Prayer (Full Text with Audio)
- onJuly 27, 2017
- Vol.36 Summer 2017
- byKim Ae-ran
- The Mouth Waters (Short Stories)
Tr. Jamie Chang 2007309pp.
“Sillim” conjures up a green forest. A forest full of trees, a young forest. The trees in the forest are green, like the light green of Seoul Metro Line Two. Most leaves are of a darker hue, but light green seems more right for Sillim trees. When I say “Sillim,” I can almost hear leaves from a distant forest rustling and whispering, supullim, supullim. Green seeps into my tongue when I say, “Sillim,” the same way a red banner somewhere in the corner of my heart flaps wildly when I say “Gupabal” out loud. Such associations have nothing whatsoever to do with the real Gupabal or the real Sillim.
I cross the Han River hugging a pillow. I have to transfer twice to get to Seoul National University Station. I sit in the middle of the bench, heels up. The pillow is in a large plastic bag that crumples irritably and noisily at the slightest movement. The sound is so frail that I hold it closer. A forest of buildings stands across the river. The translucent skin of the buildings reflects sunlight with their entire bodies. Through the billows of clouds, I see the expression on the face of Seoul at one in the afternoon. The spark of Seoul at one. There are too many windows in the world—people grow dark in all that light.
Where are you?
The phone vibrates. It’s my sister. Her question blinks with the small numbers that indicate when the message arrived.
Eungbong, I answer. Sorry. Running late.
I take a deep breath. It always feels weird waiting for the message to be transmitted. I can’t fathom how words can find their way to the right destination. Tens of millions of people send text messages to each other every day. How is it that one person’s I’m sorry finds its way to the right cell phone without colliding into another’s That’s okay? There are perhaps as many text messages floating around as there are molecules of carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and other chemicals from exhaust fumes. We live, surrounded by messages, inhaling them. She hasn’t replied yet.
I bought the pillow at a bedding store in front of the station. I thought about buying it at Sillim, but I gave up the thought, seeing as that this was my first trip to the area. I figured it’d be best to buy it at the discount store near my place rather than wandering the streets of an unfamiliar neighborhood in frigid weather. The pillow will soon be handed over to my sister.
She actually had her own pillow. In the several times she packed and unpacked since she moved out of our parent’s house, she never forgot to take that pillow with her. It was just an ordinary pillow with cotton stuffing, but according to her it was the most comfortable pillow in the world. She sincerely loved the pillow the way people love music or art. She apparently left it behind this time. Mom sounded disturbed as she explained over the phone. Mom seemed to believe that she left without the pillow because Mom all but kicked her out of the house. She was taking her time, and Mom got impatient. It was partly Uncle’s fault for arriving too soon, but Mom evidently started to follow her already panicked daughter around the house, pestering her about this and that until Mom finally lost it and yelled at her. My sister stood sulking in front of the car and Mom clumsily shoved 100,000 won into her hand. They exchanged awkward goodbyes. Perhaps they both ended up looking angry for lack of a better expression under the circumstances. The more they felt sorry, the more they felt this wasn’t a good way to part, the more rigid their faces grew. The car, its backseat full of civil service exam practice test books, pulled out of town, and Mom discovered the pillow after several minutes of sitting on the sleeping mat. The pillow had an indent the size and shape of my sister’s head, and it seemed it might still be warm from cradling her head. Mom called in the morning and spent the entire conversation grumbling about her until she finally muttered, “She left her pillow. Buy her a new one.”
The phone vibrates. I open it up to see if it’s her. It’s someone else.
Miss Suh In-yeong, this is a confirmation for the meeting this evening. I’ll see you at Hoegidong at seven.
Yes, I reply. I’m still reluctant, but I’ve already put it off three times. I only agreed to take the annoying survey because of the Cultural Gift Certificates they promised. A few days ago, I got a call from a woman who said the Ministry of Labor was doing research on “college graduate employment.” I treated her with the same weariness and indifference I showed all telemarketers. She kindly detailed the purpose of the survey and mentioned that their researcher could visit me at my residence, and I would be compensated with three Cultural Gift Certificates. I thought that three gift certificates for a survey was a pretty good deal, but I didn’t want her to think I was desperate and unemployed by sounding too eager.
Trying to sound as cultured and indifferent toward money as possible I asked, “When would be a good time?”
The question was tossed back, “When would be a good time for you?”
I knew that the “culture” I would enjoy with three gift certificates would be silly and trifling, but they would be enough to numb the guilt of an unemployed girl for a day.
The train stops at Ichon Station. People follow the color-coded bands that lead to different subway lines. They look like blind people from the Middle Ages, the way they used ropes to get around. The Sadang train pulls into the platform. Warm air rushes out as the doors open. I dash for an empty seat and settle in. My body makes a crumpling sound. I am very conscious of the volume and sound of this pillow despite the fact it will soon be passed on to my sister. I draw myself in so as to not touch the person sitting next to me.
She says she’s already started unpacking. I jump every time the phone vibrates. It feels as though she has shrunk to the size of a cell phone and is crying away in my pocket. I worry that she’s struggling alone with all her stuff. When I first heard that she found a room near the mountain I said, “Well, you like mountains!” like it was no big deal.
She was dumbstruck for a second before she hit me upside the head with a roar of laughter. When Dad was at the detention center, where beans are mixed into the rice they serve, I had said, “Well, Daddy likes beans!” Mom had hit me on the head just like that.
“Yeah, they say you have to snowboard down the hill when it snows.”
My sister did like mountains. It was also true that Mom cooked rice with all kinds of beans for Dad, and the cop who recognized my Dad often let him off the hook when Dad was caught drunk driving. Dad did his time at the detention center in town, curled up in a corner like a model prisoner. During the time he was detained for his petty offense, he did not repent or worry about his family but rather spent his time seething with anger as he wrote up a list of “people from the village who never came to visit him.” Since then, every time he gets plastered, he cries, “I know who you are!” Of course, he never confronts anyone about it. The day Dad was released we sat around the table for a painfully awkward meal of tofu soup. Since the detainment, every time a prison scene comes on TV we laugh in unison and change the channel.
That was a few years back. Even then, my sister was making her daily pilgrimage, backpack and all, to the local library up in the mountain. That was when libraries suddenly became fashionable all over the country, and a brand new library was built in our village. This being the boondocks, the patrons of the library were mostly adolescents who used too much hair gel. Giggling and shuffling hung over the “Quiet Room” where notes and soda were passed over the partitions. The only ones who studied were my sister and a young man who was preparing for civil service exams. The young man sat in the quiet room and suffered the din. Every once in a while he would break down and cry, “Be quiet, people!” The room would fall silent for a second before the junior high kids changed their topic of conversation to what a loser he was. Every day, the only thing he said was, “Be quiet.” One day, he stopped her on her way down the mountain, backpack and all. He rolled down the window and poked his head out the red Tico.
“May I offer you a ride?”
She said that was the first time she saw him smile. She did not get in the car. She moved to a study room in town.
Rain or shine, cramps or colds, she took the first bus into town and the last one back. Once, when she was suffering from coughing fits, an anonymous note made its way to her desk. It read: Why do you bother coming to the study room when you’re so sick? Stay home or go see a doctor. Wondering who it was from, she’d looked around to find nothing but dozens of heads lodged in their respective cubicles. She kept moving in search of a better studying environment. She was at that study room in town the year before last until she moved to Sangdo near Noryangjin last year. This year, for the last time, she moved to Sillim. No one had said it in so many words, but everyone assumed this would be her final year of trying for the exam. We hoped she would believe so, anyway.
Unlike my sister, who studied math at a local college, I’d been living in Seoul for a few years. Despite the distance between my place and her new place, my presence in Seoul was a deciding factor in her move up to Seoul. She wanted to escape from the constant quarrels with Mom and the stares of the villagers. When she ran into friends at the library, their shared dejection had made her feel awkward and uneasy. She ran into a few more friends from school even after moving all the way up to Noryangjin. For her, the unuttered small-town judgment she had to face every day was more unbearable than spending her twenties in a library cubbyhole or running into bubbly acquaintances around town. The unwelcome curiosity was at once persistent and indifferent. There was one man who would make a point of stopping by our house, without fail, every time the civil service exam results were posted to ask how she had done. Knowing she’d failed, he would ask, “So, how’d it go?” He would then go on and on about his successful children before leaving. Her face convulsed like unsettled dough with politeness, humiliation, despair, and something like a smile. I’ve seen her make a similar face at family gatherings and weddings.
I was living in a small studio with our youngest sibling. Sister couldn’t ask if she could move in with us because we were already cramped for space. She came to visit us once or twice a month. She would travel over from Noryangjin, show up unannounced at our door in the middle of the night, face ashen, to collapse on the floor and into copious sleep. It was as though she came to our place expressly for the purpose of deep sleep. As if this was just what she craved, she slept for a long time without moving a single muscle. When she came to visit, we slept sideways on the sleeping mat, our ankles and heads sticking out from underneath the covers.
A few years ago, I worked for a cosmetics company making pamphlets and company bulletins and sending samples and invitations to the press. When I got the job, Mom was more excited than I was. The second she found out I got in, she dragged me out to the town center to buy me a 400,000 won suit. We went through every single boutique in the area where Mom proudly told and retold the story that started with, “See, my daughter just got a job . . .” She paraded around as if anyone unwilling to listen to her story didn’t deserve her money. This was when we left Dad in the detention center because we couldn’t come up with a few million won for a lawyer. I went up to Seoul with a large shopping bag and wore the suit to work the next morning. The day after that, I hesitated before wearing the same suit to work again, but I couldn’t bring myself to wear the same thing three days in a row. I liked wearing Mom’s self-esteem on my shoulders but the possibility of the suit appearing tawdry made me cringe. A few days after that, I sent Mom a box of Green Tea Facial Cleansers. They were individually wrapped like shampoo samples. Mom toured the village brandishing the sample at her friends. To her, the Green Tea Facial Cleanser was a symbol of status and even power in a time when our family was in desperate need of tangible evidence and affirmation of success, even in the form of free samples. I quit a year later. My drawn-out job search and the need to “show ’em” had forced me to take that job anyway. Rumors of everyone else’s success made me self-conscious. The possibility that they really were doing well was unsettling and I was anxious at the thought of their healthy faces searching mine for signs of despair. My harmless bellyaching at a magazine reporter made its way into an article, and I was half forced to quit. I was terrified when the word “lawsuit” came up. It’s been three years since I quit, and Mom still hangs onto that Green Tea Facial Cleanser. She says her heart breaks every night as she opens the packet with a pair of scissors.
“You shouldn’t be using old cosmetics. You should throw them out,” I say.
“But you were the smartest among your siblings,” she trails off.
The conversations are redundant, and so are the hopes. Every year, we say, “We’ll have better luck next year” as if we haven’t been saying so for years. When I didn’t get that job at the public corporation, when my sister failed the civil service exam, we dug up all sorts of evidence to support our optimism. Wouldn’t they create more jobs since it’s election year? They’re lowering the additional points awarded to the children of patriots and veterans, so that would definitely help. You started going to preparatory programs this year, so you’ll improve. You’ve put in this much effort, so isn’t it bound to happen any year now?
I did odd jobs here and there, mostly translating and tutoring, so I had a little money to help me get by even after I quit. I hung out with some friends who were living like I did and joked about how we’d all be screwed if the private education sector in Korea collapsed.
I hear the subway announcement. I transfer to line number two at Sadang Station. It is two stops to Seoul National University Station—a five-minute ride.
“Sillim,” I say to myself. I can almost see the landscape through the bobbing green leaves.
My sister and I were walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood. This was the year she changed her plan from public school teacher to educational administrator. She insisted on coming up all the way to Seoul to buy her books. The books are pretty expensive, so wouldn’t it be nice to save money by getting used ones? she said. She came armed with directions she found on the Internet. There were plenty of second-hand bookstores near Cheonggyecheon or Seoul Station, but we decided to search the Sillim and Sadang area, which was closer to the bus terminal where she got off. We figured they’d have more books since they’re in university areas. We squinted at the maps to find these bookstores. We searched one store after another puzzled by the curious, exclusive absence of the books she was looking for. After about half a day of searching in vain we came to the embarrassing realization that used bookstores around universities in Seoul did not carry Level 9 Civil Service Exam books. In the Civil Service Exam sections, there were scores of books for the Judicial and Diplomatic Exam, as well as Level 5 and Level 7 Civil Service Exams, but very rarely did we find a Level 9 book. Not knowing what to do with the awkwardness of our ignorance and empty hands, we quickly left the store with our hands stuffed deep in our pockets. We stood on the sidewalk for a moment, disoriented. Her face glistened with beads of sweat as she stood under the blazing sun. She looked very ugly. She was three years older than me and had always known more about the world than I did. Growing up, I always thought her things were better than mine. Witnessing her sad introduction to the capital was a strange experience for me. With an embarrassed look on her face, she suggested we eat. To make up for whatever it was we lost that day, we found ourselves an Italian bistro and ordered spaghetti. After a long squabble over who would pick up the bill, she managed to swipe her debit card. That day, she spent much more on meals and tickets than she’d intended to save before heading back home.
Where are you?
I say I’m almost there. I take bus 5515 as she instructed. It isn’t too crowded on the bus. The passengers are mostly young people. It feels as though they’re all Seoul National University students. I shouldn’t feel awed by their presence, but I do. The Sillim outside the window isn’t as green as I’d imagined. The trees that were supposed to be green like Line Two are standing naked. The bus drops me off in front of the bank where I stand looking around. The street looks like a quilt made of a few rural town centers—run down, disorganized, and unruly like a tabloid magazine. Time seems to have formed a puddle here. It’s not just Sillim. All the streets in Seoul are the same way. They look like collages. A man is handing out discount coupons to a “Sexy Bar.” The streets are full of men, mostly late twenties to mid-thirties. I make generalizations about their lives, their meals, their families, and their sex lives. The stories my sister told about this area plays a part in making the whole town feel like an urban myth. I see her running toward me. Her love handles catch my eye.
She lights up. I say I’m sorry I’m late. She says that’s okay. Neither of us knows what we are forgiving or apologizing for, but we say it every time we meet. The second she sees me she says,
“I like your vest.”
I pull at the hems of my mustard colored vest and say, “This old thing. I got it online for cheap. It wasn’t even ten thousand won.”
I thrust the bundle toward her.
“Mom said you left your pillow. She told me to buy you a new one.”
Her face falls.
I’m not sure if it’s the pillow that was left behind or the quarrel with Mom that’s creating a whirl in her heart. We set out for a meat place as though it is the most appropriate thing to do. Neither of us is familiar with the neighborhood, so we pick the one right in front of us. There is a sign that says, “Pigs raised on Injin wormwood approved by the Seoul National University Research Team” in big letters. I can’t see the connection between pigs and Seoul National University, but the place has an erudite atmosphere. I order shabu shabu, remembering my sister’s enthusiasm for beef.
“Feels very different from Noryangjin.”
“Yeah, it’s probably because people here are a bit older. It feels calmer around here,” she adds.
“There was a church at Noryangjin that offered free breakfast to their congregation. Some students used to eat there.”
The man who appears to be the owner brings out the side dishes. I look at the rolled up meat, puzzled. The meat is too pale.
“Um, isn’t this beef?”
The owner beams as he puts vegetables in the pot, “It’s pork. It’s very delicious.”
My first encounter with pork shabu shabu unsettles me. Aren’t you supposed to cook pork thoroughly?
“I’m sorry it’s pig,” I say to her. The owner steals a glance at me. She says it’s no big deal as she wipes her hands on the wet nap.
“They say you don’t really get in trouble for drinking and making a row in Sillim. Most people around here know more about the law than the cops do. They apparently give the cops a hard time during investigations.”
“Really?” I smile as I scoop up some pork and vegetable for her. Come to think of it, “law” is the word I recall seeing most frequently on the streets. PC rooms, restaurants, and prep academies all had “law” on their signs.
“Like your room?”
She replies as she wraps a piece of pork in boiled dropwort, “Yeah, the landlady showed up with flat coke today. I noticed the day I first came out here looking for a room that the worse the room, the friendlier the owner.”
She’d been here two weeks ago to find a room. She surveyed the area with the youngest, once again, armed with directions from the Internet.
Gosichon was divided into two areas: 9-dong and 12-dong. The former is mostly run-down boardinghouses and preparatory academies, and the latter is mostly high-end studios. There are quite a few new studios in 9 with a wide price range. She found a room at an all-female boardinghouse for 140,000 won a month. The place had a computer lab and a communal bathroom. Boardinghouses without computer labs aren’t popular, she says.
After the meal, we drink excessively sweet instant coffee for dessert. I quickly sign the card receipt as we leave. The downside of using a card is that you have to keep someone waiting for longer than you would when paying with cash.
The way up to her place isn’t as bad as I thought. She said it was a mountain, so I pictured an actual mountain, not an ordinary suburb with mom-and-pop stores and boardinghouses. Some boardinghouses are still under construction.
“The area was practically deserted until a few years ago when they started redeveloping after the financial crisis,” she says, out of breath.
I wonder if there was ever a time when our century was not under construction, financial crisis or no crisis.
“They say you’ve seen all of Sillim once you pass that little store over the fence. That’s the border. It’s close to the top. My place is near there, too.”
“So you’re at the end of the road?”
She hits me upside the head. I chuckle like a fool as I catch up with her. She keeps trying to tell me stories. She thinks I find stories of different places and people interesting. She’d always been the giving one ever since we were kids. She bought us things she thought we needed, and when she couldn’t afford them, she gave us her nail polish or make-up kits. Recently, she came to my place to give me all sorts of unsolicited advice, clean my fridge, and fix the long-neglected broken door under the sink. Now that she has nothing to give, she’s trying to give me stories.
“The day of the bar exam , dozens of tour buses stop here to collect test takers. They say it’s quite a sight to see them all leave at the same time.”
“The day I came to look at rooms, I walked into a room at a boardinghouse and there it was—a coat hanger with a pair of briefs on it. It said ‘BRAVEMAN’ on the elastic band. God, that was embarrassing.”
She does not even stop to take a breath. I listen silently and suddenly stop halfway up the hill.
“Look,” I say.
Face bright red, she turns toward me. She’s out of breath.
You don’t have to give me so much, okay? is what I want to say but I say something else instead.
“Give me that.”
She stares straight at me. Her eyes are small and clear.
I grab her bag filled with pillow.
“I’ll carry it.”
The bag crinkles in my arms. The sound is so frail I hold it closer.
We arrive at a four-story walk-up. It is obvious the building was remodeled. Its deformity is a dead giveaway. The boardinghouses of Sillim are usually regular houses gutted, fixed, patched up, and expanded. The interior of the building looks like the insides of an animal, with the wires and cords hanging out. Standing at the front door, we are overwhelmed by an almost hostile static energy. The front door is made of glass, jarringly modern for such an old building. She punches in the code. I follow her in. Under the shoe rack, there’s a striped sandal with a red ribbon around the flap, like someone with a toothache. I look closer to see if someone was trying to be creative, and discover the red ribbon’s attempt to keep the sole from falling apart. There is a tiny garden in front of the building. It’s so small I would have missed it if she hadn’t pointed it out.
“I fell in love with this place because of that.”
Plastic violets have sprouted on fake lawn.
“The owner seems attentive to the needs of female residents,” I concur.
She leans in and whispers, “When you’re in the boardinghouse neighborhood, you wind up really appreciating spaces like that.”
We walk through the corridor on the first floor and up the stairs. There is a post-it note on the bulletin board.
Please walk on tiptoes in the hallway. – The Manager
Whoever stole my wallet, please die.
My sister’s room is all the way down the hall on the third floor. Dozens of the same doors line the hallway like a scene from a film noir. I had expected something like this, but I still feel suffocated. There’s a white doorknob doily on one of the doorknobs. It’s hand-embroidered in pink. Whoever lives in the room must always leave room for a small patch of garden in her heart. She unlocks the door. The entire room comes into view. The room is about ten square feet with a desk, a chair, and a window. That’s it. Her things are huddled in one corner. It’s mostly books and the rest is detergent, toilet paper, a blanket, a pair of slippers, and an umbrella. Over the years and several moves, she has mastered the art of packing light, but her possessions and things she can possess are dwindling, too. I draw my legs in and squat in the corner. She squats, too. The floor is cold. She has attempted to keep the draft out with green duct tape. There’s a wooden shelf and a faded intercom on the wall. I whisper, It’s clean and decent considering the rent. She says, her voice as lowered as her body, Right?
I see two holes of an electrical outlet below her desk. Bits of plastic foam are stuffed into the carelessly punctured wall.
“It’s like someone’s peeping,” she whispers.
She’ll frequently make eye contact with that thing during her time here.
“At least the room gets a lot of light.”
Out the window and through the screens, I spot an apartment building with a yellow water tank. That will catch her eye, too. The conversation stops. It feels awkward squatting in a tiny room with nothing to do.
On our way out, I happen to see a box on the desk as the door closes. A familiar word on the box. Yesan Apples. It’s the name of our hometown.
Before we part, she and I decide to go up to the top of the Boardinghouse District. I have some time left before the appointment, and we don’t feel like going to a coffee shop. The higher we climb the shorter the buildings get. Some buildings look too small to be boardinghouses. There is a banner flapping one of its boarders’ triumph from the rooftop.
“They fly banners for people who pass the Level 9 exam?”
She replies, “Of course.”
A strange silence swells and closes in as we climb higher. There are few people around.
“Here we are.”
I catch my breath. I see Seoul down below. Seoul somehow seems more impoverished from far away. Perhaps it is the poverty that makes Seoul seem distant. Winter trees stand among the cascading boardinghouses. The view is as murky and lonesome as a paused screen. The “63 Building” stands behind a mountain, its lower half concealed. A couple of civil exam people glance at us as they pass. A strange thought occurs: ‘Look at the state of this capital!’
Perhaps it is in this state because it is a capital. The ashen trees are perfectly still. I’ve been told twenty thousand people in this area are studying for the civil service exam. They must have all endured this hushed existence. I can’t fathom the twenty thousand silences, twenty thousand tiptoes, twenty thousand insomnias. I can’t wrap my mind around those things happening all at the same time at a certain space, or that it’s been going on for many years. I’m not sure if the name of the mountain we’re on is Gwanak, just as I don’t know where Sillim begins, or where 9-dong or 12-dong ends. I assume it’s Gwanak since it’s a mountain in Sillim. I stare at the roof of a western-style boardinghouse. Few pieces of laundry flap in the wind next to a large, heavy-duty plastic tub turned upside down, a rusty barbell, and a water tank. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I catch an object moving back and forth on one of the roofs.
“What is that?”
She narrows her eyes. A black object jumps up and down on the roof.
“Hey, someone’s doing jumping jacks! That’s a commitment too, you know?”
It really is a civil exam person in sweatpants doing jumping jacks on the roof. It’s quite an endearing, refreshing sight. The late winter wind feels cold and dry. On the roof, a couple of pillowcases the color of sunflowers dry in the sun.
We descend from the mountain. Tracing the steps we took, we pass the mom-and-pop store, the boardinghouse, and hundreds of windows and doors and silences to the bus stop. I ask her, Should I get you some vitamins? How about some candy? Should we get you some bread? Why don’t I buy you a cushion you can sleep with? I race over to the seat of considerateness and plop down like someone cutting in line. She says she’s fine.
“I should go. I’d love to stay, but I have an appointment this evening.”
Like acquaintances who find themselves in an awkward situation from saying goodbye too soon, we stretch our necks toward the road where buses come streaming. I gawkily plant 50,000 won in her hand. She emphatically refuses and I playfully argue back. God knows this isn’t the first time we’ve done this routine. It is a little play we put on to preserve each other’s indignity, a ritual carefully designed in the hopes that we would completely fool each other. Like the fake lawn in her little garden, a cherished, fake thing. Moments later, bus 5515 pulls up in front of us.
I turn around on my way up the bus and say, “Take care.”
She waves. I watch her grow small through the bus window. My sister in the exhaust fumes. Sillim growing distant. The dry trees, buildings, signs, insomnia, youth, and winter are all behind me. I did not know then, but they always were.
I cross the Han River on the subway once again. The cold weather exhausts me. I can feel the heater below my calves. I nod off. I lean on someone’s shoulder, jolt up, and lean again. The phone rings.
I flip it open and answer sleepily, “Hello?”
“This is the researcher from the Ministry of Labor. I believe we have an appointment today. Where in Hoegi-dong do you live?”
I wasn’t expecting a middle-aged man. Tired and unnerved, I wonder if I should cancel.
“Where are you coming from?”
He says he’s in the Korea University area. I give him directions to the vicinity of my house and ask him to meet me in front of the convenience store. He says he has a crew cut, and that he’ll be carrying a shopping bag.
Darkness has already descended and the headlights driving by seem famished. I see a man with a shopping bag approaching from the bus stop. His attire is modest and ordinary, but he’s remembered to wear dress shoes. He raises his hand in acknowledgment. I am thrown off guard to discover he’s about my father’s age. I awkwardly and politely nod.
He asks, “Are you Miss Suh In-yeong?”
The shopping bag is all he has with him. He says he’s from the Ministry of Labor, but he doesn’t seem like an official employee. He pervades the stiffness characteristic of a man in his fifties, but he looks like someone who spent his entire life apologizing.
He asks as he rubs his red earlobe.
I hesitate for a moment. Where should we go? Wouldn’t it be inappropriate to take him to my place? What about a coffee shop? Who’s going to pay for the coffee, though? Is coffee covered in his expenses? He probably meets a lot of people every day. Where should we go?
“There’s a library about a ten-minute walk from here. Shall we go there?”
“Well,” he says as he quickly glances around. “No, let’s go in there.”
He points at a large church in the middle of a fork in the road. “Sounds good,” I say and follow him. I had walked past the church for so many years and never once thought to venture inside. The church is gothic—somehow heavy and gloomy. I hesitate in front of the darkly tinted glass doors. He pushes the door as though he has done this sort of thing many times. I’m not even a member of the church. I’m afraid someone might say something. The lobby is disquietingly dark. Fortunately, the church is nearly empty as it’s a weekday. He sits on the bench across from the entrance to the sanctuary. It’s a long, wooden bench. I sit apart from him. There’s a small Christmas tree next to the bench. He takes out the survey sheets from the shopping bag. I inch toward him to listen to the directions. He writes down my sex, address, year of college graduation, my major, and so on. I assume he was trained to do this. The questions are quite detailed. Did your major help you choose a career? What did you study to prepare for employment? Do you have any licenses? Have you attended language programs abroad for employment? The only license I have is the Word Processor license. Long time ago, when I was at the Word Processor test center struggling with the questions, I overhead an elementary school kid who had finished his test hollering at his friend, “Dude, that was easy as fuck!”
He fills out the survey, skipping from one question to another as I answer.
“If you answer ‘yes’ here, you move on to the next question, and if you say ‘no’ we skip to number three.”
I cock my head to the side and ask, “So, what will happen in the future?”
He tells me the participants will be asked similar questions for the next five years. Like a good college graduate, I inquire if this implies that the government will have access to my personal information for the next five years. He smiles and says not really, you can quit next year by informing the organizing department.
“Would you list all the jobs you’ve had since college?”
I grab the pen and lean forward. Part-time translator, coffee shop waitress, cosmetic company PR, magazine proofreader, essay editor, English tutor . . . He asks about the hours, the pay, and whether insurance was covered.
We go through the survey together, our fingers tracing numbers. He seems to know it goes faster this way rather than leaving it all to the participant. We become more comfortable as we exchange a few jokes and some awkward body language.
“So what is your current occupation?”
I answer, a bit embarrassed, “I tutor.”
He asks, “How much is the pay?”
I divide up the monthly fee to calculate the hourly pay.
“It’s 150,000 won for three hours.”
The man is astonished. I don’t know how to respond to his reaction.
“The family is well off. They pay me more than others do.”
He nods in reverence.
“I see you worked in PR, too. Don’t you have to be smart to do something like this?”
“Oh, that’s not true,” I insist. Recognition of this sort makes me nervous. He finds it strange that I quit a job that paid 2 million won a month.
“Sounds like a pretty cushy job. Why’d you quit?”
I become increasingly nervous as my “background” is revealed. I don’t know why. Maybe I feel I’m better than him, or he feels I’m better than him. I feel I’m driven by an old habit—the considerate impulse to go out of my way to make someone feel comfortable. I get anxious thinking that he might find me, someone far younger than he is, rude. I watch him absorbed in the survey. How much does this guy make per participant? My friends used to get 5,000 won per survey. How much does he make wandering all day, meeting college graduates in the dead of winter? He says he’s from the Ministry of Labor, but he’s probably just a hired help paid by the hour. I feel bad for him, but I’m also embarrassed by my own patronizing pity toward him.
He asks his last question, “What do you plan on doing in the future?”
I hesitate before saying I’ll go to grad school. I am not actually planning on it, but I don’t want him to think I don’t have a plan. Actually, I do sometimes think I’ll go to grad school if all else fails. There’s no harm in getting another degree because a degree is like a very expensive license. Fortunately, he asks no further questions. He gives me paperwork to sign. The Christmas tree from the previous season slowly blinks in the dark church lobby. Sitting on the long bench with our heads bowed, the two of us must look like we’re praying. The man’s face, chin pulled toward his chest, becomes bright, dark, and then bright again as the Christmas tree continues to blink. Hue and contrast tangles and untangles his face like spirals of paint floating on water, creating a complex impression. The man hands me an envelope. There are three sheets of Cultural Gift Certificates, each worth 5,000 won. I thank him as I stuff the envelope into my coat pocket. Cold air rushes in as we open the church doors.
The man asks, “How do I get to Hoegi Station from here?”
“Go straight, cross the street at the light, and keep going for another five minutes and you’ll find it,” I say. He thanks me and turns to go. The streets are completely dark now. I’m overcome with hunger. I should go home and eat something. I turn in the other direction. And then, I stop.
“Excuse me,” I call him.
He continues on. I call him, a little louder, “Wait!”
The man turns around. His eyes are small and clear.
I hesitate before asking, “Where are you off to now?”
“Seongdae Station,” he says.
I ponder for a bit before saying, “Then don’t go to Hoegi Station. Take the 273 at the bus stop right there. The subway station is a long ways away, and 273 stops right in front of Seongdae.”
The man lights up.
“That bus stop over there?”
“Yes, you’ll be there in thirty minutes.”
He thanks me and changes direction. I start to walk away as well. And then I stop again. Come to think of it, 273 does go to Hyehwa but it doesn’t stop right in front of Seongdae. I turn around to find him already off in the distance. It’s a bit of a walk from Hyehwa to Seongdae, and he’ll probably get lost if he’s not familiar with the area. I wonder if my kind intentions will cause him more trouble. I pull out my cell. I debate whether or not to text him and finally decide no.
Translated by Jamie Chang
Kim Ae-ran has authored four short story collections, most recently Summer Outside (2017), and one essay collection, A Good Name to Forget (2019). Her first novel, My Palpitating Life (2011), was adapted into the movie My Brilliant Life (2014). Kim received the 2014 Prix de Linapercu award for the story “I Go to the Convenience Store.” Her debut work “No Knocking in This House,” excerpted here, won the 2003 Daesan Literary Award.