The Lenses of Reality

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
I once rode a subway in Korea. A fight took place in the subway, and I learned that the world wasn't perfect. Enjoy!

Submitted: December 18, 2014

A A A | A A A

Submitted: December 18, 2014



I was as worn out as an old saddle as I came back from the eye clinic. I have just been granted a speckless set of new dream lenses, and through those lenses, a whole new world of clearness awaited me! All I wanted was to go home and put those lenses in my eyes.

After Mum, my older sister, and I met up with Dad, we took the subway to start the 20-minute ride from Gangnam to Bundang. A cool wind blew through our hair, and I knew that summer was now being folded up and put away for next year, like the orange leaves in the trees were shriveling up and dropping into the ground. The sun was a bare sliver at the west, signaling its goodbye by setting the sky on fire.

The subway was filled with people, and lethargic conversations floated in the air, crisscrossing and interweaving into one, unified, and sleepy atmosphere. It absorbed and blanketed our family as we walked into our carriage.

“Hey, today’s Friday. Tomorrow, I don’t go to work, okay?” said a man sitting across from us. His wife was taking care of a baby boy, and was busy feeding the baby milk.

“Okay, honey.” The wife smiled slightly, then stroked the baby boy. The baby boy squirmed a little, but he wasn’t crying. His almond eyes slowly started closing until sleep overpowered him.

“Mum,” I murmured, my head already filled to the brim with ballooned dreams, “I love you.” Mum smiled, and she whispered back, “I love you, too.”

I’m so contented in that moment, that moment of Now, and I didn’t  notice the rising tone in a voice that is nearby. I didn’t  notice how ANGER is stuffed inside every word the voice uttered.

But Dad noticed, and he tapped Mum’s shoulder. I’ve already drifted off, but I suddenly realized something’s wrong when my mom shook me awake. My rainbows in my dreams were scattered, and I woke up completely as the atmosphere suddenly turned wrong. The wrongness was on the subway, not inside me. The wrongness reeked of alcohol.

I stopped slumping into the subway seat, and my brain tried to decipher the encoded wrongness that was suddenly everywhere in thick layers.

A commercial droned on and on about how exceptionally practical their subway was, but no one stared at the TV screen. They were all staring at the left of the subway section.

My brain finally deciphered the code, and the message told me there was something wrong. “Nuna, what’s wrong?” I asked my sister. “Why’s everyone looking at the left of the sub--”

“Shut your trap. You’re still too young to understand.” My older sister, Sanghee, glared down at me. In Korea, elders had other names beside their birth names. This was to encourage respect to these elders. So, we showed respect to these elders, forced into indentured servitude. In return, they got to get mad at us all they wanted. Welcome to South Korea.

Then she paused dramatically, and continued. “I’m older and, therefore, more mature than you are,” she finished her statement, but took a deep breath before her last burst of drama. “There’s something going on there and you’re too dopey to know that, okay?” My sister sighed, a deep, oh-why-are-you-so-stupid sigh, and she looked away.

I looked away from my sister and focused on Mum, then at Dad. “Mum?” I asked hesitantly. “Is something wrong?” Instead of replying, she stared at the same direction that everyone else was staring.

Finally, I understood it too, and I stared at the left of the subway.

What I saw was a complete shock, shocking enough for me to say, “Oh my God.” My dad didn't care this time, even though he was a Catholic Christian and believed in the Ten Commandments.

A young man was shoving an older man around the subway with his shoulder. The young man directed swear words at the old man while the old man was stumbling. The swear words lodged themselves into my mind, like nails driven into a board with a heavy hammer. Other words were forced out of my mind, and they crowded around the brim of my mouth, fighting to be first. The words finally arranged themselves, and I took a deep breath. My tongue curled to form words and then--

Mum covered my mouth when she realized I was about to shout. In my mind, I was shrieking, Stop it! How dare both of you start talking rubbish in front of people who don’t have anything to do with the fight! I couldn’t speak. Even when I pushed my mother’s hand away from my mouth and I took another deep breath, I couldn’t speak. My SCREAM was shredding me from the inside out, and I desperately wanted to speak out loud. I was still thinking, This is Korea, you stupid man! Don’t you know that showing disrespect to an elder is like giving up your Korean heritage?

The fight was escalating, and the young man was resorting to violence, with stronger and more confident shoves.

“Give me back my money, you son of a b___!”

“Give it, it’s mine, it’s mine! I earned it, you son of a b___!” The woman across me with the baby boy covered the baby’s ears immediately, whispering quietly to him and singing a Korean lullaby.

The baby boy started to whimper, then started crying. The mother also had tears in her eyes, and a single drop fell onto the baby’s blanket.

The old man stood there, a rock in the middle of the sea. The sea simmered like a pot on the stovetop and lashed at the rock, but the rock didn’t have a mouth and didn't speak. It didn't need to.

A wave of relief washed over me as someone braver and older than I was separated them.  Everyone relaxed, and the atmosphere turned somewhat calmer. Dad’s angry gleam in his eye dissipated, and Mum’s piercing look softened slightly.

The younger of the two men was being escorted  down the subway into a different section. He locked eyes with me, and I shuddered visibly. Mum stared at him, but she didn’t shudder. Disapproval emanated from her eyes, burning holes into the young man’s neck. The sea was still angry, but the sea was now in low tide, and the rock, no longer lashed at by the sea. The rock sighed silently into the air.

I was too volatile, too emotional, to have a personality like my mother. If she were to combine her perfect logical reasoning with perfect emotional status, she would be a psychologically perfect mother. The young man looked away from my mother’s disapproving glare, and decided to look at my quivering eyes. I was terrified of him, and I all I wanted to do was to run out of the subway and dig all the way across the world.

Maybe it was because he saw my eyes and my terror, because the young man was suddenly reinvigorated with rage, a terrible rage that I had never seen before, not even in Dad’s darkest days. His breath was heavy with the smell of beer, and his clothes had the smell of cologne and spoiled eggs. And it suddenly made sense.

It was Friday night. The sea was drunk. Obviously, the sea had been drunk for a couple of days now.

The distinct and overwhelming stench of alcohol emanated from the waves of the sea. The sea was much, much angrier than it had been before. The salty water bubbled up and it defied the moon which controlled the tides. It ripped up the beach, lashing out waves of drunken anger onto the innocent grains of sand. The sea scattered the grains of sand into worlds and seas far away. The sea forgot that each time he lashed out against the rock, he was damaging his family’s reputation chunk by chunk, crumbling it until only the base was a little white nub of marble.

I’m just dreaming, I told myself. Soon, I will fall out of my bed, and there will be the smell of breakfast in the air.

The thing was, this wasn’t a dream. I distinctly remembered what time I woke up today. And I knew I read Counting by 7s afterward. So, this wasn’t a dream.

The fight came closer and closer to our section of the subway. The young man was screaming unknown words. Women were dragging their husbands and running into different sections, left and right, and soon all that was  left was a sprinkling of men and women who were concerned with the fight.

I couldn’t face this, and I tried to act unconcerned. I tried to act like the girl in Eleven, tried to prevent 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 from spilling out of my heart and into my lap.

Initially, there was a kick to the shins. Then, there was a punch in the ribs. Both knocked out the old man, and he fell onto the floor. The subway shuddered with the impact. I shuddered with painful fear. Men from everywhere rose, and they rushed to barricade the fight. I couldn’t remember when the young man ran up to the old man, but now there was a raging flood of swearing. The barricade was ripped apart, and I saw the old man for the first time. He was bleeding profusely, and even from here, I could hear his jarred, ragged breathing.

I saw a punch in the gut, then the jaw. I saw the young man grabbing the old man’s clothes, screaming in his ear.

“You idiot, give me back my money! I won it off you!” The young man clenched onto the old man’s coat, and tried to rip it off. “Give it to me, it’s mine, it’s --”

For the first time, the old man spoke, and he shouted in a harsh tone. “I earned this money by working my fingers’ bare bones off, you idiot! How dare you try to control what I rightfully earned! I’m much older than you are! What were you doing when you were young, playing outside with people you weren’t supposed to play with?”

“It’s a free country! I get to do whatever I want, and I’m protected by democracy! You are stupid if you think that South Korea is just like North Korea!” Everyone stiffened at the mention of North Korea, but the young man fed on the fear that emanated from all of us.

“Freedom isn’t for people who try to steal money off elders! Where’s your respect to the elder, you son of a b___? Or are you illegitimate?! Is that why you didn’t learn any manners?” The old man was spewing out insult after insult, and his cut, swollen lips were dripping crimson blood onto his clothes. I counted three seconds of silence. The punches started again, but this time, they were so hard that the old man was knocked onto the floor. There was a loud cracking noise as the young man punched the old man in the nose. Men rushed in and tried to push the young man away, but the young man tore through the barricade of humans and started punching again.

Blood flew through the air. The swearing was now too profane to be considered recognizable. No one could stop the young man’s inferno of madness and insanity. So much was going wrong everywhere, but all I could do was pray.

Please God, please, I know I don’t go to Sunday church but please stop this fight. I begged to God. The words in my mouth were cluttered and jumbled up. The words were amalgamated into a high-pitched scream, still stuck in my mouth. It pushed against my lips, but I couldn’t say it because of a million reasons. I couldn’t.

I didn’t think God heard me, because the young man picked up the old man by the rim of his coat, shook him violently, and threw him. The old man practically flew for a meter, then he thumped head-first and lost consciousness immediately. There was blood all over the floor in streaks.

The moment I saw the blood all over the floor, my lips gave out, my nerves were all shot at the same time, and I lost something.

I lost my ability to keep myself together, the ability that prevented me from shouting at Nuna everyday whenever she was wrong, the ability that stored my anger away inside small Coke bottles and squished them inside a cardboard box, which was stored inside a tiny, microscopic shell of an electron.

I screamed. The electron exploded and the cardboard boxes’ masking tape ripped open and Coke bottles spewed open and I felt like I was drowning in blood and my heart felt like it was melting. I thought that I had exploded into my fundamental atoms.


The fight stopped. I thought that if I moved, the entire world would break apart and shatter before my eyes. The anger was no longer a hot, boiling liquid dancing out of my throat, but was now a rock-solid block of ice-cold fear that was now stuck in my throat

The young man stumbled up, his face flushed red with shame or anger; I couldn’t tell. Maybe the young man just realized that he was in a Korean subway, which was traveling on Korean territory. He took 3,000 WON from the old man’s bloodstained wallet, and he ran away into the next corridor. He hopped off the moment the cars opened in the next station.

The young man was definitely ashamed. He had probably turned his family’s reputation into dust, swept up by an invisible wind and tossed away into lands farther than the nearest universe.

I tried to stand up when it was our turn to get off. The world didn't shatter, but the block of fear inside me did, and hot tears burst out of my heart, out of my eyes, all into my lap, onto the new sweatpants that I’d only bought yesterday. The shards of ice-cold fear were slashing and freezing my emotions, until at the end, my heart was a barren wasteland. Even that evaporated into tiny bits of dust, floating away in the wind.


When Mum walked into my bedroom, I immediately stopped crying. My heart didn’t exist, and I didn’t want it to. It would be too painful for my heart to be there.

Mum sighed, and she petted my head. She noticed the tears, now soaking the pillow in various places. What could really bring back my heart, though, was not chicken soup for the soul, but answers.

“Mum, why was there a fight?  I don’t get it, they were talking about money.” Thoughts were swirling in my head, and they were all trying to get out at once. I lay my head on her folded lap. “Mum, why was there a big fight on the subway?! Bazillions of people were looking, but--”

“Shhhh,” Mum whispered. She stroked my head. “The young man and the old man were gambling illegally. That’s why they were fighting about money; the young man wanted his money that was earned from gambling.”

“But, Mum! Why can’t they sort it out peacefully? Is it because those people are stupid? I don’t understand.” Suddenly, I didn’t feel well, and there was a terribly painful and loud ringing and clanging inside my brain. “I feel like my mind’s just been split open with a rusty ax that’s been electrified by multiple lightning strikes.”

“That’s because your mind has been opened.” Mum sighed, and she walked back out. I didn’t understand; what does she mean, my mind’s been opened? Did they give me a freaky nightmare of a young man beating an old man up while I was having brain surgery to remove the part of the brain that controlled emotions? Because I felt extremely unemotional after my heart had been slashed and cut into small tidbits of dust.

Mum never explained anything to me. She never explained to me why my sister, Sanghee, and I couldn’t seem to resolve our fights and our differences.

“It’s because Nuna’s a girl and you’re a boy,” Mum said whenever I complained about how I didn’t understand why she cared so much about her nails and her relationships instead of focusing on studying more.

Three nights later, I was still puzzling over what Mum meant by my mind opening. I understood that I didn’t really have brain surgery. My sister had rolled her eyes earlier in the day when I had asked her if she had seen me in hospital. It had been a reasonable question!

“You are such a stupid idiot,” My sister had said as she had thrown her hair back, then she had sighed like I was a Hopeless Case.

“Sanghee!” Mum had scolded from across the kitchen. “Speak cleaner language before I cram hot coal down your mouth.” I had mentally corrected hot coals with soap.

My sister had glared at me from across the living room, and I had felt like my legs had been turned into ice. She had silently stalked off, but not before she had flipped the bird at me.

She once told me that swearing wouldn’t suit me, and even if I did swear, she said I would look stupid. Well, hardy har har har, swearing didn't match Nuna, too.

If it wasn’t brain surgery, why did Mum say my mind had been opened? I still couldn’t understand why things didn’t go the way things needed to go. After all, the two men didn’t have to argue about money. Why didn’t they argue about something important in my life, like what was decent to eat in a cafeteria?

Then I realized something: the world didn't rotate around my life. The world wasn’t perfect, and it was changing rapidly in an accelerating speed. I was just a single, minuscule prokaryote in the grand, infinite time-frame of the universe.


Only three days ago, on that subway, a phenomenal change had occurred. An emotionally-shattering event broke my safe, secure shell. Everything was changing, and they interweave and intertwine to form a world that is beautiful and hideous at the same time.

I am a microcosmic example of a rapidly changing world, of sharp edges that stab me, soft clothes that soothe me, of hideous and felonious hags, and dignified creatures of perfection and kindness.

The lenses let me see through a veil of innocence, shamelessness, and foggy fantasies. The lenses let me see a world of shame and sharp, stabbing realities. But there is also beauty in this stark world of imperfection, because beauty comes in asymmetry.

I am changing.

© Copyright 2020 Jaehong Park. All rights reserved.

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