Yeontan is a cylindrical coal briquette which was the primary cooking and heating fuel in twentieth-century Korea. It is often referred to as gu-gong-tan, a nine-holed briquette, though a standard yeontan has twenty-five holes. The peculiarity arises from a series of linguistic evolutions cut short by the fading usage of yeontan.
Originally, there were nineteen holes on yeontan. It was thus referred to as sipgu-gumeong-tan, a nineteen-holed briquette. The repetition of gu, however, rendered the pronunciation tricky, and the contraction sipgumeong-tan soon took over. But alas! sip is a slang word for vagina, and it was now all too easy to order pussy-hole briquettes. Eventually, gong, another word for hole, was substituted for meong, and the preceding sip was taken out completely, resulting in the current name gugongtan.
By the early 90s, my birth town had become one of the last places in South Korea to have a sizable number of gugongtan-heated homes. Halmeoni, my grandmother, used to tell me that I should wake up and run away as far as possible if I ever felt dizzy in my sleep. But how do I know I'm dizzy if I'm asleep? I had left my birth town at the age of three, and I am still not sure if she ever answered my question.
My sharpest memory of my birth town is of a moment at the marketplace near halmeoni's place. I had just read the name of the toy I wanted to her: Ja-pan-ki-no-ri. I want that, halmeoni. Please? She was first shocked that I was able to read and was soon horrified that the mini vending machine toy cost 9900 won, roughly $15. But I knew none of this; I just wondered why it took halmeoni so long to find her purse.
Back at halmeoni's place with the new toy, I forgot all about the dizzies. Halmeoni also did not mention it for a while, but it took me a long time to realize the absence of all the warnings.
Nineteen years have passed sine then. I was back in my birth town, eating at a cheap sushi buffet with my aunt and her children. We were planning on visiting halmeoni's grave afterwards. Aunt and I were talking about halmeoni, and it occurred to me that 9900 won was no longer enough even for a meal at an okay restaurant. We had to pay 13000 won per person!
What can you buy with 100 won around here these days? Why do you ask, aunt said. I need precisely 9900 won.
It was the first time in my life I visited a family's grave on my own accord. Aunt and I bowed down, stood up, bowed down again, stood up, and dedicated to halmeoni's grave a glass of makgeolli, the traditional Korean rice wine. Aunt then went looking for her little boy who ran down the mountain a few minute ago.
Left alone, I sat down and stared at halmeoni's grave for a long while. There, I found a little hole right next to the tombstone. I gave it a long gaze, drew a heavy sigh, and stuffed it with the money I brought.
As I was filling the hole with dirt, I couldn't shake off the feeling that I did something incredibly silly. I just wanted to be dizzy once again. I could forget everything if I were dizzy — if I were given the cute to run away as far as possible. I grabbed the bottle of makgeolli and poured the whole thing into my mouth.
Nothing happened. The dizzies just weren't there. The sting of makgeolli only reminded me that I knew no perfectly well when I would be dizzy in sleep, and why, even. I threw the bottle on the ground, let out another faint sigh, and wondered what I could have done better as a two-year-old.