Phone Calls | Teen Ink

Phone Calls

January 8, 2019
By Anonymous

Summary:

The phone rang.

“Hello, who is speaking?” asked Jong-soo.

“Hi, Mr. Kim. This is the principal, Mr. Stevenson.” He paused, drawing in a breath. “Your son, Ted, is out of control,”

Jong-soo held the phone in one hand and covered his eyes with the other, sighing. “What did he do?” he asked quietly.

“Your son got in a fight with another student, Scotty Jordan,” Mr. Stevenson said. “Ted severely injured the other boy.”

Jong-soo  stopped listening after he heard, “broken bones”. This was the last thing he needed. They had come to the United States for Ted, for the opportunities that Korea could not provide. Life was supposed to be better here. But with every passing day, it seemed as if they had made the wrong decision.

“I am so sorry, Mr. Stevenson,” Jong-soo said apologetically. “I will take care of it immediately.”

“I am about to have a conference with Ted and Scotty,” Mr. Stevenson said. “After, the boys will be in detention until five. Please pick him up then.”

“Of course,” Jong-soo said.

“Thank you” replied Mr. Stevenson. “This will be his last warning.”

The line clicked off.

***

The phone rang.

“Hello, who is speaking?” asked Jong-soo.

A pleasant female voice chimed, “Mr. Kim, this is the Kendall Simmons, Dean of Faculty at the University of -------.”

“Hi, Kendall,” said Jong-soo. His foot tapped to an erratic beat against the floor.

“I have some great news for you,” Kendall said brightly. “I am pleased to inform you that the University is offering you a full-time position as a professor in the College of Education for the next--,”

“I accept!” said Jong-soo.

After Kendall hung up, Jong-soo leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed behind his head, allowing a slight smile to spread across his face. The job offer was a dream come true. It represented a new life in America-- a place likened to heaven on earth. Most Koreans could only dream of living in the United States, and resigned to mimicking it in their everyday life through dress and entertainment. Jong-soo himself had even given his son, Ted, an americanized name. In 1974, very few Koreans had the privilege of receiving an American degree. As one of the aforementioned few, Jong-soo  had always dreamed of returning to the United States and working for a prestigious university.

That’s not to say that his life in Korea was unsatisfactory. After earning a PhD from the University of Missouri in the early 1960s, Jong-soo moved back to Seoul. This in itself was a rare accomplishment at the time, especially in Korea-- a third world country left in shambles after the Korean war and earlier Japanese occupation. The Korean government happily welcomed him back with the offer of a high-ranking position. Jong-soo found great success in leadership, quickly rising through the ranks due to his natural charisma and intelligence.

He married Young-ja Pak, the aristocratic daughter of a wealthy Korean family who built their fortune through the movie theater business. To Pak’s delight, their brand-new estate in Seoul had been featured in many Korean design and architecture magazines. She spent the majority of her time furnishing their home and managing their servants. Their wardrobes were comprised of the latest western fashions, and they had access to Korea’s most exclusive clubs and societies. A fleet of servants catered to their every desire, allowing Jong-soo and Young-ja to spend their free time doting on their only son, Ted, as traditional korean culture demands. Five-year-old Ted not only attended the most esteemed private elementary school in all of Korea, but received top marks and excelled at baseball.

And yet, there was something to be said for the American dream that still burned within Jong-soo. If education gave you opportunities, then there was no better place than the United States. Korea was still rebuilding after it was devastated by Japan, and the chasm between the United States and the rest of the world remained comically large. America afforded individuals with unparalleled opportunities and freedoms. Jong-soo had seen firsthand the immense benefits that an American degree could provide, and wanted to give his son the same advantages. But he wanted even more for Ted--his beloved only son, his legacy, his pride and joy. He wanted his son to be American.

At this thought, Jong-soo called for his chauffeur and raced home to his family. While in the car, he mulled over his decision. He knew that he didn’t have to ask his wife, Young-ja. As the man of the house, his authority was unquestioned. However, he loved his wife and respected her opinion. They had both lived through the Korean war-- an experience that had strengthened them both. After the war, Jong-soo went to the United States to study, while Young-Ja had gone on to graduate from Ewha-- one of Korea’s most prestigious universities. She had studied by candlelight to gain entry to the university, and understood how education could open doors that even money could not. Jong-soo was sure that she would be happy to move to the United States if it meant better opportunities for their son, John.

As Jong-soo opened the front door, he heard Young-ja call out, “Ted, come greet your father!” Jong-soo enveloped her in a bear hug and pecked her on the cheek, much to the disgust of Ted. “Eww,” whined Ted.

“Eww,” mimicked Jong-soo teasingly. Jong-soo and Young-ja pulled Ted into the embrace and ruffled his hair. Ted giggled and fought against his parent’s embrace before breaking free and darting towards soboro bread lying on the counter.

“Aiyah” groaned Young-ja as he stuffed a chunk of the sweet bread into his mouth. “No more! You’ve already had two pieces,” she lectured, letting go of Jong-soo and chasing after Ted in an attempt to snatch the treat out of his hands.

Jong-soo stood still and watched Young-ja chase Ted, marvelling at his beautiful family. When Young-ja finally caught Ted, Jong-soo cleared his throat. “I have an announcement,” he said. Jong-soo and Ted looked up expectantly, ready to go back to their game. “I have accepted a professorship position at the University of Arizona for the upcoming school year!” Jong-soo said triumphantly, his arms stretched wide open.

“Honey!” Young-ja screamed. She rushed over to Jong-soo and smothered him in a hug. “Congratulations!”

Ted, unsure of what was happening but eager to be included, chimed in, exclaiming, “Wow! Nice job dad.”

Jong-soo smiled. He was excited to see what the future held.

***

The phone rang.

“Hello, who is speaking?” asked Jong-soo.

“Hi Mr.Kim, It’s Kendall Simmons of the University of -------- again,” Kendall said.

“Kendall! It’s good to hear from you,” Jong-soo said. “How are you?” he asked.

“Good, good,” replied Kendall, her voice trailing off. She paused, and took a deep breath. “Unfortunately, Mr. Kim I actually have some bad news for you,” she said, clearly flustered. “The university is officially rescinding your position for the upcoming school year.”

Jong-soo sat at the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. Kendall had hung up an hour ago. There was no professorship position at the University of Arizona. The old professor had returned from retirement and would be reclaiming his position, heedless of the fact that Jong-soo had just moved his entire family to Arizona.

His hands curled into fists, and he resisted the urge to drive one of them through the wall. Goddammit. He wanted to punch a hole in the wall. Anger simmered in his stomach and pulsed through his body. It wasn’t even economically feasible for him to punch the wall. He had checked their accounts. Between the moving fees and the cost of the apartment, their account balance had hit a new low. Without a steady income, they would be lucky if they could afford to live in this horrible apartment for half a year. An additional charge for a damaged wall would be another nail in the coffin.

More than anything, Jong-soo was ashamed. He didn’t want his family to learn of his failure. It had been his decision to come to the United States, so the the well-being of Ted and Young-ja rested squarely on his shoulders, and his shoulders alone.

Just then, the door of the apartment opened. Young-ja had returned. She had started working as a maid in a wealthy household to provide the family with some needed financial flexibility until Jong-soo started work at the university. At the sounds of her soft footsteps, panic swam in Jong-soo’s stomach. He swallowed hard, fighting the bile rising in his throat. Young-ja flipped on the light switch, washing the room in stark fluorescent lighting. Concern shone through her face as she saw Jong-soo sitting hunched over, head in hands. She sat down slowly and rested a hand on his back.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” she asked soothingly. Jong-soo tensed as he prepared his answer.

“The job fell through,” he said quietly.

Young-ja could barely process his statement. Silence settled in the apartment.

“Oh,” she said. “W-We’ll figure something out,” she added hopefully. “I know we will.”

Inside Young-ja, warning bells were ringing. She was scared. This was uncharted territory for her-- for both of them. Something would have to be done. Jong-soo couldn’t be trusted to get them out of this mess because, frankly, he was the one who got them in it in the first place. Young-ja had to do something. It could be anything-- take on another shift, work an extra job, sell her wedding ring-- but it had to be done.

***

The phone rang.

“Hello, who is speaking?” asked Jong-soo anxiously.

He sat behind the register of the 7-Eleven gas station. It was his second shift, and nobody had dropped by in hours. Jong-soo had not lost hope; he was still attempting to negotiate his way into an entry-level teaching position at a nearby community college. The caller could be bearing good news.

“This is the Tucson ER calling,” chirped a bright female voice. “I regret to inform you that your wife, Young-ja, is currently in our care.”

Jong-soo’s mouth dropped open in horror. “What happened?” he asked urgently.

“From what we can gather, she fell from a ladder and hit her head on the ground while working,” she replied.

“Aigoo!” cried out Jong-soo in disbelief.

“I am sorry-- this must be hard for you to hear,” she added, sympathy tingeing her voice.

“Is she okay?” asked Jong-soo.

“She suffered a concussion and has a large gash on her forehead, but she will be fine,” soothed the ER nurse. “Your wife is in great hands”.

Jong-soo nodded to himself. “Thank you for your help. I will be there as soon as I can,” he said calmly.

The line clicked off.

Jong-soo unclipped his nametag and dropped it on the counter, breaking into a jog as he headed for the exit. It felt like it was just a moment ago when he had kissed her goodbye as she walked out the door to work.

Young-ja always walked to work, and this day was no different. Earlier that day, she walked up the cobblestone pathway that lead up to 208 Pine Valley road, a luxury home located in the outskirts of Tucson. In her hand swung a bucket of cleaning supplies-- wipes and gloves and disinfectant sprays-- all stamped with the insignia of Miller’s Cleaning Services. A mop and a broom were tucked beneath her arms. Her drab white uniform was a size too big and spotted with makeup stains from its previous owner. She was a Miller cleaning lady.

Dread filled Young-ja’s heart as she unlocked the door. She had only been working for two months, but to her, every second was hell. The double shift she had recently added didn’t help either. The women she worked with mocked her relentlessly and would steal Young-ja’s share of the tips. Her limited english felt like a weight holding her back, and keeping her silent. But even if she could speak english, she would likely endure it all the same. It had been ingrained in her as a child-- a proper asian lady should be demure, polite, speak only when spoken to, and above all, never cause trouble. Though her circumstances had deteriorated quite rapidly, Young-ja Pak was determined to hold onto these fragile ideals.

With a blast of windex, Young-ja wiped away the last flecks of dust covering the window. Sunlight shone through the freshly cleaned windowpanes and into her eyes. She began to descend the ladder, squinting into the sunlight.

Suddenly, a rung snapped with a sharp clang as an old rusted screw gave way.

A scream burst through Young-ja’s mouth. Her grip loosened on her cleaning supplies and they plummeted to the ground. Her left foot swung in the air, unsupported. She scrambled for purchase on another rung, but it was too late-- her center of gravity was pulling her backwards, towards the ground. Young-ja’s head cracked against the granite tile and her vision faded to black.

She woke to the rumbling of footsteps. Her eyes snapped open, though she saw nothing. Young-ja could feel the weight of the blood oozing from her head, but the pain hadn’t registered. It was everywhere-- matted in her hair, dribbling into her mouth, stinging her eyes. Gingerly, Young-ja reached up to the side of her forehead. Warm blood slipped over her hand. As her fingers connected with the open wound, pain suddenly seared through every fiber of her body, emanating from the wide four-inch gash that crowned her head.

A choked sob escaped Young-ja’s thoat. The acrid, metallic taste of blood filled her mouth as she bit her lip to prevent herself from breaking out into hysteria. Another wave of pain flooded her and she whimpered weakly. Tears and blood mingled in her eyesight as strong hands pulled her upright.

Shit,” muttered Jean, a cleaning lady. “She’s covered in blood. It’s all over the carpet,” she added.

“I’m calling 911,” announced Marcia, another cleaning lady. She paused, deliberating. “And Mr. Miller.”

Jean passed Young-ja a clean towel and a bottle of water. Surprised, Young-ja bowed her head in gratitude. With a shaking hand she brought the bottle to her lips, allowing water to trickle down her throat. Young-ja recognized that the towel was of no use-- there was simply to much blood everywhere. Despite this, she attempted to staunch the blood flow spilling from her forehead, to no avail. Silence settled over the small group of women.

Daniel Miller’s distinctive southern accent broke through the delicate peace. “What the hell is going on here?” he spat. His footsteps grew louder and Young-ja cringed, a chill running through her body. He appeared in the doorway and assessed the situation. “Jesus,” he groaned, running a hand through his thinning hair. “I ain’t paying for that,” he said, pointing at the blood-soaked carpet.

“She just split her head open,” Marcia protested. “Calm down!”

“I don’t give a damn about her,” Daniel said with a laugh. “I’m worried about the oriental carpet she just ruined.”

Young-ja could only understand snippets of the conversation, but what she could piece together did not bode well for her. Frustration bubbled inside of her. How can they be blaming me? The ladder broke-- it wasn’t my fault! If only she could communicate the truth. She opened her mouth to try, but Daniel shot her a sharp look. “This is comin’ outta your paycheck, honey,” he sneered. Young-ja  closed her eyes slowly, letting a teardrop leak from the corner of her eye.

Ted and Jong-soo saw her first in the ER dock, lying down and covered with drapes as a doctor stitched up the laceration in her head. The doctor finished quickly, and John rushed forward to clasp her hand. Yoo-Sang walked over slowly, the harsh fluorescent lighting highlighting the wrinkles forming by his eyes. He gave Young-ja a weak smile and kissed her cheek.

The white gauze wrapped around Young-ja’s head belied her calm demeanor. Ted, on the other hand, was visibly shaken at the sight of his mother in a hospital bed. His small hands were trembling as if he was standing in an ice storm without a coat.

“Ama and Apa,” said Ted slowly. “I have to tell you something,”

Jong-soo nodded in encouragement. “Go ahead,” Young-ja said.

“I hate it here,” confessed Ted. “The kids at my school are so mean to me” he said, lower lip trembling. “They mock my accent. They hit me when the teachers are not looking,” Ted said. His eyes misted over. He pulled up his shirt to reveal an array of bruises and cuts that adorned his torso. “I didn’t want you to know because I know you wanted everything to be perfect,” he muttered.

Jong-soo and Young-ja looked on in horror. How could everything have gone so incredibly wrong? Young-ja  took a deep breath and steeled herself. “Ted, we have failed you,” she said. “We have taught you to endure, rather than protest-- as it has always been.”

Ted’s eyes remained glued on the floor. “But that was in Korea,” said Young-ja.

“But I want to go back to Korea!” Ted shouted. His quiet facade was gone and his chest heaved as tears threatened to spill over. “I miss our house, our servants, my friends,” Ted said.

Young-ja eyed Ted sternly for the interruption, but her face softened at the sight of his glassy eyes. “So do I, Ted,” she said. She pulled herself together, steel returning to her voice. “But we are in America now. That means that we cannot continue to be passive. We must fight back,” Her voice shook ever so slightly. “I fell into the same trap as you,” Young-ja admitted. She shook her head slowly. “And now I’ve incurred a hospital bill we can’t afford and lost my job.”

Ted looked up, mouth agape.Young-ja nodded solemnly. “Ted, you must stand up for yourself,” she said. “Don’t make my mistake-- do not let these kids push you around,” she pleaded. “Beat them back” she whispered, a faint smile outlining her lips.  

***

The phone rang

“Hello, who is speaking?” asked Jong-soo.

“Hi Mr. Kim, This is the principal, Mr. Stevenson, again,” he said.

“Hi Mr. Stevenson, is there anything wrong?” asked Jong-soo, racking his mind for reasons as to why a second call was necessary.

“No, no-- I actually have an apology for you,” confessed Mr. Stevenson. Jong-soo’s eyes widened in surprise. Mr. Stevenson elaborated. “It seems as if Ted has been bullied and hit by Scotty since the beginning of term, though Ted never retaliated. Ted bravely brought this to my attention,” he said. Mr. Stevenson paused uncomfortably. “Bullying of any form is not acceptable at this school, and I promise that, had I known sooner, the issue would not have grown into what it is today. For that, I sincerely apologize.”

“I am glad to hear that,” Jong-soo said.

“Today was simply the first instance in which Ted  fought back. We have several witnesses that support this account,” said Mr. Stevenson. He laughed nervously, and added, “Looks like both boys were in the wrong-- they agree that violence is not the way to work things out.”

“Sounds like you have things under control,” said Jong-soo cooly. “Thanks for the call.”

“Ted will still have to serve detention for a week, though he will not be expelled,” added Mr. Stevenson.

“I understand,” said Jong-soo with a smile.

“Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Kim ,” replied Mr. Stevenson apologetically. “I’ll see you soon.”

The line clicked off.

 

Epilogue:

Joog-soo eventually gets a job teaching language and retires after 30 years of teaching.

Young-ja takes pottery classes and eventually becomes a pottery instructor at the local community college.

Ted Kim and Scotty Jordan eventually become best friendsj. Ted perserveres in ESL classes, and is the valevictorian of his high school class. 


Anonymous

Phone Calls


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This book has 4 comments.


HHLHK2019 said...
on Jan. 16 at 8:02 pm
HHLHK2019, Atlanta, Georgia
0 articles 0 photos 1 comment
Great story.

TGKGM31 said...
on Jan. 16 at 6:27 pm
TGKGM31, Atlanta, Georgia
0 articles 0 photos 3 comments
As an immigrant to America, this really spoke to me about the Asian American experience which is not often talked about. I really enjoyed reading this.

JKR8 said...
on Jan. 16 at 6:19 pm
JKR8, Atlanta, Georgia
0 articles 0 photos 3 comments
A moving story told in vivid detail. I love the use of flashbacks and the them of phone calls to tie it all together. Brilliant.

MK said...
on Jan. 16 at 4:17 pm
MK, Atlanta, Georgia
0 articles 0 photos 3 comments
Love this story! The American immigrant story is so varied and complex. I would love to hear more stories like this.


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