For Rent by Rosa Kwon Easton
In “For Rent,” Rosa Kwon Easton evokes a childhood memory that she describes in her author’s note as “so visceral—even now—I had to capture the pulsating feelings and actions in flash form.” Using a short nonfiction flash to describe the child’s experience of her mother’s battle with their neighbor adds even greater intensity to the charged incident. “My heart bangs against my chest,” she writes, “the first time hearing you curse at a white woman, ready to fight.” Employing present-tense, first-person narration allows Easton to “relive” the memory, as she says, as it felt at the time. We understand what outsiderhood feels like for the young narrator, who’s called “Squinty Eyes” and “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees” by the other second graders, who’s embarrassed by her limited English and her mother’s even more limited English, and who knows from her father that people in America think Korean food “smells bad…like us.” While the child narrator cringes at their apartment window, half-hidden behind the curtain, her mother holds her nose and then squats to communicate her anger over the neighbor’s dog defecating in their yard. Sense impressions are heightened in the world of children, and smells are central in “For Rent”—the bad smell in the yard, the smells of kimchi and of Doenjangjjigae, the stew her mother is preparing on the stove. An insider to Korean culture smells something different than people in America do, just as the girl hears something different when her mother shouts at the neighbor in Korean. “Referring to my mother in second person allows me to convey the intimacy, comedy, and poignancy in our relationship that I couldn’t in third person,” Easton writes in her author’s note. We witness a transformation in that relationship and the narrator’s sense of self. Having a voice may have nothing to do with speaking English after all. —CRAFT
You fluff the white rice for lunch. Aroma of fermented soybean paste stew wafts in the air. Gazing out the open window, you tense. You slap the rice paddle on the counter and rush outside, charging headfirst across the driveway to a neighbor’s apartment. You pound the front door with your fist. Shortly, a blonde lady appears at the mesh screen, a large dog barking at her side.
I watch you from the window with one small eye, the other hidden behind the white ruffled curtain. The kids in my second-grade class tease me by calling me “Squinty Eyes,” but I haven’t told you that yet because I don’t want to make you sad. Your green-checkered apron hangs limply over your head, the one you slip on after assembling computer parts all day. Your hair is in the Velcro rollers that make you look beautiful, like in the old black-and-white photo of you smiling in your miniskirt.
You wag your index finger at the neighbor’s face, Korean syllables tumbling out of your mouth.
“Gyejib-ae-yah!” Stupid girl!
My heart bangs against my chest, the first time hearing you curse at a white woman, ready to fight.
“Gyejib-ae-yah! I saw you! Your dog pees and poops in front of our house every day!” you shout in Korean.
Heat burns my cheeks. The past few weeks, flies have been buzzing in our ivy, dog poop stinking up our yard.
I inhale the Doenjangjjigae bubbling on the stove. Dad says people in America think the stew smells bad too, like us. Like trash, the kind the kids call “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees.” Like the stench of kimchi packed with garlic ripening on the table, a batch of which you left behind in earthenware pots buried in our Seoul garden.
The neighbor stands at her apartment door with her feet apart and arms crossed tight. My English isn’t very good yet, but yours is worse. You try to study English but your eyes glaze over the foreign alphabet, tired from sewing clothes at night, the pedals whirring us to sleep. You scribble stiff Korean characters and send letters to Grandmother in thin blue airmail envelopes. “Please come help take care of the children.”
The dog barks again. You’re afraid of dogs, but you yell louder.
“Geumandwo! Stop! Stop your dog from pooping here!”
You and Dad saved up all your money in Korea to live in this small apartment building in Hawthorne with brick walls and an ivy yard. You stuffed cash between seaweed layers and inside the back covers of photo albums. You are proud of your new home.
You clench your fists and wait. When she doesn’t move, you point your finger at our ivy bushes, then at the dog, and pinch your nose. My breath catches, and before I can blink again, you squat!
I duck farther behind the curtain, my face blazing hot, like when you mispronounce words like “aruminum hoyle,” and “nafkin.”
“Speak in English!” the neighbor demands.
I peek through the window again to see what you will do next.
“In gu rishu?! No speak English!”
The dog is on its hind legs scratching wildly at the screen.
You tilt your head, stomp your foot, and utter the only angry English words you know from watching TV Westerns, like Bonanza.
“I kiru you!” I’ll kill you!
My mouth falls open.
You throw your arms up in the air and lunge forward. The woman behind the door jumps back, and bangs the door shut.
You drag yourself home, drop your head in your hands and weep. I cry too, frightened by this bold, daring side of you I’ve never seen before. But I also feel a warmth stirring, like a blanket against my shoulders. This is the first time I really hear your voice. The first time I believe I might have one too.
The next week, the neighbor moves out, taking her dog with her.
You ask what the “For Rent” sign means.
When I tell you, you clap your hands and shout, “Jeogeo bwa! Look at that! They’re afraid of us, so they ran away!”
You point to the empty apartment and smile, taking full credit for the move.
I shake my head and grin. I bury my head in your arms, and you hug me back. With the dog gone, now there’s a new smell. A new feeling that I, too, might belong here, and the scent of your stew sweetening the air.
ROSA KWON EASTON is a Korean-American writer, lawyer, and president of the publicly elected Board of Library Trustees of the Palos Verdes Library District in Los Angeles. She blogs on family and parenting on her author website to bridge cultures and elevate overlooked stories. Easton’s debut novel, White Mulberry, and the sequel, Red Seal, will be published by Lake Union Publishing, in fall 2024 and fall 2026. She is an Anaphora Writing Residency Fellow and has attended retreats and workshops at Ragdale, VONA, StoryStudio Chicago, and Sackett Street Writers. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @rosakwoneaston.
Featured image by Brett Wharton, courtesy of Unsplash.