Set in the 1950s post-liberation Korea, the novel follows the tumultuous inner state of Haedong, who witnesses and agonizes over the ironical reality where the haves lack a sense of historical debt over the have-nots. The narrative centers around a building called Byuk-soo Sanjang, which really exited in history: the villa of a pro-Japanese collaborator, which later was turned into the seat of UNCURK (United Nations Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea).
Haedong thought that wherever it is, poverty should be gotten rid of first for its hidden beauty to be revealed – the thick and sick layers of penury. In fact, neither Haedong nor anybody around clearly knew what ‘not being poor’ is like. They hoped, for now, that they wouldn’t have to worry about meals and rents and tuition, but no one knew what else there is over those. Haedong and everyone else were running desperately with all their might, but didn’t know what they were running after.
Her beaming smile looked pretty, while it made him wonder if she didn’t know it’s shameful to say that she is poor and the blouse was borrowed. And if he was going to go out with her, Haedong thought, he will have a woolen scarf wrapped around the bare neck of this woman who was born in winter. All these different thoughts were rambling in his mind at the same time, and Haedong couldn’t answer to Jinhyung’s smiling face.
What Haedong had was all very insignificant. The printer his father hid in a pig pen, the favor and kindness his aunt had demonstrated while alive, his job at the UNCURK acquired by a private contract with Mr. Ackernen. These petty things were like a spider web at the roadside, being soiled and ripped by a random kick and disappearing quickly without a trace. Those who can witness they had existed has scattered away and there was only flimsy evidence to say that they actually existed.
“I don’t feel sad about the fact that I didn’t end up being a pianist,” says Jinwook Yoon, as she picks up a bite of pancake from the plate and feeds her two-year-old son who’s clinging to her legs. Yoon, a tall, slender woman in her late thirties, is a mother to two adorable kids. She worked as a piano teacher and accompanist before getting married, but now she devotes herself fully to child rearing and housekeeping.
Her family lives in the Seocho district of Seoul, Korea, which is one of Seoul’s most expensive neighborhoods. When they got married in 2014, she and her husband made a home in the second story of a twenty-year old house, but they moved into a newly built apartment complex in 2018 thanks to the government subsidized housing project. “But we liked the old house very much, though it wasn’t in great shape,” says she when asked about their time there. “When the windows were open it was quite well-ventilated, which I think is important. And the landlady and the other tenants were really nice. I miss the neighborhood as well.”
Before the Coronavirus outbreak, her life was centered on rearing kids and serving the church. With two kids in the backseat, she drove to church, a ten-minute-drive from her home, three or four times a week to attend prayer meetings, street missions, worship service and bible study groups. Her church is a mid-size congregation of around 300, bustling with young people in their twenties and thirties. It is at this church that I got to know Yoon. She is the type of church member that everyone knows and likes. She and her identical twin sister, Sunwook, were very popular in the church. They were both tall, elegant, and warm-hearted. Very fervent in their faith, they served as leaders in bible study groups and foreign missions.
Yoon was not born a Christian. Though her mother was a Christian, she hadn’t stepped into a church until middle school when her friend invited her over to one. But the kids there weren’t particularly nice to the newcomers, and Yoon, deeply hurt and disappointed, stopped going. It was not until 2003, freshman year at college, that she was invited to an evangelizing meeting at her current church and became a believer.
“I believed very easily,” says Yoon. “I believed because I wanted to go to heaven.” She had had fears about death, and didn’t think death is the end of it all. Being familiar with the basic tenets of Christianity, she even feared that she might go to hell because of her sins. After she believed, the fear gave way to peace in her mind. Asked if she has any word for skeptics, she thoughtfully says, “We were not born into this world because we wanted to be born, and we all are destined to die even though we don’t want to die. The fact that we are not in control of our own lives should lead us to take a break and humbly think about God and the afterlife, I think.”
She was born in 1983 in Doksan-dong, Geumcheon-gu and raised mostly in Gaebong-dong, Guro-gu, both situated in the south-western part of Seoul. Yoon also has an older brother, and they were raised mostly by their paternal grandparents who lived with them. It was around age four or five when she first registered the fact that she is a twin. “When we were walking on the streets, people looked at us and said, ‘They are twins!’,” says she. They both studied piano, and even though she was better than her sister both at piano and schoolwork, there was no envy or secret competition between them. “I think I was more geared for achievement than my sister was,” says Yoon. “I was a perfectionist. If there was a measure I didn’t play well enough, I practiced it dozens of times till I mastered it. And my sister was proud of my achievements. Which is a really nice trait of her.”
She went to Hanyang University’s music school, one of the best in Korea, and finished graduate school focusing on accompaniment in 2008. Throughout her college years and beyond she earned a living by giving private lessons and working as an accompanist for the students preparing for music school college entrance exams. When I asked her if she identifies herself as a pianist, she answered briskly, “No.” “When you first study piano, you think you will become a pianist one day, but it is a very rare case,” says she. To become a career pianist, you need to study a lot, which is not inexpensive. In Korea, especially, if you haven’t studied abroad, your career is not properly acknowledged. “So gradually I faced my own limits. But I don’t feel disappointed about myself or have an inferiority complex,” says Yoon.
When her sister Sunwook got married in May 2014, Yoon was quite disoriented on the wedding day. “We slept together in the same room for over thirty years, and now I had to sleep alone. You can imagine what it feels like.” Yoon got married in November of the same year, and except for the one and a half years Sunwook spent in Guangzhou, China for her husband’s work, they lived close by, being companions in child rearing and giving emotional support to each other.
In Korea, the percentage of ‘working moms’ among married women is around 60 percent. There are many news reports and studies that spotlight the hardships working moms face, but those of full-time moms are generally taken for granted. Is Yoon satisfied with her status as a full-time mom? “I don’t want to go out and earn money. Though often times I feel really exhausted and stressed out, I find myself generally enjoying the time with my kids.” Of course, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t miss the carefree good old days. “I badly want to play the piano again. I wish I could spend at least two hours a day practicing piano. I desperately want to feel the joy of completing a piece through constant practice,” answers Yoon.
Nowadays what worries her most is the ongoing environmental problems, including infectious diseases such as COVID 19. “I heard that if global warming continues there will be more natural disasters. I am especially worried about a water shortage. How painful would it be? Though I don’t fear death, I do think about the sufferings we will have to endure while on Earth. So I became more environmentally-conscious since I had a child.”
When I asked her if she has any expectations for her kids, Yoon says, “Because they are still young, I haven’t given much thought to them excelling at school or things like that. Maybe I will later. But what I hope for them now is to live an obedient life before God. Because I believe that is the most blessed life one can have.”
(Book image: from the Facebook page of East Asia Publishing)
Short story by Cho-yeob Kim (2019)
Unauthorized self-translation by Enid Kim
Sophie, how should I start my story?
When this letter reaches you, it must be everyone’s knowledge that I had already left. Would the adults get angry? ‘Cause there was no one who ran away from the village before reaching the age of majority. If it’s okay, could you tell them that I still love them very much, but I don’t regret my decision?
You must be wondering why I decided so.
It must be hard to believe, but I am heading to the ‘initial place.’ Yes, the place we go to as a pilgrimage. I can almost see you sharply criticizing me saying, “We will go there anyway. Why do you have to make trouble and leave early?” I just mimicked your voice. It’s a pity that you couldn’t hear me.
Let us talk about the pilgrimage. I can still clearly recall the coming-of-age rites. It must be the same with you. ‘Cause we followed the crowd every year. The pilgrims, who reached 18, gathered in the town square dressed up in the fashion of the initial place. It was such a strange, yet also interesting scene. They each received a little piece of metal, which the adults made sure never to separate from their body, and walked along the road where we have sprinkled flowers and jewelry powder to the starting point. There we waved them good-bye with a mix of envy, sadness, and a little jealousy, and at the end of the procession a rusty, creaking moving vehicle was waiting for them with its door opened.
Speaking of the moving vehicle, no one has told us how that strange machine works. We had no choice but to believe the words of the adults, who assured us there won’t be any problem. Surely no one at the pilgrimage rite showed scared expression. You can’t be scared about an old machine when you are on your way to become an adult. That’s embarrassing.
The adults didn’t let us see the moment the vehicle left. Do you remember? After we, standing in front of the pilgrims, said good-bye by holding hands and rubbing cheeks, the adults had us sip a drink that has a peculiar smell. Once at school our teacher explained to us the meaning of the drink. That it’s a way of sharing the hardships and troubles that will follow the pilgrims for the next year. Other adults hedged that it’s just an alcoholic drink celebrating the coming-of-age rite, but we knew that it’s not, having sipped some in secret. After having the drink, we got dizzy and passed out for a short while.
For about five to ten minutes. When we recovered ourselves, the vehicle had already left.
When the one year has passed, the pilgrims returned riding the vehicle on the same day and hour. They walked along the Road of Return and entered the village like a hero, and were at last recognized as an adult. But the number of those who returned was always smaller than those who left. Quite often we couldn’t see the faces of some of the pilgrims we knew among the returnees, and strangely enough, soon their names fell into ‘oblivion’ in our village.
While I was thinking over some of the Korean TV dramas I watched, I found that many of the fantasy-based romance stories have similarities.
It is that the male and female leads have a history. They have met each other before but do not remember that. But they do fall in love, and their past adds legitimacy or persuasiveness to their love story.
– Strong Girl Bong-soon (2017): The female lead had saved the male by stopping the bus he was riding on, which was on the brink of falling over a bridge. It was back when he was a school boy. The male has been desperately seeking to find her but didn’t remember her face. He finally realizes that she is she near the end of the story and that makes their love story more complete, I guess.
– What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim? (2018): When young, the two had been kidnapped together but escaped helping each other. But they lost contact and didn’t recognize each other when met again. But they finally find it out and that makes their love story (which is somewhat abrupt without this past story) more persuasive.
– Secret Garden (2010): The male was entrapped in a burning elevator and was saved by a firefighter, who lost his life while saving the male. At his funeral the male sees his daughter crying. After grown up they meet again, and through some magic (which is seemingly the working of the passed-away father) their love deepens. They also find out about their shared past and it completes the story.
– My Love from the Star (2013): They met each other some hundred years ago. The female died, while the male is from another planet and lives on and on until it reaches present age and the female is born again (though this is not that clearly indicated). They face hardship together and fall in love.
So why this kind of pattern? Are they needed because without them it is hard to explain why the male and female fall in love so quickly, almost out of blue? Or is it resulting from Korean concept of In-yeon, or yuanfen (缘分) in Chinese, which means that there is an unseen tie or connection between two people that finally leads them to be together..?
I haven’t examined if American dramas also have these patterns yet, but want to do so some day.
Though I don’t like its English title, I enjoyed the movie itself very much.
What touched me most was the subtly growing intimacy between two lonely but lovely characters, of course, but what drew my attention was the movie’s portrayal of the life of Chinese (Asian) Americans.
The movie touches upon many aspects of immigrant life. Frank, who was a famous surgeon back in China, now lives on as a driver – which is a common thing among immigrants. Frank and his wife decide to live separately for their daughter’s education, and end up getting divorced – I have seen similar situations when I lived in the States. And the story evolves around an illegal maternity center, which is run for those who want American citizenship for their children. In Korea this ‘birth tourism’ has become a social issue for a while. And the movie also touches on the generational gap or strife among immigrant parents and children, which was shown in the Huang Tai’s dance scene with her to-be-son-in-law on Christmas day. And though just briefly mentioned, there is an implication of distrust between Chinese and Taiwanese Americans in the scene where Jiajia objects to Frank’s suggestion to go to Huang Tai’s maternity center.
What’s more, the foreign land itself is not kind to these lonely souls. The much-feared customs at the airport is what only foreigners trying to get into the States can comprehend. When Jiajia tries to sell her real designer bags on street, the white passers-by seem to think that they are fake ones. The over-reacting sales person at the wedding gown shop, though sweet, can be intimidating to some shy Asians.
These realistic but humorous portrayals of immigrant life peppered throughout the film are what saves it from falling into a banal love story.
(P.S. – There are some flaws in the character building: It is difficult to comprehend why Jiajia, who had her own career as an editor in chief of a food magazine, fell so low as to become a xiaosan of a wealthy businessman. And isn’t it too much, however self-giving Frank is, to run an errand to pick up a wedding dress for his ex-wife?)
He wanted to be a painter. His drawings from younger years seem quite promising. In one piece he drew a figure he had seen in a dream. It resembled Gundam figures that were popular among kids during the 90s. The lines are sharp and strong. His teacher once urged him to join a school painting club, but he didn’t because he was unsure of his talent. Now, he says, he is just a ‘normal’ person. Though he still doodles.
Now he studies engineering. His daily routine is a never-ending quest for the ever-elusive ‘good ideas’ and ‘right results’ from the experiments. He isn’t sure whether it will ever reach an end. Sometimes his wife pesters him, asking him will he ever finish his study. Though she says it’s only a joke, it hurts. Still, he follows the routine – gets up, goes to the daily morning prayer service, cooks a meal for the still-deep-in-her-dream wife, and leaves for school. Yesterday, today, tomorrow – he will keep walking forward.