A man was waiting in line, holding a child tightly by the hand. He was trying to stay close to the person before him so as not to lose his spot. The office of the Employment Corporation was as large as a playing field and was packed with thousands of jobless people, coordinators called adjusters, and touts distributing flyers as they nimbly threaded in and out of the lines of people. It was as clamorous as the black market early in the morning. Some flyers were for recruiting mercenaries to be dispatched to the Middle East, which had been attacked with nuclear weapons, others for inviting people to participate in experiments conducted by pharmaceutical companies. But most were for trafficking in human organs, with the following message printed in Korean:
Would you sell off your last remaining property for a song?
“Whew! These lines are endless. How many of them blankets are there, anyways?” a coordinator with a greasy complexion grumbled with a long yawn. “Blankets” meant those who relied on vouchers as their only means of living, issued monthly by the National Administration. They had no affiliation, no income, and, most of them, no home. They were called “blankets” because of the ragged blankets in which they wrapped themselves against the cold.
“Well, the National Administration says there are three million of them now, but I’ve also heard that it could be over five million—”
“Damn it! If this freeloading continues, it’ll bring the country to ruin. You don’t suppose we can squeeze grease out of them to make soap, do you?” a fat coordinator sitting next to him chimed in, taking a bite out of a sugar-smothered doughnut.
“That won’t even cover the costs. A better way would be sweeping them all into a pit and burying them like we do with pigs,” a young, spectacled coordinator laughed eerily, typing away at a keyboard. The blankets standing around them heard the horrible ridicule directed at them, but showed no reaction, except for carefully studying the coordinators’ faces. They knew that carelessly offending a coordinator could make them lose vouchers, followed by a month of living hell.
Called by a half-bald coordinator, the man scrambled forward and held out his document. It was his report explaining how hard he had tried to get a job and what his plans were for future employment. Although nothing but red tape, the report was a must to get a voucher, so he had struggled a whole day to complete it.
“You’re still young and able-bodied! Why can’t you find work?” the coordinator scanned through the report half-heartedly, not even glancing at the man. The accusation, which had been repeated to him so many times before, failed to inspire the man. The unemployment rate had remained above 90 percent for the last ten years, and finding any work had become as wild a dream as going to Heaven after death. But the coordinators had always lashed out at the unemployed, as if they were solely responsible for the situation.
“My child has asthma and needs medicine. And it’s so expensive—” the man began making excuses, his head bowed, but soon his voice trailed away in mid-sentence. He was afraid of looking like a complainer. Once branded as such, he would have to forget about the trifle of a voucher, let alone finding any work. The coordinator, though, didn’t seem interested in his excuses; instead, he turned his eyes on the child standing behind the man. There was a frightened look in the child’s eyes above the white gauze mask that covered most of his face.
“You had the nerve to have a child! You can’t even feed it, can you? Well, you asked for it!”
The man felt a surge of anger, but thought the coordinator’s remark was not entirely wrong. Obviously it had been his fault to decide to raise a family when he was not an office worker. He had no choice but to keep silent.
“So, until when are you gonna keep him?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I mean the kid. Is he in school yet?”
“No, not yet—perhaps later, when things are better.”
At the coordinator’s reproachful question, the man felt his thin body shriveling further. The coordinator put down the document and spoke in a secretive tone.
“One of the elders in my church—now, there’s a man of devotion for you—makes generous contributions to the church. I’ve seen his wife a few times, too. The couple has made such a great impression on me.”
The man immediately understood what the coordinator was trying to say.
“Moreover, they love children so much that they’ve taken many unfortunate kids under their wing, mixed blood or not. They have so much love to give.”
Although the child’s face was hidden under the big mask, the coordinator seemed to have noticed him being half-blooded right away.
The child’s mother was Indian, with big, serene eyes and complexion like café au lait. She had crossed the Bay of Bengal to escape from her abusive husband, passed through Myanmar and Thailand, wandered onto the Korean Peninsula, and met the man while both of them were working at a hide tanning factory. Even exposed to the danger of flesh-melting, toxic chemicals and the stench of rotting hide, the two had fallen in love and soon began living together. But their hard-earned love lasted only a few years before they faced a crisis. Two years after they had a child, the factory moved to Africa and they lost their jobs. Although their wages hadn’t been much, they had somehow managed to eke out a living. Once the factory was gone, however, they had no other means for making a living. The next winter, his wife disappeared, leaving behind a short letter, written in broken Korean:
“I’m really sory. I don now wat else to do. Pleaz, forgive me. With love, Priya.”
A while later, he heard some people saying that she was walking the streets near the black market and others that she had gone to China.
“What I mean to say is—”
The coordinator cleared his throat and got to his main point.
“I can talk the couple into adopting your kid, if you want me to.”
The coordinator smacked his lips like a savage beast that had j...
Cheon Myeong-kwan is a novelist and scriptwriter. He has received the Munhakdongne Novel Award and the Kusang Young Writer Award. His books have been translated into English, French, Chinese, Russian, and Vietnamese. English editions of his work include Modern Family and “Homecoming.” Modern Family was adapted into the movie Boomerang Family.