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SEA AND BUTTERFLY
It was around 1 p.m. when Chae-geum called to say goodbye before she left for South Korea. When the phone rang, I was lost in thought in the middle of the living room, still holding the little potted plant I had bought earlier that day from the neighbourhood florist. I’d hurried back home to escape the brutal midday sun, only to discover that there didn’t seem to be any place for the plant in the apartment that still felt like a stranger’s despite the passage of time, filled as it was with the former tenant’s belongings. Each time I unlocked the door to let myself in, I couldn’t seem to find any place to sit or stand, as if an invisible hand were pushing me away. It was the same when the phone broke the silence. I found myself holding my breath whenever I picked up the receiver, as if someone might catch me answering another’s call without their permission. I would not speak until I heard a voice on the other end of the line and, most of the time, I just got dead air. On those occasions when I offered a “hello”, silence fell without fail, then the callers would hang up, as if by some prior agreement.
The phone in the apartment rang several times a day, but calls for me were so rare that it was a minor miracle when one came along. When Chae-geum called that day, I checked the time. It was one of the strange habits I had formed since moving in, despite the fact that whether it was 1pm or 1am, the calls were hardly ever for me.
I set the flowerpot down by my feet and cradled the phone to my ear, determined not to speak first. My breathing grew quiet as a stray cat’s, ever on guard, slipping into an empty house like a burglar in broad daylight.
“. . . Hello?”
My grip on the handset relaxed at the sound of Chae-geum’s voice. At least, it wasn’t a foreign tongue.
She stammered and groped for the right Korean words to tell me that she had got her visa and would leave the following week. She offered to deliver a message to my mother in Korea. Chae-geum’s question sounded blunt in her poor Korean: “Do you, uh, would you have something to say to your mother?” Her kindness left me at a loss. All I could do was listen and say: “Yeah, yeah.” And as I said yes I realized that I really had nothing to say to my mother. Chae-geum probably thought I was overcome with emotion as she waited politely for my silence to turn into words. In fact it wasn’t the thought of my mother back in Seoul that gripped my heart, but that of Chae-geum, who was bound for the same place. In time I mustered up a few phrases. “No, I’m fine,” I said. “It’s all right, really.” My words weren’t intended for my mother, but were more in anticipation of what it would be like once Chae-geum had gone. I had only known the girl for a month and she had nothing to do with me. Why wouldn’t it be all right?
That afternoon I found my gaze drawn to the plant I had bought at the florist. The plant is known as jinzhiyuye in China, while in Korea, where I had never seen it, it is called gumjiokyeop, which means someone raised like royalty. It blooms a tiny rainbow of colours – yellow, red, deep pink and dark green florets dangling precariously from slender stalks. I had stopped at the flower shop because I wanted to bring something alive into the apartment, and ended up having to buy this fragile-looking plant, passing over lush pots of flowers, not because I was struck by its splendid beauty but rather due to my need to satisfy my curiosity as to whether the florets had been glued to an ordinary stalk as an adornment. I wanted to ask the shopkeeper, but I had no idea how to say it in Chinese and I couldn’t convey what I had in mind simply through sign language.
So while the florist dealt with other customers I had reached out to touch a petal with the tip of my tentative finger. My hand was shaking with tension as it approached the floret. Had the tremor stirred that petal, tiny as a grain of rice, causing it to fall?
The shopkeeper, who I had thought was busy with other customers, was now standing beside me, watching. The moment our eyes met, he shouted “Sikuaiqian”, which, given the way he was fluttering his palm open and shut, I had to assume was the price of the plant I clearly now owned.
I gingerly retrieved the dark green petal the size of a grain of boiled rice from where it had landed in the pot. Neither soft nor stiff, it dissolved on contact without leaving even a trace of green on my fingers, as though it had been waiting for my touch. I seized the flimsy pot with both hands, fighting the urge to hurl it out of the porch window. The soil shifted, sending tremors up the stems, while the flowers seemed to cling desperately to the plant as if by a fine thread. They seemed to be reprimanding me, as though saying that life is not meant to be examined.
There was something familiar in those tiny petals, as though I had been looking at them all my life. A sense of familiarity in strangeness washed over me like a recurring cold. Maybe I hadn’t run far enough.
Chae-geum was the first person I met in China, a mere three hours after my plane landed at the airport, and less than an hour after I had unpacked at the hotel, to be exact.
“Hello, my name is Lee Chae-geum,” she’d said.
My first thought was that the phone call couldn’t be for me. After all I was in a hotel in a foreign city of a foreign country. Then I wondered if it might be the front desk, forgetting how unlikely it was that the staff of a Chinese hotel would speak Korean. And even if they did, would a member of the hotel staff be in the habit of giving her full name when communicating with a guest? Then I considered how I should respond – say “hello” and offer my name in kind? I didn’t have to hesitate for long because just then, Chae-geum said she wanted to collect the money her mother had entrusted to me and it finally dawned on me who she was.
Since I had made arrangements to stay at the hotel while still in Korea, she must have got word of my itinerary from her mother and waited nearby for me to check in, because she was knocking on my door less than 10 minutes after I’d hung up the phone. I was still a little taken aback by the call, in part because I didn’t know how bad her Korean was, but also because I didn’t understand the urgency. Her mother’s money wasn’t a large enough sum for me to be tempted to make off with it – not large enough for someone to rush in and claim it within an hour of my arrival in a foreign hotel in a foreign land.
“Hello, I am Lee Chae-geum,” she’d said.
But I no longer felt as antagonistic toward her as I had when she called. She bowed deeply, offering awkward greetings as she had over the phone. Still, she was my first visitor and the only one in the country, in fact, who knew me even slightly.
She stood waiting on the other side of the threshold and didn’t seem to expect to be asked inside to sit down, like a debt collector whose only purpose is to recover what is owed. My little girl, who, like a butterfly stuck to the window, had been fixated on the view of the street since our arrival, was suddenly behind me with her arms wrapped around my waist. I recognized the anxiety that flickered across Chae-geum’s eyes as the same emotion in the warmth of my daughter’s tummy pressed up against me. She could not have been more than 25 years old, and she had yet to learn to hide the anxiety in her eyes.
“How could anyone think of marrying off her daughter to a man that age? Gold and silver, bullshit! How greedy and shameless can she be? Even grass can’t grow beneath her! And what can you expect of a guy who’s well past 40 and still a bachelor? If he’s rich there’s got to be something wrong with him, and if nothing’s wrong with him, then he’s penniless. Or I’m sure there’s something wrong with her daughter. What’s so great about Korea? What could make her sell her daughter like that just to bring her over?”
Those were my mother’s words the day she discovered that the Chinese lady had entrusted me with money for her daughter in China. She worked in the kitchen of my mother’s restaurant and, according to my mother, had sold Chae-geum off to the bachelor vegetable supplier just to get her into Korea legally. Just goes to show you what a horrible witch she is.
My mother issued that last pronouncement with a look of incredulity on her face, like she would never understand such a woman for the life of her, while I let her words flow in one ear and out the other. Her reaction seemed bizarre to me because what she’d said about Chae-geum’s mother could easily have been said of her, my own mother, as well.
My mother was mercenary, so tightfisted that she’d managed to buy several condos with the earnings from her restaurant, and so miserly that she refused to show her children any of her property deeds. For some reason that I would never comprehend her hole-in-the-wall drew long lines of customers every mealtime. People would drive all the way in from other cities for a bowl of broth, which tasted like any other to me. She drove the restaurant crew to work themselves down to the bone, like the very soup bones they boiled down to make my mother’s special broth. Most of them simply stopped showing up for work once they got their first pay, disgruntled after slaving so much for so little. To feed her greed, my mother had no choice but to hire migrant workers like Chae-geum’s mother, who, being Korean Chinese and having overstayed her visa, had no choice but to endure month after month at my mother’s restaurant in spite of the low wages and hard work.
My mother often speculated that Chae-geum’s mother planned on severing her daughter’s marriage as soon as the girl had earned Korean citizenship, so she’d chosen a pliant old bachelor who would fall for her trap. In a single stroke, my mother had painted the vegetable supplier as a sucker for a young girl. I’d been told that he had met Chae-geum twice in China, the first time to get acquainted and the next to start processing marriage papers. Later I learned that he’d actually registered their marriage with the authorities on that second visit.
I could only begin to flesh out the details of the story with the bare bones my mother had given me. The Korean vegetable supplier, a bachelor well past 40, must have been desperate for a wife, so desperate that he was willing to take the risk, while Chae-geum badly wanted the visa needed to join her mother in Korea. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that kind of story. The social problems created when a Korean Chinese woman married to a Korean man picked up her registration card one day and ran away, abandoning her children in the process, had been widely reported on TV and in newspapers. But it was none of my business what drove a Korean Chinese woman to flee under the cover of darkness. What happened between her and her husband? How often he beat her? What humiliations she endured simply because she was Korean Chinese? What pushed her over the edge? Affront, rage or homesickness? She stole away with not only her registration card but all her stories, too.
“How old are you?”
I’d blurted it out, the hand I’d extended to give her the money from her mother stuck in midair. Of course it is rude to ask a young woman her age the first time you meet her, and Chae-geum was still too young to understand that a woman like me had asked out of loneliness and yearning for the past, not nosiness or lust. “Twenty-five,” she’d answered hesitantly, giving me a sudden pang. I, like everyone else, felt it too precious an age for a girl to be marrying a man over 40. But was it that which pierced my heart? In fact it didn’t concern me one way or the other whom this Korean Chinese girl named Chae-geum married. What struck me was how clearly she’d articulated “twenty-five”. Twenty-five . . . what a brilliant age! Hearing it from her lips, I completely forgot the despair and gloom I had sunk into at that age. I’d met my husband at the age of 25 and what I’d desired most at that splendid age was to marry him. As this memory surfaced, the age suddenly lost its lustre.
“Honey, how do you think people look when they die? I mean what is the expression on their face?” I asked this of my husband shortly before I left for China. As usual, he looked right at me as if he wasn't drunk at all though he reeked of alcohol. But maybe he wasn’t seeing me, but simply turning his head towards the sound of a voice.
“Devoid of thought,” I continued. “In other words, they look dazed. The wailing, shivering with fear and tears are only for the living, the ones who are left behind.”
My husband still didn’t say anything so I felt compelled to fill the void. “Yes, that’s what I’ve heard. But it’s not the story you usually hear. That’s why I brought it up. The person who told me said she’d heard it from someone else, too, but it seemed so vivid, as though I had seen it with my own eyes. Isn’t that profound? I wonder what you think. Do you think so, too?”
The person who had told me about the look on the face of the dying was Chae-geum’s mother, who had begun by saying that she had had a dream the night before. “Actually,” she’d said, “I didn’t see it myself – my husband did. But my dream was so vivid that I thought I saw it with my own eyes. He watched a man die by firing squad. He said it over and over again, repeating it all his life. That execution happened when he was small and you’d expect him to have a vague memory of it now, but he sounded as if it had happened just a moment ago. Perhaps that is why bad luck follows him – because he saw something he wasn’t meant to see. If bad luck is dealt to you, it tends to stay with you. So, you see, coming to Korea is not in his stars. Even if he did come, what good would it do? He keeps going back to that story. I think he is carrying the dead man’s soul, not his own. No, he’s better off staying put.” Then, pausing as though she had just returned from a distant place, she asked me why I was going to China.
“For my child. So she can study and become a global citizen.” I can’t believe I had the nerve to say that face to face with Chae-geum’s mother. But as I did the words instantly lost their meaning. In retelling the story to my husband, I’d wanted to relay everything she’d told me. And I’d wanted to hear him ask the same question: “Why are you going?” But he didn’t speak. He just kept looking in my direction as he might look at anyone talking to him or me, for that matter.
“Now you . . . ” ?– I couldn’t stop talking in the face of his silence – “seem . . . to have . . .” – I enunciated each word as clearly as I could to make him understand – “a stranger’s soul.”
My Chinese tutor arrived about an hour after Chae-geum called to tell me that she was preparing to leave for Korea. Rather than teaching me the language, her real job had become taking care of me in China. That day, most days really, we didn’t have the time to open a book. Instead, we would do the shopping that I regularly postponed due to my inability to communicate. We’d fetch the apartment janitor, who had banged on my door while I was home alone then gave up on me and returned to his office, unable to communicate. My tutor and I would call a plumber to unclog the bathroom drain, then drop by the post office and the bank. Like Chae-geum, she was Korean Chinese. She’d once wanted to become an elementary school teacher but now dreamed of going to Korea.
I’d hired my Chinese tutor about two weeks after I signed a lease on the apartment. As the agent back in Korea who had recommended a Chinese school for my daughter and my guide here assured me, I was able to rent a place within three days. A few days more and my daughter was admitted to the school we’d chosen. In fact, my housing search was over almost before it began. My guide was efficient and knew exactly what to do. He started by showing me one place that was nothing more than a few doors, a floor, a sink and a washbasin set against cement walls. I had been so appalled that I practically begged him for a contract as soon as I saw that the next apartment had painted walls, wood floors and, on top of that, it was fully furnished. I’d packed my suitcase and moved out of my hotel room the next day. The former tenants had vacated the place, leaving everything intact – utensils, bed sheets, a thermometer on the wall and potted plants on the balcony. Two days later my daughter moved into the school dormitory.
I hadn’t planned on letting my daughter stay in the dormitory but she is the sort of child who is charmed by the romantic notion of life in a boarding school, even the dreary life lived by the fictional Little Princess in her cramped attic room.
Despite the ramshackle state of the very real dorm before her eyes, my daughter immediately latched onto the idea of living there. She insisted on staying even though the school wasn’t too far from our apartment building. Playing the part of the gentle but stern mother, I extracted a promise from her that she’d stay in the dorm for a month only. But I was secretly thrilled by this turn of events. Like a gift, I’d been given a month of freedom, a month to slip out of the role of wife and mother. I longed to sleep like the dead without being disturbed by thoughts of anything or anyone.
That’s why I was in no hurry to take up my guide’s offer to help me find a housekeeper I could communicate with or a tutor to interpret for me. And having no reason to rush me, he just gave me his phone number, saying that I could call when I was ready. The day I did call that number, I found that he had left on a month-long trip to Korea. Sleeping like the dead, as I had imagined I would, proved to be similarly elusive. I would climb into bed all by myself in an apartment that I had all to myself, only to find that I couldn’t fall asleep night or day. At night the furniture seemed to be whispering, sharing their stories in low tones. They had belonged to many other people before they came into my possession. In this very bed, the bed where I lay awake, someone else might have made love, shed blood, or even died.
Rather than chasing after sleep I would dart outside to while away the time. Day after day I made the hour-long walk to Korea Street where I would hang around for a few hours before walking back home. It was there, in a Korean grocery store, that I ran into Chae-geum. I had been browsing the shelves when I felt the light tap of her fingers on my shoulder. The anxious look I’d seen in her eyes at my hotel room was nowhere in sight. Instead, she’d greeted me with a broad smile that brightened her timid face and set loose in me a flood of welcome emotions. Perhaps I was just glad that there was someone I knew in that part of the world.
That afternoon Chae-geum stayed by my side while I did my shopping. She pointed out that I could buy this or that more cheaply in the open air Chinese markets. When my shopping basket grew heavy, she came up from behind unnoticed to carry it for me. Perhaps it was the absence of the tension I’d felt at the hotel, the tension created when money changes hands, that made Chae-geum’s Korean sound fine to me although it was undoubtedly as awkward as it had been that day. She pointed to the fish cake I had just picked up and asked me what it was called in Korea. When I replied, she said: “Isn’t it called eodaeng?” She probably meant odaeng, but I didn’t have the heart to correct her. On one hand, what matters is getting the meaning across to other people. On the other hand, I didn’t want to make an issue of an error in pronunciation when she would have to confront much more than simple language barriers in the future. Still, when all is said and done, doesn’t it all really come down to language? I didn’t have the words to express it.
The sun was setting by the time we’d finished shopping and stepped out of the store. The familiar yellow sign of a McDonald’s caught my eye. Since I still felt wary of eating unfamiliar Chinese food, even with Chae-geum there to translate, and it was a bit early for dinner, I asked her if she’d care for a hamburger. She told me that the word for hamburger in China is hanbao, while McDonald’s is called maidanglao. There, where foreign words rarely make their way into the mother tongue, people understand cola only when it is pronounced as the tongue-twister, kele, while French fries are shutiao. Whether you call it McDonald’s or maidanglao makes no difference. Fast and simple, a packaged fantasy – and the ultimate in capitalism – McDonald’s have popped up on Chinese streets.
The store was an exact replica of those in Korea, and was similarly packed with young people. Like an aunt with her young niece, I followed Chae-geum to an empty table. The familiar aroma of hamburgers and fries chased away the strange smell from the street, and calmed my upset stomach. Chae-geum ordered fries and a cola, refusing my offer of a hamburger as her father was expecting her for dinner. Having no appetite at all, I sipped at a cola and gazed out the window to the street where dusk was spreading and the neon lights were just beginning to come to life one by one. Soon, everything foreign on the street would be cloaked in the familiarity of darkness.
Chae-geum had moved back in with her father after quitting her factory job to prepare for her departure. When I asked her whether there was anything Korean Chinese liked to buy in a Korean-run store, she explained that she had gone there to exchange some Korean money her fiancé had given her when he came to China. At first, Chae-geum had hung on to it, planning to save it for Korea, but then she’d changed her mind. She had exchanged it for yuan and would now give to her father, who would be living on his own soon. “He will need it more,” she said. She gave me an earnest look. She seemed to be seeking my approval.
“You’re a good daughter.”
“My father isn’t well. He got one leg injured in a road accident and one eye is blind . . . this one,” she said, pointing to her left eye. Disoriented, I looked straight into her eyes, sensing that what she was pointing at was not her eye at all, but the pitch darkness behind it. While Chae-geum kept on talking, my gaze followed the finger she had used to point at her eye and now used to pick up French fries.
“My father saw a man die when he was little,” she’d said. “Ever since that day, he hasn’t been able to see. He was lucky he only saw it with his left eye. If he had seen it with both eyes, he would be xiazi. Do you know what xiazi is?”
“Xiazi?” I was asking myself, when Chae-geum cupped her hands over her eyes and I realized it probably meant ‘blind.’ There was a red smear of ketchup on the back of her hand. Maidanglao, ketchup, Korean Chinese, a half-blind man and me – we all seemed to have been tossed together as if by chance, like a table of random numbers.
He saw a man being executed when he was eight years old, nearly 50 years ago. Not far from his village, there was to be a public execution, as a criminal had been sentenced to death by firing squad. A crowd gathered, raising a cloud of dust that blocked the view of the clearing where the execution was to take place. It was hot and the sunshine painfully bright, but people stood on their toes, jostling for position so as not to miss any of the events unfolding. That was something an eight-year-old boy simply had to see, so despite his mother’s furious gestures directing him back home, he followed her, craning his neck to see whatever he could from behind her hips. The prisoner, his eyes blindfolded and hands tied behind his back, was standing before the pit. The boy could hear the grown-ups whispering to each other. After shooting a prisoner, they’d said, the soldiers would go to his home demanding payment for the bullets fired. The prisoner was not even worthy of the bullets needed to kill him for having committed such an egregious offence. The grown-ups probably concocted the story to scare off the children who had dared to come out and watch the execution, but Chae-geum’s father still believed it 50 years later. The prisoner had been forced to dig the pit that was to be his grave, so the story went, and was shot, leaving behind a corpse with a debt. Chae-geum’s father never found out what crime the man committed. What stuck with him over the years was the debt the man owed for those bullets . . . that was all.
The day of the execution, the boy had been frightened but the curiosity of his tender age had won out. There were so many people packed into the clearing that he could barely squeeze half his head into the space between the hips of the grown-ups, but he managed to see everything unfolding before him. All in a rush, several shots rang out, and the prisoner fell into the pit like a scarecrow made of straw. It was over in the blink of an eye. The crowd fell silent amid the rising cloud of dust, and cutting through a silence so profound that not even the sound of someone swallowing disturbed it, came a billowing column of gunpowder smoke. Fifty years after the fact, Chae-geum’s father still remembered that smell in his nostrils. Gunpowder . . . the smell of death, or the smell of the shock of those still standing.
* * *
That day on Korea Street ended in an invitation from Chae-geum to have me join her and her father for dinner. She groped around to find the right words as we rose from our table at McDonald's. She made an effort to sound cheerful when she asked if I would like to come along.
“My father is going to butcher a dog tonight,” she’d said. “He cooks dog meat very well, the best in our village! Won’t you join us for dinner?”
Oh my God . . . The words escaped beneath my breath as I grasped her meaning. This guy with a crippled leg and a blind eye, who almost went xiazi when he saw someone shot down by a firing squad . . . Chae-geum was inviting me to go and eat dog meat cooked by this guy. Dog meat!
“My father would like to hear about my mother,” Chae-geum had added, sensing my discomfort. Her mother had left for Korea six years before, so her parents hadn’t set eyes on each other, much less lived in the same house, in that span of time.
Yet I knew next to nothing about Chae-geum’s mother, and what little I did know came to me secondhand from my own mother. “Not even grass can grow beneath such a scheming woman . . .” such were the words my mother used to describe her. Worse yet, I couldn’t say for sure which of the Korean Chinese women working in my mother’s restaurant was Chae-geum’s mother. Actually I had been under the impression that she came from Yanbian up until the day I stopped in to say goodbye before leaving Korea. As she pressed the money for her daughter into my hands, she explained that the city I was bound for was her hometown. I had assumed that all Korean Chinese in Korea came from Yanbian, and only then did I learn that there was a Korean Chinese village of 1,500 households on the outskirts of the city where I was going.
What could I tell him about his wife and her life in Korea? Still, I didn’t decline the invitation. On some level, I wanted to meet this guy even if only one time – this man who nearly lost his sight upon witnessing an execution . . . who had carried the spirit of a dead man ever since. But whom did I want to meet exactly, Chae-geum's father or the dead spirit?
We took the bus to Chae-geum’s village on the outskirts of the city. I noticed some prison work gangs in the middle of the road, amongst the many pedestrians and bicycles. The young, yellow-clad and shaven-headed prisoners were swinging heavy hammers to break up the old asphalt in preparation for paving a new road in its place. It seemed as though they were building a whole new city by smashing everything old, as if day in and day out everything that existed in every corner of the city was being demolished and rebuilt.
In terms of the urban development I could see through the bus window as we rode away from the heart of the city, we seemed to be traveling back in time about 10 years. An entire decade disappeared in the space of two bus stops as high-rise buildings and wide roads gave way to old houses, followed by Korean signboards, distinctly different from those I’d seen on Korea Street. Soon the cluster of red-brick houses of a farming village came into view. It was there that Chae-geum and her father lived.
The evening sky had been tinged by the setting sun and the golden fields warmed by the glow overwhelmed me. The paddy fields seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance, broken only by bare patches that seemed no more than a hand’s span here and there where the harvest had begun. In those spaces, bundles of rice stalks were piling up where farmers, who looked more like scarecrows, continued their reaping even as the twilight deepened. A flash of light in the fading sky caught my eye and I made out the sickle in a farmer’s hand. It seemed impossible that a single sickle could cover an entire field, but behind him, neat bundles of rice stalks were piling up in orderly rows, as though in a fairytale.
Since Chae-geum’s father had gone out to butcher a dog for their neighbour, she went to fetch him, leaving me an opportunity to look around their house, with its kitchen sitting between two rooms. It didn’t look like the traditional Chinese houses I had seen in movies, especially the floor which, under closer examination, seemed to be raised. I realized at once that it had been built in traditional Korean style, using ondol. The warmth of that piped-in floor heater spread through me, and it began to seem possible that we were indeed one people. But in typical Chinese fashion the red Chinese character for happiness hung upside down in the window and there was a decorative Chinese knot on the wall. And in that mix of the foreign and familiar, there was a pair of men’s trousers hanging on a hook, with only one knee bulging.
It wasn’t long before I heard the sound of even and uneven footsteps approaching; the first set had to be Chae-geum’s. The uneven gait, which must have been her father’s, sounded like it came from someone leaning to one side then lurching forward. I held my breath as I peered into the darkness on the other side of the window. Behind Chae-geum came a man swinging back and forth in a half-arc like a broken pendulum . . . limping, limping. I blinked and strained to see deeper into the darkness at what seemed to be a shadowy figure behind the limping man, as in the myth of old where the man had a shadow clinging to his back his whole life. But then again, it was probably nothing more than a trick my eyes played in the flickering lamplight.
It had happened all in an instant. He lost the sight in his left eye at that precise moment he saw the man die. At least, that’s the way he told it. As the villagers made their way home after the execution, the boy had trailed behind. He was crying, but he felt that only one eye was shedding tears. It sent a shudder through him, but no one bothered to ask him why he was in shock and sobbing. The grown-ups walked along holding their breath, as if they didn’t quite believe that they were going home, that they were still among the living. Then, in a flash, it dawned on them that they weren’t the ones who’d survived but the ones who’d been left behind. As if an alarm had been sounded, the grown-ups rushed about completely oblivious to the presence of others, seized as they were by an unbearable anxiety.
Weeping with only one eye, abandoned by the grown-ups, the boy walked on alone. He was certain it was the ruined eye that had witnessed the execution, though no one ever told him so. And the good eye must have been the one that pressed against the hips of the grown-ups blocking his view. His left eye ceased to shed tears once it had seen death, though it wasn’t clear to me whether he realized as much right away or at some point during the 50 years that followed. But it was clear that he knew without a doubt that the eye that could not weep would never again see or remember anything but the death of that man. Over the years his remaining eye would witness sights far more gruesome than the execution that blinded his left eye. It would face horrors that would make a mockery of the moment fixed forever in that ruined eye.
“I should have lost both my eyes that time, long, long ago . . . then I wouldn’t have had to see any more.”
Getting drunk after butchering the dog for his neighbour, Chae-geum’s father repeated his words slowly, over and over again, as if the execution had happened just yesterday. It was exactly as Chae-geum’s mother had said.
“The eye was really blinded by disease,” Chae-geum said. “People say there was an epidemic that year.” She was clearly annoyed with her drunken father and disappointed that he hadn’t even asked after his wife. They had been living apart for six years, ever since his wife went to Korea to earn their son’s college tuition. She hadn’t come back, not once, not even when her husband lost his leg, not even when their son died in a car accident. All Chae-geum’s father could talk about was his childhood memory, as if his wife didn’t exist.
“That was the one and only time I’ve seen a man die in an instant. When my son died, it was horrible. He was covered in blood, his limbs dangling loosely. He suffered a long time, unable to die. I still hear him saying: ‘Father, it hurts so much, so much.’ I wanted to tell him that it would be over soon, but it wasn’t. It took a very long time. It shouldn’t have taken that long.”
“Stop, please. I’m so sick and tired of it,” Chae-geum erupted in anger, heedless of my presence beside her. As she struggled to contain herself, she inhaled deeply, taking great heaving breaths. Still, unable to hold back, she shouted out loud: “I will live well! I’ll have a happy life!”
Chae-geum’s father gave her a blank stare and nodded listlessly. The unbending leg stretched stiffly before him made him seem vulnerable. He kept on talking as if he were muttering to himself.
“Yes, that’s right. I didn’t object to my daughter’s marriage. That guy, my future son-in-law . . . that guy who is just 12 years younger than me, didn’t look like a person who has seen something he wasn’t supposed to. I know the face of a man who has seen more than he should have. So I didn’t object. Of course I didn’t. I wouldn’t. But poor thing . . . Chae-geum doesn’t know what my capable eye sees. She doesn’t understand that there is something worse than death . . . living. This eye must watch all these unbearable things . . . all of them very slow and interminable . . . like dog bones slowly simmering in a stock pot until the meat, tattered from beating, has all fallen off the bone and the marrow has been sucked dry . . . a very, very long time . . . it has to watch all these things over and over again.”
Chae-geum clenched her fists and was about to scream at her father, when he turned his head and looked at me. “You know what I mean . . . you know . . .”
I had no way of knowing whether he was looking at me with the eye that contained the dead man's soul or the eye that was forced to witness all those unbearable things. I shuddered all over. Chae-geum sighed and unclenched her fists as she apologized for her father’s behaviour. “My father is drunk,” she’d said. “He says that to everyone when he’s had too much to drink.”
Was she telling the truth? Was he simply repeating the words he’d said a hundred times before? Words he’d say to anyone? That night, I wrote a long letter to my husband. It wasn’t the first. I’d written to him almost every day, the old-fashioned way, using a fountain pen rather than tapping out e-mail. I placed a blank sheet of stationery on my desk. As I wrote the first syllable ink began to well up beneath the nib of the pen, but I ignored it and kept on writing. I had intended to jot down a straightforward account of the day’s events, but in the course of writing, as I skipped over the spot where the ink blot had formed, I found myself sinking into sentiment.
Please understand why I’m telling you this dismal tale. In fact, you have probably guessed that it isn’t his story that I want to tell you, but mine. That evening, when I came home after listening to his story, I fell asleep quickly but briefly and dreamed that I was that eight-year-old boy watching the execution. Rather than curious, I felt smothered – it was you they shot. In a rain of bullets, you fell into the pit, and I pushed my way through the cloud of dust to look inside. You were lying there with your eyes wide open, two frightened eyes. Oddly, I remember looking down at you with one hand held over my eye. Though your eyes were wide open, you looked exhausted, as if to say it had been a long and tiring road to death for you. In my dream I said: ‘Now you rest in peace. I hope you are warm enough down in that pit.’ I cast dirt over your tired body, your wide open eyes, and hoped that you might thank me, if only in the dream. But you, so tired, did not think to thank me . . .
It wasn’t until after I got the call from Chae-geum saying that she was ready to leave for Korea that I mailed the letter I had postponed sending for so long. On the way to the post office, I told my tutor about Chae-geum’s imminent departure. Though it was Chae-geum who had introduced the tutor to me, the two women had never met. Chae-geum had got the tutor’s name through acquaintances, so all my tutor knew was that Chae-geum would be leaving before long. As we walked I told her that the departure date had been set, adding: “If she has a child, her child will be Korean.” My tutor’s pace suddenly quickened and she seemed vaguely annoyed.
“I don’t buy this idea of fatherland or nationality,” she said. “People who dream of going to Korea believe in money, nothing else. I don't know what our parents and grandparents would say, but they’re old. Money is what young people believe in. We can’t expect much from China. Here, too, people can't count on anything but money. But we have less faith in Korea. Everyone thinks so.”
Perhaps she was envious of Chae-geum for making it to Korea ahead of her. As she herself had said, money was the only thing she, too, could believe in, and the money she believed in was in Korea.
The letter I was about to mail to my husband was short and contained no mention of subjects like death or memory. “The promised living allowance has yet to arrive. Please make sure to send it on the dates promised.” Ten days had passed since I had written those two lines, still the money hadn’t come. And though I had no immediate need of it, I felt an urge to be cruel to him.
My fingers faltered, dipping into too much glue when I tried to affix a stamp to the envelope. As I wiped off the excess with a tissue, I assured myself that it had been nothing, just a little adrenaline rush. After all, I wasn’t divorced and hardly anyone was aware that I had separated from him. I had changed my life’s course before they noticed, and before my child was old enough to realize that her life was headed towards the path of failure.
I told my mother, siblings and friends that life in China would make a global citizen of my daughter as she would learn both Chinese and English at her new international school. I said that my husband and I were prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of her future, and even joked that it was high time that we had the pleasure of emotional reunions after periods of being apart and missing each other, since we had been together forever. No one raised an eyebrow, probably because more than a few of their acquaintances had already pulled off their own great escape. I kept up the charade despite my anxiety, always fearful that people might not fall for it. At some point, even I was deluded into believing my own story. In the final days before my departure, I’d almost forgotten the irreconcilable difference between my husband and me. I found myself fretting about how he would manage without us. I might have given up on the plan under the pretense of conceding to his wishes if he had said: “Don’t go” or “Do you really have to go?” I might have . . . But all he could muster was: “Why China?”
He spoke the words, but there was no question mark in his voice. It was clear to me that he didn’t expect an answer.
Why China? Others asked me that question time after time, and each time I gave them the same answer. “The 21st century is China’s.” One cynic had replied: “You’ll never catch up with the wealthy people who can afford to send their kids to the United States or Canada.” She was right, of course. That was the stark reality. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care if the destination was the US, China, or some obscure country in Africa, as long as I landed on a stage where there was no part for a husband or father.
Why China? The question my husband didn’t really ask differed from that of my snobbish peers, who only wanted to ridicule me. When we were in college, when youth – fuelled by the pure fire of hopes and beliefs – outweighed practicalities in our lives, we studied the history of the Chinese Revolution together in secret, in a room you needed a password to enter. China, at the time, was forbidden fruit, a forbidden ideal. For a split-second, it seemed as though he were remembering those days. He glanced at me with eyes full of meaning and a hint of annoyance. But as quickly as it appeared, that rare show of emotion was gone. “I wouldn’t have chosen China,” I said, “but you couldn’t pay our living expenses anywhere else.” With that, he retreated into his reality . . . a reality where there are no memories.
Nearly all of his waking hours were spent outside the house. He left for work before breakfast and came home to bed in the small hours of the morning. He worked most weekends, and when he wasn’t in the office he would be doing some sort of business, all work-related. I hadn’t been able to exchange more than a few words with him in years because I hardly ever saw him sober. Friends had advised me to find out if he was seeing another woman, but as far as I knew, there was no such presence in his life. Even if he were involved with someone else, I doubt he’d have had time to declare his love for her. He had been enthralled by something other than women.
I wanted, and tried, to understand him. For three full years, until the magazine company he’d quit for good offered to rehire him, he was jobless and earned nothing. We got by on what his father could pitch in and the small income I earned with my translation work. During those years what I tried to understand wasn’t his outrage but his humiliation. Perhaps he had been left with no other options. He was in his mid-30s when he quit that job, a job he was quite adept at. By the time he found work again, he was just past 40, hardly in the position to tender another resignation letter or be forced out of the door. The three years of unemployment had changed my husband from an assertive man with a fiery temper, who called himself an anarchist when tipsy and travelled every corner of the world through books, into someone content to simply keep an office chair warm.
Once he returned to work, I did my best to understand what he was going through and agreed to translate a book that was practically rubbish, if for no other reason than it meant we could save the money he had begun to bring home again. I took care to stock up on oriental medicines each spring and fall to help bolster his immune system. One, two then five years passed like that and it was I, not he, who suffered humiliation and grew servile. There were days when he looked at me with such an expression of surprise on his face that I came to the conclusion that he no longer recognized me. Who is this woman? The question in his eyes would set off a brief moment of confusion, but once it had passed, he seemed to lose any desire to know her. Well . . . not only her, but himself too. The only subjects that seemed to interest him were the balance of his bank accounts and the sum of the pension he would receive upon his retirement. He worked hard to earn a promotion but never bothered to ask himself why. Above all, there didn’t seem to be anything left that he and I wanted to talk to each other about.
Once, in those days, the phone rang sometime after midnight. It was one of my husband’s colleagues calling to tell me that he had been escorting my drunken husband home in a taxi when he’d passed out, leaving the colleague at a loss as to what to do next. The colleague was clearly drunk too. So I rushed out into the pitch-black streets only to find them at a roadside drinking tent, fresh drinks in front of them. My husband was sobbing, his head held up by the table.
His colleague was unable to sit straight in his drunken state, but he managed to plead for my understanding. “Have a heart. Earning a living in this shit hole of a country . . . you know what shit it is. Living is shit.”
I held my tongue and proceeded to slide my arms under my husband’s and hook my hands over his shoulders. The entire scene was being played out in our neighbourhood and I was aware of familiar faces watching us. Still, it wasn’t the prying eyes of my neighbours that I couldn’t bear, but the fact that I couldn’t understand why he was crying. I felt crushed by the knowledge that, no matter how long I lived, I would likely never understand. What troubled me even more was the feeling that he, too, didn’t know why he was crying. This middle-aged man sobbing uncontrollably with his head buried in his hands looked pathetic – and he was my husband. If only he would have let me, I would have given anything to be able to weep with him.
But right at that moment, as I was working my arms through his armpits to pull him up by his shoulders, he shook me off in a violent outburst, as though he were brushing off something repulsive. He began hurling invectives at me as I fell off-balance.
“Bitch, I told you to suck it, didn’t I? Don’t you dare spread your dirty legs. Just suck it!” His ranting continued. “I can’t get it up anyway. Damn it, it’s been too long. I can’t get it up . . . I never thought this would be all. But it is . . . this is everything.”
This is everything. He’d said those words as clearly as the light of day, but what did they mean? Long ago he had lost just his job, and now he had nothing left, that much I understood. But I also realized that I didn’t know what everything meant to him, so how could I possibly know what nothing meant?
At some point that night I found myself standing over my husband, watching him where he’d fallen asleep, his nose buried in sheets soiled with vomit. Eventually it dawned on me, at that ungodly hour, that the one with the problem was me, not him. What I wanted from him, what I wanted from my life . . . a life’s worth of longing upon which a pile of betrayals had settled over the years . . . yet I couldn't bring myself to get down on my knees to satisfy him. Still, even if I were to blame, I couldn't forgive him. If I’d been able to forgive, I would have got down on my knees a long time ago. At dawn I was still standing over my husband but my gaze had wandered to the point where the inner seams of his trouser legs met in the crotch. There are no words to describe my anger. Like he said, he’d lived like a slab of dead meat for a long time. Apparently that slab had been his everything and his nothing as well.
A long time ago when my husband had the good fortune to have lost only his job, he used to watch nature videos when he couldn’t sleep. I seldom watched along with him. I was too busy hating him for being jobless. I would look at him and think about how I couldn't care less what he did out there all day if only he would get up and get out of the house at the same time every day. But all he ever did was stay home and watch videos on the TV, not of Hollywood action flicks, but his favourite documentaries on bugs and worms.
Once late at night I saw him watching a video of a rippling sea that filled the screen. The camera moved to and fro as though eagerly searching for something. The title on the video jacket was “Butterflies in Korea”. It was past midnight and he had pressed mute so I picked up the remote and turned on the sound. As soon as I raised the volume, an excited shout of “There, there!” rang out. The camera panned quickly then focused on a solitary butterfly flying over the wide expanse of the sea. The narrator’s voice returned: “What we are witnessing is the first time a Jeju Monarch Butterfly has been captured on film as it makes its lonely journey across the sea. It’s hard to imagine that small butterfly crossing hundreds of kilometres of open sea without ever stopping to rest!”
I pushed the mute button in disgust. What a lie! A butterfly crossing the sea . . . With all the lies in the world, the truth that the man I lived with, my child’s father, was a mere parasite seemed trivial. The lie called happiness that I’d dreamed suddenly seemed utterly insignificant. And yet the possibility of forgiving him and myself seemed far beyond my reach.
When I first arrived in China, I would often get a glimpse of someone who seemed to resemble my husband. A profile like his would catch my eye and I’d turn to get a better look. The two whorls on the crown of the head would be exactly like his, as were the shoulders hunched over from desk work and the buttocks that seemed too full for a man. I’d be reminding myself that it couldn’t possibly be him and at the same time I was following close behind, until I’d turn a corner to find he’d disappeared or become a completely different man.
One of those days, I’d turned a corner having lost him again when a red shop sign caught my eye. Red billboards were commonplace in China, but there was something mysterious about this one. It took me a while to realize that it was a tattoo parlour. I had only been in the country 10 days and couldn’t buy a bag of salt in a Chinese store by myself, let alone navigate a tattoo parlour, but my feet led me through the door.
It was dark inside and a pungent smell like perfume or medicine assailed my nostrils. Once my eyes had grown accustomed to the dim light, I was able to make out an old man tending the store, but saw no sign of my husband or anyone who bore a resemblance to him. The old man in traditional Chinese clothing sat behind a round red table. He spoke to me as I looked at some paintings, probably sample tattoo designs, hanging on the wall behind him, but his words were beyond my comprehension. There was a dragon, a tiger, a bird that looked like a cross between a chicken and a phoenix, some extremely cursive Chinese calligraphy . . . and a butterfly.
The butterfly was like a painted red talisman. I walked towards it to get a better look and the man sprang from his chair, first muttering something unintelligible, then shouting. I ventured another step forward and shivered at the sight of what had to be water dripping off the butterfly’s wings. Seawater. Those butterfly wings drenched with seawater were tattered and dripping wet. The insect’s tired breathing and the smell of brine strong enough to pickle one life swept through my mind.
“You want a butterfly tattoo?” the old man was shouting. “Okay. But I have to warn you it’s dangerous. If you get one, you’ll be hovering over the sea the rest of your life. One guy got this tattoo and later, I saw his arms and legs adrift on the sea, salt-stained and fluttering even though his torso was gone. The tattoo I made was gone, the spot where it had been, hollowed out. But you could still see where the wings had ripped off from having flown too long. The sea is too wide for a butterfly. I didn’t want to give him a butterfly tattoo. He was from Korea like you . . . poor man . . . out at sea with nothing left but arms and legs. Where could his body have gone?”
Somehow I’d managed to catch every word and, as his voice grew soft and low again, I found that I was shaking all over. Water dripped from my arms and legs and I could feel them flailing about. And there was my husband’s body drifting with the tide, his eyes squeezed shut so he wouldn’t have to see his limbless body.
I didn’t hear from Chae-geum again; after all she had already said a proper goodbye. I’ll probably never see her again. Even if I do go back to Korea, in all likelihood her mother will no longer be working at my mother’s restaurant. And I had no unfinished business with her. Hadn’t I said: “Go and have a good life!” that last time? I couldn’t say for sure. Maybe I hung up without saying a word.
A few days later, I asked my tutor how you say “Korean Chinese” and “village” in Chinese. Then I asked her if the taxi driver would understand where to go if I asked him to take me to the Korean Chinese village. She clearly understood what I wanted to do, and she offered to take me to Chae-geum’s house but I just asked her to help me call a taxi. She bargained with the driver for the return fare then said: “Have a good trip,” as she opened the door for me.
It took 40 minutes to return to the village I had visited with Chae-geum. Her house was empty, but the door was ajar so I stepped in and looked around until I spotted a large new suitcase sitting on its own. She must have already finished packing to go. I had the sudden urge to fling it open, strangely convinced that Chae-geum, nowhere to be seen in these rooms, had to be trapped inside, her eyes sealed shut like a xiazi.
But instead of opening the suitcase, I reached for a book lying on the desk facing me. I opened the first page and read “Annyeong haseyo” – Korean for “Hello”, the first expression we learn in any language course. Chae-geum had written that phrase over and over again in the margins, practising her still clumsy script, filling page after page with awkward strokes.
Hello. I am Lee Chae-geum.
Hello. I am Lee Chae-geum. I am Korean.
A wave of pain swept through my heart. Was it her clumsy writing of “I am Korean” or all those “Hellos”, page after page of them? Annyeong haseyo, I repeated under my breath. “Hello.” “Hello, I am Korean.” I felt a fistful of sand in my mouth but kept repeating those words. “Hello, I am Korean . . . Hello. Hello, I am Korean,” until I felt my whole body turn to sand.
I sat on the threshold to Chae-geum’s room, waiting for her or her father to return. Twenty, then thirty minutes passed but there was still no sign of them. The taxi hadn’t budged from where it was parked in front of the house, and the driver had probably dozed off, his head hanging from the taxi window like a dead man’s. It was fall but the wind that blew at midday was hot and damp.
Had it been humid like this when Chae-geum’s father witnessed the execution? I glanced at the vegetable patch I had glimpsed that first evening. I hadn't been able to see well at dusk, but now I could make out thick and healthy rows of green onions. Perhaps the odour I hadn’t been able to bear had been the smell of green onions. What had made me think it was the scent of a tired life, and of death?
I had come to Chae-geum’s house on impulse, not to slip her an envelope of money to help her on her way. Yes, I probably wanted to see her father again and ask him which eye had seen me that day, and if his words had been meant for me.
I rose to my feet without thinking when I glimpsed the shadow of a man with an uneven gait on the narrow path that ran between the paddies. Perhaps I hadn’t come all that way to meet him, but to avoid meeting him. I had stayed 50 minutes inside his house. That was enough.
From the taxi window, I glimpsed a red sign that reminded me of the one by the tattoo parlour door. A gust of wind blew at the shop curtain, exposing my husband’s figure. I wanted to tell the driver to stop, but I couldn’t find the right words. The taxi was moving full-speed ahead and I knew that we were bound for the sea, the sea where my husband was adrift. I wanted to hold him again for the first time in a long while, though he was just a body with neither arms nor legs to embrace me. Still in my arms, his limbless body couldn’t hold me back and only seemed to sink deeper in the brine.