This Burns My Heart
Soo-Ja knew about the stranger. The one following her for the last four blocks. She kept her pace even—her instinct in situations like this was not to be scared, but to see it as a battle of wits, as if she’d been handed a puzzle, or a task. She wanted to lose him, but do so elegantly, in the manner of a great escape artist. Her friend Jae-Hwa—walking next to her, her homemade knit scarf blowing in the brisk Siberian wind—hadn’t noticed him, and kept on chattering about the lover in the film they’d just seen.
Was the man a secret agent from the North? Soo-Ja asked herself. The war had ended only seven years ago so it was feasible. It didn’t help that the other side didn’t sit across the ocean, or on a different continent, but rather just a few hundred miles away, cordoned off by an imaginary line drawn with chalk on a map. Soo-Ja fantasized that the man mistook her for the mistress of a high-ranking official, and wanted her to carry state secrets across the 38th parallel. Would he be disappointed, she wondered, to find out she was just a college student? Daughter of a factory owner, born in the year of the tiger?
Soo-Ja pulled her compact out of her purse and looked into the round mirror. There he was, within the glimmering frame, in his white jacket and white pants. Western clothes. Appropriate, she thought. She could not imagine him in hanbok, or anything worn by her parents or
her parents’ parents. From his self-satisfied grin to the rebellious extra inch of hair, this young man looked like a new species, a new breed. He walked behind her at a relaxed pace, his hands in his pockets, a bodyguard of sorts, there to protect her from men like him.
“We’re being followed,” Soo-Ja finally told Jae-Hwa, though she hadn’t decided yet how to outwit him. She wouldn’t just lose him. There had to be a scene of some kind; otherwise the anecdote was too dull, the narrative too brief. Also, he needed to be punished. Not horrendously, as he hadn’t done anything terrible, but lightly, so he’d learn that he couldn’t just go after a pretty girl like that, couldn’t simply claim her as his.
“Who’s following us?” asked Jae-Hwa, her voice panicky, vowels already in hiding, her hands hanging tightly to her friend’s arm. Was he a “spoiler”? One who damages virgins before their wedding day, rendering them useless? Jae-Hwa, with her short, boyish haircut, lacked her friend’s beauty, and in spite of that—or maybe because of it—often found herself overplaying her own appeal. She imagined men coming after her, though they really sought her friend.
“A meot-yanggi,” said Soo-Ja.
Meot-yanggi: a flashy, vain person, showing off goods, wealth, or physique.
Soo-Ja smiled at the fact that a single word could contain all that: a definition, a criticism, a jab. She turned around and glanced at him directly, boldly, and watched as he smiled at her and lowered his head slightly, a nod. Seeing him in natural scale, Soo-Ja was struck by how tall and lean he was. All around, the sunlight dimmed, as if he were pulling it down toward him.
Soo-Ja knew then how she was going to lose him.
As the street widened in front of her, she jumped into the delicious whirl of bodies, tents, and rickshaws swarming the marketplace. With Jae-Hwa barely able to keep up, Soo-Ja danced past peddlers waving hairbrushes in the air; zoomed by mother-daughter teams haggling with shopkeepers; expertly maneuvered around noodle stands and fishcake stalls. Tchanan, tchanan, she heard a peddler yell as he pointed at
ceramic pots displayed on the ground on top of white sheets. An old man coughed—his shoulders weighed down by containers of cooking gas—then flashed his broken teeth at Soo-Ja. The arms and legs of children brushed past her, their breaths spicy with chili peppers.
Soo-Ja smiled, her eyes thrilled by the kinetic energy of carts zigzagging swiftly in all directions. Bodies came at her one after the other, faces shuffling as quickly as pictures in a deck of hato cards; mobile stands selling used clothes wheeled down unexpectedly, causing her to have to duck and sidestep. When she reached the edge of the market, Soo-Ja stopped and took a breath. She watched as a bulldozer across the street from her dug into a fenced-off patch of soil. It had long been a fascination of hers, watching construction workers rebuild bombed-out sites. It felt miraculous, how a factory could be sliced in half during the war, and then regrown, like the stubborn perennials. Soo-Ja loved this sense of reconstruction, her only complaint being that all the new buildings and houses looked exactly the same. She couldn’t tell a newspaper office from a fire station, as if both structures were interchangeable plastic toys in a child’s board game. Soo-Ja wondered if the men who erected these stone castles secretly feared that they would be bombed or burnt down once again.
“Is he still following us?” Soo-Ja asked Jae-Hwa, smiling. She already knew the answer.
Jae-Hwa turned around to look and saw the stranger walking toward them. He strained to keep his confidence, though he was clearly out of breath.
Jae-Hwa dug her fingers deeper into Soo-Ja’s arm. “I see him. What’re we going to do?”
Soo-Ja pulled her friend close, with a daring look on her face, and they started running again. This time, Soo-Ja moved away from the main road and slipped into a tiny little street. She had entered a maze, a corridor about a meter wide. As they raced deeper into it, the two of them zigzagged into never-ending turns—enough to lose hound dogs, detectives, and even the young man on their trail. They squeezed past an old woman carrying a load of laundry on her head; evaded a group
of children running in the opposite direction; ignored the hunger pangs from smelling soon-dae—the sausage-shaped delicacy filled with vegetables and rice—sold by a peddler on the corner. They giggled like schoolgirls, bumping onto the white clay walls as their bodies emerged in and out of shadows.
They made their way out into the other side of the labyrinth, darting into a second main road—a much quieter one, trodden by tired bodies rushing home. The peddlers here looked more worn-out, and so did their wares. A group of paraplegics huddled around a fire, listening to the radio. In the distance, a streetcar went by, its overhead wires slicing the sky into two.
Jae-Hwa—tired, hungry, confused—turned to Soo-Ja. “I wish he’d stop following us! Should we ask someone for help?”
“Listen, he’s not the one following us. We’re the ones leading him.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jae-Hwa.
“I’m taking him someplace where they’ll take care of kkang-pae like him.”
“Where are you taking us to?”
“It’ll be a nice little surprise for our new friend.”
Soo-Ja took Jae-Hwa’s hand again and led her onward, diving into the night like an expert swimmer, splashing dots of black onto the asphalt. She knew she was only a block or two from her final goal—the police station.
• • •
Soo-Ja waited for the stranger to turn the corner, as she stood in front of the police station—a one-story brick building with high windows and a pointy spire on its awning. Next to Soo-Ja, a police officer appeared ready to lunge, eager to play hero for the young damsels. He fit the part—burly, with massive hands, wearing his black cap low above his eyes. His dark blue uniform molded onto his large frame, his chest shining with the police insignia.
When the stranger finally turned the corner and realized where Soo-Ja had led him to—saw the punchline of the joke that had been
told—he immediately turned around to flee. The officer jumped at him, his hands and arms so quick as to make him seem like an octopus. The man in white struggled—elbows hitting rib cages, hands made into fists, feet on tiptoe attempting to launch. But he looked like a teenager, so much larger was the officer. While subduing the young man, the officer kept taunting him by slapping the back of his head.
“I-nom-a! You like following girls? Would you like me following you around all day?”
Soo-Ja watched the complicated mechanics of the fight, the way the officer teased him by letting him go and then grabbing him again. The young man thrashed about like a boy being dressed down by his father, who happened to be a bear. Soo-Ja could see the frustration in his eyes, the long, desperate breaths.
He had hunted her down through the alleyways of Won-dae-don, only to walk into a trap. Finally, the officer tossed the young man onto the ground, face against grime. The officer placed his foot on the young man’s chest before he could even try to get up.
Looking at the stranger in white, Soo-Ja realized that he was quite young—probably their age, twenty-one or twenty-two. He was also handsome, with a small button nose, slightly puckered lips, and bright, intense eyes. He had an oval-shaped face, as delicate as if it had been penciled in, and marked by a dimple on his straight chin. Seeing him beaten up evoked a feeling of pity in Soo-Ja. She felt relief when the officer finally let go and let the boy lie by himself on the cement floor.
“What were you doing following these girls?” the officer repeated.
The stranger coughed a little and then spoke, between hard breaths.
“I just wanted to find out where she lived,” he said. The cop turned around and looked directly at Soo-Ja, who felt more glad than ever that she hadn’t led him to her own house.
Then the officer turned to the stranger again. “Why did you want to do that?”
“So I could come back another day and ask her for a—”
“For a what?” barked the cop, leaning over and slapping the back of the boy’s head again.
“For a date,” the boy finally said, turning to the other side to evade the cop’s large gloved hands.
A crowd had gathered around them. It was now, officially, a scene. The other cops looked at Soo-Ja. In a second, the situation had flipped: they saw themselves in the young man’s shoes and sympathized with him—rooted for him even.
“Then why didn’t you act like a normal person from the beginning and just talk to us?” asked Jae-Hwa. “Instead of following us around and scaring us to death?”
The young man got up slowly. He could probably feel the tide turning, his emotional capital increasing by the minute. He shook the dirt off his clothes and turned to Soo-Ja. His white jacket was no longer white, but rather a combination of sand, grime, and blood. But even like this—his face red, his eyes half shut—he still radiated a certain imperious presence. Soo-Ja could tell that he came from a rich family. They stood there like equals, while the others became mere plebeians, extras in the background.
“Let’s start over. My name is Min Lee,” he said, bowing to Soo-Ja. “My father is Nam Lee, the industrialist. I should’ve had the guts to talk to you. If I promise to behave, will you go on a date with me?”
Soo-Ja looked at his dirty clothes, his bruised face. He reminded her of a fig fallen from a tree, its broken skin an invitation to worms. She sensed a kind of spotlight over her, and the crowd holding its breath, waiting for an answer. The world circled around her body, as she weighed the pros and cons of what seemed like a big decision. How could she offer another blow to this young man, who’d already been so mangled and mistreated by all of them?
“All right,” said Soo-Ja, and she could feel the collective relief of the crowd watching. “You can pick me up for a date sometime. But you’ll have to find out where I live on your own. Because I’m not planning on telling you.”
• • •
“Where have you been? Your father’s been waiting for you!” called the servant, in her gray hanbok uniform, with rags in her hands. Soo-Ja
had just rushed past the main gate, entering the hundred-year-old compound that she called home. She stood in the middle of the courtyard, her human presence instantly providing balance to the elements—the dark sky melted into the wave-shaped black tiles on the rooftop, ebbing into the curved eaves connecting the head and the body of the one-story house, which in turn blended into the lighter shades of the thick wooden doors. On the ground, the white, hand-washed stone floors flowed into the roots and stems of a grove of pine trees, their needles swaying to the side, their cones hatching open like chicken eggs.
“Did he say why?” asked Soo-Ja, glancing at the main house.
The round lamp bulbs illuminated her father’s familiar, rotund shape, sitting expectantly in the middle of the room.
“What have you done this time? Now go in! Don’t keep your parents waiting any longer,” said the servant, before heading back to the kitchen.
Soo-Ja ran up the stone steps leading to the main house, but took her time reaching the room, letting her shadow announce her arrival first. She glanced down at the dark yellow paper doors, the fiber thick and rough to the touch, the surface porous, almost alive. Her breathing slowed a little, and her fingers carefully slid the doors open, one in each direction, revealing the waiting figures of her parents inside, both sitting on the floor.
Soo-Ja’s father looked up from the account book in front of him on his writing table and put away the square rubric he used to sign checks. Next to him, Soo-Ja’s mother held a luminous silver-colored brass bowl, with loose grains of white rice scattered around its rim. They had just finished dinner, and half-empty plates of banchan sat on the lacquered mahogany dining tray in front of them: spicy cabbage, soybean sprouts, baby octopus dipped in chili pepper paste.
“Where have you been all night? Never mind. Do you know what this is?” Soo-Ja’s father asked, removing his eyeglasses and waving a letter at her.
Soo-Ja sat down across from him on the bean-oiled floor. She tried to look ladylike, with her knees touching and her feet behind her. She couldn’t bear to stay in that position long and switched her legs around. “No, Father.”
“I received a visitor at the factory this morning.”
“Who was it?” asked Soo-Ja, pressing her fingers against the floor, where the shiny laminate had turned yellow over time.
“It was a man from the Foreign State Department. He came to talk to me about a job for you in the Foreign Service. Do you know about this?”
Soo-Ja bit her lip. “What did he say?”
“Some nonsense about a daughter of mine applying for their diplomat training program. Although I can’t imagine a daughter of mine would go behind my back and do this without asking my permission.”
“But, let’s say, if a daughter of yours did apply for the program . . . did she receive news that she’d been accepted?” asked Soo-Ja, anxiously moving her body forward, her back perfectly straight.
Soo-Ja’s father looked at her, exasperated. “How could you do this without even asking me first?”
“I’m sorry, abeoji. But you wouldn’t have let me if I’d asked you.”
“For a good reason,” said Soo-Ja’s mother, speaking for the first time, as she rearranged the oval millet-filled pillow under her. “If you want to work before you get married, you can become a teacher or a secretary. A diplomat? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
Soo-Ja glanced at her mother. She was a small-boned woman, who looked older than her forty-four years. She kept her hair in a net a lot of the time and wore grandmotherly clothes: layers of heavy wool sweaters, old-fashioned loose pantaloons, and duck-shaped white socks. She never acted like a rich woman, and possessed no jewelry.
“That’s not what I want to do. I want to travel,” said Soo-Ja. “Can I—can I see what the letter says?”
Soo-Ja’s father hesitated, then handed her the letter.
Soo-Ja read it eagerly, and she reached the middle before realizing she’d been accepted. Her heart immediately began to flutter, as if she had a bird trapped inside her chest, madly trying to break away. Soo-Ja looked up at her parents, smiling, expecting to see pride reflected in their eyes. But she found none.
“You must be out of your mind to think you’re going to Seoul,” said Soo-Ja’s mother. She leaned her face over a small container of
cooking gas until the tobacco in her pipe began to burn. “What would people say if we let you go live alone in a strange city? That just isn’t done.”
Next door, in the kitchen, the cook and her helpers had been on their feet for hours by the kitchen furnace. They were preparing the food for the next day’s Seollal holiday, steaming song-pyeon over a bed of aromatic pine needles in a gigantic iron pot. But no sounds emanated from the kitchen, as if the preparations for the feast were on hold, and the servants, too, were being chastised.
“We have to protect you,” Soo-Ja’s mother continued. “What do you think would happen with no one to watch out for you? What would our friends and business associates say if they heard we let you go to Seoul on your own? They’d think we’ve gone mad, that we’re incompetent parents.”
Soo-Ja could hear noises coming from the kitchen again, as the servants resumed their cooking. She heard the sound of a pig’s head being chopped off with a butcher knife, its entrails thrown into the pan, sizzling over the fire. The air in the room felt heavy, and Soo-Ja felt bound to her spot.
“I would work very hard,” pleaded Soo-Ja. “I would go from my classes to my room and from my room to my classes. I would not speak to anyone. I would visit Aunt Bong-Cha frequently, so she could verify that I’m all right.”
Soo-Ja’s father looked pensive. “Your mother’s right. Seoul is not a safe city. You hear on the radio every day about clashes between protestors and the police.”
“There have been clashes everywhere!” said Soo-Ja, making her hands into fists.
“But not quite like in Seoul,” her father retorted. “It’s the nation’s capital. The Blue House is there. It attracts all kinds of troublemakers.”
“These demonstrations aren’t going to last forever. They’ll be over soon,” said Soo-Ja, almost rising to her feet. She made herself as still as a stone pagoda, hoping that their words would slide over her like rain in a storm.
“Stop it, Soo-Ja,” said her mother, signaling an end to the discussion.
She took the pipe out of her mouth and waved it in her daughter’s direction. “Are you a good daughter, or are you a fox daughter? This is for the best.”
With that final dismissal, Soo-Ja knew she would not be able to go to Seoul. She’d never be a diplomat. The pain from this realization was so intense, Soo-Ja had to balance on the floor, for fear it would give way from under her. Soo-Ja asked herself why the ground was shaking, until she realized it was she herself who was.
“You’re wrong,” she said. “I will go. I will find a way.”
• • •
At around midnight, Soo-Ja was awakened by the sound of wolves howling, except these wolves were also calling out her name. Soo-Ja rubbed her eyes, still red from crying, and quickly rose from the floor, pushing aside the heavy, quilted blankets. She reached into her dresser and grabbed the first thick garment she could find—a long brown coat with fish-hook buttons that came down to her knees. She put it on and rushed out of her room, toward the source of the noise.
Soo-Ja ran through the many wings of the house, her bare feet rapping against the hard cement floors. Her hurried breath echoed through the large, airy rooms, filled with huge armoires, paintings and scrolls against the walls. Her brothers’ sliding doors opened and shut as she went by, their sleepy eyes adjusting to her as her nightgown flew in the air, like wings, underneath her coat.
When Soo-Ja reached the courtyard—dark but for a small lamp over the murky lotus pond—she saw her father standing there already. He wore his glasses and was in his pajamas, listening to the ruckus of the college boys outside the gate.
“Show us your face! Show us your face just once!” they called out. “Just one glance!”
Soo-Ja didn’t feel flattered. It was embarrassing that her father had to listen to this. She knew the boys were drunk with soju, and just being young. They didn’t know love; they were only imitating its gestures. Too bashful to even speak to her in class, they couldn’t have become courtly lovers overnight.
“Do you know them?” asked her father.
“Not who they are. Only where they came from.”
“I think so.”
“Should we invite them in, then, for some green tea?” asked her father, giving her a sardonic look. Soo-Ja knew there was nothing her father would have liked more than to dump a big, cold bucket of water on the boys. He would know how to work out the theatrics of it—how to open the gate slowly, to play up their expectations; how to toss the water from the right angle, to catch more of them; how to deliver the final words, the punchline.
Before he could be tempted to do that, Soo-Ja asked him to wait. She ran inside, toward her mother’s room. When she returned, a minute or so later, Soo-Ja had her face covered by some kind of mask. She headed straight to the gate and pushed it open, like a general opening the fortress to the enemy.
The young men grew noisy with excitement, and then utterly silent. They saw an apparition in front of them: Soo-Ja wearing a grotesque tal mask, carved out of alder wood and painted in red and blue colors. It was the traditional Hahoe dance mask, worn in old times by actors performing songs. It had exaggerated facial expressions—half human, half spirit—with gigantic eyebrows; tiny slits for eyes; and three red dots, one on the forehead, and one on each cheek. Until a few minutes ago, the mask had hung as decoration on the wall of Soo-Ja’s mother’s room.
“Here I am! You asked for me, and here I am!” Soo-Ja said, from behind the tiny horizontal slits of the mask.
None of the young men knew what to say. As the effects of the rice wine started to wear off, they hesitated—some of them laughing awkwardly—while Soo-Ja stood there, daring them.
“You wanted to see me. Well, here I am!” Soo-Ja felt emboldened by the day’s events. Her parents had hurt her; now she wanted to hurt others.
It was then, as Soo-Ja watched the boys look away, that she noticed the crowd part a little, and someone in the middle moved forward. She recognized him right away as Min, the young man she’d encountered on
the street. She watched as he came closer, smiling his cocky smile, his hair slicked back with Vaseline. She noticed his lip was a bit cut, and his face bruised. She wondered how he’d found out her address. Were these his friends? Min wore the same white jacket and white pants, but either they were a different pair or had already been cleaned, and immaculately so. What kind of man, Soo-Ja wondered, had an armoire full of all-white clothes?
Min came close enough to reach her face. For a moment, she thought he’d try to rip the mask away from her. But instead, in a quick gesture, like a military man, he bowed deeply to her. When his head snapped back, he stared at her again, with great respect. Then he turned to his companions and spoke as if they’d been the ones bothering Soo-Ja.
“Everyone go home. You’ve bothered her enough for tonight.”
The young men hesitated—some hissing—but eventually began to disperse, walking in different directions. They did so slowly, curious to hear the words Soo-Ja and Min were to exchange. Like children—who wondered what adults did after they put them to bed—they imagined some magical alchemy might take place.
“What do you want from me?” asked Soo-Ja, once they were completely alone.
“I already told you. A date.”
Soo-Ja sighed and took her mask off. So this is what it came down to—a lovesick boy, caught in some fever, like the youngest member of a tribe long inured to such malaise. Soo-Ja didn’t know what to say. All she knew was that it was an ungodly late hour, and the moment could not be any less romantic. Soo-Ja stepped back and leaned her head against the gate, her body parallel to his, and she liked that they didn’t have to look directly at each other. She stared at her street through Min’s eyes: the rose of Sharon blooming on the ground, stubbornly bursting forth from between rocks and concrete; the rows of acacia trees resting after a long day of giving shade, branches swaying quietly with the wind.
“I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s possible,” said Soo-Ja, turning away from him. She longed to be back in her room, but as she opened the gate, she hesitated. Standing still, her face under a lamp, Soo-Ja watched
as dragonflies danced around her. “Please go now. I don’t want my father to come out and see you here.”
Min placed his hand against the gate, not letting her open it. “Does he like to beat up your suitors?”
“No, he prefers to torture them with long stories about French missionaries.”
Then, as if on cue, Soo-Ja heard her father’s unmistakable footsteps walking toward the gate. Soo-Ja thought about hiding Min behind one of the trees, but just as she grabbed his hand to lead him, her father came out and saw them. Soo-Ja immediately let go of Min. She felt her father’s disapproving eyes corrode her skin, looking straight at her.
Soo-Ja could sense the anger her father felt, but she knew he would not admonish her—not after all the forbidding he’d already done that day. He’d have to forgive this indiscretion the way lords allow peasants a single day of festivity, so they won’t mind the return to the fields the rest of the year.
“Come back inside,” he said sharply, before he turned around and left.
Soo-Ja stood in the same spot, her heart pumping fast. She wondered if she would ever see Min again. He looked at her, the whites of his eyes shining in the dark. Soo-Ja stared back at him. If she had been the man, she might have kissed him. He stood there, silent, unsure what to do with a river to cross, or a sea dragon to get past. He looked like a boy who’s been brought over to the adults’ table and asked to sing. For all his swagger, he was no Romeo. He was barely Mercutio.
“Good night,” Soo-Ja finally said.
“Good night,” Min repeated, suddenly coming to life, as if she’d broken a spell. He turned around and, for some reason, began to run. Never looking back, Min ran as if someone were chasing him.
• • •
Seollal, the celebration of the Lunar New Year, began early in the morning, and Soo-Ja woke to the lively sound of relatives being greeted by her father in the main house. They had been arriving since six o’clock, aunts
and uncles Soo-Ja rarely saw and didn’t really think of as family except twice a year, when everyone would gather for the two major holidays—Chuseok, the day of giving thanks, was the other.
Soo-Ja thought for a moment of staying in bed, but she did not want to disappoint her dead ancestors—Seollal was the day of honoring them. She pushed aside the heavy quilted blankets, got up from the floor, and staggered to her armoire, where her collection of hanbok dresses waited for her.
Hanbok was the traditional formal dress, made up of a short jacket top, fastened together with a large ribbonlike ot-ga-reom, and a long wraparound skirt. The bottom, with the top held tightly over the breasts, funneled outward until it was as wide as a wedding gown. Unlike an outfit made of cotton or nylon, hanbok did not hang limply—the thick hand-woven silk gave the cloth so much body, it looked as if the fabric floated over her.
After methodically getting dressed—working through the many knots and layers of the hanbok—Soo-Ja decided to stop by the outhouse in the back of the compound. The cubicle next to it had running water, and Soo-Ja thought it best to splash some on her face, still a bit swollen from the previous night’s tears.
Soo-Ja walked swiftly outside, holding up the hem of her long hanbok so it wouldn’t brush against the ground. The day, devoid of sun and color, felt like an only slightly less punitive extension of night, its chill blowing against her bare neck and ankles.
Soo-Ja was in a hurry; she could hear in the distance the start of the prayers, and she knew everyone would already be gathered in the main house. But as she was about to turn the corner, she heard something that made her stop in her tracks. It was her name, spoken in the high-pitched trill of her cousin Ae-Cha.
“She really must think she’s something special,” said Ae-Cha, coming off a bit muted, as if inside the outhouse. Soo-Ja leaned against the wall, keeping her breath still so she wouldn’t be noticed. “She wants everyone’s attention, and that’s why she’s creating so much commotion.”
“So you don’t think she really wants to be a diplomat?” Soo-Ja heard
someone else ask. Her voice sounded more clear, and Soo-Ja figured it must be another one of her cousins.
“Of course not! She’s just making a big show of this to get attention. The sorrow she’s causing Aunt and Uncle! How can she be such an ungrateful daughter?” Ae-Cha continued.
“I think you’re being hard on Soo-Ja. Maybe she really wants to do it.”
Soo-Ja peeked from the corner and recognized her cousin Chun-Hee’s short, boyish haircut, heavy glasses, and royal blue hanbok. Chun-Hee sat on a tree stump next to the outhouse, holding a roll of toilet paper. The door—worn out from the wood constantly expanding and contracting in the rain—was left an inch ajar, and Soo-Ja guessed Ae-Cha was inside. Soo-Ja glanced behind her own shoulder, to see if anyone was coming, but there was no one, and she turned her attention back to the conversation.
“Soo-Ja really wants to travel so she can find and marry a brown man!”
“Are you sure you’re not just jealous, Ae-Cha?” Chun-Hee teased her. “Because you’re not as pretty as she is?”
“I’d be pretty, too, if I never did a day’s work in my life. Who ferments her kimchee? Who distills her soy sauce? Her servants! It must be very tiresome to have to do all that shopping!”
Chun-Hee chuckled for a while. Soo-Ja listened, in disbelief.
“Diplomat? What a lie! Secretary is more like it. She claims she got into the Foreign Service. I’d like to see that letter,” Ae-Cha continued, her voice growing louder and more animated. “Although I don’t blame her for lying. She’s such an old maid—she needs to start looking into other options.”
Soo-Ja could not put up with this any longer. She turned the corner and walked to the outhouse. Chun-Hee saw her first, and immediately her face turned white. She froze to her spot, dropping the toilet paper on the floor. Ae-Cha could see her, too, as the door to the outhouse creaked further open on its own. She squatted uncomfortably, holding up her skirt. Her previous look of confidence disappeared.
“You two are right,” said Soo-Ja, in a sarcastic tone. “I am an old maid.
I’m twenty-two years old, after all. And no matter how hard I try, I cannot get men to look at me.”
Chun-Hee fluttered her hands in disagreement. “No, no, eonni! You must’ve misheard us! We weren’t criticizing you!”
Soo-Ja stared at her evenly. “I appreciate your being concerned about my parents and me. You two being guests here, I won’t say any more. But in the future, if you’re curious about my life, feel free to ask me directly. You won’t have to wonder or guess. It’ll save you time.”
With that, Soo-Ja turned away from them and walked to the main house. When she arrived, she saw that the ceremony had already started. All of the men were gathered by a large wooden altar filled with plates of food—offerings to the dead. Two tall candles were lit and placed at each end of the altar, which stood in front of a large folding screen with five panels. The screen covered the entire wall and was filled with hanja, Chinese ideograms. Below the altar, incense burned from a small table.
Soo-Ja joined her mother and the other women, who sat against the wall, while the men performed the rites. She watched as her father slowly poured a glass of wine, and then placed it on the altar as the first offering. Soo-Ja gazed at her father’s face. She stared at his soft cotton-white hair, and the thick lines on the sides of his cheeks. He had a few days’ stubble on his chin, and bags under his eyes. She realized that because of her, he had not slept well the previous night, either.
“Soo-Ja,” whispered her mother, after waiting for the men’s chants to grow louder and drown out her voice. “It is fortunate that Seollal is today. It’ll remind you of the three Confucian obediences that must rule a woman’s life.”
“Don’t worry, Mother. It has been drilled into me from the day I was born. Obedience to father, obedience to husband, obedience to male child.”
But Confucius was wrong, thought Soo-Ja.
Soo-Ja’s mother watched as the men bowed on the floor, lowering their knees, followed by their hands, and then their heads—all in one continuous, seamless motion. They folded themselves small like human paper dolls, going from adult, to child, to newborn, and then
upright again. Soo-Ja’s mother narrowed her eyes and spoke softly to her daughter.
“Don’t think you can fool me. I know how much you want to go. You’ve always been rebellious like that. Once you put an idea in your head, you go after it like an arrow to its target.”
“If Father really loved me, he’d let me go.”
“You clearly know nothing about love. And I didn’t realize your life here was so terrible. Most girls your age are breaking their backs farming rice paddies. You sit at home and read poetry.”
Soo-Ja looked at her mother. She wanted to tell her, Mother, you speak as if you’ve never known what it’s like to want something. Instead, Soo-Ja bit her lips lest she speak out of place. She watched as the men—all the sons—bowed and chanted to the ancestors, while the women stood back. They were all crammed in one room, and Soo-Ja had to fight the desire to run away.
“I thought parents wanted what was best for their children.”
“That is a myth. We want what is best for us.”
“I know. You want me to get married. But I’d rather go to diplomat school.”
“Those two things are not mutually exclusive,” said Soo-Ja’s mother. She turned to her daughter and looked at her not as her child, but as a fellow woman. “If you find someone weak—a man different from your father—somebody who will let you make decisions; of course, you’ll have to let him think he’s the one in charge. You’re eager to go to Seoul. I’m eager for you to get married. Perhaps there can be a compromise.”
“I thought you were against me going to Seoul.”
“I’m against you going there as a single woman. There is a difference.”
Soo-Ja took in her mother’s words and realized she was not so alone, after all.
Someone weak. Who will let me make decisions.
The answer came to her instantly: she’d have to trick her future husband.