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FICTION

Songs Erased from the Greatest Hits Album

  • onSeptember 25, 2020
  • Vol.49 Autumn 2020
  • bySeo Ije
Webzine View 28 (April 2020)
Tr. Rachel Min Park
2020

My mother hadn’t always been a mother. She’d been Kim Mikyung. At the age of twenty-nine, she gave birth to a daughter, though she’d thought she was going to have a son. At the age of twenty-seven, she got married and before then, she’d been single with no idea that she was going to get married. When she was twenty, she met Jung Myoungil at college. Then the president of the music club, Jung Myoungil was preparing to enter the college song festival with his friends. But he didn’t sing, or strum the guitar, nor play drums—instead, he scheduled the band’s performances and guided them with military-like discipline. That is, his role was more of a producer, but seeing Jung Myoungil’s self-assured authority when he had always been so shy made Kim Mikyung curious about him. A sharp dresser, always ready to generously treat others to meals and constantly surrounded by friends, he was a fan of Geonadeul and Hwaljuro’s music, and frequently talked about the band Magma. Everyone assumed he came from a wealthy family. Around the same time he had to start his mandatory military service, Kim Mikyung dropped out of college to earn some money. As she left the campus for the last time, she decided to buy coffee at a nearby café. Sitting in that place and drinking her coffee, with strains of Sanullim’s music playing in the background, she felt like she was about to burst into tears, which would’ve been all too pathetic, so she left without even finishing her drink. While she was leaving the café, she was struck by the thought that the only thing she had done in college was meet Jung Myoungil. In the end, it seemed like she had attended college solely to meet him. And before she met Jung Myoungil, she had lived without knowing he existed, without knowing she would ever meet him. She lived in the unknown. Ever since she was young, Kim Mikyung had dreamed of becoming a singer. When she tried to run away from home to pursue her dreams, her older brother caught her and beat the living daylights out of her. And as she was receiving the beating of her lifetime, all she could hear was: Don’t go around doing stupid things. Before she’d been beaten, all she’d wanted to do was sing. To dance. She wanted to be free.

I’m so old, where did my youth go? Whenever my mother sighed these words, I wondered whether youth was all that great anyways. After all, what exactly was youth? What can you even do when you’re young? When my mother reminisced about her younger days, she said the only thing she ever thought about was Jung Myoungil. As for me, when I thought of my own younger days—that is, my twenties—all I could come up with was college, my temporary leaves from school, and my part-time job. I’m not sure how, but it ended up taking me eight years to graduate from college. By the time I finally did, the only thing I owned was debt, and the only thing I had to look forward to was more debt or paying it off. In a way, it was almost a relief that I had something to do until I died. No matter how hard I tried, I would never be rich or anything like that, so I figured I might as well pursue other values besides money—a realization that was also a comfort. Young people. Why don’t young people these days fight for anything? They don’t struggle. They don’t know what revolution is. They don’t make any grand proclamations, don’t have any thoughts about changing the world. They don’t think. No romantic fantasies, never challenging themselves. Funny how those who talked about the youth never had a single young person among themselves. Mom always lamented the loss of her youth, but I had never really given a thought to losing my own. But if youth was really something that was supposedly so great, I wanted to experience it, at least once.

 

 

Smiling wide, let’s speak of youth

Standing tall, let’s speak of youth

Let’s feel young

Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah!1

But Mom had one last chance to not be a mother. When Kim Mikyung was twenty-five, she quit her job and impulsively went to Seoul. In Myeongdong, she randomly met a student activist and would occasionally hear the sounds of bombs and screams while drinking coffee at a café. “She tended to disappear without any notice, and just as I was convinced that she must have died, that they must have dragged her away and killed her, she’d suddenly show up again. If Jung Myoungil hadn’t come to Seoul and found me then . . .” Mom was unable to finish her sentence. “That country boy came all the way to Seoul and brought me back. He was normally so calm, but in that moment, he was furious with me. On the bus ride back home, we didn’t exchange a single word. A Yu Miri song started playing on the radio. I still can’t forget it. Do you know Yu Miri? What should I draw on the blank note of my life?2—you know, that one song? I can sing that song really well.” Mom sometimes talked to me about her life before I was born. “Mom, I wasn’t even born yet when the 1987 protests for democracy were going on. I was just a kid. Why’d you tell me all that stuff anyways? Can I talk now?” I tried to interject, but Mom just shook her head. “When you were young, I sang this song to you all the time, don’t you remember? You really don’t know this song? I wonder why I was so impatient to leave home. If I hadn’t come back home for good that time, you wouldn’t exist.” Mom said that she had no idea what she’d done to end up married, that she couldn’t remember.

“To be perfectly honest, I probably would’ve ended up like this even if I hadn’t met your father. Did I tell you about the time I fell for a scam? When I was living in Seoul, I met an album promoter who praised my voice and said that he wanted to work together. So I went to a studio in Chungmuro, and even recorded some songs. But one day, he told me that he liked me. He asked me if I knew why he was helping me release my album. So I replied, ‘Because I have a good voice, because I’m talented at singing.’ But of course, that wasn’t it. He said that if I didn’t start seeing him, he wouldn’t release the album. I was speechless.” She mentioned that on that day, she left the studio and walked aimlessly, with no destination in mind. That she walked all the way to Myeongdong, where the streets were packed with office workers wearing neckties and college students with headbands. In loud unison, they chanted “Abolish the illegal constitution!” Not an office worker nor even a student—not belonging anywhere—she stood alone on that street, feeling like she’d been discarded. She suddenly felt entirely worthless. Her heart started pounding like crazy, but it was impossible to tell whether it was from anger, shame, or sadness. At that moment, a tear gas grenade exploded above her head. She glimpsed a bobbed-hair student, pointing and yelling at her to come this way, but she soon disappeared into the smoke. Alone, she flailed around inside that smoky haze, barely escaping by the skin of her teeth. And while she was fleeing, she saw her entire life flash before her eyes. Like she’d aged decades in a single instant. “Finally, I ended up calling your dad. Because I thought my brother would beat me again if I called him.”

On the count of three, open your eyes.

One. Two. Three.

When I finally opened my eyes, I was staring at a bare ceiling. Turning my head, I saw you yawning next to me. I asked if you’d seen anything in your past life. “Nothing. I don’t think I even went to my past life. I was just closing my eyes. I almost fell asleep. What about you? Did you get to see what you were like in your past life?” I was going to tell him about the things I’d seen while our eyes had been shut, but only managed to utter a single phrase: “It was awful.”

We were walking alongside the river, when you spotted some fish swimming in the water. “Even with a lack of oxygen, the fish in Seoul manage to survive.” You talked, and as you spoke, the water flowed in a single direction. As we walked in the opposite direction of the water’s current, an elderly couple overtook us. They say that there are people who manage to live happily together, even in their old age. I suddenly remembered the auntie in my old neighborhood and wondered how she was doing. “I want to pull out my mind and wash it clean in the river,” I said. The auntie’s husband was almost always drunk. We didn’t know what went on in their house. We weren’t supposed to know. A brain-shaped lump was floating downstream. Floating closer, then floating away. “People really just throw their trash anywhere,” you said. We walked further along to get away, as far as we could, from the garbage that was drifting down. Walking together, we started to feel like a real couple, but even though we spent so much time together, we never once spoke of marriage. If one of us had brought up the topic of marriage, we probably would’ve gotten married. And even if we hadn’t gotten married right away, we would’ve at least seriously thought about it. Even if we hadn’t seriously thought about it, we could’ve imagined the kind of life we would have together, the shape of our future. We each continued to hope, to wish, the other wouldn’t bring up marriage. Hoping that even if we didn’t end up married we’d reach a place where we could be happy together, we continued walking.

Hey, sun come up. Hey, sun, come up

Hey, sun, won’t you serenely rise

Beautiful sun

Get rid of all the darkness

All the childlike faces, won’t you rise?3

 

If my mother had stayed in school, would she have tried out for the college song festival? Would she have been the star of all those festivals for the youth in those days? My mother’s child-like face, which I had seen in all those photos. With that face, I could picture Mom going on stage, strumming the guitar, and making lots of noise.

When we left the karaoke room, Mom asked me: “Did I sound okay?”

I replied with a thumbs-up. “Of course! It’s as if Magma themselves were here. You’re just like their lead singer, Cho Hamoon. You are Geonadeul and Hwaljuro.”

Mom shook her head and said that I was speaking nonsense. “Don’t tease me like that.”

“What are you talking about? I’m not teasing you. It’s true! But you know, even the names of bands back in those days were something else. They’re names that sound like they’d shake up the entire world.”

“That’s what it was really like back then. They were all activists and poets.” And finally, Mom carefully articulated what she had really wanted to tell me. “I did a little research and found some group music lessons in Seoul. It’s not even that expensive. I have a part-time job, after all. For that price, even I could afford it. I called them, and they said they had people my age there. It seems like the teacher isn’t that well-off either and can’t set up a proper hagwon, so they rent out the space for practice a few times a week. I want to take lessons there, maybe make some new friends. Would that be okay? Am I being too selfish?” Mom earnestly explained the situation to me, while I thought that there was no need for such thorough justification over a request like this. Where had things gone wrong? I wasn’t sure, but if I could go back in time, even if it was only now, I would turn back everything that could possibly be changed.

“Mom, you don’t have to say all this. Really, you don’t have to explain yourself. If you want to do it, then you should. It’s perfect. When your class ends and I get off work, we can meet up, maybe get together to eat something.”

Her face broke out into a huge smile. “By the way, how’d you know about such old bands?” I told her that I saw them on YouTube, where all the world’s youth seem to have been preserved forever. That youth, which I never once experienced myself.

On my lunch break, I briefly left to meet my mother at the Seoul Intercity Bus Terminal. Mom said that she was familiar with the geography of Seoul because she’d lived there when she was younger, but her words only made me fret even more. Seoul was so crowded. Would she be able to navigate the city without getting lost? Would she be able to find the correct streets? I took the subway with her so we could go to the music room together. The subway door opened and shut . . . and opened again. As we exited the subway station, I spoke: “Mom, don’t take the teacher’s words too seriously.”

There wasn’t much time left—just enough for me to barely catch the next train and get back to work on time. “Mom, I have to head back to work right away, so this is as far as I can go.” Seeing my impatience, Mom told me to hurry up and get going. But I couldn’t. “Mom. Mom! You just keep walking along this path, and then turn right over there, in front of that McDonald’s. Okay? Make sure you follow whatever Google Maps tells you.”

My mother scowled. “I know, I know. Why are you being like this?” Insisting that she could get there by herself, she dropped my hand.

“Go.”

Mom had told me to go, but I stood frozen in front of the subway station. The person that actually left was my mother. Without even a glance backwards, she vigorously walked towards her destination. I watched her. One step, then another. Drifting further away from me. Another step. She continued walking ahead. One more step, and one more step away. As she gradually grew further and further away from me, she began receding into the distance. Becoming smaller. And even smaller. Slowly, she returned to her youth. Becoming smaller and smaller still.

 


Hwaljuro, “Our Youth”
Yu Miri, “Youth’s Note,” 1986 Gangbyeon Music Festival
3 Magma, “Hey Sun,” 1980 MBC College Song Festival (Cho Hamoon, the lead vocalist of Magma, adapted Pak Dujin’s poem “Sun” into song lyrics).