- onFebruary 17, 2015
- Vol.26 Winter 2014
- byJeong Do-sang
- Brier Rose
We had lunch at a restaurant by the river. She was ugly, but her face held a certain charm. Talking to her about this and that, I found out, to my surprise, that she wasn’t a Korean Chinese, but an overseas Chinese from North Korea. She said that she had Chinese citizenship now and often visited Manpo across the river.
“How is that possible?” I asked her, unable to believe that she could go back and forth freely between the North and China.
“It’s easy when you have a pass,” she said, grinning. I had so many questions for her that I felt no interest in the ruins of Goguryeo. The woman and I went to a pub nearby. I found out that she was thirty-eight years old. I was quite surprised, because I had thought she was close to fifty. True, the cold winds of Manchuria had left their marks on her face, but when I took a closer look, I found that she didn’t have that many wrinkles on her face. I asked her questions, and she answered.
When she was living in Manpo across the river, she fell in love for the first time at age fourteen with a volleyball player who was thirteen years old. The thirteen-year-old boy was tall and handsome, just the way you would picture a volleyball player. They met stealthily like stray cats, and after two years, they made love for the first time among the reeds of the Amnokgang River. The woman pointed to the field of reeds, smiling awkwardly. She smiled again, saying she hadn’t known how good a man’s body was. Both of them were so healthy that whenever they came out of a field or the woods or a barn, she would be with child. They bribed doctors time and time again to have an abortion.
After three abortions, she became pregnant again, and they got married when she was twenty. As her belly began to swell, the young husband of nineteen wandered out. He began eyeing girls in the next town, even before the baby was born, and that was the beginning of his unending series of affairs. He acted like a bachelor the moment he stepped out of the house. Being a volleyball player, he was popular with the girls.
“How do you have an affair in North Korea, when there are no hotels or inns?” I asked.
“It doesn’t matter whether there’s rain or snow or wind, you find a way as long as you want to do it. It’s not the place that matters, it’s the heart. There are barns, mountains, fields—empty classrooms, and of course, the reeds,” she said. We both laughed. She patiently endured through his affairs, but she couldn’t take the beatings, so in the end, she filed for divorce. She smiled bitterly, saying that it would have been quite difficult to get a divorce if she hadn’t been an overseas Chinese, but that it had been easy because she didn’t have North Korean citizenship. She had two boys from the marriage, which had been like hell. She smiled a hollow smile, saying she came to Jian because it was too much for her to live in Manpo by herself after the divorce. She was a woman who could smile even when talking of sad things.
“Have you been to South Korea?” I asked.
“No. I don’t want to,” she said, shaking her head.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Korean people are bad. The missionaries, especially. They give you a video camera, saying that they’ll give you money if you go to Manpo and take videos of poor people. They also tell you that if you tell people you’re a defector from the North, they’ll give you money and a house, and they tell you to take videos of defectors in Jian. They’re real lowlifes. I’ve met a lot of people like that. They talk about human rights, but it’s all just lip service. This place was crawling with people like that at one point. My mother still lives in Manpo. She’s poor, but she likes it better there. She says Jian’s too crowded and suffocating,” she said.
The woman told me her sole pleasure was crossing over to Manpo and seeing her children and mother on holidays with the money she saved up doing odd jobs at a restaurant on the riverside. I asked her how much her salary was, and she told me it was about four hundred yuan a month. That would be only a little over sixty thousand Korean won. I pictured her going to Manpo, carrying a bundle of clothing and food she had bought with that money. Life seemed so dreary.
“What about your husband?”
“He’s remarried, and well.”
“Do you see him when you go to Manpo?”
“I have to, if I want to see my kids.”
“Don’t you hate him, because he’s living with another woman?”
“Hate him? He was my first love…I don’t hate him.”
I felt a lump rise in my throat. Suddenly, I felt a sort of affection towards the woman. She showed me different places in Jian, reminiscing on the days she spent up north.
I was getting more and more absorbed in her story, when Pak called me from Shenyang. He said he felt terrible that I had gotten off the bus and left so suddenly, and told me I had to come back to Shenyang right away. I told him it was too late, so I’d see him the following day, but he insisted that I had to come back to Shenyang, no matter how late, and have a drink with him, since he was going back to Pyongyang on the early morning train.
I wanted to spend more time with the woman, but there was more I wanted to say to Pak. Before he went back to Pyongyang, I wanted to tell him things buried deep within my heart, things that would bleed like raw liver when I pulled them out. I had no choice but to take a taxi. The woman cut the fare down to eight hundred yuan, with the help of an acquaintance. When I got in the taxi, the woman gave me a piece of paper with her name and number written on it, saying I had to come back sometime.
Since 1987, Jeong Do-sang’s (b. 1960) works have relentlessly explored the organizational violence and social mechanisms that suppress free will and the conditions of life. He won the Yosan Literary Award and the Beautiful Writer Award in 2008 for his serial novel Brier Rose.