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From the Translator: Totalitarian Capitalism in a Windowless Room

By Jamie Chang

In the winter of 2007, I ditched my plans to go to medical school and chose Mouthwatering by Kim Aeran as my first translation project. Like all derailing decisions I’ve made in my life that in time proved sound, a woman was behind it.

Her name was Saein. She wanted to be a poet. Before I met her, the Korean section of my personal library consisted of just two names: Wan-suh Park (author of Who Ate Up All the Shinga?) and Lee Yeongdo (a big name in Korean fantasy fiction; my life revolved around Dragon Raja when I was in the ninth grade). Not long after we started going out, Saein took me to a bookstore and pointed out Kim Aeran’s first short story collection, Run, Daddy! She explained to me why the eponymous “Daddy” was running (to have sex), and giggled to herself. At the time, I was an insufferable undergrad who only read “serious” literature, so I didn’t bother to check out the book. It wasn’t until nearly two years after Saein and I broke up that I happened upon Mouthwatering in the new books section of a bookstore and actually read a Kim Aeran story.

Most stories in Mouthwatering, the short-story collection that includes “Ascending Scales,” are about young Koreans, many of them students, inhabiting uninhabitable spaces—gosiwon (a boardinghouse of sorts with small, often windowless rooms intended for people studying for civil service exams), basement apartments that flood every summer, chicken coop dorm rooms, shady love motels, rooftop rooms—and the absurd physical discomfort that shape and characterize the experience of youth there. Even though the stories were often laugh-out-loud funny, I noticed that they simultaneously incited an uneasy, visceral reaction. I felt very tense and anxious even as I translated them at a spacious library in Western Massachusetts. The familiar dread, I realized, was coming from my own familiarity with those spaces. Like so many Koreans who came of age around the turn of the century and thereafter, I had first-hand experience with those uncomfortable rooms. I shared a nine-square-meter dorm room with three other girls (“Crossing the Meridian”), visited my wife in her gosiwon room the size of a pantry (“Prayer”), and spent many nights in unsavory love motels with Saein (“Christmas Specials”). These places were widely accepted as the norm, a rite of passage of sorts that were romanticized as a necessary, dehumanizing part of becoming a “grown up”—a spatial embodiment of gojingamnae, or “after pain comes sweet reward.”

All of us who lived and studied in these places agreed that there was something unethical and unjust about the way we lived and the way we competed with one another. Mouthwatering tackles a rather large problem that contributes to the unhappiness that plagues Korean youth: the peculiarities inspired by the combination of education, capitalism, and totalitarianism. Whether it is outsourcing grading papers (“Mouthwatering”), or standing in line all night to sign up for classes at a test-prep center:

One kid brought a picnic blanket, another napped squatting. Kids left their bags with their friends to go to the bathroom. More than ten hours remained until registration time. Dawn came, and the crowd grew even larger. The line waxed from single file to three to four people across. [. . .] Approximately a thousand people had gathered. [. . .] I heard cries and screams. The girl in front of me broke into sobs, “Don’t push me. Don’t push me. Please . . .” (“Crossing the Meridian.” Mouthwatering, p138).

But at the same time, we espoused “after pain comes sweet reward” as our religion, as South Korea raced headlong toward the extreme end of capitalism. When we complained, the answer that came back was the same answer the protagonist of “Ascending Scales” gets from the landlord when mold grows on her walls: That’s just how it is.

Uncannily, just like the protagonist of “Ascending Scales,” Saein shared a small place with her older sister and their tiny terrier. Their landlady lived one floor above them and often peeked in. The winter I was visiting, she asked how long I was staying and charged extra rent. Saein, too, headed down to the boiler room with a basin and some rags and scooped water out of the boiler room when the pipe froze and burst down there. Saein’s older sister gave up her studies to provide for the family when their unemployed father passed away. Now that Saein had finished college, it was her turn to bear the financial burden as her sister resumed her studies. Each bound by family obligations and with no help from the government, so many young people gave up their savings, time, and youth to support other family members and slowly dig them out of financial predicaments. The stories in Mouthwatering are not about people under extraordinarily unfortunate circumstances, but familiar personal narratives of so many young Koreans who sought to better their circumstances through education in the post-IMF Korea.

Many young Korean writers today write about the disillusionment with the future they were promised—the promise of social justice, the promise that hard work would be rewarded.  As Kim Young-ha said in an interview with BBC, the previous generation of writers who lived through the horrors of the Korean War and the Democracy Movements often dismisses the disappointment of the younger generation as trivial. But I think the true horror is the possibility that the previous generation’s economic and political achievements, based on tremendous sacrifices, are in danger of coming apart in every sense of the expression.

Saein didn’t become a poet after all, but instead chose a career in the Korean test-prep empire to support her sister, who’s been studying for the law exam for the last five years. They still live in the same place with the flooding boiler room. But the tiny terrier is still alive.     

Published Apr 28, 2014   Copyright 2014 Jamie Chang

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