A Good Family by Seo Hajin

Before Noon


When the woman was ready to leave and came out, her son was still “playing games.”


“It’s been more than thirty minutes.”


The boy stopped her hand as it reached out to a palm-size machine.


“But I’m ‘studying’ now.”


Following the machine’s instructions, the boy spelled and pronounced the English words. Do you understand what I mean? The screen changed and the next word popped up. “What? Only twenty points?” the boy complained, moving the plastic button and clicking through to the next screen. A white puppy appeared on one side of the screen, its tongue darting out.


"You failed,” the red letters said.


“Gee, Mom. I lost to the puppy.”


“I told you to stop.” Her face twitched, which meant she was reaching the end of her rope. He stared wide-eyed at her. It was hard to believe those innocent eyes belonged to a seventeen-year-old adolescent boy.


“I’m studying for the listening evaluation. We have a competition tomorrow.”


His voice was courteous. Whether it was a computer or a gaming device, any conversation with the boy while he was in front of a machine tested the woman’s patience. In trying to convince him, she always ended up raising her voice, and she had to assert her authority as a mother to wrap up the situation every time. Both she and the boy knew that her so-called authority had run out like the air from a leaking balloon, and that there wasn’t much of it left now.


“You don’t understand. There’re tons of kids in my class who do nothing but play games all day long.”


He even smiled at her, as if he felt sorry that she didn’t know that she should be happy to have a son like him. Going to school, going to a cram school, doing homework, working with a private tutor, doing homework, working on exercise sheets, doing homework . . . There was nothing she could say to him, since he was dealing with such a packed schedule. Even her nagging wasted his time.


“Well, thanks, son. Would you like me to bow to you or something?”


She let it drop there. She had gotten him the Japanese game console last winter, just before his final exams were over. The boy, who had been losing sleep at night from his eager desire for a game console that seemed more suited to an elementary school student, barely met the condition she had set, which was to be ranked in the top five percent of his class. To afford a more expensive system, he cut his own expenses and added the entirety of his sebaetdon.1 He was good-natured and docile. Apart from having fallen in with some worrisome friends, he left nothing to be desired.


“I’m going over to see Jae-min in a little while. You know that, right?”


He nodded his head and quietly stood up and went to his room. It would be a while before he could hold his head up again. She pitied the boy but didn’t console him, because this was an incident that required self-examination. Her mobile phone made an odd sound, alerting her that it was ten o’clock. With a thick wool scarf tightly wrapped around her neck, she left the apartment. She adjusted her clothes again, looking at herself in the mirror hanging on the wall of the elevator. It was her daughter’s old fake-fur coat, fuzzy with lint. The plain, warm clothes seemed to match her plain, un-made-up face. Looking in the mirror, she made a pitiful expression. A face untidy from lack of sleep, anxious eyes and narrow shoulders in a loose coat. Perfect. The woman caught a glimpse of a camera in the corner of the elevator and momentarily felt embarrassed, but this wasn’t the time for that. Just as she started to feel the tears threatening to form in her eyes, the elevator stopped, and with a clear Ding-Dong, its door slid gently open.


“Hey, Ji-woo’s mom. Where are you headed?”


The woman stepping in seemed delighted to see her. She was the mother of a classroom representative from another classroom at the same school her son attended. She was a lively and involved mother, who helped with things like searching for private tutors, distributing information about cram schools, and getting rid of clumsy teachers and uncooperative kids. Suddenly, a shadow crossed her face. Even though she showed adequate courtesy to the dean, the principal, his homeroom teacher, and any other teachers who might know about it and tried to downplay it as much as she could, it was possible that this woman might have heard the rumor. Reeling, she made a quick decision: cautious honesty was best.


“Oh my goodness, I’m in such an uncomfortable situation. I feel awful.”


“What’s going on? I had a feeling. Since you’re wearing that . . .” The woman had a smile in her eyes. Could she really not know? Even if she didn’t yet, she surely would soon. Bad rumors always seemed to spread like the wind.


“My son, Ji-woo, got into trouble in a karaoke room with his friends, you know.”


“A karaoke room? When? He has time to do that?” The woman asked, wide-eyed.


“They went there on the day they finished final exams. They seem to have gotten into a fight about something while they were there.”


“Oh dear, did anyone get hurt? It wasn’t Ji-woo, was it?”


“No, not him, but another child . . . The child’s parents went crazy. They said they would sue all the children. Ji-woo didn’t even know what was going on, since he had been sipping from the beer that the children were passing around a...

Seo Hajin is an assistant professor at Kyung Hee University’s Department of Korean Language and Literature. She has published two novels and six short story collections. The English edition of A Good Family came out from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. She has received the Hahn Moo-Sook Literary Prize, Baek Shin-ae Literary Award, and Kim Jun Sung Literary Award.