Excerpts from “Why I Am Not a Pianist” by Sam Cha

So it was summer, maybe. Summer in Seoul.

 

*

 

I remember feeling mute and expectant.

I was growing again into a quiet.

 

*

 

When I moved back to Korea I was seven and a half. I got on the plane late at night, on the 24th of January, 1986. I got off the plane and discovered it was early in the morning on January 26th.

I’ve traveled into the future, I thought, as I hugged my mother, who I didn’t remember living with before.

I’d read The Time Machine a couple of times. I knew what to expect from the future.

 

*

 

The future was: fucked up. I had to go back to second grade, after being in third grade in Wisconsin (of course I was a year ahead in Wisconsin, so it balanced out). The future was: over-populated. There’d been 18 kids in my class at Sherwood Elementary School. There were 56 kids in my class in the future. The future was: Victorian. Instead of central heating, there was a wood-burning stove in the middle of the classroom. The future was a place where I could more or less understand what everyone said, but wasn’t fluent enough in Korean to say anything back. The future was a place where 56 kids gathered around my desk after each class period and gawked and laughed. The future was grimdark grimy violent. Third graders swore a lot more in the future, especially when they didn’t think you could understand them. Hey you, you speak English, they’d say. Speak some English, fucker. Younguh jjom haebwah ssaekya. I understood ssaekya—it was what dad called me when he got mad. In the future, I got tired of being sworn at and not being able to talk in words and instead started talking with my fists. And I’d punch them in the stomach or the teeth or the balls, whichever was closest. It was easy. I was bigger than them. In the future, I was a giant. Finally I could speak again. They understood that I understood and what I understood. They folded up, walked off curled up around knucklebone words.

 

*

 

Anyway, it seemed like the thing to do. Because in the future the teachers carried around things they used to hit you. The men carried broom handles and sawed-off pool cues and duct-taped lengths of hockey sticks with LOVE HURTS and THIS ROD SPARES NO CHILD written in large friendly letters. The women carried rulers or thin little lacquered bamboo switches, because the future was an intensely hierarchical patriarchy. (The future was Victorian.)

 

*

 

When you get hit on the palms with LOVE HURTS, you hear the sound first, then you see the outline of LOVE HURTS in white across your palms where the blood fled from LOVE HURTS, and where the whiteness is is numb. But you can’t bend your head to look because otherwise LOVE HURTS will clip the tip of your nose as it moves back up. Then the blood rushes back all pink and blue and red and the outline of LOVE HURTS fills, sings inside you a sharp and buzzing song, as if your hand were filled with tiny bouncing balls, each every hot and hornet, humming—and again, LOVE HURTS comes down again, crack clap rush flush and hum, LOVE HURTS and keeps on going, SPARES NO CHILD.

 

*

 

The bamboo switches were worse, though, when used with conviction.

Just FYI.

 

*

 

I grew to like the future, in a weird way. Does that make sense?

Being hit by a teacher meant they cared. I was grateful. It was what I deserved.

It made me feel safe.

Being hit by my parents meant they cared.

They didn’t hit me much.

 

*

 

On Teacher’s Day, which was a holiday in the future, we all stood at our desks and sang the Teacher’s Day Song: The teacher’s     mind’s motherfather     we thank     teacher’s love       we       will repay.

I meant every word.

 

*

 

You have taught me your language and my profit on it is I know how to curse is probably the fourth or fifth best-known snippet from The Tempest, right behind I’ll drown my book full fathom five o brave new world. The speaker is Caliban, odd fish, neither human nor animal, the mezzanine of the mezzanine, if the human’s a mezzanine between the animal and the angelic.

I was Caliban for years. No matter how good I got at school, at taking tests—and I got very good very fast—I was never fully human there. And I was most fluent with curses, with hitting and being hit, with LOVE HURTS.

 

*

 

You know what happens when you get punched in the teeth while you’re wearing braces? I remember a moment from fifth grade summer, bending over a sink at camp, spitting out odd little liver-colored clabber gobbets, my lips ragged and tattered, loops of lipmeat hooked onto my braces and stuck between my lower incisors. That odd calm that comes over you after you’ve just gotten your ass handed to you. Some of you know what I’m talking about. Is full of visions. There was a golden haze around me. It was love. I could see for miles. The storm cloud dark over the mountains. The country roads covered with dead firebelly toads. The pitiless cities. I understood Macbeth. I knew life and death. I looked at the blood, how it struggled against the current and saw that it was my semblance. I was thinking to myself in English: Oh, so that’s what it means, “gouts of blood.”

 

*

 

I don’t necessarily mean to give you the impression that I was abused by my teachers or my parents. If I was abused, I was abused by the culture. And culture’s a function of history. History abuses all of us chihuahuas and kids and nations. And actually, it wasn’t that I didn’t belong, it was that I belonged completely. I mean, the Korea where I grew up—it may be different now, I have no idea—was all about violence.

Think about it. Here’s a country that for about 80 years just could not catch a fucking break. First it’s the Japanese, coming in and using the entire country as a combination factory-brothel-coalmine-staging-ground-for-invasion. That’s 36 years of the Japanese doing cute little things like outlawing the speaking of Korean and press-ganging young men for cannon fodder and young women for military fuck parlors. “Comfort women,” ever hear about that? Anyway, so you guys you Americans nuke the shit out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fucking glass the place. And everybody in Korea’s—it sounds horrible, but horror begets horror—frankly psyched. There’s a collective YES emanating from the Korean peninsula the likes of which was never heard again until Kim Il-Sung shit his pants and dropped dead 50 years later. But then the Russians come in start setting shit up in the North, and Americans come in start setting shit up in the South, and before you know it, it’s all out fucking civil war, except really it’s the USSR and the USA getting down to it, going twelve rounds in the ring using the two Koreas as fucking boxing gloves, and there’s whole cities in the North just emptying out, all of the people heading South to get out of the line of fire—my father’s family among them.

Look, this place, America? You haven’t had a war here, on this soil, since 1865. I mean, maybe that’s why this country’s okay with starting wars all over, all the time, maybe it’s because you just don’t remember, you don’t have anybody who fucking remembers what it’s like to be invaded and bombed, for your entire country to get fucked in the ass. I speak as one who loves it here. LOVE HURTS.

Do you realize that it’s possible to actually lose a kid, in war? I’m not talking kids getting shot or blown up or even kidnapped, because at least you know what happened and who to blame, I’m talking straight-up misplacing them, like leaving your car keys somewhere. I’m talking you and your family are marching through the hills in winter in gutta-percha slippers and there’s Chinese bombs falling to the North and American machine gun nests to the South, and you have a baby in your arms and a four-year-old girl hanging on to your skirt, and you’re trying to get to safety but there’s no safety, and all of a sudden, you don’t know where your daughter is, she’s just gone, vanished, no trace, not a bloodstain not a fucking photograph and you can’t go back and look for her.

That’s how my dad lost his sister.

But so, finally, then there’s a ceasefire—not a peace, not an end, but a pause—and there’s rebuilding and there’s a military dictatorship and there are protests against the military dictatorship, which go about as well as protests against brutal dictatorships typically go, which is to say not at all, and always, always the entire northern half of the peninsula aimed at your head like a loaded gun. And because the North is a loaded gun, you load yours. It should be Korean stand-off, not Mexican, you realize that? And every boy goes to the army and spends three years getting the shit kicked out of him, all the while knowing that there are a million rifles on the other side pointed South, and then they get out and some of them become teachers, and most of them become dads, and all of them know how to fuck you up, all of them speak fluent punch curse spit-in-your-face. And pass it on to their children.

Every swinging dick ready to—

Shoot.

Wonder ye then at the anger issues? Wonder ye then at LOVE HURTS?

 

 

Read the rest of “Why I Am Not a Pianist” in the ninth print issue of aptavailable now.

 

 

 

Sam Cha was born in Korea. He earned an MFA from UMass Boston. A winner of two Academy of American Poets prizes and a St. Botolph’s Club Emerging Artists Grant, his work has appeared in, among other places, apt, Best New Poets, Boston Review, DIAGRAM, Memorious, Missouri Review, and RHINO. A very short chapbook, 5 Poems, is available from Damfino Press, and a very long chapbook, American Carnage, is available from Portable Press @ Yo-Yo Labs. He’s a poetry editor at Radius. He lives and writes in Cambridge, MA.

 

 

(Front page image via)



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