- onJanuary 5, 2017
- Vol.34 Winter 2016
- byCheon Myeong-kwan
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 just spotted a prey. The man glanced back and caught the eyes of his child standing alone behind him. His eyes looked just like his mother’s, big and sad.
“You should stop being selfish and think of the kid’s future. Giving birth isn’t enough. Can you call yourself a parent when you can’t even feed your child?”
There was no doubt that the coordinator was volunteering to arrange the adoption because of the large reward that would fall his way once it was carried through.
For a few years, it had been a trend among the super-rich to adopt children. Taking it as an opportunity to show off their power as well as to practice noblesse oblige, the super-rich had competitively adopted child after child. Consequently, it was not uncommon to see a soccer team or a choir composed of children who had been adopted into the same family. One rich man had become the talk of the town by adopting eighty children on his eightieth birthday. It was said that during the old man’s birthday party, all of the children, dressed in uniform, had performed a musical composed to celebrate their good luck in having the rich man as their foster father.
Needless to say, all of the adoptees were blanket children, born of and raised by blankets. Apparently, it was another whim of the super-rich, like collecting rare butterflies, space travel, or nude horseback riding, which had been the rage one moment and become passé the next. Nonetheless, it was a chance for the coordinators to raise a sizable amount of extra income by taking advantage of the blankets, who had nothing left to offer but their children’s bodies.
“I haven’t thought about adoption yet...so, I can’t tell you anything at the moment.”
While making his intention clear, the man did his utmost to appear respectful to the coordinator, who might have taken his answer as an offense against his goodwill. The coordinator smacked his lips again and held out a calling card with a phone number printed on it.
“Even God blesses those who are ready to accept His grace. Grab this chance quickly before it flies away.”
Then he brought down a seal on the man’s document with a loud thud.
“Daddy, why aren’t you eating?” the boy suddenly raised his head from the hamburger he had been gulping down.
“Don’t worry. I’ve already had plenty.”
“Just now, while you were sleeping.”
The man’s stomach growled. He burst out laughing to cover the embarrassing noise. Pointing at the sauce smeared around the child’s mouth, he said, “You look like a chimp with that sauce around your mouth.”
“A chimp? No, Daddy! I’m not a chimp.”
The kid made a feint of punching his father, before burying his face in the hamburger again. The hamburger looked like a lump of lasagna dumped in a garbage can, with the bun, vegetables, and meat patty mixed up in a gooey, dark brown sauce. Nevertheless, he felt happy to see his child eating his fill, if only for just that once. The man himself had had nothing to eat the whole day. He was on the verge of doubling up with hunger. But he was determined not to waste his vouchers carelessly; he needed them for another purpose. So he kept filling his stomach with tap water whenever he had a chance.
The diner designated for the blankets was packed with those who had received vouchers that day. Although people were hastily stuffing their stomachs with the cheap food, the inside of the diner was devoid of liveliness or laughter. Only the sour smell of food and a sense of heaviness pressed down on their shoulders. The man recognized a few acquaintances he had met in the office of the Employment Corporation, but he looked away deliberately.
As the number of unemployed had increased beyond a tolerable limit, demonstrations and riots had begun to take place in the streets. The man had joined several riots. Martial law had been proclaimed and many people had been killed by the police and army. After the riots had been put down, the National Administration had begun issuing vouchers to the unemployed through the Employment Corporation. The vouchers could be used like coupons for eating at designated diners or buying daily necessities at the markets run by the Corporation. But with the vouchers alone, one could hardly feed oneself, which meant nothing had changed. Rather, things had gotten worse, since the vouchers circulating in the markets had caused inflation. The already-high prices jumped further, and as autumn leaves fall in great masses in a gust of wind, countless people had lost their jobs and were driven out of their homes onto the street, wrapped in a blanket as their only possession.
Having finished the hamburger and noisily sucked the straw to drink up the remaining soda pop, the boy called his father:
“I’ll become an office worker when I grow up.”
“An office worker?” the man stared at the boy in surprise. “Do you even know what an office worker is?”
“I know. It’s a man who works in a company office.”
“What then is a company?”
Perhaps it was too difficult a question for a child to answer. Mulling over it for a while, the boy pointed his finger at something outside the window.
“There—that one over there,” he was pointing at the massive forest of buildings far away on the other side of the river. It was the stock exchange, densely populated with financial firms, and off-limits to the blankets.
The super-rich no longer made products. Instead, they were focused on generating capital —money gotten by manipulating other money. There were no more factories, machinery, troublesome laborers, or difficult consumers. Human resources management was not a problem anymore, since manipulating money required only a few experts. Capital freely crossed the borders and self-proliferated like amoebas into monstrous sizes. Meanwhile, formerly hard-working laborers and naive consumers turned into blankets who would produce nothing but shit when squeezed.
Translated by Jeon Miseli
Edited and reprinted with permission from Asia Publishers, Seoul, Korea
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.