- onNovember 15, 2014
- Vol.24 Summer 2014
- byKim Young-ha
- Black Flower
Tr. Charles La Shure 2012305pp.
“What sort of land is Mexico?” This was at the Seoul Young Men’s Christian Association. An American missionary spoke, his black beard covering his neck. “Mexico is far. Very far.” The boy narrowed his eyes. “Then where is it close to?” The missionary laughed. “It’s right below America. And it’s very hot. But why are you asking about Mexico?” The boy showed him the advertisement in the Capital Gazette. But the missionary, who did not know Chinese characters, could not read the advertisement. Instead, another young Korean explained the contents of the advertisement in English. Only then did the missionary nod. The boy asked him, “If I were your son, would you tell me to go?” The missionary did not understand right away, so the boy asked again. The missionary’s face grew grave and he slowly shook his head. “Then, if you were me, would you go?” The missionary was lost in deep thought. The boy hadn’t been long at the school, but he was bright and unusually quick to understand. He had been raised as an orphan, but had not grown timid, and he stood out from the other students with similar stories.
The bearded missionary gave him some coffee and a muffin. The boy’s mouth began to water. The peddler who had taken him around the country had taught him: “If someone gives you something to eat, count to one hundred before eating. And if someone wants to buy something of yours, double the price that comes to mind. That way no one will look down on you.” The boy rarely had the opportunity to follow these instrucions. No one gave him anything to eat, and no one wanted to buy anything he owned. The missionary opened his eyes wide. “Aren’t you hungry?” The boy’s lips moved slightly. Eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-four. He couldn’t bear it any longer. He took the sweet-smelling raisin muffin and began to stuff it into his mouth. When he had finished the muffin and coffee, the missionary brought him to a room with a lot of books and showed him a map of the world. On it was a country that looked like a sunken, empty belly. Mexico. The missionary asked him, “Do you really want to go? You’ve only been attending school for three months... how about studying more before you go?” The boy shook his head. “They say that chances like this do not come often. I heard that boys with no parents are welcome.” The missionary could see that his heart was set. He gave the boy an English Bible. “Someday you will be able to read it. If you earn some money in Mexico, go to America. The Lord will guide you.” Then he hugged the boy. The boy held the missionary tightly. His beard brushed the nape of the boy’s neck.
The boy went to Jemulpo and stood at the end of the long line. In that line he met the strapping man who tousled the boy’s hair. “A person must have a name. Forget childhood names like Jang-soe. Take Kim as your family name and Ijeong as your given name. It’s easy to write—just the character i (二), meaning two, and the character jeong (正), meaning upright.” As the line grew shorter he wrote the boy’s name in Chinese characters. It was seven strokes in all. The man’s name was Jo Jangyun. A staff sergeant engineer in the new-style army of the Korean Empire, he had set aside his uniform when the Russo- Japanese War broke out. There were a number of others in the same situation. Two hundred of these men, who had suited up together and trained in the new-style long rifles with the Russian advisory corps, had thronged to Jemulpo. There were enough of them to form an entire battalion. They had no land and no relatives. No nation needed an army more urgently than the feeble empire, but no rice could be found in the empire’s storerooms to feed them. Above all, the Japanese were demanding a curtailment of Korean military expenditures and a reduction in force of arms. Soldiers on the frontiers left their barracks and wandered off, and when they saw the Continental Colonization Company’s advertisement they raced to Jemulpo. They were the first to want to leave for Mexico, where work, money, and warm food were said to await them. Jo Jangyun was one of those men. His father, a hunter in Hwanghae province, had left for China; someone had seen him living with a Chinese woman in Shanghai. But Jo Jangyun did not go to Shanghai. Instead he chose Mexico, where they said the sun was warm year-round. And didn’t they say his wages would be dozens of times higher than a soldier’s pay? What did it matter where he went? There was no need to hesitate. Life in Mexico couldn’t be any harder than it had been in the army.
The boy cast his gaze over the ocean once more. Three black-billed seagulls wheeled above his head. Someone had said that there was gold in Mexico. They said that yellow gold poured forth from the earth, making many suddenly rich. “No. That’s America,” insisted another, but he sounded uncertain too. The boy repeated his name. “Kim Ijeong. My name is Kim Ijeong. I am going to a far land. And I will return as an adult Kim Ijeong. I will return with my name and with money and I will buy land, and there I will plant rice.” Those with land were respected. That was a simple truth the boy had learned on the road. It couldn’t be Mexican land. It had to be Korean land, and a rice paddy. But another thought had raised its head in the boy’s heart, the thought of another strange land, called America.
The seagulls fluttered above the surface of the water as if dancing. The quicker ones flew away with fairly large fish in their beaks. The wings of the gulls were tinged red. The sun was setting. The boy went down to the cabin and again wedged himself into the corner. The coarse, low voices of men could be heard between the cries of children. There was no strength in the voices of these men; they did not know their futures. Their words dissipated like the foam that washed against the prow of the ship. The boy closed his eyes. He hoped that he would not wake until breakfast.