Photo Credit: Ben Kucinski
They all look the same. The Korean girls in uniformed navy skirts and white blouses, their faces oval like the petals of white lotus flowers, have placed themselves between Kenneth and Tony. At night, the schoolgirls let their silky hair fall down, rippling with silver halos, soft like the flow of Imjin River—giggling, all of them, high-pitched and unbroken when the two white men drape their hairy arms over their slender shoulders. They hold up two fingers, their porcelain skin pulled back into tight-lipped smiles.
I stare at the screen of the camera, and for a moment I am distracted by my own clownish reflection. I have allowed my beard to grow out, my cheeks so hollow I doubt my parents will recognize me—if they are looking for me at all. My legs shake under the table; it is a habit I used to hate about my younger brother, a restless, edgy energy that I considered it my duty to subdue, but I find that I have been doing it a lot lately too. I start snapping pictures before they are ready—click, click, click.
In the no-name gogigui here in a quiet seaside town, the Sunday night is bustling. Red meat and raw vegetables are sizzling on the grill. None of the roomful of Koreans pays us much attention; we have long been the only three foreigners in town. I push the button and the shutter flutters. It pisses me off that when the schoolgirl grabs her camera back, she studies the photograph without looking at me and walks away. Such is the way of the world, I know: In Malaysia they thought me the Norwegians’ walking guide; in Burma the Canadians’ hired driver. Somehow, without my knowing it, I have been condemned to a second-rate existence, relegated to an ancestral line of servitude. At least, my backpacker friends joked, you get into museums for free. I pick up the glass of soju and tilt it all the way back. The alcohol burns down my throat, swirls in my stomach, scalding and nauseating and wonderful.
I wave my metal chopsticks at Kenneth and Tony. I command, “Come on, let’s eat.”
Tony brushes back his wafer-thin hair and grumbles, “Great, back to school tomorrow.”
“Well, here’s to a good weekend away,” Kenneth says. He is a large, red-headed Australian with the physique of a former wrestler, thick-necked and plump-faced; yet, beneath that round curve of belly, he stands on a pair of legs so lean that his whole body seems to be built in the shape of an inverted stupa. Kenneth picks up a slice of meat I placed earlier on the grill and drops it into his lion-like mouth. “I can’t believe it took me so long to visit the DMZ. What a shame.”
Tony says, “It was surprisingly informational.”
Kenneth replies, “Seriously, mate. I had no idea. I mean, North Korea, what are you doing digging tunnels underneath Seoul? It’s not the 1950s anymore!”
“Yeah, but they don’t know that,” I tease.
Beside us, a party of young men, hunched over the table, elbow-to-elbow, raised their soju glasses and slurred, gunbae! Behind me, where the schoolgirls sit, I can feel their chairs trembling against mine, fits of giggles so rhythmic and beautiful and dark like the ringing of the Brahma bell.
Kenneth points at us with his chopsticks, using them for extra emphasis. “The guide was great. Gave us a little bit more insight to really see the world—really understand it, know it, you know what I mean?”
Silently, I am chuckling. I find it comical when Kenneth tries to provide some sort of a high-minded commentary, a wanna-be know-it-all, wisecracking in a philosophical way as if he was the only one trying to understand the universe.
Tony murmurs, “I didn’t know the Korean War is still going on. That’s kind of strange, interesting I guess, living in a country that’s still at war.”
“Ha!” Kenneth bursts out laughing, “Okay, America, when was the last time you weren’t at war?”
I open another bottle of soju and pour it into my glass, still stunned by the curious reappearance of the woman I seem to be following all over Asia. I noticed her earlier this morning when row-by-row all of us paying customers rose to file off the tour bus. Some angle of her face caught my eye, that dip in her chin I knew so well. She was alone, plain and unguarded, styling the red Aladdin pants that women travelers wore all over.
As we fanned out from the bus and dragged ourselves behind the guide toward the Reunification Monument, I kept my eyes on her, half-expecting her to turn around and embrace me. Beside me, Tony was grumbling about the Lehman Brothers and how since then, even with his master’s degree, he couldn’t find any jobs in the West. I’d heard all about it. So I sped up. I pushed through a bunch of college kids in jeans and sweatshirts yapping oh-my-God the North Koreans are coming to get us. I passed a family of seven or eight—also Americans, I knew right away—the grandfather sneezing with an explosive loudness, the little boy clinging onto his father’s shorts, his mouth pulled apart, cheeks wet, wailing about this and that, and the father shhhhh-ing him. I wondered if he would grow up to hate his parents too.
Two men, green-eyed and blonde with surfers’ faces, strolled beside the woman. There was a gap between them, a distance of strangers; yet, soon her head tilted up to one of them and she laughed. She touched his arm. I tried to speed up toward them, but Kenneth caught up to me and chuckled, Backpackers, he said, they’re the new Jews. The wanderers of the earth, cheapskates. They don’t know how to participate in the world—filthy, lost souls. I watched the other man lean toward the woman, saying something I could not hear.
In the gogigui, Tony asks me, “Dude, how much of that are you drinking?” His collared shirt is buttoned, as always, his face clean-shaven as if he is perpetually prepared for an interview. He picks up a can of Coca-Cola.
“Screw him, mate!” Kenneth places his fat palm on my back. “Drink up!”
Tony purses his lips, “We have to teach tomorrow.”
Kenneth says, “One thing that I’ve learned in three years is that in Korea, we drink!”
“I still can’t believe you’ve been here for three years. Aren’t you bored?”
“What’s not to love, mate? The booze, the food, the ocean, the women? Look at us! We’re educating the future of Korea!”
“Don’t you want to go back to your real life?”
Kenneth picks up a piece of meat, “Mate, you can go home whenever you want. No one’s stopping you.”
I glare at them, glossy-eyed. Kenneth’s smile is so gleeful and Tony’s so pained that I hardly believe we are altruistic and innocent, neither helpers nor bystanders to the plight of the world. My sense of the universe is growing dimmer—the black-hearted fury, a sort of melancholy rage, is catching up to me again. It has chased me all over the Asian continent with the quickness and ferocity of a dragon. Birthed sometime before it drove me from my own country, the creature—in whatever shape it assumed back then—came during those not-entirely-random strip-searches, those uniformed officers touching my legs up-and-down and the stares of all those people, at once sympathetic yet snickering, I knew, with a ha-got-you-Al-Qaeda laughter.
When Kenneth speaks again, I can see the chewed-up meat in the back of his mouth. “So the guide today told me that he thinks reunification will happen within five or ten years.”
“Bullshit,” I say, picking up a piece of kimchi. I watch as it leaves a trail of red dots all the way back to my plate.
“What, mate, you think it was all just propaganda? I mean, I guess one way or another, everything’s just people trying to inflict their view of the world on you.”
The expatriates look at me. I glance at the young waiter behind the counter. He looks like our guide at the DMZ. Or the driver in Mongolia. But maybe not. I say, “I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Lately, I am trying to remember my life before I started traveling. I know I must have had one—it was not that long ago: the long sunny days studying the human anatomy, sprawled out with my friends on the quad at Columbia and the wonderful nights dancing with my girlfriend under disco lights. But these images have the feel of a slideshow that belongs to someone I do not know. What I do remember, in whatever scatterbrained manner my mind seems to be functioning these days, is the Belgian woman and the Portuguese man in Mongolia approaching me in the hostel and asking in a heavy accent, Do you speak English? I replied with a sudden air of arrogance, I am American. They laughed, and soon invited me on their five-day journey into the steppes. We rode out from the crooked thing of a street in Ulaanbaatar. Through a haze of sand and exhaust, I saw women squatting on the side of the road, eyes dark and vacant, as well as a circle of chocolate-colored men shoving a defenseless Han Chinese, pushing him, enraged, for a thousand untenable reasons. But soon, we left all of that behind. Within minutes, we were driving through a flat, empty earth running for as far as I could see until the land bent away into the horizon.
After a while, our guide, a woman of nineteen or twenty, turned around from the passenger seat, and asked me where I was from. The United States, I said. But she insisted, No, where are you really from? I repeated that I was from the United States. The Belgian woman and the Portuguese man laughed. So the young guide, after she studied me up and down, touched my leg and asked me to marry her.
That night, we sat cross-legged around the fire pit in the ger and sipped on mugs of airag. I watched the Portuguese man place his hand on her knee, stroking it gently. When she told me about the summer she had spent on Long Island, I imagined him reach his hand higher up her thigh, caressing it. She said, laughing, the teenagers at the park asked if Belgium was a city and the oily sunbathers on the beach asked her why she spoke English. She raised her hand into the air, and the strings of bracelets fell down her elbow. Poor Americans, she chuckled, they don’t know any better.
I find myself laughing out loud.
Kenneth looks at me, “What is it, mate? What’s so funny?”
I shake my head. Nothing. Nothing is funny. Nothing and everything. The next afternoon that couple and I stood within the walls of a monastery banished to the forgotten interior of the continent. Except for a couple of temples, its grounds were bare and baked, soft and sandy like dirty flour. Three monks in gray robes nodded at us with the same sweet-strained smiles as the elderly villagers in Tibet, placid in acceptance and patience, as if they were offering us an object lesson in clarity. It is so empty here, the Portuguese man lamented. Our guide stepped toward us and said, This was the largest monastery in all of Mongolia. Ten thousand lamas lived here once, until the Soviet Union burned it to the ground. She lowered her head and walked on. The Belgian woman squinted at the cloud of dust whipped up and stirred, her Aladdin pants fluttering in the hot desert breeze.
I have to get up. I want to pace, but in the gogigui there is no room. I push my chair back, “I’m going to pee.”
Tony suggests, “Just wait until you get home. It’s a hole in the ground.”
“It’s called a squat toilet, man.” I feel the blood rush to my face when I move close to him, exhaling my alcohol breath on him, “We’re in A-s-i-a.” I stand up, stumble over the empty chairs at our table, almost fall down.
I remember a city somewhere in China with a half-paved, half-crumbling four-lane road lined by dull bunker-like concrete buildings. At a renovated hole-in-the-wall, one of the only air-conditioned spots in town, I sat across from a woman whose color could have been black or brown, yellow or white—I wasn’t sure. She laughed when I asked her about her ethnicity, tossing her dark curly hair backward. Maybe I’m purple. Maybe I’m orange. She said, I’m from Ottawa. She squinted at me, judging. You have no idea where it is. You must be an American. I laughed. Touché.
I listened to her stories, from living in the Sacromonte caves in Granada and hitchhiking through Iran in a hijab. Everyone tried to convert me! She cried, flinging her arms. They called me a soulless woman! But how can we—she asked—how can anyone, especially those of us who travel as much as we do, ever believe in one organized religion? Buddha or Confucius; God or Allah. Who the fuck cares? Maybe I believe in magic carpets, blue aliens. For fuck’s sake, maybe I believe in Dorothy and Toto and the Wicked Witch of the West!
Four travelers soon sat down with us and when they asked us where we were from, I shouted, proud and patriotic, America! She laughed, I’m from Canada. Yes, America! I added, aiming my thumb at her, but she’s orange and I’m purple. Laughing, she almost hit her forehead on the table. I swelled with warmth, the alcohol filtering through the veins in my body. For a moment it felt as if we had known each other for a long time and, often that night and in the nights since, I tend to forget the truth: I’d only known her for a couple of hours.
When the four travelers left and it was just the two of us again, I asked the Canadian if she wanted to stay for another drink. What are we going to do? She replied with a curious grin crawling up a side of her face, Share our troubles and sadnesses? She told me that she would see me in another life, and she crossed the street with a wave over her shoulder. In truth, I saw her again the next day, far away down the street. I dodged into the souvenir shop and watched her bouncy gait pass by. In another life I might have married her. We might have stayed, somewhere, and built a life.
When I come out of the bathroom and make my way back to our table, I feel the owner of the gogigui watching me, judging, as if she knows I forgot to wash my hands. I turn. I wink at her. She growls.
I pull the chair out and study the expats. I want to punch out Tony’s dull expression and Kenneth’s wanton eyes. What a strange collection of foreigners here at the end of the peninsula! I ask them, “What did I miss?”
“Nothing, mate. Tony was just muttering about whether they should build a mosque.”
“I’m not muttering,” he nods toward the television box in the corner. “It’s on the news.”
Behind the reporter I see photographs that can be anywhere: Caucasian and Mexican men in hard yellow hats and neon orange vests standing among concrete blocks and metal cranes, either demolishing the buildings or erecting them. But it is not just anywhere. I have walked past it a hundred times; these were the only times in college when I considered calling my parents—but I never did, for the memory of our weekend trip to the city passed too swiftly. I was around ten back then, and it was the only time I had ever seen the towers before they were erased from the world. I had thought nothing of them, really, but I was mesmerized by the view from the observation deck. While my parents spieled on about freedom and opportunity, I was trying to dissect the anatomy of the Lego-like skyscrapers somehow pieced together, and to understand the toy cars and plastic people moving beneath us.
In the images on the television, people in suits in the background are caught in mid-motion, half-blurred, with coffee cups in their hands, all of them unaware of the camera—unaware of Ground Zero, of terrorists and deaths and fighting, of everlasting war. I look away. “I didn’t even know there was a TV here,” I say, taking another gulp of soju.
“Whatever, I’m just telling you guys that there’s a debate going on in the U.S. now. You know, it wouldn’t hurt to keep up with the news once in a while.”
Kenneth shrugs, ignoring Tony. So I say, “There’s always a debate in the U.S., man.”
Kenneth chuckles, “Haven’t you been arguing about the right to bear arms since 1776?”
“Hey,” Tony grunts, glaring at Kenneth, at least we’re not riding kangaroos and shooting boomerangs.”
“Ha! And he has a sense of humor!” Kenneth pats Tony on the back, a little too violently. “But, mate, I think that says more about Americans than Australians! Waitress! Another Coca-Cola for my American friend!”
I glance around the gogigui. It has emptied out since I last noticed it. One of the tables is occupied by businessmen, their cheeks flushed pink, and another by a mother and her teenage son. The empty seats around them are haunting like lotus leaves without Buddhas.
When we finally reached the DMZ this morning, the tour guide told us in a practiced sigh and melancholy that he had never met his uncles or grandfather or cousins. Staring across four kilometers of fenced-off, overgrown scrubland in a theatrical sentimentality that almost made me gag, the guide said he grew up falling asleep to the sound of his grandmother’s wheezing sobs. On that cold early afternoon, we watched North Korean soldiers march along their side of the wilderness, silently pacing, patiently waiting. They look just like us, the guide said. They’re our brothers and our sons and our fathers. He nodded at the meshed fence, Sometimes we leave messages here for our families in the North.
I felt a sudden urge to be alone, here, in the depressing cool mist, so I waited for the tour group to depart. I watched, impatient and disgusted, the American family snapping pictures and, as they walked toward the bus, arguing and wailing about whether to spend their evening at the pool or at the movies. I noticed soon that the woman in the red Aladdin pants was lingering too; I thought that perhaps we were wondering the same thing: what if—just what if—North Korea’s the one that got it right, shutting itself off from the rest of the world like that.
There had been a baseball player at my college, a well-loved pre-law student, who had caused a stir when he vanished from Columbia at the start of the semester. We talked about his disappearance for days, speculated, scoured the news and the Internet, until most people realized that they didn’t actually care; they just liked the drama of it. Maybe, I thought, maybe that was where he disappeared to—North Korea. One place in this world you would never be found.
But before I could think of anything to say to the woman, she flashed me a grin and walked away. The bus was honking.
It is time to go. I finish the last gulp of soju. “Yo, I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”
“Already?” Kenneth asks, “You don’t want to stay a bit longer?”
“No, man. I’m done. Peace,” I push the chair back and stand up.
It is time to go, my father called up the stairs. He was dressed in a black suit and a British top-hat he always insisted on wearing in public. From my bedroom I could hear the engine running in the driveway, and my brother changing the music every few seconds, but my mother was not ready yet—she was still yelling at me about filial piety, about the repercussions of failed familial obligations. I was a junior in high school then, and I was beginning to discover the terrible inadequacies of my immigrant parents. Their thick accents became for me an unforgivable source of humiliation, and their drinking of tea and singing of bhajans were aspects of my life I was learning to hide from my friends. My mother swung her arms in the air, the gold bangles clinking against each other. She yells, Your grandfather is going back to India! It is our duty to drive him to the airport! I tell you you can miss school and you say no! In my bed, I rolled over. She was still shouting, I tell your grandfather you are too busy running around chasing after a soccer ball! Ay, ungrateful child! The horn honked. She lifted up her purple sari and hurried out of my room. She shouted downstairs to my father, Coming! Coming!
A couple of hours later, I was sitting in biology class when my teacher rolled in a television set and turned on the news. None of us whispered a word; none of us moved. Behind the reporter, I watched the second plane from our city vanish soundlessly into the tower.
And then everyone went shit-fuck crazy.
As I head down the quiet and empty street, the cold of the ocean breeze slowly sober me up. The sky is clear and dark, and I find myself suddenly awake, studying the Korean neighborhood as I first saw it in all of its sharpness and clarity: the silhouette of the layered stone tiles on the traditional roofs, blue-gray against the crescent yellow moon, scattered among the bleach-white blocks of modern houses. On both sides of the road, cars, bicycles, and mopeds idle for the night. I walk away from the only streetlamp in town in the direction of my apartment where I have been sleeping on a box-spring on the floor. Maybe it is time to go again.
On nights like this, I often feel nostalgic—for what, exactly, I do not know. And sometimes I like to imagine walking past Tony in a crowded avenue in some American city, years from now, his palm wrapped around a fucking Coca-Cola can, catching his leaden eyes and nodding in an almost imperceptible nod, until a moment later, after both of us have conjured up the same image of big-mouthed Kenneth drinking away in a Korean town, we continue down our separate ways.
I stop in the window of a house. I almost never do this, but tonight I cannot help it. The light is still on. Behind the fluttering curtain someone moves, two people, it seems like—a husband and a wife. I catch glimpses of leather couches with butt-shaped depressions, a coffee table splayed with open magazines and stained cups, and slanting rows of picture frames on the spruce lid of a piano I just know belongs to their great-grandmother. I am half-expecting to see my mother dragging us boys upstairs, grabbing our soccer balls and threatening never to return them. But, it turns out, it is just a slightly older man in pajamas, turning off the light.
At the train station today, at the last stop of the tour, there was an elderly man dressed in black, a British top-hat over whiskers of his white hair. His face was so wrinkled and pale like a crunched-up paper that I could barely make out his ethnicity—though I figured that he must be Korean. I sat down three or four seats away from him, taking glances at him out of the corner of my eyes. He held his face stern, his lips tight, his eyes fixed on the trains on the rail. There was something about him that reminded me of the man I met in Laos. His wife, a mid-aged woman, smiled the sad, tired smile of life slowly seeping away. Look at this, she told me. She pushed back her sleeves and held out her forearm and showed me the hand-woven bracelets she had gathered from each country. She sighed, I should have done this a long time ago. The man placed his hand on hers, and glared at me with the gravity and expectation of a father. Let me tell you something. It is going to be young travelers like you, he said, pointing his trembling hand at me, who are going to have to save the world.
The train station was almost empty, except for the few American troops and the paying tourists. The woman in red Aladdin pants sat down too, across from me. She was exhausted, teary-eyed, her elbows resting on her knees. I tried to think of what to say, how to break the silence and let her know that I knew her sadness too. But I said nothing. There was so much to understand, so little we actually understood. The two of us, I think, were staring at the trains parked there on the tracks, according to the guide, since the 1950s. There was only one destination displayed on the signs: Pyongyang. It occurred to me that I had never seen a station so quiet, so lacking in commotion and hassle and motion. So still. So terribly sterile.
Our group slowly drifted toward the bus—it was time to go again. But the woman across from me did not move either, so I sat for a little bit longer. I glanced at the Korean man in the top hat again, his back straight like a ruler, his posture patient and military-like, his hands folded in his lap. They said one day the train was going to start again. And I could only imagine that perhaps the man was waiting for the train to take him home. Maybe that is all we are doing, each in our own ways, waiting—waiting for the war to end.
Bea Chang received her BA from Haverford College and MFA from the University of Washington, Seattle. Email: changb.10[at]gmail.com