**Author’s Note – This is a work of fiction and not meant to be taken as real. It has no meaning, no hidden message, and no intention other than to tell a story.**
Jia had led quite the charmed life until now. She didn’t have any major family problems growing up, she had plenty of friends in her school, and though her family wasn’t exactly rich, she had never wanted for anything. She even slept on Egyptian cotton sheets, which her father had emblazoned with her favorite boy band, BTS. Unfortunately, because of his job Jia’s father was rarely home, even on the weekends. She had her mother, grandmother, and little brother to keep her company instead, which was fine with her. Though her father was kind, he was a bit of a stranger to her and she never felt comfortable being more than daddy’s little girl around him, in spite of her rapidly advancing age.
Jia had a boyfriend from high school named Jeongmin. Though they had been dating for 5 years, were now 24, and were deeply in love, marriage was just out of the question. They were just too young! Besides, she had a promising career as a journalist that she needed to focus on. Maybe after they got closer to 30. And maybe not even with him. After all, he did have his military service coming up soon. He was scheduled to leave in less than 3 months, and 2 years is an awfully long time to go without a boyfriend on her arm, not to mention the lack of regular sex.
Jia had never really cheated on Jeongmin. Not in her mind anyway. There was that one time when she went for soju and clubbing with her besties, then blacked out. All she remembered was waking up naked and alone in a love motel, and if there was nobody there, she probably didn’t do anything bad. Right?
As far as she was concerned, everything was just fine. Besides, why wasn’t Jeongmin there to watch her? It wasn’t her fault that she drank too much, her friend just kept pouring shots! Isn’t that a boyfriend’s job, after all?
Since nothing happened, there was no need to mention the outcome of this evening to Jeongmin. When she woke up at 1 pm to find 12 unread messages from him, she just responded with, “Wow, I’m hungover… Yujin sure loves her soju” and got cleaned up before going back home.
After an awkward couple of days, everything was back to normal. They continued hugging, kissing, and quietly making love in DVD rooms as they always had. A few more weeks went by and Jia found herself almost insatiably hungering after Jeongmin, not that he minded. Normally, they would meet once or twice a week, usually on weekends, and slip away for some alone time. This week, however, she felt like she needed to meet almost every day, which often wasn’t possible with Jeongmin’s work schedule. She would tide herself over to wait, but they were meeting at least 4 times a week for the next month or so. They’d both heard that women’s sex drives increase as they age, and what a wonderful benefit it was.
Jia worked as a reporter at the Korean Enquirer, a gossip rag that mostly focused on the goings-on in the lives of celebrities in Korea and abroad. One afternoon while dutifully scrolling through Instagram at work, she felt a sudden flash of nausea, as if she’d just swallowed a mouthful of earwax-flavored toothpaste. With a quick run to the bathroom, she returned her lunch to the workplace that had so generously provided it to her. Must’ve been some bad bulgogi today.
Over the next week, she started feeling nauseous at different times throughout the day, sometimes passing her mercifully after a few minutes and other times demanding her immediate compliance. It began to register with her that something might be wrong. She went to see a doctor to find out if she had a stomach bug, or God forbid, the dreaded Coronavirus. A nurse took some blood and urine samples along with a mouth swab to test. After a bit of waiting, her COVID tests returned negative and Jia breathed a heavy sigh of relief. When the doctor told her she was vomiting because she was pregnant, it returned with a vengeance.
Jia vomited on her doctor.
After apologizing profusely and helping him get cleaned up, she began explaining to the infinitely patient physician that it was simply impossible. She had a boyfriend and they always used condoms when they had sex. The doctor, who had heard this many times before, explained that condoms are not always 100% effective, though most couples who use them forget sometimes or get caught up in the heat of the moment. He asked her if there was ever a time when they may have drunk too much and forgotten to wear one.
Jia paused, thinking carefully. Jeongmin was always fastidious with condom use and never got too drunk. He usually stopped after about 3 beers. Recently they had even been slipping into not-so-clandestine places during the daytime without any alcohol. Suddenly, she remembered waking up in the love motel. She struggled to remember the night but could only recall the flashing lights and loud whistles of the Itaewon club. She had a very subtle moment where she could nearly taste tequila on her tongue, urging another small wave of nausea, but thankfully they both passed quickly.
“No, never,” she cautiously muttered, praying it to be true.
“I’m not sure what to tell you then, but you’re pregnant. Congratulations, and I wish you and the father well,” the doctor let out, as if rehearsed a thousand times before, and excused himself to change his now vomit-stained scrubs.
As she sat in the examination room, momentarily stunned by the revelation she’d just been given, her mind swirled with possibilities. “Obviously, it must be Jeongmin’s. It simply must. Who else’s could it even be?” she brooded.
Feeling discombobulated by her new predicament and unsure of what to do next, she found a nearby park and sat down on a bench. Grateful that nobody was there in the early afternoon, she called her work and told them vaguely that she was too sick, citing ‘female problems’ and needed the rest of the day off. If anyone at work found out that she was pregnant, she could kiss her career goodbye. After all, in a large organization like the Korean Enquirer, what value does a lowly entry-level reporter on maternity leave have? In the best case, she would be allowed to take her time off at full pay, as the law requires, but she would certainly never be able to advance in the ranks. More realistically, her bosses would be looking for a reason to fire her before her pregnancy got too far along. After all, she would only hurt the company by staying there, and she knew her bosses would never sacrifice their financial line to help one young girl.
She also knew she couldn’t tell Jeongmin. There’s no way that could go well. Even if he was thrilled by the news and welcomed ‘their’ baby with open arms, it would be bad for her. He was leaving for the army in one month. A shotgun wedding followed by a 2-year absent father was the worst fate she could imagine.
She briefly considered calling her best friend Yujin who had been at the club with her that night, but ultimately decided against it. Yujin was loose-lipped at the best of times and would never be able to keep a secret this big.
Ultimately, Jia decided to seek counsel with someone more experienced and wiser, someone who had kept secrets for decades without ever breaking. She took the subway home, thinking through her options and what to do, but certain that her grandmother would have the answers.
Jia walked into the door of their nice 22nd story apartment. They lived in an older part of town, but that also meant they could afford a better place. The apartment had three modestly sized bedrooms, one for her parents, one for Jia and her younger brother, and one for her grandmother. Though Jia didn’t particularly care for sharing a room with her brother, especially now that he had hit puberty, the prospect of sharing a room with her grandmother was even less appealing. She almost never left the apartment, she took naps and slept erratically, and worst of all, had old people smell.
Still, Jia loved and respected her grandmother, if only out of cultural norms. Having grown up in the shadow of the Korean War, she knew her grandmother had had a tough life. It was only fair that she be allowed to relax at home and spend time with her progeny and his offspring.
Jia walked to her grandmother’s room, nearly tiptoeing. She was terrified and nervous, unsure of how to talk to her family’s matriarch or what her response would be. “It’s still better than talking to mom about it,” she rationalized.
Almost hoping her grandmother would be napping so she could delay the discussion, Jia gently rapped on the bedroom door and called out to her grandmother.
A soft, “Come in,” was the only reply.
As she opened the door, a strange mix of potpourri, stale perfume, and dirty laundry found its way into Jia’s nostrils causing her nausea to momentarily flare up. “Wrong time, body. Stop it now,” she thought, repressing the entire sensation to focus on the moment at hand.
Jia’s grandmother had been watching a nature documentary, as she often did while resting at home. The show about the lives of squirrels continued in the background as her grandmother muted the television.
“Halmeoni, how are you doing today?” Jia asked, with a pleading tone to her voice.
Her grandmother chuckled to herself, knowing that sweet timbre well.
“Come to ask halmeoni for money, have you? Well, I’m sure that I can find some spare change around, but it probably won’t be as much as you’re expecting.” She replied, amused.
“Actually, no. I don’t need money today, but thank you for offering. I could really use your advice on something. Something very… sensitive and personal.” Jia muttered, almost so faintly that her grandmother couldn’t make it out.
“Oh really now? Well then, pull up a seat, close the door, and tell me what’s on your mind,” she replied sweetly.
Jia pulled over her grandmother’s sewing stool, a seat so seemingly small and fragile that it was a wonder it hadn’t broken over the years. “Just like halmeoni,” Jia mused to herself.
Sitting next to the bed where her grandmother lay, Jia recounted the events of the past couple of weeks and the rather disorienting day she’d had so far. She chose to carefully omit the part about the club and the possibility of another father.
Her grandmother sat and listened patiently, nodding along just enough to indicate that she was still part of the conversation, but remained quiet. After Jia had finished her explanation, she paused for a moment that felt like an eternity.
Her grandmother simply replied, “I see,” in a manner so free of reproach or judgment that it could only come from a grandmother.
“So… What do you think I should do?” Jia asked hesitantly, biting her bottom lip.
“Hm…” her grandmother considered, studying Jia’s face. “What do you want to do?”
“Well, I really don’t know. I could keep the baby and tell Jeongmin about it, but that would mean probably having to marry him. Or not? I guess I could raise it on my own… With you guys, of course. Ugh, what am I talking about? That’s a terrible idea. I could give it up for adoption I suppose, but I don’t know, that just seems so… cold? I don’t really like that. Or I guess I could… get rid of it?” she ended, raising her tone and face to match in the form of a hopeful question. It would be the best solution, freeing her to focus on her career and not forcing her into marriage. After all, she’d never even really dated anyone else, how could she possibly know that Jeongmin was the one?
Her grandmother’s lips pursed thoughtfully as she let that final sentiment hang in the air.
“I could really use your experience and advice on this, halmeoni. Which one do you think is the best?” Jia urged, hoping her grandmother would relieve her of the weight she bore with this decision.
“The best for whom?” her grandmother pondered.
The question struck Jia as rather odd, and as she sat trying to process the meaning, her grandmother continued.
“The best for you? Jeongmin? The baby? Maybe you mean for our family, or perhaps even our country and world.” The barrage of thoughts came across as sincere and warmhearted, but only because of her nurturing and soothing tone.
“Those are all very different things, my dear. And the choice between them is a very difficult one which I do not envy. The easiest answer may seem to be what is best for you, but even that may prove challenging. I see many young women now who choose to have jobs instead of family, a choice I did not have in my youth. You as well, you spend most of your time at the newspaper, even though you have a devoted and caring boyfriend.”
Jia felt a flash of resentment. “Of course I spend time at work,” she thought. “I need money too! And I deserve a career that I care about!” Her social graces got the better of her however, and she merely replied, “But don’t you wish you’d had that choice, halmeoni?”
“Oh, perhaps. It was a long time ago, and I don’t know what I even would have done for work then. If I were your age now, then maybe it would be a different story. But truly, I am grateful that I didn’t have to make that decision, Jia. Much like the one you face now, it’s an impossible choice to make knowing that either outcome results in losing the opportunity of the other.”
“No, I feel grateful that things went just the way they did, dear,” her grandmother puttered on.
“You see, you had many choices for who to be your boyfriend, and even more choices for who to marry. I had 10 boys in my village who were single and of marrying age, and it was your grandfather who chose me, not the other way around. I could have refused him, but I didn’t. Of course, I played coy for a while and let him court me, but he was a rather handsome and charming fellow back then, your grandfather.” She chuckled a little to herself, visibly recounting fond memories of her now-deceased husband in her mind.
Uncertain of what to say and how to keep her grandmother focused, Jia brought her back to the moment. “But halmeoni, that doesn’t help me know what to do with my… problem.”
Her grandmother looked down from her perch atop the bed, a bit bemused.
“No, I suppose it doesn’t do that. But it’s a different perspective, isn’t it? When I was your age, a bit younger in fact, we were all expected to get married and have children. In fact, if we didn’t, it was viewed as something being wrong with us. We didn’t have a choice, but that wasn’t as bad as it sounds to your ears. Our country had just been through a devastating war and restoring the population was our duty as women. It was also our duty to our families, as those without children and grandchildren were destined to disappear from history.”
“That sounds… terrible. I’m sorry you had that forced on you,” Jia responded sorrowfully.
“No, don’t be!” Her grandmother interjected. “It was a far better situation than the one in which you find yourself. Because we didn’t have a choice, we didn’t need to make a choice. We simply did what was expected of us and made the best of it. It was a much simpler life than this crazy complex world. The few times we did need to make a choice, we simply chose to do what was best for everyone,” she replied, satisfied that she had explained thoroughly.
Still unsure of her grandmother’s advice, Jia continued hesitantly. “Well, how do you know what is best for everyone? I mean, like you said earlier, do you mean for me, Jeongmin, or the baby?”
“Why not all of them?” her grandmother tittered. “What seems like the best answer for you has externalities, doesn’t it? If you choose to ‘get rid of it,’ as you say, won’t it affect all three of you negatively in some way? Won’t it also affect our family, as we don’t have the blessing of a grandchild? And what of our country, the one my father died defending? Shall we consider that far up?”
Jia sat in stunned silence as her grandmother gently fed her a warm spoonful of tough love.
“When you make a sacrifice, in this case giving up your current job and marrying someone who loves you, though I don’t see how that’s a sacrifice, you give more in return to those around you. Your husband will certainly care well for you and the child, who will be unknowingly happy to be alive, and your family will be proud and thrilled to welcome another member. Your community and country will grow, and your life will better for it all around. You see, your sacrifices seem large in your eyes, but the benefit to everyone is much greater when you make them. That’s exactly what society is, everyone making small sacrifices that amount to a much greater world around us.” Her grandmother finished off, proud of her soliloquy and certain that she had made her point.
Jia paused for a moment, letting her grandmother’s words sink in. Chewing on her thoughts, she pondered the implications of what she’d just heard.
“I get what you mean… but what if it’s not the right choice? What if I want to do something else? Can’t I choose to do that instead? You paint a pretty picture, halmeoni, but real life isn’t like that. It’s not a TV show, and it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.” Jia could feel herself getting worked up, not quite offended, but some other feeling she couldn’t identify. “Don’t I have the freedom to choose what to do with my life, with my future, with my body? Can’t I choose to avoid that life? Maybe I don’t want to be a housewife, maybe I don’t want to live with Jeongmin, maybe I don’t even want to have a baby!”
Indignant. That, she realized, was the emotion. She noticed she was flustered and breathing hard. She quickly lowered her head in respect to her elder, realizing that she may have crossed a line.
“Of course, child,” her grandmother replied magnanimously.
“You can choose to do whatever you wish. That’s the blessing, and curse, of living in this age of freedom. You are bound to make decisions, big and small, that will affect your life in untold ways. There is no ‘right’ answer, and there is no ‘wrong’ answer. There is only your choice, and a very difficult one at that, judging by your tone of voice. You are always free, and forced, to choose a course of action. Even no decision is still a decision.”
“I truly do not envy your position, as I said earlier. But I know you, Jia, and I know who you are. You are smart, you are strong, and whatever decision you make, I’m sure it will be the right one.”
Her grandmother smiled at her weakly.
“Now, how about we have a nice cup of tea and watch this show together, hm? The squirrels are just lovely.”
Jia made two cups of green tea for her and her grandmother, and they sat in silence, watching the squirrels, as the day’s conversation ran through her mind.
The next day, Jia called a local clinic known for its discretion and willingness to perform abortions. Three days later, with all the fanfare of popping open a pickle jar, she was free of her decision.
She never told Jeongmin about the pregnancy, figuring that the less he knew, the better. A month after he left for the military, she sent him a message on Facebook saying that the distance was too much to bear and she thought they should see other people. She wished him the best for the future and blocked him without waiting for a reply. Better, she thought, to make a clean break. Easier that way. Less messy.
Jia went on to have a good career in journalism, eventually working her way up to editor-in-chief. Though she had a string of boyfriends through her 20s and 30s, she never did marry. Too much time and commitment, really. It would take away from her focus. Kids would only make it worse.
“Much better to share my company with my cats,” she reflected, while sipping her green tea.
For some reason, this tea always reminded her of her now-dead grandmother. It tasted sweet, like her words. Yet somehow bitter, as of regret.