Sweet City of Mine
- onJune 18, 2018
- Vol.40 Summer 2018
- byJeong Yi Hyun
- Sweet City of Mine
Tr. Jung Yewon 2006442pp.
“Growth” is a word rife with positive meaning. I completely understand why you’d want to believe that through pain, your soul expands, that you come one step closer on the path to becoming a mature human being. Such a rationalization can bring you some comfort.
Yesterday, I felt satisfied, thinking I’d become a real grownup at last for the reason that I didn’t cry on the day of an ex-boyfriend’s wedding. Why had I been so stupid as to think that grownups don’t cry? Grownups, too, weep from time to time. When no one is looking, when no one knows, they cry bitterly with a dried-up heart, even without tears. That is a secret rule in this city.
Yesterday was a long day. Gorilla strode into a grave called marriage, and buried with him were my passions. “We never have any luck with guys.” “So what? If nothing works out, we can build a luxurious, women-only silver town and live there together.” “Yeah, and all the staff will be pretty boys!” Jaein, who had made these resolutions with me, now acted as if she had never done any such thing. In the meantime I gave a presentation, competing with rival companies, and inadvertently meddled in a push-and-pull game involving someone who worked for a former client. And, um . . . spent a night with . . . a guy I didn’t know very well. Or I should say, a guy I’d just met.
I’m not going to regret it. I won’t make excuses, saying that I was momentarily beside myself with the desperation and loneliness of someone who’s been left out. If being a mature human being means attaching meaning to every little thing you do, trembling with remorse, deeply repenting, saying you made a mistake and using it as foundation for self-development, I’m sorry, but I don’t ever want to be an adult. Just because I passed my coming-of-age doesn’t mean I have to live as an adult. I’d rather stay underage. A big child who has stepped aside from heavy words such as duty and responsibility, a voluntary minor.
Couldn’t you just live like a fish swimming in the deep sea? Freely going from crack to crack in this solid system? Then if I caught the eye of another fish or a coral reef, I’d smile sweetly and go on my way. Promising nothing, regretting nothing! Whether such a life would be happy or not, of course, is a mystery. What about the tenacious longing in me for the warmth of another person, for communication, and for a stable relationship with someone? If anything went wrong, I would fall into a trap of self-contradiction and be stuck, unable to move one way or the other.
But no use trying to decide now. Whatever will be, will be. For now, I’ll just go with the flow. Has life ever gone the way I wanted because I prepared and anticipated in advance? And I’ve arrived where I am now without even knowing what direction I wanted to take. With determination, I picked up the wine-colored lipstick and applied it to my lips. So what if it didn’t suit me? I could put on beige pink tomorrow, and maple red the next day. Or I could just wipe it clean.
The moment I put a hoop earring in my ear, I heard a text message come in.
—Feel aight? I’m dying. Have a good one, and c ya this weekend—Taeo.
My sense of reality, which I’d neglected, returned and hit me in the clavicle.
Aight instead of all right. And what about the c ya? It cracked me up. I was about to text back, then paused. Should I text him back or not? I felt as if I were making a bet with myself. I didn’t know which side would win, but whatever choice I made, it was clear that the long day yesterday had come to an end at last.
Eight a.m. I was ready for work. Once again, a new day was about to begin. Not a particularly special day, but a day different from yesterday. After a momentary hesitation at the door, I slipped my feet into flat, brown suede loafers. Where will these shoes take me today? Feigning bravery, I took a step toward the unknown.
Part 2: A Day of Choices
How many cities are there on earth?
I imagine that I was born in a completely different place from a little gynecology clinic in a corner of Seoul, the capital of the Republic of Korea, at two o’clock in the afternoon of May 25, 1975.
Stockholm, Sao Paolo, New York, Edinburgh, Prague, Istanbul, Berlin, Rome, Amsterdam, Kuala Lumpur, Madrid, Toronto, Buenos Aires. I can name dozens of remote, distant foreign cities on the spot. A “me” in Stockholm, a “me” in New York, a “me” in Kuala Lumpur, a “me” in Buenos Aries. What do all these “me”s look like?
My sign, Gemini, my blood type, RH+B, my height, 161.5 cm (163 cm on my records), and my IQ, just barely 120, would probably remain unchanged. I also think that hot, sweet coffee would still make me feel better on days when I’m depressed, and that I’d still think Brad Pitt is the sexiest man in the world.
But born and raised in a foreign city, they wouldn’t be living life as mundane as that of Eunsu on a corner in Seoul, would they? That’s the one thing I could not tolerate. The nameless person, who could have been me, should at least be enjoying a life much, much sweeter than the tedious, squalid days I must face every day. It’s only fair, isn’t it? If I can’t even resort to such fantasy, I might just up and die, so hard has been my life, and so suffocated have I felt.
I’m on my way to work, and the subway is chugging tediously along the rails. It doesn’t go backward, or speed through the sky. I’m rocking vacantly to and fro, like withered tangerines packed tightly together in a box, or dead fish lined up, layer upon layer, in a wooden crate. Save for a few people who were lucky enough to get seats, most passengers in the compartment are just enduring, having failed to secure the minimum space necessary to protect human dignity. There’s nothing you can humanly do here now, other than to do your utmost not to get pushed around or fall.
If you’re conspiring to throw water on someone’s burning determination, get them on a Seoul subway during rush hour and make them ride it around. When they arrive at their destination, they’ll be drained of energy, won’t want to bother with anything, and have no desire left in them but to lie down and rest, not giving a hoot whatever happened to their determination. It’s not so bad for me. There are only four stops between home and work. I need to hold out for just eight minutes. There’s someone at work who commutes from Uijeongbu to Mapo every morning, and someone who comes from Yongin. It makes me sigh just thinking of them. I tried to squash myself as tightly as I could and stared blankly out the window, beyond which pitch darkness flashed past.
Suddenly, I hear a rustle behind me. And then a corner of newspaper touches the top of my head. I gently bite my lip. If it was someone patting my butt I could report him or put him to shame, but there isn’t much I can do about the nerve this person had, spreading the newspaper wide open right in the middle of this jam-packed subway from hell. I scream in silence, Damn it, this is why this country will never go anywhere!
Forgive me. I know, of course, that such clueless people can be found anywhere in the world. But in moments like this, I want to forget that. I decide to believe that people like that are alive and breathing only in Korea. When I blamed my fate through which I was born in this place, for all the annoying things that happened to me, the problems surrounding me became simple and I felt comforted somehow.
If I had the choice, in what city would I have chosen to be born?
Choice number one, Stockholm. The capital of Sweden, the country with the best social welfare system in the world. Pros: Gender equality is fully guaranteed by law, cohabitation is widespread, and there’s no bias against unmarried mothers, they say. Yes, that sounds appealing. Cons: A good social welfare system, a little too good perhaps, might make life boring. I also have qualms about the high depression and suicide rates.
Choice number two, New York. Pros: The hub of culture, fashion, and trends. That goes without saying. Cons: Terribly high prices and rent. No matter how much I love Sex and the City, I know that to enjoy life and live the lifestyle of the characters from the show, I’d have to work my pants off, and that all the money I earned would go toward credit card payments.
Choice number three, Buenos Aires. Wait, I have to get off at this stop. Frantically, I push my way through the crowd, and barely manage to set my feet on the ground. My absorption in the big, important decision, about which no one cares to know, has brought me a splitting headache. I arrive at a bitter conclusion as I walk quickly up the stairs leading out of the station: if I’d been given a choice as to what city to be born in, I almost certainly would not exist in this world today. I’m sure I’d still be hesitating, unable to come to a decision since 1975.
I think it’s just as well, perhaps, that I was born here through no will of my own. I’m not saying that I’m a great patriot or anything. It would be more honest of me to say that it’s because I can grumble as much as I want. The freedom to say, “What’s wrong with Korean men?” or “There’s no other country where people are so bad at following traffic laws!” or “I’m sick and tired of everything here, I should just immigrate!”
Let’s say that after thinking it over, I made the decision to become a Korean citizen. How would I dare complain about this country? Fearing pressure from those who would demand to know why I was never content and why I criticized everything, I would have no choice but to shut up and go live in a corner somewhere. Looking back, I’ve always been that way. Ever since I learned that choice was another name for responsibility, not freedom, I always broke out in a cold sweat whenever I had to choose something.
Sometimes I wish that I had a GPS for my chaos of a life. “Sharp turn one hundred meters ahead. Drive with caution.” How nice it would be if someone made decisions for me and told me whether to turn left or right, like a navigation system that told you what the road looked like based on a satellite view of your car.
Translated by Jung Yewon
Illustration ⓒ Amy Shin