Archive | November, 2009

The Girl in the Hof

26 Nov

She is the girl in the hof.  Maybe she isn’t much to talk about.  But she stands out to me.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe because she’s just there, in the hof.  She’s a part of the hof.  You’ve been to this hof before, maybe two or three times, only on certain occasions.  It’s buried deep in the mundane and ramshackle warrens of a suburban Korean neighborhood.  There is bare wood paneling with copious magic marker graffiti.  Old album slipsleeves of Korean crooners from the ’80s are tacked above the window.  When you press the call button, Christmas lights blink furiously in unison along the window frame.  An old telephone, record player, and space heater sit atop a shelf above a group of eight middle-aged Korean women who are blitzing through bottles of soju, clutching each other endearingly.

She’s precious, the girl in the hof.  I order in my awkward, stilted Korean for our group, my words basic at best.  She understands, even throws in a few English words in response.  She brings beer and juktongju, the latter a plum-like liquor served in a earthware jar shaped and colored like bamboo.  She periodically returns, bringing various elements of our communal meal.  She doesn’t seem to mind.  Maybe she thinks we’re strange, these foreigners, always asking for more glasses or an extra chair.  But she complies.

She’s here every night.  You can see it.  How old is she?  I don’t know.  Older than high school.  Maybe nineteen or twenty.  She’s in her youth, the prime of it, when impressions and ideals are formed, when there is still the courage to believe and act in spite of reality.

She is here, though, in the hof.  She is serving us.  You know she is better than this.  Her actions may be servile but she wishes to be something else.  She dreams, like we do.  Yet her dreams are more worthy than ours.

She is cute.  In a Korean way.  She is not a gorgeous or attractive girl.  No, not at all.  If most of us were to see her in a bar, we would pass her off, never give her the time of day.  But she is cute, in a plain way that has an appeal all of its own.  Perhaps part of it is the way she carries herself.  She wears a big sweatshirt, light grey, with a cute bunny design on the front left and the back right.  Some strange stylized words accompany the design — they look like Dutch.  Who knows.  The pockets are deep, the elastic skirt on the hoodie strangely wide.  Her hair is messy but endearing.  The ubiquitous Korean bangs, a few long ones dangling off to the side.  Long hair in the back, part of it bunched up in a hair clasp that looks like fake orange mother-of-pearl.  She’s dyed her hair a shade of brown.  She’s a good girl.  She tries.

She doesn’t come back for a while.  We drink, discuss work, talk about our own lives and whatever negatives aspects we might discern.  Every man’s misfortune fills the space he provides it.  But when I see the girl in the hof, I realize how stupid such gripes are.

She has little.  So very little in her life.  Now the Korean women next to our table have gone.  She is there, collecting the empty soju bottles and dirty plates with the proprietor.  He must be her father.  Work hard in the hof, he must say to her.  I can’t afford for you to go to college and learn.  You must find a good man to marry.

She must find a good man to marry.  Is that on her thoughts?  Perhaps.  She seems to stare at me and I cautiously look back her direction.  But maybe she’s just gazing at the window, seated in her chair at the dirty table, while her father removes the dirty plates.  She must find a good man.  Can she find a good man?  Is that what she dreams of?  What are her hopes?  Are they within her grasp?  Will she reach them next week, next month, next year?  Or are they nobler and wilder?  Does she long for something great yet seemingly, hopelessly beyond her reach?  I believe so.  Yes, yes.

She stands and helps her father fold the tablecloth.  She is here, in the prime of her youth, in the years which must count for something, working in a hof, in a bland, unsophisticated Korean suburb.  She is, as she is now, maybe in a temporary thing.  Maybe there is something I do not know about her.  Maybe she has a boyfriend who will marry her and take her away to someplace nice.  Maybe she has gotten into art school by sheer talent and a little luck.  The future, as much as we want to imagined it as determined, is never as we imagine.

She is here, in the hof.  I do not know everything she does.  But I can read a human face.  I can see hope and I can see longing.  And I saw both tonight.  It is the sort of look that makes you want to reach out.  It makes you want to be noble and give something to someone beyond their wildest hopes, whatever that thing might be.  You might not even know what that thing is.  But you feel you must give it anyway.  Yet you don’t.  You can’t.  Life constrains you in some way.  You wish to help, to extend your hand in whatever way, to lift up one single human being on this fucked-up earth, even if only in the smallest way possible.  But you don’t know how.  You will never know how.

She is the girl in the hof.  I will see her again, one day.  She will be in my thoughts.  I hope, I pray for her.  She deserves so much.  She may not get it.  She is stalked by tragedy, waiting in the shadows of dirty Jeongja, that hopes that the next few years will pass her by.  For if she does not leave the hof, that life may have hold of her forever.  And she will be like a thousand others, spinsters at thirty, left aside by the charge to the top and the charge to the future.

She is the girl in the hof.  Thank God for that girl.  May she find her own happiness, whatever it is, however it comes.

She is the girl in the hof.

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