The Long Road
- onNovember 15, 2014
- Vol.24 Summer 2014
- byKIm Insuk
- The Long Road
Tr. Stephen J. Epstein 2010113pp.
The first time Han-Yeong heard Kang Meong-U’s name was in a curious rumor circulating at the Korean Compatriots’ Journal. Supposedly, a Korean had managed to swing permanent residence in the refugee category. Han-Yeong had understood that it was almost impossible for a South Korean to get a refugee visa. It was hard enough for real refugees from Vietnam or Cambodia. For a South Korean to declare himself a refugee was just not possible unless there was some extraordinary circumstance.
Of course, it wasn’t especially difficult to explain that South Korea had suffered under a dictatorship. The turmoil of Gwangju in 1980 was particularly useful for those who wanted to claim refugee status. Back then, those who were actively protesting against the government could give evidence of their credentials and make a strong argument for being recognized as political refugees. But after the so-called civilian government came to power, the opportunity virtually disappeared. No matter how often specials appeared on television about South Korean labor injustices and the labor movement or about the standoff with North Korea, civilian government meant that South Korea was no longer a source of refugees. And with each passing year, South Korea became a more important trading partner for Australia. There was no reason for Australia to risk diplomatic friction for the sake of one man’s refugee application.
But there it was: permanent residence as a refugee. Han-Yeong wondered what sort of remarkable history Myeong-U had. By a stroke of good fortune, Park, the immigration lawyer who’d handled the case, was a friend of Han- Rim’s. Han-Yeong went to visit, and Park jotted down Myeong-U’s address, begging Han-Yeong not to let on under any circumstances that he’d received it from him. Park clearly hoped that a magazine would reveal the story that he could not personally divulge. Getting to blow his nose without using his hands, so to speak. It didn’t take a genius to realize that Park wanted to enhance his reputation in having word get out that he’d won a case for a refugee visa.
But Park’s subterfuge went awry from the start. Han-Yeong’s interest in Myeong-U had nothing to do with the magazine. The Korean Compatriots’ Journal may have been Han-Yeong’s only job, but because he wasn’t formally employed, he didn’t draw a formal salary. Officially, he still had the right to an unemployment check. Money wasn’t what made him say yes to his friend’s extremely ambiguous request to help him out at the magazine. Rather, Han-Yeong felt that after a year of loafing around he needed a routine. He’d quit a good job he’d worked at for five years because of its suffocating regularity. When he thought about it now, he was amazed at his own transformation.
Maybe he had made the decision expecting that the journal would have a Korean staff, and that through working there he would get to meet Koreans from all walks of life. At some point he’d become distressed by the sensation that he was flotsam cast adrift in a void. For him to feel such anguish was mildly ridiculous. He had come as a skilled migrant and found a decent job immediately upon arrival, and even though he’d moved around a bit, he’d always landed positions at good architectural firms. That he’d found work easily right after immigration could even be considered a piece of great fortune. When he quit, everyone around him had the identical reaction. What the hell are you doing? A good job like that! He couldn’t explain to them his anguish, his lethargy, his suffocation.
And in no time, here he was: an Australian resident, an Australian employee, a taxpayer for eight years, with local friends and colleagues. He was invited to parties and to go on bushwalking trips. His friends liked to hear him tell details about Korea, and he liked to hear them say what they thought about Koreans living in Australia. Of course, they taught him almost everything about Australian life.
Andrew Keeler. His closest friend. A colleague in his architectural firm. If it weren’t for Andrew’s intelligence, you’d have immediately pegged him for a horrible bigot. He was full of complaints about how Asian immigrants were causing the work environment to deteriorate. He’d go on tirades about Asians who’d forfeited their claim to rights. Why weren’t they working to protect those rights? They were selling themselves outright.
Andrew had been the one who taught him that as soon as the clock hit 5:00 p.m., it was time to stop working. Doesn’t matter if you just have one last comma to add to a document. Just close it. Don’t bother to put the cover on your pen. From 5:01 p.m. is your time. It isn’t included in the salary. That’s what Andrew was like. No. That’s what they all were like. When it was time for lunch, they’d get up in the middle of a meeting, and if a meeting ran overtime, they’d want compensation. Of course, no one could demand an extension of their work hours, and if anyone did, then—naturally—this would have been grounds for complaint to the union. This strict precision of theirs . . . As they held rigidly to their work hours, so did they hold to their leisure and freedom. The distinctions were absolutely clear-cut for them. They had no reason to hurry, no reason to run around frantically. All this explained why a project he’d worked on to reconstruct bridge piers, which would have taken a couple of months in Korea, went on for more than a year. What kind of construction was this when the workers would leave a nail they were about to drive in and drop their hammer when it turned three o’clock?
Han-Yeong did not know exactly when he started to find their sort of precision smothering. “As time went on” captured it best. As time went on and he was trying to emulate their lifestyle, problems he hadn’t expected began to crop up. Ultimately, they were Australians, and he was an immigrant. But that did not explain it adequately. The issues were trivial, almost inexplicable. He wouldn’t have been able to talk of the feelings of collapse raging inside him even to someone who had had identical experiences.
When he first took his job, for example. Someone spelled his surname as You, and everyone cackled. Only with the passage of time—five, six, seven, eight years later—did their amusement strike him as an insult. Who would understand? And then there was that inexplicable feeling of frustration when Andrew opened up to him about his troubles with his girlfriend and asked in mid-sentence with great seriousness whether Han-Yeong could possibly understand. No, it wasn’t just a feeling of frustration about Andrew. He’d had similar experiences with almost everyone. Sometimes it was language, sometimes lifestyle, sometimes the way they’d grab their bellies and double up with laughter over things he didn’t think were funny at all . . . Ultimately he found himself unable to understand them owing to all sorts of differences. But his desperation was trivial. What if the reasons for his alienation had been more serious?