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Hong, Gemma, Dear Apa


Gemma Hong
Age: 17, Grade: 12

School Name: Marymount School-New York, New York, NY
Educator: Elizabeth Davis

Category: Personal Essay & Memoir

Dear Apa

Dear Apa,
It’s funny how I ended up a lot like you, even though you’re the family member I see the least. I don’t see you every morning because at six A.M., the blare of my phone alarm jolts me out of my slow dance with sleep and into my school day breakdance, in which I flip into the bathroom and flip out with cleaner teeth and windmill back into my bedroom and windmill out in a navy polo and a pale blue skirt and finally head slide out the door after which a groggy umma gives me a ride to the bridge. Then, I throw myself into a dingy bus then a subway then back into a slightly better bus then into a fancy mansion on Fifth Avenue that also happens to be my school. You’re asleep in bed through all of that because you wake up at eight to go to work, which I’m only a little jealous of. But on some mornings, I peek into the ahmpang and see your slumbering head poking out of the dun covers, and that’ll be the first of the two times I see you throughout the day, except on Mondays and Tuesdays. 
    On Mondays, I see you three times because you leave work early. I don’t have to wait for the M86, then wait for the C train, then wait for the D train, then wait for the Bergenline bus, then wait for my legs to walk me back home. I get to sit in a car with you at the driver’s seat and me in the passenger’s seat and cruise a single asphalt path home. What did they give you for lunch? You ask me in Korean. Soup, I answer in English. Unacceptable. Eat this. A warm Subway’s meatball marinara sandwich plops into my lap. Maybe the tightening of my skirt around my waist is a little bit your fault. I’m not mad, though. Keep it coming.
    You disappear fifteen minutes after dropping me back at home to go on a Costco trip with haraboji. I’m never mad about it, though. You deserve time to hang out with your dad when he’s taking a break from managing the nail salon. I’d get a chance to hang out with you the next day. 
Tuesdays are the only days you take a break from work. A text is the first signal that you’re home, startling my phone in my skirt pocket. “Where?” “125 station,” I’d reply. “Ok.”     I swing open the front door to different sounds spilling out from the kitchen every Tuesday. I drag a chair out and sit at the kitchen table, and Joseph, his mind still fuzzy from sleep, tiredly plops down on the seat diagonal from me. You set the dishes you prepared for us on the table mat in front of us, the ceramic sharply rapping the table. Eat, you’d say. We eat. You sit across from us, judging our reactions. You marvel at your ability to cook. Amazing, you say. I’m really just good at everything. I should open a restaurant. I tell you to eat, too, but you refuse and promptly steal food off my plate and Joseph’s dish. You always do that. Does it taste better if it’s coming off of someone’s plate? Not that I’m one to talk. I always steal food off your plate, too, on the nights you come back from work.
    Ten o’clock is when I see you for the last time on most days. Maru and Toru always herald your return, their furry white bodies leaping and barking at the sound of the work car pulling into the driveway. You burst through the front doors in your obscure designer t-shirts, fashion being one of the only things you passionately splurged on, your weathered work bag hanging at your side. 
    Apa osheuosoyuh! I yell as I left my room, abandoning my homework to greet you.
    Unyah! You acknowledge, leaning down to pet the dogs hopping around your legs. Will I ever actually know the exact meaning of your reply? It’ll probably always be how Apa replies when I greet him after work in my head unless you actually tell me.
    You then sit at the kitchen table and scarf down whatever you can cobble together from the fridge and the pots of jjigae on the stove and the cabinets as a meal as I sit in my designated seat at the kitchen table and Joseph in his, telling you about our days. Mom always offers to buy you an actual meal in advance, but you always refuse. I get indigestion when I sleep after eating so late, you’d say. Then you inhale all the leftovers in the fridge and get disappointed in yourself. You move to the living room to calculate the finances for the salon, and I go back into my room to finish my homework. On nights when my homework dragged on past midnight, you peek through my doorway and wave at me. Goodnight, ugly, you say, smiling. Goodnight, old man, I reply. That’s the end of my day with you.
    Our time together is so short every day, and it’ll get shorter when I go off to college. Don’t worry about it, though. Unfortunately, I’ll probably be living with you for a bit after college. Homes cost so much money these days. We’ll make time to be together. I’m looking forward to our trip to Japan together somewhere in the future. I’m looking forward to getting a sick tattoo with you without umma knowing because she would probably divorce you then disown me. I’ll get one of that tiger painting I showed you before, and you’ll get one of those traditional tattoos across your entire back. I’m looking forward to buying some DSquared2 clothing for you with the money I make with my theoretical job. I’m looking forward to the many years we have ahead of us, and I’m looking forward to the short moments we’ll share every day.