“Five,” Pops says, holding out his dirty palm to the customer.
She looks up from her phone momentarily before dropping some coins into his hand. She was expecting a few more words from him.
The corner shop bell dings as Phone Lady leaves.
“Five dollars,” I correct him.
“Of course dollar. What else? Koruna? Everyone know dollar,” he huffs at me.
“It sounds a bit rude if you only say ‘five’,” I scold. Gently, though, I don’t want him to start yelling.
Pops ignores me and turns back to his book.
I sigh audibly to show my dissatisfaction and he sighs back at me. He thinks I don’t understand him. But I do! I know why he only says “five”.
I snatch a packet of chips from the counter as I turn to leave. His eyes flicker up to see which chips I’ve chosen, and he shouts at my receding footsteps, “You have original next time! Chicken flavour too salty! Bad for heart!”
The packet opens with a satisfying ‘pop!’ and a cloud of chicken-flavoured powder wafts up and settles on my cheeks. My bedroom is directly above the shop and I can hear Pops grumbling around below me and rearranging the newspaper stand.
I munch chips and stare intently at the textbook before me. Something about bytes and bits and watts. I have to re-read the sentence five times, and even then, it makes little sense to me.
I push through. I know better than to give up. Not because I’m a motivated or smart student like my older brother, but because I’m tired of hearing my father’s lectures.
The results of my first Information Technology test sent Pops into a frenzy.
“55 percent? For Information Technology? Don’t you know your father was I.T. man back home? It’s in your blood!”
It was no use to tell him it just didn’t come naturally to me. I told him I.T. wasn’t built into my CPU in an attempt at humour – mistimed and unappreciated – but he kept saying any child of his could do better than 55 percent in I.T. Because it was in my blood. He talks about blood a lot.
When I don’t speak Korean to him, he says I must because the language is in my blood. When I dyed my hair red, he said I was being disrespectful to my body. Black hair is beautiful and a part of my blood. When I eat too much junk food, he says I must be careful because heart problems are in my blood. Well, alright, the last one is a valid point. Both of my grandmothers had Coronary Artery Disease. But the others are ridiculous.
Wait, read that again. ‘Logic gates consist of transistor switches and can utilise Boolean Algebra for decision-making processes in computer programs. We looked at Boolean Algebra in the last chapter, remember?’
Huh? I don’t remember Bullian anything, stupid, annoying textbook-
“Na-yeong!” That’s Pops, his voice booming through my bedroom floor from the shop below.
I rush downstairs before Pops calls me again. Too late. “NA-YEONG!”
“Yes! Yes! Here!”
“Friend… Gee-bra,” Pops says before serving his next customer, a tall lanky boy with a face full of pimples. “Eleven!”
Tall-and-Lanky scratches his chin. “Eleven… dollars?”
Pops’ eyes double in size. “What else? Peso?”
“Hi, Zivah,” I wave, and shoot her an apologetic look for my father’s mispronunciation.
The bell dings to signal our departure and when we are safely out of earshot, she laughs. “Don’t worry. My father is the same way. He can’t pronounce your name either.”
Embarrassment floods my face and I am thankful when she changes the subject. “How’s I.T. going?”
“Terribly, I don’t get it.”
“Wasn’t your father an I.T. engineer when he lived in Korea,” Zivah asks innocently, and I need to bite my nails to stop myself from projecting my frustration at her. I accidently draw blood. My ‘I.T. man’ blood.
When I don’t reply, Zivah laughs and says, “Hey, that’s the first time I’ve heard your Korean name. What did he say? Na-yeong? What does it mean?”
“Yeah. Na-yeong. I don’t know what it means,” I shrug. Do people know what their names mean? It’s just a name. Even as I think this, I hear Pops in my ear: No, not just a name. Given to you by grandfather. Na-yeong is in your blood.
“You’re not very close with your father, are you?” Zivah kicks a pebble on the footpath.
“Well, we’re not friends,” I laugh, but my tone comes off more bitter than I wanted.
“I guess that makes sense. I mean… if you don’t mind me saying… I’m not trying to offend you… but your father is a little rude.”
“Eleven!” she mimics, her voice dropping two octaves. “That boy looked almost scared!”
I shake my head at her. “No, he’s not being rude! It’s just that… well, he doesn’t have to say ‘dollars’ for you to know that’s what he’s talking about.”
“I guess not. But in the same way, you don’t have to say ‘please’ for someone to know what you’re talking about, but you should. Otherwise, it’s disrespectful,” Zivah says dispassionately and I find that I’m irritated by her aloof attitude. She’s stumbled upon one of my pressure points and she doesn’t even know it.
Disrespectful? Disrespectful is when customers make fun of Pops’ accent. Disrespectful is the oily-haired teenager mimicking the way Pops says ‘Doll-AH’ instead of ‘dollars’. “Two doll-AH? Two doll-AH?” he stands with an exaggerated hunchback, his jaw loose and gaping, staring my Pops in the face with that arrogant and sadistic look in his eyes, while his oily-haired friends guffaw behind him. Disrespectful.
That was three years ago. I was weaker and shyer back then. I sat behind the counter with Pops and did nothing. I felt the shame and resentment radiating from my father in heatwaves. That teenager’s stupid face is etched in my mind. If he ever comes back, I know what I’d want to say to him.
Realising I’ve been silent and brooding for too long, I smile at Zivah. “He’s not being disrespectful. Dollar is hard to say. English is a difficult language and he tries his best. It just doesn’t come naturally to him.”
Zivah smiles back, relieved that her comment hasn’t made me angry. “Oh, I know the struggle. My listening exam for French is next week and I still can’t tell the difference between ‘without’ and ‘blood’. Sans, sang, sans, sang.”
Zivah practises her French with me all the way to the cinema.
“And what’s wrong with French grammar?” she splutters at one point. “Are there rules or something? When do I use ‘at’, ‘for’, ‘on’ and ‘to’? How did we learn English grammar when we were stupid little babies?”
I sigh. “It just came naturally, I guess.”
It’s nine-thirty when I arrive at our little corner shop. It is half an hour past closing time, but Pops has left the shop open waiting for me. The bell announces my return and Pops waves at me. The last customer of the day is buying a frozen pizza and purple bubble gum. His boots have tracked mud into the shop, and I resolve to grab the mop before Pops does.
Muddy Boots shuffles to the counter. “How much?”
“Four dollar!” Pops winks at me and I can’t help but grin childishly.
Muddy Boots swipes his card and smiles. “Thanks, sir.”
“Good night! Come again!”
The bell dings and I skid across the tiles to grab the mop. I trace Muddy Boots’ steps: from the door, to the freezer, to the counter and back.
“How was cinema?” Pops is locking up the shop.
“Zivah and I watched the new superhero movie. It was good. Lots of explosions.” I can see Pops’ disappointed look. He wants me to watch more sophisticated and classic movies. He thinks dumb and childish superhero movies turn my brain into mush.
I stand the mop at the back of the shop and turn the lights off. The blue glow of the freezer illuminates my father’s tired face.
“Gee-bra seem like smart and good girl. She is better to her Pops than you to me, yes?”
I groan and roll my eyes teasingly at him. “Probably. Better fathers make better daughters. I’m no good because you’re no good.”
Pops slaps me on the back as we go up the stairs. “True. No good is in your blood.”