No Buy, No Lice

Photo by the author.
Photo by the author.

“Oh, hello bitches.” A feeling of overwhelming confidence swirls the young bride-to-be clad in the ivory dress. “Maybe that’s what I’ll say when I come out of the dressing room” she thinks to herself, “you know, just for laughs.” Eunji is definitely feeling herself in this size 14 she found at the bridal store. As a five foot five Asian girl who could lose a few pounds (but doesn’t have to), she is loving the confidence booster. She has been waiting for this moment her entire life–to be engaged and trying on wedding dresses, feeling more beautiful than ever. “1…2…3…,” Eunji prepares her sashay, thinking about it as practice for the big day. She glides out of the fitting room to the three panel mirror where Ohm Ma and her little sister Jan Di are waiting. 

“I love it! What do you think?” Eunji gives a few twirls in the dress and looks towards the mirror. The strapless dress is simple yet form fitting, until the bottom curtains her feet, making them invisible. She begins to walk around, seamlessly gliding around the store. “It’s a mermaid dress, just like I wanted!” Eunji says blissfully.

“Looks really nice, sis.” It’s not that Jan Di doesn’t care, but she would rather be somewhere else. A stranger may not hear it from her words, but you can definitely see it in her black jeans, shirt, and cap that contrasts her too-light-for-the-weather red jacket and outlandish red sunglasses that she has failed to take off inside. “Sis, why are you even buying into this capitalist traditional scheme anyway? We should go and get you a nice black dress or even a suit.” There is a slight sense of urgency in her words, as if they could speed up the process a bit. She probably just wants to smoke a cigarette as soon as possible. The thought makes Eunji want one too, but she decides to focus her attention back on herself; after all, she’ll have to wait until she leaves Ohm Ma to smoke.

“Jan Di, I’m not gonna do that, this is my wedding! Besides it’s $350, such a bargain!” Eunji has never considered herself a frugal person, but it’s nice to be both frugal and beautiful. Ohm Ma turns her daughter around and begins looking her up and down. Her eyes widen as she looks back up to her daughter. She does not look happy.

“Oh no, she’s about to go off again,” Eunji thinks.

It starts off mild, Ohm Ma says something quick in Korean, holding some loose fabric around the waist of the dress, trying her best to not get mad. Eunji has spoken Korean her entire life, but she still needs to read visual cues from Ohm Ma to really understand what she’s saying. Ohm Ma notes the top of the dress, which appears to be slightly pinching Eunji’s armpits. Roughly translated in Eunji’s mind, Ohm Ma is saying, “This dress is loose around your waist, and how can you breathe in that? The top is suffocating you!” She means well, but Eunji is not in the mood to be criticized right now. She starts speaking to Ohm Ma, reasoning with her in Korean until Eunji mentions “losing arm fat.” Ohm Ma is not having any of it, her voice now slightly raised, mangling with the price tag and almost ripping it when she lets it go. “Why would you buy a discount dress for your wedding?! You shouldn’t be thinking about those kinds of things they only distract you from what you need to do. You can’t wear a discount dress for Pyebaek. We’re not buying this dress!”

Eunji looks at her Ohm Ma and then to Jan Di who puts her head down, trying her best not to get involved, as if she had known this was going to happen. The Yoon anger runs through all women in the family, and is contagious at all heightened emotional states. “Anni Ohm Ma, so what if it’s reduced price? We can always get it altered. Why do you bring up Pyebaek out of nowhere? I don’t want to do Pyebaek and I like this dress!” Before Ohm Ma can say anything more, Eunji calls over a worker to look at her dress. “We were thinking of buying this,” Eunji says.

The bridal store retailer starts looking at the loose fabric, “it seems to be a little loose around the middle, you’d probably have to get it tailored.”

“Do you know how much that will cost?”

“I’m not completely sure, but alterations can usually cost $200-300.”

“Ohm Ma is right, sis, why get a discounted dress you’ll have to tailor when you can get a dress that fits you better for the same price?” says Jan Di.

Eunji knows her sister and Ohm Ma are right. She looks at herself in the mirror again, this time with shattered confidence and realistic eyes. She realizes this dress may have things she wanted, but it was not the dress. This realization does not stifle her stubbornness, however, and or stop her from venting her frustrations. Eunji wants to release a big sigh, but realizes the dress constricts her bust from breathing in too deeply. She probably needs a 14W. She instead retorts, “Ugh, you two always have something negative to say about me!” Eunji storms back into the changing room to remove the dress and put on her clothes. She drapes the dress over the changing rack and her mom instantaneously takes it off and gives it back to the retailer. She hears her Ohm Ma say through the door “No buy.”

“Typical Ohm Ma,” Eunji thinks to herself, “the woman has been here for 18 years and still cannot form a complete sentence in English.” She stares in her mirror, the dress and her confidence in her beauty gone. No buy, No buy. Something about those words makes Eunji feel something she has not felt in a very long time. A sudden shudder comes with tiny pricks on the head.

Eunji was seven years old. She was in a new American school for only three months and Ohm Ma had to be brought in. They would not let Eunji go back to her class. She had to wait in the nurse’s office. Though she did not know what was going on, she felt like she should be embarrassed. She was having a bit of difficulty making friends. The only students she could talk to were the older Korean after school kids, but even they bullied her because of her already waning Korean language skills and accent. You would think they would be more understanding of new people in this country. Ohm Ma and little Jan Di rushed in to find Eunji sitting with two women standing over her, one with rubber gloves on and one in a barley brown pantsuit.

“Hello Ms. Yoon, we’re glad you could make it today. I’m Mrs. Herchowitz, the assistant principal. I’m sorry to inconvenience you, but we had to take your daughter out of class for the health and safety of our other students,” she said as she looked at Ohm Ma for some visual cues as to how to handle the rest of her speech. Ohm Ma stared blankly at her to let her finish, barely understanding a word she said. Mrs. Herchowitz decided to break the news, “It appears your daughter has lice. The teacher said she saw your daughter scratching her head in class. She cannot come back to school until she no longer has lice,” Mrs. Herchowitz said, waving her fingers around the top of her head.

Ohm Ma looked at her daughter. Eunji’s wide eyes stared back to her, ignorant of what was happening but frightened nonetheless. She put her head down in shame. Jan Di toddled over to her sister and asked “Unni okay?” 

It did not take Ohm Ma long to figure out what lice were. Although she barely spoke a lick of English, she knew lice were bad, and the teachers kept pointing to her daughter and saying it. She managed to get two words out: “No lice.”

“Ms. Yoon, you have to listen to us. The nurse even checked her out, you can look in her hair yourself.”

Ohm Ma looked at Eunji more closely. They were a long way from South Korea, and everything they gave up to come here could be seen on their clothes. They’d been living out two suitcases and a carry-on in their Elmhurst two bedroom apartment that they shared with Ohm Ma’s sister, husband, and two children.

“It’s not the best situation, but it’s only temporary,” Ohm Ma thought as she looked at her slightly raggedy children. She took them to America for better opportunities and had risked too much to return to South Korea. She made this decision for her daughters to have a better life, not to be belittled in school about lice. She rallied again to defend Eunji, to defend her own decisions: “It’s… dandruff. No lice.”

“It’s lice. You need to to buy this comb and shampoo to get rid of them. Please take this paper, it has pictures of what you need,” the nurse said. There was a small slip of paper displaying images of the lice shampoo and comb. There were multiple languages on the card, but not Korean. The pictures, however, were clear enough for anybody to understand.

Ohm Ma looked at the paper for a brief moment, and then pushed it away. “No lice.” She took Jan Di in her hand and tapped Eunji to relieve her of her shame. Then she took her older daughter’s hand and the Yoon family walked out together.

Once the Yoons left the school, Eunji asked her mom what had happened.

Her Ohm Ma told her, “Your hair is dirty; we need to wash your hair.” Her tone was calm but ominous, as if preparing for a big storm. The Yoons proceeded to walk to the nearest pharmacy. Ohm Ma darted to the shampoo section, guiding Eunji and Jan Di along with her. She looked at all the shampoos as if trying to remember an equation for a test. She wasn’t sure if her daughter actually had lice, but she knew she sure as hell wouldn’t have it tomorrow. Her eyes cornered the lice shampoo with the comb located not to far beside it. She picked the items up and they rushed to the cashier. The only time Ohm Ma let go of Eunji’s hand was to slap her other for scratching her head. Every time she let go of Jan Di’s hand, she would either whine or get too excited and start running away. Ohm Ma wanted to make sure Jan Di wasn’t scratching her head as well. It was getting a little overwhelming, so Ohm Ma thought it’d be better to have their hands distracted. They passed a nearby ice cream store and she let Eunji and Jan Di pick out their favorite flavors. “Coma-sa-meda Ohm Ma!” The two girls said in unison.

When they got home, Ohm Ma wasted no time and began to draw a bath. She told Eunji to get into the tub and Ohm Ma began to wash her hair. She used a plastic bowl to pour water over Eunji’s head and then lathered it with shampoo. It wasn’t the soft touch Eunji remembered Ohm Ma having in the past. This time, Ohm Ma’s touch had vigorous force. Eunji felt like her mother was pricking at her head too hard with her long nails and would occasionally yell for Ohm Ma to be more gentle. Ohm Ma said she was sorry, but explained it was the only way for her hair to be clean. She didn’t allow Eunji to move unless it was to wash away the shampoo running down her face.

When Eunji’s hair was all lathered, Ohm Ma began to comb. She made sure to start exactly on Eunji’s hairline, much to Eunji’s displeasure, but it was necessary. Then she rinsed. Once all the shampoo was rinsed out, Ohm Ma coated her hair with shampoo again, combed, and rinsed and repeated again and again and again. Eunji had no idea when her hair would be clean, she thought it looked pretty after the first rinse, but her Ohm Ma insisted it was still not clean. Ohm Ma washed Eunji’s hair for three hours until the entire bottle of shampoo was used up.

The morning came and Ohm Ma told Eunji she was going back to school. She also told Eunji it was a special day, so she would be wearing her nicest velvet dress with hair in pigtails. Eunji was amazed that Ohm Ma did not miss a single strand of hair in each of the pigtails. Ohm Ma applied the same vigorous force as the night before, but Eunji appreciated the effort her Ohm Ma put in to make her look so pretty. She even dressed Jan Di up for the walk over to school as well, in a matching velvet dress. Her Ohm Ma proceeded to put on makeup and borrowed the nicest outfit her sister had. Eunji had memories of all the beautiful dresses her Ohm Ma had in Korea, but there was no room to bring any on the flight to America. Eunji was not exactly sure what the special occasion was, her Ohm Ma only said, “it is to show off how clean you now are, it’s your special day.”

While walking to school, Eunji noticed how many people were looking at her family. But it was not with the usual dirty looks she received before. She thought she must really be special as no one bothered her or mentioned the word “lice” around her ever again. Kids in her class even said she was beautiful. She didn’t know what “beautiful” meant at first, but she felt a tickle in her heart whenever someone said it. She hoped to hear words like beautiful a lot in America.

Now, many years later, Eunji looks at herself in the dressing room mirror. Sure, she’s adorned in her most formal dress, but it’s her Ohm Ma’s love that really makes her feel as adored as she did that day.

“Sis, you okay in there?” Jan Di sounds testy but underneath there is a slight sense of concern, or perhaps a raised yearning for a cigarette. Eunji opens the door to see her sister and Ohm Ma prepared to fight, but Eunji is no longer bitter over the dress.

“It’s alright, I know you two are just looking out for me,” Eunji says, letting a defeated but forgiving sigh escape her lips. She goes over for a hug, much to Ohm Ma’s surprise. “Ohm Ma you have done so much for me; I have decided to have the Pyebaek ceremony,” Eunji announces. Hearing Pyebaek in an affirmative tone makes Ohm Ma’s eyes gleam.

“Well, that’s a complete 180, but that’s great, sis! I wonder if Stewart is gonna want to wear Hanbok? I’ve never seen a white guy wear one,” Jan Di says, laughing a little.

“Me neither, I guess it will be a first for all of us.” Eunji thinks of the spectacle. A white man in Korean formal wear is definitely not typical. “But he’ll always be handsome.” Eunji giggles.

“Well, of course,” Jan Di says, rolling her eyes a bit, “but do you think he’ll be okay with doing it?”

“He’s actually always been fine with doing it, I just wasn’t sure if I was. We’ve lived here so long I didn’t think anyone would want to see the ceremony, but Ohm Ma is determined to keep tradition alive, and I’ll support it,” Eunji says, looking at Ohm Ma and smiling.

“Do you want to look at more dresses?” Ohm Ma asks.

“I guess we can look at more, let’s go for a 14W!” Eunji exclaims, allowing her excitement to swirl. “But maybe only one or two more, I really wanna go to Mani Mani.”

Jan Di’s face lights up at the thought of fried chicken, and she begins eagerly sifting through dresses for a 14W. Eunji looks over to Ohm Ma and her sister, thankful to have two lifelines looking out for her.

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