The Korean Word For Butterfly


When I first heard about the deaths of the two fourteen-year-old Korean girls, I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge of an English School in South Korea.

“Why’s everybody so quiet?” I asked one of the other teachers.

She slid the copy of the small English newspaper across the table, and, with her finger, tapped the photo on the front page. She didn’t need to say anything; the photos said it all. In the right-hand corner were the two girls in their grey school uniforms—similar to the uniforms the Korean girls in our area wore every day. Beneath that was a picture of an American tank sitting on the side of a country road. There had been an accident. One of our tanks had been in route to a training mission, there had been some miscommunication, a broken radio transmitter, and the two girls had been run over.

The majority of the South Korean staff at the school made little eye contact with me that day. And I can’t blame them. Many of them had sons and daughters the same age as those two girls. It was a horrible, horrible to thing to happen, made all the worse because it could have been avoided. From that point on, things changed in South Korea. I was used to being stared and gawked at as the only foreigner many in our small town had ever seen. I was used to having the children run their fingers in awe through the hairs on my arms. But after this accident (or murder, depending on who you talked to), I was suddenly being stared at with unabashed contempt.

The tank accident consumed the country but barely made the headlines back home in the States. It affected, in one way or another, everybody around us. And while I wouldn’t write about the experience until nearly ten years later, those two girls, and the photos of their dead bodies posted everywhere as memorials and vigils gained momentum, came to mean something more to me once I finally had a child of my own. Suddenly what struck me most about the entire thing was how incredibly difficult it must have been for the parents to have been forced to see those images everywhere. Suddenly I began thinking about the decision many of us make to have or not have children and the affects those decisions take on us. And while The Korean Word For Butterfly doesn’t focus on the deaths of those two girls, it does delve into the ripple affect the accident had on the characters in the story.

I remember pushing the paper back across the table that day and saying “I’m sorry” to nobody in particular because I didn’t know what else to say. Next to me at the table one of the Korean secretaries was putting together a children’s book. There was a picture of a butterfly with the Korean word written beneath it: Nabi.

“Yes,” she said without looking up when she heard my apology. “Yes.”

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