Appa knocks as I sit hard on the lid of his suitcase, trying to coax the stubborn, tasseled zipper around its last corner so I can make my flight this afternoon. I know it's him knocking, because he's the only one who does.
"Come in," I grunt.
He holds a soft black case. His graying hair is combed over. He's fifty-five, and his narrow face is tired and line like a map of the mountains, unlike Wendy;s lawyer dad who could pass for her older brother.
"Need a hand?"
"I got it."
He ducks coming in, as if my doorway isn't high enough. I take my room for granted most days, but now that I'm leaving, my dance posters, lavender satchel, secret ramen noodle stash - the space feels like my only sanctuary.
"This isn't for you to take to Korea. But I wanted you to have it."
The zipper is hopeless. I take the case from him and spill a stethoscope into my hand.
"My med school advisor gave it to me when I graduated. I've been saving it for you. Do you - do you like it?"
The chrome is still shiny. He's never used it: the soft Y-shaped neck, the round chest piece that can hold a heartbeat. I weigh it like a baby in my hands, this symbol of a respected profession my family has only watched from the outside.
It's more my size than his, as if it's been waiting for me.
The floorboards creak under Appa's weight.
A few years ago, Sihyeon and I watched Mulan on Netflix: the girl in ancient China who steals her father's armor to save him, returns home a hero, and tries to earn her father's forgiveness by ing her honors at him. Only to be told that the greatest gift was having her for a daughter.
Sihyeon and I bawled. And then we found out Appa had watched it on a flight to Korea years ago.
"Did you cry, too?" Sihyeon had the guts to ask, while I hovered in the background, waiting for his answer.
Appa had scrunched up his face, goofy-like, as he did only for her. "I did."
"Really?" I blurted, startled into engaging. Did miracles still happen? Did he actually get it?
"Which part, Appa?" Oh, Sihyeon, how do you dare?
"When the Huns invaded China," came his honest reply.
Now we're standing in reverse. He wants me to love it, this gift, and I just . . .
He takes my arm, a rare contact. "Korea's not a punishment," he murmurs. "It was bad timing. I might be able to join you the last days if I can line up my business trip." To a hospital he consults for on the sly. It's a few extra dollars and they fly him out twice a year. Maybe that will be one day: moonlighting. Sneaking out of the hospital in my white lab coat to dance on legs that have forgotten how to move.
Eomma bursts in, pressing Appa aside. "Suzy, I found you a neck pillow." She it at me, then s my suitcase lid. "Are you ready?" She inspects the contents, then yanks out my periwinkle dance bag and dumps my leotard and pointe shoes onto my bed.
"You won't be needing all that in Korea," she says, and bustles off.
Appa opens his mouth. "Suzy—"
"I can't pack with all these interruptions."
I drop the pillow, set his stethoscope on my banned leotard, and fall back onto the evil zipper. I'm an automaton. Everything I'm doing is like their hands moving through mine.
I don't look up, even after my door closes behind him.
Dear Tisch Admissions,
With regret, I decline your offer of admissions.
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울시。⋆ *
Twenty-one hours of connecting flights later, I sling my carry-on onto my shoulder and stumble bleary-eyed after my seatmate, down a metal ramp into Seoul's Incheon International Airport. My head still roars with the noise of the jets. My mouth tastes like talc and I regret the foil-wrapped teriyaki chicken that's threatening to make its way back up my system.
The airport glitters. Shiny white floor tiles shimmer with the reflection of a stampede of passengers. Perfume and body odor choke my lungs as I'm swept at dizzying speed past stores featuring Cartier watches and Dior shades, glass cases holding boxes of pineapple treats, a fast-food counter serving bento boxes. "Ppalli ppalli!" Someone pushes past me from behind.
I catch a glimpse of myself in a store mirror; dark-haired, small, and terrified-looking, surrounded by strangers. Trying not to panic, I yank my crumple welcome packet from my backpack. My contact is a Ha Jungwoo. My ride should be waiting outside baggage claim.
Now I just need to get to him in one piece.
Down an escalator, past larger-than-life billboards of Asian models I can't help gawking at, through a hallway . . . until at last, I spill into a rectangular room roped into lines that snake toward a row of immigration booths. Korean characters mix with English everywhere and Korean announcements blare in my ears. At home, we only speak in English, except when Eomma and Appa uses Korean to keep secrets. I've picked up a few basics at the Korean Church, where services is translated line by line: "Let us pray" and "Please sit." And I know certain Korean dishes (bulgogi, bibimbap, kimchi-jjigae)—and that, I thought, was all I'd need. I hope that's still true. I hope, I hope.
Back at Phoenix airport, Appa had taken my arm and murmured, "Safe travels." It's a ritual, left over from family lore - the great-uncle who went to Germany and never returned, the niece lost at sea—like throwing a pinch of salt over your shoulder. If we neglect it, misfortune might ensue. It's always been us saying it to Appa as we dropped him off.
But I'd snatched back my arm. Marched through security, ignoring the paranoid twang that comes from that family immigrant history - what if he dies before I come home?
And what if I get lost and can't get back?
What if I get kidnapped?
What is everyone saying?
What have I done?
My breath comes fast and shallow.
I just need to make it through this airport, then I can bury myself in character charts and try not to think of Sihyeon being 6,231 miles away or Wendy dancing in Public Square with Maria Thomas who's taking my place in the parade, or Nick—I can't think of him. With any luck, I'll hide under the radar of my Korean school prison guard and won't have to speak to anyone for eight weeks.
At a booth, an officer behind a glass blasts me in Korean.
"I'm sorry." I hand him my American passport. "I don't speak." Frowning, he takes a mug shot, scans my index fingers, hands back my passport, and waves me through.
Somehow, I make it to the luggage carousel, where Appa's whale-sized suitcase revolves in a loop. I squeeze between two travelers arguing in Korean and drag my suitcase free—it's heavier than I remember—then I'm jostling along with another herd of travelers into an arrival hall, flowing with a river of more Asian people than I've ever seen.
A sea of faces rushes me, crowds waving cardboard signs printed with blocky characters and names in English. Someone cries a greeting and jostle me from behind, and then I'm falling, and then caught by a steel rail that divides me from the crowds: women in stylish blouses, men in beige slacks, though it hot enough to melt crayons on the floor. And humid. My shirt and hair was plastered to my body already.
I make my way past the crowds and outside into a blast of sunlight. Horns honk. Oddly cars rush by, their roar splitting my head into four.
"Yonsei?" I ask a woman with another sign. "I'm looking for-"
A claw-like hand grips my shoulder, connected to a man with no hair and a face like a horse. The stench of cigarettes and cilantro breaks over me.
His grip tightens. Panic overrides all remaining sense.
"No!" I rip free, whirl about-face, hell-bent on retracing my steps back onto my plane.
But two policemen in black guard the exit.
And then my luggage, heavy with inertia, keeps twisting me round, tipping my world. My ankle gives way—then the pavement rushes to meet me, no railing this time to prevent me from making undignified Suzy-shaped splat on the ground.
A yell rips from my throat.
My suitcase yanks itself free.
Then a firm hand on my upper arm stops me inches from the ground. I eyeball a pair of gray slacks-clad legs. White Vans.
"Whoa, there," he says, and I gape up at an angle at the most handsome guy I've ever seen.