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As Tim Park walked out of his apartment to commute to the night shift at the emergency room of St. Luke’s Hospital, he checked his body for his pandemic essentials. Mask on his face, wallet in back pants right, phone in back pants left, keys in front jacket right, asthma inhaler in front jacket left. He was extra careful with his daily routine during New York City’s lockdown. If he forgot something, he might be late to his shift at a time when his patients desperately needed him.
Before he walked out of his apartment door, he kissed his wife Julia and their pudgy seven-year-old son Jon and silently prayed to himself, as he did daily, that he wouldn’t bring his work home.
He took the stairs, though he had asthma and lived on the 9th floor, because he could not properly distance himself in the tight building elevator. As he walked out of the high-rise, he was sweating, though it was an unusually cool dusk, as he briskly walked towards the 1-train station in Battery Park.
Tim’s heart sped up a bit before going underground. He hated the subway because he worried he might become exposed to the coronavirus in that filthy enclosed environment, even though the trains were not crowded as most of the city was under a stay-at-home order. Every day, he scrubbed the underground pollutants off in the shower immediately after getting to the hospital and again after returning home.
As he headed down the stairs, he saw a poster for the FBI hate crime hotline, reminding him that he had more than just the virus to worry about. He had heard many stories of Asians Americans like him being spat on, yelled at, and attacked on public transit, blamed by some racist idiots for the pandemic. Middle-aged and slender, he was hardly a fighter, so he would have carried pepper spray or a stun-gun like so many of his friends did, if his hospital didn’t ban all weapons.
When Tim got on the uptown 1 train, it was a quarter full with transients and “essential workers” headed to hospitals or grocery stores, all with their heads down, making no eye contact with one another. Tim was the only Asian among the mostly black and Latino passengers and everyone wordlessly kept the required six-foot distance from each other. Tim chose to stand in the back of the car, wanting to keep as far away from other people as he possibly could.
When they got to Houston station, a young, olive-skinned man and a curvy blonde white woman walked in without masks, holding hands in the middle of the car about 20 feet away from Tim. The tall, bald-headed man unzipped his Giants jacket and looked past the other passengers to glower at Tim. As the train made its way north, Tim noticed the guy continue to stare as he muttered nastily into the ear of his voluptuous companion in stretched yoga pants. Though disturbed, Tim kept his eyes focused on the fast food wrappers scuttling across the sticky ground.
For several stops, the tan man, tapping his foot, kept looking at Tim. With a soft potbelly under his jacket and a puffy face, the guy was not particularly tough-looking, but seemed to want to project testosterone out of his eyes. His girlfriend was not as interested in her surroundings, busily texting into her pink iPhone and only looking up when her boyfriend whispered into her multi-ringed ear. No one else, not the seemingly healthy middle-aged white man in the priority seat, or the elderly Latina woman lying across a row near the back, seemed to notice the destructive vibes this jackass was sending his way. He felt completely alone in that car, under that man’s hateful gaze.
As Tim slapped a mosquito away from his damp neck, he wished he could leave the city, and return to his childhood, safely playing in a backyard filled with fireflies.
A week before, Tim’s family ate kal-bi, Korean-style beef ribs, with his parents in the sprawling lawn of the suburban New Jersey home that Tim had grown up in. Before his son was born, Tim had always felt a bit uneasy during get-togethers with his parents because his fretful wife Julia, who was a prep school girl from a Boston Irish family, perpetually worried that she might offend his parents with her tall, freckled whiteness. Tim appreciated that, in an attempt to better relate to his family, she learned some butchered Korean phrases in a local community college class with a bunch of kids trying to understand K-pop lyrics. Fortunately, all she needed to do now was nod and smile as her in-laws thanked her for the thousandth time for adding a chubby boy to their family.
Tim’s father, now withered to the bone in his old age, regaled his bored grandson with tales of the annual Park family barbeque. In booming, comically accented English, he told the boy that the Italian and Irish families in that neighborhood had never smelled anything like the sweet and savory smoke of kal-bi until the Parks first brought it to town thirty years ago, and his charcoal grill worked overtime to make sure everyone had their fill.
Quietly listening to old stories he had heard a million times as he drank his beer, Tim remembered the exhilarating games of manhunt he played with the white neighborhood kids during those barbeques, sprinting across the moist grass of interconnected lawns as countless dancing fireflies decorated the night like ephemeral Christmas lights.
Over the years, Tim sadly saw that there were fewer fireflies each year in his hometown. That night, as he looked out into the darkening lawn, he saw none.
“Am I crazy, Dad?” Tim said, disturbed. “Are the fireflies gone?”
“What are fireflies?” his son asked, picking his head up with interest after being unimpressed with grandfather’s stories. Jon had lived in Manhattan his whole life and had never seen any before.
“They are bugs that can fly and glow in the dark. They attract each other by lighting their bodies,” Tim replied.
“How do they light up?” Jon’s eyes widened, as he picked at his dirty blonde hair.
“Their butts have the same stuff as your glow-in-the-dark stickers. They shake their butts and that makes them glow,” Tim said, making Jon’s fat cheeks jiggle with laughter.
“You are right, Tim. The fireflies are gone,” Tim’s father said. “This town is too bright now. The fireflies can’t shine enough for the others to see. If they can’t see each other, they die out.”
The neighborhood had transformed over the last thirty years. When Tim was a kid, the town was almost entirely white, and surrounded by dark woods that hid deer, possums and foxes. Now, dozens of restaurants and bars with glowing neon Koreans signs beckoned the town’s immigrant residents, who were quite familiar with kal-bi.
Jon said, “It must’ve been sad for that last firefly. He lit his butt, and nobody was there to see.”
Tim chuckled, but felt a tinge of pity for his son, since the half-Korean boy would likely grow up seeking connections among those who were not quite like him, a rare firefly in a city filled with unresponsive lights. He wished he could show his son the simple joy of discovering sparks in a totally dark night.
At the 32nd street subway stop, Koreatown station, an Asian boy wearing latex gloves and a KN95 mask over his wan face walked timidly through the double doors nearest to the couple that was troubling Tim. Tim guessed the scrawny youth, who scanned the train with fearful wide eyes, was 14 or so. Since he had the bronze-tinged bowl-cut that was trendy among K-pop stars, he was surely Korean and had heard the same stories of racist attacks on the subway as Tim. As the boy cautiously backed his way down the car, Tim recalled watching his nervous son through the classroom window on his first day of kindergarten. Tim wished he could reach out to the youth and guide him through the unwritten rules of the New York subway, especially the importance of hiding fear.
Tim’s heart sank as the boy’s eyes met those of the portly man. The man just stared and shook his head with a smirk.
“Another one,” he said. “I wished you’d all just move back.” The boy hurriedly took a few steps away, towards the other side of the train from Tim. Tim wanted to teach the terrified kid the same lesson he taught his son about playground bullies, to ignore at first but stand his ground if necessary.
As the subway hurtled north, the olive-skinned man’s eyes had shifted from Tim to the shaky teenage boy. As the guy stared with scorn, he continued to occasionally whisper something to his girlfriend, who would sneer at the boy, before going back to her phone. The Asian kid was obviously bothered as he kept fidgeting his legs as he averted his eyes from his tormentors. As the train neared 72nd street station, he seemed to be cracking under their stares, as he started to breathe loudly and twitch his head.
Suddenly, Tim realized why that Korean boy seemed so troubled. Covering his face with both of his hands, he sneezed softly, holding as much of it as he could inside of his slim body. He had been trying to stop himself because he was scared of how the other passengers would react, but finally had to give in.
All of the passengers stopped what they were doing and held their breaths, as if someone had fired a gun. Into the stunned silence, the tan man screamed, “Aw, fuck. Are you sick? Why the fuck did you get on the train if you’re sick? What the fuck is wrong with you? Get the fuck out of here at the next stop.”
A memory that Tim hadn’t touched in decades came back to him. He remembered being twelve years old and in his backyard on a cool autumn night lit by an orange harvest moon that loomed over his house like a giant balloon.
After another successful family barbeque, Tim had just finished putting up the last of the Styrofoam plates into a trash bag. His wispy mother, then the focus of many lingering stares from his quickly maturing friends, surprised him by coming outside with a few long pieces of white paper with Korean letters written in black calligraphy.
“Do you know what this is for?” his mother asked Tim.
Tim shook his head. He could not read Korean or hold up his end of a decent conversation, though he understood most of his parents’ lectures.
Tim’s mother said, “In Korea, my parents used to light the names of our ancestors on fire. When the smoke rises into the sky, they can see it and know we remember them. I want you to watch this tonight.”
His father came out with a cigarette in his mouth. He only smoked when he was really drunk, and his face was blotchy red after hours of drinking cheap beer with the neighbors. He said in loud drunken Korean, “You are losing your heritage growing up in this town with all white kids. You would fall asleep during the full ceremony as they do it in Korea. There are hours of bowing, and you don’t even bother to bow to me.”
His father took out a red disposable lighter out of his jeans pocket and lit the pieces of paper as his mother held them at arm’s length. The sparkling flames danced in their eyes. The whole ritual seemed somewhat dangerous to Tim since they were the only Koreans in the neighborhood. He was afraid the neighbors would see what they were doing and think they were casting weird ancient Asian spells.
His mother held the burning papers into the air before dropping them onto the concrete of the patio, the last of the ashes flying away in the cool breeze. Through their chain-link fence, Tim became quite nervous when he saw a silhouette smoking in the backyard connected to theirs. He had heard from his parents that a new family had moved into that house, though they knew nothing about them. Tim was alarmed when the stout dark figure walked closer, holding his orange ember at his side.
“Dad, someone is coming,” Tim said, pointing.
As his dad looked over, to Tim’s shock, the shadow spoke in Korean, “Excuse me. I smelled kal-bi all day and now I hear you speaking Korean. I did not think I’d see any of my people out here.”
Tim saw an electric spark come over his parent’s faces. Smiling as broadly as Tim had ever seen, his father answered, “Yes. I heard we had a new neighbor, but I didn’t know you were Korean. My name is Park Tae Yun and this is my wife Kim Na Young.” They both bowed. His mother firmly pulled at Tim’s shirt sleeve, indicating he should bow as well. Tim awkwardly complied, though this act was foreign to him.
“My name is Lee Sang Won. I don’t live here,” he said in an excited voice as he returned the bows. When he came closer, Tim saw that he was a muscular man younger than his parents, maybe thirty years old, with a broad friendly face. “I’m helping my sister move in. She’s married to an American. I didn’t think I’d see any Koreans out here.”
“We were teaching our son about Korea and now we meet a Korean. This is God’s will,” his mother said excitedly.
His father added, “Come on over. We have plenty of food left. Bring your sister, her family.”
“They are out now,” he said hesitantly.
“Then climb over that fence. It’s not tall.”
The man climbed over as his father wished. That night, Tim watched his father drink whisky for hours with Mr. Lee while his mother had tea, all of them joking in a level of Korean that he could not understand at all. After Tim went to bed, he put his pillow over his head as their roaring drunken voices echoed for many more hours into the night. He didn’t know what time Mr. Lee went home, but his father didn’t wake until 1 pm. Tim was quite happy because he got to play extra hours of Nintendo on days when his father was hungover.
Hearing the joy in his parents’ voices as they talked about Mr. Lee for days, Tim realized that, though his mother and father tried to make the most of living in that neighborhood, their true selves were begging to connect with their own people. Now, they could meet other Koreans in their town through Naver, KakaoTalk or other apps, but back then they had to rely solely on rare fortunate encounters.
After the Korean boy sneezed, he held out his hands in front of him as if to apologize to the entire train. The large man took a crumpled tissue out of his pocket and threw it at the boy, who then covered his head with his arms.
Enraged, Tim ignored his racing heart and quickening breath, and took a few steps toward the couple. He took off his mask and stuffed it into the inside pocket of his jacket. Then, he walked closer, until he was just a few feet away, and started coughing loudly with his mouth wide open. He knew the risk he was taking, possibly exposing himself to the virus and risking bringing it home his family, but, at that moment, he needed to get that boy to his stop.
Since he had asthma, there was always congestion in his system, so he could make each cough sound like it came from the sickly depths of a black lung. The bully turned and backed away from Tim, no longer confident. His girlfriend covered her face with her hands as she tried to flatten herself against the wall of the train. Then, the boy, unable to contain himself again, sneezed twice more, more loudly this time, causing several passengers to gasp.
“Cheon-sik,” Tim said forcefully. One of the few Korean words he remembered was the term for asthma, because his parents said it so often when he was a child. He looked directly at the boy, whose eyes were stuck open in a mixture of shock, fear and confusion. Tim said again loudly, “Cheon-sik,” and then said, “Geouk jung ma”, don’t worry. Tim repeated his words, making clear in Korean that he was not contagious. He then resumed coughing like he smoked two packs a day.
As the train slowed to enter 72nd street station, some of the passengers at the end of the car retreated through the door at the back. A few remained, but quickly put themselves as far away from Tim as physically possible.
“What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you sick too?” the tan man said, his voice shaking as he was no longer the most dangerous person in the car. Tim thought of Julia and Jon, and prayed there would be no violence at that moment.
Though Tim’s heart was in his throat, he blankly stared at the perplexed couple and continued to cough. The boy sneezed loudly into his elbow again.
When the metal double doors opened at 79th street, the couple and all remaining passengers, except for the boy, ran outside. No passengers got on, as those waiting on the platform saw the terrified looks on the faces of people who were fleeing that car.
When the doors closed, the boy and Tim were alone. Tim’s heart started returning to a normal beat. The boy stared at Tim without saying a word, seemingly unsure if what had happened was real.
“You are going to be just fine,” Tim said in English as he didn’t have many Korean words left and figured the boy must be attending American school during the day.
The boy bowed, reminding Tim that he had reached an age when he should expect such a show of respect from a Korean child. Tim nodded his head awkwardly in return. Bowing felt more unfamiliar to him now than it did years ago when he first met Mr. Lee in his backyard. His wife, who made a point of bowing to his parents at every meeting, probably had done more in her life more than he had.
“Thank you. But aren’t you scared?” the kid responded in perfect unaccented English.
“My asthma will kill me before any person does,” he said. He pulled his inhaler out of his jacket, just in case the boy needed proof of his condition.
“Won’t the police come?”
Tim laughed, “And do what? Arrest me for coughing?”
The boy’s eyes seemed to relax a bit.
“Where are you headed?” Tim asked.
“116th Street. There is a grocery store there that needs a stock boy. We need the money.”
“You have as much right to the train as anyone else. Tomorrow will be better. Don’t be too scared to take it.”
“I have allergies. I knew I would sneeze. What if I sneeze again?”
“Then, sneeze. And don’t act like you’ve done anything wrong when you do.”
The train slowed into 86th Street station and a few other passengers, oblivious to what had happened, got in. Tim quietly walked back to where he was standing before.
When the kid got off on 116th Street, he looked over at Tim and bowed deeply, bending his torso at a nearly ninety-degree angle to his legs, in a show of full respect. Tim tipped his head in response. As the train went above ground, Tim looked out at the rows of lights from the windows of brick housing projects, and wondered when, if ever, life would go back to normal.
About the author: Thomas Lee is a writer and technology lawyer who lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and son. The Last Time He Bowed is his third publication in Litro. His short stories have also been published in many other literary journals including Ploughshares, The Sun, American Literary Review, Asia Literary Review, and Chicago Quarterly Review. In 2011, he was the winner of the first annual Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s Award for Fiction. Tom was born in Seoul, South Korea and immigrated with his family to the United States when he was three years old. He is a graduate of Columbia University, and Yale Law School. He writes about people of Korean descent who struggle and thrive in America.
Thomas Lee is a writer and technology lawyer who lives in Northern California with his wife and son. His short stories have been published in several literary journals including Ploughshares, The Sun Magazine, Chicago Quarterly Review, American Literary Review and Asia Literary Review. In 2011, he was the winner of the first annual Ploughshares Emerging Fiction Writer's Award. He writes about people of Korean descent who struggle and thrive in America.