They came for their usual Combo #6, our house special with sweet and sour roasted suckling pig, Shanghai noodles and mixed vegetables. They affectionately referred to the dish as ‘Suck me pork’, and it accounted for almost fifty percent of our overall combo sales. One day, a light bulb went off in my Christian uncle's head. It dawned on him that it was not the dish itself, which, like everything else Jimmy cooked, had questionable culinary value, but the nickname given to it that made the dish so popular. One day, I came to work to find him painting over the menu board and rewriting the names to all of our specials. So, Combo #1, sweet and sour chicken balls, was simply shortened down to "Sweet Balls"; Combo #2, the shrimp with lobster sauce was changed to "Lick My Shrimp"; and Combo #4, a vegetable stirfry in blackbean sauce was given the name "Stir My Black Beans".
"Uncle, that’s racist.”
He paused thoughtfully, and then: "Okay, we call it ‘Bean My Chick’. Jimmy, we put chicken in Combo Four!"
The Rice Queens all got a big kick out of this as though it was some elaborate inside joke we had concocted on their behalf. But others, especially customers calling for delivery, were not so tickled by the new branding exercise. 
“So, let me repeat the order back to you. You would like Bean My Chick, Lick My Shrimp and Sweet Balls? Would you like some Hot Doggie Style on the side? Cash or charge?” There would be a long pause on the line.
“Ch-ch-charge, please.”
It was at the instigation of my aunt, who feared that exposure to such sexualized lingo would retard the mental health of their two pre-school boys, that led my uncle to grudgingly take out the paint again and revert back to the original names.
And to add sushi to the menu.
“Sushi?”
“Why not?” my uncle said. “Very popular now.” Every day, on his way to work, he walked past Hiro Sushi, a few blocks south on Church Street. My uncle would stand on the sidewalk, watching the throngs of customers filling the sushi master’s bar. Hiro Yoshida, once the king over the sushi bar at the venerable Sasaya on Eglinton Avenue, had a large following of mostly Japanese businessmen and well-heeled gaijin. He would eventually find local celebrity and move to a better location on King Street, continuing on with his eponymous restaurant, but it wasn't before my uncle got infected with the tuna bug.
“You work at Japanese restaurant before, so you know.”
“But you don’t even know how to make sushi. It takes years of training.”
“Rice and fish. Simple.”
If I had never felt shame for a family member in the past, I did at this very moment. I vowed to commit ritual suicide by plunging a knife into my guts and carving out my liver if Ohsada-san, my former master sushi chef from Nami, ever ventured into the neighbourhood and saw me standing here peddling sushi at a Chinese take-out restaurant.
The confusion about the offerings at our restaurant was most evident over the phone. Canadian customers seemed to forgive fall backs like burger and fries or spaghetti and meatballs on Chinese menus, in part because these items have historical precedents, going all the way back to the pop-up coolie restaurants along Canadian Pacific Railway routes. But there were very specific skill sets demanded by sushi. You can do Chinese and Canadian, Chinese and Korean, even Chinese and Ukranian food, but you didn’t dare cross that line between Chinese and Japanese. It was an existential divide. Even the uber-omnivorous Chinese, until very recently, wouldn't go near half-quivering fish with ten-foot chopsticks. In fact, a Chinese man once called the restaurant. He was dazed and confused by our use of the conjunction “and”. 
“Are you a Chinese or Japanese restaurant?”
My uncle’s response was: “Chinese, Japanese- not difference.”  The caller hung up.
There was sushi on the menu, but we also carried dishes asphyxiated with teriyaki sauce. In my uncle’s mind, virtually anything could be transformed into a Japanese dish with a generous dollop of teriyaki sauce. It was like magic. Teriyaki instead of black bean sauce, sure, why not? Teriyaki instead of oyster sauce, here you go. Teriyaki drizzled over perogies instead of sour cream, no problem. It pleased my uncle to know that by stocking a bottle of Kikkoman Teriyaki Sauce™ in the kitchen legitimized his standing as a Japanese chef. Ten years later, after his untimely and tragic death from a fall down a flight of stairs outside his home, my aunt would point to a row of bottled teriyaki sauces in the fridge at their home and shake her head with a smile. 
On busy nights, my uncle prepared sushi on the cutting block behind Jimmy, manning the wok, while my aunt took orders at the counter with the boys on her lap. One night, an order for Spicy Tuna roll and Chicken Chop Suey came over the phone. It was from a regular customer, Douglas, who lived on Alexandra Street. He was coaxed by my aunt to try our sushi for the first time. After the order was passed on, I heard some raised voices in the kitchen. I stuck my head in to find out what was going on. Jimmy was jabbing his tongs at a piece of fish my uncle was holding in his hand.
“Can’t use. Not fresh. Must be cook.”
My uncle was dousing white strips of week-old grouper, which I usually saved for P.P, into a watery kochujang paste. The Korean chili paste turned the white flesh of the fish into a deep scarlet colour.
“Can’t waste,” my uncle said. “You always waste.”
My uncle placed the fish strips with some cucumber slivers into an inside-out roll.
“Uncle, he ordered Spicy Tuna.”
“Take it” he said holding out the take-out container. “For white people, no difference, taste.”
I delivered the food to Douglas’s apartment and avoided his eyes when he opened the door. Whether this white person knew the difference between tuna or grouper became a moot point. He never ordered from us again.
*          *          *
One night, during my first Gay Pride Weekend, I took an order from a man with a high-pitched voice.
“Tell me the truth. How good is your sushi? I’m from San Francisco. Best sushi outside of Tokyo.”
I didn’t know how to answer his question, having never been to San Francisco or Tokyo. What I did know with unwavering certainty was that our sushi wasn’t good even compared to Toronto standards.  
“Alright, alright, never mind. Give me one of each roll. How quickly can you get it here?”
“We’re quite busy at the moment, sir, so-“
“You want my goddam business or don’t you?’
“Yes, but-“
“Then move my order to the front. I wasn’t born yesterday, nut-fuck.” He hung up before I could respond.
The delivery was to a seedy hotel on Dundas Street, called Filmores, which the drivers from Pizza Pizza and I referred to as Filthymores, with its urine-scented hallways and sticky floors. The rooms, which could be rented by the hour, were above a strip club. I never liked to deliver there because its guests were on the creepier corner of the human crosswalk, usually the shady johns of the strippers, with their potbellies and chest hair sprouting out of open shirts. When I arrived, the usual gorillas who manned the front door waved me by. I climbed the staircase to the second floor, carefully negotiating the vomit on the landing, and knocked on the door.
"What?!" It was the same voice I had heard over the phone.
"Sushi delivery," I called out.
“For Christ’s sake!” From the tone in his voice I could tell he was expecting some minion at the castle gate to have called ahead and requested an audience with his royal majesty.
When the door flung open, there stood a dwarf. The top of his head reached just above my belt buckle. He was wearing a black leather cap with a matching collar and a studded harness that criss-crossed across his bare chest. A red jock strap the size of a library card covered what I presumed to be his appendage. He looked like the love child of the Leatherman Biker from the Village People and one of the Munchkins.
“Why didn’t you buzz up from the lobby?”
“There is no buzzer…”
“Okay, stop blubbering and put the bag down on the floor.” The top of the bag reached just below his chin. He gripped the bag with both hands and dragged it across the floor and into the room. The door was slightly ajar so I took a peek around the corner. A grown-sized man with a grayish goatee was down on all fours on the carpet, panting, and his face as bright red as low-sodium Sriracha hot sauce. The sickly smell of sex and sweat permeated out of the room.
“How much?” The dwarf called out.
“$19.85, sir.”
He came to the door, holding out a twenty dollar bill.
“Stop calling me “sir”. You trying to patronize me, punk?”
“No, sir…I mean no.”
I took the money, thanked him, and turned to leave.
“Where’s my change?”
“Your change…?”
I pretended to dig into my pocket for some loose change. This ploy usually worked for those customers who had an iota of shame. They were usually unable to bear the discomfort of being viewed as a cheapskate and would mumble, “It’s alright, keep the change,” as though they were philanthropists all along waiting for just the right moment to reveal their true natures. But the dwarf just stood there glaring at me.
“Sorry,” I said, pulling out a nickel. “But I think I might be a bit short – I mean I didn’t bring enough with me.”
He gave me the evil eye, muttered something about nickel-and-diming Chinese people in San Francisco, and slammed the door on my face. Walking down the hallway, I could hear him yelling at the man with the goatee.
“Who said you could rest? Get back on your hands and knees, bitch!”
*          *          *
That weekend was the Gay Pride Parade. I had been asked by my uncle to come early to set up the food station on the street. When I got there, Jimmy was setting fresh rat traps in the alleyway and my uncle was leashing P.P. While I was setting up the station, my uncle called me into the restaurant. He was holding a fleece panda costume in his hand.
“For Parade. Everybody dress up. You dress up, too.”
“It’s thirty degrees outside.”
“Don’t worry, I give you break.”
The food was set up on a fold-out table, with packaged sushi rolls on one side and chicken balls and fried rice in chafing dishes on the other. By noon the sun was beating down on the table, the raw tuna and salmon baking in the heat. A lineup formed down the street and I handed out every conceivable chicken ball and sushi combination I could. Spicy tuna roll with chicken balls. Salmon and cucumber roll with chicken balls. But it seemed that people were more interested in taking photographs with me in my panda jumpsuit than ordering lunch. They cajoled me away from the steam station, some of them slipping money into my paw. I was made to pose in compromising positions, like being taken doggie style by a masked person in skin-tight gold lamé outfit or having a pair of gooey chicken balls held over my plush-lined mouth while on my knees.
When we finally closed up shop around midnight, I was delirious from all the water loss in my body. My uncle and Jimmy were long gone by the time I managed to tear down the station and put everything away. I wanted to go home, but my body was too wired for bed. I went to the fridge and returned to the front of the restaurant with a cold bottle of beer.
“Hello my little carpet licker.” It was Sam, one of the Rice Queens. He was dressed as a nurse and accompanied by two topless Chippendale boys, in suspenders and wearing sailor caps.
“We’re closed, Sam.”
He was drunk and pretended not to hear me.
“How do you say, “You need a facelift” in Chinese?” 
“I’m not Chinese,” I said lamely.
“Chin Tu Fat.” He squealed like a pig. It was an old joke, I had heard it before, but the two beefheads laughed as if they were in a synchronic laughing contest.
“Chinese, Japanese, all the same when they’re on their hands and knees.”
I didn’t have the energy to tell him that there were differences – and many – that I was a Korean from a country nestled right in between China and Japan; that we liked our miso less refined than the Japanese, but less robust than the Chinese; that unlike the Japanese, who used bamboo chopsticks, we preferred metal ones; that unlike the Chinese, we preferred to cook in clay bowls and not metal woks. But it was too late. Before I could open my mouth, Sam and his Chippendales closed the doors behind them.
I sat at the storefront window in the dark with P.P. lying on the counter, looking out onto the street. I scratched him on the back of the neck and he purred. Outside, half-naked men and women sauntered up and down Church Street, joyously, as if they were passing by a funhouse mirror which, for the very first time, reflected back to them their true selves.

Saint Henry Of The Lost And Found

I heard Henry's stammer for the first time one morning three weeks after the start of the school year. I had arrived early to our grade four Comprehension class where he was sitting at his desk at the front of the classroom reading aloud from a book about martyrs. Our teacher, Mr. Miller, was looking out the window with a mug of steaming coffee in his hand, and occasionally murmuring "good, good". Nobody else was in the room.
‘“There are ten C-C-Canadian saints in the C-C-Catholic Ch-Ch-Church. Eight w-w-were J-J-Jesuits that the Ch-Ch-Church considered m-m-martyrs during the s-s-settlement of N-N-New France.”’ Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that Henry even had a voice. None of our teachers seemed to inspire him to speak in class and he was never one to raise his hand even when he, like everyone else, knew the answer to the question being posed. I would learn in the months to come that Henry never said anything he did not mean with all his heart and this included answers to the simplest arithmetic questions, questions that did not require much of his heart to answer. Every other Friday, Henry could be seen outside the cafeteria, behind the 'Lost and Found' table. A week's worth of odds and ends ended up there, in a black milk crate under the table, waiting to be identified and reunited with its rightful owners. Henry was never very good at his job from what I could tell. Unlike Lisa from the sixth grade, who worked the table on alternating Fridays, Henry would simply spread the contents of the milk crate onto the table, foregoing the need for blind and detailed descriptions. He never questioned anybody's claim to an item even if everyone else in the school knew it wasn’t theirs; he took them at their word and trusted that they were telling him the truth. Once, I went there hoping to recover a lost key ring that my father had given me. The key ring, etched with my grandfather’s initials and given to my father after the Korean War following my grandfather’s death, was valuable to me because it came from a side of my family that I sensed I would lose ties with irretrievably in the coming years. Henry peered over the book he was reading and smiled at me. I rummaged through the items on the table. Amongst other things, there was a dented Spiderman pencil case, a Nancy Drew book with the cover torn off, a sweat-stained headband, and an array of mismatched pens and pencils. I knew that these items would never be recovered again, were better suited for the garbage can than a lost and found table. My key ring was not there and I left the table feeling deeply disappointed. As I walked away, I heard Henry's voice behind me.
"S-s-sorry," he said. When I turned around, he wore a look on his face that I could only describe as mercy. It was a look that I had never experienced before and would not experience again until many years later when my maternal grandmother gave me the same look days before she passed away.
Henry and I had little in common. He grew up in the same Mississauga suburb all of his life, while I had been shuffled from one corner of the city to the other--- six times--- since coming to this country five years before. This was my first (and only) year at Canadian Martyrs; Henry had been attending the school since junior kindergarten. I was a recent immigrant who could barely string together a simple sentence in my adopted language; he was a born-and-bred Canadian of distant Polish ancestry who stammered in his native tongue. So it was that for this latter reason that we were both singled out from the others at school--- broken English forged our unintended solidarity. During recess, we would often circle each other on the outskirts of the playground like wounded animals, each avoiding the others' eyes and affecting to prize a solitude that was as much unwanted as it was imposed. And I began to see how his volunteer work at the lost and found table was his own way of undoing his isolation from others. Sitting there behind that table, even the most cursory recognition by others that he was serving some function in the school, was a form of fellowship.
It was a very blustery morning in late November that brought Henry and I together.  An unexpected gust of wind whisked my notebook from my arms as I entered the school grounds, scattering loose sheets in every direction. I chased after as many as I could, trapping them under my foot one sheet at a time, but I knew it was in vain. Some of the sheets had gone into the playground, others had been carried over the baseball diamond fence, and still others were littered across the soccer field. Some kids had gathered at the track, pointing and laughing as I ran from one end of the school grounds to the other. I began to panic at the thought of explaining to my geography teacher what had happened to my homework. Then from the corner of my eye, I glimpsed a smudge moving toward me from the other end of the soccer field. Henry was snatching up what he could and stood leaning against a goal post at one point to catch his breath, his pants flapping around his ankles like trapped and desperate ducks.
“F-f-found some,” he shouted, holding some of the sheets in his hands. I thanked him and we walked to our homeroom class in silence. And though most of my homework was lost, that morning I had gained a friend.
Grade four was a time when childish mischief could harden into adolescent malice in a blink of an eye, when bullies seemed to materialize out of thin air like villains in a comic book. It was all around us, this vague menace, ready to pounce on unsuspecting innocents. There was that one Friday before Christmas break when Henry and I wandered to the mall during lunch break. He had wanted to buy a Christmas card for Mr. Miller, a man whom he worshipped, a surrogate to his own father who had passed away when Henry was four years old. As we crossed the parking lot, four boys cut in front of us, blocking our way. At the head of the group was Gord, a beefy grade six student with a bunched-up face and coal-black eyes who, it was whispered around school, was a kleptomaniac.
“Hey, looky here,” he announced to the others. “It’s the chinaman and the retard.” The others snickered.
“You gonna go steal something in the mall, you little shit?” He was poking at my chest with his gloves. He looked over at Henry, his breath spewing out of his flaring nostrils like the bull. "Finders keepers, losers weepers, eh? Hah!" Just then Henry, who was at least a head shorter than I, stepped in-between us. He raised his shoulders, pulled his toque back from his forehead, and locked eyes with Gord for what seemed like a long time. Gord appeared surprised by this.
“You want to say something to me, retard?” He shoved Henry to the ground, then looked to the others for approval. They began closing in around us. I could feel the anger rising in my chest, up through my neck and into my face. The tension in the air seemed to gather and concentrate to a tiny point between Gord’s forehead and mine. I had never been in fight before and, though I did not know why back then, I became suddenly fearful of something.  It wasn’t Gord or any of the other boys there; it was something else I was afraid of, some violent tendency inside me ready to explode. It was as if I was standing on the precipice overlooking a bottomless hole and wanting to plunge myself into it. I felt that I might begin hurting someone and not be able to stop myself. I held my breath and clenched the fingers of my hands. And as if he was reading my mind, Henry got up right away and planted himself in front of Gord again. Everybody stopped. After what felt like an eternity, Henry opened his mouth to speak.
"You change your life."
It was no more than a whisper, but the four words had the force of a punch against my solar plexus, allowing me to exhale. The words seemed to rise from some deep clarified place within him. Henry held Gord’s gaze for a while longer, pulled his toque back down over his forehead, and pushed his way between the others. I followed behind him.
“Retard!” was Gord’s last word, lost in the din of cars and voices rushing in to fill the void between us. For the rest of lunch break, Henry barely said a word. We picked out Mr. Miller's card and hung around the mall until it was time to return to school. After my last class, I went by the lost and found table and asked Henry if I could join him. We talked about our math homework and our teachers and what we hoped to get for Christmas, but we never discussed what had happened earlier that day. I wanted to say something about it, but did not know what to say. That night, lying on my bed, I thought about Henry and those words and I was proud to know him.
March Break came and went, and Henry had not returned to school. After the fourth day, I asked Mr. Miller if he knew where Henry was. He seemed surprised by my query.
“But I thought you and Henry were close friends?” He said. He went on to explain what had happened to Henry during the break. He was at a Sunday mass with his mother, but had complained of a headache that morning. After joining the line to receive his host and wine, he collapsed to the floor. The ambulance came and rushed him to the hospital where he stayed overnight. Blood tests were taken, his heart and head checked for any irregularities. At this point, Mr. Miller paused for a moment before continuing. The doctors had discovered that he was suffering from a rare condition that attacked the nervous system, the same disease that had taken Henry’s father’s life.
“He’s at home,” he said. “Recovering.” From the look on Mr. Miller’s face, I could tell that “recovering” was not quite the word he had meant to use. Words, I was only beginning to understand, were blunt instruments, particularly as they were used to explain sickness and death. I stood by Mr. Miller’s desk and said nothing.
“Here,” he said handing me Henry’s address and telephone number on a scrap of paper.
The townhouse complex was three blocks from the school. All the units in the complex were tall and narrow, taking up two to three floors. Henry’s unit looked inward into a playground placed high above street level. I knocked on the door and a woman who might have been Henry’s grandmother answered. I asked if Henry lived there. She lowered her eyes and nodded, stepping aside so that I could enter. It was as though she knew who I was and had been expecting me for some time. The entire house smelled of simmering sausage, garlic and spoiled milk. We passed through the living room. The chesterfield and matching chair was wrapped in transparent plastic. On one wall hung a large wooden crucifix with a rosary strung around it, and on the other, a black-and-white graduation photograph of a young man. The far-away, pensive expression in the man’s eyes spoke to a promise of a prosperous and happy life somehow just beyond his reach. It occurred to me that the man in the picture was Henry’s father: they had the same bushy eyebrows and broad nose. The old woman led me up the stairs and into another room where Henry lay in bed. There was a stale smell in the air, as though the windows had not been opened for years. A white sheet was pulled up over his chest and he appeared to be sleeping. I could see the outline of his body beneath the sheets. His head was disproportionately larger than his body. He had shrunk dramatically since I last saw him, and although he had always had a small frame he was now no bigger than an average grade two student. By his bedside, on a night table under a pool of yellow light from the lamp, was a leather-bound Bible and a small plastic box full of trinkets. I recognized some of the items in the box; they were the ones left for months on the lost and found table, given up for good by its owner. And on top of the sheets, our grade four Comprehension book about martyrs was lying face-down. Henry opened his eyes, adjusting them slowly to the light, and gave me a wan smile. It dawned on me at that moment that I had never really noticed the color of his eyes before. They were turquoise, the right one just a shade greener than the left.
“You m-m-met my m-m-mother,” he said. The old woman was now sitting on the opposite side of the bed. She could not have been more than thirty-five years old, but her face was creased with deep ridges like an old baseball glove. It was a face ravaged not by the usual passage of time, but by some nameless agony of having to witness her husband, and now her only child, waste away before her eyes. If she had ever been beautiful in her youth, I would never have guessed by her appearance that day. Sitting immobile by her son’s bedside, she was just another broken woman resigned to a life beyond her capacity to grasp it.
Henry said very little during my visit; I said even less. When it was time for me to leave, I stood by his bed and touched his hand. I told him that I would come to visit him again soon. His face beamed with gratitude, for I knew that he was pleased that I had come at all. I turned around at the bedroom door and we looked at each other in anticipation, as if the same thing were on our lips but neither of us could find a way of expressing it. I just waved and he waved back. In the living room, his mother invited me to sit down beside her on the couch. She asked me if I wanted something to eat, that she was preparing dinner for Henry and that there would be plenty to eat. I told her that I had to be home soon, that I didn’t want to worry my mother.
“Henry has always been so good to me,” she said. “Like you, always thinking about his mother.” She sighed and looked up at the ceiling. The silence was like another presence in the room, fat and gloomy.
“He always talks about you,” she said, rising from her seat. “You are his only friend. Please come by any time. It will make him very happy to see you.” She walked me to the door and wished me a safe trip home. I was happy to be outside, out in the crisp spring air, and out of the airless space that was Henry’s house. I thought about my own mother as I walked home, as different from Henry’s mother as I was to Henry, and prayed silently that when the day came, she would pass away before I did.
Henry did not return to school the rest of that year and I never visited or called him. That summer, our family moved once again, this time away from the humdrum perils of the suburbs and deep into the inner city. I forgot all about Henry. I was too busy re-configuring my life to yet another environment and another set of friends and enemies. It would not be until many years later, while flipping through my elementary school books, that I was reminded of him again. A yellowing scrap of paper fell out of my grade four Comprehension book. It was the same one that Mr. Miller had given to me that day by his desk, the one with Henry’s address and phone number on it. From my apartment in downtown Toronto, I picked up the phone and dialed the number on it and was not surprised to hear Henry’s mother on the other end of the line. Her voice had not changed in all these years, each word pulled down by a ghost note of sadness. I thought I could hear her sighs between sentences. She commented on how much better my English was, how proud my mother must be that it had improved so much over the years. And yet, it was as if we were still continuing that last conversation, the one in her living room, while her son lay dying on his bed.
“You were his only friend. Thank you for calling.”
Henry had died almost one year to the day I last saw him. The only persons from the school who attended the funeral were Mr. Miller and the school principal. When I got off the telephone with his mother, I recalled that scene outside the mall so long ago. Henry had stepped between me and all that was ugly in the world, sparing me from having to behold it a moment longer, holding me back from the darkness into which I was ready to plunge myself, perhaps never to return. I remembered those words, whispered, but sounding as if he’d bellowed them from the rooftops of the world, and directed them, not only to those standing around him, but to all people, saint and sinner alike, through all ages.
“You change your life.”
And I remembered how it was at that precise moment that I felt I was hearing Henry’s voice for the very first time.

Patsy Cline Sings Songs Of Love



dedicated to the inspiring women and men at 
F.A.M.E (Family Association For Mental Health Everywhere)

I was on my way to a doctor's appointment this afternoon when I saw her through the pharmacy window. I recognized her at once by the oversized headphones wrapped around her neck. She was sitting on the floor and pumping her fists at the ceiling. The pharmacist is used to these mock protests against the heavens, these not-so-private antics of calling forth presences that the less imaginative cannot see; they put a smile on his face as he fills out her monthly prescription. It is the January People, slumped in their bucket seats against the wall, impatiently waiting for their cold formulas and asthma inhalers, who see only dementia being acted out in this ritual. They avert their eyes, refusing to acknowledge her or the cast of characters descending from the ceiling tiles for fear of catching whatever she is carrying. I turn away from the window and proceed to my doctor’s office. I, too, have become a January Person.
There is a photograph of her running down Bay Street stark naked. It is a weekday afternoon in the summer of 1984, and she is headed in the direction of the downtown business district. The picture is taken by a passing tourist and published in one of the city tabloid newspapers. It is snapped post factum, the subject already twenty or so meters away from the photographer. You can see the outline of her spine through the thin membrane of skin, her buttocks like a pair of perfectly synchronized Salvation Army bells swinging to the right. Her startled black hair cut just below her shoulders brings Medusa to mind. In the foreground, to her left, an elderly couple are huddled up against the door of the Fox & Turtle Pub--- a Kodak moment if you ignored the look of terror on their faces. There is something of the Sasquatch feeling to this picture, of a fugitive knowing it is being watched, possibly photographed, but going about the business of eluding capture. 
Earliest memory: I am almost five years old and I am being carried on the back of my aunt, the youngest of eight girls and only five years my senior, who is taking me to the outhouse. It is night, the moon has passed behind the clouds, and I am yawning. The straw thatched hut is located fifty yards behind the farmhouse, just close enough to make the trip not feel like a burden and just far enough to keep the stench away from the dining area during the dog days of summer. My aunt gropes in the dark with her free hand. The hut is made of straw and mud, and month-old newspapers are used for toilet paper. Two wooden planks are suspended over a ditch six feet wide and four feet deep. My aunt’s responsibility: to act as my guardian when Nature calls, at any time of the day or night, and to ensure that I do not die in humiliating fashion; that the first-born son of her oldest sister, the crown prince of the family, is not allowed to drown in that cauldron of human excrement and urine. She swats at the flies and re-arranges the planks by bringing the closer ends together so that they touch and form a V. I pull down my pajamas pants and crouch at the intersected end. My aunt has to go too, so she plants herself where the planks widen, her back to me. I yawn again and, here, the memory is strobe-like, blinking in and out focus. My head hits something hard…a white tiger sits on its haunches at the entrance of the outhouse, speaking to me…my chest is hot…a black rabbit springs on my face, blinding me…From later accounts: my aunt runs screaming into the house. There are no words exchanged, no questions asked, just my grandfather in his bare feet and underwear, hurtling himself between the clay kimchi jars and across the cabbage patch toward the outhouse. I had not gone fully under for very long, if at all, I am told later, because the cooler temperatures in those waning weeks of summer, had made the ditch “less like soup, more like stew”. I am carried into a house of tittering females, relieved to see that I am alive, but pinching their noses just the same. They are armed with pitchers of soapy water, scrub brushes, and towels. I am changed into a clean set of pajamas, and tucked snuggly into my grandmother's arms. There is the vague sound of someone being lashed with a stick in the yard and more screaming before I finally doze off.
I returned to the farming village where I spent my childhood, raised by my maternal grandparents and my seven aunts; and where my parents, who worked and lived in Seoul, came to visit me once a month. It was 1987, and the whole country was in a state of frenzy, eagerly preparing to host the Summer Olympics the following year. The village had been razed and replaced with highways cutting across what was, once, fertile cabbage and radish fields. The route would allow quicker access to “authentic” Korean villages for the thousands of expected tourists. Near where the outhouse once stood, a uniformed man sat in a tollbooth along an empty stretch of road, rehearsing for the coming congestion.
I came here to Korea to visit my aunt who was a patient in an insane asylum just outside of Seoul. She had been sent there the previous year from Toronto, after the many failed attempts to exorcise the devil from her. The Korean Catholic Church had some of its older female members routinely--- and clandestinely--- perform exorcisms in congregant’s homes. These elders were naturally predisposed to the rituals of spirit-banishment because of the powerful grip shamanism had over Koreans for millennia. For many who converted and immigrated to Canada, Roman Catholicism was just a modern day manifestation of a religion practiced by their forebears, and exorcism just another way to perform guut- a common rite of purification. My grandmother comes from a long tradition of mudangs- shaman priestesses whose role in Korean life as spiritual healer, doctor and fortune-teller made them indispensable for keeping order between the realm of spirits and the human.  After my aunt’s daring escape from the second-floor Bay Street condominium, where my grandmother was also one of the participants, the church moved these practices to less accessible areas of the city, far away from camera-carrying tourists, and where doors were reinforced with double-locks.
The asylum was a medium-security facility, separated into a men’s and women’s ward. It housed the entire spectrum of “sick people” in Korean society: criminals and sociopaths; epileptics and political dissidents; schizophrenics and artists indulging the mildest forms of melancholy. Even law-abiding citizens, suspected of threatening the image of a chaste and orderly Korea that the government worked so hard to cultivate for the Olympic audience, were indiscriminately thrown into its cells. But many others, like my aunt who suffered from serious, but treatable, illnesses, were confined there without even the slightest pretext of a medical diagnosis. The asylum was tucked away in a valley surrounded by rumpled stone hills with swelling streams furrowing between the few islands of trees. These hills, once home to Buddhist temples, were now dotted with neon red crosses. Once the hub of Buddhist culture in the Far East, Korea was now in a golden age of Christian evangelism, which also meant that atheists were the overwhelming majority of the asylum’s inmate population. In the cab I had hired from Seoul, organ hymns played softly in the background. It was when we passed under the gates of the asylum that the driver sat ramrod straight in his seat and cranked up the volume. He could hear the cries of the devil coming from the building windows, he shouted to me through his rearview mirror. At the entrance to the reception building, he murmured something about praying for my soul, took my money, and quickly drove off. You could hear the deep groan of a church organ issuing from his car and echoing off the hills.
I was led into a large white room with small rectangular windows barred from outside. The odor of disinfectant and fake pine trees hung in the air. My aunt was already waiting for me, sitting on the other side of a metal table. She was dressed in a baby blue gown, tied with a string at the back, and a pair of Minnie Mouse slippers. The room was empty at this time of day, except for a few patients arguing over a television in the adjacent room. One woman was at the window, babbling quietly to herself. A noise like the rattling of bars and some moaning could be heard coming dully from the back of the building. She got up and walked slowly around the table, looking at me the whole time. Her hair sagged on her head as though she had just walked out of a shower, thick oily strands falling over her pale round face. She had aged considerably and was much heavier than when I saw her off at the Toronto airport the year before. Her eyes had a noticeable droop to them; when she attempted a smile, it only made her look sadder. She touched my face like a blind person, tentatively with one hand at first, then with both hands while she looked away with her eyes closed. For my aunt, touch was a brazen act of memory. It had been over six months since one of my aunts from Seoul had paid her a visit.  She was desperate for companionship and neurotically self-conscious.
"Look how fat I am,” she said. “They just keep feeding me here all day, eat eat eat, like I'm a cow or something. I forget how slim and beautiful I used to be." She went on to describe life in the asylum: one of her friends was recently rehabilitated and sent back to her hometown; Doctor Cho, who was madly in love with her, was going to leave his bitch of a wife any day now; the two cruel nurses whom everyone referred to as "Kim Jong-il" and "Stalin"; the cocktail of drugs she took everyday.
“They start talking to me,” she said, pointing to her temple, “when I don’t take them.” About her romantic life, she said, “I make love to myself everyday when he’s not around.” By he, she meant Doctor Cho.
We were interrupted by another patient, a friend of my aunt’s who had come to pay her respects to the crown prince of the family. Hae-gyoung was tall and gaunt, of indecipherable age, her face in a permanent state of unfocused remembering. She had been a patient here for nine years and the few remaining family members left to her--- one older brother and two younger sisters--- had stopped visiting eight years, two hundred and ninety-four days ago. She laid a crinkled sepia photograph on the table. It was a picture of a much younger and livelier version of her self and of a boy the same age. They are standing at attention in their black school uniforms, hats clenched nervously against their stomachs and blushing, as though the photographer had just given a name to what was, until that moment, unspoken mutual longing between the subjects.
"My boyfriend," she said, smiling to reveal her crooked and stained teeth.
"Okay enough enough enough, you little slut!" My aunt snatched the picture from off the table and tossed it behind her to the floor.
"My nephew is visiting me not you. Go somewhere else and wait for your own nephew to visit." Hae-gyoung scurried to pick her picture up from off the floor and, like a kicked dog, scampered sideways out of the room. My aunt turned back to me, twirling her hair with her fingers, and smiling innocently.
She had begun writing me immediately after she arrived at this asylum in Korea. The first series of letters were full of the anguish of separation and the fear of loneliness. These emotions quickly turned to despair and depression. With no more than an elementary school education in Canada, her English was a collision of run-on sentences, lacking coherence or linear development of thoughts. But you could count on moments of astonishing atavistic power, like a mental plunge in arctic waters, with nothing to buffer the impulse from the expression.
“I hate tis plas Im goin crazy heer Plees com take me.” Through the chicken scratch of her last letter, I was able to extract one request. She wanted her Panasonic tape recorder and collection of cassettes. There was “nuting gud” to listen to at the asylum, she wrote. To hear her favourite songs again would bring joy back into her life, would remind her of being together with family. So I scoured through her bedroom in my grandparents' apartment, turning over the mattress and emptying every box and plastic container. I packed everything I could find into my bag, including a pair of large headphones. When I passed the bag over to her, she went giddy with excitement, dumping the contents onto the table and sorting through the cassettes like they were heirlooms passed down to her from her ancestors. She held one up and waved it in the air triumphantly. Then, looking around for nurses, she slipped the cassette into the player. It was Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits album. She sang along to “Faded Love” as if she had been listening to it everyday, not missing a beat. 

As I look at the letters that you wrote to me,
It's you that I am thinking of.
As I read the lines, that to me were so dear,
I remember our faded love.

Her voice was so vibrant, the clarity of enunciation so unexpected, that it brought me back to a time before her unraveling, when she used to sing while working the fields with my grandfather and my other aunts. I used to sit under a poplar tree and listen to her for hours on end until I fell asleep and she had to carry me on her back to the farmhouse. Even the cicada in my jar would go quiet when my aunt began to sing. A nurse came to our table and shut off the player. She reminded my aunt of the hospital rules: she could listen to music only with headphones on when she was in public spaces or else it would be taken away from her.
“I’m sorry, Ohn-nee,” my aunt said, holding up the headphones. “My nephew brought me headphones. I just wanted to share the song with him.”  The nurse frowned at my aunt, then looked over at me. It was time for me to leave.
“Beesiting our ober,” she said in English.
"Stalin," my aunt whispered as the nurse walked away. We looked at each other and giggled. I gave my aunt a long hug and promised her that I would do everything I could to bring her back home.
“I know you will,” she said, not quite believing me. “You are a good nephew.” At the door, I turned around to say goodbye to her one last time, but she was too busy looking through the pile of cassette tapes on the table to bother looking up. When my cab arrived, I heard a tapping on the window behind me. My aunt was standing on the other side of the barred windows, wearing the headphones I had bought her and smiling like I had never seen her smile before.  I waved at her as the cab drove away.
Three years later, at the Queen Street Mental Health Center where she was committed, I volunteered there and asked to be assigned to my aunt’s ward. My official title was librarian, but it would have been more accurate to describe my job as janitor. I spent more time cleaning out toilets for the patients than checking books out for them. It was there that I began to undertake the study of schizophrenia, the disease my aunt was suffering from, and inquired about her condition with her doctors. I had learned that my aunt’s case was not as severe as many others and that her condition had only worsened during her stay in Korea. They also believed that she would soon be ready to go out on her own; with the proper drugs and social support, she could move into a halfway house within months. It took less than six months before she was registered at Progress Place and offered her own government-subsidized apartment. I went to see her often and took her out for dinner or bought her favourite carton of cigarettes when I had some money on my hands. She cherished her freedom, held it close to her at all times, talked about it the way a starving woman might talk about food. Stepping out of the elevator on the fifteenth floor, I would often hear her singing at the top of her lungs off her apartment balcony. I imagined people walking along the sidewalk below, looking up momentarily with their hand over their eyes and wondering who let this raving lunatic into their neighbourhood.
It was just a question of time before the exorcisms and the time she spent in the asylum in Korea were relegated to a shelf in her mind that she could no longer reach. Her face would go blank when I asked her to talk about those experiences. She would shrug her shoulders and change the subject. Basking in the sun of her present freedom, she felt no need to delve into the dark past.
After a year of this, I stopped dropping by to see her. Less important, but more pressing issues began to consume my life. I missed her, but knowing she lived so close, that she was within reach, took away the longing and the guilt. Even her phone messages, increasingly less frequent and urgent over time, were left unanswered for days, then weeks…then not answered at all.
Following my doctor's appointment this afternoon, I walked by the pharmacy again and stole a peek through the window. It was almost closing time, empty except for the pharmacist chatting with his assistant at the counter and my aunt slumped in a chair with her back to the door. The headphones were on  and she was swaying slowly from side to side. When I entered, the bell tinkled and the pharmacist and his assistant looked up at me. They recognized me immediately as my aunt’s nephew and went back to talking amongst themselves. I was uncertain about walking up and saying hello to her. It was nearly impossible to satisfy her insatiable need for attention even at the best of times, and in my current condition it would have been too much for me. I took a seat by the door. She was singing quietly, but you could hear her clearly even from where I was sitting. It hit me then just how much I had missed her singing. 
"You know," she said to nobody in particular, "Patsy Cline sings songs of love."
The pharmacist and his assistant did not pay attention; they had learned, over the years, how best to tune her out. My aunt reset her ancient Panasonic tape recorder, cleared her throat, and began to sing again.

Crazy… I'm crazy for feeling so lonely…
I'm crazy… crazy for feelin' so blue...
I knew…you'd love me for long as you wanted,
And then someday, you'd leave me for somebody new.

I pulled the hood back from my parka and leaned my head back against the cold window. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was propped up against the trunk of a poplar tree with a jar on my lap, inside of which was a respectfully silent cicada. The display shelves to my left and right stacked neatly with medicines were rows of radishes in a field. And that voice I was now hearing was one that I knew I had heard before in some distant and almost retrievable past.

Worry…why do I let myself worry?
Wonderin'… what in the world did I do?
Oh, crazy, for thinking that my love could hold you...
I'm crazy for tryin' and crazy for cryin'
And I'm crazy for lovin' you...