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The Clapping Room

Illustration by Klaus Kremmerz

Mal-Hee secretly fears her granddaughter but plans to feed her well because that’s a grandmother’s duty. For the past week, Mal-Hee has been stocking the fridge with groceries she remembers Ji Soo likes from the last time she visited Seoul, roughly eight years ago. Mal-Hee’s apartment sits on top of a steep hill. Bringing these groceries up to the apartment in such mean summer heat required a remarkable, extraordinary love, which Mal-Hee believes she has for all of her seven grandchildren, even Ji Soo, her most temperamental granddaughter. Ji Soo doesn’t make it easy to like her. 

Last time, they parted on awkward terms. The cause of the fight is long forgotten, but the argument ended with Ji Soo telling Mal-Hee that she wished she was smelling the wet soil deep in the Earth, which Mal-Hee’s son later explained was his daughter’s special way of saying she wished her grandmother was dead. This really tugged at Mal-Hee’s tear ducts, but she didn’t dare cry. That would only make her son worry, and there is no one more important than her son. 

Mal-Hee suspects that eight years is enough time for their relationship to recuperate. Ji Soo is coming all the way from California, where Mal-Hee has been waiting to visit, though she’d never been invited to do so. To fill the void this lack of invitation has left, she goes to the one place she is forever welcome: the Clapping Room. 

Her visits to the Clapping Room usually include three neighbors: Mi-Sun, Kyung-Chul, and Jai-Hwan. The rest of the crowd is made up of first-timers, people who’ve heard about the Clapping Room by word of mouth.

The sessions unfold like this: Once everyone has gathered and settled in, a middle-aged man and a much younger woman bring two suitcases into the room. The audience starts clapping, and anyone who is a first-timer invariably picks up on this prompt and begins clapping too. A vibrant energy fills the room. As the sound of clapping bounces off the yellowed wallpaper filling the room, the man and woman reveal the day’s exclusive product. 

Today, it’s a pair of satin underwear with lace trim. A tiny bow rests where one would identify a clitoris. 

“These underwear,” the young woman begins, “are not your average pair of underwear. Not only are they as light as smoke drifting through the air, but they are also made with a rare fabric that helps fertility in women.” 

The man opens a pink cardboard box, letting the underwear flow across his hands like water traveling across a marble surface. He passes them around the group. 

Mal-Hee leans into Mi-Sun. “What are you thinking?” 

Mal-Hee always makes sure to ask Mi-Sun her thoughts on the products. Mi-Sun is the most fashionable, intelligent woman Mal-Hee knows. She graduated from a college in Seoul and worked as a chemistry teacher before meeting her husband. Sometimes, because she isn’t nearly as sophisticated, Mal-Hee finds it difficult to refer to Mi-Sun as a friend; the word becomes heavy, suddenly weighted with a status and meaning. With eyebrows and eyeliner penciled intensely and with purpose, Mi-Sun always appears alert and spicy like a ripe chili pepper. 

“This must be a silk that encourages the female body to fertilize. The way there’s soil that helps plants grow faster,” says Mi-Sun. 

Mal-Hee nods. Kyung-Chul and Jai-Hwan are the first to examine the underwear. Both men rub their fingers into the fabric, their heads tilted together like scientists. Kyung-Chul looks over at Mal-Hee. 

“I think I might purchase for my granddaughter. She’s been struggling to conceive,” he says. 

“It sounds promising,” Jai-Hwan adds. 

The salesman interjects. “What’s most promising, sir, is that my wife, who was told by seven different doctors that she was infertile, became pregnant after wearing this underwear every day for one week.” 

“They’re not to be washed?” asks Mal-Hee. 

“They’re most effective when they’re not washed. Think of this,” he takes the underwear back and turns them inside out to reveal the soft inner lining, “as the natural plain in which all the fertilization happens. The more particles, the better.” 

“Like soil for plants,” repeats Mi-Sun. The salesman nods. 

Kyung-Chul and Jai-Hwan begin clapping at a rhythm—the sign that they are ready to make a purchase! The saleswoman runs over with an armful of underwear. 

“Who will be purchasing?” she asks with practiced enthusiasm. “Is it our core four again?”

Mi-Sun claps her hands as passionately as Kyung-Chul and Jai-Hwan. Mal-Hee follows. 

“It’ll be ₩100,000. Usually, it goes for ₩150,000 at department stores, but we’re giving you another discount on top of the discount,” the salesman says. 

“₩100,000 for a pair of underwear is extreme! Usually, a pair of underwear goes for ₩5,000 tops at the market down the hill,” a first-timer exclaims. 

“Well, these underwear have a special purpose! They work a science! Did you hear the story of my wife?” the salesman asks. 

The core four take their wallets out from pockets and purses. Mal-Hee holds the pink cardboard box in her hands, the scalloped lace trim on the magic underwear smiling at her. Mal-Hee’s son will want to have grandchildren of his own. Ji Soo, his only child, is turning twenty-five this year. She’ll need this underwear soon. 

Five minutes from noon, Mal-Hee excuses herself, tapping Mi-Sun lightly on the shoulder to say goodbye. She takes the elevator to the first floor and steps out into the dry heat. She must walk with her hands wrapped behind her back to balance herself. The doctor told her that her spine is curving. This is what happens with age, he said. There was nothing she could do to stop her body from curling into itself like a pill bug. Fortunately, the Clapping Room is conveniently located within the same apartment complex as her home at the top of the hill. 

In the few feet that it takes to reach the front stoop of her building, Mal-Hee passes by oak trees infested with grasshoppers. As big as a man’s thumb, the pink-spotted grasshopper has multiplied by the thousands in recent months. It’s projected to be the hottest summer to date in Korea. The grasshoppers have migrated from across the ocean somewhere, procreating furiously, their babies—flecks of green—thriving under dehydration. They feast on tree bark and leaves, stealing its nutrients, lay their eggs in its stripped, pitted branches. She has seen oak trees whither from grasshoppers sucking the life out of them—limp and infirm. 

She spots a young woman turning the corner: a bundle of long curly hair, hands clasped demurely in front of her, Mal-Hee suddenly realizes it is her granddaughter. 

“Halmoni!” Ji Soo says as she approaches Mal-Hee. 

Mal-Hee raises her arm as far up as she can and waves. She keeps the underwear tucked under her other armpit, hiding this precious surprise. Ji Soo leans in to hug Mal-Hee, which Mal-Hee awkwardly accepts, one hand on the small of Ji Soo’s back. As she pulls away, Mal-Hee gauges Ji Soo’s hip size. The underwear will fit her perfectly. 

The last time Mal-Hee saw Ji Soo, her heart threatened to stop when she noticed the length of the girl’s shorts. Her butt cheeks bulged out from under the cuffs and jiggled thunderously as she walked. Her tank top was so small that it couldn’t hide the black bra straps underneath. Ji Soo was frighteningly unmanageable in this way. Her ass was too big. Her breasts were too big. She was overwhelming to look at. She spilled out, like slime oozing out of a tightly gripped fist. Mal-Hee felt suffocated by it all. 

Now Ji Soo appears to have changed. She’s wearing plaid pants and a long-sleeve blouse. The cab dropped her off early, she says, so she killed the time walking the neighborhood, leaving her luggage in the apartment lobby. 

“Without anyone keeping an eye on it for you?” Mal-Hee asks. She finds her granddaughter’s confidence unnerving. Ji Soo smiles and shrugs. Her dimples, carved deep into her cheeks like her father’s, make her look like the sweet smiling girls Mal-Hee sees at the market down the hill. She’s grown into a cotton-candy woman, soft and delicate. 


Mal-Hee never got a chance to be a cotton-candy woman—wispy and graceful like the actresses on television. Mal-Hee was not an attractive girl, and did not blossom into a beautiful woman. She is surely not an attractive grandmother. 

She was married off to her husband at fifteen years old. She met him on the day of her wedding, which her parents had arranged with another family from a nearby neighborhood in Seoul. Mal-Hee’s mother had advertised him as the perfect man: six years her senior, graduated from a university. He was able-bodied. He wasn’t marred or maimed by the war. He had a steady job managing a telephone-assembling factory. 

“He could’ve picked anyone, but he picked you,” her mother had told her. Since the day they met, the understanding between all parties was that her husband was marrying down.

How she came to love him was odd. After they got married, they moved into an apartment on a hill—the height would provide security, he said. They had four children together, all two years apart. By her third child, Mal-Hee felt like a farm animal, breeding and nursing her brood/litter. Her husband was stern with the children. Good grades from the son; quiet obedience from their three daughters. Mal-Hee fed the family, washed all their underwear. All she knew of herself was her responsibilities as a mother and wife. Over the years, she had unknowingly come to rely on the presence of her children and husband. As her children grew out of adolescence and into adulthood, tending to themselves, needing her less, she would often find herself alone in a quiet house with her husband in the living room, doing little to nothing. Mal-Hee had come to understand that her husband was a hateful person, with little regard for her wants or needs, but, even then, she realized that if he, too, stopped needing her, she would have no purpose waking up in the morning. If he ceased to exist, she would cease to exist as well. This perception—that the entirety of her being was so deeply intertwined with her husband’s—gave way to a unique love, one brewed with necessity and resentment. Mal-Hee knows that her love story is not one told to little girls for aspiration, but it’s hers, and without her husband, she would have no love story at all. 

Eventually, the time came when the son found someone else to wash his underwear, and her daughters married into families where they would wash their husbands’ underwear. Mal-Hee didn’t know what to do with her hands for a while. She used to pick at the hairs on her arms while flipping through channels on the television. She liked flipping through channels, getting slightly lost in all her options of what to watch. 


Mal-Hee and Ji Soo enter the apartment to find Mal-Hee’s husband on his hands and knees in the living room, spreading bright red peppers he’s brought from his greenhouse across a large bamboo mat. He built the greenhouse using money their son sends from California every month. Mal-Hee hadn’t known about the money at first, because her husband keeps all their financial documents hostage in a fanny pack hidden somewhere in his bedroom. It wasn’t until her son called to ask if the money had been wired successfully that she knew of her husband’s scheming. By the time she confronted him, he had already purchased a small parcel of land, one step closer to living his dream of cultivating his own vegetables. 

In recent months, the grasshoppers have somehow found a way to infest the greenhouse. He complains about the holes they leave in the squash and cabbage, about their eggs found within the leaves of lettuce. He’s been spending most of his days at the greenhouse crushing them with his boots, leaving spots of blood and guts along the rim of his shoes. He’s been contemplating aloud whether he should fumigate, rendering even the unaffected vegetables inedible. At the thought of this waste, his face collapses, like a child’s. It both disgusts and somehow pleases Mal-Hee to see how easily disappointment consumes him.

Once he spots Ji Soo, Mal-Hee’s husband rises. He dressed up for the arrival of his favorite granddaughter—gray button-up and matching gray pants. He wipes chili seeds from his hands as he approaches. 

“My Ji Soo—my American doctor!” he shouts. His hearing began to deteriorate not too long ago, and he’s grown louder as the world around him has quieted. 

Mal-Hee’s husband talks frequently about his granddaughter’s academic accomplishments: enrolled in medical school, with ambitions of becoming a heart surgeon. He preaches to Mal-Hee how important it is for women to be smart. Whether he believes this for all women or only for Ji Soo doesn’t entirely matter. Either way, it would exclude Mal-Hee. When she listens to him prattle about their granddaughter’s bright future, she wonders whether, if she had been given the tools, she would have excelled too? 

Although stunted at a third-grade education, Mal-Hee prides herself in being more educated than her older sister, who didn’t go to school at all. Up until the day her older sister died, Mal-Hee used to make sure her sister was aware of her ability to read. She would spread the grimy newspaper across the dining table at her sister’s house, place an index finger at the top left corner, and read very slowly. Her finger would blacken with ink. After her sister died, Mal-Hee tried to read aloud to herself. But she didn’t like the sound of it without her sister nearby. She realized that what is meant to be a performance is ineffective without an audience. 

The other grandchildren are failing at whatever it is they’re trying to do. Mal-Hee isn’t surprised that Ji Soo is the most successful out of the seven. Even when she came to this apartment dressed in tiny scraps of clothing eight years ago, Ji Soo’s bright future was not compromised. Her father is Mal-Hee’s only son, and her dear son wouldn’t produce a stupid daughter. 

“Haraboji!” Ji Soo shouts back, embracing her grandfather. Mal-Hee watches this interaction from the open door of her bedroom as she changes into her homewear: airy floral pants and an equally airy blouse, both well-worn. She stuffs the underwear in the bottom drawer of the dresser, where she stores all her treasures from the Clapping Room. 

Mal-Hee husband has Ji Soo’s face cupped in his hands. “I’ve missed you so much! You’ve been away for so long!” he tells her. 

Mal-Hee’s husband doesn’t hold or touch her anymore. They stopped sharing a bed sometime between the second and third child. She spent her nights with tiny arms and legs draped all over her, while her husband slept in his own room with the door closed. Fifty-three years, and she’s forgotten what her husband feels like. From the distance she maintains, she can see that the skin on his neck has wrinkled, and milia has taken seed under his eyes. But his back has yet to bend like hers. His smell—the scent of ginseng soap—has not changed. She gets a whiff of him here, a whiff of him there as they cross paths in the kitchen or on the way to the bathroom. 

Ji Soo detaches from her grandfather. Her backpack slung across her shoulders, she walks into Mal-Hee’s bedroom and closes the door behind her. As soon as she disappears, Mal-Hee walks to the kitchen and takes out Tupperware containers filled with food she’s prepared all week. Eight different dishes—three different kinds of kimchi, tuna pancakes, chili pepper bean sprouts, pickled garlic, seaweed soup with large chunks of beef, and purple rice. The rubber lids lift and release small gusts of their aromas.

Ji Soo emerges from the room and sneaks up behind Mal-Hee, gasps and places her manicured hand dramatically over her mouth. 

“You made all of this?” she asks. “Everything looks so delicious, Halmoni. I haven’t had a meal like this in forever.” 

Mal-Hee smiles and nods and puts the stew and rice into the microwave. She looks over to see that her husband is watching, though she cannot tell by his expression if he is envious. 

When they finally sit, Mal-Hee tries but cannot ignore her husband’s chopsticks moving from his bowl of seaweed soup to Ji Soo’s bowl of seaweed soup. The continuous transferring of beef from his bowl to hers is unbearable. It feels like someone tickling her earlobe, then abruptly hiding when she turns to confront them. 

As they eat, Ji Soo talks about the pink-spotted grasshoppers like an encyclopedia, sharing everything she’s read about them. They originated from southern Canada, but with the unpredictable shifts in climate, they’ve been hatching across different continents. They’re as prolific as they are tenacious. Even after Mal-Hee’s stomped on them a couple times, their bodies still flickered with a frightening resilience. 

When they’re done eating, Ji Soo helps clear the table and do the dishes while her grandfather watches proudly from in front of the television. 

Mal-Hee motions for Ji Soo to follow her to the bedroom, then closes the door behind them. Mal-Hee opens the bottom drawer of the dresser and takes out the pink cardboard box. She pushes it along the laminate floor toward Ji Soo. 

“What’s this?” Ji Soo asks. She then opens the box to reveal the satin underwear. 

“Oh, wow, Halmoni. These are quite something.” She flicks at the tiny plastic bow along the lace trim. 

“These are special. Not your average underwear,” Mal-Hee explains. “They make you fertile.” 

Ji Soo’s mouth sweeps up into a smile. “Who told you that?” 

“I have my sources. You have to trust me. You’ll get married soon, and your father will want grandchildren. Wear this underwear for a week without washing, and you’ll have no problem conceiving.” 

“Halmoni, I’d get a yeast infection if I didn’t wash down there for a week. Don’t be silly,” says Ji Soo, handing the limp garment back to Mal-Hee. 

Silly—the word stings every time it’s used to describe her. Her son had said it the last time he visited, how she says and does silly things. 

Ji Soo brushes her tresses with a calm expression, casual, like she hasn’t just insulted her grandmother. She looks past Mal-Hee out beyond to the balcony window where grasshoppers gather along the edge of the glass. 

Mal-Hee wants to scold her, but immediately subdues this desire. Ji Soo might fight back. To lose an argument to her husband is expected, but to lose to her granddaughter…such exposure to her own powerlessness, the humiliation of it, would be deadly.

Mal-Hee was introduced to the Clapping Room several years ago, as the autumn foliage was coming in. After another fight with her husband, she headed out to their apartment building’s parking lot, where she could get a view of the city below. She always delighted in how the buildings appeared as small as half her pinky. 

Wrapped in a leopard-print shawl, Mi-Sun, her neighbor one floor below, called out to her as she walked across the parking lot toward her. “What are you doing here by yourself?” she asked. 

“Just looking,” Mal-Hee says.

The walls and ceilings of the apartments were so thin, Mal-Hee knew that Mi-Sun could hear their petty, explosive arguments. Occasionally, Mal-Hee pressed her ear against the laminate floor, hoping to catch Mi-Sun in the throes of her own fight. But she’d only ever heard Mi-Sun’s faint laughter, followed by Mi-Sun’s husband’s faint laughter. Mi-Sun’s husband was confined to a wheelchair sometime in the late ’80s. Mi-Sun would take him on walks twice a day, even in the blistering summer, pushing him around the perimeter of the parking lot, stopping to whisper into his ear. Mi-Sun is a woman filled with thick, syrupy reciprocated love. 

“Do you have somewhere to be?” Mi-Sun asked kindly. “If you don’t, you should come to the Clapping Room with me.”

“What’s the Clapping Room?” Mal-Hee asked. 

“Well, it’s a bit difficult to explain. I’ve been going for the past few months now. You know, after my son moved out to Tokyo, he can’t visit as often as he used to. It’s a nice little break. Great fun,” she said with a wink. 

Mal-Hee nodded and, when the time came, joined Mi-Sun on her visit to the Clapping Room. They walked down the narrow street, past the playground where the teenagers smoked, to a scarred apartment building, then walked up to the top floor, to a studio where a circle of elderly men and women surrounded the salesman and saleswoman—the same who host the Clapping Room to this day. 

Mal-Hee was introduced to Kyung-Chul and Jai-Hwan, both of whom shook her hand. Such modern men, she thought. She sat between Mi-Sun and Kyung-Chul in what would become her customary spot. The first product Mal-Hee clapped for was a glass bottle of blueberry syrup. 

“This magical syrup has the same health benefits as a box of golden ginseng,” the salesman exclaimed. “Take a spoonful of this every morning and your organs will heal themselves. My father-in-law, a heavy smoker and notorious drinker, his liver dry as a dead seal, was reborn after drinking this syrup consistently for a month. It saved his life!” 

A collective gasp, followed by clapping that was so passionate it felt as if the room would burst apart. The saleswoman opened a window to relieve the heat in the room. 

Mal-Hee left the Clapping Room that day with a blue bottle in hand. Her secret healing syrup. She drank from it every morning. She didn’t feel any different, but one really can’t see what’s going on in the inside. She felt alive and that was enough. She developed a routine. While her husband visited his greenhouse, she would meet with Mi-Sun in front of the apartment building and walk over to the Clapping Room, their arms linked. In the beginning, she went only once a week. She left plates of food in the fridge so he wouldn’t be left hungry. Privately, she relished his questions about where she had been. She mumbled unsatisfactory responses. After a couple of months, Mal-Hee would walk to the Clapping Room alone. There, as attended to as royalty, she felt like she was floating. Her adrenaline was so high she forgot her back was coiling into itself. She thought only about the products the salespeople presented and her desire for them to change her in ways that she didn’t know she wanted to be changed. She found herself clapping every afternoon. 

She made outlandish purchases. Pills that were supposed to help her grow taller. Porcelain dolls to replenish the energy in the room and heal the soul. Glasses that improved memory. One of the pills was supposed to erase all of the liver spots along the shoulders and rebuild the derma to develop a layer of fresh new baby skin. She took the pills consistently for a week, vomiting every day, until Mi-Sun told her that the pills worked only for women older than eighty. Mal-Hee was a few years shy of eighty by then, so she decided to set the pills aside, waiting for when the time was right. 

The purchases filled a void inside of her. She wasn’t even aware of this emptiness until it had begun to fill. 


Ji Soo sleeps on the yo arranged on the floor next to Mal-Hee’s bed. Mal-Hee has stowed the underwear in the bottom drawer of the dresser. After Ji Soo had called her silly, she decided that her granddaughter was no longer eligible to wear them. Maybe they’ll remain in the drawer forever, along with the various unlabeled pill bottles and miscellaneous items purchased from the Clapping Room. 

Mal-Hee can’t sleep. Half of her allowance for a pair of underwear. If her son and daughters knew, they would berate her again. They despise the Clapping Room, but only because they don’t recognize the treasures. The products are exclusively for members of the Clapping Room. Her daughters, who take turns visiting once a month, have thrown out countless gems without even consulting her. She’s gone downstairs to the basement, to the communal trash bins, to dig them out with her bare hands. This was before her back began to bend. She was more agile then. She doesn’t understand why her daughters would want to discard the only things she can call her own. They must not love her. 

Mal-Hee rises from her bedding and carefully scoots herself to her dresser. She opens the bottom drawer slowly so as to not wake Ji Soo. She takes out the satin underwear. A romantic moonlight floods in through the window of her bedroom. The gold bow on the underwear shines dully. The fabric is so soft. She runs her hands along the back of the underwear where the buttocks would rest. 

“Why don’t you try them on?” 

Mal-Hee turns around to see Ji Soo partially sitting up, resting on bent elbows. Her curly hair sits along the sides of her face and shoulders, gorgeously messy. Ji Soo looks like her mother. When Mal-Hee first met her daughter-in-law, she was intimidated by her beauty. She had to remind herself that she was the mother of the man this young woman wanted to marry, thus putting her in a position of power. Never having been in such a position before, Mal-Hee often insulted her daughter-in-law to assert her dominance. Since they moved to California before Ji Soo was born, Mal-Hee rarely sees her daughter-in-law, which is fine, because she still makes sure to call her occasionally to tell her that her forehead is too small and her voice is too raspy. 

“Did I wake you?” Mal-Hee asks. 

“I think they’ll look really good on you,” Ji Soo responds, then points to the underwear. “There’s probably a matching bra somewhere out in the world. We should find it for you.”

Mal-Hee feels the heat rise from the base of her neck again. “A bra that looks like underwear? Don’t be ridiculous.” 

“With the same lace trim. It’s very sexy.” 

Mal-Hee is immediately uncomfortable. She opens the drawer a crack to slip the underwear back inside. She tries to push the drawer back in, but the corner gets caught on one of the bigger pill bottles. Before she can close it completely, Ji Soo pulls the drawer back and picks up the white plastic bottle that was wedged at the corner. Seeing that there are no labels, she opens the lid and inhales.

“Are these illegal drugs, Halmoni?” 

“Of course not! Who do you think I am? They’re for—” Mal-Hee stops herself. She’s too embarrassed to admit that most of these pills are linked to promises of boosts in vanity.

“Did a doctor prescribe them?” 

“No, well, yes, a kind of doctor,” Mal-Hee fumbles. 

“Does Dad know you’re taking these?” 

“Don’t tell him. He’d just worry. I don’t want him taking up time in his busy day to worry about me.” 

“Tell me where you got them. It’ll be our little secret. Girlfriends have secrets with one another, you know that? Do you have girlfriends, Halmoni?” 

Mal-Hee thinks of Mi-Sun with her sophisticated salon hair and blue-inked eyebrows. 

“Of course I do.” 

“Do they know that you take these pills?” 

“Mi-Sun takes them too. Well, she’s over eighty and those pills are specifically for rejuvenation for women over eighty.” 

Ji Soo places a hand on Mal-Hee’s knee. Her touch is both firm and gentle, similar to the acupuncturist Mal-Hee used to frequent before confirmation that the deterioration of her body can’t be controlled, only slowed to a pace that still feels much too fast. 

“Halmoni, you have to promise you’ll never take these again.” 

Ji Soo has embodied a hardness. The muscles on her face remain still, the animated contours along her cheekbones and mouth have disappeared completely. She picks the lid off the floor and closes the bottle. She holds it firmly between her fingers. Mal-Hee lays out her hand. 

“Give it back to me. It should be kept in here.” 

“You have to listen to me. I go to medical school.” 

There is an air about Ji Soo that Mal-Hee recognizes. A condescension that Mal-Hee’s heard her entire life. One that comes with Ji Soo listing facts, asserting dominance because her place is so obviously above Mal-Hee’s. She recognizes the coldness, familiar as ever, that feels like ice placed on her bare back. Mal-Hee can’t bring herself to accept that her granddaughter is running far past her, at a frightful pace. 

Ji Soo reaches into the drawer and rummages through it, feeling for other bottles. Her fingers graze the items hidden there, causing the rumbling of a million marbles falling across the floor. Mal-Hee grabs Ji Soo’s wrist.

“He’s sleeping,” she whispers. 

Ji Soo extracts her hand. 

“Who cares? Let’s wake Haraboji up. He wouldn’t care if he woke you up. He treats you so poorly.” 

No one had ever said this fact aloud. Mal-Hee feels a surge of heat rise inside her. 

“He treats everyone like that. That’s how he shows love,” Mal-Hee says defensively. 

“He doesn’t treat me like that.” 

This truth is like a pinch to the fleshy underarm. 

“He thinks you’re here to make his food and wash his giant yellow underwear. As if you were born for that and only that,” she adds. 

“That’s not true,” Mal-Hee says breathlessly. 

Ji Soo lays back onto the yo, stretching herself into different shapes before propping her head up with one hand. A smile spreads across Ji Soo’s face, one that Mal-Hee can tell is forced. It’s strained, like the ones her children show. 

“That’s not who you are. You’re the woman at the top of the hill. The queen. Aren’t you, Halmoni? You’re a real queen, aren’t you?” 

The playfulness has returned in Ji Soo’s voice, but it’s different from before. It feels as deliberate as her smile. Mal-Hee takes a moment to think over the word: queen. It has never been used to describe her. 

“I’m not a queen,” she says weakly. 

Ji Soo’s bushy eyebrows wiggle into a frown. She rests her head on the mesh pillow and yawns.

“I hope that one day you’ll reconsider your worth, Halmoni,” Ji Soo says as she closes her eyes. 

Mal-Hee sits beside her dresser for a while before returning under the covers. She makes it a point to turn her back to Ji Soo, who has already started breathing softly in a peaceful sleep. She wonders if worth and weight are the same thing. Unable to come up with an answer and too embarrassed to ask, Mal-Hee reels her head back to glare at her granddaughter. Ji Soo is probably worth a lot, with all her giant parts and big bones and heavy hair. 


The next day, at dawn, Mal-Hee’s husband leaves for the greenhouse. He promises to return early so he can take Ji Soo out to lunch. Mal-Hee stands out on the enclosed balcony, tracing the outline of the mass of grasshoppers creating a mosaic on the window, waiting for her granddaughter to wake up. These insects fascinate her: their long legs bent in the shape of a tent, their beady eyes and bright-pink spots. At first she had thought they were hideous; now she can’t help but stare at them. It’s the magnitude of their destruction that intrigues her—stories of them annihilating acres of crops, grinding trees down after extracting all they could from them. And yet harmless to humans. Sometimes she would laugh at the sight of neighborhood children watching in awe as a grasshopper traveled the length of an arm. 

What the grasshoppers do to the trees reminds her of her own children. How they’d burrowed inside to take what they needed, then moved on. Her children are her life’s greatest work, yet she experiences immense pleasure in imagining their faces on the grasshoppers she squashes from time to time.

Ji Soo stumbles out of the room, her arms stretched in the air. Mal-Hee is already dressed, her purse at her side in preparation to go to the Clapping Room. 

“Oh, finally, you’re awake. I prepared your breakfast,” Mal-Hee says, pointing to three Tupperwares stacked on top of each other on the kitchen counter. She gets up, gripping the sides of the walls.

“I’ll be back in an hour,” she adds. 

“Where are you going?” Ji Soo asks. 

“I have somewhere to be.” 

“Let me go with you. I can eat and get changed in ten minutes.” 

“No, no, you have to stay here. Your haraboji wants to take you to lunch.” 

“What about your lunch?” 

“He won’t take me out to lunch. He’ll think it’s a waste of money,” Mal-Hee blurts out. 

“Hmm, well, that’s no good. We should go out to get lunch then, you and me,” Ji Soo says as she stretches out wide like a cat, the curves of her body accentuated as they push against her dress. 

“No, no, you stay here. I have to go run some errands by myself.” 

Ji Soo crosses her arms along her chest. “You’re going to that place where you got the underwear.” 

Mal-Hee recognizes the sternness from yesterday. She feels her spirit retracting, like a turtle hiding inside its shell. It’s not fair that Ji Soo, who visits once a decade, gets to have this power. Ji Soo will perform concern when it’s convenient for her, only to forget about Mal-Hee upon returning to California. 

Mal-Hee must be firm with herself. 

“I’ll go to the Clapping Room if I want to go. I’m a grown woman.” 

“They’re selling you products that aren’t approved by any medical board. They should be shut down.” 

“I’m your halmoni. I’m older than you. I’ve lived more. I’ll decide where I go and don’t go.” 

Mal-Hee finds herself out of breath again. Adrenaline pushes through her chest with an urgency that had long disappeared. Ji Soo sighs softly, staring down at her feet. Then, as if to shake off the unpleasantness of the moment, Ji Soo moves her head left and right, shaking her luscious hair out. She smiles at Mal-Hee.

“You’re right. But I’m only here another day. Let’s spend time together. I’m a lot of fun.” She says this with a playfulness that is now suspicious. Before Mal-Hee can turn away, Ji Soo winks. 

Mal-Hee stops in her tracks. Ji Soo is a winking woman like Mi-Sun. She doesn’t know what to make of this. Noticing that she’s gotten her grandmother to pause, Ji Soo runs into her room. She reaches into her duffel bag like a magician with a top hat to reveal a bra, jeans, and T-shirt hanging from her fingers. She comes out to the living room again and takes off her shirt and pajama pants. Upon seeing her granddaughter’s breasts, Mal-Hee grabs at the wall, balancing herself as she turns away. 

Ji Soo stands beside Mal-Hee and is already putting her shoes on. She looks up at her as she ties her laces. “Don’t worry, Halmoni. I’ll be completely peaceful.” 

Ji Soo leaves the apartment, leaving the door open for Mal-Hee. Mal-Hee doesn’t wish to bring her granddaughter. The Clapping Room is her sacred place; Ji Soo will taint it. Kyung-Chul and Jai-Hwan will stare at her and Mi-Sun won’t stop talking about her. That’s the effect that Ji Soo has, a footprint stamped onto wet cement, forever present long after it’s dried. But Ji Soo’s willingness to follow her, this overwhelming energy, is too demanding. It’s much stronger than Mal-Hee’s ability to fight and say no. 

Once they emerge from the apartment building, they run into Mi-Sun, who has been waiting. Mal-Hee hadn’t told her best friend that her granddaughter was visiting. Mi-Sun’s kind eyes widen as she spots Ji Soo. 

“Who is this beautiful young woman?” Mi-Sun asks. 

“Oh, yes, this is my granddaughter,” Mal-Hee mumbles.

“Hello,” Ji Soo says with a quick bow. Mi-Sun smiles and extends a hand to pat Ji Soo on the arm. 

“Are you accompanying your halmoni to the Clapping Room today?” Mi-Sun asks. 

Mal-Hee looks over nervously at Ji Soo. 

“Yes, I am. Halmoni said it’s a wondrous place.” 

Mi-Sun laughs. “Mal-Hee, she’s adorable. She has an accent. She’s not from around here?” 

“I’m from California. Born and raised,” Ji Soo answers for Mal-Hee. 

“Ah, America? Yes, yes, I see. That makes sense. The rounded tongue,” Mi-Sun says. “You’ll be the star of today’s room.” 

Mi-Sun winks at Ji Soo and Ji Soo winks back at Mi-Sun. Reminded of her inability to wink, Mal-Hee detaches from Ji Soo and begins walking toward the exit of the parking lot. Mi-Sun and Ji Soo follow close behind. 

“So, were you the recipient of the underwear your halmoni bought yesterday?” Mi-Sun asks. 

Mal-Hee slows so she can join the two again. If Ji Soo were to reveal her suspicions to Mi-Sun, unnecessarily describing the discomfort of having a yeast infection, Mal-Hee would need to kill herself right then and there. 

Ji Soo looks elsewhere as she says, “Oh, yes. They’re beautiful. So soft.”

“Aren’t they? I’m going to send them to my daughter-in-law in Tokyo.” 

The two talk about Tokyo. Ji Soo has never been to Japan, but she knows so much about the country’s politics and economy. She talks on and on. 

Once they enter the Clapping Room, all eyes are on them. As expected, Kyung-Chul and Jai-Hwan stare at Ji Soo. When introduced as Mal-Hee’s granddaughter, Ji Soo bows again, her hand at the v of her neckline, and says a respectful, “Hello.” 

Ji Soo sits between Mi-Sun and Mal-Hee. Mal-Hee isn’t happy with this arrangement. She must sit next to Mi-Sun to confirm whether she wants to make a purchase. The salesman and saleswoman walk into the Clapping Room with their suitcases. Kyung-Chul, Jai-Hwan, Mi-Sun, and Mal-Hee begin clapping. Ji Soo joins, along with the rest of the room. 

“Oh! It looks like we have a new member today!” the salesman shouts excitedly, gesturing to Ji Soo. 

Mal-Hee eyes Ji Soo anxiously. “Yes, my granddaughter. She’s just sitting in.” 

Ji Soo gazes up at the salesman and adds a neutral, “It’s nice to meet you,” her eyes fixed on the suitcases being opened at the front of the room. 

“Well, hopefully you’ll be buying from us today,” the salesman says with a gap-toothed smile. 

He takes out a bra on a wooden hanger. The saleswoman points to the padded cups of the garment. 

“Many of you bought special underwear from us yesterday,” the saleswoman explains. “Today, we bring you the matching bra! This piece has a purpose of its own. It’s meant to keep the breasts at the ideal temperature for breastfeeding. It will also keep the breasts from sagging after breastfeeding, as you can see from the memory-foam padding.” 

Interest boils over among everyone in the room. The salesman quickly takes out two more bras to pass around. Hands massage the cups; fingers graze the lace trim. Mal-Hee can’t contain her excitement. Once the bra reaches her, she presses her palm into the cups and watches the heavy foam morph into the shape of her hand. Mi-Sun is whispering into Ji Soo’s ear. Mal-Hee scoots to the other side of Mi-Sun to discuss the bra with her. 

“What are you thinking?” she asks, pulling at Mi-Sun’s sleeve like an anxious child. 

Mi-Sun stops whispering to Ji Soo and turns to Mal-Hee, takes the bra into her hands and examines it, her index finger brushing against the stitching. 

“Well, I was just telling Ji Soo that since we bought the underwear yesterday, it only makes sense to buy the bra,” Mi-Sun whispers. “But Ji Soo doesn’t seem to think that it will do what they’re saying it’ll do.” 

“Oh, don’t listen to Ji Soo. She doesn’t know anything,” Mal-Hee whispers back. 

Behind Mi-Sun’s perm, Mal-Hee sees Ji Soo staring at her. Her brows furrowed, the ends of her eyes cast downward in a sharp sadness. Mal-Hee takes the bra from Mi-Sun and crawls back over to her spot between Kyung-Chul and Ji Soo. 

“Why do you look like this?” Mal-Hee asks, gesturing to Ji Soo’s downcast eyes. She extends the bra in front of her granddaughter. Ji Soo doesn’t take it. The newcomers are clapping enthusiastically. Purchases are being made. The salespeople are busy reaching in and out of their suitcases. 

Mal-Hee puts the bra on Ji Soo’s lap. “If I buy it, it’s for you to take when you need it. Like the underwear.” 

Ji Soo picks up the bra and pinches the inside of the cup. “Halmoni, how long have you been coming here?” 

“Oh, several years now. They sell exclusive products here. This place is very secret. Not even your grandfather knows I come here. It’s great fun,” Mal-Hee whispers. 

Mal-Hee takes the bra from Ji Soo, regurgitating the saleswoman’s pitch. “You see, the cups are heavily padded so that it’ll keep your breasts at an ideal temperature, which is very important for breastfeeding.” 

She pauses and looks at the bra. “I don’t remember what I did when I was breastfeeding your father and your aunts, but they probably didn’t even get the best quality milk. My body always felt cold back then. But this padding, this padding is very important.”

Ji Soo looks down at her thumbs for a moment, then around at the others in the room. She picks up the bra and pinches the inside of the cup again. 

Mal-Hee takes the bra back from Ji Soo. Some of the others have already started clapping. Ji Soo watches them reach out like young children for the bras the salesman and saleswoman hand them. She sees the satisfaction in their smiles. Ji Soo looks at her own grandmother, who is massaging the cups of the bra with the tips of her fingers. She had never seen her grandmother in a state so pure and unbridled. 

“It’s very soft, Halmoni,” Ji Soo says, then leans in. “You should buy it.” 

“Oh, I was going to. Mi-Sun! Mi-Sun! Ji Soo agrees we should purchase!” Mal-Hee calls out. 

Mi-Sun looks to Ji Soo, who nods at her in approval. Mi-Sun winks and Ji Soo winks, and in all her overflowing zeal, Mal-Hee also winks, sending a domino effect of closure to her other eye. 

Mi-Sun and Mal-Hee clap. The saleswoman brings them wooden hangers with the bras dangling and dancing as if spirit has been breathed into them. 

“The core team! It’ll be ₩120,000 for the bra. Usually at the department store, it goes for upwards of ₩200,000, but we’re giving a special discount since you lovely ladies bought the underwear yesterday too,” the salesman says. 

Mal-Hee unzips her worn purse knowing she doesn’t have enough money. She counts the few bills she has while the saleswoman hovers above her, waiting to collect. Mal-Hee digs her fingers into the fabric of her purse, as if this gesture will somehow produce something. The saleswoman, suddenly impatient, starts to turn away when Ji Soo calls out to her. The panic that had risen in Mal-Hee’s chest settles for a moment as she watches Ji Soo count from a wad of bills before handing the money over to the saleswoman. 

As she was looking into her empty purse, Mal-Hee had unknowingly clung to the upper lining of the bra, crinkling the fragile lace. Ji Soo watches now as her grandmother carefully reshapes the fabric. Ji Soo pulls herself closer, wraps her arm around Mal-Hee’s waist. With the bra spread across her lap, Mal-Hee claps and claps and does not stop clapping. 

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Published: June 6, 2024

Klaus Kremmerz is a visual artist whose work has been featured in Communication Arts, WePresent by WeTransfer, Its Nice That, Creative Boom, Ballpitmag, Elephant Magazine, KIBLIND, and MokaMag. His clients include Hermés, Rimowa, Flos, Aman Resorts, Picturehouse Cinemas, TIME Magazine, the New Yorker, the Economist, the...