Because I Hate Korea
- onMarch 22, 2018
- Vol.39 Spring 2018
- byChang Kang-myoung
- Because I Gate Korea (Hangugi sireoseo)
While setting myself up as landlord I went to check out Meriton Serviced Apartments on Kent Street near Darling Harbour. I fell in love with the flat at first sight. I put down six weeks’ rent as a deposit, took possession of the flat, and found ten boarders. I stipulated in the contract that they strictly obey the house rules on cleaning. It was forbidden to bring friends home, too. So having Ellie over that night for a barbecue violated my own rules.
“If you want a meaningful life, Kiena, you have to take risks,” Ellie said to me as she leaned against the balcony railing. That’s why she did extreme sports. She had quit working at Girls’ Valley earlier that day.
“But what if something goes wrong? Aren’t you scared?” I asked. “You could wind up paralyzed, or get killed . . .”
“I’m not going to die. And, anyway, dying? Dying isn’t so bad.” That’s when she asked me to take her picture. I used the camera on my phone and took several shots of her leaning against the balcony railing. Then she asked me to video her.
“I’ll show you what it means to live life on the edge.”
I had no clue what she was planning to do as she shouldered the large backpack she’d brought with her. I was an idiot. She had on weird clothes, sort of like what pilots would wear. The straps from her backpack wrapped around her legs rather than her arms.
Before I had a chance to stop her Ellie climbed nimbly over the balcony. She gave me a wink and jumped down into the Sydney streets. Throughout all this I left video mode running on my iPhone. That was what she wanted me to film. Gasping, I dashed to the balcony where I could make out a white parachute gliding elegantly through the forest of tall buildings. A beautiful sight. Dazzling. I understood why Ellie had cajoled me into bringing her to our balcony.
When I went back to Korea to take the IELTS exam, I met up with my university friends for the first time in years. We started drinking in the daytime.
“A few days ago my damned mother-in-law sent me a special delivery package. So I tear it open and it contains the fixings for scorched rice porridge and stuff like that. And she sends me a text message along with it, telling me she sent the package because she thought it must be hard for me to make breakfast. Take things easy, she says. What is that supposed to mean? She’s ordering me to make breakfast for her precious little baby. But my husband doesn’t even eat breakfast. He says he hasn’t had breakfast since middle school. Helllllllo? Mother, they offer free breakfast in the basement restaurant where he works. Are you that clueless about your own son?”
As she drank, Eun-hye kept grousing about her mother-in-law. The others’ reactions made it clear enough that they’d already heard the stories a dozen times. Nobody was listening.
“Do you want to know what I do when I can’t get a website to cooperate? I give this a try, give that a try. I try everything that pops into my head until I can get it functioning properly. I don’t even know what it is I did in the end to get it right. Do you think it’s only me who’s like that? Everyone in the company is the same. That’s why experience is important in this line of work. And people go on about systems integration blah blah blah. It’s ridiculous.”
Mi-yeon was working at an IT company as she did before. And she was still computer illiterate, just like before.
I had to stifle yawns while listening to their gossip. If you paid close attention it was entertaining. They’d become more eloquent than before. But strangely, it didn’t interest me.
At first I thought it was because my brain was tired after sitting through the IELTS for eight hours. But my head was clear. With some alcohol in me, my tongue loosened and I even kept up with the others’ jokes and contributed several biting remarks of my own. After Australia, had I just lost interest in stories from Korea? But that wasn’t it. I was just as curious about trends in Korea and about dramas as before. Gyeong-yun’s story about getting her teeth capped made me laugh so hard that my sides hurt. She’d been drinking with much younger classmates from pharmacology school and wanted to put on a show of being tipsy, but tipped right over and chipped her teeth. Something inside my heart ached at the news about Ji-myeong. After failing the exam, he gave it another try and in the end passed the test to become a broadcast journalist. Isn’t that amazing?
Actually, it was two specific sets of stories that bored me: Eun-hye’s chatter about her mother-in-law and Mi-yeon’s work tales. They kept jabbering for way too long, and what they said was no different from the stuff they’d been saying a few years ago. Maybe they’ll be telling the same stories a decade from now. Frankly, they had no intention of changing their situations. What they wanted was for me to sympathize with them: “Wow, I can’t believe what a goddamned bitch your mother-in-law is. And your company is really pathetic. Why is Korea so backward?” That would have been the basic approach to take. But that fundamental solution was hard because for them to put it into practice would have demanded bravery. It’s scary to say “This is wrong” to the boss or “I don’t like that” to your mother-in-law. The security and predictability of their lives was precious to them.
Maybe because in Sydney I experienced adventures great and small every day, my old friends seemed a little shallow. I couldn’t say that I’d made a better choice than they did or that my future was brighter, but . . . I said, “Get in touch if you come to Australia. I live in a humongous apartment with a great view.” I gave them my cell phone number and my new email address and got up to leave first with the excuse that I had a headache.
When I got home Ye-na and my parents had just waged a battle. Ye-na had been preparing for a few years to take the ninth-level civil service exam. But she’d met a guy through some online game and they were dating. He played bass in a band that performed in Hongdae clubs and had no steady job. He was just working part-time at a convenience store. You already know where this is heading, right?
Her boyfriend had come up in conversation at dinner. “Just keep him as a lover, pass your civil service exam, and meet a solid guy,” Mom had said half-jokingly, half-seriously.
That appeared to kick off the argument. Ye-na said she was going to marry him whether she passed the exam or not and then Mom said, “We’ll see about that” to which Ye-na responded, “Why are you interfering in my love life?” Then Mom scolded her with, “A woman who’s studying for the civil service exams shouldn’t even be talking about a love life.” So Ye-na shot right back. “What? If I’m not earning money, I can’t have a boyfriend . . .?”
By the time I got home, Ye-na had gone up to the roof and had been staging a protest for several hours. Our sweet mom was beside herself. She wore a guilty expression. If it had been me I’d have just told Ye-na to sleep on the roof for the night.
“Please go up, Gye-na. You two have a good relationship.”
When we were young, I used to boss Ye-na around and give her a hard time, but at some point she had become the one in the family I was closest to. And because Ye-na had a conscience, she felt guilty around Mom and Dad. Hye-na was so good-natured that hanging out with her could be dull. Ye-na, on the other hand, didn’t have to feel guilty as far as I was concerned, and we got on well.
I took a bottle of Sansachun wine out of the fridge and clambered up to the roof by the iron grate stairs outside the kitchen. Ye-na was playing a game on her phone. She saw me and quickly stashed her phone away.
“Is Mom really mad?” Looking crestfallen, she scanned my expression. Her lips were blue from exposure to the chilly wind. Half of me wanted to whack her upside the head and half of me wanted to hug her close.
“Hang on a sec. I’ll bring you something to put on from downstairs.” I headed back down and brought a sweater, a blanket, the wine, and a scented candle. I spread the blanket on the platform in the middle of the roof, lit the candle, and drank the Sansachun with Ye-na.
“Do you think it’s a stupid idea to go out with a musician too?”
“Well, he’s not exactly going to make a comfortable living in Korea playing in a band . . .”
Ji-myeong’s family suddenly popped into my head and I trailed off. If I thought it was right to stand in Ye-na’s way, I’d have to justify what Ji-myeong’s family did with him.
“I thought you’d be on my side.”
“You went to Australia even though Mom and Dad didn’t approve.”
I didn’t answer. Going to Australia was a completely different issue to me. I went to improve my prospects for the future. It was entirely possible that Ye-na, whose status was low enough as it was, could drag herself down by settling with a musician. Step back and think about it. Your future is already decided by the end of your twenties. It’s not easy to change in your thirties.
“He’s talented, Sis. He might hit it big one day.”
When I didn’t respond, Ye-na played me something on her phone that she said her boyfriend had composed. I admit that his music had the power to make listeners feel melancholy, but I honestly couldn’t say whether it would be a hit. I listened and continued to drink the Sansachun with Ye-na. After emptying the bottle, I went downstairs and brought back soju.
I told Ye-na about a passage I’d read while studying for the IELTS.
“Ye-na, do you think it’s more dangerous to parachute from an airplane or from the roof of a building?”
“Which one is more dangerous?”
My sister looked irritated, as if asking why I was bringing up an irrelevant question.
“Jumping from a building is much more dangerous. If you fall from high up you can get your body into a brace position before hitting the ground. If you fall from somewhere low, you don’t have that time. While you’re still thinking, Oh shit, you’ve already smashed into the ground. Somebody who falls from high up has time to open a reserve parachute if the main one doesn’t work. You can’t if you’re already low. If your main parachute doesn’t open, that’s it. So you need to be more careful when you’re low. Plunging from down low is more dangerous.”
They call it BASE jumping: parachuting from a building, antenna, span, or something on Earth, like a cliff.
When I gave Ye-na my analogy, I’d only read about it. I had no idea that I’d soon see a real-life example. It’s the most dangerous extreme sport. The death rate is forty times higher than sky diving. There’s a training center in the US for BASE jumping, but they only accept those who’ve already skydived more than a hundred times.
Of course, Ellie hadn’t received that training. When she landed on Kent Street she broke a leg. It so happened that this incident occurred when Sydney was in the midst of a terrorism alert. The police mobilized in force as soon as a parachute was spotted opening from a tall building. They even aimed their guns at Ellie as she tried to hobble away on one leg. They arrested her on the spot and confiscated her parachute.
The next morning it was the top story on the news. In a nation where dramatic happenings didn’t occur with great frequency, it was repeated on the evening news, the following day’s morning news and then the evening news again.
A few days later, an employee at Meriton came to our flat without prior notice to have a look around while I was out. A few days after that, the building superintendent arrived with a slip of paper. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be an eviction notice. I had a choice between paying $100,000 as compensation for tarnishing the reputation of Meriton Enterprises or evacuating the premises by the end of the month without objection. I was gobsmacked.
“Leave by the end of the month? No possibility of getting my deposit back? Richard, there’s no reason even given for eviction.”
“Kiena, are you asking because you really don’t know the reason?”
“It wasn’t me who put on a parachute and jumped.”
“But you let her into your flat. If that parachute girl had forced open your door, you could prosecute her for breaking and entering. But opening up your flat to her was your responsibility.”
“That makes no sense. I need to talk to the person in charge of your company. Is this building some high-class service hotel? Get ready to be on the news if you drag me out. I’ll stage a one-person sit-in in front of Meriton’s headquarters if I have to. I’m not leaving until I get my deposit.”
“Kiena, seriously, I’m telling you this for your own good. Don’t do it. Headquarters has already investigated. You had more than ten people staying here? And somebody was living on the veranda? If you don’t leave quietly, Meriton will take you to court for violating your housing contract. They even took pictures for proof. If you have a prior conviction, you can kiss your dreams of citizenship goodbye. Is that what you want?”
(Excerpt from pp. 117–127)
Translated by Stephen J. Epstein & Mi Young Kim