New Explorations of Old Spaces
by Daehyun Kim December 09, 2021
In Korea’s quest for accelerated development during the modern period, the local provinces were sacrificed for the sake of Seoul and the overall prosperity of the nation. Capital began accumulating in Seoul to be invested in the country’s industrialization, and all of Korea’s human and material resources were pumped into the city in a strategic attempt to go all-in on what the nation perceived to be its winning hand; these resources stayed in Seoul and were reinvested in the city, as naturally befits the market principle of economies of scale. As this cycle repeated itself, the gap between Seoul and the other provinces no longer simply became about geography; the discrepancies became a very real and insurmountable gap that impacted all sectors—culture, economy, education, and public administration. These disparities later became a social basis to justify the further marginalization of the provinces.
The same could be seen in Korean literature. Thus far, Seoul has (un)consciously served as the default backdrop for most Korean fiction, both as the physical setting and as the cognitive framework through which the narratives were perceived. Within the center-periphery binary, the non-Seoul provinces were portrayed either as odd, unfamiliar, and incongruous spaces for Seoul’s urbanites to wander around in or as the culturally backward boondocks of pre-modernity. Although several works of fiction placed their narratives in local provinces, most of them were devoted to the workday struggles of characters who never made it to the mainstream, or testimonials of the various tragedies that occurred in the provinces throughout Korea’s tumultuous modern and contemporary history, including, but not limited to, colonialism, liberation, war, and dictatorship. Or, as a reaction to this phenomenon, there were some works that sang the praises of old farmlands and fishing villages that weren’t despoiled by the ravages of urbanization and instead were idealistic vestiges of a quaint, provincial past (complete with the obligatory slang and diction particular to the towns); these too were superficial attempts at representation that didn’t give near enough consideration to the lived realities in the provinces or were additional instances of the city-province binary where the lone protagonist goes navel-gazing in a place meant to stand in stark contrast to the big cities.
Against this context, it is encouraging to see a plethora of new works that attempt a new understanding of the local provinces by applying a contemporary, rather than an anachronistic, perspective. These works deal with how themes such as discrepancies in the past and current understandings of a particular historical event, changes in labor conditions due to capital flight, and a complexly formed ethos of a particular place can ultimately impact individuals and their thought processes. Here, I would like to explore the potential for new spaces that can be carved out in Korean literature as these works hopefully suggest.
“Then What Shall We Sing?” looks at the city of Gwangju from the perspective of a generation that has not directly experienced the citywide movement for democracy. The massacre that killed countless Gwangju citizens in May 1980 placed an enormous debt on their contemporaries living in other cities and provinces, and forever imprinted Gwangju as a place of mourning and remembrance. Korean literature treated Gwangju largely in the same vein. “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” opined Theodor Adorno; to imagine a narrative about Gwangju that excluded mention of the tragedy was likewise implicitly forbidden. To members of the younger generation, however, the Gwangju tragedy is like the other tragedies in the pages of their history books, i.e., incidents of the past and not of the present. “It feels like there’s a curtain in front of me,” says the protagonist in “Then What Shall We Sing?” Gwangju may be a place that still evokes feelings of grief and remembrance to those who witnessed the tragedy firsthand, but it is also a place many young people call home and go about living their own lives. By revealing this intergenerational cognitive dissonance regarding an era-defining tragedy, the short story shows how Gwangju can no longer simply be narrowly categorized as a place of mourning and remembrance, but that it is, like all other cities, a space that inspires new imaginations.
Set against a newly built satellite city of Seoul, “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work” portrays the lives of office workers in the IT industry. Satellite cities are artificially manufactured towns whose objective is to redistribute the functions that are concentrated in Seoul. The cities are designed to serve an explicit purpose, which is why their demographics and industries are less organically diverse, as they are in other places, and more artificially dictated. One case in point is the satellite city of Pangyo, a place almost entirely inhabited by highly educated IT professionals servicing knowledge-based advanced industries. In the story, the C-suite officers of a tech company promote such “woke” values as open communication and a horizontal organizational culture, in seeming contrast to the workers’ former employers. However, the executives’ contempt for their workers and their instinct for worker exploitation clearly simmer under their cool-boss façade, as when one officer exacts revenge on an employee who angered him by paying his salary in redeemable points instead of cash. The workers do not put up a fight in the face of such injustice, instead enduring their daily grind while they wait for their next paycheck. Even as the way we work continues to evolve, the novel argues that the fundamental conflict between capital and labor has largely remained the same.
The background for “Van Gogh’s Light” is a non-urban area located on the outskirts of the Seoul metropolitan region. While Seoul’s satellite cities witnessed a transfer of many of the capital’s functions into its planned interiors, the non-urban regions outside Seoul accommodate businesses engaged in high-risk, small-scale engineering and manufacturing who were driven out of Seoul by its high wages and high property prices. Once sprawling farmlands, these regions now source their cheap labor from migrant workers of various backgrounds; as such, these regions function as transitional zones that are a melting pot of various cultures. Abul is one such migrant worker who is fired without any compensation when his hand is pulverized by an industrial machine. In despair, he takes his own life. No one cares about the lives of these workers who exist on the periphery of the community. There might be a few people who pay some heed to their lives and deaths, but the forces of capital, assisted by the oppression of Korea’s judicial system, by and large abandon the migrant workers who groan under the tyranny of indifference. It appears that the countless tragedies that occurred in our cities in the run-up to industrialization have not gone away; they have simply been swept under the rug in these non-urban towns for our peace of mind.
I Live Alone in Jeju and I Can’t Hold My Drink is a collection of poetry set on the island of Jeju-do, which, of all the Korean provinces, sets itself apart with its geopolitical distinctiveness. Jeju-do is administratively speaking a part of the Korean Peninsula, yet it has its own unique history and culture that cannot easily be brought into the same fold with the rest of the nation. As with Gwangju, Jeju was for a long time understood as the setting for some of the most atrocious events in contemporary Korean history; alternatively, it was seen as an exotic destination where mainlanders could sojourn for a couple of days and feel as if they were in an entirely new place. Recently, Jeju has also taken on a new identity as a symbol of an alternative lifestyle and a place where people fed up with their current lives can escape to and start anew. For these reasons, it is difficult to demarcate Jeju’s sense of place. This poetry collection, written not by a Jeju local or a traveler breezily passing by, but by someone existing on the periphery, provides yet another perspective of Jeju’s sense of place. In the collection, the author goes through a process of self-discovery wherein she stumbles upon the realization that she may be a “strange funny person” as she seeks to integrate herself with the ill-defined, deliciously complicated identity of her adopted home.
Translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim
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I Live Alone in Jeju and Can’t Hold My Drink When it’s June in Jeju and the hydrangeas in Jongdal-ri fill out I’ll pluck a hydrangea at nightfall squeeze out its juice in a juicer and drink it I want to take on the hydrangea’s juicy tone so I watch the flowers every day Come, step right up to me. I got to know myself inside and out while living on my own I found I have an artistic temperament I paint the big picture every day Maybe that is why I’m single My identity knows no end. When I see the travelers who flock to Jeju the water bowl behind me spills over It’s all because my shell is thin and weak I hope they don’t get hurt I want to tell them: Don’t fall in love again ©Yeji Yun The wind blowing in Jeju has pulled out all my feathers Progress knows no end. Every day, I imagine running off to Gimpo I imagine stealing Gimpo But I won’t run away I won’t steal I’m a strange funny person living in Jeju I make others laugh and laugh a lot by myself too There’s a lot to laugh about in Jeju It’s a hard place to live for a fugitive, though Your laughter will get you noticed right away Translated by Agnel Joseph by Lee Wonha
Then What Shall We Sing? It was 8 p.m. on a Thursday, at a café with wide tables near UC-Berkley. I remember the night air feeling crisp and dry. The language exchange meeting was going more or less according to schedule. The format was for the day’s speaker to present on her choice of topic and explain Korean terms in English and English terms in Korean. It was Haena’s turn. Haena had a Korean mother and American father. Her mother had died ten years ago, and her father was now married to woman from Seattle. “So, are you living with your parents now?” “No. My dad and his wife are in LA. I’m here in Berkley on my own.” She began telling me this and that even though she hadn’t met me before. “My grandparents came to America, and my mother . . .,” she continued. I didn’t know what to say. I just listened to her talk and nodded and expressed interest. After she was done, she turned to the others smiling, and said last week’s presentation was on such-and-such, and this happened. It was to fill me in. The others agreed. Yes, that’s right. That was funny. Haena had stapled some handouts together which she brought out of her bag and passed around. She said they were about “May 18,” and I was surprised by the obvious. In Korean, we said “5.18.” I said, “Oh? I’m from where that happened.” Haena said, “Really?” and looked at me. I wondered why it was so surprising, why her eyes had grown big in astonishment. “Yes, I was born there,” I added. Come to think of it, it was May when I was vacationing in San Francisco that year. I hadn’t expected the subject to come up in a Berkley area café. For that to be where I’d hear about an event that had happened about thirty years earlier, in the place where I was born. I’d expected other, lighter conversation. Do Koreans really believe in fan death? Like, that you’ll die from a lack of oxygen if you sleep with a fan on? That kind of thing. But here I was, listening to people talking about the events of May 18 as if they were indisputable facts, like the suppression of the people on Bloody Sunday in Ireland, or Pinochet terrorizing Chile. It was as if the English language itself lent objectivity to the incident. Haena’s handout included English information from the May 18 Memorial Foundation and an article printed in the New York Times. ©Yeji Yun After the copies were passed out, we were ready to read. We took turns reading aloud, one paragraph each. We covered three or four large pages of closely spaced print in what seemed like no time. The barista called to say our drinks were ready, and some of us rose to collect them. The long-haired girl sitting across from me had ordered a milkshake, and I a cappuccino. My squat cup stood across from her tall glass. We all took a sip of our drinks and looked at Haena. When everyone was reseated, Haena started her talk by giving some background information about Korea at that time. There was nothing incorrect about what she said, but there were some differences hearing the information in Korean and in English. The differences weren’t there for Haena, just for me. I took a sip of my coffee and glanced at the handout again. The pages dense with print included a few photos—one of a man whose face was mangled, another of young men with bandanas around their foreheads or necks riding on a truck, and another of soldiers looking down at people kneeling. I took another drink. Then someone asked where Gwangju was and so Haena drew a map of Korea. Actually, it was more of an outline. She pointed to Gwangju’s position on it. She knew exactly where it was. “Here, south of Seoul and west of Busan.” Some of the group members nodded, Oh. A Korean exchange student studying in San Francisco asked what “massacre” meant. “What does this mean? It keeps coming up and I don’t know it.” Someone broke it down in simple terms: killing a lot of people by brutal means. “What is it in Korean?” “Haksalhada.” The student underlined the word and wrote the definition below, as if inserting a footnote. Haksalhada. Haena and I exchanged email addresses. And that was the end of the meeting. We must have talked some more, too, but I can’t remember anything from our conversation. Maybe we said: Whose turn is it next? Oh, I’ve something going on that day. Oh, really? I’ll go, then. Where are we meeting? You choose the venue and send me an email to let me know. Okay. Our conversation would have gone something like that. When we left to go home, Haena gave me a few more sheets of paper. “I wanted to share this, but I couldn’t.” I took the papers back to my accommodations. I had to pass through Chinatown to get to my room. The sky was blue that night, and the slender road stretched below it. The traffic signal changed, and as I was slowly crossing the street, I met eyes with a middle-aged white man. He asked if I was Chinese or Taiwanese or Japanese and suggested going for a drink. I was ready to nod, thinking I should acknowledge the right nationality if it came up. An inner voice was urging me to follow this man and drink with him and do as he asked, whatever it was. But even as I waited with this mindset, the chance to nod never came. I missed my moment to respond. Nothing happened, and I crossed without answering. I passed the man, who just stood there on the street, and returned to my room. I lay down on my bed and unfolded the papers. The poem was “Massacre, Part II” by Kim Nam-ju. Typed out in Korean and English, it was like something written by a foreigner. Someone who’d been watching with bated breath as military troops stormed Mexican or Chilean universities in the late 1960s. Someone who’d been there to see people disappearing from the streets. Like a text about Guernica, or Taipei in 1947. A poem in which someone is beaten in an alley at night. A poem in which someone is beating someone. Someone is beating someone and someone is being beaten; someone is killing, and someone is dying. And many people are crying. That kind of a poem. Next there was a copy of something written forcefully by hand which turned out to be a manifesto. I noticed some words: “Guardians of Democracy.” Above it, Haena had written an explanatory note. Year XXXX on the Dangun calendar had been changed to 19XX on the Gregorian calendar. I met Haena three years later, and in that time, I’d been to Kyoto on vacation. I am mentioning this for two reasons. First, because it was the only travelling I did in this time, and second, because someone there brought up the subject of Gwangju as well. I met him at a bar in the Shijo Kawaramachi neighborhood. So, where was it more unexpected to suddenly hear about an incident that took place in the city where I was born—in a café near Berkley or in a bar near Shijo Station? Of course, I don’t remember the name of the man at the bar, but he had a sturdy build and looked to be in his early sixties. He wore glasses and a dark blue shirt. I remember some of his facial expressions, together with the lines around his eyes. Perhaps he didn’t tell me his name, or even if he did, I can’t remember it because I never called him by it. He owned the bar, and I was the only patron, the only patron for some time. I had draft beer and he drank sake warmed in a large pot. I kept looking back and forth from the simmering pot to the man’s reddening face. After a while, I felt as if the alcohol was boiling down to its essence. My beer was cold, but the warmed sake was blazing hot, and the face of the person drinking it looked hot somehow as well. “Where are you from?” “Korea.” “Where in Korea?” “You won’t know it even if I tell you.” “Where?” “Gwangju. It’s south of Seoul and west of Busan.” “Oh.” He took a sip of water and picked up a piece of radish that was boiling by the sake. It had been boiling in sauce with an egg. It was dark brown because it had been boiled in the sauce with the egg for a long time. In fact, it was so brown that I should have described it another way. “It was left so long to boil in the sauce,” or “it must have been boiled for a long time” or “only by being boiled so long could it be so brown.” This would better convey the dark color. The man put the radish on a saucer and gave it to me and placed one before himself as well. “I know that place.” “Really?” “My friend wrote the song ‘Koshu City.’ Isn’t this it?” He took a pen and wrote “光州 City” on a thin napkin sitting on the table. I nodded. I asked about the song, and he said it was about soldiers entering the city and killing many people at the time. Oh. I acknowledged what he said and went back to drinking my beer. “Didn’t many people die in Koshu City? And on Jeju Island as well?” He said it like you would say something in passing. While drinking his beverage. He swallowed a sip of beer and talked about many people dying. He came from behind the counter and rummaged through some books that were stacked under a back table. He brought out a photo book that had been stuck in a corner. There was a street café in Kyoto. A young man wearing sunglasses was sitting in a chair reading a newspaper. On the page he was reading, there was a large photo of a man bleeding, being dragged away by a soldier. The man being dragged away was wearing a suit; he looked like an office worker. I stared at the page for a long time and then someone opened the door to the bar and came in. I met Haena again the following spring. After our first meeting in San Francisco, I sometimes exchanged emails with her. We wrote occasionally in English, but mostly in Korean. 안녕, 잘 지내니? [Hi. How are you doing?] Even these words sometimes felt awkward. It wasn’t that Haena’s Korean was that unnatural, but as I was reading along, chunks of Korean got clumped together, and the screen came to look as if it were covered in splotches. This was quite the effect, and it made me think of the email sender as an unusual child. Of course, it was a little petty of me. Haena said she was taking Korean at a university language institute in Seoul. I’m going to Gwangju next week. If you’re there, let’s get together. I wrote back to tell her I was in Seoul, but that I had a reason to go down the following week. Then shall we meet? Call me. 안녕. [Bye.] My reply also looked like trembling clumps of Korean characters somehow. Like compounds made by tearing letters from somewhere and pasting them on the computer screen. It had little clumps in it that didn’t come together. Haena and I were going to hear the Gwangju Orchestra perform Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony, Symphony no. 2, Fifth Movement in front of the South Jeolla Province government building. That year marked thirty years since May 1980. The outdoor concert would commemorate this important anniversary. Haena said she’d come to Gwangju a day early to visit the May 18 National Cemetery. We arranged to meet at the Post Office in Chungjang-ro. People all met there before going to other places. I hadn’t seen her in some time. Her hair was shorter, and she looked calm, maybe because she was dressed in black. We greeted each other and hugged briefly. Haena said the concert we were going to see was cancelled on account of rain. I was disappointed. Now I had the question of what I’d do with Haena, whom I’d only met once some years before. What should we do? When I asked, the answer came back, “Well, how about let’s eat?” Although it was threatening to rain, the night air was fresh and not too humid. We went to a local Chinese restaurant, had japchaebap and came out and walked for a while. It was quiet in Gwangju, and not notably different from other days. In particular, no one was saying anything out loud. It was unusual, but no one around there spoke much. Some days, they talked loudly about things, and other days, they kept their mouths shut and said nothing. Usually they said nothing. We walked towards the provincial building and little by little we started to feel the raindrops falling. “Oh, rain. It’s raining,” we said softly, and stretched our hands up into the empty air. The rain landed on our palms. I shook mine dry as I walked along. The rain soon quit. We walked around the old provincial building that was specially opened to the public only for this period. On the first floor there was a showing of video footage taken that May. Two men in their twenties were standing side by side watching the video. Two men watching it calmly, their hands at their sides. Two men in two white shirts standing side by side. Behind them was a Japanese man who looked to be in his fifties speaking in Japanese with a twenty-something man. The younger one seemed to be a Korean who was interpreting. We left them behind and walked up to the second floor. Nobody was there except Haena and me. We were in an empty hallway. A dark hallway. A gray, heavy gray hallway, and around us were only the smells of the cement building and the peeling paint. Few people can talk about what really happened in that gray hallway. And those who really know what happened there might tell you a different story. I mean, a different story than what you’ve heard so far. Then that will become yet another story. We looked outside. It might rain again. With that thought, we left the building. Translated by Kari Schenk by Bak Solmay
The Extremely High-Spec Machine That Only Works in This Room Tae-sik first met Si-on in winter three years ago, when he had just finished university and moved in temporarily with his older brother, Tae-in, in Seoul. Eight years Tae-sik’s senior, Tae-in had steadily saved up his earnings and bought the old condo unit at a relatively young age and lived there alone for several years. Or maybe not always alone. The possibility never occurred to Tae-sik (not because he assumed it never happened, but because he had little interest in his brother) until Si-on entered the passcode to the door and walked in like it was the most normal thing in the world. He was shocked that a stranger knew the code and had let herself in but when he saw her face and the way she carried herself, part of him understood. She didn’t seem the type to hang out with him so much as the type Tae-in probably had a weakness for. Before moving in, Tae-sik had lived apart from Tae-in for a long time and their age difference also meant that when he was in elementary school, Tae-in was in high school, so it wasn’t mutual dislike so much as disinterest. But one look at Si-on told Tae-sik that she was someone his brother loved and also someone he was weak against. In any event, Tae-sik was not alone in facing an unexpected situation but whereas his shock was mild, the nature of Si-on’s response was and still is hard to discern. Was she also mildly surprised or scared or nervous that she might be seen as a creep? He didn’t know, but Tae-sik’s memory told him it was probably the latter. She looked around anxiously and once she was convinced that she had not walked into the wrong unit she took a deep breath and explained herself. There was little in the way of resemblance between they ways Tae-sik and Tae-in carried themselves so most people never recognized that they were brothers but Tae-in must have told Si-on at some point that he had a brother nearly a decade his junior. Then she asked: – By any chance, are you . . . his brother? – That’s right. But who are you? – My name is Kim Si-on. – So you’re . . . Silently imploring for Tae-sik to understand, she added that she was Tae-in’s friend. She brought her clasped hands up to her chest and then released her fingers as though saying friend didn’t really mean friend. She claimed that in any case she was a friend of Tae-sik’s brother, that they were close, and that she had to see him again. The oatmeal-colored curtain behind Si-on who stood by the table caught Tae-sik’s eye like a backdrop that reminded him of his first impression of this unit and how everything was so appropriate and un-excessive as though selected with care and thought. – Actually, he’s off traveling right now. – When did he leave? – Monday. – When will he be back? – Soon. Uh . . . next week. Si-on gave an understanding nod and pointed at Tae-in’s room with a look saying she needed to pick up something and wanted permission and then allowed herself in. Tae-sik seated himself at the table and focused on the sounds from Tae-in’s room. Si-on must be lying on the bed. He heard the frumpling of blankets and something weighty shifting on the mattress. She did not come outside, so Tae-sik began to count the minutes. Twenty minutes later, she was still inside. Lying in a familiar bed with nothing but one door between herself and a stranger, were her eyes open or closed? She couldn’t have fallen asleep. Not actually looking for anything, just lying in another person’s bed with a stranger outside the door. Tae-sik didn’t even feel like drinking tea but he found himself putting the kettle on and placing bags of black tea in a pair of mugs and pouring the hot water into the mugs. The shuffling must have roused Si-on who finally left the room and took the mug Tae-sik held out for her. – Anyway, I know this sounds crazy. Tae-sik didn’t know what she was trying to say but when he gazed into her face, he somehow understood at that moment. That, just like his brother, he would have a weakness for her too. Si-on explained that she would leave for Canada at the end of winter. That she had to see Tae-in because she would live there for some time. She said she would come visit again next week but when she stood, she froze briefly in thought and sat right back down. – It’s not that I have to see him. But I want to. – Sure. That’s fine. At the time Tae-sik should have told her that Tae-in was going to go into cold sleep straight after the trip, and even when he caught Si-on’s pleading gaze asking when exactly he was coming back next week, he did not give her a specific date and looked away. Probably at his phone or the tabletop as he gave vague responses, until he picked up their mugs and put them in the sink. Si-on said little but her thoughts were written in her eyes and on her face so even when she was silent it was like she wasn’t silent but very clear about the things she wanted. He would remember this for a long time, Tae-sik knew: her pensive face as she sat at the table, her head almost imperceptibly bowed and lips pursed in defiance, her face as she suddenly looked up, exhaled, and gave him a clear, demanding look that said she could not accept this situation. He saw her back and shoulders as she left the door. They were wide and erect, with no hint of a slouch. Tae-sik went back to the kitchen and looked cautiously at the seat she left vacant as though she were still sitting there—sitting there and watching him. He would look back into her face. Refusing to turn away from the steepled hands and unflinching gaze, he met her eyes. The day Tae-sik met Kim Si-on was not the first time it occurred to him that he had no idea what kind of life his brother led or what he thought about. In late summer of the same year Tae-in had asked him to be his cold sleep guide. When Tae-sik asked why, Tae-in had replied that it was because he wanted to stay asleep for a long time. He said no more. It had been about two months since Tae-sik had gotten his license. Tae-sik had never been serious about the job and the license was just a fallback for a part-time job he might have to do at some point so the proposal surprised him but at the same time he noticed the exhaustion on his brother’s profiled face. Everything he knew about cold sleep came rushing back and automatically applied themselves to the circumstances of his own brother. But Tae-sik didn’t know how similar or different—or both—his brother was to other people who chose cold sleep. A significant number of people had cold sleep experience by now, with last year’s statistics showing that the number of participants who treated it like a sort of Christmas vacation had increased significantly, now accounting for 5 percent of all participants. Researchers claimed that the majority of this group was composed of people subject to extreme stress at work, such as corporate executives or lawyers, and that regular cold sleep was a way for them to take a brief but restful break. Cold sleep was not a mechanism for escape or an antisocial phenomenon. But admittedly it was not easy to think of an action or choice that was entirely without the purpose of escape or antisocial intent, perhaps with the exception of greeting the server at a restaurant before being greeted, but in any case, Tae-sik was taught that cold sleep was an acceptable way for people to spend their spare time, like travel and exercise, and the steadily-increasing amount of data concerning the procedure supported this perspective, betraying the pessimistic predictions from the past. In spite of this, Tae-sik still thought of it more as a treatment for people who had experienced trauma or suffered from severe fatigue. The 5 percent, he thought, were people who experienced trauma or were fatigued because their work was considered socially important and especially burdensome. It wasn’t possible for heavy workloads to not exhaust someone. In fact, they were precisely the cause of exhaustion. What then did Tae-sik think of the 95 percent? The people who enjoyed novelty, the people who took their friends’ suggestions, and the people who, like the 5 percent, were just as tired and weary? – I have a license, sure, but I’ve never actually done it before. – I have. – What? When? Tae-in didn’t go into the details and instead explained that he had an especially long vacation coming up to celebrate ten years of working at his company and that he would go on a trip and then go into cold sleep afterwards. – So you’ve done it before, but how does that help me? You’re going to be asleep the whole time. – What I mean is that I know I won’t have any side effects, so you don’t have to worry too much. I’m a veteran, and all you have to do is follow the procedures. I’m helping by eliminating variables. Glancing sidelong at Tae-in’s face, Tae-sik decided he did not want to look at his brother’s sleeping face every day. It was an act of such intense closeness that just thinking about it made him want to run. The fact that they were family, the fact that each was someone’s child and sibling and some were even parents on top of that was like a metal spoon with a hefty chunk of overpowering food being shoved between his lips. But in the end he chose to accept Tae-in’s request. Tae-sik didn’t remember clearly how he felt when he agreed, but it might have been because, since his teens, they had been so disinterested in each other and he had known so little about him so he thought he might be up for the task after all. But he knew he should not consider this further because the more he considered it he would find himself thinking it didn’t have to be that way, and that it didn’t not have to be that way, either. That he’d convince himself his first instinct that he’d never want to be a cold sleep guide for family wasn’t so strong an opinion as he’d thought and he would end up taking what seemed like the path of least resistance at the time. And the fact was, Tae-in was right when he said Tae-sik needed the money. Tae-sik had thought in response that he wanted to make money. And in that moment, he ended up considering again. Tae-in went into cold sleep three days after returning from his trip. He said he’d come back from Hawaii but the souvenir he brought could have been from any old airport or even a local department store because it was a box of macadamia chocolates that you didn’t have to have gone to Hawaii for, but Tae-sik quickly told himself he didn’t need to think about that. He told himself to not think. He tidied up Tae-in’s room to dedicate it fully to the cold sleep and moved his own things which he’d left there temporarily into the smaller room. Tae-sik had always slept in the small room but decided to sleep in the living room during the cold sleep so he would hear immediately if something went wrong. At night he laid out a mat and a futon by the table. The day before the procedure Tae-in went to a local cold sleep clinic to register his plans and got another health exam. His company health exam had only been two months ago and it had detected no serious issues but Tae-in chose to get the unnecessary examination anyway since he was there. The thorough exam revealed that he still had no serious health issues or problems that might prevent him from going safely into cold sleep. Tae-sik looked at the chair across the table where Si-on had sat. In the next seat over sat Tae-in. For some reason he hadn’t wanted to say that Si-on had come to visit but he didn’t even want to consider the fact that he didn’t want to say so. Tae-sik wanted to think of her in a different way. – Friend of yours dropped by the other day. She knew the passcode and let herself in. – Yeah? Guess it’s time to change it. As Tae-in got up to change the passcode, Tae-sik stared at his back. Tae-sik was the one who worked out regularly but Tae-in was taller and although he did work out in his own way Tae-in’s work had nothing to do with exercise and he didn’t do it regularly. They were similar in that neither were talkative and if they happened to sit down together, they would either watch TV in silence or do their own things. Tae-in disappeared into his room. It was almost the end of the week Tae-sik had told Si-on about. Tae-sik explained the cold sleep procedure to Tae-in yet again and Tae-in listened with the indifferent nods of a veteran. Tae-sik thought Tae-in might complain that he knew all this but Tae-in listened to the end and took the medication as Tae-sik directed and performed a few final diagnosis tests before he went to sleep exactly on schedule. Tae-sik went over the procedure once more in his head and made a list of things to confirm at the next scheduled check. This was the first time he was putting his license to use. He looked down at his brother’s sleeping face and thought that the face was all too familiar but not from the front, even though they lived in the same house. But the more he stared, the more it seemed like the face of a stranger, the face of some man in his mid- to late-thirties with wrinkles growing on his face, and by the time he found himself saying, But this guy is actually . . . he’s actually . . ., Tae-sik recognized him again as someone he knew intimately. He stood with gaze locked there for a long time before he went back to the living room to set his alarm to go off every hour. It was the first day and that came with risks so he wanted to check in often. Although Tae-sik was worried he might sleep through the alarm, he found himself falling asleep and waking up on time with mechanical ease. It wasn’t until nine in the morning that he finished his checks and let himself have a normal schedule. No more alarms to turn off. Just waking up and living life. He changed and ran for half an hour and went to a nearby hilltop. He warmed up again and ran to the top. Maybe because it was around lunchtime, it was surprisingly deserted. He would keep doing this. Make this climb at the same time each day, then come home for lunch and do work and watch TV in the afternoon and then check in on Tae-in occasionally and have dinner and do another lap around the neighborhood, then wash up and go to bed. For the first little while, he would get up once an hour to check on Tae-in, and in the following week he would check once every two hours. He remembered Tae-in calling himself a cold sleep veteran and considered the word. Veteran. On the way home, Tae-sik picked up eggs, cereal, milk, and meat. Each time he remembered that he was a cold sleep guide, a wave of anxiety crashed over his back. He picked up his groceries a little faster than usual and rushed home and showered and checked on his brother. When he sat down for lunch, he thought of Si-on again, but found that her face was now a blur. But the look of demanding something and her short stature against her unusually wide and angular shoulders seemed to flash with terrifying clarity before his eyes. The second time he met Si-on was a week into Tae-in’s cold sleep. He was on his way back from working out and she stood at the bus stop by the condo, facing his direction. In that moment, Tae-sik felt like something he’d expected and waited for was really happening. With looks of recognition that didn’t need spoken greetings, they walked together to the condo. Tae-sik stopped partway through asking her to wait because he realized it would take him half an hour to wash and change and check on Tae-sik. He almost asked her to come into the unit until he remembered Tae-in changing the passcode as soon as he told him about her. Si-on turned and pointed towards the bus stop and told him she would be at the café across the alley. – It might take a while. I’d like some coffee. – Right. Sure thing. Si-on seemed like a different person outside than when she was inside. In the shower, Tae-sik thought about the strange sense of relief and uncanny tension he felt when he saw her. He hadn’t consciously waited for that meeting, but he did have the thought that what he’d expected had really come true. He went to check on Tae-in before heading to the café. Tae-sik ordered coffee and took a seat across from Si-on and wondered if the things they would talk about could really ever be properly explained, but quickly stopped that line of thought. – I don’t think you’ll be able to see him right now. – He did come back from his trip, right? – Yes. – Is he home? – No. No, he isn’t. Technically, he wasn’t not home, but he also was and Tae-sik wondered who his brother would be all right knowing about his cold sleep. In principle, going into cold sleep was a private matter unless there was an emergency, but Tae-sik just didn’t know enough about Tae-in. Tae-in had claimed he’d told everyone who was supposed to know, but Tae-sik couldn’t even begin to be sure that Tae-in ever talked to anybody and didn’t know if he would ever be able to bring himself to ask. The demanding look from before was gone from Si-on’s face and she looked a little sad but also resigned. Or maybe that was what Tae-sik needed in order to feel better. At the same time, he didn’t want to feel better. He wanted to be uncomfortable and ill at ease. Maybe he even wanted Si-on to interrogate him and berate him. So Tae-sik kept finding himself coming up with reasons for Si-on to enter and scenarios where they went into the room together. Si-on rose, saying she wanted to get some air and Tae-sik finished his coffee and followed her out. They walked down the alley and found a bench at the entrance to the trail up the hill. Sitting there, Si-on silently focused on the condo buildings beyond the trees ahead. – Sometimes I feel so sleepy or exhausted. It’s just like that. – Oh. Even now? – It’s a lot better than before, now. It wasn’t cold yet but the walk up the steep path must have left Si-on breathless because each time she spoke, her breath rose into the air like midwinter. – Do you sleep all right? – Yes, on the whole. On the whole I sleep well. – Me too, but I don’t think Tae-in did. – He did say you were really different, come to think of it. Have you ever gone into cold sleep? Si-on explained that she’d been Tae-in’s cold sleep guide this time last year, and the year before that. Their workplaces were near and someone had introduced them when Tae-in had to go into cold sleep and then they had gotten close and met on occasion even afterwards, she explained. Si-on explained that she had been his guide at the condo where Tae-sik lived now. As though explaining how she allowed herself in without hesitation the other day. That was not good enough of a reason to bring her back to the unit and Tae-sik knew that as well. He knew other things well, too. Strange things and strange feelings. The desire to be interrogated by Si-on and the desire to exchange uncomfortable questions. He was certain he felt the desire for Si-on to make him uncomfortable and outright anxious, and it was like walking a narrow line suspended high up in the air. With the hill and the trees behind them, Si-on and Tae-sik slowly made their way down the slope. He’d already told her he was Tae-in’s guide so Tae-sik said that she couldn’t see Tae-in. The autumn leaves clutching desperately to the trees were beautiful and their feet crunched over the newly-fallen leaves as they reached the condo. At the door Tae-sik said once more that he couldn’t let her into Tae-in’s room. – Can’t I at least see his face? – No, I’m sorry. – Please tell me why. Or just tell me about the past. If you really don’t have a choice. Si-on took a seat in the same chair that Tae-sik saw her in on the day they first met, and for some reason it was only in this house that she wore the face of demanding something from him, her face changing into that look. Tae-sik boiled water and poured it into the mugs with the bags of black tea already inside. Their bare hands were red with cold so they wrapped them around their mugs for warmth. Tae-sik got up to check on Tae-in again and Tae-in was all right so he walked out and shut the door behind him and told Si-on that he was doing fine the night before and the night before that as well. – He’ll probably always be all right. And later—even later—please tell me more. Tell me anything. About what he saw, or if he says he saw anything. – What would he see? You mean, when he’s in cold sleep? – He just might. Tae-sik had heard about it. Past cases came up in the materials he read while studying for his license. People believing they experienced something they didn’t or gaining new memories of places they hadn’t been to. Tae-in hadn’t shown any unusual symptoms or side effects according to Si-on. But it’s common. A lot of people have mixed-up dreams or see things. Tae-in said he saw me living my life. Si-on said that these things weren’t premonitions. They’re just daily life, the way I stand and sit and want things and think, that kind of thing. She said she wanted to think and hear about these things. She wanted to hear from someone who saw her, the story of someone who saw her when she was out of sight. A look of calm serenity came over her face when she talked about this and Tae-sik thought that if his brother could see anything in his sleep, this would be the moment. Tae-sik washed his hands and changed into home wear and went to his brother’s room. If he saw something in the past, there was no reason he wouldn’t see something now, he thought, and laid himself down on the floor parallel to Tae-in. If I look at his face, he looks back at mine. He lay in the room whose only purpose was sleep and maybe it was for that reason he briefly felt as though he would fall asleep so he forced himself back up. He looked down at his brother’s face again and the fact that they had no choice but to look each other in the eye and the anxiety and the pressure of now being unable to look away wasn’t so bad. Responsibly shouldering the burdens they had to bear and not looking away. Tae-sik had no idea what his brother actually saw in cold sleep and he had no way of knowing if Tae-in even saw anything at all but when he looked at him, Tae-sik thought, Maybe he could see something. He leaned in close, scrutinizing his brother’s slow breathing. Finally, he broke off the stare and left the room. Si-on was no longer at the table but leaning back on the sofa. She explained that she’d usually slept there when she was a guide. Tae-sik joined her and pointed at the mat on the floor. A few days ago he’d learned that sleeping on the floor made the fridge sound louder than sleeping in bed. All the low sounds of the room seemed to sink with weight slowly sliding down towards the floor. When he lay on the floor in the dark of night he heard the sounds humble themselves towards the ground. – So what are you going to do in Canada? – My older sister lives there. I’m going to stay with her, get used to living there, learn some English, and then go to school. As though talking about a local neighborhood, she talked about one area in Vancouver and the places she’d gone to with her sister and niece. How her sister attended a Canadian church and not a Korean one and how she had gone along for service one time and on the way back they had scones and coffee and then, as though this place in Korea was connected to the Vancouver neighborhood, she saw the little church plants and theology study group signs behind the condo and wondered out loud why there were so many of these groups in this area. Tae-sik thought of the places he’d never been to but could always visit in the future as a little map in his head, as though drawing a map of some place in Canada. The many alleyways and stores and the roads where he ran and the countless paths that led towards the hill. The alley and the bench from earlier with Si-on too he slowly added to the picture. He turned and as though tracing a path on a map he drew his finger along the contour of Si-on’s face. He followed her hairline with his finger, slowly. Her brows and cheekbones were neither too sharp nor round. Hand trembling almost imperceptibly with his big and slightly rough finger, he slowly traced her face. Then he rose like he’d remembered something and went past the table and to the sink. He turned on the tap and left it running before filling the kettle again and bringing it to a boil. A moment later, he refilled the emptied mugs with the tea bags still inside and put it on the floor by the sofa. Steam rose from the mugs and Si-on with her eyes still closed brought her hands to her face and traced the lines as though following the lines Tae-sik had drawn. Near her cheekbone she sensed the warmth from the mug and she felt as though she could see the mug spill as though it were already set in stone. When I reached out and touched Tae-sik’s face, but not in the way he followed the contours as though sketching them, but my putting my thumb on his cheek then bringing it to his brow and tracing his jaw with my index finger, Tae-sik did not meet my eyes and could not meet my eyes and looked at the corner by the sofa then closed his eyes so we did not look at each other’s faces but I lifted his face with my hand again and slowly stared into his face. – The way you look at my face reminds me of a dentist. For the first time Tae-sik laughed. That day was the second time I ever saw him. That day we slowly talked about the things we each saw and spent the whole time together. Before I left for Canada I visited the house where Tae-in slept many times, but Tae-sik never allowed me in and I was not allowed to meet him. But I know that Tae-in knows my face. What I knew was Tae-sik’s face and although it has been several years since, I sometimes vividly remember in my fingertips the way the lines of his brows and nose came together and for some reason when my fingers remember, his face comes clearly back into my mind. The way you look at my face reminds me of a dentist. I made Tae-sik sit back against the sofa like it really was the dentist’s chair and with his eyes still shut Tae-sik laughed. Feels like my teeth are all better and the mug of hot tea fell over. I took his hand but our feet were already drenched. Translated by Slin Jung by Bak Solmay
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work We left the cafe. It was well into spring and approaching summer. The mornings and evenings had been chilly up until yesterday, but now I felt sunlight warming the nape of my neck and my back becoming damp with sweat. Office workers with employee ID badges around their necks milled about with light trench coats draped over an arm, a cup of takeout coffee in hand. This was the only time of day they could get any kind of exercise and soak in the sun. A group of workers from the web portal company where Kevin used to work passed by us. Personally, I was only working here because the agency I used to be at went belly up and this was the only place that made me an offer, but I wondered why the oh-so very clever Kevin had joined this company. He couldn’t have been tempted by the pay; our CEO had a habit of saying he’d “start paying us a decent salary once we started running ads.” Apparently, the ace up the CEO’s sleeve had been to tell Kevin that he would have the opportunity to do “all the kinds” of dev work he wanted to do. It was strange enough that the CEO thought something like that would convince Kevin, and stranger still that it actually did. Though I wasn’t sure if Kevin was, in fact, getting to do “all the kinds” of work he wanted to do. It looked like he was just fixing bugs all day. TurtleEgg said she had an offsite today and needed to get to her car that was parked in the lot near Pangyo Station. We went up a pedestrian overpass to get to the other side of the street but once we got to the top of the stairs, we noticed something strange. The overpass didn’t connect to the opposite side of the street, it connected to the same side of the street we were already on. An overpass was supposed to go across a road but this one ran parallel to it. “Weird,” said TurtleEgg. “How is this an overpass?” “Not sure. Maybe they read the blueprint wrong.” “Maybe it was built so people could stand in the shade under it to avoid the sun or rain.” “Or so office workers could get some exercise since they’re at their desks all day.” “It could just be an art sculpture. Every single building has to have one by law, so there are tons of them that have no soul.” “What should we do now?” “Go back down, I guess.” Then she added, “The view’s pretty nice from up here.” TurtleEgg went up to the railing near the center of the overpass, leaned both arms against it, and propped up her chin. I stood next to her and looked at the view before me. There was a dense stretch of buildings with exteriors that glittered like mirrors—buildings that looked overly futuristic, as though they had taken the name “Techno Valley” a little too literally. When I first came here, I had thought that this place looked like some cold galactic city I had seen in a sci-fi movie. Turns out even in Techno Valley, rivers melted once winter passed, spring arrived, cherry blossoms bloomed beautifully, and summer, too, would come in time. TurtleEgg pointed to something. “Whoa, the NC building looks so cool.” That was where the biggest gaming company in Pangyo, NC Soft, was headquartered. The immensity of that building reflected the size of the company. “I’m pretty sure I’ve paid for a windowpane or two on that building,” I said. “So you play Lineage?” “Back in the day.” “There are a lot of startups around here, aren’t there?” “Oh yeah. There are five or six in my building alone.” “I read somewhere that only three percent of all startups succeed in the end. You think Udon Market will make it?” I looked back at the NC Soft headquarters. There was a hole right in the middle of the giant building in the shape of a stretched-out “仃.” Through it, I could see the blazing afternoon sky—a square piece of sky that anyone walking around with an employee ID badge around their neck and a coffee in their hand might look up at once or twice. Every time I saw that perfectly square, enframed piece of sky, I imagined something flying through it. A dragon, a flock of birds, a hot-air balloon, a helicopter. “Who knows. The CEO and the board probably think about it constantly. How to raise money, how to earn money, how to be part of that three percent that makes it to the end . . . They probably worry about stuff like that all day long. Personally, I stop thinking about the company once I’m off the clock.” “Me too. As soon as I leave the office, I pull the plug on all thoughts about work. I only think beautiful thoughts and look at beautiful sights. For example, turtles, or turtle photos, or turtle videos.” When I turned to look at TurtleEgg, she had already pulled out her smartphone and was scrolling through her photos. She showed me a close-up of a turtle’s head in profile. There were vivid orange markings under its eyes. “Cute, huh? This is my pet turtle. His name’s Lambo.” Then she added, “Lambo as in Lamborghini.” I nodded to show that I understood and she held out her phone to show me another turtle photo that didn’t look much different from the one earlier. “And this is my second turtle, Masé.” “ . . . as in Maserati?” “Ooh, you got it.” Excited, she picked out yet another photo of a turtle (that again looked pretty much like the other two turtles) and showed it to me. “This one’s the youngest.” “Let me guess, Ferra? As in Ferrari?” “How clever of you, darling!” I pulled out my wallet and asked TurtleEgg, “So, the item you listed on Udon Market . . . could I possibly buy another one?” ©Yeji Yun * I had, in fact, cried at the office, although I had not admitted that to TurtleEgg. I was once so bothered by the sound of Kevin sighing behind me that I cried, just a little, as I kicked the bathroom door with force. In that moment, tears gushed out for a split second, that was it, but still you couldn’t say that I had not cried. I bought the small LEGO set that had been in the trunk of TurtleEgg’s car. It was part of the same Star Wars series that Kevin had on his desk. I had known Kevin liked LEGOs since even before he started at the company. Since the CEO knew him personally, it was all but decided that Kevin would get the job, but because it would not do to skip the interview process entirely, we arranged one as a formality. That was when I found out. After asking Kevin three or four questions about software development, the CEO posed one final question. “We’re a small company, as you know, so it’s not enough to be a good developer, you also have to be a good culture fit. We’re less than ten people so if things go south with someone, you won’t be able to avoid them. You’ll have to face them every day. So, it’s important to have social skills. Do you think you’ll be able to gel with the rest of the team?” That was when Kevin offered, as evidence of his sociability, his experience being secretary of the KAIST LEGO club for three years. I was seated by the CEO’s side and feeling invisible, but at Kevin’s words, I stifled a burst of laughter. KAIST, LEGO, secretary. Not a single one of those sounded sociable by any measure. I’d be even more skeptical if he’d said he had been the president, not the secretary. People said introverted developers look at their own shoes when they speak while extroverted developers look at the shoes of the person they’re speaking to. In a world like that, who knew what it meant to be part of a LEGO club? Maybe you were considered a crazy party animal or something. At 1:10 p.m., I went up to the roof of the office building. Kevin had a cigarette at that time every single day. I had no idea how the man could be so mechanical, so robotic, that even his smoke breaks were like clockwork. Just as I predicted, I ran into Kevin after he had finished up his cigarette and was on his way back to the office. Kevin started when he saw me, but when he saw the LEGO Star Wars Darth Vader Transformation kit in my hands, he trembled in shock. I held out the LEGO box and said, “Happy early birthday.” He looked like he was debating whether he should take it, but his hand was already reaching toward the box, like a robot that had developed an error in its algorithm. “Please tell me you don’t already have this one?” “No, I don’t. I was planning to get it . . .,” Kevin answered without meeting my eyes. With the box in both hands and pressed against his stomach, he traced a finger across its edge. I walked slowly toward the edge of the rooftop where Kevin had smoked his cigarette. Then I stepped up on top of a brick in the flower bed and took in the view before me. The building with the rectangle shape in it was visible from here too. I could recognize the weird overpass that TurtleEgg and I had been on. Turning around, I said to Kevin, “How about you try distancing yourself a little from your code?” Kevin stared wordlessly up at me. “You aren’t the code you write. I hope you know that.” Then I added, “A bug is just a bug. It’s not going to eat you up.” Kevin had his gaze trained on my sneakers. I jumped down from the flower bed and pulled out a capsule coffee machine box from the shopping bag I’d left on the ground. “I’m putting this in the break room. The two of us should get coffee sometime. I’ll ask Daeshik to get the capsules.” At that moment, Kevin and I received a notification on our smartphones at almost the exact same time. Each of us pulled our phones out of our pockets and looked. We smiled, the exact same expression on both our faces. * I was alone in the office when the CEO, who I thought had left for the day, suddenly came out and started talking to me. He wanted to know why I hadn’t left yet even though it was a Friday. I lied and said I still had some work to finish up. Looking impressed, the CEO said, “As soon as we start running ads, I’ll make some money and then hire you another project manager.” “Maybe we can hire an iOS developer first. I’m dying here.” “Why? Is Kevin still butting heads with Anna these days?” “You could say that.” “Goddammit, I need to stop giving in to him. It’s getting us nowhere.” All of a sudden, the CEO kicked Kevin’s chair hard. The swivel chair careened toward the entrance of the office. The CEO could have never done that in front of Kevin. If Kevin ever said he was quitting, the CEO was the type to get on his knees and beg him to stay. “It’s probably really tough on him since he’s working on something that’s hard enough for two people to take on all by himself. Even if he is a genius. It’s not like he’s Steve Jobs or something.” “Fine. Once we start running ads, I’ll for sure hire another iOS developer and someone to work under you.” I gathered up the four or five paper cups on the desk neatly in a stack and threw them in the trash. “David, let’s stop drinking instant coffee now and do capsule coffee instead. I’ll bring the machine.” “Hm . . . Is that expensive?” “Obviously it’s more expensive than instant coffee. But won’t it just be that much more efficient? Like even for cars, there’s a difference when you fill up with regular gasoline versus premium.” The CEO didn’t answer right away. He crossed his arms over his chest and hesitated for a moment before saying, “Let me look into it. I’ll think on it as positively as I can.” And then he added, “You know how much I care about what you think, Anna, don’t you?” As if. The truth is, I wasn’t staying behind to work late. Ticket reservations for Liubov Smirnova’s recital opened at 9 p.m. but I guessed that by the time I arrived home, it would be just slightly past 9 p.m. So I figured I would kill time at work and then, after successfully making my reservation, leave for home stress-free. I pulled up the server time for the reservation site and, while waiting until 21:00:00, I connected to “Silent Cho Seong-jin,” a photos-only public chat room about pianist Cho Seong-jin. As soon as I logged in, someone uploaded a photo of Cho Seong-jin with the words “Please send HD Carnegie Hall photo” written on it. I opened the “Chopin” folder on my MacBook. Thousands of jpg, gif, and avi files of Cho Seong-jin unfurled one after the other across my monitor. I double-clicked on one of them. It was a gif of Cho Seong-jin playing piano, his mouth pursed like a duck, his bangs undulating. There was no sound, but I knew he was performing Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” He was flawlessly handsome. How could someone be that graceful? This time, I opened the folder with the Carnegie Hall photos. I chose a few that were of good quality and uploaded them to the chat room. Not long after, another photo arrived: Cho Seong-jin’s profile photo which showed him with his chin propped up against his hand on a grand piano. On the margin scrawled in crooked handwriting were the words, “Thank you so much. I wish you very little work and lots of money.” There was one more thing I had to do before 9 p.m. Cho Seong-jin’s Hong Kong recital, which I had reserved tickets for months ago, was coming up next month. With a public holiday, the weekend, and one precious day of PTO, I planned to take four days and three nights off to explore Hong Kong and attend the concert. I logged into an airline ticket reservation site and paid for a round trip to Hong Kong. It was a bit expensive, I thought, but that was fine. Today was payday, after all. Translated by Archana Madhavan by Jang Ryujin