- onJuly 20, 2017
- Vol.36 Summer 2017
- byJon Kyongnin
- Mom’s House
Tr. Jinah Kim 2007301pp.
“My mom is a very typical Korean woman.”
“Your mom ran out on your family too?”
The eyes of the four college girls all met at once. The other girl was taken aback, the stain of her embarrassment spreading beneath her expression like spilled ink. She was older than me. Oh, I said something stupid again.
“Umm, I mean, maybe I got caught up in a stereotypical concept of the typical Korean woman. What I’m trying to say is——”
The way she blushed, like the twilight sun that was already eight degrees below the horizon . . . The two girls who were my age weren’t smiling, and they had question marks in their eyes as if to ask what had just happened.
What on earth is a typical Korean woman these days?
“Actually, I think it would’ve been better if my family had been hurt badly at least once. My parents live like they think life is the edge of a bottomless cliff. A family sustained by my dad’s timid authority and my mom’s open disappointment is like a sheet of thin ice. If the ice broke just once, they might realize the bottom isn’t that far down. Maybe if that happened, they might even be able to understand me a little better.”
Having just managed to recover from her dismay, she started to speak as if she were doing a self-critique.
“Whenever I think of family, the first word that occurs to me is detainment. They dispute every single thing I do. I sometimes think they’re trying to sabotage me deliberately. Like, you’re not allowed to do anything because I can’t do anything either. It’s a common misunderstanding to think that people who live with their family don’t feel lonely. We might eat our meals together and sit across from each other at the table, but for some reason it feels like our relationship is already past its expiration date.”
She was an English lit major and a member of the feminist coalition and the LGBT society at our school. Her parents didn’t know what activities she was engaged in.
As for a family like thin ice, I knew something about that. But from my experience, when the ice actually breaks it’s not so simple. The whole family gets scattered in different directions, each of them a wreck, their hearts soaked and aching cold. And myself, my own sole family member, just me, Kim Ho-eun . . . That’s how it turns out.
My mom is probably not a typical Korean woman. She is independent. She has a job, pays her taxes diligently, makes a point of reading the newspaper and clipping out articles, is divorced, has a boyfriend, and is very self-aware. Her name is Noh Yun-jin. If you spell it in English it has an N in every syllable. Sometimes I call her Ms. N.
The four of us were on our way back from the zoo after having set aside the time to go together. We had planned it as a bonding trip because we were roommates, but we never would have gone to a place like the zoo if we hadn’t watched a video of a kangaroo online the day before.
The video was shot near an endless emerald sea. A kangaroo stood facing the empty sea at one end of the beach. Its gaze was desolate. Helpless moments, as if the earth were sinking, passed as the kangaroo approached the sea, one hop at a time. It kept moving further out until at last it was swept down into the waves. The emerald sea looked calm as it engulfed the kangaroo, as if nothing had happened. The commenters on the video had different opinions about the kangaroo’s suicide. Apparently the kangaroo’s baby had been swept away by a sudden rough wave right before the video was taken.
I would not be able to forget the sea the lone mother kangaroo had entered on her own feet. It felt like whenever I was at a loss from then on, I would be reminded of that mother kangaroo.
Kangaroos carry their baby in a pouch. What would it be like bouncing above the ground inside a mother’s pouch? It seems like it would be heavy and tiring for the mother kangaroo, but it turns out that it’s easier to hop with the baby in the pouch because the baby provides some sort of elastic energy. When the mother needs to clean out the pouch, she opens it, sticks her face in, and licks it clean with her tongue. Opinions about how high a kangaroo can jump vary from three to thirteen meters.
Unfortunately there were no kangaroos at the zoo. On our way back we felt disheartened to have left without seeing one, but it would have been just as disappointing if we had.
Most of the animals confined in the zoo were in a listless state. They were overweight and looked like they were suffering from depression or hysteria, and some were scratching their bodies as if they had a skin disease. All of them had lost their individual spark, like taxidermy animals with beads for eyes. The animals that were more worthy of attention were the dads.
Every dad in the zoo was pushing a stroller or carrying a baby in his arms. Some were running around after children who were crying or throwing tantrums, and others were pulling desperately on the hands of kids trying to dart off in the other direction. There was a dad holding a kid in either arm, one about three years old and the other seven, and breaking out in a sweat as he searched for his wife on the still cold spring day. He had on a look that said, Honey? Honey, where are you? and his face revealed a mixture of despair and anger.
The wife of the balding man magically emerged from a café as if to say ta-da and gave the people around her husband a slight surprise by her appearance. She was holding a paper cup with a sleeve around it in her manicured hand, and the way she was dressed made her look like a fashionable young woman, minus the slight swelling that comes with age. The man seemed to take great pride in his wife looking young for her age and took the whole thing in stride with an awkward smile. And then my dad in his younger days came to mind, though he had little in common with this man.
At the zoo he would always be a lot more relaxed, tolerant, and cheerful than at the department store or on the congested roads. I was also gradually drawn in to the zoo’s cozy atmosphere, although I scrunched my face up at the smell of dirt mixed with dry grass and manure. I still have vivid memories of spending quite some time walking around the zoo, holding Dad’s hand, watching bright yellow African parrots, a dark blue peacock spreading out its tail like a huge fan, zebras whose bodies were taut as if they had been pumped with air, a camel that seemed like it was crying with its long, moist eyelashes, an elephant that looked like it had a dirt-covered tent draped over its body.
At such times Mom always walked one or two steps away from us, carrying a takeaway coffee cup in one hand, like a woman who had come alone. She would occasionally detach herself from me and Dad and then reappear later. She turned her back to us with an expression that made her look as if she were being lured by an obscure signal that came from somewhere far away. When I saw her do that it was as if I were catching a glimpse of the nature of a woman—not a mother or wife—who was completely herself, like a clam that had kept its shell closed forever. At amusement parks or zoos or places like that I sometimes burst into tears for no reason.
Did my recollection of Dad at the zoo foretell what would come next? The moment I got off the bus, I immediately recognized him standing a hundred meters or so ahead. We used to talk on the phone now and then, but I hadn’t seen his face in two years and three months. It was five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon. A few young students in the prime of their lives were coming out of the school gate behind him. Middle-aged men get shabby as they grow older, like the scruffy, worn-out fur of an animal. Especially poor middle-aged men. Dad, though he was only forty-seven, looked like a scruffy old bear living on a single suit. All the more so because it was still late winter and he had to make it through with his dingy winter clothes. But he fixed his gaze on me with clear, unwavering eyes, as if asserting that he was still alive.
I stepped back to part with my roommates.
“I forgot something. I have to go pick it up. Go ahead . . .”
I hesitated there, waiting for them to disappear into the gate completely before I grudgingly approached him. It was only then that the skinny kid with a cap pulled over her eyes caught my sight. Seung-ji had gotten so tall. At first I was not sure if this kid wearing a half-length black and grey plaid coat was a boy or a girl. She had a black canvas bag that looked heavy slung across her chest and a suitcase at her feet. She looked like someone who had set out on a long trip and just arrived on the street of a foreign country with no destination in mind. I pretended not to see her as I drew close to them.
“How could you just come stand in front of the gate without giving me any notice?”
I spoke bluntly. Family is a strange thing. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple years, but it was as if we had just talked yesterday.
“I called you, but you didn’t answer.”
As it happened, my cell phone battery had in fact died. Still, I found the situation hard to understand. I wonder if he could ever have imagined. In my dreams, Dad was always already dead. Even after waking up, I didn’t usually think it was strange that he was dead until just before I washed my face. Dad’s death had no impact on me at all.
But what about Seung-ji? Where is she and who does she live with? While I washed my face, my thoughts would find their way to Seung-ji and it was only then that I awoke from the dream with a jolt, as if I were watching a swaddled baby fall from a high cliff. The thought of Seung-ji that always broke me out of the dream like some sort of key, and the sense of relief that Dad was still alive that always followed, made the dream seem like a set of flashcards that someone was drilling me with.
I questioned Dad with my eyes. Okay, Mr. Kim Hyeon-young, what has brought you here?
“Take Seung-ji and tell Mom to look after her.”
My eyes literally bulged from my head.
“Have you talked to Mom?”
He studied my appearance closely without answering. I was wearing a black zip-up hoodie and black jeans with flat sneakers and had my big canvas bag. And I had let my hair down loose. In any case, my appearance must have been a lot more polished than during my high school days. I was a sophomore in college then. The further I get in school, the more suitable my outfits will be for job interviews. In other words, I’ll eventually have the basic, elegant professional woman’s business suit that the girls senior to me have. It’s not my kind of thing, and I’m not confident I can make myself wear clothes like that, but what else can I do about it? I guess I could be self-employed so that I’m able to make a living without conforming to social expectations, but for now everything is still up in the air.
“Did you read the Communist Manifesto?”
Dad brought up the Communist Manifesto out of nowhere again. On the day of my college entrance ceremony last year I got a call from him. He said without further explanation that I should read the Communist Manifesto now that I had become a college student. Communism? It was almost like the name of one of the rubber toy dinosaurs he bought me when I was a child. Tyrannosaurus, brachiosaurus, triceratops, stegosaurus. They were painted in somewhat strange shades of orange, green, sienna, and brown, and they were small, but they never once actually looked small to me. They possessed that surrealistic imagery and symbolism unique to things in which a formidable size and time and strength and existence are condensed.
Maybe when you were in college most people were in the democratization movement, Dad, but now most of us are actually engaged in labor. I work in an ice cream shop six hours a day on the weekdays. Not a front, a real job. When it gets to be eleven o’clock and I’ve scooped about 200 scoops of ice cream, do you have any idea how much my right arm and shoulder hurt? And on top of that the emotional labor at an ice cream shop will knock you out. I stood there, fighting my urge to snap at him.
He tossed his right hand up and walked away swiftly. Then he climbed into the driver’s seat of the blue pickup truck he had parked in front of the snack bar. It was a delivery truck with the name of some distant relative’s rural tofu factory on it in big green letters. The business was probably not much bigger than a home-based workshop, but they called it a factory. The truck started off with a splutter and slid away. It kept going and disappeared into an intersection. I could not believe what was happening, but Dad’s car disappeared just like that. Oh, god . . .
“What just happened?”
Seung-ji responded by pursing her lips and looking back at me as if to ask why I was asking her. Her eyes felt pretty unyielding. I had not seen her in years, yet her face still held something that made me uneasy. Seung-ji’s expression plainly showed that she, too, felt uncomfortable with me. I stood waiting in front of the school gate in disbelief. Forty minutes passed but he didn’t return.
“I’m hungry,” Seung-ji said, letting out a sigh. Her cheeks looked pale, probably because she was hungry. Did he really drop a kid off in the middle of the street without even having fed her first . . .?
“Come with me.”
She followed after me, more or less dragging the bag she had put down on the ground. The Chinese restaurant was empty. I was going to buy her just a bowl of jajangmyeon at first, but then I thought of the ordeal she was about to go through, and I thought, Well, I don’t know. I ordered a plate of tangsuyuk.
“Where is he going to go?”
“I don’t know.”
“When did he say he would come back?”
“I don’t know.”
It looked like I would have to pour pepper water down her nose if I wanted to get her to open her mouth. As slowly as possible, I blended red pepper powder with soy sauce and vinegar to make the sauce for the tangsuyuk. No matter how slowly I did it, the sauce was soon ready. Seung-ji was looking fixedly toward the kitchen, so I shifted my gaze to the other side of the restaurant. It was then that something wriggling inside Seung-ji’s black bag, which she had hung over the chair, caught my attention. I’m not easily surprised, but my eyes widened.
“What’s inside the bag?”
An embarrassed look appeared on Seung-ji’s face and she opened her bag. I craned my neck to see inside the bag. It was a white rabbit.
The look on her face told me that she felt sorry about it. Apparently Mom would have to take care of more than just Seung-ji. A middle school girl and a pet. And she called the rabbit Violet. Dad’s showing up unannounced had turned everything upside down in my head.
It got dark while we rode to Mom’s house on the bus. I did not even consider calling her first. There was nothing to do but force our way through, the same strategy Dad had used. I put in the earbuds of my MP3 player so I could stop worrying about Seung-ji. She found her earbuds to listen to her MP3 player too. We closed off our ears, putting up a fence of songs that the other could not hear. The bus passed by Namdaemun Gate and came to a halt in Seoul City Hall Square between the Plaza Hotel and Deoksugung Palace. Some people call this street the heart of Seoul. Fixing her eyes on the square, Seung-ji reached into her bag to pet the rabbit.
Seung-ji was Dad’s stepdaughter from his second marriage. If Mom saw Seung-ji, would she immediately feel sad? Or get upset? Just be shocked? What kind of feelings would Mom have for her? Hate, pity, cold-heartedness or indifference . . .? As I imagined her possible responses, I was reminded of the day I moved into her place.
Translated by Jinah Kim and Seth Chandler
Jon Kyongnin has published eleven novels, in addition to short story collections, essay collections, and fairy tales for adults. Her novel A Special Day in My Life was made into the movie Deep Loves in 2002. Jon has received the Hyundae Literary Award, Yi Sang Literary Award, and the 21st Century Literature Award. The English edition of her book I Drift on Unknown Waters in a Glass Boat was published in 2010.