The following short novel was provided by the author for publication by The Korea Post media. The author, famed Korean lady novelist Madam Han Malsook, is widely known in Korea and around the world for the English and other foreign-language translations of her works that are rated to be among the most prolific in Korea. Among her other translated works are Hymn of the Spirit, The Long Rain, Age of Exploration, Certain Death, An Old Woman and a Cat, The Rainy Season, Black Rose, A White Distance, and Traces. This short novel was translated into English jointly by Hyon O’Brien and Suzanne Crowder Han and was published by Munhak Sasang in 2002. The Long Rain was published by The Korea Post(www.koreapost.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=20476)—Ed.
It was 11:15 in the morning when Chŏng-suk and her family arrived at Dulles Airport. Because security procedures had been tightened following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, they had come early to allow ample time for them to check-in for their Korean Air Line flight that would depart at 2 o’clock that afternoon.
As soon as they got out of the car, Chŏng-suk waved her hands in a gesture of farewell. “Now we can go by ourselves from here. You just go back home. Go!”
But her daughter and son-in-law ignored her command. “No, no, it’s okay,” they said as they walked on ahead, pulling the luggage.
“Come on, if you stay you won’t get to work until it’s time to go home. It’s really all right. Please go.”
“Don’t worry. We need to see you at least get checked in.”
This exchange went back and forth between them as they made their way through the airport departure hall to the KAL check-in counters. The counter for economy class had a queue of people about 200 meters long. As they all looked very exhausted, they must have been waiting a long time for the people in front of them to get checked in.
“Look at the line,” exclaimed Chŏng-suk. “Please go. You’ll get to work after the office closes at this rate.”
Pŏm-u was speechless. He stared wide-eyed at the long line of people.
With a worried look, Yŏng-hǔi said, “It’s going to be a difficult flight for you with so many passengers. You shouldn’t have changed to economy class. Business class has only a few people.”
“Business class doesn’t fly any faster than economy class. Why should I pay twice as much for business class?” replied Chŏng-suk. “When we flew over, there were one hundred forty empty seats in economy class. What happened? Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered Pŏm-u to change our tickets.”
“No, it wasn’t any bother at all,” responded Pŏm-u. “Fortunately, there were two seats available because of cancellations in economy class, so it was easy to make the change. Are you sure you’ll be all right?”
“Of course, they’ll be all right. Mother weighs only fifty kilograms. Look at that huge person getting on this flight,” Ki-jun remarked. They all looked at the tall brown-haired Caucasian woman of about 100 kilograms in the line ahead of them.
Chŏng-suk said, “Don’t worry. I have a habit of falling asleep the minute the plane takes off. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s first class, business class, or economy. We can use the money we saved to visit you again.”
“That’s right. You should come again. As long as we’re here you should come as often as you can,” said Pŏm-u. The words made Chŏng-suk feel better; coming again implied that they wouldn’t be victims of terrorists. Words are like seeds; the ones spoken without particular thought are always prophetic. In fact, Koreans in the olden days used to warn against speaking negative or harsh words, believing that “words are seeds” and would germinate into being.
Chŏng-suk told herself that it didn’t matter whether they traveled in economy or business class or even lying in the aisle—all that mattered was that their return trip would be as safe as their trip over had been. Of course, their ten-day stay had not been completely carefree, given that powdered anthrax of unknown origin had been found in a number of places and the U.S. Air Force was busy bombing Afghanistan everyday.
“We had no problem coming. Do you think we’ll have a safe return?”
“Of course you will. Mom, I’m sure you’ll have a safe trip home,” Yŏng-hǔi said with conviction, her bright face showing sincerity.
Pŏm-u had managed to change their tickets to economy class as she had wished, so Chŏng-suk had enjoyed the sweet thought of going home inexpensively with lots of room to spread out, but now seeing the economy class queue that stretched some 200 meters, she was filled with remorse.
Yŏng-hǔi said to Pŏm-u, “Why don’t you go on? I’ll stay till they leave and then take a taxi and—”
Even before she finished talking, Ki-jun shouted, “That doesn’t make any sense. Both of you should go. In two hours our plane will take off. It’ll take you at least an hour to get back to D.C. Please go. You’ve done a marvelous job taking care of us. Thanks to you, we’ve had a great visit. Thank you very much.” He extended his hands to his son-in-law.
“I wish you would stay longer.” As she spoke, Yŏng-hǔi’s eyes filled with tears.
Chŏng-suk kissed her daughter’s cheek and hugged her while promising to make another visit. “We’ll come again next spring. While you’re here, we want to come at least two or three times.”
“Take care of yourselves. You’ve a done a great job entertaining us. Tell the grandchildren we love them. And give them kisses for us.” Chŏng-suk gently touched her son-in-law’s hands and patted him on the shoulder. Yŏng-hǔi and Pŏm-u left them reluctantly, looking back many times before disappearing out of the departure hall, holding hands.
The terrorist attack happened about a month before the international symposium that Ki-jun had been planning on attending for about a year. Since the symposium was scheduled for October 20, he had planned for them to visit Yŏng-hǔi for about four days before the event and a few days after, making their total stay with their daughter about ten days.
From the start, Chŏng-suk had taken no interest in what her husband was planning. She only wanted to repeat what they had done the previous summer; enjoy delicious food with her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, drive around with them, buy books and toys for the grandchildren, and, even though she wasn’t a Christian, go to church together and sing hymns loudly to please them. She had been looking forward to the trip with great excitement ever since the flight reservations had been made.
The fact that her son-in-law, who made good money working for a western company that had specially recruited him, had sent them round trip business tickets on her birthday made her even more excited.
While watching the TV news on September 11, Chŏng-suk and her husband looked at each other with the same words on their lips: “We can’t go, can we?” Chŏng-suk felt like her balloon had popped as she realized that the trip to Washington that she had been anticipating with such pleasure had been cancelled in an instant. She sighed deeply. “Why does this have to happen now of all times?”
Because all the international telephone lines were busy, it was two days after the 9/11 incident before Chŏng-suk was able to get through to Yŏng-hǔi. Yŏng-hǔi told her that their house was quite far from the Pentagon, so they had suffered no damage.
A week later Ki-jun received an e-mail from the symposium organizer informing him that there was no change in the schedule and urging him to attend. It also said that Washington was as peaceful as ever and not to be concerned.
“They’re having the symposium? With Al Qaeda roaring threats of additional terrorism…And what about Bush’s face on the TV, so bent on retaliation? It’s insane! No symposium is worth holding in these chaotic times…” Chŏng-suk said there was no way he was going to attend.
Ki-jun replied, “I’ll wait to see how the situation develops.”
Chŏng-suk snapped back, “There’s no need to wait. Things will only get worse. Look at the Muslims demonstrating. It’s frightening. It seems like we’re on the verge World War Three.” Already she had given up on going to Washington. But a few days later, she started thinking along different lines: Isn’t it ridiculous that the whole world has come to a standstill because of a few terrorists? And for how long? As more time passed, she began to ask herself if every plane could come under attack.
As October approached, Chŏng-suk said to Ki-jun, “Yŏng-hǔi says that things are back to normal where she is. So shall we go there? After all, isn’t it all up to fate…”
“Stop thinking and just go to sleep.”
Ki-jun remained non-committal. So one morning, as soon as she woke up, Chŏng-suk said to him, “It’s not like this symposium is going to keep us in rice. Let’s cancel the reservation and return the money the organizer sent for our transportation. Being up in the air about our trip everyday is making me crazy.”
Ki-jun just said, “Yeah, yeah,” and nodded, but he was not as firm as Chŏng-suk on the matter.
Chŏng-suk said: “There’s no need to keep thinking about it. Why should we jump into a battlefield? I want to tell Yŏng-hǔi and her family to come back home. Pŏm-u can quit his job there and it won’t threaten their livelihood. It’s definitely better for them to be here than in that war zone. Alas, the world has gone full circle. I can’t believe the United States of America has turned into a battleground. Only a month ago it was the one place in the world farthest from any war zone. And to think, not a single bullet fell on that land during the world wars even though it was directly involved.”
“Well, except for the bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Chŏng-suk corrected herself.
“You’re so knowledgeable,” said Ki-jun. “Good thing you were only a college lecturer. I can’t imagine what you’d be like if you were a full professor.”
“Why are you being so sarcastic? My head is bursting with this indecision.”
“You’re certainly making a lot of fuss.”
“Oh, I know what it is. You want to go, don’t you? You’d risk your life to just give a one-hour presentation on your thesis? Can’t someone other than the author present? There’s no reason you yourself have to present it. It’s not like giving a music or dance performance or running a marathon,” said Chŏng-suk, pressing him to make a decision.
Ki-jun gave himself a few more days to think, and then he e-mailed the organizer that he would not attend the symposium. An email came back promptly with the same content as the previous one: There was no change there and Prof. Yoon’s absence would threaten the success of the symposium.
As Ki-jun seemed swayed by the e-mail, Chŏng-suk tried to influence him. “They have some gall to say such a ridiculous thing. What about our safety? What do they mean, there’s no change? Don’t they see Bush’s face on the TV everyday? It sounds like war will break out any minute.”
But, after a couple of telephone exchanges with her daughter, Chŏng-suk herself started to have second thoughts about going. Yŏng-hǔi said the same thing as the symposium organizer. However, she also said, “Mom, don’t come if you have any reservations.”
“It’s not a matter of us being willing to go or not willing to go. And it’s not a matter of intuition. It’s just so difficult to make a rational decision, I want to go. I do!” Chŏng-suk shouted into the phone.
Four–year-old Chi-ho got on the phone and coaxed her with a childish guile in his voice. “Grandma, I miss you. Let’s go eat fish casserole at the Greek restaurant.”
Chŏng-suk had liked the fish dish so much the previous summer when they visited that she had asked Yŏng-hǔi to find out how to make it. “Okay, let’s go there again,” she replied.
“Burger King too?”
“Of course, let’s eat at the Burger King too. And let’s buy some books at that shop across the street.”
Such talk drove Chŏng-suk nuts with the strong urge to go. They had more phone conversations of a similar nature, but each time Yŏng-hǔi told her not to come if something was holding her back. Yŏng-hǔi had inherited her mother’s “sixth sense” and seemed to understand what Chŏng-suk was feeling.
The symposium organizer sent a note to Ki-jun, pressing him to confirm his attendance as there were already over 80 people on the waiting list who hoped to attend the symposium. Chŏng-suk was amazed at the size of the United States as she wondered how ordinary people could go about their daily lives when one corner of their country had only recently lost almost five thousand citizens to terrorists who even attacked the Pentagon.
Yŏng-hǔi and the organizer’s words were the same each time, and there had been no more acts of terrorism since the 9/11 attacks. Chŏng-suk was relieved that there had been no more terrorist attacks, but she could not help worrying that more terrorist attacks were imminent. Actually, there was a higher probability of a plane crash than a terrorist attack, and in terms of the frequency of accidents, the automobile fatality rate in Korea was higher than any of these. And yet, she had never heard of people hesitating to go out of their house and get into a car because of the possibility of being in a car accident.
As time went by, Chŏng-suk leaned toward going. And then on October 8, at one o’clock in the morning, U.S. B2 bombers began bombing Kabul, Afghanistan. War had begun at last.
On that day, Ki-jun made up his mind and sent an e-mail confirming that he would not attend the symposium. Chŏng-suk, maintaining that with the United States definitely at war, no one would think of hosting a symposium, said: “I know they’ll either postpone it or cancel it. It’s good that it’s due to a situation of their own making and not ours that we’ll not be attending.”
But the organizer immediately replied, informing Ki-jun that the bombing had no bearing on the scheduled symposium and again strongly encouraged him to attend. Ki-jun did not respond. Two or three days later another e-mail came. Again, he did not respond. He paid close attention to the news. The bombing in Afghanistan appeared to be one-sided with only the U.S. attacking. Chŏng-suk prayed for a quick end to the fighting.
Time passed and the last day they could cancel their flight without penalty was fast approaching. Another e-mail arrived from the organizer.
“Are you planning to go?” Chŏng-suk asked Ki-jun.
“I can’t say.”
“That means you’re not going?”
“Um…” was Ki-jun’s answer.
It was the day before the cancellation deadline. In the evening as he was leaving home to attend a meeting, Ki-jun told Chŏng-suk: “Today we have to make a firm decision so that tomorrow we can let the Korean Air Lines office know, and also inform the symposium organizer of our decision. Do give some thought to this matter while I’m out.”
Ki-jun had always made the final decision when it was tough for Chŏng-suk to make up her mind, which was fine with her. But this time it seemed that he was relying on her to make the final decision, and this made her very anxious.
She concentrated on the matter for a while but could not come to a decision. In her frustration, she thought of tossing a coin.
In her bedroom, she placed a cushion on the floor and sat on it in a posture of heightened seriousness as if a god, a ghost or some other supernatural being were there. She decided that if heads came up three times in a row when she tossed the coin that she would go to the States. She tossed a 100-won coin up into the air. Even though she tossed it ten times, heads never came up three times in a row. Finally, she told herself that the next toss would be the last and heads would mean yes to the trip. And heads came up.
“Wow, it says go. And go we shall. And there’ll be no more thinking. We gained nothing with so much agonizing. We’re going. Yes indeed, we’re going to go,”
she told herself loudly.
When Ki-jun returned home, she said, “Let’s go to the States.”
“I flipped a coin and it said go.”
“You mean we should go because of a coin toss?”
“How else can we decide? I gave so much thought to this matter and couldn’t reach a decision.”
After some thought, Ki-jun said, “If you want to go, let’s go. As you said, it’s all up to fate.”
“I can’t believe we have fussed so much over the simple matter of getting on a plane. It’s really absurd.”
“And all this time I thought you were rather enjoying thinking about it…”
“What do you mean by that? You seem to think that I’ve had nothing else to think about.”
“Think about it! In the forty years we’ve lived together, I’ve never seen you give so much thought to something.”
“Shouldn’t I? It’s a matter of life and death. Your symposium is the primary reason for this trip. But then it’s not absolutely necessary for you to go at this time. Another motivation is to visit the grandchildren. That could also wait. It’s not like we have to do it right now. Do we need to gamble our lives for things that can wait? All these considerations confused me quite a bit. The bottom line is that I’m really dying to go but the terrorist attack on planes is what keeps me thinking so much. I feel dizzy. This business is surely pushing my blood pressure up.”
“What’s the point of going if you have to worry about you high blood pressure? Let’s just forget about it. Just forget it. I’m really sick of hearing about your high blood pressure.”
Chŏng-suk was taken aback by Ki-jun’s harsh words. “Are you truly suggesting we give up the trip? I’ll be okay if I take my blood pressure medicine. It always helps. The coin toss said to go, and my intuition tells me it’ll be okay to go.”
“If that’s the case, don’t ever say another word about your high blood pressure.”
“Okay, then let’s go. No more going back and forth, thinking this way and that. There’ll be no more discussion! Just get ready to go!” With these words, Ki-jun disappeared into his study.
On the way to retrieve a suitcase from another room, Chŏng-suk suddenly remembered her college classmate, Sun-ae. Not too long ago she had fallen ill with the so-called possession sickness. In an effort to avoid succumbing to the spirits that had descended on her and becoming a shaman, she had gotten baptized into the Catholic faith. Yet, she still seemed to have the shaman’s gift of divination and her predictions were accurate. Chŏng-suk had heard through the grapevine that her friends had been visiting the charismatic Sun-ae for advice if their business wasn’t going well or if they were sick.
Chŏng-suk called her friend. Sun-ae answered the phone herself.
“Hey, Sun-ae, how have you been?”
“I knew you’d call,” replied Sun-ae. Her voice was different, huskier. Is that what happens when the spirits descend on someone, wondered Chŏng-suk.
“You have something to ask me, don’t you?”
Oh, she must really have received the shaman’s gift, thought Chŏng-suk as she continued the phone conversation. “Don’t jump to any wild conclusions! Friends should call one another every once in a while. I assumed you are doing well but wanted to check. These days the chaos in the States has upset me a lot.”
Sun-ae laughed and said, “Chŏng-suk, you don’t have to beat around the bush. You’re wondering whether you should go to America, aren’t you? If you want to go, just go. You’ll have no problem. You can go to the ends of the earth, even the ends of heaven.”
Chŏng-suk shivered with goose pimples. The woman’s definitely possessed!
“How did you know? It’s amazing! Actually, we need to visit Washington. But in these difficult times… Don’t you think there’ll be another terrorist attack?”
“Terrorists? Even the grandfather of terror can’t touch you.”
“Really? And what about my husband going?”
“Nothing will happen to him either. Go ahead and have a good trip without any worries.”
“Hey, you sound as if you’re reading something you already wrote. And you haven’t even heard my husband’s voice.”
“Your voice doesn’t indicate a widow. Don’t worry. You’re going on a honeymoon in the midst of terrorism…That’s wonderful!”
“Don’t joke. It’s a serious matter. I plan to do what you say, so please tell me straight out.”
“There’s no need to worry. Have a good trip. And on the way home, buy me a ballpoint pen or something on the plane.”
“Sure. I’ll buy you a set.”
“Okay, thanks. I’ll buy you lunch then.”
“You don’t need to buy me lunch for ten ballpoint pens. It’s on me. Thanks to you I’ll be seeing my grandchildren.”
“All right, lunch is on you then. Even when you treat me to an expensive meal, I’m never uncomfortable. Have a nice trip. I have another call coming so I’d better sign off.”
“Okay. Sorry to keep you so long. Goodbye.”
When she got off the phone, Chŏng-suk felt as if cobwebs had been blown away from the corners of her mind. “That was so simple and here I’ve been worrying about it for a month?”
Sun-ae seemed quite confident in her advice, her own intuition was positive and the coin test confirmed it…Chŏng-suk laughed at herself; her strong desire to go drove her to collect such things to convince herself.
“Honey, let’s go,” Chŏng-suk shouted through the hands-free intercom to her husband. She had installed the intercom some time ago because she had gotten tired of having to go through the process of leaving her room, walking to his study, knocking on the door and opening the door to talk to him.
Ki-jun came out of his study and with a look of surprise said, “Didn’t we decide to go already?”
“I know but I’m confirming that we’re going for sure.” She didn’t tell him about her conversation with Sun-ae. He would probably laugh and call her superstitious.
“You gave me a fright. I thought something had happened. I already sent an e-mail saying I’m coming.” He returned to his study.
Their one-month indecisive struggle about going to Washington was finally over as they were definitely going. The charismatic Sun-ae had made the decision quick and easy.
Chŏng-suk made an international call to Yŏng-hǔi. “Guess what! We’re coming!” Yŏng-hǔi was delighted and said they had made the right decision.
“We arrive at Dulles Airport at eleven-thirty in the morning.”
“I got it. I’ll come to the airport to get you. And Pŏm-u too.” She couldn’t contain her joy that they were coming. This time she didn’t say not to come if they had any reservations.
When she got off the phone, Chŏng-suk went to the closet and pulled out a large suitcase and a smaller carry-on bag for the plane. Then she got out of the closet drawer a memo that she used for overseas trips. Over the years, whenever she and Ki-jun traveled they would discover that they had forgotten to pack an item or two, so they had made a habit of noting them down in a list. Now, like a lawyer consulting his status books, they checked their list when they packed their bags.
Her memo had five columns labeled with a large “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” and “E,” and each column contained a list of items and comments. Under “A” were listed: 1) passport; 2) airplane ticket; 3) four kinds of medication related to high blood pressure—high blood pressure pills, tranquilizers, Mevaco, 100-milligram-strength aspirin; 4) eye drops for cataracts; 5) credit cards and local currency. As these were items without which their travel would be impossible, they were the first things to be written on the list. Her blood pressure medicine was listed because it was as vital to her as the plane ticket since she had to take it every day and, as it required a doctor’s prescription, it was impossible to obtain a replacement while traveling. Number 6) a thin notebook containing local contacts and telephone numbers of close family members and friends in Korea was not as necessary as the other items in the column but as it was small enough to fit into a handbag it could be carried at all times.
Column B had only one item: bathroom slippers. Except in Japan, no hotels abroad provided slippers, and after a bath, it felt unpleasant to walk with bare feet on a carpet that had been walked on by shoes. Chŏng-suk could not understand why westerners do not use slippers indoors.
Column C included regular medicines: 1) indigestion medicine; 2) anti-diarrhea medicine; 3) anti-inflammatory drugs; 4) calamine lotion; 5) painkillers; 6) pain killer patches to apply to aching spots; 7) disposable body warmers (To avoid the recurrence of lower back disc problems, regardless of season. Each packet lasts 24 hours so one is needed for each day away. One emergency warmer goes into the handbag for use on the plane.); 8) band aids; 9) salt roasted in bamboo for gargling; 10) Jungrohwan (because it’s good for intestinal troubles and aching gums); and 11) aspirin and Tylenol.
Column D listed clothing: 1) pajamas (Only provided by hotels in Japan. Some hotels provide thick bathrobes but they’re too thick to be comfortable. Ki-jun feels uncomfortable even with a Japanese gown so pajamas are an essential item for him.); 2) underwear (A necessity whether it be summer or winter. Even in summer one can catch a cold, and in that case long underwear could make a good body heat retainer); 3) underpants and socks (how many depends on the length of stay); 4) outer garments (for indoors, for outdoors, and for formal receptions, and cardigans—needed even in the summer because of strong air-conditioning in limousines and buses, for high altitude areas and for wind on the seashore).
Column E contained items that were not vital and could be replaced easily if lost so they are always packed last: 1) toiletries and cosmetics; 2) reading glasses and sunglasses; 3) visor; 4) detergent for laundry (small solid soap; powder may get mistaken a drug) and a pair of plastic gloves (for doing simple laundry at the hotel); 5) umbrella (only one light one, even if two are traveling); and, 6) a pair of sneakers (only Chŏng-suk’s in case of lots walking such as taking a stroll).
Chŏng-suk opened the cover of the big suitcase and started packing items following the list. In case any medicine was missing, she would check and replenish them later on. Because it was autumn, she packed Burberry coats. Being at the same latitude, Washington, D.C. and Seoul have similar climates. It took about an hour for Chŏng-suk to pack from column B to E. Until the day they departed, the clothing would get changed in the packing process. She tried to pack light but sometimes she packed an item “just in case,” then she would take it out, thinking it would burden her, then later on, she would change her mind and put it back in the suitcase. It took her more than two hours to pack even for a one-week trip.
Ki-jun took care of his toiletries and academic papers. He packed the items on column A himself. His blood pressure was normal but he had difficulty sleeping so he packed sleeping pills. He couldn’t sleep on planes so he brought along books to read (Because of her poor eyesight, Chŏng-suk almost always falls asleep and thus does not pack books).
Chŏng-suk closed the suitcase and called Ki-jun on the intercom: “Did you pack your passport?” He replied, “No need to shout. Yes, I got my passport.”
“Did you check the passport expiration date and visa status?”
“Check one more time and put it in your carry-on bag. Do not put it in your suit jacket. You may lose it that way. Also if there is any change in that paper for the kids, write it in.” “That paper” was a sort of will or last instructions for them to open, kept in Ki-jun’s computer.
“A business man might have something to change but a college professor like me who doesn’t buy stocks or lottery tickets has nothing to alter. You worry too much.”
“You know we leave in two days. You have only one day left to look after things.”
“Stop nagging. I’m busy!” Ki-jun shouted back.
“So am I!” Chŏng-suk yelled and lay down on her bed. Her lower back was hurting…It was probably because of the hour she had spent packing as well as all the opening and closing of drawers, and the climbing up and down on a stool to get soap, new rubber gloves, and some thin gloves in the laundry room.
One day before their scheduled departure it was reported that a letter delivered to U.S. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle contained anthrax. The entire United States was tensing up at the possibility of germ warfare as the news media expressed the notion that the 9/11 terrorism might be the beginning of a new 21st century type of war ahead. Chŏng-suk was now facing the ordeal of flying to a country with the potential danger of an anthrax threat as well as terrorist bombs flying around.
Surprisingly, there were some empty seats in the Business Class section of the plane. Chŏng-suk asked a flight attendant about the seating situation in Economy Class: she was told there were about 140 empty seats. As more terrorist attacks were rumored to be an imminent possibility, the number of people traveling had decreased accordingly. She was concerned that if this situation persisted KAL might not be able to survive financially. “If only I had known this, I would have taken Economy Class and could enjoy lying down in several seats…” Chŏng-suk told herself.
“Maybe we should check with the travel agent about our return seats. Economy class is quite empty,” Chŏng-suk said to Ki-jun. He ignored her comments and continued reading. As soon as she ate her meal, Chŏng-suk fell asleep.
Chŏng-suk and Ki-jun arrived at Dulles Airport safely, as Sun-ae had predicted. From the moment she got in his car upon arrival, Chŏng-suk asked her son-in-law to check whether he could change their tickets to economy class. “There were one hundred forty empty seats in economy class. With the arm rests lifted, I can have a row of seats to lie down in and stretch my legs. It will be better than a first class seat.”
On their third day, Chŏng-suk pestered her husband to stay longer. What a fretful time they had had for a month! Hadn’t they been through the ringer trying to decide whether to come to the States? So many times they had reversed the decision, and she had even cajoled the possessed Sun-ae to prophesy for them. Now that they were in the States, it seemed like a pity to stay for only ten days (actually only eight full days considering two days of traveling). She even said that they should get their money’s worth out of the air tickets, but Ki-jun only shook his head.
“Even parents shouldn’t stay longer than ten days. Why do you want to stress them out? We should leave while they still want us to stay.”
“We should give them a chance to do their filial duty. Sometimes I regret that I was not better to my parents. I deeply regret it.”
“You should have done better. You wouldn’t have to be sorry now.”
“I never got the chance; my older sisters took care of my parents so well that I never got a chance to do it myself. My turn never came.”
Why hadn’t she made tea and served it on a tray to her parents as Yŏng-hǔi was doing for them. Why hadn’t she used that sweet tone of voice and offered explanations about the different kinds of tea as Yŏng-hǔi kindly did for them. “This is rose hip tea. It is fragrant and has a nice color. There is no caffeine so it is perfect for you, Mom. If you like it, I’ll buy you a few boxes to take to Korea.”
Ever since she turned sixty-five, from time to time Chŏng-suk was filled with remorse that she hadn’t done more for her parents, whom she dearly loved and respected. Recalling the saying that once a person is mature, they’re ready for the grave, she thought maybe she would die soon. So she rationalized that even if it were burdensome, giving Yŏng-hǔi the opportunity to serve her parents was a good idea. I don’t have many years left…
Ki-jun said, “If you regret that you didn’t do enough for your parents, you should focus on being good to your children! You don’t want to have to regret it in the after-life.”
“What are you saying? Haven’t you noticed me doing dishes even on my vacation?”
“Oh, yes. You mean have I noticed you putting them in the dishwasher?” said Ki-jun.
“You haven’t even done that!” said Chŏng-suk.
“Don’t worry. I’ll do the dishes tomorrow,” said Ki-jun, turning to face the computer.
“Remember you said that!” Chŏng-suk shouted as she got into bed.
“Okay, I’ll remember. Now lower your voice. You don’t want to disturb the kids sleeping in the next room.”
As Chŏng-suk noticed how tight a schedule Yŏng-hǔi had each day, she stopped nagging her husband about prolonging their stay.
The first one out of Yŏng-hǔi’s house in the morning was nine-year-old Julie. After seeing Julie off to school, Yŏng-hǔi tended to Pŏm-u and four-year-old Chi-ho’s breakfast. After Pŏm-u left for work, Yŏng-hǔi took Chi-ho to his school bus. She was busy the entire morning and seemed to have no spare time. Chŏng-suk and Ki-jun added two sets of silverware, two plates, and two cups to the dish-washing burden. They also added to the laundry load. Even if washing were done by a machine, clearly their visit created extra work for Yŏng-hǔi.
Yŏng-hǔi treated her parents to a nice meal for lunch and dinner nearly every day at nice restaurants that she had investigated prior to their visit. They had a taste of Greek, Italian, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, French, Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican cuisine. They found them all delicious, and Chŏng-suk was especially pleased to discover that all were quite reasonably priced.
Chŏng-suk remarked, “If we ate out like this in Seoul with these many people, it would be quite costly. I’m amazed. What they charge here is only one quarter of what we would have to pay in Korea.”
All the family including Chi-ho grinned at her comment.
“The food is of such good quality and the price is cheap. This is a great country,” she continued her praise.
“That’s enough. I wouldn’t talk like that about Korea in front of the grandchildren,” Ki-jun admonished her.
“All right. I’ll say no more.” Even though she wasn’t voicing it, she was fuming about the high prices of food in Korea, and the poor quality of food compared to the prices they were charged.
Yŏng-hǔi drove about twenty minutes from her place to the central area of Washington to show her parents a private art museum that they had never been to. It was overflowing with people. There were many paintings by Paul Klee and Cezanne that they were not acquainted with. The many art books they had in their collection did not contain the paintings they encountered in the museum. Some children and adults were sitting on benches in the middle of one exhibition room making sketches of the paintings.
When they left the art museum, Yŏng-hǔi asked whether they wanted to see the damage the recent terrorist attack had on the Pentagon. Chŏng-suk shook her head, saying what she had seen on the TV was more than enough. She felt lightheaded and breathless just thinking about the many dead soldiers crushed underneath the building. Yŏng-hǔi noted her mother’s expression and changed directions.
Chŏng-suk said, “I know they say, life and death are in the hands of providence. But it is just terrible to think that these military people, who even survived the battlefield, died here inside the Pentagon. How sad and wretched their family must be feeling! It’s so sad to think about also all those who perished in the World Trade Center and the hijacked plane.”
Chŏng-suk thought she should give Julie and Chi-ho some money for next Sunday’s church offering. How much should I give? she asked herself. Maybe 10 percent of what Pŏm-u paid for the airplane tickets? Just like tithing? Maybe that’s too much… America is a rich country so that’s really unnecessary. Korea can use some of my money. On the other hand, we did have a safe trip, so perhaps a thanksgiving offering would be good. What good would the money be if our plane is hijacked and we die…This was what was going through Chŏng-suk’s head when Yŏng-hǔi suddenly asked, “Have you seen the pictures of Afghanistan on TV?”
“Yes, really, those women and children there…O Lord, have mercy on them...” It occurred to Chŏng-suk that she should send some money to help the people in Afghanistan. “Yŏng-hǔi, did you see that documentary on Afghanistan made by a British reporter?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Don’t you think we should thank God more than twelve times a day?”
“I certainly do.”
The state of Virginia seemed to have no underground parking. Everywhere they went they saw huge public above-ground parking lots, and just seeing them made her breathe easier. There were also spacious areas covered with trees and forests that were beginning to change color. It was good to have so much space, but even for a dozen eggs, they had to drive ten minutes. She wondered how people here would be able to function without gasoline.
Chŏng-suk went to a shopping mall with no intention to buy, to just window shop. There were countless shops selling plates and dishes, lamps, clothing, handbags, shoes, toys, home accessories, and furniture from all around the world. It would be impossible to see the entire mall even if one spent a few days there. Ki-jun wasn’t interested in shopping so they dropped him off at a book store and Chŏng-suk and Yŏng-hǔi proceeded to explore the mall.
Yŏng-hǔi borrowed a wheelchair and pushed her mother around. She wanted to make sure Chŏng-suk’s legs wouldn’t ache at the end of the day. Chŏng-suk was more interested in kitchen goods and gadgets than anything else. The store still had the plates and cups and saucers that she had admired the previous year. They also had some new items of even better design. She thought it would be refreshing to drink tea from that cup and saucer. But then her inner voice whispered, “Control yourself. Why do you want more things? Haven’t you been discarding stuff?” Indeed, for the past few months she had been throwing away things to simplify and organize the clutter around her. She threw away nearly all of the pictures that she had taken throughout her life. These pictures wouldn’t stir any emotion in her children, even though they contained precious memories for her.
In that gigantic shopping mall, there were many things of low quality. Chŏng-suk enjoyed just looking at things in the shops without feeling the need to buy.
Yŏng-hǔi said, “Mom, it’s strange that you have such a keen interest in dishes and other kitchen things when you don’t like to cook.”
“How often in a month do you look at the paintings on your walls? You look at your dishes every time you use them, right? It helps my digestion to eat from beautiful dishes. That’s why I have this kind of hobby. Dishes are living art. Maybe you’re wondering why I spend time looking at things that I have no intention of buying. But do you buy every painting you see when you go to art galleries? In the olden days, they said that your eyes would gain weight if you saw nice things.” Recalling the words of her grandmother, Chŏng-suk said, “Your great-grandmother used to say that if a woman loses the desire to see things and the desire to own things, and everything becomes bothersome, she’s nearing the end of her life. Indeed, if one doesn’t have any desire for anything, one might as well be dead.” Chŏng-suk agreed with her grandmother, who loved fancy clothing, food and houses. I could die tomorrow, so why shouldn’t I have what I want?
As Chŏng-suk was leaving the shopping mall she said, “Yŏng-hǔi, I’ll take another look at those cups and saucers and if I still like them, I’ll buy two sets, one for your father and the other for me.”
Chŏng-suk marveled at the fact that Yŏng-hǔi’s neighborhood and the streets of downtown Washington, D.C. looked so peaceful and serene, not like a place that had been attacked on September 11th and where terror was lurking. Wherever she went in the area, whether an art museum, a restaurant, a shopping mall, a bookstore or a supermarket, everyone had a bright face and were eating, working and laughing as though nothing had happened. Whenever she passed someone and their eyes met, they always said “hi” cheerfully regardless of their gender or skin color. Even women wearing a chador said hello. Women in chador in the United States didn’t cover their faces, unlike the custom in Afghanistan. Chŏng-suk reflected on this matter and wondered if these women might be the wives of diplomats or Arab-Americans and if their wearing chador in public could mean that in the less than two months since the tragic events of 9/11, Americans had regained their cool instead of having a hostile attitude toward Arabs, or in any event that these women had full confidence in Allah’s protection.
“Things are so different from what I imagined it would be before I left Seoul. It doesn’t seem any different from last summer…There’s just more flags flying.”
Yŏng-hǔi replied: “We need to go on living as normally as possible and face the music when we have to.” She said that all of her neighbors were trying to live that way.
“That’s a good attitude to take…There’s nothing to gain from dwelling on the uncertainty of tomorrow, is there? It’s better to live every day to the fullest.”
The flags displayed at each house were the only reminder of 9/11. It didn’t matter whether it was a townhouse, an unattached single house, or an apartment building, private or public property, the Stars and Stripes were flying at every one. Some even had two flags. One house had all its upstairs windows papered with flags. Some houses had a low-flying flag at the edge of the lawn close to the sidewalk. Yŏng-hǔi’s house was the only one in the neighborhood that didn’t have a flag at the entrance. The one on the lawn had been placed there by someone else. Everyone in the neighborhood had found one planted in their yard when they awoke one morning.
“Yours is the only house without a flag,” remarked Chŏng-suk.
“I couldn’t bring myself to put one out. But I did participate in a campaign to raise money for the victims.”
“Um. Um. I see…The flag is something…” Chŏng-suk nodded her head in understanding. She had seen many people in the supermarket and shopping mall wearing a U.S. flag badge on their lapels. There was even a kiosk in the shopping mall that was selling flags and badges. Chŏng-suk couldn’t recall having seen that on her previous visit. Many cars sped by with flags flying.
“How long do you think people will keep flying flags on their cars?”
“Wouldn’t you think till the vindictive spirits are appeased enough to move on to the next world?” Yŏng-hǔi answered.
“It won’t happen soon. I heard that the head of the LG branch and a Korean woman professor at Boston University and her family also perished in the attack. I can’t comprehend harming those innocent people who were just going about their daily routine of going to work in the morning.”
She was told that right after the terrorist attacks, with no particular instruction from anyone, people could be seen coming outside to place a U.S. flag on their house.
Chŏng-suk felt the collective fury of Americans toward terrorists as she looked at the large and small American flags on houses and flying on automobiles. On the surface, it appeared that nothing had changed but hidden underneath the façade of daily life she sensed the underlying strength of the U.S. people. But shortly thereafter she heard that those who were against war did not put flags on their homes and cars.
A Korean woman Chŏng-suk happened to meet at a Mexican restaurant told her that she had immigrated to the States twenty years ago. She said that at first they had a hard time, as they were quite poor, but when the local veterans association did its fund-raising, she gave $50, a big sum of money for them at the time, because during the Korean War some American soldiers saved her family’s life by letting them ride to safety on their military truck, and that she later received a thank-you note for her cash donation along with a large, embroidered American flag. She said she put the flag in a dresser drawer and had never even looked at it again, but when she saw the horrific scenes of the Twin Towers collapse and the Pentagon being damaged, she took out the flag and hung it outside her porch. “Whenever I heard the last words of the victims, I couldn’t help but burst into tears…” She had to stop talking to compose herself. The woman seemed so compassionate, Chŏng-suk wondered how it was possible that Korean immigrants could develop such an attachment for the United States and become so patriotic. Even after one month had elapsed, the woman was so overwhelmed with grief for those who had died innocently at the hands of the terrorists that she choked up with emotion just talking about them. Chŏng-suk suddenly realized that this was what the saying “attachment makes a hometown” means. The woman was another type of Korean living in the States, quite different from Yŏng-hǔi.
Two black people and two white people dressed in cargo uniforms pushing carts full of luggage asked with a surprised expression on their faces, “Are you also on KAL?”
“Yes, we’re on KAL,” someone replied in fluent English. Chŏng-suk wondered if there hadn’t been a tone of pride in that reply. She overheard several people saying that there were more passengers than usual waiting to check in because many people, even non-Koreans, thought flying KAL would be safer than some of the other carriers.
“That’s not it,” said someone in Korean. “It’s because there’s no direct flight to Southeast Asia, and since KAL is the only direct flight to Korea and their security check is so thorough, it takes them a long time to process everyone.”
Chŏng-suk thought the person uttering such an explanation must have a twisted mind. Isn’t it true that there are more passengers than usual? “Don’t think that KAL is benefiting from terrorism!” someone said in an angry tone. He exchanged a few words with another person who seemed to be his colleague. Chŏng-suk wondered what the man was getting at: was he proud of KAL for having so many passengers? Was he saying that KAL got its passengers because of the misfortune of others? Or was he upset because his plan of stretching out on the plan was thwarted? Anyway, as Chŏng-suk was bored in a line that wasn’t moving much, the different comments gave her something to think about while waiting.
The line moved slowly. After an hour, they had moved only 20 meters or so. Behind Chŏng-suk there was an elderly Indian couple clad in sari and in front was a Thai couple who had told her already that they were to change planes in Inchon. There were many Caucasians in the line. It was truly an international flight.
“Oooh, my legs hurt. When will it be our turn?” Chŏng-suk looked around to see whether there was any place to sit down. All the seats, and even the air conditioning ducts along the walls, were already occupied by people searching for anywhere to sit down for a moment.
Ki-jun returned from the check-in counter and said: “There are four counters checking in people and still it’s like this. Just these four lines moving within the rope.” Then he added: “No one is waiting at the business class counter. There doesn’t seem to be many passengers for business class.”
Chŏng-suk felt a little sorry toward Ki-jun. The conference organizers had provided him a business class ticket but because of Chŏng-suk they had changed to economy class. “I guessed wrong. I was greedy about lying down in economy class,” Chŏng-suk told herself. While she was lost in thought, Ki-jun had wondered off and was nowhere in sight. He must be feeling so frustrated that he can’t stay in one place, thought Chŏng-suk. “I’m feeling confined myself. Why does he roam around? Doesn’t he know I don’t like it either? Should I leave the suitcases and walk around… What will happen to our luggage if I leave it unattended?” Chŏng-suk grumbled under her breath as she exercised her neck and back by bending down, stretching backward and twisting left and right. Two hours of standing had made her legs and back ache painfully. Others in the line were also doing stretching exercises and running in place. The line behind her had reached a length of about 100 meters, winding around the exterior of the airport building in the shape of a “C.” Chŏng-suk was getting madder by the minute and just as she said to herself “That’s it, I’ll just go off and leave the luggage here!” Ki-jun appeared with a USA Today newspaper.
“Another package containing anthrax was found. It’s scary. By the way, I looked around for a place to have a cup of tea but everywhere is packed. I thought if we take turns, we can go for a cup of tea and rest our legs. People traveling alone must be really tired as they can’t move from their luggage. You go have a look around. And check out the cafeteria. By now there might be a seat,” said Ki-jun.
“You should let me know when you’re going off like that,” complained Chŏng-suk. “I felt trapped.”
Twenty minutes before the departure time, Chŏng-suk finally checked in their suitcases and rushed to the boarding gate with Ki-jun. The airplane took off on time at two o’clock. Economy class was completely full with not a single empty seat. Chŏng-suk’s seat was in the middle of the mid-section of the plane where she had to say “excuse me” both to the left and right side of her seat if she needed to leave her seat. The passenger on her left was a huge white Canadian woman in her forties, about twice as big as Chŏng-suk. There was no way Chŏng-suk could pass between the woman’s legs and the seat in front of her without the woman having to get out of her seat. She told Chŏng-suk that she worked in Singapore, and was on her way back to her job after vacationing in Canada. She had a sweet voice and gracious manners. She said, “I fly KAL and Asiana Airlines frequently,” and Chŏng-suk thanked her for doing so. Ki-jun had already placed a book to read on the table that folded down from the seat-back in front of him. It was going to be complicated to pass him. To the right of Ki-jun’s seat, an unusually tall Caucasian man was sitting with his legs stretched out into the aisle, avoiding the confining space in front of him. Chŏng-suk exclaimed to herself: “Oh no! It’s going to be tough to leave my seat. This is the worst seat ever!” Her plan to stretch out in an empty row of seats was absolutely smashed. She blamed the 140 empty seats she had seen on the way to the United States.
Her meal of bibimbap seemed like it had grains of sand in it. Usually a good sleeper on planes, Chŏng-suk couldn’t doze off. Of course, the seats and the food were not the most important things. Chŏng-suk wished for a safe trip to Seoul. Because she kept seeing over and over the horrific images of the crimson flaming United Airlines plane crashing into the World Trade Center, all she wanted was to get home safely. I wonder what Grandmother would say if she knew what was going through my head? Would she say: “Oh those terrible terrorists! They’ve turned my granddaughter into a sniveling weakling. Wait till I get a hold of them!”? Her grandmother always stood up for her family no matter what. “I’m sorry, Grandma. These days I just don’t know what’s the point of living. This world in which I’m living has so many innocent people in poverty, dying from no heat, starving to death, dying from terrorist acts and wars. Thanks to my ancestors, at least I have plenty to eat and a roof over my head.” “That’ll never do! Never! My grandchild has lost her spirit. I’ll not put up with that!” Chŏng-suk could picture her grandmother standing at the edge of the main hall of their Korean house looking down into the courtyard and shouting in her resounding voice.
The television monitor on the plane continuously showed the current altitude, outside temperature, and distance remaining to the destination in Korean, English and Arabic. Chŏng-suk could tell clearly where they were as the world map with the Pacific Ocean in the center indicated the plane’s location as it moved. “Korea has really grown!” She was overcome with a feeling of pride as she realized a Korean airline had grown so big that it now displays information in three languages.
Chŏng-suk recalled the time in the seventies when she went to Europe on a Lufthansa plane for the first time. She and Ki-jun were told that they could not leave the country at the same time. So Ki-jun left first and Chŏng-suk followed one week later. The reason for this rule was that the Korean government was afraid that a couple might escape to North Korea if they were allowed to leave Korea together. She had protested, asking what difference a week would make as they would be together anyhow, but the passport department was quite strict in their procedures. It was during the time when North and South Korea were at their most hostile. For permission to leave Korea, she had to submit a handwritten background report for the trip. After writing six pages in her most legible hand, her wrist hurt. She was also required to attend a security briefing which used real case stories to warn them about being kidnapped by North Koreans. The authorities could have put on two letter-size pieces of paper for distribution what they took all day to tell them, but those who were traveling abroad had to spend an entire day listening to the security lecture, crowded onto a long hard-surfaced seat without any back support. A passport was issued for single use only, so to travel again one had to go through the whole process again. During those days, going abroad was akin to coming down with malaria and the reoccurring suffering it entails. Now, more than thirty years later, the circumstances had changed so much that these days what people complained about was the food on the plane.
After encountering that acute malaria-like procedure, Chŏng-suk and Ki-jun finally met in Amsterdam, had lunch and went for a walk around the city. They saw through the window of a lovely café two young beautiful people with their arms around each other having a cup of tea. The couple looked so romantic that they were inspired to go in and do the same. They ordered two cups of coffee and copied the young people by putting their arms around each other. However, after their first sip of coffee, their heads started to spin and they had to lean on each other’s shoulder to recover. The coffee was not the weak American coffee they were used to in Seoul.
“Do you remember that time we had coffee in Amsterdam during your first conference in Europe?” Chŏng-suk turned to Ki-jun, who was reading a book. He answered with a smile, “Of course, I do.” His smiling eyes showed lots of wrinkles. And his once creamy skin now had brown spots and his hair had gone half grey. “We’re old,” Chŏng-suk told herself. She realized that they were climbing the ladder of time at a fast pace. She planted a long kiss on Ki-jun’s aged, brown-spotted cheek.
Chŏng-suk bought a set of ballpoint pens from the duty free shopping during the flight to give to the charismatic Sun-ae.
Their plane arrived safely at Inchon airport.
“Wasn’t it good that we went?”
They left the airport, completely forgetting the month they had spent agonizing over whether they should make the trip.