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Articles tagged "South Korea"

Han Kang’s “The Vegetarian”

There is a primal side in each of us, one that disrespects social norms, has needs, makes demands. In her remarkable novel, The Vegetarian, South Korean writer Han Kang explores the irreconcilable conflict between our two selves: one greedy, primitive; the other accountable to family and society.  “Existence precedes essence” is a central tenet of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy—first a human exists and then she creates her essence, the values and meanings that...

Say Ah, Pelican

Boat People Yawn. Yawning always makes me sleepy. There are still two boats out on the water, but I lie down anyway. There’d be trouble if the boss saw me. It would be so great if the polar ice caps melted right now. No one would care about a ticket-taker asleep at an amusement park if there were a flood, would they? Slowly melting, melting . . . so tired. I lie down and close my eyes like a dying rat. I’m a rat. Dying. Four o’clock in the afternoon. I can tell, even...

from “I’ll Be Right There”

Dahn sent me the first letter a year after he joined the military and was selected for the special forces. It was more than five pages long. He didn’t mention anywhere in it that he was in a special forces unit. I unfolded the letter and put it on my desk. From GI Dahn to Civilian Yoon . . . I stared at those words for a long time. It pained me to realize that I had never written him back. I filled a fountain pen with ink, took out a new notebook, and wrote his name at the...

Injeolmi Rice Cakes

Once Maternal Grandmother set off, a basin of injeolmi rice-cakes on her head, to sell in this neighborhood and that, I would pull out scraps of glass, bottle tops, a broken pocketknife, medicine bottles, a handle-less fruit knife, burst beanbags, all hidden on the sunny side of the old wattle fence behind the privy, and play with them. Bored of even that after half a day, I would chase the innocent chickens from the house behind, then end up being scolded by my youngest aunt for scuffling...

The Vegetarian

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the first time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know. As she came up to the table where I was waiting, I couldn’t help but notice her shoes—the plainest black shoes imaginable. And...

Lament

He was fifty-four years old with a sound mind and a body that was rotting away. He died. He wasn’t young enough to have required a specific cause of death, or young enough to cause great sadness. Only a vague sadness existed about death itself. He died at fifty-four years of age, and he had no one who would be sad about his death. There was no one who would remember him. Because he had already died he couldn’t even claim ownership over such people. Death meant losing all things,...

The Suit

My friend F’s call came in the middle of December, when the snow would not stop coming down and Manhattan was all but paralyzed. He said he had to get to New York right away but couldn’t find a hotel room since it was Christmas, and he asked if he could stay with us for a few days. My wife and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment so all we had to offer was a loveseat in the living room, but we told him he could come if he was OK with that. I wouldn’t say that F and I...

Ascending Scales

The first thing I learned in piano class was how to press Do. Since it’s the first note, you use your first finger. When I pressed the key, Do let out a weak doooooh. I pressed it again so I wouldn’t forget the same Do. Caught off guard, Do stammered out another doooooh and watched the trajectory of its name as it floated by. I sat in that spot where a single note had disappeared so neatly, my pinky finger sticking up. The afternoon sunlight trickled faintly through the cracks...

Gamak Valley

During wartime the men die, the women survive. Cockerels have their necks twisted and die, hens sit on eggs. Gamak Valley in Yeonsan, north of Nonsan in South Chungcheong is where sharp hills approach the ridges of Mount Gyeryong. Fifty men died there, once, while two men twisted their hair into topknots and revered Kim Il-Bu’s esoteric “Jeongyeok.” The small room, the door of which is never opened was pitch dark even at midday. Yeonsan’s Gamak Valley. Some forty...

My Wife’s Magic

My wife is sad and seeing my sad wife, I too am sad, then as she answers her mother’s phone call, “Sure, we’re fine,” the wife inside my wife grows sadder still. I want to live in a world that’s perfect like magic. The rabbit that came out of a hat voluntarily goes back into the hat. When I try to go into a mirror, I wonder why the rigid surface stops me? A mother abandons her child, a job abandons a father, a disease abandons a sick person and a magician...

Mud Flats

She lies there with her hugely pregnant body. At dawn a ship leaves, cutting through her stomach. As it emerges from her body, headed for the sea, trailing its umbilical cord, oh, from within her body forcefully the innocent sun is driven out and up. Inside her empty body remain scattered shrouds, nothing but head-towels women forgot. Empty cockle shells that become feed for living creatures become silent, empty midday houses. A flock of speckled seagulls comes flying, they force their way...

Earning My Keep

Mother, I think I'll go pay a visit to Hell. No matter how far away, I'll set off as if leaving for work in the morning then come back as if coming off work in the evening. Don't skip meals, chew your food well before swallowing, be sure to turn off the gas when you step out, and don't worry too much about me. Hell too must be a place where people live, so if I go to Hell to earn my keep at last I'll be able to become a human being....

O. Cuniculi

A rabbit. He turned at the sound of rustling in the bushes and spotted a ball of white fluff. What he’d mistaken for a white dog was staring at him with red eyes. He wouldn’t have known it was a rabbit if not for the eyes. He knelt before it. The eyes held him captive. As he gazed into them, relief at the thought that he was not the only one in this world with eyes red from exhaustion washed over him, and he chafed to think such a being had been stranded in an unlit park for...

from “Daewoo”

Daewoo in Lorraine: Landmarks The blue building was empty, the name of the factory had been changed, and tough shit for the men and women who had been tossed out—"report to the occupational reclassification department," which wouldn't reclassify many people. (I'm writing in March 2004: this reclassification task, which began fifteen months ago, was finished three months ago and still no statistics are available.) Layoffs continue, and if we're talking about...

from Great General Mighty Wing

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Underground Flower

There is an orchid that only blooms underground. Because it never shows itself above ground few are said to have seen it. Only white ants can enter the blooms, drawn by the fragrance rising from the runnels cut by the autumn rain. The orchid withers in sunlight, which the white ants burrow into the ground to escape, their bodies sparkling white, though they work in the dark. Like undeveloped film, this orchid never shows itself; its whole body consists of roots, even its...

Cutting off a Finger

My mother's finger was cut off by a slamming door. Or should I say that she stuck her finger in it to stop the slicing wind. Honey, don't shiver, just feed the hungry wind this bloody piece of meat. At the sight of the flame ignited by the blood, the coyotes outside the door ran away. O my mother pacing and pacing, clutching her pale stiffening finger like a candle. Translation of "Danjee." Copyright Ra Heeduk. By arrangement with the author....

How Far Does the Light

That pomegranate lives the same life, yearns for the same light. Its pointed scarlet blossom is an open mouth, "Ah," gathering every ray of light. This fall, in my red gums, pain burned belatedly, and the soft bones of love that I couldn't accept became sunlight stuck in the distance. Though I have reached the age to stop believing in love I still yearn for light, I call out to somebody, "Ah." Copyright Ra Heeduk. By arrangement with the author. Translation...

Scale and Stairs

If you climbed up the back stairs to the church a piano stood like a sad black animal in a corner of the nave. The child reflected in the black sheen of the piano opened the cover and cautiously began to play. Though her hands were too small to thaw the frozen keyboard, the sound rising into the cold air of the church was incense for a ten-year-old to burn. The back door opened, and when the deacon and his old mother entered she shut the cover and walked down the stairs....

Crying over Light Green

Even as I scoop Korean sushi into my mouth with a trembling hand, the train forces the fields of summer into my eyes. The light-green rice paddies prick my pupils. Why is the field so green? No, the word "green" is hardly adequate. Every shade of green is said to be the same, but to me light green is different— a color containing a wave or a rustle that never bows its head. Look at the pure rice plants. Why is my heart so dark? I swallow a fourth piece of Korean sushi...

The Man Who Sold His Shadow

Here's a question we all ask ourselves at least once when we're young: Where does that starlight come from? It's been there before I was born, and before my grandmother, and her grandmother were born. So just how far is that star from Earth? The curiosity of children is insatiable. They'll grab a flashlight and aim it at the stars and think, This light will get there someday, won't it? When I'm dead, and my grandchildren are gone, and their grandchildren as well....

Hysteria

"I really didn't do anything," a woman sobbed. "I didn't even go near a factory. I've never once been to a strange rally," the woman shouted. "I have no interest in who died from self-immolation or in who jumped from the roof of a building or why," the woman wailed, pulling out her hair. "I didn't do a thing except sit like an animal. Who brought me here? Why am I being locked up? My uterus is a piece of rotten iron. I can't even give birth to a son who...

Memories of Lily-Colored Photographs

The affable young clerk laid out the photographs on the glass case backlit by a small fluorescent bulb. Their reddish tint, a bit like the color of the lilies that grew everywhere in the summer, suggested discoloration. Though taken with color film, the pictures were monochromatic, as if they were black and white photographs processed with red toner. "The film's destroyed. It's been too long since you took these pictures. You didn't store it properly, either. You really...

How the Other Half Lives

After spending seven years in the U.S., I recently moved back to Seoul, the capitalist capital in the southern half of my divided country. When I arrived, both sides were preparing for the fiftieth anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War on July 27, 1953. People in the South barely took notice of the silver-haired U.S. veterans who had returned to marvel at sleek skyscrapers and cell phones in everyone's hands, focusing their attention instead to which politicians were...

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