My Korean sister, ImSuk, sends me a two-minute-and-twenty-second video of my family making dalgona in her Daegu kitchen. It looks so warm and cozy in my sister’s apartment, a place I have never seen, a person I have never met. Since I have never made dalgona in ImSuk’s kitchen, I settle on fabricating myself into the scene. I hear a husky voice speaking a foreign language and, without seeing her, I instinctively know it’s my mother. From what I can gather, she’s instructing my ten-year-old niece, HaYoon, how to make the traditional candy without burning it. My mother’s voice is the same lovely, low timbre I heard five years ago when I met her for the first time. Although we don’t have an established relationship, I cherish knowing she is safe and happy, and I believe she feels the same about me.
My niece’s small hands stir sugar in a metal ladle over a gas flame until it liquifies. The smell of sugar fills the room with a sweetness that reminds me of caramel popcorn at the beach. It mingles with the powdery fragrance of flowers on the table and the tangy hint of kimchi lingering near the fridge. An electric tea kettle — possibly the same one I have here in America — sounds three beeps and tells the women the water is done heating. My mother tells me to make tea. “HeaSook,” she says my Korean name and gestures toward the kettle. She nods approvingly as I spoon black tea into the metal infuser. I add the hot water from the kettle and watch the steam rise. HaYoon pours the liquified sugar, now nicely browned, onto a childish, homemade porcelain plate, probably a school project. I watch as she pokes and prods the candy with a metal chopstick, attempting to imprint it with a smiley face before deciding to shape it into a heart. I grab another chopstick and help her mold it before it hardens. We giggle in the race against time. When my sister’s camera pans to the final product, I see a golden, gleaming, vaguely heart-shaped dalgona resting on a hand-painted, heart-shaped plate — a delicate heart within a heart. The tea is ready. I fill three glass cups halfway, then add a bit of milk and sugar. I lift one to my nose, awaiting a scent to rouse me with memories of Korea. I smell nothing.
“Happy,” HaYoon sings brightly, the only English word in their conversation. With that, the video ends, breaking the spell before I can taste the sugar on my tongue, before I can take a scorching sip of tea. My heart cracks into tiny, bittersweet pieces. I replay the video but only taste salt as tears slide into my mouth.