In this short story from Kim Bong-gon, a Korean student in Kyoto saves his professor from scandal, then finds himself on the verge of creating a new one.
Professor Shibata’s publishing class, with all its good intent, was slightly unrealistic.
“A good writer makes a good editor, and vice versa.”
Her very first statement sounded like a fine opening, but upon giving it more thought, one began by asking “Oh, yeah?” and ended with a “Like hell it is.” She flung her words out from the middle of nowhere, directed at neither writer nor editor. It was naïve to claim that all creative activities become art. Even if you weren’t up to it, you had to play the game. I was getting pretty sick and tired of the sophistry sold by art schools.
Tell us the truth, I wanted to shout. But then, I couldn’t blame her for not being upfront. She had the students’ dreams and artistic flair to think about, which would have compelled her to present an idealistic picture. Professor Shibata struck me as highly talented in planning and editing but not at all cut out for teaching. My expression turned into one of “Oh dear, how will she get by?” Realizing I wasn’t in a position to be worrying for a professor, I rested my chin on my hand and gazed out the window.
The Kyoto University of Art and Design, or Kyozo for short, taught editing as part of its creative writing program. Regardless of whether one believed editing was an art or not, schools were fighting to recruit only the experienced, which had both teachers and students aging before their time. This was a common phenomenon in Japan and Korea. Had I been a student for too long? Deep in thought, I had completely lost track of what was going on. Something I was well used to. I met Professor Shibata’s eyes and chanted my cure-all spell: Only in your country.
Now that the last theory class was over, we were left with the group assignment of making a book. I could see myself being subtly excluded, just like how I treated foreign students back in my undergraduate days. Thinking of the worst possible scenario failed to motivate me. Yeah, you guys go ahead. I’ll settle for a passing grade while repeating “gomen gomen.” Wait, it’s a pass/fail course for me. No sweat.
Sunlight begins to seep in through the window, slanted to follow the angle of the roof. At 4 p.m. in May, the classroom was like a greenhouse. I took off my jacket, hung it on the chair, and rolled up my sleeves. Professor Shibata had drawn her version of Girard’s triangle—the relationship between writer, editor, and reader. I watched her continue writing for a while before downloading, out of habit, a dating app. I had been lonely, so it surprised me that I hadn’t installed it earlier.
I requested a verification code by e-mail and routinely set up my profile with a fake age, weight, and photo—usually of a bear. This time, I chose Ice Bear from We Bare Bears. I jumped over to Seoul with my GPS disabled. The list was a slew of familiar faces. Guys I could put a face to just by looking at their lower half. I jumped to Yeouido, the neighborhood where Hyeong-seop works. His photo came up after a few flicks. He was cuddling his dog while watching TV—a photo I had taken. He had been in a relationship at the time I left Korea, but who knows what might have happened since. His profile said he was just “looking for friends.” I was done here.
I changed my settings to read for my location. Three users within fifty meters! Could they be in this classroom? None of them seemed like it. I tapped on each photo: one was a fashion design major whom I had sometimes bumped into at the cafeteria, and the other two hid behind their fake photos. What a waste of time. I blocked them and deleted my profile. The final step of sterilization was uninstalling the app. Men, who needs them anyway.
At the end of class, I trudged down the stairs, which everybody called the Stairway to the Sky. The setting sun added a more delicate, dreamy effect to the surroundings. This city is too sentimental, and that’s why I like it. At the same time, this thought upset me. I was tempted to drop by Sukiya for dinner but walked past it. My recent purchase of a Tiffany lamp in Gion had left me with only three thousand yen. There were five days left until my next allowance. Deciding to skip dinner, I headed to Café Myu.
Since turning thirty last winter, I had begun to see that “marriage” was not a necessity and had grown more accepting of open relationships. These changes stemmed from within, uninfluenced by others. I had quit trying to meet someone, and the sexual tension I felt, if any, was a delusion. These days, all that made me happy were retro objects reminiscent of the Showa period, buildings, plants, and the occasional gripping discovery of things having different forms yet the same qualities. Literature and men, once my greatest sources of joy, were now reduced in status.
I no longer had love in my heart, and this alone made me undeserving. Not wanting to drown further in my sorrows, I shut the Nagai Kafu book and lit a cigarette. Through the window, covered in post-its, I saw leaves of different kinds dancing in the wind. The sago palm, kentia palm, sal tree, and the list went on. It was my first moment of joy that day. As I stared blankly past the trees, the café manager put on a new song. I recognized it as Miyuki Nakajima’s It’s Only Love. The songs I preferred had a stronger folk feel, but this was great too. It was nice of him to remember I’d named her a favorite. When the song ended, I went out for some fresh air. Then, I texted Hyeong-seop.
—Hey, Japanese guys are so ugly. Seriously, there’s not much to look at here. I feel so sorry for myself!
In Kyoto, I hadn’t met anyone remotely close to the burly man of my dreams. I had no idea it would be this bad. Oh well, it’s only the airport. Yeah, those guys aren’t Japanese. That one’s had better days. Age must have caught up with him.
Sure, Korea had its share of bad apples. There were times when an entire month would pass without a handsome guy in sight. Considering how gifted I was at falling in love, I was surprised that this dry spell could go on for two months. Just as difficult was finding gays. Had my gaydar broken when I crossed the Korea Strait? Was the nonke1 style more popular in Japan? Or, was it because I was in Kyoto, where people’s minds were hard to read? As these questions flooded my mind,
—East or West, home is best.
was his response. He had finally gotten a sense of humor. I chuckled, and replied, “bullshit lol.”
I continued to live with him for more than two years after breaking up. Even now, his house is still my home. I sometimes forget it altogether, even to the point of calling a friend a nutjob for meeting up with his ex. I lost all feelings for Hyeong-seop when I lost my place in his heart. Living with your ex isn’t that big a deal.
Sure, I’ve had uncomfortable moments. Friends who were more reserved would raise their eyebrows about my living situation. Men with whom things seemed to be going well would shake their heads at my confession and distance themselves. A gay friend who should have known better asked if we ever did it after. This made me want to sever ties with him, but I let it pass.
He had found someone new at the start of this year. Two years ago, I felt exhausted after a string of short-lived rebound relationships and decided to quit dating altogether. Unlike me, my ex kept playing the field. Every guy that came after me was younger. Was it his strong sense of responsibility that appealed to younger dudes? In this respect, he deserves to be praised. After all, he was taking care of the rent, and even gave me allowance money.
The one time we got mad at each other was when he thought I wasn’t home and barged in with his new lover. I lashed out, saying it was basic manners to check before bringing a guest. I would have acted the same whoever it was, but he often slept out after that. Before leaving Korea, I told him to feel free to set up his home like a newlywed, just like we had. I was the one living off him, and me going away would help him save on motel rooms. It was also my last chance to sign up for a student exchange program.
—How’s Kuma doing?
It was something I asked every three days or so. He gave a curt “Fine,” and flashed a photo. Behind the sleeping dog, I noticed a large stuffed elephant from the Songkran festival he went to with his gay friends. I’d thought of him as the most boring man in the world, with the most boring life, but even that was changing. There were more and more things I didn’t know about him. Out of spite, I told him to squeeze Kuma’s anal sacs if he had the time to spread his ass. I ended the conversation with “Byeee!” There was no reply.
Perhaps I had failed in both weaning and mourning. I knew I would eventually have to stand on my own. Just a little longer, I thought. After I’m done with my thesis, after graduating, after getting a job . . . I could have put it off forever. Things probably would have stayed the same unless something big came up.
Come next week, it would be June. At long last, the welcome program was over. I had survived the awkward welcome events, the lame campus tour, and orientation. “Have a nice life,” I thought as I said good-bye to my orientation mentor, who was more touchy-feely than necessary. Knowing who to talk to and who not to, I looked forward to being more settled down. While most graduate students take nine credits, I only needed six. Fed up with writing, I had thought about applying under a different major, but didn’t have the nerve to take the risk. Anyhow, the Department of Literary Expression sounded just as flaky as what they call it back at my university: Narrative Writing.
I signed up for Professor Shibata’s publication class and Professor Ehara’s writing class, which involved reading and writing a short story. I was determined to complete one out of the three pieces required for me to graduate next semester. On a yellow post-it, I wrote my goals for the summer.
—Make a book.
—Read and write.
Two simple lines. As clear as day.
Kyozo was in many ways similar to the Korea National University of Arts. They were both on the outskirts of the city, which meant there was no place nearby to hang out or dine. They were inefficient in their use of space, and had the preposterous idea that an exposed concrete finish would create a modern atmosphere while inspiring creativity. The students at Kyozo were dressed pretty much the same, but stood out among the locals. As for the art students, I could easily make out their major on my own. Could art schools get any more alike? I totally belonged here.
The one person who didn’t fit the mold, of Korea or Kyozo, was Professor Ehara Hironobu. He wasn’t the stereotypical art professor: uselessly modernesque or on the borderline of sanity. Born in 1977, he was on the young side, but felt like someone of my father’s generation. Our conversations—he was always in control—were subdued and comforting. He studied French literature at Kyoto University and came to teach under the title of novelist, but had a greater passion for translation. The slight outward squint in his left eye, if you didn’t look closely, gave the impression that he didn’t know where to place his eyes—I found it cute. He was of average height, had droopy eyes, and always had a two-day stubble. He wasn’t exactly my type, but being around him lifted my mood. In one word, he was fuckable.
Professor Ehara’s office always smelt of slightly unripe citrus, and it was where we met for individual lessons, making me more nervous than usual. At the start of each lesson, he would hand me a cup of matcha frothed with a bamboo whisk. I would gulp it down, thinking it was green tea latte, and the bland taste surprised me each time.
Today, I was sitting across from him with Kafu Nagai’s A Strange Tale from East of the River between us. Me with the Korean translation, and him with the original. I rattled off, with my limited vocabulary, what I thought of it. The script I had prepared went like this: When you think about it, Kafu’s views on women are surprisingly outdated. The frame narrative is hard to stand if you don’t bear in mind it was written eighty years ago. His intelligent honesty puts me off. But, the way he revives the Edo period by overlaying it with the present is remarkably beautiful and natural.
“Does reading his work make you want to write?” He regarded me as an overly faithful reader. It was true.
“I haven’t thought about it.”
“His method of composition isn’t applicable today. But a work that weaves together reality with writing, illusion, and the story itself is timeless,” he said. I jotted down his words. I usually feel a greater desire to make analogies than to write. What I really wanted to ask was whether he saw the resemblance between Kafu’s exploration of the red-light district and a gay man’s late-night cruising.
He gave a recap of writers and their works in the age of militarism. Sensing that he had gotten longwinded, he continued with a more balanced perspective of Kafu’s views on women. Reminding me that I could decide what to take and what to throw out, he recommended a few works of prose by the same author. I said I was glad to have read the book, even though that wasn’t how I presented myself.
“Mr. Kim, didn’t you mention liking Roland Barthes and Philip Roth?”
“I may be of some help when it comes to Barthes. How about reading him next time?”
“This time, Mr. Kim, you decide what to read and drop me an e-mail.”
He sprang to his feet and threw a grayish-green cardigan over his arm. I looked at the clock and saw there was still more than an hour left to class. According to the professor, we wouldn’t be doing right by Kafu if we were to remain on campus after reading his work. And with it being such a fine day, he suggested taking a walk toward Demachiyanagi Station. Absolutely, I said.
I’m informed that Demachiyanagi is where the Takano River meets the Kamo River. I’m not sure why that’s important, but I was fond of the Kamo River, which runs through Kyoto from north to south. We cut across the university field and walked slowly toward the river. The campus had an old-fashioned charm. I followed behind, taking photos of some students playing catch.
Professor Ehara called himself a native of Kyoto. His declaration was a mix of subtle pride and scorn. “I’m friendly, but don’t trust me” or “I’m suave, and at the same time, shrewd” was what he seemed to be saying. I stopped every now and then to ask what the term was for something unfamiliar. He replied kindly each time. This is called a happi. That’s the raccoon dog statue. KWSK is KY-go2 for “kuwashiku,” which means “in detail.”
The river, flowing below the bridge, was peaceful and serene. It was a post-Kafu picnic, yet we didn’t say a single word about him. There was nothing strange about that, but not knowing why got me anxious. He asked if I wanted to head down to the bank and walk for a bit longer along the river. I nodded. I got a good look at Professor Ehara’s frame when his off-white shirt clung to his back in the wind. After walking wordlessly for about twenty minutes, we crossed a small bridge leading back to the pavement. We walked past the Kokoro Research Center and found ourselves standing on the east side of the river.
Hyeong-seop had sent the books I asked for by express mail. They came in one big bundle. It would take an entire semester—longer—to read them all. A few weeks ago, I had asked him to buy some books to follow the new syllabus that Professor Ehara had prepared for me. Hyeong-seop mentioned how hard it’d been for him to get a copy of Empire of Signs. I was too excited to give him a proper thank you. I clutched the book, worn and frayed, and went “hehehe” before running out to the veranda. How low the buildings, how high the trees! “Hehehe!”
In the daytime, Café Myu was my reading spot. Besides the good selection of folk songs, I enjoyed watching the male students, each engrossed in something meaningless. The café had the feel of a grimy, run-down manga hangout. The manager liked that I was an aspiring writer and cheered me on. It felt like I had only been showing him my reading side, so I thought about doing some writing. In my notebook, I scribbled a few words and fragmentary sentences. The leaves and patterned curtains cast a shadow on the page. Again, I was distracted. In nearby Osaka, an anti-Korean rally was in full swing. Even the nonchalant Hyeong-seop expressed his concern, but here I was, relaxing on what couldn’t be a more peaceful afternoon. Was the world deceiving me? Oh well, it didn’t matter anyhow.
I didn’t miss Korea at all. Rather, Japan was pure bliss. Back when I was a film major in college, a professor asked, “So what is it that you eventually want to achieve?” My answer was, “I want to perfectly restore Jinhae to how it was in the 1980s.” Childhood and hometown have always been, and are still, my focus. I have quite a collection of writings and photos of my hometown. When I realized how pointless they were, I felt a slight pang of regret. I thought I had guarded my memories well, but here in Kyoto, I was surrounded by my childhood scenes. They came naturally without me having to make-believe or indulge in illusions. In each and every space, I discovered my childhood. All I had to do was pick them up, like a miner during the gold rush.
Around sunset, I left the café. The buses in Kyoto, with a dark green line drawn against a pistachio-colored background, were very similar to the Cheil Transit intercity buses from my childhood. Just as I brought to mind the old bus terminal, I was enveloped by a mist of car exhaust. In it, I caught the scent of a man. I longed to get another whiff on the way home, but it was gone.
From a distance, I saw that the three-story co-op house was lit up except for my room. A folding bed that left my feet dangling at the end, a desk and chair too small and inconvenient, and a tatami mat that should have been replaced ages ago. I took a photo of the room with the book poking its nose under the Tiffany lamp. This had me in a much better mood. Save for the fact that I was a little hungry, all was well.
The events of that morning are vivid in my mind. It was the first Monday of July, and I had left the house with a reminder from the newscaster to pack an umbrella. I felt relieved knowing I’d get to school before the rain. I headed toward the statue of Yoshida Shoin for a quick smoke before class.
Not long after I had lit up, a drop of rain fell on the statue’s cheek. I quickly put out the cigarette and dashed into the building where Professor Ehara’s office was. The school was deserted on Monday mornings. Through the half-open window at the end of the corridor, I saw that the rain was falling harder. The door to Professor Ehara’s office was cluttered with A4-sized prints of photos and typed words. At first, I thought it was an art installation or an assignment where you had to use tape to achieve three-dimensionality.
Stuck on the door was a selfie of Professor Ehara. Dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, he was giving a thumbs-up while wearing a masculine expression. In the bathroom selfie below, he had on a pair of white briefs. Next to it was a low-angle photo of a naked man, hands tied to the headboard and penis erect, with his body covered in lewd comments.
Hironobu, slave pig dying to be tamed! I’m your dirty bitch hole.
The words were scrawled in black paint. The high-res photo that showed every wrinkle was clearly not manipulated. It had been cropped around the nose, but the cleft chin was unmistakable.
In the last photo, he was lying face down and ass up, hands bound, and in a state of drooling ecstasy.
Slave hole Ehara, you feeling good? Are your adultery novels all fake?
Professor Ehara, is your back-pussy daijoubu?
The photos were surrounded by a tangle of typed words.
As I slowly digested the messages, the front of my shirt became soaked with sweat. The photos were all screenshots from a dating app. My heart was thumping louder than ever, and my breathing getting heavier. I had to keep myself from shouting.
I ran out to the main corridor to make sure no one was around. I hurried back to the office, tore down the sheets of paper, and stuffed them in my bag. A sudden craving for a cigarette took over. Outside, I smoked three cigarettes in a row. The humid air worsened my breathing, adding to it a bout of dry heaving. I went into a toilet, took off my drenched undershirt, and dumped it in the trash. After washing up and getting my breath back, I headed for Professor Ehara’s office. It was twenty minutes past nine.
When I knocked, he invited me in. He seemed to have just arrived. As I took my seat, he placed his briefcase below the desk, and removed his Barbour jacket, wet from the rain. As usual, he started whisking a cup of matcha. I stared at his hands and fought to look away from his body. There came a moment when I had to raise my head, and his chin came into sight. I was haunted by an image of him breaking apart at the cleft. I sipped the tea he passed over, but the gross taste made me vomit. I was rambling on about cleaning up the mess when he pressed gently on my shoulders.
“Mr. Kim, you’re breaking out in a cold sweat. Are you all right?”
I insisted I was fine, but he said it’d be better for me to take the day off. He told me where the student health clinic was and gave me his number so I could call just in case. Since the queasiness passed, I chose to go home.
Back in my room, I smoothed out the crumpled pieces of paper, and taped them back where they had been torn. This time, words far more profane caught my attention. A screenshot of Professor Ehara’s profile revealed personal details, from body measurements and sex positions to how he liked to spend the weekend.
While taking it all in, I tried to deduce who the culprit was. But I was clueless. I couldn’t assume it was a student’s doing based on the word “professor.” Anyone pretending to be gay could have accessed the photos. The sole evidence seemed to be that the outer had read his novels, not that this made much of a difference.
They were clever, deliberate statements that didn’t reveal anything significant. The photos lingered in my mind, and an imagined voice belonging to someone of unknown gender and age pierced the obscenities into my ears. There were clear risks involved in meeting up. Caught off guard, we were laughably weak.
For the few days that followed, I searched the school’s online bulletin board and Facebook whenever I could. There was neither exposé nor public testimonial. I was relieved, and at the same time, engulfed in insecurity knowing the assault could be repeated. Professor Ehara seemed his usual self when I met him in class on Wednesday. I couldn’t jump to the conclusion that he didn’t know, but I couldn’t ask either. I had to make do with guessing.
I rang up Hyeong-seop for the first time in a long while.
Hey, my advisor here is gay!
was what I stopped myself from saying. I inquired about Kuma instead.
“It’s getting really hot here. I wrapped an ice pack in a towel for Kuma. I’m on my way to work now,” he said.
Resisting the urge to tell him about Professor Ehara, I asked after his relationship. “Same old, same old,” was his reply. “Can you help me choose some clothes for summer? I’ve no idea what to wear.”
I recall how I’d crammed my luggage with all the summer clothes I could find in the house. I thought about ordering some clothes online and sending him the bill, but decided to shop for him in exchange for the books. When it was about time for work, he hung up.
After class that evening, I headed out to Gion. I bought some T-shirts and pants for him at a few SPA brands, and stretched my budget a little on a shirt from Brooks Brothers. From the bargain counter, I chose a few flimsy T-shirts for myself. I had a hard time deciding if I should get a pair of gray gym shorts as short as my swimming trunks and went with it in the end.
A few days later, we were again seated across from each other with Empire of Signs. The drink was cold oolong tea. I managed to meet his eyes, but I wasn’t completely at ease. The photos kept flashing before my eyes. Putting his hands together, Professor Ehara leaned forward in his seat. I had to stay calm.
“Mr. Kim, let’s hear what you like about Barthes.”
“He’s sensitive and persistent. Among those who show such qualities, Barthes is the only one who writes beautifully. I guess I vibrate on the same frequency as he does.”
“Have you ever thought of him as making much ado about nothing? Or that his logic is flawed?”
“Aren’t those the basic qualities of a writer?”
My comeback made him return a smile.
I loved everything about Barthes—his exaggeration, his logical jumps, his obstinacy. Above all, I was drawn to his beautiful layers of metaphor. A gift box wrapped in layers and layers of chiyogami paper. Most of what Barthes wrote supported his existence as self and as a homosexual. The non-center, the inexplicability of punctum, impersonality and degree zero, codes, and fantasy. These were what Barthes kindly placed in his gift box as intellectual and emotional proof of his queerness. His structural intentions resonated with me so much that I couldn’t have interpreted otherwise.
“Professor, do you like Barthes?”
“Is it possible not to?”
What I would have regarded as simple assent on any other day sounded like it had more between the lines.
“I sense a depth in him.”
Professor Ehara nodded.
“Barthes’s writings come from depth. That depth stems from a thoughtful sincerity.”
I agreed and disagreed.
“Do explain what you mean by sincerity.”
“I’m not referring to superficial expressions. That’s hardly desirable as the language of literature.”
From another perspective, I thought of Barthes as having a cowardly style. I wanted to say, be more extreme, be crude, and tell it as it is. But there was no denying that the essence of pleasure was in being bound to his secrecy as a confidant.
“A better choice would be beating around the bush.”
“Is that how Barthes writes, or how people in Kyoto speak?”
He flashed another smile. Now, Professor Ehara was to me a text written by Barthes. I wanted to rip apart his layers of metaphor.
When he rose with a palm-up gesture, as though admitting defeat, I caught a whiff of citrus and the pleasant scent of a well-groomed man. I felt a welling up, like bile, and my heart thudded. I was fully erect. He turned to me, about to speak. I scooted the chair back, enough to spread open my legs. I placed my hands on my thighs. His gaze dropped to my crotch. My penis beckoned beneath my gray gym shorts. He looked away, licked his lips, and turned back again to my groin. I was in luck.
I was seized by a burning desire to pounce on him. I imagined taking off his pants, burying my face in his sweaty crotch, and licking him all over. If he wanted, I would have agreed to being trampled or drinking his piss. But, I thought it’d be best to stop here. Of this, he was more certain.
“Mr. Kim, you have fully persuaded me.”
His hands were stuffed deep into his pockets. Leaning his head back and stroking his stubble, he added, “That’s it for today.”
1. Straight male.↩
2. Literally “KY language,” which abbreviates Japanese phrases using roman-letter initials.↩
"College Folk" © Kim Bong-gon. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Kyoung-lee Park. All rights reserved.