Culture Shock

The car rolled to a stand in front of a shopping center and three stepped out of the car, Hye Tae among them. Breathe. She looked up the wall covered with colorful signs. Deodorant and Kimchi at cheap prices! The advertisements bombarded her eyes and she thought of the plain walls on the outer walls of their home. The paint on the lower portion only changed once a year or so while the screened advertisements changed every few seconds. Again, she reminded herself to breathe, focusing on the cloud exiting her agape mouth. A figure, a man or woman she couldn’t identify, crashed into her and left in a hurry but not without muttering something she caught on his or her lips but didn’t understand.

                Smells of grilled chicken and soup made her mouth water but her pockets were empty. Hye Tae reasoned she could grab one chicken skewer without anyone noticing. Like back home. She eyed the meat pile on the vendor table and the customers. Before a step towards the vendor table was taken Madame Ga took the girl’s hand and walked towards the building talking about debit cards but she didn’t understand how paying with a card worked. The revolving doors spun around with the constant stream of people entering and exiting. No one but Hye Tae approached the doors with trepidation; Madame Ga sensed her hesitation. It’s fine, she told her, go with the flow. She smiled at the younger girl and pulled her inside. She was nicer than Mr. Ga, her husband. In a second she was past the revolving doors and she began to see what was inside the mall.

                Maybe it was the flashing lights or all the smells at once, but Hye Tae began to feel nausea crawl up her stomach, it wasn’t fear nor hunger, both of which she knew well. She kept her eyes trained on the walls for the sign that meant bathroom as they taught in class when she first arrived. Madame Ga let go of her hand but kept an eye on Hye Tae, saying she needed new shoes and began listing the items they needed. The bathroom sign was the only thing Hye Tae was looking for now, she was starting to feel dizzy. The nausea moved lower and she was afraid to embarrass Madame Ga in such a public place, lest some of them knew who she was.

                Finally the bathroom door came in sight, she told Madame Ga she had to go, she nodded. Inside it was dark but when Hye Tae walked across the white tiles the lights blinked on momentarily blinding her. She fumbled with the lock before sitting down and moving to her pants. They were nice, she supposed, even if the zipper was intimidating. She waited for the trickle to cease by counting the tile squares beneath the toilet. Her stomach turned once yet again, and she felt something warm drip down. She would have to ask Madame Ga to pick up some aspirin. The door rattled then a set of shoes disappeared. Someone knew she was inside, probably was calling for her and thinking she was purposefully ignoring the caller. Was it him? A long moment passed where everything stood still to Hye Tae, as if time momentarily froze. Finally she let out a breath. It couldn’t be him, how could it be?

                There were blood stains on her underwear. Hye Tae gulped, she didn’t know what this was but it must have been bad. There weren’t any wounds but she was still bleeding. With spinning thoughts she exited the stall and threw up in one of the sinks, triggering the motion sensor on the faucet. Blood had that effect on her now. She returned to the stall with a fistful of paper towels. With paper towels tucked into her underwear Hye Tae wondered how long it would take for her to bleed to death. She recalled reaching the leaves of the tree with her barefoot while swinging on the swing their Appa made. I’m coming back soon.

                It had been long enough for Hye Tae to allow herself to retreat into her memories. Away from the sinks with no handles and her stained underwear. Towards standing in the dark feeling his hand in hers watching the lit end of Appa’s cigarette and then through the telescope into the universe. The stars were brighter then, and the moon illuminated the features of the people she knew since birth. They faded away and she opened her eyes, feeling even more distant from them, especially Chol Tae. Every day there were more things she knew that he never would learn. How long has it been? The days now blurred together in a frenzy of activity and a week seemed like a month. Hye Tae faced the mirror for the first time in weeks and was shocked she looked the same, only with more weight. Madame Ga stuck her head through the bathroom entrance, her look of concern reminding her of Umma more than anything before she could tell herself not to go there. That memory was forbidden.

                Madame Ga relaxed when she told the lady about the underwear bleeding. Hye Tae was expecting her to panic, but felt better she didn’t. She put a finger up, telling Hye Tae she would be back. But she was not going to bleed to death; Madame Ga would have been worried if she was. Relieved, Hye Tae sat at the stall again until she returned with a box of sanitary pads and explained to Hye Tae she was now a woman. I haven’t been a girl in a long time.

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