In Korean, there are a thousand and one words for familial relationships: younger sibling, aunt-on-mothers-side-related-by-blood, aunt-on-mother’s-side-married-in, older-brother-of-boy, husband-of-maternal-aunt, grandfather, grandmother, mom, mother, dad, father, etcetera and etcetera.
In Korean, Umma means Mom, Uhmuni means mother. Appa means Dad, Abeoji means father. Noona means older sister of a boy. Dongsaeng means younger sibling.
Sun, like all children, learn these titles first.
Sun is sitting at the kitchen table on a Thursday afternoon, reading a book and munching on some peanuts when Jung Ki struts in.
“Hey Noona,” he says,
“Yeah? What do you want, Jung Ki?” Sun says.
“Is Appa home?”
“Abeoji is still at the office. Shouldn’t you be at cram school?”
“I’m skipping, it’s boring. I’m gonna go to the PCbang with Seung Min if Appa isn’t home.”
Sun rolls her eyes. Umma told her to look after Jung Ki, she never told Sun to make him do his homework.
“Jung Ki, you know that if you go gaming and Abeoji finds out, you’re going to be in so much trouble.”
He laughs, tossing his bookbag on the kitchen table.
“No I won’t.”
She bites your lip and looks down at her book. It’s true. He won’t.
Jung Ki looks over at Sun and slides into the seat next to hers, poking her cheek.
“Yes, Jung Ki?”
“Why do you always call Appa, Abeoji?”
“Because he is our father and deserves respect, Jung Ki.”
“Yeah, but I call him Appa and he doesn’t mind. And you always called mom Umma.”
“I’m older now.”
“So? I’m in high school.”
You’re his son, Sun wants to say. His pride-and-joy. He thinks the metaphorical sun shines out of your ass, of course you call him Appa.
You’re his favorite.
The relationship between Sun and her father has always been cool. Sun shrugs, and fixes her brother with a glare.
“Just leave it, Jung Ki. It’s none of your business.”
He slides back out of the kitchen seat, and makes his way over to the door.
“Don’t wait up, Noona.”
Later, Abeoji finds out about Jung Ki skipping cram school. All he gets is a sharp reprimand.
Sometimes Sun thinks that if she hadn’t been Korean, if she had been born somewhere else, somewhere far from this peninsula where the last name comes before the first, she would have given no thought to her father, to her brother.
But then Sun thinks again and remembers that the situation has nothing to with ethnicity and everything to do with promises. There is bond there.
She promised her mother that she would look after her brother, and that is the last of it.
And Umma is umma, so it is a labor of love.
But Abeoji is not Appa, and so you take your place with resentment. He is your elder but he does not own you.
Sun is sitting on a bench with Riley again (and they are sitting on her bunk in prison), watching the sun set in a random park (and the passing guards.) They are talking about family again, something that comes up surprisingly often within their cluster.
(Perhaps its not surprising. After all, in a new family don’t you need to know where everyone comes from?)
“Hey, why do you always call your dad, “father”?”
Sun bites her lip, and thinks for a moment. She supposes that in English it sounds strange, to call him father all the time. It’s formal. It’s maybe a bit weird in Korean, as well.
She thinks about his death. About the words he told her before. About how he, in his stilted, old man way, apologized in a roundabout way.
“For the longest time, it was because we were not close,” Sun says. “Now it is about respect.”