My mother used to lay out her chillies to dry from around August time each year on the pavements that lined the tower blocks of apartments. The best real estate was naturally the concrete road which was dark and absorbed the hard sun most robustly, but it was hard to find enough of this space where cars rubbed shoulders to be, and were given preference over chillies. She used to lay out the blue tarpaulin and scatter the chillies in an even layer across, allowing them to surrender to the dusty sun. Unmelting blue plastic; the brown, nasal drone of cicadas – this was the palette of summer. There were always those women who would hedge their bets and action their chilli-drying earlier, when the rains had only just seemed to have cleared up, and it broke my heart to see their chillies slumping on sodden newspapers after a surprise renegade shower. Dried chillies, if successfully pulled off, were a wealth beyond themselves. I would have guessed that the drying itself took up the best part of a month, but I’d count myself lucky if I got to witness even the early chillies’ debuts; would imagine, instead, redness overrunning the pavements; love the view of darkening fruits spilling onto car bonnets and boots. Chillies bringing a city to stillness.
After the drying, I know that they are ground into fine powder, gochugaru, with instruments of kinds noseying in on the process. Powder goes to all sorts: reconstituted into familiar food things more solid that come out of long hours’ pounding, massaging, waiting. There is something so proud about the word “homemade” and it gives me capital in this land of peas and carrots. My carrots should be crunchy, fresh and seasoned; made by a woman older than me who was raised firmly in the understanding that she would grow up into a wife. I like the sizzle of food against hot oil, sounding like the last pitter-patter of the season on the mosquito nets that provide the first barrier to a home. Thin metal mesh that you dragged along outside your window, sieving creatures out of the kneaded breeze. When the weather is this hot, though, the elderly would be sitting in the sheltered benches that litter the apartment complexes, some minding or guarding their chillies. There is a cooler breath on these kerb-side benches than where the air conditioning units pump out heat into the stale height above the streets. Catch the right angle, a good bearing, and the wind will whip the sweat right off your back.
‘I come from a land where chillies are a gift or a curse from the exotic, and when I first saw schoolmates eating the skins of pears I was astonished,’ I would say dreamily. I remembered thinking it was dirty and unpleasant. This is how I could explain to my mother something about England that she didn’t ask to be explained and I knew that she heard the gratitude in my voice. That I knew of grapes you could swallow the skins of. Shiny exteriors on apples for gripping onto and biting into. Even as an adult, seeing a friend crunch through a fruit until its emaciated core dangled on a saliva-thread from its stem – this brought me fresh wonder. At home, my mother would cut these things into bite-sized pieces; I think, to encourage slow consumption, easy digestion. Grapes would be highly prized in the summer, when I might be there, with their skins tough and sour, as were the beetle-like seeds inside when chewed upon. My aunty and cousins would rupture the ashy skins with their teeth and let the smooth ball inside roll out through the slit – a sweet hidden gem. So many skins spat out in Korean kitchens.
My laptop screen shows me a blister in time when Google’s camera-on-wheels skulked through, capturing a man who’s just dropped his phone, a silver Hyundai struggling to park, a uniformed boy sweating to fulfil his restaurant’s thirty-minute delivery promise. I know that it’s pretty recent because of the fresh colour on the complex. I remember when suddenly the taupes and beiges were more than just blemished; when in the next impression they were licked up and blinged out by soft lavender. Maps these days speak much more than their ornamental forefathers: they are triangulation, satellite, traffic, a way to find home and to leave it through a voice in your ear. You can skim-read a city like this.
There is a shop I see in my aunty’s apartment complex called “Bling Bling”, in English (as in medallions that could be dumb-bells, or grills that make you jaw ache), that sells I <3 NY t-shirts, children’s Disney costumes, and everything in between. It looks sort of like a charity shop here from the tiny shape of it visible on the street, but it’s called “Bling Bling” and wants to make a quid. Squidged between a sign for a laundry service and a lettings shop, “Bling Bling” is crisp white Tippex swept through veteran smudges and frayed edges; plastic on watercolour that makes you wonder how it’s stayed so life-like. This corner of commerce: shops holding up cram schools for kids in English, maths, piano, upstairs. Next time, “Bling Bling” will be gone after maybe a year of blundering exchanges, replaced by something called something like “Blossom” selling the same t-shirts and costumes recycled.
That was close to where I was sitting waiting for my cousin’s daughter to get off the school bus to nursery and back. The bus was television, American-anorak-yellow and she was being taught in the English language whilst she was young enough for it to stick. I didn’t really need to wait for the child because the bus was only ten paces from her apartment block’s entrance, but it wasn’t a disturbance to me and I liked sitting in that peace within a city with roads that used to put me on edge with their wide, many lanes. I was stressing about the time that comes when this baby reads her books more fluently than my sing-song cadence. Rhythm afforded me secret time; afforded her a performance. Stutters became staccatos and my adoring audience liked the tension before a plot. That patience is the product of good child-rearing, my cousin probably thought. Then, her babble with the grasshoppers and ants, splintering their spindly legs by stepping on them. She was so cute I wanted to eat her.
A split-second failure between street view to satellite shows a parallel universe marked by gridlines on a digital screen. We compose ourselves: recover to see the same- same green roof tops of these cloned buildings; remember my grandmother’s old house, peculiar because it was a house with its own private walls and roof – a lovely arcadian past now from the seventeenth storey. Her roof was still also coloured in this green paint. There are rumours slipping around online that this is a result of a monopoly of roof paint by a chaebol corporation, or that this paint helps to waterproof homes, or that the green reflects light to help cooling. We amuse ourselves by thinking
of travellers flying overhead awed by cities verdant and lush, oxygen abundant. Most of the green tiles visible are the tops of towers edged by thick borders of their own shadows. We pinch and part my fingers like gods – the universe blunders, trips up; names of places become vaguer until, “SOUTH KOREA” (then, “THE WORLD”). The icons of magnifying glass and arrow, serviceable euphemisms for a body, probing to the unsullied depths of this land until we can count the little squares that make up a factory. We hunger for blocks of stone, fabrics to finger, microscope on atom; to move more inwards into populated streets faster than you can walk, to be in an autumn- coloured day and stare up for a long time without neck craning or eyes blinded by sky; for a city of right-angles and rectangles found at the bottom of a kaleidoscope; to see a tree that is tree-like and stays in its place; for a chilli to shrink in its skin at the snap of a button. See a screen scramble to keep up with the wind on a cool day and compute this jagged flow of pixels into gibberish. Make the earth a ball against blackness, and this little corner less than a smudge under cloud forms. My greenery made snotty.
Suey Kweon was born in South Korea and grew up in the UK. Until the pandemic, she worked in a restaurant in London whilst trying to write stories.
“Mapping Chillies” was shortlisted for the 2020 Desperate Literature Short Fiction Prize, which The London Magazine is a partner journal for. The story features in the collection Eleven Stories 2020 published by Desperate Literature, and is re-produced here with permission.
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