The chilly, mist-filled, early morning breeze swept past my open window as the car slinked along the curved road. The grinding sound of gravel against the tires and the faint hum of the engine echoed in the silent countryside. Over the horizon, a faint light shone atop a distant mountain, beginning to bleach the edges of the dark night. Small houses made out of clay bricks and tiles clustered around the edge of a river; smoke lazily drifting out of their chimneys before dissipating into the sky. I lay sprawled in the backseat, tugging at the platinum blond hair of my favorite Barbie doll. I puffed up my cheeks and leaned forward, tapping my father’s shoulder. “How much longer until we reach the docks, Dad?”
“We’re almost there,” answered the authoritative voice behind the steering wheel. “It should come up three minutes after we pass the lepers’ compound.”
I peered out the window towards the side of the road. There, partially hidden by a jagged rock ledge, stood a solitary building. In the nineteenth century, when leprosy was fairly common in Korea, people separated those with the disease into compounds out of fear of contamination and out of disgust at the sight of their disfigured bodies. The compound seemed to loom over the village, the pale blue morning light glimmering off the stark aluminum walls. A thin line of smoke wafted out from a crude chimney slapped onto the roof.
“Do people still live there? I asked. My father nodded. “Why wouldn’t they want to come out after all these years?”
My father stared at the road ahead, twiddling his thumbs around the steering wheel. “Some people would rather live in isolation than integrate back into the same society that rejected them.”
The road rolled past the compound and merged into a four-lane highway. I shifted around in my seat hoping to catch another glimpse of the building, but it had become obscured by the rock ledge as the village shrunk into the distance.
“Don’t be too upset about them,” my father added.
A slender hand hung over the side of the operating table, an IV stuck into its wrist. Suddenly the hand clenched, veins straining against the pale white skin. I craned my neck and stood on my tiptoes to try to get a better view, but the row of nurses standing beside the table towered blocked my view.
“15cc more,” my father commanded, and clear liquid trickled down the tube into the patient’s arm. The hand relaxed, falling back onto the table.
My father, clothed in mint-green scrubs and black tennis shoes, hunched over his patient. With a clean “snip,” he sighed and flexed his back. He gestured towards the attending nurse, and triumphantly set down a bloody surgical scissor on the metal plate. Plucking a towel from the side cart, he wiped down the patient and observed his handiwork.
“Come,” he gestured towards me.
The patient’s bloated face stuck out from a green surgical sheet, stitch marks running along the eyelids and on the side of the nose.
“She got a blepharoplasty and a rhinoplasty. I made incisions on the corners of her eyes to make them open wider.”
I nodded silently, carefully examining the changes to the patient’s face. The stitching across her skin seemed as intricate as the embroidery on my grandmother’s blankets, the evenly spaced thread contributing to some grand design.
“Ms. Cho,” My father smiled exasperatedly, “you mean to say you want a second rhinoplasty?”
The middle-aged woman sat across from my dad in the consulting room, hands firmly pressed against the table. I sat next to my father with my hands respectfully folded across my lap. She inspected her stitches in the mirror before pulling a crumpled sheet from a magazine and smoothing it down across the table. She directed my father’s eyes to the airbrushed model smiling up from the cover. “I want a pointier chin and wider-set eyes. And-” she took out another magazine clipping, “I want my nose bridge modeled after hers.”
I stifled a snort and quickly glanced up at the woman. She had clearly struggled to yank up what gravity had weighed down, resulting in a permanent maniacal, almost fiend-like expression on her face.
“We’ve already put in a silicone insert-,” my father pleaded.
She impatiently tapped the picture. “I want my nose to be exactly the same as hers.”
My father opened his mouth, then closed it. “Very well, Ms. Cho.” Without a second thought, he took a notepad from his side drawer, scribbling down the details of her request and attaching the worn magazine image. My eyes widened and my foot instinctively nudged my father under the table. His eyes flicked to the side, instantly silencing me. I lowered my gaze and he continued scribbling.
I sat on the edge of the subway bench, absentmindedly picking at the frayed ends of my jumper as the subway car came to a jolting halt and announced Seo-dong station. Only two stops till my grandmother’s house. My casual beach ensemble stood out amongst the businessmen and Korean students entering and exiting the train. Unlike me and my classmates back in New Jersey, they still had a month before summer vacation started. I looked up at the young woman across from me as she scrolled through her phone. Rhinoplasty, double eyelid procedure, I assessed. Further down the row, a woman flipped her hair to the side. Rhinoplasty, jaw reduction, and columella augmentation. Another dabbed on powder from a small compact. Double eyelid surgery and an epicanthoplasty. They were everywhere: a dozen double-eyelid surgeries, ten rhinoplasties, three brow bone reductions, three jaw reductions, and a cheekbone augmentation.
My eyes fell on a girl wearing a pleated skirt and a collared shirt quietly seated next to a heavily made-up woman in stilettos. I recognized her uniform from a high school near my hometown. She sat with her hands folded in her lap. Once in awhile she’d nervously lick her lips, exposing a row of wire-framed teeth. The student turned her head and timidly peered up at the woman beside her: a woman with long, silky black hair, a chin augmentation, and bright red lips set in a haughty pout.
One woman flicked her gaze toward the student, then did a double take. Her brows crumpled with annoyance, and her lips curled into a sneer. The student quickly lowered her eyes, slumping down in her seat as an embarrassed blush bloomed across her chubby cheeks. I looked down at my stubby toes that peered out from my cheap flip flops; they were baked to an earthy brown by the sun and sand from Hae-Un-Dae’s beach was still caked under my nails. I adjusted the spandex band of my training bra, still unaccustomed to its sweaty constriction, and diverted my gaze to the student as she sat with both feet planted while mine still dangled in the air.
When will she first go under the knife? Will she become that woman that so easily dismissed her?
Will I become that woman?
Sensing my stare, the student looked up. My mouth curled upwards, attempting a grin. My gesture was not reciprocated. Her gaze flickered down to my shoes, then up to my tangled, still-damp hair. She quickly turned her head away from me. The train plunged into a tunnel and the harsh fluorescent lights drew sharp shadows across my features. In the window, I could not recognize the foreign girl who stared back at me. I frantically searched my face looking for some similarity to the other subway passengers, but there were none. Tanned, unkept, different, alien.
The subway came to a rumbling halt. The student quickly stood up, glanced at me once more and shuffled out. The doors hissed closed, and I sat in the almost-empty car, my feet still dangling.
I pushed up the plastic window shade as the double-decker plane leapt into the sky and peered down at Seoul’s buildings becoming specks. In thirteen hours I would be home. Soon, all I could see below me was white. Wispy clouds streaked past the window and soon my childhood home disappeared from view. My younger brother squirmed in the seat next to me. “How much longer?” he whined, pushing his coloring book to the side. I had asked the same question at his age. I thought of the lonely leper compound looming underneath the mist; smoke curling out of its jagged chimney. The smoke dissipated into the sky, and became one with the clouds. Had I isolated myself from my society or had my society isolated me? I looked out at the blanket of clouds, the orange yolk of the sun beginning to settle into its pillowy folds. Or was just I headed for a new horizon? Soon, from the ground in Korea, the plane had become a solitary dot floating in the sky as I steadily drifted back home.
Chaeyeon (Annika) Kim is a high school junior from New Jersey. Originally from South Korea, Chaeyeon explores the concept of identity in her writing. She also enjoys binge-watching Orange Is the New Black, eating breakfast for dinner and playing with her cat, Butterfly.