It’s the last night I’ll sleep in Northern Thailand, and we’re in the hotel room talking on the subject we only pull out at special times; when alcohol is involved or when it’s nearly a holiday. When it seems acceptable, we acknowledge the obvious. People we miss. Relationship breakdowns. Home. The same unanswerable questions.
But I keep saying “When we get home” casually and what I mean is, Korea.
The next morning, I’m moving currency from one bag to the next. I hold up some silver coins embossed with kanji, my brain barely registers them; Did we get these in China? I ask. But then I see the hat and recognize my mistake; they’re won.
We’ve only been gone a week, she says.
I shrug. The lack of Hangul had thrown me off.
Saturday afternoon Thai mountain bus ride-seasick. All the fluorescent treetops and golden filtered lighting on the continent couldn’t make me want to do that again. The man sitting across from me is drilling holes into my jawline with his eyes. He doesn’t look away, and he stares unabashedly. It’s so much less like the Thai men have been and more like the Chinese ones we encountered in Shanghai and Kumning. They would get right in our faces to stare, twisting their necks back as they kept walking. Two hours into the bus ride, the Thai man tugs at my elbow and gestures toward the plastic bag in my seat pocket. I give him the bag, he gives it to his wife who is sitting next to the window, she politely turns toward the faded passing mountains, and pukes in the bag. I consider myself lucky for having an empty stomach and motion sickness medicine.
That night, back in Chiang Mai, we find not one, but two used bookstores full of English. The second bookstore has a Literary Criticism section right next to Plays and Theatre; I can taste my heart in my throat.
Some days, I feel like I’m drowning in mess of soju and gochujang, I say.
I know, she says. I keep reminding myself of that Li Young Lee line, How I wish I didn’t hate those years while we lived them.
I nod. I’ve chosen to live in this country, I don’t often let myself indulge in wishing I were elsewhere. But still.
We shouldn’t stay long, I say. She agrees.
But by the time I make it to Poetry, it’s too late. I slide metaphysical poetry off the shelf and hold it, flipping to Donne. Then I replace it, staring. I can feel hot tears streaming down my face. I try to stop them, but I can’t. So I just stand there, frozen and weeping. Not small tears but drops big like Seattle rain on a windshield. The shop is a big open room. Two Thai workers are mopping the floor. I’m afraid they’re closing up at any moment, and I’ll be forced to turn around, to face something other than the shelves of books.
Michelle approaches. She has a look of disbelief on her face, like how passers look at a car accident that’s happened just before their eyes. She sides over and puts her arm around my shoulder. But I’m rigid, willing myself to think of something solid, some focal point, anything not an emotion.
Are you homesick? she asks. I nod my head, yes, but even then I’m not sure it’s the right answer. It’s been months since I’ve been surrounded by so much coherent language. You can’t just walk into a used bookstore in South Korea and find so many English books. There are only a few, and they’re in Seoul; a weekend trip away. But it’s not just the books, but the people they represent. My friends back home. The ones who can talk about books, the ones who love to talk about them. I was eight when I traveled for the first time; a kid who refused to go to summer camp because she knew she’d miss her mom. A life of contradictions.
The shop owner is an Irishman who talks of famine and drinking in his homeland as he rings me up for two books. I’ve just asked him, Are you Irish? It’s something I never ask, but I know that I’m red-faced and I feel naked already, so I’m floundering for conversation, anything to avoid the obvious Why Were You Crying In My Bookstore conversation. He smiles at us, and is sweet, and I can feel him looking through me; knowing.
As we walk out, he quotes W.B. Yeats, practically to our backs,
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.