[Excerpt] I Met Loh Kiwan
- onMarch 16, 2020
- Vol.47 Spring 2020
- byCho Hae-jin
- I Met Loh Kiwan
Tr. Ji-Eun Lee 2019
December 7, 2010. Tuesday
In the beginning he was just an initial, L. He was often called a refugee, a person without a country, lacking identification, an illegal alien who floated from place to place with no legal process to guide him. He was a ghost who could barely communicate with anyone, a stranger from elsewhere who in each new place enjoyed no guarantees of survival or belonging.
With my finger I trace my location on a map of Brussels. “Gare du Nord.” Reading the map, I recall that in French, nord means north, and gare means station. Long ago I taught myself French for a year for the sole purpose of reading Marguerite Duras in the original.
I wedge the folded map in my armpit, jam my hands deep in my pockets, and amble toward the Euroline bus depot. A chilly wind blowing through Gare du Nord musses my hair. “Belgium, Brussels,” I whisper to myself as I approach the slanted station sign with the bus icon.
At 6 a.m. on Tuesday, December 4, 2007, L. exited a white Euroline bus that arrived here. It had departed Berlin the night before, run close to ten hours, listlessly spat him off at this spot, and continued on to Paris. While everyone else on board slept in bended and folded positions, inanimate as luggage in this bus driving all night through dawn, L. remained wide awake. The dark scenery outside the window was like the same film playing over and over, and it gave no hint of where the bus was heading. He felt like it traversed an orbit somewhere beyond this world: occasional streetlights passed, desolate as stars on their own arc; road signs written in foreign letters flashed like warnings to keep away. Riding the Euroline bus for the first time, he found himself wondering if he was really still alive.
He’d chosen the bus because the broker who bought him the ticket had told him that buses have more lenient passport checks than trains. I try to imagine his appearance: He carries a big cloth bag and wears a shabby pair of jeans, a heavy parka, and a faded brown hat. The crystal of his wristwatch is cracked, his gloves have pills, his scarf, wound several times around his neck, is a drab color, and his sneakers are tattered and dirty. He gets off the bus, and his keen eyes shine with apprehension and bewilderment with each bump from a passerby. His family name is Loh, first name Kiwan. He was then twenty years old, short in stature at five feet two inches and gaunt at just over one hundred pounds. This person had to leave a poor and faraway land on his own without knowing French or Flemish—Belgium’s two official languages—or English. “Bel-gium, Bru-ssels, Bel-gium, Bru-ssels,” he cycled softly through the names, which remained unfamiliar no matter how many times he heard them. Thus did Loh Kiwan, the stranger without a country, plod south.
The clues that substantiate our lives and identities are more tenuous than we imagine, if indeed they exist at all. Unplanned social relations, communities based in customs, and bonds forged of simple attraction, nationality, or kinship are intangible but set limits that demarcate our lives. They might offer consolation that we’re not alone, but that consolation is neither permanent nor true. Business cards with a company name and phone number, public documents that record birth, death, marriage, and medical history—what do these prove? A celebratory photograph in a wallet, a journal detailing weekly engagements and routines, passport pages stamped by customs and immigration inside some foreign airport, a rusted key to somewhere, or a dog-eared page in a book may all testify to a life but do not encapsulate it. Even the circadian rhythms of a body accustomed to 7 a.m. rise and 6 p.m. fatigue cannot promise a sense of belonging.
We thus live moment to moment, caught in limbo like a bird with wet wings perched on a branch, unable to take flight, at risk of falling to earth.
It was a sentence from L. that led me to Brussels—the sentence in his interview with the weekly magazine H, a candid confession to the interviewer—that forced me to leave the world I had known.
Reading news magazines and collecting articles of interest was an extension of my work. Thinking I might use some of them for my show, I would stop by a bookstore every Monday to pick up the latest issues and flip through them late into the night. I had returned home from the bookstore that day, too, and was at the dining table browsing to the comforting drone of a TV on in the background. That week’s special report in the international section of H concerned North Korean refugees floating around like ghosts in Belgium. The article featured two men, but it was L.’s story of his travails two years earlier that stayed with me. Because of that one line. Even after I clipped the article and filed it away, the disconcerting presence of that sentence lingered like a phantom on my fingertips.
Two weeks later I e-mailed the journalist who’d written the article. That same day I told Jae, my producer, sitting next to me in the editing room, that I was quitting my job as a lead writer for the show.
Getting up from the editing machine where he reviewed subtitles and audio mixing, my producer crushed the empty paper cup he was holding. Special effects audio from the editing machine played in the awkward silence. Arms crossed, he leaned against the wall and gazed at me. Unprofessional, he could have said. Or, You made a mistake with Yunju, and now you want to run away. But he said nothing. And whatever he might have said, I had no words to vindicate myself. I have long admitted that I’m not a professional who can rebound from an incident and focus anew on work as if nothing happened. Still, his brusque treatment was hard to take, considering I’d been his not-quite lover, not-quite colleague the last five years.
Of course, these are all excuses.
The next surgery, this one to remove an actual malignant tumor and not a misdiagnosed neurofibroma, was scheduled for the following month. I didn’t have the nerve to hear whatever new diagnosis Yunju would face after the operation. I just couldn’t. Jae was right. I was about to run away, the only thing I could do to cope.
“So, what are you going to do now?”
He was speaking in honorifics to distance himself from me. To avoid the sight of him across the room, I watched myself doodle on the table with my finger. He and I had retreated into honorifics a few months earlier following an encounter in the parking lot of Yunju’s hospital. We never questioned each other about the shift, merely responded in kind when the other spoke that way—our way to spare each other awkwardness.
[. . .]
“I may leave for Brussels.” Well, I had to say something.
“Brussels, the capital of Belgium?”
“I . . . think there’s someone there I ought to see.”
It was a cryptic thing to say. He adjusted his glasses and murmured, “Brussels.” Not Why Brussels, of all places? The single word, spoken half to himself, deprived me of the response I’d prepared after deciding to resign: I’ve been thinking of writing from a stranger’s point of view about someone who was forced to become a stranger there. Not for a future broadcast but maybe as a novel.
Head lowered, I silently called his name. L., who had been living like a ghost in a faraway land, became for me an entry code to a new world.
[. . .]
Three days later came his cordial reply. He introduced himself as an occasional contributor to H—he wasn’t one of their staff reporters— who lived abroad and wrote on current issues in his host country. He’d fallen out of touch with L. after the interview but could introduce me to a Korean who knew much more about him. I sent a reply with repeated thank-yous, and the next moment I purchased a flight to Brussels leaving Incheon Airport in ten days’ time. Three months had passed since the discovery that Yunju’s tumors had turned malignant and the start of radiation treatment and chemotherapy.
[. . .]
December 17, 2010. Friday
[. . .]
Leaving work at midnight, Loh’s mother had been struck by a car and died soon after at a local hospital. Loh asked and then begged to be taken there, then fell to the floor and pleaded at least for the name of the hospital. But telling him any of this was too risky: the Chinese government already hunted for North Korean defectors and offered the police lump-sum awards for their capture. A police camp had quickly materialized near the hospital once they learned where Loh’s mother was from. Even hearing Loh wail, his great uncle knew that Loh’s mom, now dead at just forty-two, would have wanted Loh protected in this way.
A clock ticked indifferently in the silence.
Two days later Loh’s relative visited again, this time with two missionaries from South Korea. Loh hadn’t eaten in the interim and looked emaciated. Thoughts of suicide had darkened his eyes. Between feeling he didn’t deserve such suffering and his refusal to face the loss, he’d come close to the brink. And yet somehow he persevered through the hopelessness and escaped the abyss. For his part, Loh’s relative offered the comfort of a specific directive: go to Europe—and, oddly, the South Korean missionaries, who before had urged him toward South Korea, agreed. The European countries, they said, had good welfare systems and opportunities that drew refugees from across the world. And then one of them made an appalling suggestion: there was a market for dead bodies. With the proceeds Loh wouldn’t have to worry about the expense of resettling in Europe. And the alternative? If no one else retrieved the body, the Chinese government would take custody, meaning it would simply disappear. At first Loh couldn’t even process the idea and wondered, just for a moment, if this whole episode was a lie or a trick. But his relative finally made him see: “Your survival is the way to keep your mother’s will alive.” Loh was too drained to cry.
Four thousand U.S. dollars reached Loh within a week. He went to the Korean church his mother used to attend and shivered for no apparent reason as he waited for the missionaries to arrive. When they did, Loh tithed and entrusted them with his mother’s memorial service. The broker charged $2,800 for plane tickets and a forged South Korean passport. Loh had to spend some more on luggage, a pair of comfortable shoes, a scarf, and a pair of gloves. The rest, including a sum given by his relative, amounted to 650 euros after exchange. Loh found a piece of waterproof fabric and wrapped the bills securely. I will protect it from rain, sweat, and tears. Neither falling rocks nor thunderclouds will hurt it. Loh didn’t unwrap the package even once until he was en route to Berlin.
Loh must have known that releasing his mother’s body would redefine his life, that the ensuing regret and bone-melting agony were permanent. The remorse would resurface, each time more profoundly than the last. No matter how far he ran through time, each glance backward would relitigate his choice and demand self-contempt. I want to know where along that path Loh stands at this moment.
And likewise for Yunju. I’m anxious to know her thoughts when she looks in a mirror and sees the lump, which had first brought shame and anger and then threatened her life. How is Yunju dealing with a tumor composed of her own hurtful tears and the reckless stares of strangers whose poisons then distilled into a malignant cancer? Does she accept it at all?
I can know none of this with certainty, of course. One doesn’t own or really know the pains of others—one can only guess. I’ve always been ignorant, powerless to help, and late to arrive when someone needs me the most. I had long decided I could never know exactly where another person’s suffering starts, when it peaks, how it proceeds, how it infiltrates the person’s life, and how it occupies his or her waking hours. Perhaps it was this habitual non-commitment that led Loh’s words to jar me so badly, call so deeply into question where I stood. After recounting an arduous journey bereft of comfort or warmth and clouded with fatigue, Loh told the reporter, “I traded my mother for my own survival. That’s why I had to live.”
[. . .]
The Rest of the Story Not Written Down in the Notebook
It’s 4:20 p.m. when I arrive at Heathrow—about the same hour I left Brussels, thanks to the magic of time zones. I take an airport express shuttle downtown and unpack at the hotel I booked.
The Chinese restaurant where Loh works is in Queensway. The largest Chinatown, not just in England but in all of Europe, is on Gerrard Street in Soho. It is busy and hip, but Loh and Layka preferred the smaller Chinatown in Notting Hill, a quiet residential area with a large park.
After a shower, I sit on the bed and open the navy-blue box again. This time I take out the photo album and retrace my journey through Brussels. A busker plays his violin near Gare du Nord. Pak, seen in profile, drinks coffee outdoors under a parasol near the De Brouckère subway station. Sylvie stands waving at the front gate of Foyer Selah. Ellen grins from her director’s chair at the orphanage. Room 308 at Good Sleep Hostel. The apartment on Rue de Naples where Loh lived, Jin Shan Hua restaurant on Rue Rasson, and several dozen Christmas scenes . . . I would imagine Loh’s smile as I captured those scenes, printed them out, and organized them in this album—the same bright, innocent smile as in the photo with Sylvie at Foyer Selah. When he flips through this album, will he appreciate how his two years in Brussels shaped the person he’s become? Will he understand that although he had no nationality or identification card and didn’t know the language, he was never a ghost?
After browsing through the album, Loh Kiwan will read the spiral notebook with the blue cover that records my winter in Brussels in 2010, the one that starts “In the beginning he was just an initial, L.” and ends with “Loh, this is my story. I want to tell it to you.” Driven by a sentence in L.’s interview, I went to Brussels, spent December 2010 retracing Loh’s experiences there, and through that encounter came to terms with my own life. The notebook records that monthlong journey.
I close the box and lie back on the bed.
Sleep doesn’t come easy. I threw away the box of sleeping pills and other medications when I left Brussels. From now on I must fall asleep on my own.
The next day I pack the navy-blue box, leave the hotel, and head for the subway station. Several stops later I exit at Queensway station and see Queensway stretching before me: its antique shops and old bookstores; its Chinese, Indian, Arabic, Turkish, Mexican, and African restaurants; its shops with dragons, tigers, and buddha statues; its pedestrians with kebabs and crepes in hand. Many of the Chinese restaurants have signs in Chinese letters. The one where Loh works, called Quan Ting Ju, is located at 42 Queensway.
I walk a while and finally see the sign, and then I’m standing across from it.
“Quan Ting Ju” is written in red. By the entrance hangs a red lantern, not yet lit but resplendent with tassels. Beside the entrance is a floor-to-ceiling pane of glass, and through it I see a man in chef’s garb kneading dough next to a rotisserie oven full of roasting ducks.
I hold the box to my chest and stare at the man. He’s immersed in kneading and doesn’t look up. The tall white hat seems big on his head, a playful contrast to the nimble movements of his hands. With his head lowered and the street between us, I can’t make out his face. He’s Asian and short, but that’s all I can discern.
I catch a brief glimpse of his face when he looks back, as if responding to a voice. He smiles, and across the street I smile too. From that picture with Sylvie, I already know it’s Loh Kiwan. And of course I know who called him.
I step toward the street, then cross it. Soon I will meet him.
He doesn’t look my way even as I arrive at the restaurant. But when I pause in front of the window, he happens to look up, just for a moment. My legs are stuck in place. Sensing something, he turns to gaze at me.
We regard each other for a spell.
Then he smiles again, like he did moments earlier. He wipes the dough from his hands onto his big apron, walks to the door, and opens it wide for me. As I reach him, Loh takes my hands firmly in his, smiling just as he did in the picture with Sylvie, and guides me inside. I’m too overwhelmed in the moment to catch his words, but I nod after hearing Pak’s name.
As the door closes again behind us, a young woman appears from the kitchen. She too smiles warmly as she hurries toward us and leads me to a table.
Layka returns to the kitchen to make tea, and in front of me sits Loh Kiwan: alive, breathing, living a life he richly deserves. His life will continue.
Today, I have a lot to tell him about the initial K.
Cho Hae-jin (b. 1976) debuted in 2004 when she won Munye Joongang ’s New Writer’s Award. She is the author of five novels, In an Infinitely Splendid Dream (2009), I Met Loh Kiwan (2011), A Forest No One Has Seen (2013), Passing Summer (2015), and Simple Sincerity (2019), along with three short story collections , City of Angels (2008), See You on Thursday (2014), and An Escort of Lights (2017). She has received the Shin Dong-yup Prize for Literature, Mu-young Literary Award, Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award, and Daesan Literary Award. Her works in translation include I Met Loh Kiwan in English (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2019) and in Russian (Hyperion, 2016). Cho’s writing explores the lives of people pushed to the margins of society and the connections that weave people together across distances.