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 not refer to the guy as hyung.
I entered the room after the talking had ceased for more than a minute. Jason was on his bed, presum- ably scrolling through the newsfeed. I went straight to my desk, pulled out a textbook, and started flip- ping through the pages of endless rants on how optic nerves and bipolar cells grant us vision, to avoid looking into his direction, afraid the look in my eyes might betray my infringement on his privacy. The noise of a moth buzzing around my desk lamp cou- pled with the humming of our twenty-dollar tower fan filled in the silence of the room. Then suddenly,
a familiar smell surfaced in the air. It’s as if someone had just opened a lunch-boxful of dumplings, the vinegary and porky whiff escaping in all possible molecular directions. And that’s exactly what Jason had done.
I turned around and asked in Mandarin, “Where’d you get that from?” He had just finished squirting some black vinegar onto the milk white dumpling skins.
“From the local Asian market,” a line of Mandarin slipped out. Then as if struck by lightning, the pair of bamboo chopsticks fell from his hands, tainting his ocean blue bedsheet with brown dots. He covered his mouth as if he’d just leaked some national secu- rity secrets. “I’ve been taking Chinese classes for five years now. Sometimes it just comes out,” he smiled nervously and got back to chowing with his fingers, swallowing entire dumplings at a time.
“I’m gonna wash this now,” he said after minute, holding up the greasy lunchbox.
“Yeah, okay,” I said.
“Yeah, okay,” he said, gesturing his hand like a waiter holding a platter. Our eyes met for a few seconds, the electricity of awkwardness zapping back and forth.
“Okay, I’m gonna go,” he said, pointing at our door, “See ya in a bit.”
I closed the psychology textbook and gazed at the maple tree outside, now dark and blurred. A group of friends was strolling by. From the way they laughed and cursed, it’s like they’ve known each other for- ever. “This town is just like my town in Jersey, except the college there is called Princeton, and the ivies there are real,” one of them said. “The only ivies from where I’m from are poison ivies,” another guy barked in with a subtle midwestern accent. Another surge of laughter burst into the air, and a gust hurled a line of
maple leaves through their steps. I shut the window and reclined in my rocking chair.
We turned off the lights early that night, but we were both wide awake in our beds, the rectangular glow from our phone screens lighting up our faces.
I’d told my mother about my situation, the gradual puncture of my your-college-roommate-is-supposed- to-be-your-best-friend-for-life ideal of college. She recommended me to be more proactive, so I invited Jason to lunch at a local Korean Restaurant, Myeong- dong Sundubu, after he’d finished his first exam of the semester in mid-September.
The waitress came to our table with two orders of Galbitang, beef short rib soup. Jason was in a good mood. He opened the utensils box and handed me a pair of steel chopsticks and spoon, the handles facing me. I bowed slightly and whispered in a low pitch, “Kamsahamnida.” I’d taken Korean for two years in high school, but I was still unconfident with my pro- nunciation. He smiled slightly in acknowledgement.
“So where are you from again?” he asked. First time Jason willingly showed interest in my life, and it
hit me right in the spot. I’d been irritated by that question ever since people started asking them at the freshman orientation. Back in middle and high school, this question simply never came up. Every- one assumed, or pretended to out of politeness, that everyone was from our city in Southern California. In moments precisely like this, I wished my parents had either allowed me to stay in Beijing my whole life or given birth to me in Southern California just so that I could say a place without hesitation.
“SoCal,” I said as I looked down on the panchans, the small plates of kimchi and bean sprouts between our bowls of Galbitangs.
“Oh really? Like your whole life?” he said. “Why,” I said.
“I don’t know. I’m from SoCal and you sound,” he paused for a second, “Kinda different?”
Different in his dictionary was likely a euphemism for the word, fobby, or fresh-out-of-the-boat-y. When spelled out, the word’s damage is cut in half. As the word evolved over the decades, it begins to imply that someone’s English accent or behavior is excessively
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