As soon as the last of our relatives had arrived, my grandfather started drinking rice wine and telling us about his career as an architect. My uncles didn’t listen since it was always the same story. My father at least looks in my grandfather’s direction but keeps his eyes focused on the TV across the room. My mother is talking to my grandmother. So, my grandfather starts talking to me. “I’m so happy,” he says, smiling to himself, as always. But when we finish eating, he quietly sits on a sofa in the living room and gives a good long sigh. My grandmother goes to him and asks what’s the matter. He replies that he’s remembering how he gave away something to his friend a long time ago, and it was a big mistake he cannot forget. They begin whispering, which makes it harder for me to hear them.
I finally hear my grandfather say the words “our land.” Because I might make him uncomfortable if I ask him about it, I decide to ask my mom instead, who is washing the dishes. He had a friend, she says, whom he met in grad school. They were competitive then, but ended up becoming very close. My grandfather sold him part of the family land for very little because of their friendship. Ten years later, my grandfather was renovating a five-story building on his land. He wanted to build a small extension, which would have fit perfectly on the land he had sold. He begged his friend to sell him back the land, but the friend refused, insisting that he had his own plans for development. Ultimately, my grandfather just decided to give up his idea for the extension. After that, my grandfather avoided his friend. Today, the lot behind his building is still undeveloped.
My mom calls everyone to the kitchen for dessert. I expect my grandfather to be in his room, maybe going to bed a little bit early because it had been a long day for him. Instead, he is sitting on the sofa with my younger cousin, Jina, on his lap. He makes a cuckoo sound as he lifts her. She giggles while she is being held up in the air. My grandfather smiles.
Up until that point, I had only seen my grandfather disappointed after losing a game of Go; I had never seen him shaken by his regrets. Years later, he still grieves the land lost and, more fundamentally, what he saw as the betrayal of a close friend. People are much more complex and unpredictable than we can realize: my grandfather could not have predicted his quarrel with his friend any more than I could’ve known how deeply it had hurt him. And yet what surprised me even more was how quickly he recovered his carefree personality that day. I admire my grandfather for not becoming embittered or consumed by his disappointment, but focusing instead on making the family happy, which is what has made him happy.
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