Words from the Grill
My father had asked me one night if I wanted to go with him to the Korean barbecue grill that I often spoke fondly of.
I was in my room when he walked in to ask and I pretended to be studying for a class I never had for a term I wasn’t enrolled in. My mother had gone to work for her overnight shift at the hospital, and my sister was quick to decline the offer in favor of watching a movie with friends. My father was always at home, studying throughout the day and sleeping for a few hours, only to wake in the dead of night to continue studying. At the time, I was taking a small break from college due to low grades resulting in a temporary state of depression.
“Sure, let’s go,” I told my father, patching my poor Korean with English words, which was enough to get by when I needed to talk to my parents.
Without another word, he left as suddenly as he had arrived, leaving me to assume that he was saving his stockpile of words for when we were at the restaurant. It wasn’t a comforting thought, for my father was notorious for his lengthy lectures. I sometimes envied children from other families. Each of these lectures, at one point or another, involved something about me and my sister’s education and how we needed to study harder or else we’d end up homeless. This terrified me when he first mentioned it to me in elementary school, but I became numb to this fear when I entered high school.
“You see that man? You’re going to end up like him. True story,” my father would say upon seeing a homeless man on the streets.
The trip to the Korean grill restaurant was quiet, another sign that my father was biding his words. Outside the restaurant, in the alley neighboring the tofu house was a man in shabby clothes with a stash of black plastic bags in a cart next to him. My father should have seen him too, but he chose not to say anything. Once inside the restaurant, we were seated at a table with a built-in grill in the center and a large metal vent shaft hovering between us.
“Are you doing well in school?” my father asked.
“Of course, I’m doing well,” I lied.
The waitress arrived to take our orders after this brief exchange of words, so I began thinking of a name to call my nonexistent professor should my father have the need to ask for it. By the time the waitress was finished writing our orders down, I had a string of fabrications prepped and ready to forge the delusion in my father’s mind that I really was doing well in college and that I was guaranteed a set of perfect grades at the end of the fall semester.
“You’re getting A’s, right?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said with a confident nod.
“That’s good,” he said as he sipped the cup of tea left behind by the waitress. “Keep studying hard and someday you might get into Berkeley.”
I said nothing. Another waitress approached us and lit the grill. She later came back with a large tray of various side dishes. My father picked up his chopsticks and helped himself to the long, brown stalks covered in sesame seeds. Although I am of Korean descent, I find that my preference in food is in a different region than that of my homeland, which disappoints my father. He continued to eat while I fiddled with my chopsticks, dipping one end into my water cup and drawing faces on a paper placemat.
“Is there anything you want to tell me?” my father asked.
The question was sudden and filled with implications that gave me quite a start and left me extremely worried. My brain furiously ran through its simulations and the solution it produced was simple and counter-investigative to my father’s question.
“No, not really,” I said in response, as I calmly resumed my chopstick water drawings.
“You don’t have anything to say?” he asked. His tone made me curious about the nature of his question. It was unlike my father to delay a confrontation about the subject of my education. One “C” from high school was enough for him to begin a three-hour lecture immediately following my return home.
“Nothing,” I said.
My father must have snapped then, not out of anger in discovering my vacation from school, but out of disbelief and confusion, because he scoffed like one would at a magician presenting an unsolvable magic trick.
“Why do you never have anything to say?” he said then.
The answer surely must be self-explanatory, I thought. But then I remembered the many times I had had a conversation with my sister about the reasoning our father had behind his lectures. We would speak in her room on the floor right after one of his hour-long lectures as a form of stress therapy to relieve our tired nerves after sitting in one place for too long. Our father’s excuse was that he was old and wise, his age and experience giving him reason to warn us on a weekly basis about the trials of getting a job.
My sister’s theory was that my father regretted his decision of coming to America, choosing to punish his children in the form of lectures. Though my sister had a reasonable rationale for his speeches, I found my own theory to be more convincing. I had never seen my father leave his study, a room initially designed as our house’s den to which he had a door installed, and this gave me reason to believe that he had not many friends to meet. Humans are social creatures and my father is no exception, but I felt that this made him horribly inclined to lecture his own children to make up for the lack of friends he possessed. Thus, it was my belief that in order to give his brain the necessary kick into realizing that other humans existed, he would need to sit his own family down and speak to them for great lengths.
“I don’t really talk much,” I said.
“You don’t have any trouble talking to your mom,” he pointed out.
It was tempting to tell him the truth about his choice of approach, that it was easier to talk to my mother because she didn’t spend an hour telling me that I needed to study.
“You wouldn’t be interested,” I replied. My Korean was far from perfect.
The waitress returned later with a tray holding several dishes of various meats, all of which she began piling onto the grill along with some raw onions and mushrooms. With her tongs, she stirred the pork strips and thin slices of beef brisket around the oiled grill, and I watched the smoke rise up from the meat into the exhaust vent as if the ghosts of the animals were being inhaled into the steel flue.
“What am I doing wrong?” My father asked when the waitress left us to tend to the grill.
I pondered the question. Here was my father, who obsessed over the welfare of my education, now curious about why I never bothered to make small talk with him. So, in exchange for the sudden interest he had in his son’s life, I offered him a bit of advice that should have revolutionized his methods of parenting.
“Maybe you shouldn’t talk about studying so much,” I said blatantly in English.
My father stopped eating and took his time to translate my words. I assumed he was done translating when he picked up his chopsticks and stabbed a pork strip. I thought he would have more to say, but my father never said another word as we ate.
We left the restaurant afterwards, my father carrying with him the knowledge from our discussion and I with a better understanding of my father.
The man in the alley was gone, along with his cart full of plastic bags. Before we stepped into the restaurant, I was sure he would have said something about him. Maybe he had grown partial to his existence in the hopes that I had finally learned to divert myself onto a less ragged course.
The drive home was not nearly as quiet as the trip to the restaurant. My father must have been proud of himself for opening up to me, because he was trying to start up conversations that, for once, didn’t involve my education. He began talking about the trips I wanted to take to England, the trips I never mentioned to him, but only to my mother and sister. He even asked what hobbies interested me, which was hard for me to take in, considering he had always tried to push his childhood onto me. For once, it was as though my father had learned to take a step back and take a look at himself, to see the missing bonds between him and his son.
This was most likely the moment that made my father stop his weekly lectures, which I did not notice until the year I returned to college. I couldn’t say that I was proud of him for realizing what caused his own children to avoid speaking to him.
I imagined myself walking on a path to see someone I knew. A friend, or a person I’d met sometime in life—anyone who made an impression in my life. After the night I went with my father to the Korean barbeque grill, I had set myself on this path to see those people for how I used to remember them, and for how I will continue to see them.
I saw my home at the end of this path. Inside, I found my mother on the sofa, watching some silly Korean drama. My sister would be sitting next to her, watching, but never appreciating. I passed by them to a door that I saw every day, one that I couldn’t avoid seeing but never dared to open. I challenged that fear that night by opening this lonely door. It opened into black obscurity, a darkness for the unfamiliar. In this room, I searched—only searching—for I wasn’t prepared to explore the darkness of the room just yet. Then I saw my father, a body wrapped in the confining shadows of the solitary chamber of his design, a prison within a home.
Writer: Tim Pak plans to become a full-time writer, and is currently attending Fullerton College as an English major and is working alongside other creative writing students in LiveWire. Tim is also working on a series of young adult fantasy novels which he is still in the process of developing. This is his first published short nonfiction story.
Artist: Gabe Munoz is a local tattoo artist here in Fullerton, at Classic Tattoo, and has been oil painting for one year. He has been attending Fullerton College since 2017 where he obtained his Associates Degree in Art and continues to work towards his BFA.