Halmoni didn’t tell me she loved me. Her love could be seen in the work of her hands.
Have you ever gazed in wonder at a long, unbroken strand of fruit peel spiraling away from the blade of a paring knife? Have you watched as the thumb of your halmoni, your imo, your umma seems to magically glide along, applying just the right amount of pressure to the peel, with that sharp knife just under the surface?
I never understood how she did it so effortlessly. She’d take a Korean pear—a bae—enormous in size, with its sandpapery peel and a promisingly sweet and floral scent underneath, and peel the whole thing as I watched, entranced. Her hands were so small, the fruit so huge, and it didn’t matter; it always peeled the same way in her hands. The peel would unwind—slowly, methodically—separating from the fruit, but never breaking itself. A tiny spark, a miniscule amount of juice, might release into the air while her blade broke the membranes of the fruit. Sometimes I’d think, This is it, this is where it breaks, but it never did.
My halmoni never spoke English. Not when she moved to this country in the 1970s, and not when she died in the nineties. It’s not that she couldn’t; she just didn’t, or—given her stubborn nature—she wouldn’t. No matter how much my white mother tried to catch her slipping. What was there to say? This was not her country, not really.
These days, I question whether it is mine.
Halmoni and Haraboji bounced around a lot. Their presence is a persistent memory for me, though, as they sometimes lived with us throughout my childhood and early teens. I remember my grandfather, breath redolent of the fresh garlic he’d eat every morning, his grip on English strong enough to call me “handsome boy!” with a big smile on his face every time he looked at me, was a strong, kind, generous man. Halmoni was also strong, and kind in her own way, and also mean as shit to anyone who crossed her. To think of them in the cultural wastelands of our part of Orange County is jarring in retrospect, but at the time it felt perfectly natural. Though there were many white people in the area I grew up in, there were also large numbers of Koreans, Chinese folks, Indian folks, Iranian folks. Most of my friends had extended family members living with them too—it’s just what you did.
Halmoni did not speak to me much, other than to laugh and stroke my cheek with the back of her hand. She did not even deign to call me “handsome boy” the way Haraboji did, but the feeling came across all the same. Though we didn’t talk, we spent a lot of time together. In quiet moments, she’d walk around the backyard and I’d keep her company. I’d bring her groceries to her after my mom returned from the store; somehow my mom was able to buy what Halmoni wanted, even though they couldn’t communicate.
If she could speak English, I am not certain she would have understood what it meant to tell me that she loved me. Haraboji, either; I was just “handsome boy.” He never said, “I love you,” which maybe would have meant more. My father, their son, was not a typical Korean man—he told me he loved me, freely and fully. Halmoni’s I love yous were communicated through the work of her hands. Love was in the fresh sheets of seaweed she toasted in sesame oil, the chilies she piled into her soups and stews. Love was in the hands that had spent a lifetime converting basics into masterpieces, carrying heavy burdens without complaint.
This was not Halmoni’s country, not really. These days, I question whether it is mine.
I was too young, really, to know what a treasure her hands were, those instruments so adept at denuding a piece of fruit. I did not know the traumas she endured over time, through war and heartbreak. I would find out later, in pieces and bits, until finally the picture became clearer in the stories my aunts and uncles told, about Halmoni and her hands and what they had carried, what they had wrought, how they had helped her and her family survive.
Her hands had carried my uncles, my aunt, my dad, and another child she had lost.
Her hands had cooked thousands of meals, gutted fish and pigs, rent the shells from nuts and stems from herbs.
Her hands had pointed, furiously, at the North Korean soldiers that burst into her home looking for Haraboji to arrest him or kill him—No, you idiots, you arrested him yesterday, don’t you remember?—and those hands waved them away as if they were nothing while my grandfather hid in a bunker in the back.
Her hands had carried paltry amounts of salt over miles of terrain to sneak them to Haraboji, in jail and awaiting execution by the Japanese army for refusing to surrender his belief in the Christian God or his devotion to the Korean nation.
Her hands had clasped in prayer as she flew to this country, a country that she believed had not been torn apart by war, at least not the war she knew.
Her hands had held my small ones as we walked through Korean grocery store aisles.
Her hands had wrapped mandu, leaving the faintest streak of flour on the side of my face as she affectionately patted my cheek.
And her hands would peel a Korean pear while I watched, the peel always unbroken, just as my halmoni remained forever unbroken by this country, unwilling to bend to its demands.
Halmoni could not tell me she loved me, but when I saw a peel come away in her hands, fully detached but still whole, I knew, and would always know, just how true her love was.
Noah Cho teaches middle-school English in the San Francisco Bay Area. His writing has appeared on NPR's CodeSwitch, Shondaland, The Atlantic, and The Toast. He spends most of his free time going on hikes with and taking photos of his doggo, Porkchop.