Foreign Friday: Oppa

Oppa. She always hesitated to use that word. The intention was too confusing, she thought. How was he supposed to know if she meant “oppa” as in “older brother” or “oppa” as a term of respect for an older guy she knew…or “oppa” as in “honey…” “darling…” “sweetheart?”

It was unfair for a word to have so many meanings. Okay, maybe it was the only word in any language to have such nuances, but it was one word whose meaning should be absolutely clear and without question.

They started walking to school and back home again everyday. It wasn’t planned. He lived two floors above her. She hurried out of her apartment one day, shouting exasperated agreements at her mother, only to come face-to-face with him on the stairs. That was when it started.

She would walk beside him, listening to him speak, trying to think of the right things to say. Her clammy fingers would find their way to the skirt of her school uniform and clutch at the fabric. She always wondered if he would notice her if they didn’t live in the same building.

All the while, her mouth would rebel against her efforts to call him oppa. Honey. That was what she meant, and she wanted so much for him to know. How was it so easy  for the other girls to call the boys oppa? They didn’t waste any effort doing it. She was the only one who seemed to have something broken inside her.

In a fit of desperation, she took to listening to Girl’s Generation’s Oh! on repeat. “Oppa, oppa, I’ll be, I’ll be, down, down, down, down,” she sang with them. Maybe she said it over and over, it would be easier to finally say it when it counted.

It seemed to work.

“Yes, oppa,” she said in response to his question, her heart ballooning in her chest, sweet spring air filling her lungs.

He patted her head as though she were a child–or a puppy.

“I’m so glad you’re finally calling me oppa,” he said. “I think of you as a sister too.”

Oppa. She could imagine the deceptively innocent word pointing and laughing at her.

Boy, did she hate it.

Curious about the meaning of “oppa?”

Foreign Friday is an introduction to Indian and Korean culture in honor of my YA contemporary novel (tentatively titled) Shadows Fall Behind.

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