Happy in Korea
“God,” said Paul, saying it like gaaaawd. “Korean guys are a bunch of homos!”
I was about to tell him to pipe down, then decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Your average Korean probably wouldn’t know what he was talking about any more than we knew what they were talking about.
It was true, however, that in the disco we were in (some glassed-in thing that was supposed to look like the inside of an aquarium) guys were dancing together. Not just dancing, each in their own little world, but dancing. Slow dancing together. Arms around each other. Touching.
I tried to look disgusted as I knew Paul expected me to, but to tell you the truth, I was fascinated. See, the thing was, the men didn’t act gay; they weren’t all swishy or limp-wristed or whatever. Most of them were dressed in conservative suits, and during the fast numbers, they danced the same way as any drunk guys would do in the States.
But no way would guys in the States clinch like that, like those two were doing to the strains of “Beseme Mucho.”
The bigger guy had curly hair, whether permed or natural, I don’t know. His face was beet red and he was clutching a smaller guy whose glasses were sitting lopsidedly on his nose. They were both smiling. Around them, the salmon-colored lights beeped on and off, big plastic blades of “seaweed” shimmied.
To say I’m surprised that Korea would be like this is the understatement of the year. I think Paul gets a lot of his attitude toward gays from our father, who has always represented Korea to me. With him, it’s always “I’m like this because I’m Korean.” Or “Korean people are like this.” Or “It’s the Korean way.” Mom isn’t like that. She tells us to eat our kimchi, take our shoes off in the house, and study hard not because being Korean makes her do that, but because she’s Mom.
Back to Dad, he is otherwise a kind man, the kind of rescues stray kittens, even wayward ladybugs. But he has no mercy when it comes to gays. I mean, I think he thinks stray kittens and bugs are these entirely innocent little beings, where gays are purposefully evil. He’s said things that have really shocked me, and I can only think it comes from being Korean because I can’t imagine where else it would be coming from. People in Five Oaks never say things like that, I mean, it doesn’t mean they don’t think it, but they would never say them out loud, that’s for sure.
One example: when he and I were watching the news, a report on AIDS came on, and how it was spreading fast among gay men. Dad snorted at the TV.
“What good is it to have a man who cannot reproduce?” he said. “Useless. An abomination to God and nature. Such freaks would normally be wiped out by Darwinian processes.
Maybe it was the word “freaks.” I couldn’t help sticking my neck out on this one, and perhaps because I was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to figure out where I was coming from.
“Okay, Dad, what about people who are infertile or choose not to have children? Are you saying they should die out, too?”
“They’re not unnatural,” he said. “Men are not meant to be with other men. You see, even now God and nature are punishing the gays–through AIDS. Nature abhors a vacuum.”
I always wondered what that meant, nature abhors a vacuum. Dad loves to read, everything from Newsweek to Smithsonian to Popular Mechanics, so he always has these phrases to toss out, such as “a calibrated cable tonometer is the best link to use when splicing stereoptic cables.”
What I don’t get is that Dad was the one who forced me and Paul to go to church school. Dad himself hardly misses a week of service. So if he’s so into church, what ever happened to all men are created equal? Love your neighbor? Judge not so that you yourself won’t be judged?–all stuff we learned in church school.
I wasn’t done, either. I wanted to ask about lesbians. They haven’t been cut down by God or nature. Some of them even have kids, right? But then I decided not to. I realized that to keep it up was to trip closer and closer to home. I can’t imagine what would happen if my father ever found out.
Paul is fifteen, I’m sixteen, the hyung, the older one. But Paul has always seemed bigger than me, even when we were kids. Now, he won’t go to bed at night without first doing fifty pushups and a hundred situps. In grade school he always got picked first for teams, even though his own teammates referred to him as “the chink.” He was always good at turning things around and laughing at himself, so in the end you thought of him as a cool guy. I always got picked last.
Ironically, Mom and Dad are always telling him to be more like me, the wallflower. I like to sit in the house and read. I also play the violin, and I don’t have a girlfriend.
Paul has had a number of girlfriends–it’s only natural–but Mom and Dad don’t know about them. High school is for studying, they told us, not to waste time on girls, especially since there aren’t any Korean girls at our school (there’s one black girl, one Hispanic girl, two Japanese from Japan–we’re talking the burbs here). They want us to go to either Harvard or MIT so we can meet plenty of suitable girls, get married, and start producing cute Korean grandchildren.
Although he has never said it, sometimes I think Paul is disappointed in me as a big brother, that I have been derelict in my duties. He learned to play catch from a friend’s older brother, not me. I’ve never played touch football, soccer, or even frisbee with him. I didn’t back him up when he wanted a backboard put in the driveway, but instead seconded our parents’ opinion that it would look ugly.
Nowadays in warm weather, after dinner he heads down the street to shoot hoops with his friends, leaving me with my books. After school he has football or hockey or baseball. I have violin lessons. When it comes down to it, we probably spend less time together than divorced families do.
So maybe this Korean trip is good because it forces us to spend time together–and talk.
Our cousin, Mee Jung, comes over and pantomimes drinking something. Paul nods and yells, “I want a Coke!” as if the yelling will make the words easier to understand.
“God” he mutters. The pulse in his temple seems to match the throbbing beat of the music. “I can’t get over these guys! A bunch of lousy fruits! Where are our male role models?”
I am heartened slightly by his use of our male role models,” which means my secret is for sure still safely contained inside me, which is something I worry about constantly. That’s the hard thing about secrets; they keep you from leading a normal life. It’s like playing an endless game of hide and seek. Eventually you get sloppy and think you’re hidden while your entire ass is hanging out somewhere.
But the way he snorts and says “lousy fruits” makes me cringe. It’s like the entire Oakdale High football team has come to Korea and is staring me down. I once overheard a group of them–Paul not among them–discussing “fag bashing.” I think the only reason they haven’t gone out and done it yet is because they haven’t found any.
Woodmere Johnson was the closest they ever got, so far. He lasted two months at our school. He was the kind of guy who liked numbers, Dungeons and Dragons, and didn’t have the sense to resist his mother’s attempts to dress him in plaid pants and cardigans. He wasn’t gay, I don’t think, but he was such a nerd that no girl would get within a hundred feet of him. So of course someone, and then others, started calling him fag pretty quick.
I’m not sure exactly what gratification a hundred seventy-five-pound football player gets kicking around PeeWee Herman, but there must have been something, because they sure put a lot of effort into it.
Mornings, it often looked like it had snowed in the halls, with Woody’s books and papers scattered everywhere. Grafitti (WOODMIRE=fagg) started appearing near the urinals. Woody himself took on that tense anxious posture of a lab rat on whom too many painful experiments had been performed. There were rumors that he’d gotten jumped after school.
I actually tried to help Woody. Once. Of course I didn’t have the guts to do it in public, but one day I encountered him alone in the bathroom.
“The guys don’t mean it,” I said. The WOODMIRE=fagg graffiti sat between us as we stood at the urinals. “They do it to all the new kids.” This wasn’t true, exactly, but I wanted him to feel less alone.
Woodmere just stood there, staring at the graffiti. He wasn’t relieving himself, nor was he making a move to unbutton his brown poly pants. He made a funny noise, like a cow does before it charges. I glanced over at him. I now understand the expression “gathering a head of steam”: I could almost see the perforations circumventing his head as the top blew off.
“Get the hell away from me you goddam faggot!”
All the anger he didn’t dare vent otherwise came out and splattered all over me. That was the first, and so far only, time anyone had ever called me a faggot.
The next time I saw him, his glasses were broken and he had a bandaid on his chin. I wasn’t mean enough to be happy–I’m not the vengeful type. But I wasn’t going to pat him on the back and tell him to just hang on, nope. He was gone from our school soon after.
I think Mee Jung had a crush on Peter and she was probably disappointed that he was her cousin. Everywhere we went I noticed girls checking him out. Part of it was that he always wore shorts, which isn’t too common on the streets of Seoul, even in this sticky humid August weather. There was something else, though. Something almost John Wayne-ish about him that was new and different and utterly lacking in Korean guys. Maybe it was the way he held his head up, looking people straight in the eye. Maybe it was the way his arms seemed to jut from his sides, not just hang there, attached. Maybe it was the way he walked, a bowlegged strut when other guys seemed to shuffle. I don’t know, but the girls seemed to notice it.
We got back to the hotel a little before midnight, with the music from the disco still pounding our heads with little hammers, like they do on headache commercials. Our parents weren’t back. Every night they went out to dinner about six or seven and then stayed out late, like kids whose parents are away. Dad never drinks at home, but here he was coming in every night, bubbling, almost giggly like we’ve never seen him.
Our parents brought us on this trip because they wanted Paul and me to see Korea. Normally, they make these once-a-year trips to visit relatives and collect rent from some properties. Paul has been grumbling the whole time because this trip’s making him miss two weeks of summer football practice.
Paul is on the floor doing his nightly pushups and situps. The floor is immaculately clean–you could eat off it–like our floor at home. People in Five Oaks are really into keeping their houses clean, but they never take off their shoes, like we do.
I get up to partially close the rice paper screen that separates our beds from Mom and Dad’s. After I do that, our space totally shrinks, and it’s like Paul and I are back in our tiny room in the first house, the one we had before the stores started making money and we could move out to the burbs.
Paul and I were maybe seven and eight then. Dad ran a grocery and two laundromats. He used to carry huge bags, like a Santa’s sack, over to the laundry with him to do during slow times. He liked the laundromats because, unlike the grocery, they “manage themselves.” People stole us blind at the other store, but it became one of those things where it was almost not worth it to run after a guy who’d stolen a beer, because when and if you caught him, he probably would have already popped it open and didn’t have any money but a whole lot of mean attitude on him.
Mom ran a floral store right in our town. It was in a tiny strip mall. She was good at growing things like orchids, and she even ran an ikebana class, Japanese flower arranging, something she had learned from one of our neighbors. Once I was helping her at the store and I watched the class furtively, as I stacked the green foam blocks that we used as bases for the bouquets. I remember being fascinated, watching as the flower stems bent and sometimes broke under her strong fingers as she pushed the stalks into place.
“The only way you will achieve the final arrangement is if you trust yourself and make the stems bend to your will. Nothing this perfect looking will occur in nature.” Thsis is what she told her students in her perfectly confident, Confucius-like voice.
Her students, ladies whose grayish/blond hair reminded me of aging yellow labrador dogs, tried to follow her advice by pushing, pulling, yanking, and breaking. Some of the ladies’ arrangements ended up looking half decent: gentle, delicate, symmetrical. I was tempted to try myself; for some reason I thought I’d be good at it. Instead, I kept stacking the foam blocks, dusting the vases. After class, Mom took me out for an ice cream at Carberry’s.
Paul didn’t care about what he called ickybanana or laundromats. He was heavily into comics, a passion I shared with him. Mom and Dad were shocked that we wasted our precocious reading abilities that way, but we didn’t care; all our allowances went straight to the drugstore.
When we weren’t reading comics, we had endless philosophical discussions about them. We both agreed female superheroes were stupid. We often argued about what would happen if Marvel and DC comic book characters got together; who would win in a battle, say, between Spiderman and Superman? (I said Spidey. He was more agile and he was also a nerd–if need be he could synthesize kryptonite in his lab. Paul always thought Superman could crush Spiderman like a bug.)
Both Marvel and DC had busty female superheroes. Paul relished drawing in nipples on the mutant boobs barely strapped itno their skin-tight costumes. I personally enjoyed doing my own sketches of the men, how each of their muscles stood out, almost 3-D, on the page. I especially liked the Silver Surfer, with his mercury-smooth lines. It took some skill to do a precise shading of the pecs and abdominals or even the huge banana-like quad muscle on top of the thigh. When Dad saw me doing these drawings, he bought me some anatomy books that had similar drawing of muscles, except that the guys in the pictures were all in different stages of autopsy.
I suppose Dad thought I might be heading towards medicine, with my close attention to musculature. But no, that’s not where I was going at all. I felt faint at the sight of blood, even my own.
“Paul, do you remember how we used to have those arguments over who would win in a fight, Superman or Spiderman?”
Paul flipped himself on his back in took in long gasping breaths. His fingers played on the top of his abdomen, as if he were strumming a harpsichord.
“Superman, definitely,” he said. “Spiderman was a wimp.”
We heard the key in the lock. Mom and Dad walked into the room, talking in Korean. Dad immediately took off his socks, let them drip to the floor. Mom retreated to the bathroom.
“Did you have fun with your cousins?” Dad asked, remembering to switch to English.
“We went to a noodle house and then to a disco,” I said.
“The disco was full of gays,” Paul added. The pipes hissed slightly from water for mom’s ablutions.
“Gays?” Dad’s eyebrows arched.
“Yeah, guys slow dancing with each other.” Paul made a face, like he was eating tripe with earthworm jelly.
“That’s not gay,” Dad said.
“Then what was it? Guys holding hands?”
Dad laughed. “That’s just the Korean way. When I was in the army, I sometimes had to share a bed with my friends. In the winter, we would huddle together for warmth.”
Paul made another tripe face.
“Oh, ooky,” he said.
“No, no,” Dad said. “We were just close, as men. There are no gays in Korea, that’s why we felt okay being that way.”
There are no gays in Korea. I rolled that phrase around in my head. I didn’t believe it. It was like saying there were no cripples in Korea. No hermaphrodites. No people with tattoos. I’m sure there were some, they were just hidden away.
“Korean people can’t be gay,” Dad said, chuckling, as if the entire notion were absurd. “In Korean families it is the duty of the son to carry on the family name.”
“They sure acted like a bunch of fags,” snorted Paul. In the background, we could hear Mom splashing in the bathroom. The sound of water running down pipes.
“Don’t use that kind of language,” Dad said sternly, even though his nose was red as a clown’s. “That’s the kind of language uneducated people use.”
“Yeah.” Paul slumped down onto one of the cushions on the floor. To me he said, “Well put mah Hyundai up on blocks and call me yella trash!”
There are no gays in Korea. Dad had said it the way he’d say Seoul is the capital of South Korea.
But he was wrong. I knew there were gays in Korea, just as I knew I had a gall bladder, even though I didn’t see it. There were gays everywhere.
“Go to sleep,” Dad ordered. “We have to get up early for our tour of Panmunjom.”
Panmunjom. The Demilitarized zone. Paul and I had read the pamphlet on it; it was the border, the thirty-eighth parallel, the hair-thin line separating us with the commies in North Korea. But the line separated what? We were all Korean, weren’t we?
The pamphlet had contained all these rules about how to act, how to dress for the tour. No jeans, no slobby clothing like tank tops or shorts. Women had to wear dresses or nice pants, men had to wear pants and a respectable shirt. It was because the North Koreans were going to see us through their high-powered telescopes or whatever it was they used to spy with, and we were supposed to present some kind of a front, like everything in the south was all neatness and propriety, no mungy Levis with hole in the knees. What I was wondering: why did they care? We were just tourists.
“Remember–you can’t wear shorts tomorrow,” Dad reminded us, as he started taking off his clothes, letting them drip to the floor, where Mom would pick them up. “But the bus will be air conditioned.”
“Tomorrow, I’m going to defect,” Paul declared sleepily. I crawled into the other bed. “Once I’m across that line, it’ll be hello Kim Il Sung.”
“It’s not Kim Il Sung, he’s dead,” I informed him. “Kim Jong Il, his son, is the Dear Leader.”
“Kim Il Jung, whatever,” he said. “It’s all the same to me.”
And it would be, for Paul. But I was thinking about borders. About the lines between things, lines that once you cross, you can’t return. One of the warnings in the pamphlet was that a few years ago a tourist had been killed trying to cross the line. I can’t remember if he was going from north to south or vice versa, but the border guards shot him. The lesson was, I suppose, be a good tourist and stay on the right side of the line and everything will be okay.
But I understood what Paul was talking about, even if he was joking. Like when you look down from a balcony that’s up so high that the people below look like ants. Up there, everything is dizzying possibility. The idea of a brief minute of freedom, suspended in space, even if it causes a lifetime of death and destruction, seems like it might be worth it at that particular moment.
Tomorrow, Paul would be his same self. If there was some line we weren’t supposed to cross, I knew for a fact he’d try to stealth his foot over it, just to be a wiseguy, just because he always had to push things to the limit, just the way in football when he went for the hit, he went for the kill.
Me, I always played it safe. Mom and Dad could count on me. Good grades, quiet, an expert on keeping everything ugly hidden, letting the orderly rule. I might get near the line, but never too near. I was our resident expert at playing it safe.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s fiction has appeared in FiveChapters.com, The Kenyon Review, TriQuarterly, Witness, and Guernica. She wrote about her trip to North Korea for The New York Times Magazine. Other nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Independent, The Guardian, and she is a regular contributor to The Atlantic, and Slate. Awards include the MacColl-Johnson Artists Grant, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts Fiction Fellowship, a Fulbright Fellowship in creative writing, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Yaddo. She has also been a judge for the National Book Awards and for the Robert F. Kennedy Book and Journalism Awards and is a founder and former Board President of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She teaches creative writing at Brown University.