Reading the Signs in Seoul

Fiction
James Dante


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Photo Credit: redslmdr

While making lunch for Jae-Min’s children, I had the portable Samsung TV on top of the kitchen counter. That day Armed Forces Korea Network had devoted most of its coverage to the protests downtown. It was May First, International Labor Day. The unions, now angered by massive lay-offs, had ended their truce with the government, leading to 20,000 workers and students waving pipes and anti-American banners. Definitely the wrong day for Jae-Min to be traveling by herself through the city, but some well-to-do couple downtown wanted a private English lesson for their son in middle school, and, apparently, it had to be on that day. She couldn’t turn the work down, having lost her job at Ripe Apple Language Institute. When I called her cell phone, she had been stuck on a city bus that the protest had halted. In the background I could hear the mob.

“My God, Jake, this is my country.”

“What’s happening?”

“Outside I see many—”

I heard glass break. Jae-Min shouted. When she caught her breath, she told me a rioter had thrown a bottle against her window.

“Never stop talking,” she said. “I must hear your voice.”

We stayed connected until her bus cleared the crowd. When she finally made it to my place, she ran straight to Jong-Su and Go-Eun and embraced both at once. Turning to me she said, “This evening we are all having dinner at Sun-Hee’s home. You should come at six o’clock.”

After they left, I cranked up the television and went to work on the sticky plates and cups piled to the top of the sink. At the Mom-and-Pop grocery near my place, I could usually score a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner or some other American goody that had been commandeered from one of the U.S. military bases. This came in handy whenever I watched the kids. By the spring of ’98, Jong-Su, her son, and Go-Eun, her daughter, had been staying at my place a lot, especially since Jae-Min now had graduate studies at Yonsei University. More important, she had, while her husband was picking up day labor out of town, fled with her children and moved into her sister’s home. Jong-Su was now nine and Go-Eun had just turned eight. By then, they had figured out that my role in their mother’s life was something other than some man from work. Go-Eun looked more like her mother every week. She seemed like a reserved child, sitting quietly for hours at a time on the bedroom floor, recklessly coloring in her book or dismembering body parts off of dolls. The boy, of course, was all energy. I came to regard Jong-Su as more than a seedling from the father, and I hoped he saw me as more than the awkward ingredient in his soup. So there I went, buying Nike sneakers and movie tickets. I had already succeeded in becoming Saturday’s hero. If all goes well, I thought, I might just avoid becoming Monday’s asshole.

Later that afternoon, I received a surprise phone call from my friend Grady McDow. The previous year Grady and I first met at a pizza joint close to the language institute. At that time he worked for a travel guide publisher, a job he considered several steps beneath his talents. He had often invited me along on local shoots or daytrips. Ancient palaces. Water gardens. Outdoor markets where you could buy anything from pottery to a hog’s head. The most intense day had been our excursion to the Demilitarized Zone, that volatile border with North Korea, that line where democracy and Kentucky Fried Chicken ended. Eventually he landed a position as a photojournalist with Asia Chronicles, a monthly news magazine based in Ohio. When Grady called, he had just returned to Seoul to cover the street protests.

“This Asian economic crisis stuff is a hot topic right now,” he said. “All the big media outlets have got their Asia correspondents on it. And since I was the only one on staff with Korea experience, they booked a flight for me.”

“It looks like you’ll never again have to take pictures of the tombs of dead kings.”

“A dead king’s not going to knock you over the head with a goddamn nightstick,” he said, making light of it.

When I updated Grady on my dramatic narrative, including the fire and my life with Jae-Min, his response sounded more jaded than concerned, as if everything happening to me was a logical consequence. Grady, being in the early stage of a white mane, often felt the need to dispense advice and wisdom. He had good points. Sometimes. Grady needed to return to the protest, and he wanted me to meet him at the park downtown where the action was taking place.

“Maybe the next national crisis,” I said.

Somehow I ended up in a taxi moving toward downtown. The driver complained and stopped the cab at the first sight of the armored police vehicles. I continued on foot to where the protest had spilled out from the park and onto the streets. Ringleaders with megaphones fired up the crowd. Workers, once loyal to their pro-labor president, now pushed against a perimeter of black helmets and body shields that guarded the buildings along the main boulevard. Lines of riot police, resembling a thousand Darth Vaders, pushed back with even greater force, knocking people to the ground.

Three guys on a rooftop threw burning sticks down upon the police line while the crowd in the street cheered them on. Bodies moved in choppy currents and settled into areas where windows shattered, building signs fell, and images of President Kim and Uncle Sam burned in effigy. A few calm pockets existed within the storm. Small groups sat in circles, eating out of bowls and drinking from thermoses. They laughed and socialized, appearing indifferent to the spontaneous violence around them.

An unshaven man, with his gut popping out of his T-shirt, walked up to me with a camera and had me pose with his group. A woman handed me a plywood sign with Korean writing. She had me hold it up while the man snapped the picture. As I walked off, they laughed, leading me to suspect the sign had some anti-American message.

In one area, several camera crews with banners, such as NBC and CNN, held their positions. While an officer confronted a photographer, I heard what sounded like a cannon blast. A dense cloud of yellow smoke engulfed a group of protesters that had been throwing glass bottles at the police line. As the smoke cleared, I could see people bent over and on their knees, coughing. My stomach sank, and my palms were wet. I needed to find my way out.

Among the reporters and cameras, I recognized one man’s wild body language. About fifty yards away stood Grady McDow. I shouted his name. There was too much noise. Approaching him, I saw why Grady and a few others had concentrated on one spot. Three or four protesters were wielding pipes and sticks at some officers who had broken off from the police barrier. The men in black started swinging their batons and using their body shields like bulldozers. One man was laid to the ground with a single blow to the forehead. Grady aligned himself for a shot while three officers charged toward him.

A black uniform and face shield stood before me, halting my forward movement. I stepped sideways and saw two officers trying to wrestle Grady’s camera from his hands. That’s when a baton went into Grady’s leg. He dropped to his knees. Within moments they had Grady face down on the asphalt.

The black uniform turned its attention toward a guy throwing rocks at the police line. I sprinted ahead but could no longer see Grady. A van had pulled up to that spot, and the police were pushing some handcuffed protesters into the back. I knew I had gotten too close when I felt two solid arms wrapping around my torso. The tension forced the air from my lungs with one sharp burst. When he loosened his grip, I spun around, striking the protective padding on his chest with my forearm. Two other officers sandwiched me, each grabbing an arm. They dragged me toward the van. One of the cops pulled my arms back and handcuffed me. Then they threw me into the back of the vehicle. Grady sat with his back propped against the corner. His face burned bright red. He didn’t look badly hurt, although he kept twitching one of his knees. He opened his eyes and experienced a few moments of disbelief before saying, “What the fuck?”

Inside the police station, they herded us, Grady limping a bit, into a large open area with several desks and rows of chairs for the prisoners. The place reeked of cigarette smoke and body odor, both circulated by the desk fans. An officer removed our handcuffs and sat us in front of a desk covered with file folders. On the wall was an enclosed gun rack with a dozen or so rifles. At the desk sat a man with gray sideburns and bifocals. His name was Sergeant Pak. The man could obviously speak English but was not eager to prove how well. Grady and I picked up on the tension between the arresting officers and their superior when he saw Grady’s press credentials. This put a grin on Grady’s face lasting at least a minute. Then the senior officer jotted down the information on my resident’s card.

“A teacher. Why the foolishness?” he said, eyes peering over his black frames.

“He didn’t do anything, except be in the wrong place,” Grady said.

“I will write your charges next, Mr. Grady.”

“What charges?”

“Interfering with police procedures. When Officer Chun gives me the report, there can be more charges.”

The thin and jittery Office Chun started speaking to Sergeant Pak. Grady leaned toward me. “Look, it’s a Korean Barney Fife.”

“No talking!” said another officer standing near the desk.

“I’m sure the American Embassy will have a lot to say about this,” I said indignantly.

Sergeant Pak slid his phone toward me and said something to his men. They laughed. Even Grady chuckled a little.

“Don’t bother,” Grady said to me. “Unless you’re importing or exporting something, the American Embassy isn’t too concerned.”

An hour later, two officers escorted our group up a stairwell to the holding cells. They threw our group into a cell with a dozen other militants. Grady and I could barely hear each other over the noise. The air was heavy, like a sauna. One guy squeezed between Grady and me as he pushed his way toward the steel bars.

“Don’t sweat it,” Grady said. “When we get out of here, I’ll call the foreign press corps. They got lawyers that handle this kind of shit.”

An officer opened the door and ordered half of the prisoners out. A guy standing at the toilet pled for another minute. Once they left, Grady and I sat on the bench along the wall.

“They can’t afford bad relations with the foreign press,” Grady said. “The Korean government likes to piss and moan about us, but the truth is they don’t want to lose any more foreign investors. That’s how the country got into this mess in the first place.”

“Don’t you remember? We saw Uncle Sam burning in the streets.”

“Since when do laid-off workers and college radicals start calling the shots?”

Earlier, during my processing, I had given the sergeant Jae-Min’s number. I was expecting her to show up at any moment wearing the same distraught look she had when she came to the emergency room the prior summer. Grady sat quietly for a long while, then suddenly turned his head to me.

“You know, it really isn’t our fault,” he said.

“That we’re in a holding cell?”

“That we’re not married and settled down.”

My silence didn’t deter him from dispensing his wisdom.

“Ever notice what happens when you tell a married man, even a happily married man, that you’re single?”

“Not really,” I said, looking away.

“Sure you have. He gives you that little smirk. That look that says Do a blonde for me. It’s got to sink into a man’s subconscious.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“Every man wants that one last bit of excitement before he settles down to play Ward Cleaver. What you did is a lot better than going to whorehouse, I’ve got to admit. But I’ll bet you didn’t even call her to cancel, did you? Shame on you. Such an inconsiderate male you are.”

“I called her and left a message. Besides, none of this matters in the end. We’re going to get married once we get the legal situation worked out.”

“You’re going to be okay no matter what,” he said, with one of those annoying slaps on the back.

Despite the noise and the oversized incandescent light over our heads, I managed to nod off for a while. Later Grady nudged me awake. An officer stood outside the cell.

“Looks like they’re releasing us,” Grady said.

It was a few minutes past midnight. The officer let Grady and me out of the cell and took us back to the same processing desk. Sergeant Pak was still on duty, his head struggling to stay upright. Jae-Min was sitting in one of the chairs, her arms folded.

“You, of course,” she said, looking at Grady.

I sat next to her. When I touched her shoulder, she recoiled. The man in charge raised his eyeglasses, rubbed his lids, and flipped through a stack of documents.

“Mr. Grady.”

They dropped the charges against Grady but warned him against a repeat performance. The man then dropped Grady’s camera and wallet onto the desk. Grady grabbed his camera and opened it.

“Where’s the film?”

“Confiscated,” he said coldly.

“Ain’t that fucking lovely!”

“My patience is gone, Mr. Grady! You should go.”

Grady sat back down and folded his arms. The officer picked up another stack of documents. It was my turn to get released.

“You too can leave, Mr. Jacob.”

“Thank you. Thank you.”

“I am dismissing charges. I hope you have a good trip home to California in two weeks,” he said with a yellow smile.

“What?”

“Your resident identification is now confiscated. Next week the immigration center here in Seoul will reissue identification valid for ten days.”

Jae-Min slid downward in her chair, holding her stomach.

“Now this isn’t really necessary,” I said with the diplomacy of a mob lawyer. “I admit that I made a big mistake, and I’m very sorry. But if you just let me go, you’ll never have to worry about me again.”

He leaned back in his chair and looked at Jae-Min.

“You can return to Korea in the future if you find another sponsorship. If a possibility. May not be easy with this police report in file.”

He signaled one of his men who then made Jae-Min, Grady, and me get up from the chairs. When I stopped and tried approaching the desk, Grady grabbed the back of my shirt.

“Let me go!”

“We’re done here,” he said. “Don’t make it worse.”

Outside the police station, a long line of parked patrol cars flashed their red and blue lights, which lit up the side of the building and the sidewalk. A humid breeze passed over us. Grady stretched his arms up toward the night sky and took a deep breath.

“The sweet air of freedom!”

“Speak for yourself,” I said.

Jae-Min started walking ahead of Grady and me. I couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say to her. I’m sorry? Everything will be all right? Though it was good she didn’t want to talk at the moment, I still needed some evidence we were still a couple.

Jae-Min had to park several blocks away. When we reached her car, Grady said, “I can grab a cab so you two lovebirds can chat.”

“No,” she said.

In the car she remained silent for at least fifteen minutes until saying, “Is our life together only a game for you?”

Grady stared out the window, pretending not to pay attention.

“And you his friend,” she said to Grady.

Jae-Min said something in Korean, knowing he’d understand.

“Hey, little girl. Where did that language come from?” he said.

She looked at me.

“I called to your home and you were not there. I needed to talk to you, to hear your voice.”

“I know.”

“You don’t know,” she said, wiping an eye with her sleeve.

Earlier that day Jae-Min had found a form letter from Yonsei University that had been misplaced for a few days. It was to notify her that she failed to be awarded a scholarship for which she had applied. Without it she most likely wouldn’t be able to continue her studies.

“Later I had to return my children to my husband’s home. My husband was waiting for them. Then I waited for your call, and it was the police calling to me.”

“Don’t worry. If I can get rehired, I should be back in Korea within a few months.”

Grady interrupted. “I can help out with the money part. Asia Chronicles wants me to do interviews. We’re looking for human interest pieces. You know, laid-off workers, protesters. They’ve got the budget to pay for a translator for me. A hundred bucks American per day. That’s nothing to sneeze at.”

“It’s not a bad idea,” I said.

Jae-Min didn’t respond.

“Go on,” Grady said. “Take the Ugly American’s money.”

“I don’t need!” she snapped.

After we dropped Grady off at the Hyatt Regency, Jae-Min and I continued on to my place. Simultaneously we turned our heads to each other, then looked away. We couldn’t discuss the fact that in two weeks I’d be gone. It seemed unreal. I wasn’t a troublemaker or someone who would gamble our future together, although at the time I appeared to be both of these things. The world had become a wrap-around mirror, showing me all of my unflattering angles. For the most part, the Korean authorities had spared me, but the justice mattering most was Jae-Min’s. I imagined her revising our history until it read as another sad chapter in her life. This was all wrong. For me, the past two years had been the only years worth remembering. That day brought about an event, not a conclusion. I had to make her see this.

I had two Spartan rooms in the basement of an old building that had a traditional medicine shop on the ground floor. A few weeks after moving in, I stopped noticing the pungent that seeped down into my place. During her visits, Jae-Min nested as much as possible. The girly decorations. Jasmine jar in the bathroom. She bought a roll of thick material and draped the windows. In addition to giving us a measure of privacy, the coverings kept us from having to see the iron security bars.

By the time I finished showering, she appeared to have calmed down. I sat next to her on the bed as she watched a late newscast.

“How did the tutoring go with the boy today?” I asked. For a moment, she seemed to have forgotten about it.

“Good,” she said, almost smiling. “He is clever, of course. He has no choice.”

Then she laughed a little.

“The boy asked me, ‘Why do people in English say falling in love? Is it the same as word as falling down the stairs?'”

“That is funny.”

“Funny and true. American people also say, ‘My imagination is running away with me.’ Yes, my imagination and I, together like foolish friends, running far away.”

Jae-Min noticed the bruise on my upper arm.

“They were rough putting me into the van.”

“Good.”

 

The last time I heard from Grady, he was scheduled to take the train down to Ulsan, a city on the southeastern coast. With the help of a local college boy, he planned to do a series of human interest stories. Hyundai Motors, the pillar of Ulsan’s economy, had laid-off twenty percent of its workers. The shock waves had torn throughout every home in the region. By the time Grady was due back in Seoul, I would already be gone. At the Immigration Office I picked up my reissued resident’s identification that would expire in twelve days.

I had already gone to speak with Mr. Chung, my boss at Ripe Apple Language Institute. After the predicted shouting session, his practical side took over. He realized it made more sense to rehire me than to start looking for a new English teacher. Chung felt fairly certain he could secure another work visa for me because of his contacts inside the Immigration Office who were open to his style of persuasion, which meant a letter envelope stuffed with cash. He enjoyed saying, “In Korea human relations are more important than regulations.”

I tried calling Jae-Min a few times but couldn’t get through to her. I walked over to her sister’s place. Sun-Hee, Jae-Min’s younger sister, had her own little bachelorette pad, making her interesting to all the young men in the neighborhood and scandalous to their mothers. Jae-Min was lucky to have such a sibling, who willingly took her and her children in when her husband could no longer control his outbursts. Oddly, I found the door unlocked when I arrived.

“Anyone home? Jae-Min? Sun-Hee?”

I heard a noise coming from inside their bedroom. Surprisingly, the door was locked. I pounded on it and continued until Sun-Hee finally cracked the door open.

“My sister not here,” she said, smiling nervously.

“Where is she? Never mind. I’ll just leave her a note on the dresser.”

Sun-Hee resisted as I pushed against the door.

“You got a man in there?”

“Nobody here!”

“Come on. I want to meet the stud.”

I moved her small body clear of the doorway. She was alone, and the beds were perfectly made.

“Where’s your writing paper? I just want to…”

Before completely focusing my eyes, I sensed something had changed. After a few moments, it struck me. Everything belonging to Jae-Min and the children was gone. I imagined where her clothes, books, sheet music, and photographs would’ve been if the world were right. I grabbed Sun-Hee’s shoulders and spun her around toward me. She tensed and flared her nostrils. I recognized the look on Sun-Hee’s face, the anguish I hadn’t seen for nearly two years. I was about to interrogate her but stopped myself. I already knew enough.

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Though originally from Western New York, James Dante has lived in Northern California for most of his life. After graduating from the University of California at Davis with a degree in international relations, he became a bored government worker and later caught the teaching bug in South Korea. He continues to teach adult learners, and sometimes he learns something himself. “Reading the Signs in Seoul” is an excerpt from his unpublished novel The Tiger’s Wedding. Other excerpts have appeared in Rosebud. Email: JDante[at]aol.com

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