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FICTION

A Good Family

  • onApril 5, 2017
  • Vol.35 Spring 2017
  • bySeo Hajin
A Good Family
Tr. Ally Hwang
2015

Before Noon

 

When the woman was ready to leave and came out, her son was still “playing games.”

“It’s been more than thirty minutes.”

The boy stopped her hand as it reached out to a palm-size machine.

“But I’m ‘studying’ now.”

Following the machine’s instructions, the boy spelled and pronounced the English words. Do you understand what I mean? The screen changed and the next word popped up. “What? Only twenty points?” the boy complained, moving the plastic button and clicking through to the next screen. A white puppy appeared on one side of the screen, its tongue darting out.

"You failed,” the red letters said.

“Gee, Mom. I lost to the puppy.”

“I told you to stop.” Her face twitched, which meant she was reaching the end of her rope. He stared wide-eyed at her. It was hard to believe those innocent eyes belonged to a seventeen-year-old adolescent boy.

“I’m studying for the listening evaluation. We have a competition tomorrow.”

His voice was courteous. Whether it was a computer or a gaming device, any conversation with the boy while he was in front of a machine tested the woman’s patience. In trying to convince him, she always ended up raising her voice, and she had to assert her authority as a mother to wrap up the situation every time. Both she and the boy knew that her so-called authority had run out like the air from a leaking balloon, and that there wasn’t much of it left now.

“You don’t understand. There’re tons of kids in my class who do nothing but play games all day long.”

He even smiled at her, as if he felt sorry that she didn’t know that she should be happy to have a son like him. Going to school, going to a cram school, doing homework, working with a private tutor, doing homework, working on exercise sheets, doing homework . . . There was nothing she could say to him, since he was dealing with such a packed schedule. Even her nagging wasted his time.

“Well, thanks, son. Would you like me to bow to you or something?”

She let it drop there. She had gotten him the Japanese game console last winter, just before his final exams were over. The boy, who had been losing sleep at night from his eager desire for a game console that seemed more suited to an elementary school student, barely met the condition she had set, which was to be ranked in the top five percent of his class. To afford a more expensive system, he cut his own expenses and added the entirety of his sebaetdon.1 He was good-natured and docile. Apart from having fallen in with some worrisome friends, he left nothing to be desired.

“I’m going over to see Jae-min in a little while. You know that, right?”

He nodded his head and quietly stood up and went to his room. It would be a while before he could hold his head up again. She pitied the boy but didn’t console him, because this was an incident that required self-examination. Her mobile phone made an odd sound, alerting her that it was ten o’clock. With a thick wool scarf tightly wrapped around her neck, she left the apartment. She adjusted her clothes again, looking at herself in the mirror hanging on the wall of the elevator. It was her daughter’s old fake-fur coat, fuzzy with lint. The plain, warm clothes seemed to match her plain, un-made-up face. Looking in the mirror, she made a pitiful expression. A face untidy from lack of sleep, anxious eyes and narrow shoulders in a loose coat. Perfect. The woman caught a glimpse of a camera in the corner of the elevator and momentarily felt embarrassed, but this wasn’t the time for that. Just as she started to feel the tears threatening to form in her eyes, the elevator stopped, and with a clear Ding-Dong, its door slid gently open.

“Hey, Ji-woo’s mom. Where are you headed?”

The woman stepping in seemed delighted to see her. She was the mother of a classroom representative from another classroom at the same school her son attended. She was a lively and involved mother, who helped with things like searching for private tutors, distributing information about cram schools, and getting rid of clumsy teachers and uncooperative kids. Suddenly, a shadow crossed her face. Even though she showed adequate courtesy to the dean, the principal, his homeroom teacher, and any other teachers who might know about it and tried to downplay it as much as she could, it was possible that this woman might have heard the rumor. Reeling, she made a quick decision: cautious honesty was best.

“Oh my goodness, I’m in such an uncomfortable situation. I feel awful.”

“What’s going on? I had a feeling. Since you’re wearing that . . .” The woman had a smile in her eyes. Could she really not know? Even if she didn’t yet, she surely would soon. Bad rumors always seemed to spread like the wind.

“My son, Ji-woo, got into trouble in a karaoke room with his friends, you know.”

“A karaoke room? When? He has time to do that?” The woman asked, wide-eyed.

“They went there on the day they finished final exams. They seem to have gotten into a fight about something while they were there.”

“Oh dear, did anyone get hurt? It wasn’t Ji-woo, was it?”

“No, not him, but another child . . . The child’s parents went crazy. They said they would sue all the children. Ji-woo didn’t even know what was going on, since he had been sipping from the beer that the children were passing around and got tipsy. I’m on my way now to the child’s house to beg.”

“Oh my god, what in the world . . . oh dear . . . oh boy . . .”

The woman said in an exaggerated tone, clicking her tongue. “You must be really upset. But . . . well, try not to worry too much. All the teachers know Ji-woo is a good student. He’s such a good kid.”

Those words were not very comforting. She always felt unhappy to have “a good kid,” the description always given to her son. Because of his good nature, because of his good disposition, he was suggestible and sensitive. He wasn’t good, he was even pretty bad at doing the little things that would help him get ahead, like reading a book during break time, refusing a small favor to a friend, or keeping his carefully compiled list of incorrectly answered exam questions to himself. She had been drilling this into him since elementary school—no, pre-school—but he never changed. Those little things kept him from reaching the very top ranks of his class. She was envious of parents whose kids exploded when they blew an exam, while her son just looked contrite. The elevator stopped and the cold air swept in.

“Good luck.” The class rep’s mom lightly patted her on the shoulder. The security guard in uniform looked at the woman with a puzzled face and then bowed, saying, “Oh, Samonim.”She nodded at him and escaped from the lobby with a few hurried steps.

After walking for about twenty minutes, her face and hands were cold and tingled like they were about to go numb, even though she was wearing quilted pants and gloves. It was a cold day, and her white puffs of breath seemed to freeze in mid-air. She could have driven to Jae-min’s house, but she didn’t. In her mind, she figured that Jae-min’s mother might be more generous if she arrived frozen. Exchanging a greeting with the other three mothers she had talked with on the phone several times, who were now lined up in front of the blue gate, she quickly organized her thoughts.

“We should beg for forgiveness no matter what, saying that we’re sorry and that it’s our fault we didn’t teach our kids right.”

It was what she had already said several times to these fallen-faced, shaggy-haired women, but it was difficult for her to shake her fear that they might stray from this message. Anger suddenly rose in her, wondering how in the world her son got involved with the sort of boys these women raised, and where she had been while it was happening.

“But we already apologized, and Jae-min’s mother is still seething with anger. When I called her this morning, it was clear she was still holding a grudge.”

Although she had advised against it repeatedly, that woman seemed to have called again. The son of that woman, who seemed to pout even when talking on the phone, complaining the whole time, had been the mastermind of this whole incident.

“What did you say? I explained to you that calling them again and again would be counterproductive.”

The woman spoke in a low voice, “Well, I mean, you know, boys can get into a fight and when they fight . . .”

“Kyung-tae’s mother!” She cut off the woman’s words. The mother of Kyung-tae looked at her with eyes full of anger. She continued to try to cajole her. The words came out in broken pieces, the cold air freezing her mouth. “Didn’t I tell you? The more we talk, the worse things are for us. We found out that Jae-min’s father is a policeman.”

If she made a few calls, she could find someone to handle a single police officer, but she didn’t want to keep talking about this any longer.

“Think about it from her position. The scar on the kid’s face . . . it’s terrible.” She spoke to the woman in a low tone, as if she were soothing a child, but she still seemed upset.

“Really, boys can exchange blows and get into fights, and in the process they might get hurt, but who would try to do that on purpose? I’m just saying that they’re being treated like they’re some kind of gangsters.”

Is there such a thing as a gangster-in-training? Harassing a kid, forcing him into a karaoke room, and ganging up on him . . . they were really no different from gangsters. How in the world did Ji-woo get involved with the son of a woman like this? Another sigh escaped her lips, but she quickly pulled herself together. Thankfully, another mother settled the situation for everyone.

“Whatever the case, we can’t let our kids have marks on their school records. Can’t we just bow our heads and beg?”

It was a woman who ran a coffee shop in the city. ‘She knows a little better than the others, having a job instead of staying at home.’ Her sense of being offended by the woman’s too-bright red coat diminished a little.

“Let’s go inside. I’m freezing to death.”

The other mother, who had made such a bad impression on the phone and even now seemed to be saying, “What have I done?” made a fuss, thumping her shoes. The woman, looking over the other mothers, as if controlling unruly children, pushed the doorbell next to the metal gate. 

 

pp. 67-72

Adapted from the original published by Dalkey Archive Press

 


1 Money customarily given by older relatives as a gift on the morning of the Lunar New Year.
2 Noun used to respectfully address a married woman, one’s teacher’s wife, or one’s boss’s wife.

Author's Profile

Seo Hajin is an assistant professor at Kyung Hee University’s Department of Korean Language and Literature. She has published two novels and six short story collections. The English edition of A Good Family came out from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. She has received the Hahn Moo-Sook Literary Prize, Baek Shin-ae Literary Award, and Kim Jun Sung Literary Award.