A Broken Elevator

by Aria Han

My grandparents live on the 27th floor of an apartment building in Paju, Seoul, South Korea.

There are stairs, although no one would ever take those stairs all the way up to the 27th floor. Mostly, they take the elevator, a musty little thing that’s neither breaking down nor gleaming. Everything has a sense of in-betweenness, an area in transition. It’s on the edge of the city but mostly still a part of it, a smaller and older apartment building compared to the shiny new ones being built just a block over. 

 My first time at the apartment was probably just a few days after I was born, and I spent about a year living there between the ages of two and three. Then, my dad went on a trip to the U.S. and liked it so much that he told my mom to pack up and join him there, and we’ve lived here ever since. 

My first trip back to Korea was when I was sixteen, and I went alone. Once there, I took the elevator up to my grandparents’ place, an awkward conversation about school and memories and life ongoing between the three of us in that small space. Yes, I was studying hard. No, I did not remember the elevator from when I was two.

The elevator opened into a small hallway, and right across was the door to my grandparents’ apartment. It opened with an electronic keypad, just like every other door in the Korean apartments that I’ve visited. My grandfather punched in the number and the door swung open, revealing hardwood floors and furniture that had been filed away in the very, very back of my dustiest memories.

No, I did not remember it. Yes, I would love some shikkae to drink. Shikkae is a sweet rice drink. Making it is a long process, getting the rice and washing it over and over and over. It’s not the normal kind of rice; it’s a special type. My mom said it’s the scraps, the remnants from harvesting the normal rice. You have to wash it again and again until you get the run-off water from it, collect it all in the rice cooker with the special rice and leave it to steam for hours and hours. The next day, you take it out, strain it, and pour in sugar. Then you add normal rice, steam it for a bit longer, and you get my absolute favorite drink. 

My grandmother used a ladle to fill a crystal glass all the way to the brim, carefully carrying it over to the living room and setting it in front of me with a spoon. I offered my politest thank you, eagerly sipping at the beige-colored drink of my childhood. I made sure to leave not a single grain of rice at the bottom, using the spoon to scrape it clean.

Then lunch, a bowl filled with a round scoop of rice all the way past the top. I stared at it apprehensively, a little worried I wouldn’t be able to finish. But then she covered the table with different banchan (side dishes): melchi, kimchi, japchae, gaeranjim, namul, kongnamul muchim, hobak bokkeum, gamja jorim, pajeon. My mouth was watering by the time she set the final dish down, eager to taste the familiarity of a home cooked meal.  

After we ate, my grandparents took me on a walk, heading back down the elevator and out through the parking lot into a little trail. It was one of many embedded into the Korean urban landscape: tree-covered mountains and parks nestled between towering apartments and shopping centers. I could get lost forever in the enchanting contrast between the greenery and urbanity: the colorful playgrounds dotted through the center of parks with children shouting to each other and the busy streets painted over not only in asphalt black but in red and green and yellow and blue. 

I remember how fascinated I was by the colorful streets when I first got in my uncle’s car a few days before visiting my grandparents. He picked me up from the airport, late into the night. It was so dark. My aunt sat in the back seat and their newly born baby boy beside her. As we drove, all I could really see was the headlights illuminating the neatly painted roads; they were painted for directional purposes, I assume. But it was the most amazing thing, how clean and fresh and brand new everything looked. Everything in South Korea has that feeling: spotless subways with floor-to-ceiling glass preventing anyone from falling onto the tracks, blocks and blocks of neon lights and restaurants and clothing stores stacked on top of each other like building blocks, rows and rows of skyscraping apartments sparkling in the sunlight. Even the traditional buildings left behind by the long-gone royalty look like they were painted just yesterday, meticulously maintained and polished. 

I’ve spent my entire life romanticizing the home I left behind, the one I spent thirteen years unable to visit, because that’s how long it took to finally get an American green card. Even now, I would much rather be there than here—but don’t we always want what we don’t have? I’m not even sure why I’m so drawn to Korea. It might be because I lost an entire alternate childhood, one where I would have worn a school uniform and taken public transportation and had friends that looked like me. It might just be because I want to know how it feels to actually belong somewhere. But it’s too late for either of those. The years have stolen any chance for me to be anything but a foreigner, even in the country of my birth. 

We walked to one of the playgrounds, and I sat on the swing, pushing off and swinging as if I were two years old all over again. My grandmother seemed to have the same thought as she smiled and sat on the nearby bench, reminiscent memories already spilling forth.

“You came here all the time when you were younger, do you remember? That swing was your favorite.” 

“No. Yes. Maybe.” I offered a sheepish smile, wishing so deeply to remember but knowing that I probably didn’t. How different would we all be if memory wasn’t such a fickle thing? If we could remember every moment of our lives, from the very first second of being born? The mind of a baby is largely a mystery, and I’ve read somewhere that all babies may be born with synesthesia—the different senses blending together in a dazzling symphony before the majority of our brains solidify each sense as its own. 

The rest of that first day with my grandparents after years of not seeing them—and every one after—was me pretending to remember what I did not. 

My grandparents remain living partially in a memory of the past, a snapshot in which I am still two years old and far cuter than I am now. My parents are younger and more fashionable, leaving for trips to Paris on a moment’s notice and leaving me behind. I only wish that I could share those same memories, staying forever young and never having to move on into adulthood. 

But it’s already slipping away, even that soft summer day with my grandparents in June when I was sixteen. Life is nothing more than lamenting the forgotten bits of the past and falling headfirst into the terrifying future. Maybe life is a broken elevator; we’re barreling past each floor and praying we don’t hit the bottom too soon. 

A collage of a TV showing smiling faces. Multicolored background.

Ever Outward

by Jeff Hersch

Aria Han is a third-year Data Science major at USF. She transferred to the school this year after attending colleges in New York, Southern California, and Rome. Writing, whether it be prose, code, or anything in between, is one of her favorite pastimes.

Jeff Hersch provides analog collages for the modern being. Like his thoughts, these pieces are often constructed in short, frantic spurts of energy, with bursts of self-doubt, though calm and subtle. Also like his thoughts, these pieces represent everyday observations and conclusions about the vast world that erratically suffocates us, with little time for a quick escape or chance to relax, as we are currently inhabiting an advanced state of infinite stimulus.

His works lend themselves to your own interpretation of meaning – if any – but should also serve as inspiration and demonstrate the simple notion that you too can and should create something/anything on a regular basis.

When he’s not hunched over his desk cutting and gluing clippings, Hersch finds the time to play in bands (Glazer, Civic Mimic, Postman Agitator) and volunteer as the executive director of Flemington DIY, a non-profit community arts space in the town he grew up in.

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