Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Excerpt from Tendrils of Life (from Chapter 23)


A near full moon hung between the skyline and the jagged edge of the thatched roof. Jimin and Misern sat on the edge of the veranda, their legs dangling above the terrace.
The night was hot and sticky, and the spirited frogs and night insects filled the air. Mosquitoes buzzed around with high-pitched eeeeeeing—not a swarm, but a few scouts at a time—and launched kamikaze attacks. They’d inured to them as in the old days when they’d lived in the countryside. Why they hadn’t contracted malaria, Jimin didn’t know, except that the disease wasn’t widespread.
The girl came and sat silently next to Misern. She stared pensively at the moonlit landscape. Perhaps her mother’s illness was worsening. By now her face had become less unsightly to Jimin. Her look might have improved for all he knew.
He felt obligated to say something to her, maybe thank her for providing food and putting them up for another night, but said instead, “So, you were at the Nakdong River!”
She looked at him across Misern’s head, but said nothing.
“What was it like?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she said.
“I spilled everything last night. You kept prodding me. And you don’t want to talk about it!”
“I can’t.”
“Because you were not there?”
She directed her gaze at the moonlit sky without responding.
To think that this girl could have been anywhere but in this nondescript place, moving from one rented room to another with her sick mother, was ludicrous to begin with. Why did he bring it up then? Maybe it was one of his mean streaks.
“What happened to you and your mother?” Jimin said after a long silence. “How did you get injured?”
The girl kept her silence, still staring at the sky. A patch of white cloud swallowed the moon and then, minutes later, spat it out as it sailed across the sky.
He regretted his snide remark. It apparently hurt her feelings deeply. You shouldn’t have been so insensitive to a girl like her, he chided himself.
“Do you have other relatives?” he asked in a conciliatory tone.
She was still silent.
Maybe she was born out of wedlock, Jimin thought. It piqued his curiosity, thinking about Sinman. “Where is your father?”
She stared at him for a while. Then she said, “In the southern army.”
“A career soldier from the Japanese era?”
“No. He joined the army a few years ago.”
“Why, he must be very young,” he said, chuckling.
 She cast a wry glance at him. “He worked as an interpreter for American military officers. Later when the Defense Army was formed, he decided to remain in the military.”
What a story she’s making up! “Did he, indeed?” he said. He tried not to sound off his snickering, but it escaped.
She looked at him indignantly. “He lived in America over a decade. He went there just before I was born. Stowed away on a ship after the Japanese authorities smelled trouble in his Sierra Club. It was a cover for an independence-movement organization.”
“Is that right?” Maybe her mother was an abandoned mistress to such a man. “When did he come back?” he asked.
“We came back from America in 1946.”
“We?”
“My mother, my brother, and I had managed to get to America when I was five.”
What a fantasy!
“Really?” he said, pretending to be surprised. “You lived in America?”
“Yes. But only for seven years.”
“How fascinating!” He had rested all day and had nothing better to do than play along with her fairy tale. “I’ve never met anyone who’s been to America before. But why did you all come back?”
“We wanted to be part of the newly independent country.”
“Why, you didn't like America?”
“Oh, I liked America. In many ways.”
“What was it like?”
“It’s a great country. People are polite. Well, most of them are. They say hello to you and smile at you when you pass by them even if they don’t know you.”
“Do they all have black hair and black eyes as we do?”
“No. They all have different colors. People who came from Europe do, anyway.”
“How strange,” he said, thinking the girl had at least gotten that right. “Are they different in many other ways?”
“Yes. Most of them are Christians.”
“Do they look upon us strangely?” he said in part mocking and in part with a genuine interest.
“They do.”
“In what ways?”
“They call us Orientals and we are not accepted too well.”
“Why?”
“They don’t know us well. We all look alike to them, just as they look alike to us. I can now easily distinguish their faces, but I had a hard time initially. Likewise, they have difficulty in differentiating our faces. And they thought we were all Chinese. Chinks, they called us.”
“Did they?” he prodded, trying not to voice the ridicule. She could have learned all those things from other people. He hadn’t had this much fun in a long time.
“Yes. We are strangers to them. They don’t know our culture. Our looks, our food, our customs are all foreign to them. Even though the feelings inside us are the same, the ways we show them are different. The more they show, the more they mean, while the less we show, the more we mean. They tell their children they love them all the time. Our parents never say they love us and they seldom hug us after we grow up, yet we know they love us more than anything. That’s strange to them. White people look down on yellow people, as they categorize us. Also, some people thought we were Japanese and were very hostile to us during the war.”
“They didn’t know the Nips were our enemies?”
“No, most people hadn’t even heard of Korea. All they knew, we were part of Japan. The maps of the world made it clear. Our teachers often pointed their fingers on the map and said, ‘This is the country of our enemy.’ Each time, I was afraid that they might also point at me and declare, ‘She’s our enemy.’”
“You hated the Americans?” He started to question whether he had the right idea about this girl.
“No. I didn’t blame them. And I still don’t blame them. It was not my country anyway. But I had some very good friends. Once they get to know you, they are very kind and very friendly. Have you seen the Chinese who live in our country?”
“Yes.”
“What’s your opinion of them?
“They seem very strange to me, talking gibberish among themselves. They speak poorly and they look timid and ignorant.”
“But you didn’t actually know them personally, did you?”
“No.”
“See? We consider them inferior just because they can’t speak our tongue well enough and we can’t read their minds, even though their faces are indistinguishable from us and we had borrowed heavily from their culture for thousands of years. For many centuries they were the big power and we were a dependent state. Although they are disadvantaged in our society, deep down I think they are very proud, thinking about the glory of the Middle Kingdom in the past. Many of them are here temporarily, displaced by the communists, waiting for Chiang Kai-shek to take back Mainland China and anxious to return to their homes. They probably look down on us. But we see only their present conditions, the way they talk and the way they appear to us. And just think how Americans would look on us in their own country, speaking broken English and with strange-looking faces, when they know nothing about our culture. Had I not lived in America, I would have no idea how prejudiced we humans are.”
She looked different now, far more intelligent than he. Maybe she was telling the truth all along and he was a fool not to credit it. He’d judged her solely on her looks. But could she really have lived in America? Do they admit such an ugly person into their beautiful country?
Misern looked up at the girl. “Did you see all those gold mountains in America?”
“Where did you hear that, Misern?” the girl said, amused.
“My classmate’s father went to America to study. She said America is a very rich country, roads paved with gold, and glittering gold mountains everywhere.”
“Well, I don’t know.” The girl smiled. “I didn’t see any of that where I lived. If there is a place like that, I haven’t been there.”
They were silent for a while.
“Tell us what it’s like in America,” Jimin said after a few minutes, still questioning about the girl in his mind.
“We lived in a place called Alexandria, near Washington. The climate there is similar to the climate here, though winter is milder there with far less snow. But very close.”
Thirty minutes of more talk convinced him that she really had lived in America. He now fully believed that everything the girl had told him was true and that she was far more intelligent and dignified than he was. He felt ashamed that he had refused to see the truth for such a long time, unable to leap beyond her looks.
They talked until the moon had tilted toward the western sky, shading part of the yard that had been brightly lit, stopping occasionally for the girl to check on her mother. They talked of many other things. Of the things each had cherished or hated. Of the books and movies each had enjoyed. Of the mysteries of the universe.
For a while they were silent, listening to frogs and night insects and the footsteps on the highway, all going up toward the battlefield.
“So, you were really at the Nakdong River,” Jimin said after a long silence. “Tell me what happened.”
 She watched a flock of geese honk away south. “I can’t. I never told anyone about it. I can’t bring myself to.”
“You’ll feel better if you empty out what’s been bottled inside.”
“You are talking like a grown-up.”
“I guess I am. After my mother’s death, everything was bottled up inside me and I was feeling so depressed. I felt better when I started to talk about it. To Han Insook and to you.”
“You might be right. While I toil in the paddies under the boiling sun, I think about it all the time. And today while I was working in the field I rehashed your story many times. What you’ve been through—maybe because of the way you told the story—touched my heart and I felt for you. I felt you were very close to me as if I had known you all my life. And I was tempted to share my story with you too. But I can’t. I don’t want to bring the nightmare back.”

“Okay. Don’t think about it then.”

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