Yeonsu Kim If the Waves Belong to the Sea E ng l i s h
If the Waves Belong to the Sea (파도가 바다의 일이라면) Jaeum and Moeum Publishing corp. / 2012 / 43 p. / ISBN 9788954428224 For further information, please visit: http://library.klti.or.kr/node/772
This sample translation was produced with support from LTI Korea. Please contact the LTI Korea Library for further information. firstname.lastname@example.org
If the Waves Belong to the Sea Written by Kim Yeonsu
Camilla's Camilla because she's Camilla
After Ann died, I took comfort in the faint traces of blue left lingering in the western sky even after the sun had sank below; the scent of jasmine I was sometimes able to detect when old women brushed past me in the mall; the 24th of July, Ann's birthday, which could still be relied upon to come round every year; size 6.5 shoes, which my gaze always landed on among all the shop's other merchandise; the ten digits making up Ann's mobile number, which there was, after all, nothing stopping me from dialling; those kinds of things. Things that remained resolutely unchanged, that could always be found in their proper place, that would endure on this earth long after I myself had left it; it was from such things that I gained some measure of solace. One other was the redwood that stood in the school grounds. I first met Yuichi in front of that redwood. He was standing in front of the information board and reciting Carl Sandburg's 'Fog': “The fog comes / on little cat feet. / It sits looking / over harbor and city / on silent haunches...” Carl Sandburg was particularly fond of fog, and several of his poems dwelt on it; on me, too, its brief lines had made a deep impression. I waited for Yuichi to recite the final line, 'and then moves on'; after a few moments had passed in silence, I inadvertently turned to face him, and our eyes met. “Why don't you finish the poem?” I asked, hoping the awkwardness I felt didn't show in my voice.
“You need to give the fog enough time to 'look over harbor and city', don't you think? This redwood always makes me think of fog. It's pretty difficult for a tree as huge as this to draw water up from the earth right the way to its top branches, so the upper part gets the moisture it needs from fog. The redwood grows by eating fog.” Even with the greatest suction power in the world, would it really be able to draw water over 100 metres up, to the very top branches? It wasn't that the sight of the redwood automatically dispelled such doubts, it was just that I'd always presumed such a big tree would have no problem getting water; I'd never dreamed such massive growth might depend on so insubstantial a thing as fog. I nodded. We looked up towards its crown, tilting our heads back in unison as though the action had been prearranged. And then, just like the poem's final line, moved on. Over the next few days, Yuichi's words kept popping into my head. Saying that you have to give the fog time to look over harbor and city. That the redwood is so tall, it needs to eat fog to grow. And of course, I always heard the words in his voice. That voice with something of the fog's dampness in it, as thick as the curls of bark scattered by the base of the redwood's trunk.
A few days later, I was woken up by a call from Eric. He informed me that he'd put the house up for sale, and was planning to start a new life with the thirty-one year old university student he'd been seeing for the past couple of months. His voice was as sharp and distinct as though he were right next to me, rather than calling all the way from Seattle. And yet, the more I listened, the more distant I felt from what he was saying, from his words flushed full of the intimacy he felt for this woman, of his hope for the days ahead. This relationship of his – with a thirty-one year old, for god's sake, and still a student to boot – was gradually pushing us apart. It hadn't even been two years since Ann, my adoptive mother, died. How quickly a
wife's existence could be blotted out from a man's life! It made me unbearably lonely to think of it. I gave some tart response to this talk of 'moving on', which Eric clearly interpreted as criticism. Becoming defensive, he explained how much he felt he'd aged in the brief time since Ann's death, how lonely he was rattling around in the two-storey flat in Richmond. The last thing I wanted to do was start a contest over who was more lonely, so I just stayed quiet and let him talk. But then he said something that made me sit up straight. Eric told me that sometimes he saw ghosts. His colleagues, I knew, had always thought of him of something as a heathen; that aside, he was a scientist, and I found it hard to reconcile the man who'd spent his entire career researching ocean currents with the one who'd just announced he was being haunted. Ghosts, for god's sake! Well, of course he'd be happier with a young woman in his bed than spending every night alone, waiting for the ghost of his dead wife to materialise. He didn't need to spell that out. And then moves on. People are born, and then they die. Those they leave behind have to carry on with their lives somehow. They might see ghosts, or they might arm themselves against such hauntings by spending the nights with a young woman clasped in their arms. If these were the two options left them, surely the majority of people would plump for the latter? I had no reason to criticise Eric for acting in the way most right-minded people would. But if it had been me, I would have thrown in my lot with the ghosts. “It's your life, what can my opinion possibly matter?” I hadn't meant this to come out as barbed as it sounded; I was just genuinely curious. “It matters because you were the person Ann loved more than anyone else. After you came to us, you were always number one in her eyes – not me. So, I don't know, I just felt like I ought to check with you first.” Can loneliness really make a person weak? I had my doubts. I'd always presumed it
would have the opposite effect. “Well, you've no need to worry. It really doesn't bother me what you do.” “Good. And there's something else – I found a bunch of your old stuff while I was sorting out your room – what do you want me to do with it?” “Just throw it all in the garbage. And then throw the garbage out.” “I can't do that, there's too much of it. I'll mail it to you, then you can decide what to keep and what to throw out.” Eric hung up. Once again I was returned to a state of complete freedom, with no connection to anyone in this world. Just as I had been, twenty one years ago.
This time I was the one to make the call. Eric sounded faintly awkward; perhaps the woman was with him. I found myself wondering what she looked like, this woman he was so desperate to spend the rest of his life with. I'd called because I wanted to ask him a few things, but after he came out with his heavy-sounding spiel about the remarriage issue I hastily interrupted to say I'd call back some other time, then hung up. The phone rang a few minutes later, and this time he sounded completely different. He must have moved to another room. “What did you want to ask?” If you sleep with a young woman, do you get to roll back the years for yourself? That would do for starters, if I'd been brazen enough to actually get the words out. You've hardly gone senile just yet! So how could you forget Ann so quickly? Hadn't Eric wanted to throw those same words in my face, maybe? Well, if he had then it was only because he didn't have the faintest clue about the kind of person I was. “Seeing as you're getting married, I figured you wouldn't want me bringing this stuff up in the future, so I thought I might as well ask now. Why did the two of you give me the name Camilla?”
Eric seemed taken by surprise, and had to umm and ah for a while. “Well, because it suited you?” he offered eventually. He sounded very non-committal. “You know, suited your appearance.” “Because I'm pretty as a flower?” “Right, pretty as a camellia.” I'd lost count of the number of times in my life those words had been trotted out. And there'd always been something that hadn't rang true. “Did the two of you ever actually look at a camellia? Properly?” “A camellia?” Eric sounded distinctly flustered. “Well, I'm sure we'd seen one. I mean, we must have, mustn't we?” “And of all the flowers you could have saddled me with, why that one? Why am I Camilla? It's not like there was a shortage of options!” “You're Camilla because you're Camilla,” Eric said mildly. It was just so ridiculous, I couldn't help but laugh. You're Camilla because you're Camilla. “Ann was the one who insisted on that name, so to be honest, I'm not sure. Looks like I'm still not much use to you, even now. I remember when you were a little girl, you were always saying you didn't like your name, so change it if it bothers you. There's nothing stopping you, now Ann's not here. You ought to call yourself whatever name you like, now you're off living your own life.” “Well, I wasn't expecting much. It's fine. I'm Camilla because I'm Camilla.” “Right. Well, I'm glad that's all worked out. Did you get the boxes I sent? There should be six 25kg FedEx boxes.” “No, not yet. Was there really that much stuff?” I was only going to chuck it all out, anyway. Or else, perhaps they'd got lost somewhere on the way, or been sent to the wrong address – whatever, so long as I didn't have to deal with them. Looking at those old things was obviously going to make me think of Ann,
and more than likely turn me into a snivelling wreck. Thinking of Ann left me stunned. “Eric, I...” I wanted, so much, to be a stronger person. “...I'm happy for you, that you're getting married. You and Ann came and picked me up, held me close to you, when I had no one else in this world. I'll never forget that, not for as long as I live. I understand how lonely you must have been, so I'm glad you've found someone to do the same for you.” “Well, I – it really chokes me up to hear you say that.” After we hung up, I found myself thinking of my mother. Not Ann; my birth mother. For whatever reason, she'd been unable to do for me what Ann and Eric had – just to hold me, her own child, at the loneliest point of my life. What kind of heart could such a woman have? Did she just stand there and look on as a pair of total strangers, people with different hair colour, skin colour, eye colour even, comforted her own child? She clearly hadn't been the type to be pained by such things, given that she'd put a newborn baby up for adoption. A hateful, worthless, bad, bad woman. But what if she wasn't? What if adoption had been the only option for her? If that was the case, I couldn't even begin to imagine what she might have felt. At night, I lay on the bed and looked up at the dark ceiling; I recalled how Ann had looked on her deathbed. How she'd whispered that she had a confession to make. It turned out there had been letters, letters from Korea that spoke about my birth mother, letters about whose existence Ann had never so much as breathed a single word to me. Instead, she'd got rid of them. I let her talk, let her tell me how she'd decided it would be too much of a shock for me to take in, how she'd done what she thought was best for me. All the same, and even as she lay there dying, I couldn't help but despise her. Recalling that confession led me to try and imagine my birth mother, who'd been seventeen when she had me. Could she really have been a bad person at seventeen? What if she were like me. Well, then she and I would look alike. I tried to picture her face, my eyes wide open, straining to see in the dark.
A few days later, and contrary to my private hope, the six boxes that Eric had sent arrived safe and sound at the building in Albany. I wasn't thinking of anything in particular when I opened the first box, and then there it was, a teddy bear, a teddy bear wearing a bib. Every time I looked at that ratty old bear, covered in grubby thumbprints and with half of its stuffing hanging out, sure enough, the floodgates were opened. I liked to flatter myself that I was an old hand when it came to sadness, and coping, yet the sense of loss I was confronted with then, of having lost something truly significant, was entirely new to me. All I could do was wait for the tears to dry up of their own accord, for the roiling inside me to subside. Once it had, I simply sat there quietly, rubbing my eyelids, until the sun dragged the darkness down over the sky. Then Marianne, the French girl I was living with, suggested we go out for a walk, so I put on my coat and went out. We planned to walk to the nearby shopping mall for a hot drink. Perhaps tears can have the effect of polishing your eyeballs, as my surroundings looked unusually sharp and clear. The cool of night was sweeping in, tinging the northern sky with emerald. The glittering lights of the uptown hills were like a bright scatter of jewels strewn over navy silk. We were in the middle of an Indian summer. With the warm breeze beating back the cool evening shadows, the distant lights appeared closer than usual. Walking along the road, we passed a show window displaying medical instruments. Something small, catsized, a shadow flowing past the window like water, now the darkness is my only friend, Miss Lonely. Pressing on a little further, the street lights brightened, and the buildings dazzled the eye. In front of the theatre, a billboard proclaimed: 'Now showing: Your Face. Entrance free.' Marianne, curious, took my hand and pulled me inside. On opening the theatre door, we found ourselves engulfed by a clamour of raucous laughter, tinkling voices bright as midsummer sunlight. There weren't actually that many people there, in comparison with the volume they were able to generate. We stood up against
the back wall so we wouldn't be in the way for any audience members getting to their seats. On-stage, a poet, a rapper, a stand-up comedian and some a capella singers appeared in swift succession. The comedian's routine was mainly based around blackly humorous political analysis, interspersed with lewd anecdotes. They were all men; funnymen who had assimilated a whole host of genres. Every time he came back on stage I fixed him with a piercing stare. The other audience members mustn't have given him a second thought, this man they'd just seen; I was the only one for whom each reappearance was an event. After the performance, I found out his name: Hasegawa Yuichi. The poem he'd recited was called â€œThe Woodâ€?.
On the way to the wood inside your eyes, if you Slip inside your gaze there's a dawn no one knows
A place where the chill moon is hiding you, in that place All mystery begins, and only a single wood
You enter the wood and don't know how to get out, the sky Shifts to blue and the air gradually clears; you
Enter your dark wood and don't come out, only conceal Leaves black as hair, the heart of the wood
In that place I can't reach, your secret Watches me, and your eyes glittering like firelight
On the way to the wood inside those eyes, if you Slip inside your gaze there's a dawn no one knows
'like firelight' was the cue for the main lights to be switched off, plunging the front of the stage into darkness. His face was caught in the glare of a spotlight, a flickering chiaroscuro. I was aware of the precise instant that his face became different. If I had to describe it, you could almost say it was like one face among the millions lying in wait there in the darkness had abruptly thrust the curtain aside, emerging into the light. That feeling, of having known him for a very long time. If it hadn't been for that unwarranted sense of closeness, that strange feeling of deja vu, I would never have gone up to him in the lobby after the performance, where so many people were milling around him. “Has the fog had enough time to look over harbor and city by now?” “Perhaps, by now...” He told me he'd recognised me as soon as he saw me, all the way at the back of the audience. A lot of time had gone by since that first meeting by the redwood. But we talked of that tree, the fog-devourer, as though we'd seen each other only yesterday. After we'd finished our reminiscences, we were both eager to keep the conversation going. I knew what this meant; this is how love begins.
The relics of my past were stuffed higgledy-piggledy inside the six boxes Eric had sent. After that first day, though, when the sight of an old teddy bear reduced me to tears, I didn't open them again. Instead, I stacked them against the wall and forgot about them, even using them as a kind of sideboard to store various items: books I'd finished with, new make-up, empty juice bottles. After a month or so, the boxes were every bit as familiar as a built-in
wardrobe, something that had always been there. That month, I came to know more and more about the man named Yuichi. He'd been born in Peru, he told me, and he and his family had moved to San Diego when he was ten. I replied in kind with my own story, or at least part of it: born in Korea, brought to Seattle as a six-month old. Naturally, he assumed I meant I'd come here with my family, just like him. Like most South Americans, Yuichi was blessed with the ability to not sweat the small stuff. He never asked for details if they hadn't been freely offered, never tried to pry. For him, the present life, the life that was being lived here and now, was the most important thing. I envied him for that. For me, the past had always cast the longest shadow. Even when he saw the FedEx boxes, which stuck out like a sore thumb amid the generic young woman's clutter, Yuichi didn't bat an eyelid. In fact, the only thing in that room that seemed to capture his attention was me. My eyes, my face, my chest, my legs. He told me I was beautiful. I couldn't help but be pleased, even though it sounded like nothing more than flattery. He would bring his lips so close to my ear I could almost feel them tickling, and whisper the new poems he'd written since meeting me. Every time he did, I imagined the air inside his lungs vibrating his uvula to produce sound waves, followed by those same sound waves entering my ears and passing through my tympana. Such a simple process, and yet it healed twenty one years' worth of suffering, loneliness, despair and anger, sweeping it all away as cleanly as the waves sweep the sand on the shore. You're great. You're cool. You're beautiful. You're valuable. I really like you. From your head to your toes. I wouldn't swap you for anything in the world. I'll love you my whole life, no one but you. I want everything of you. I'd never dreamed words could be so sweet, sweet enough to for my body to melt like candle wax. My identity, my very self, seemed to vanish without a trace. Like death. Except that it brought me to life. Only after several nights had gone by with that tight, tingling sensation capping my
fingers and toes, with muscle and bone melting into sweet thick liquid, did Yuichi ask about the boxes. I explained that my mother had died of cancer, and my father, moving house to build a new life for himself with the young woman he'd fallen in love with, had packed up all my old things and sent them to me. “Wow! A childhood in six boxes. All done and dusted. It's great. It's really great.” Yuichi sprang up off the bed and went and crouched down by the boxes. “Is it okay if I take a look?” I nodded. He opened one up, clearing the clutter off the top first, stuck in his hand and brought out a small globe. “When's this from?” I had to rack my memory. “My dad got it for me for my tenth birthday.” “What year was that?” “1997. I had a whole list of other presents I wanted, that I'd been nagging him to buy – I remember how disappointed I was when I tore the wrapping paper off and saw this globe. I think I can guess, now, why he might have chosen a globe out of all the possible presents, but kids' stuff like that was the last thing I wanted back then. Even at ten, you see, I was determined to act like a grown-up woman. And it wasn't as though I had any interest in exploring, or geography, or anything like that. But I couldn't let on that I didn't like it, so I pretended I thought it was really cool, and actually, after I started spinning it round, it was kind of fun. But when my dad saw I was using my left hand to spin it he got angry and told me to use my right instead. I still don't like remembering it, even now.” “Wasn't it just because the earth spins to the right?” Yuichi ventured. That had never even occurred to me. “Really? So that's why he slapped my hand? The earth spins to the right, so you have to spin it with your right hand? I wonder. I'd assumed it was because I was the only one in our family who was left-handed.”
“That doesn't sound likely...I mean, in that case, what would it have mattered whether you spun the globe with your right hand or your left?” “So maybe it was all a misunderstanding, is that what you're saying? I have such painful memories of that day – perhaps I needn't have taken it so much to heart, after all. I wonder what my dad was thinking of when he packed up the globe to send to me? Look at this, see, it has wires connected to it. At night, if you switched it on, the surface would light up to show the constellations; but there's no way it still works after all this time. Anyway, the batteries will be dead.” Yuichi put the globe down on the floor and fitted the plug into the wall socket. I was fairly stunned when it did indeed light up. Yuichi switched off the main light in the room, and patterned points of light glowed steadily in the darkness. “Your dad must have put new batteries in before he sent it to you.” “You're right. What on earth possessed him?” “Well, don't forget I bought you a present. My birthday's coming up soon.” I laughed. “Seeing it makes me think of a song my mother used to sing, back in those days. “Dreams,” it was called. She used it sing whenever she was in the kitchen, cooking or doing the washing up.” I muttered a line to myself: “Oh, my life is changing every day in every possible way.” Yuichi completed the verse: “Though my dreams it's never quite as it seems, never quite as it seems.” “That song makes me think of Santa Fe. We went there on a day trip, and that's where I first heard it. In some cafe.” “Is my memory really accurate? Or does the past seem better than it was just because it's the past? I mean, the sky back then seemed so much bluer than it does now. And at night there was a whole harvest of stars. My mum was just getting into her late forties, and she was
making all these plans – to learn Spanish, to get involved at the community centre. I remember there was this orange dress she really liked. I guess I didn't notice at the time, but thinking back now, god, she was so young. So pretty.” “Camilla, I've just had the greatest idea,” Yuichi exclaimed. “How about you write something?” “Something like what?” “You could right about your childhood, with those boxes as a starting point. Loads of proper writers get their inspiration that way, you know.” “But I've never wanted to be a writer. It's never even crossed my mind.” “And I never thought I'd become a poet. Not until I woke up one day and wrote something, that is. It's not like every single poet or writer planned it in advance. It's more like something that just happens to you, the moment you write something. The very first time I saw you, I thought: writer.” As always, Yuichi's words piqued my interest. “Why?” “Firstly, you loved your own company. I don't mean that in a bad way, just that you clearly enjoyed being alone. The redwood was attracting you with its energy. You have your own lucid, internal sphere of influence. Secondly, you'd stop at nothing to defend your own integrity, even if it meant going up against someone much stronger than you. Finally, and most importantly, you have so many stories you could tell.” “First and second are fair enough, but how could you possibly know the last one?” “I'm not blind, you know. Just look at these boxes. Six of them! Whereas I couldn't even fill one of them, not if I gathered up every single thing I own. This is a wonderful gift your dad's given you, and we can make something really splendid out of it. You just need to trust me.” Just this once, I decided to follow Yuichi's advice, down to the letter. First, he told me, I
had to set aside a certain amount of time every day. An hour would be best, but thirty minutes was okay too. The most important thing was that I use that time to start writing. (“Remember. The moment you write something, you become a writer”). When the allotted time came round, I would take a notebook and pencil and go and stand by the boxes. I would close my eyes, plunge a hand into one of the boxes and pull out the first thing my fingers happened to close around. I could open my eyes again then, but I wouldn't look at the object properly until I'd put it on the desk and taken a step back. I look at it for so long that it loses any everyday familiarity it might have, and only then do I really see it. As though it's some newly-created wonder, the like of which I've never encountered before. (“It'll be like going back in time to when you were a baby and everything was new, unfamiliar. It'll be like starting all over again.”) I conduct a thorough investigation of its surface, utilising all the senses at my disposal. After that, I wait. I wait until, beneath the delicate scaffolding of memories laid down in countless strata, the utter dark of my unconsciousness is rent through, and something surfaces like bubbling magma. In that same moment, the moment when I know, again, the when, where and how of the object, the words start to tumble out of me. It isn't really 'writing', or at least, not the kind of writing practised by those 'proper writers' Yuichi talked about. It's more like setting down whatever impressions I happen to receive, without consciously shaping them into anything more than that. When I think about it like that, I don't have to worry about order or logic. There's no hierarchy either: whatever pops into my head will find its way into the notebook, even if it seems entirely unrelated to the object. As best I can, I try and keep up a steady stream of writing – taking a break would give me too much time to think. I don't bother about checking my grammar, or dressing up the trite expressions that inevitably come to me now and then. (“Quantity over quality. That's the way to build talent”). Yuichi set a minimum of three pages per day, but there's no maximum – as long as it's over three pages, I can write as
much as I like. There's nothing to stop me sitting there and writing until my allotted hour comes round again the following day. On the other hand, if for some reason I don't manage to fill the requisite three pages, I have to go back to my desk that same day, until it's done. When I feel that I've written enough, I close the notebook and put it away. I never read back over what I've written. (“It needs time to, hmm, ripen, shall we say”). Of course, I didn't genuinely believe that any of this was going to turn me into a writer. But I didn't mind; if nothing else, it was a way of sorting through those boxes, which I'd been putting off for so long. Every morning, then, as per Yuichi's stipulation, I would take an object out of one of the boxes and steadily unspool its tangled skein of memories, to be jotted down in the notebook. The one thing that united them was that they'd each, at some time, been something I could have called 'mine', but some had clearly been much more important to me than others, and it wasn't as though they each held a special place in my heart. There were plenty of instances where, however much I racked my brains, I just couldn't recall how I'd come to possess the thing I was studying. Even that, though, didn't necessarily mean I couldn't dredge up some memories related to it. One way or another I managed to stick to the daily routine, working my childhood and adolescence in a series of discrete chunks. The only titles I ever gave these pieces were matter-of-fact descriptions of the objects that had prompted them, so I ended up with, for example, “Joined-up Mittens (around 1992)”, “Diary with Padlock (2000)”, “Swarovski Watch with Fake (Cubic Zirconia) Crystals (1995)”, “Four-dollar Cinema Ticket for Disney Animation 'The Lion King' (1994)”, “Safari 'Big Five' Wooden Doll Set (around 1998)”, “Set of Video Tapes recording Camilla Portman's Appearances (1991-1994)”. If someone had said to me, during that period when each morning saw me standing beside a pile of FedEx boxes with my eyes closed, taking a deep breath before plunging my hand inside, that one day I would walk into Barnes and Noble and see a book with my name
on the cover, I would have laughed in their face. After I'd gone through the same process with every object in each box, I typed up my notes and sent them to an agent in San Francisco whom Yuichi had introduced me to. The manuscript then passed through several edits, transforming the record of my impressions into an autobiographical novel which used objects to tease out the traces of a life. It was published in 2010, with the title: “Minor Memories: An Adoptee's Life in Six Boxes”. There was quite a bit of media interest; reviewers seemed to see something unusual in the thoroughly objective, even cool gaze with which I'd described my life, as an object like any other – not, they said, what they would have expected from a woman in her early twenties – and thanks to that the sales for the first print run were quite respectable. That alone was surprising, but shortly after the book came out there was an even greater shock in store: a call from my agent announcing that a New York publisher (“You'll have a heart attack when I tell you the name!”) had expressed an interest in “The Photograph proving that, though it can't be explained properly, this is a better world than we think”, one of the pieces collected in Minor Memories. That morning when my fingers encountered the photograph's edges and drew it out of the box was one of the most perplexing and revelatory of the whole experience. At first, I thought Eric must have packed it by mistake. I couldn't see what it had to do with me, why it had been included among all these other objects which had, in some way or another, been recognisably mine. I was standing there with the photograph in my hand, peering at it closely to try and work out the identity of the people captured there, when it happened. It's not easy to describe precisely what 'it' was, but it happened in a flash, like the proverbial lightning bolt – time collapsing to a single point, revealing my past, present and future in a single vision, co-existing. I was left shell-shocked, convinced that I'd witnessed the essential truth of my life, but it had all happened so quickly that I hadn't had time to make any sense of it. Even if I was a 'proper writer', one who spent every day of their life at their desk, it would have taken
more than a single lifetime to put that truth, that essence, into words. There was no part of me, no conscious or subconscious mind that could explain what I'd experienced. Only one thing was clear: that the two people who appeared in the photo were myself and my mother, that my mother had loved me with everything she had, a love that could only mean that, far from abandoning me without a second thought, she would spend her whole life frantically searching for me. It's a truism, but some things can't be expressed in words, or at least would take more than a lifetime's writing to get down. So, unlike every other object from those six FedEx boxes, that photograph appeared in Minor Memories as a mere title, with a blank space where the accompanying text should have been. And so, when the editor from the New York publishing house called my agent to commission a non-fiction piece to fill that blank space, I felt like it was the voice of fate calling. The empty glass craves to be filled, the song to be sung, the letter to be sent. I was no different; I longed to go back. To my real home, and to my mother.
Apples, or perhaps Red Lanterns In my early teens, when we lived in Richmond, I liked to lie on my bed in my secondfloor room and imagine what it would be like to go back to Korea, to the home I'd had there. I gave myself over to this idea of another home, letting my imagination run away with me so that sometimes I even started to suspect the real me was the one living in that other place, daydreaming of the me in Richmond. But if that was true, then who on earth was this 'Camilla Portman'? A pair of single-lidded eyes under a straight fall of black hair. Every time I confronted that face in the mirror, the Camilla who stared back at me seemed pitiful, tragic, cursed to the wear the mask of an oriental. If only the spell would be undone, I could return, unmasked, to my real home. It took several years for me to realise just how odd it was, this sweet, dizzying fantasy of mine. The 'real face' I'd been longing for, that I'd fervently believed existed under this exotic mask I was wearing â€“ what could that mean other than the face of a white person? And yet, the 'real home' I longed to wear it in was obviously in Korea. This absurdity made me sad, at first, but I soon learned to laugh at it. After that, though, around the time when I passed from childhood to adolescence, I became more serious. As a teenager, I worried away at these thoughts like picking at a scab. What is my real face? Where is my real home? If I go there, will there be other people living in their real homes, wearing their real faces? Doesn't that mean I ought to go there, instead of staying here? There being Korea, and more specifically, the place listed on the adoption register as my hometown: Jinnam. When I eventually arrived there, in Jinnam, it wasn't faces I saw but facial expressions. Expressions which, though ostensibly different, were fundamentally one and the same, as though they were all being made by a single person. One person might raise their eyebrows in such exaggerated disbelief that their forehead became as deeply furrowed as a ploughed field; another, when asked a question, might let their mouth gape open in place of an answer, like
someone with learning difficulties, and let out a burst of staccato laughter. There was one woman who simply grabbed hold of my hand and fixed me with a sorrowful stare, as though I were a mute, while another man frowned and turned away, as though seeing in me some fragment from a painful past, an uncomfortable surfacing. Those expressions all seemed to contradict each other. On the one hand they were cold and unfriendly, yet at the same time there was also something affectionate about them. And so, the only thing I could glean from that mixture of compassion and indifference was confusion. There was no meaning to be found there. Still, I wasn't disheartened. At least, I tried my best not to be. Every time my enquiries were met with a firm, dismissive shake of the head, an expression of refusing to even countenance the truth of what I was saying, it just made me even more determined to batter down their wall of denial with a torrent of further questions. The only way I could stop myself was to focus on my breathing, to think only of that. This was something I'd learned in my late teens, when my identity crisis had become so severe that I needed psychiatric treatment and attended classes at the general hospital. When I entered into a deep state of meditation, I discovered that this person, my real mother, this presence I'd felt clutching at me incessantly for years, had no face. My longing had no face, and neither did my anger. With no object to focus on, these emotions dissolved like the things of a dream. Finally, I was able once again to look into the mirror and see no face but my own. Camilla Portman: a pair of single-lidded eyes under a straight fall of black hair. My teenage years were over. I was an adult now. The first thing the headmistress did was to lead us to the hills behind the main building, as though we wouldn't be able to get a proper view of the flowers otherwise. As we laboured up the concrete stairs, she told us that Jinnam Girls' High School had produced outstanding individuals during the Japanese colonial period. Not that I understood all of this directly.
After signing the contract with the New York publisher for an essayistic piece about 'the search for my roots', I applied for the Korean government's adoptee education programme. After a year in Seoul studying Korean at Yeonsei University's language academy I'd been pleased with my level six certificate, but the brick-thick dialect of Korea's southern provinces was now proving a significant stumbling block. After asking around for a while, I'd met up with Seo Min-su, an old friend of Eric's from his student days. For some reason I was incredibly shy in his presence, this middle-aged man, a lecturer at Busan's Haeyang University whose paunch put me in mind of a pufferfish, a clear indication that he was neglecting his health. I hadn't expected him to be all that useful when it came to doing the rounds of Jinnam's girls' schools, and my suspicions had so far been confirmed: what with panting his way up the steep flight of stairs, he hadn't the energy to make a proper go of interpreting the headmistress' pronouncements. Luckily, I was able to grasp most of what Shin Hye-sook was saying. Shin Hye-sook. That was the headmistress' name. Her beige suit seemed to have last been in fashion during the 1950s, and she had a skyblue scarf knotted at her throat. The overall impression was of a woman from some patriarchal tribe who'd been sent as a diplomatic envoy. Whenever my eyes met one of her occasional sidelong glances, she gave an awkward trill of laughter which punched dimples into her cheeks like a pair of knife wounds. The meaning of those dimples was as follows: she, too, had shone during the colonial period, but that chapter was now over. Once Dr Seo had finished his breathless, cursory interpretation, she cleared her throat in apparent disapproval. “Are you sure you're telling them exactly what I'm saying?” she asked. Dr Seo nodded, coughing into his fist. “What I'm most proud of is that the school always did its best to raise its students to be good wives and wise mothers.”
Dr Seo's literal translation sounded odd to our ears. “Good wives?” Yuichi echoed. “Wise mothers?” “It must sound foolish,” said Dr Seo, “but please please don't misunderstand. A 'good wife and wise mother' is a colloquial expression for the traditional Korean ideal of womanhood. In the past, it was used to refer to aristocratic women whose sons went on to do well – a kind of badge of honour.” “It doesn't sound foolish at all,” Yuichi said. “More like this place must be a male idea of paradise.” Already waiting impatiently at the top of the stairs, the headmistress fluttered her fingers at Dr Seo and Yuichi. By now, of course, I understood that she was beckoning them to hurry up and join her, though when I first arrived in Korea I'd mistaken that gesture as meaning completely the opposite. Once we'd all made it to the top, we stood and looked down together over the school grounds. The buildings were surrounded by neat flower beds, red brick hemmed with yellow. The new term had just started, and the nostalgic strains of a choir's song drifted up to where we stood. Pointing out individual buildings, the headmistress rattled off a blow-by-blow account of the school's prospectus – its educational aims, the number of students who went on to do a full degree at one of the Seoul universities – seemingly unconcerned with whether or not we were actually taking any of this in. In the face of this barrage of statistics, Dr Seo slipped back into his loose style of interpreting. The headmistress turned round and pointed up into the hills. “Over there,” she declared, “is the yeolnyeobi”. The word meant nothing to me. All I could see were two small houses; at least that's what they looked like to me, with their tiled roofs supported by red pillars. Having said that, only the one to the rear seemed fit for human habitation. The other had a wooden lattice instead of walls, which made it look more like a prison than a house. However much I strained my eyes, I couldn't make out anything that might be this 'yeolnyeobi'.
“Now what're we supposed to be looking at?” Yuichi asked. “Nothing special. It's a memorial to a historical figure. We were at war with Japan in the sixteenth century, and this area was occupied by Japanese troops for a long time. A Korean woman, an aristocrat, took her own life in protest, and when the king heard about it he was so filled with admiration that he had that bi set up for her.” “So those houses over there are the bi?” I asked. Dr Seo waved his hand dismissively. “No, a 'bi' is a stone erected in memory of someone. Like a grave stone, except there's no grave. The woman slit her throat to avoid having her virtue violated by the Japanese soldiers, and threw herself into a lotus pond at the same time, so the body was never recovered. Although they do claim that the lotus pond is still there, on the left hand side of the road as it approaches the school gates. In Korea, a woman like that is called a yeolnyeo – yeol from the Chinese character meaning virtuous, and nyeo meaning woman. Yeol usually means heat, of course, but yeolnyeo isn't 'hot woman'! It's a wife who preserves her chastity for her husband. So then yeolnyeobi is like a grave stone in memory of a virtuous woman, you see. But it wasn't just one family that the king elevated when he set up that stone, it was the whole region. We all shared in the honour.” “I can't see any kind of grave stone over there, can you?” I said. “You can't see it because it's hidden. You'd have to go inside that 'small house', as you called it. You know, you could even say that that hidden grave stone forms the guiding principle for the whole school – because it's main educational aim is to develop the female students' sense of chastity.” “Their 'sense of chastity'?” Yuichi queried. “That's right, so they maintain their virginity until they graduate and find husbands.” This was just horrible, that the school went so far as to police its students' virginity. As
horrible as that king commissioning this grave stone or house or whatever it was as some kind of propaganda, exploiting an ordinary woman's notion of chastity. I pictured the slender threads of blood ribboning out from her slit throat, all in service of that precious chastity. Lines of red like slash marks in the black water, teeming with microorganisms, water plants, freshwater fish,
gradually losing their sharpness, dissolving into the murk. The woman in
the water would have felt a great relief flood through her, a feeling of blessed release – hormones secreted by her brain in order to alleviate the terror of impending death. She would have felt as though she were being freed from all the fetters of custom, her identity unravelling like silken threads. Long black hair streaming out like water weed, eyes from which the spark was gradually fading, a slowing stream of air bubbles trickling up to the water's surface...a woman had died a death like that and the nation, conflating that final blood with the kind they like to see staining the bridal sheets, had responded by going into paroxysms over her 'virtue'. “But what's that tombstone got to do with me? Why has she brought me to this awful place?” The headmistress looked startled. I'd assumed she couldn't speak a word of standard Korean, otherwise what was the point of Dr Seo? “Awful place? It is a source of great pride for our students. The building to the rear of the yeolnyeobi is a shrine dedicated to the spirit of Yi Seong-ju. Every year, on the day when Yi Seong-ju jumped into the lotus pond, we open the shrine door, and the entire student body lines up to pay their respects to her.” “How many students is that, altogether?” The headmistress frowned; she seemed to think I was missing the point. But her face soon smoothed back into its usual blank expressionlessness. “1,143 students.”
I imagined 1,143 schoolgirls standing in a line, entering the shrine in turn and bowing. I tried, and failed, to imagine those 1,143 bows in the aggregate. The woman who opened a hole in her throat, the 'virtuous woman' in the shrine, what did she think of the status she'd been afforded, I wondered? When our group reached the shrine, the headmistress removed the padlock from the green wooden door. There was something cautious, almost reverent, in her movements, as though she was opening the door to the underworld. I took a few steps back, trying to put the scene in perspective. The incongruous humps of two mountains rose into view above the roof of the shrine. Venerable chestnut trees flanked the tiled building like a folding screen. Turning to face the opposite direction, I could make out the school's main building far below; every inch a product of the colonial period, when European-style brick constructions were all the rage. All the time, I was aware of the palimpsest being created by my presence here, of the way my movements, my gaze, were mimicking those of one who might have looked down on that self-same building twenty five years ago. If it was true that my birth mother had attended this school, then she too must have stood in front of the virtuous woman's portrait and bowed. Lost in my own thoughts, I was startled back to the present when Dr Seo, who'd been chatting with the headmistress, gestured to me and said, laughing, “If you want to know the story she's just come out with...” “Don't be surprised if you come face to face with Angelina Jolie inside this shrine. The portrait was only recently restored, you see, and we suspect the artist used a rather more modern idea of beauty.” “No! How recently?” “1987. That stuff about Angelina Jolie was a joke, of course, but still, I wouldn't expect to see a woman conforming to the classical Korean idea of beauty. All the painter had to go on were a few descriptions in the written literature; I wonder how closely it really resembles the original woman. Have you ever tried imagining a face from scratch?”
Of course I had. More times than I can count. But it wasn't a question that required an answer. “If it weren't for the cicadas, the painter would have had an even harder time of it. You see, for people in the Joseon period, women who looked like cicadas were famed for their beauty. Americans would take a very different view, no? In fact, the standard of beauty has changed a lot here too – we might be direct descendants of the Joseon people, but that doesn't mean we share all their opinions. Cicadas? Ugh. A woman who was like a cicada – what would that even mean? That she could cling to something without falling off, and made a continuous high-pitched whine?” Yuichi laughed out loud, and the sound went some way to dispelling my tension. I took a few steps towards the shrine, curious about the cicada woman. What had really made her take a knife to her own throat? Mightn't the real reason have had nothing whatsoever to do with chastity? Meanwhile, the headmistress pulled the door to the shrine open. To me, it seemed to release a blast of cold air from its dark mouth, like when you open a refrigerator on a sticky summer's afternoon. I shrank back. I could make out the lower half of the painting, the hanbok dress puffed out like an upturned flower bud, but the face was hidden in the darkness. The headmistress fluttered her fingers in my direction. I walked forwards, towards the cicada woman. I stepped into the shadows under the shrine's eaves. I saw the face of the virtuous woman.
Her face. At the time, a certain face was often in my mind. Like something engraved onto my heart. The face captured in the photo Eric had sent, “The Photograph proving that, though it can't be explained properly, this is a better world than we think (around 1988)”. In that photo, which had been filed with my adoption documents, a small, slight woman, East Asian, is holding a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. At first I assumed there must have
been a mix-up, that someone else's photograph had been mistakenly put in with my documents. I didn't dream that that woman might be in any way connected to me. Only after some time had passed was I able to fully accept that the baby pointing a finger at the camera lens was none other than myself. That child was me; of that there was no doubt. But the identity of the woman holding me was less clear-cut. According to the documentation, I'd been through two foster families before I was adopted by a white couple from Seattle. Because I was so young, I seemed only to have formed a strong attachment with a couple of objects and one or two people. Three at the most. Two would have been better, and one would have been best of all. This was what lay behind Yuichi's intuition that I had my own 'lucid, internal sphere of influence'. There probably weren't more than three possible candidates for the person who could have taken the photo, the person holding me. She was either my birth mother or one of my two foster mothers. In other words, there was a 33.3% probability that the woman in that photo was my birth mother. I'd never in my life had a 100% mother, so you'd think I might be happy to take whatever I could get, but a 33.3% mother was precious little consolation. In certain situations, a mother can be nothing less than 100% - otherwise, they might as well be nothing at all. In the photo, my 33.3% mother, which is as much as to say 0%, is standing in front of some tree and holding a child that is 100% me. The tree is festooned with small red blotches. They could be apples, or they could just as easily be red paper lanterns. If I hold the photo right up to my face, I almost fancy I can detect the fruit's crisp fragrance. If a photograph really could capture smells as well as images, I'd much prefer this one to have retained my mother's scent. Korean has a compound word, mo-nyeo, made up of the characters for 'mother' and 'daughter'. If you have a 33.3% mother with a 100% daughter, I'm not sure what percentage of 'mother-daughter' that would make. In any case, there are scattered flowers by the side of this 'mother-daughter' who have fallen
tantalisingly short of that magical 100%. Red flowers, which have so far managed to avoid being trampled. I spent so much time squinting at that photo I was in danger of harming my sight. I studied not only the woman's face but her clothes, the pattern on the swaddling quilt, the shape of the tree and the flowers, even the glass window in the wall behind the tree. I wanted to have it back, that childhood that was lost to me. Only once we were back in the headmistress' room did I realise that she'd taken us to see the portrait of the virtuous woman in order to add weight to her claim that her school had never known such an unsavoury thing as an unmarried mother among its number. Not content with insisting that Jinnam Girls' School had been spared such a blot in its copybook, she then declared that the other girls' schools in the city were all equally blemish-free. The tone of her voice was as flat and expressionless as the look in her eyes, as though to emphasise that these were pure, unadorned facts she was asserting. I'd long suspected that my birth would fall under the category of a 'blemish', but to have it said to my face like that did throw me a little. On my return to Korea, when my research into Jinnam, recorded in the adoption papers as my hometown, revealed a place which prided itself on its impeccable morality, it soon became clear that the inhabitants weren't exactly going to welcome me with open arms. “You've clearly been misinformed, Miss Camilla. Where did you get this story from?” the headmistress asked. “I've been told that, eight years ago, my older brother here in Korea was looking for me. The thing is, my adoptive parents didn't inform me of this at the time, so it was actually only four years ago that I learned about it. Just before she died, my adoptive mother told me that there had been letters from Korea, addressed to me. These letters said that my birth mother had become pregnant with me while she was enrolled here at Jinnam Girls' School. She was seventeen.” While I'd been speaking, the headmistress had shaken her head several times.
“What you say simply isn't logical. You're claiming that your mother gave birth to you at seventeen, when she was a student at this school; in that case, when would this older brother have been born, the one who apparently sent the letter? If she'd fallen pregnant previously, she would have been expelled on the spot, in accordance with the school regulations. Unmarried mothers do not attend school; that's just common sense.” I considered this 'common sense' she spoke of. For ordinary people, the past is not singular, but plural. After all, isn't it true that the childhood your family remembers is different from the one your friends remember, and neither quite map on to the one you yourself think of as your past? You yourself, here and now, isn't that identity something that's been arrived at by a past deemed most appropriate having been selected from among various possible pasts? Demanding to know whether something is or is not 'logical', isn't it possible for all sorts of people to have a past that can be selected like that? For those whose lack of money has meant they've gone hungry for several days, a single coin rolling in the road is immensely important. In just the same way, the fact that I have no singular past makes every trivial little clue important, no matter how senseless, illogical, irrational. I sensed that there might come a time when I would have to pit myself against the whole of the 'common sense' world for the sake of one trifling little fact. “My hometown is definitely Jinnam – it says so on the adoption forms. So it's not very likely that the letter was delivered by mistake. After all, what reason could there be for someone in Korea to write a letter to a child who hadn't been there for sixteen years, deliberately giving them false information?” “The adoption documents might be incorrect, and the person who wrote the letter might have confused you with someone else. All sorts of things happen in this world. And most of them do so without any particular reason. In this awful world where we live.” There was something about this, about how bland and perfunctory it sounded coming
from her, that rankled. I glanced over at Yuichi, and he asked if it would be possible to take a look at the yearbooks. Before we came to Jinnam we'd tried to find out about my birth mother's educational history, but as we'd drawn a blank we'd arranged this visit in the hope of being able to compare with our own eyes the face in the photograph with those of the students in the yearbook. After seeing the portrait of the virtuous woman, though, I'd lost all confidence in my ability to recognise the face of my birth mother. All I wanted to do, right then, was to get out of the headmistress' room as quickly as possible. But it wasn't as though I could think of any other angle to pursue. The headmistress telephoned to ask someone to find the yearbooks from 1988 to 1992 and bring them to her room. After a while, a woman arrived who looked to be in her thirties – a teacher, judging by the prim black skirt and regulation perm. She was carrying five yearbooks; they each had purple and ultramarine velvet covers, with the graduation year embossed in gold at the top and the image of a flower at the bottom. I got “The Photograph proving that, though we can't explain it properly, this world is a better place than we think (around 1998)” out of my bag. I heard the headmistress sigh. “That photo is all you've got left,” she murmured. When I looked up at her, I saw an expression flit across her face that was entirely different to the blank, official mask she'd worn when showing us around the school. She seemed unsettled, as though she'd been placed in an awkward position and wasn't entirely sure how she ought to proceed. As soon as she noticed me watching, though, she regained control of her features, and the mask slipped back on. Sitting next to Yuichi, I peered closely at the faces in the oval frames, searching for some similarity with the one in my photo. After four pages, all the faces in the yearbook had begun to blur into one. The more I persevered, the more it became obvious that I was never going to find my birth mother like this. Just then, I heard a low voice say “even so”. Even so, the adoption forms stated that she had given birth in this city, and assuming that was correct,
what did it really mean? That, either in a rented room in the maze of alleys behind the free export zone industrial complex west of the wharves; or else, down some practically deserted, dead-end road near the wharf; or perhaps in a public toilet behind the municipal stadium; or even in a rubbish tip reeking with foetid water, or in some rat-infested ditch, a seventeen year old girl had given birth. I looked up at the headmistress and the teacher who'd fetched the yearbooks. But they were both as inscrutable as ever, as closed-off as every other face I'd encountered since arriving in Jinnam. Impossible to tell whether either of them had actually spoken the words I thought I'd heard. Perhaps my mind was starting to play tricks on me. The despair that had been gradually creeping up on me chose that moment to clutch me in a choke-hold. I shrank back from the yearbook photos and narrowed my eyes, deliberately restricting my vision as far as I could without leaving myself blind. Addressing Yuichi, I just about managed to tremble out some formulaic sentence about needing to go outside for a moment, and stood up from my seat. I couldn't keep my hands from shaking. During my teens, there had been several occasions when the outward projection of my self, usually misleadingly cheerful, had experienced a sudden and utter collapse. It was like staring into the mirror at the bloodied face I saw there whenever despair threw off the mask. It was the face of terror itself. I wasted so much of my teens trying to escape myself by any means possible, anything to forget that terror. Only when that path had led me so far from myself that I slipped into drug abuse did I understand that I would never be free of that terror, that despair, without confronting the unmasked face. My mother threw me away because I was born with a horrific face. I've lost count of the times I repeated those words, in the sessions with my psychiatric counsellor. No, you're pretty. Really pretty. That was her unfailing response. But I never even admitted the possibility that this might be true, not until I met Yuichi. I closed the door to the headmistress' room behind me and walked towards the stairs at
the end of the corridor. It was pity that made the tears start from my eyes, pity not just for myself but for this whole sorry situation. I'd put all my trust in an inaccurate document and come to look for my mother in a the wrong place. The story my 'older brother' had spun was in all likelihood just that, a story, or else intended for an entirely different recipient. No way could such an incomparably unsavoury blemish as I was have been born there, in Jinnam, the port city I'd long believed to be my hometown, so some other place, then, a big city like Seoul or Busan where vice and immorality held sway, or another place in Korea, somewhere else, in any case, somewhere else. It had all been one big mistake. My very existence was a mistake. I hurried down the stairs and out of the main building, jammed a cigarette between my lips and lit up. I bowed my head, pressing my crown against the red bricks, and saw the flowers scattered on the ground. Only then did it hit me. I hadn't registered it at the time, but now the knowledge flooded over me in a calm, steady wave: the flower embossed on the yearbook covers was identical to those which were scattered in my photo. A tree festooned with red blotches. Red blotches, that you might be forgiven for thinking were apples, or perhaps red lanterns. Only they were flowers. They were camellias.
Aurora Fish Beneath the Sea where the Blue Moon Rises Whitish flakes of snow stood out in the still-dark street. The March snow gave the city the pallid complexion of a sickly transfer student. The iron-grey sea was an enormous canvas, drawing a white pointillist painting on the window of the hotel room. I sipped at hot green tea as I watched the snow. The warm spring air meant the snowflakes melted as soon as they touched the ground. Their moisture dyed the tarmac of the embankment road a more intense black, and the cars passed slowly along it, their wipers sweeping from side to side. “Cars pass along the road where the snow melted.” Those words came to me unbidden. “And red flowers bloom without fail on the camellia trees.” I wanted to ask Yuichi, who was yet to emerge
from under the quilt, if that could be a poem. But of course, I already knew what he would say. Absolutely, Camilla, you bet it can! Yuichi, that unflagging optimist. Rather than wake him, I sat at the small desk, picked up a pencil and started to write in my sky-blue Moleskine notebook. This habit, of filling three pages every morning practically as soon as I'd opened my eyes, was something I'd learned from Yuichi. “If you get something in your head, whatever it is, write it down.” But while some of my thoughts were relatively easy to put into words, there were also many emotions, like fear, or embarrassment, or a vague sense of dread, that were much more difficult to express, even to myself. At first, this meant the blank pages in the notebook struck me as crushingly desolate. Well, then, Yuichi said, write about that desolation. Even with this advice to shore me up, writing proved a laborious process; until, one morning, my hand raced over the pages of the notebook with all the heady volubility of a child new to language, who can't stop babbling their excitement. Prior to this, I'd been unwittingly censoring myself – no more. Finally, I could transcribe my thoughts without evaluating them, and without becoming emotionally involved. I wrote down worries, and also hopes, sentences that embarrassed me, and others that deceived me. Nothing got left out. I wrote down the things I needed to do, the promises I wanted to make. After three pages, the muscles in my arm were aching, but inside I felt as light as air, as though I'd been emptied out. That morning, in the hotel room with Yuichi, I wrote “Only the camellias know the identity of my biological mother. But flowers don't have mouths, so how can I understand what they're trying to tell me? The camellias aren't enough, I have to find a person to tell me these things.” The snow had been thinning out while I was writing, and by the time I met Dr Seo in the lobby it had stopped altogether. Dr Seo said that the city hall wasn't that far, so we might as well walk. One of the black taxis parked in front of the hotel would have taken us along the embankment, turned left towards the Yeonan passenger terminal, then through the rotary
in front of city hall, but on foot it was better to take the narrow road that led back from the hotel and through the central market. On our very first day in Jinnam, Yuichi and I had taken a turn around that market, which stretched all the way from the rear of the hotel down to the wharves. As an experienced traveller, Yuichi always preferred street food to hotel fare; in fact, he considered sampling local cuisine to be one of the highlights of any trip, the more unfamiliar the better. The shacks lining the back alleys seemed designed more for drinking sessions than for having a proper meal. Each one was raucous with drunks. Not only was it too noisy to have a conversation, the dishes advertised were all things like clam soup, steamed stingray, soupy rice with pork. I didn't have Yuichi's strong stomach. After we'd been around the market twice, we chose a place called 'Jinnam Gimbap'. I thought there'd be no surprises there, but the food we were served wasn't like any of the gimbap I'd eaten before. As I found out later, those small seaweed-wrapped rice rolls accompanied by seasoned squid were a regional speciality, famous across the country. As the afternoon sun waned, a coach tour pulled up in front of Jinnam Gimbap and a group of tourists piled out. There were no free seats on the ground floor, one big room with more than ten tables, so we went up to the first floor. This comprised three separate rooms, each with underfloor heating. One of the waitresses guided us to the room on the left. We slipped off our shoes before stepping in â€“ how baffled would my American friends have been if I'd told them that, in my hometown, you have to remove your shoes to eat in a restaurant? What about if I'd added that, at this particular restaurant, the view out to sea included a ship shaped like a turtle floating on the water? Even so, of all the things that were disconcertingly unfamiliar about Jinnam, the presence of the sea wasn't one of them. Quite the opposite, in fact. Looking out at the water from the first floor of Jinnam Gimbap, I realised that, in my entire life, I'd rarely been more than 100km from the Pacific. Everett, where I'd been brought
immediately after I was adopted, Seattle, where I'd stayed for a while, and Albany where I now lived were all cities on the Pacific coast. As was Jinnam. So that was why I'd always liked the sea! Marvelling over having discovered the reason for a preference I'd always assumed was innate, suddenly Jinnam didn't feel so strange. While we waited for the gimbap to arrive I couldn't stop glancing around the room; one of the things that snagged my gaze was a dresser pushed against the wall. On its lid were a whole host of cosmetics: skin lotion, essence, cream, foundation, powder, eyeshadow, blusher, mascara, lipstick, eyeliner, eyebrow pencils. Perhaps the young waitresses slept in these rooms once they'd finished their shifts. Following Dr Seo through the market, I recalled those cosmetics, neatly arranged on the dresser. If I'd never crossed the Pacific, mightn't I, too, be earning a living serving food in Jinnam Gimbap? Would all that makeup be necessary then? Shaking me from my thoughts, Dr Seo pointed out a shabby restaurant in a red-tiled building. The sign read 'Bongrae-ok'. “That restaurant is famous for seaweed soup, a local speciality. You should definitely try some before you leave Jinnam, and there's no better place to do it. It'll be a useful experience for you, help you understand Jinnam's climate. Here there's a saying, “hateful sonin-law seaweed soup”. It uses a special kind of seaweed that only grows in the waters around Jinnam, which are especially clean; seaweed's almost more common than hair in these parts! Even if you boil the soup over a high heat, it doesn't give off steam, so at first glance it just looks like lukewarm broth, right. The mother-in-law making seaweed soup for her hateful son-in-law happens in January, which is the best season for seaweed. The son-in-law comes from inland, beyond the Turyun mountains that lie to the north of Jinnam, so he's never even set eyes on this kind of seaweed. Every time I hear that saying, I'm just dying to know what hateful act that son-in-law committed. If it were possible, I'd even step inside the story and ask the mother-in-law first-hand! But of course, even if she was a real person and I could ask, she'd just feign a look of shocked incomprehension and start blustering about me slandering
her impeccable son-in-law. That's Jinnam people for you.” “You mean, it's not easy to get them to reveal what they truly think?” I asked. “Hmm, you could say they're like a black box, maybe. A black box, deeper than you'd think judging from the outside; so deep it's impossible to see all the way to the bottom. To foreigners, tourists who only ever stay a couple of days, the people here must seem ignorant and unworldly, but that's only because they can't see inside, to how they're constantly weighing up every situation and calculating how best to act. Whatever you dish out to them, that's what you'll get back. But of course, that only applies to bad things. I mean, you just have to think of that saying, about the seaweed soup. Essentially it's a story about repaying the son-in-law in kind, one hateful act for another. He gulps down the soup without even blowing on it, and the boiling liquid strips the roof of his mouth. How humiliating! But what's really important is that the mother-in-law will immediately start clucking over him, joining him in lamenting his bad luck as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth. That's what you have to take from the saying. When you eat something in Jinnam, be sure to cool it first. Even if it seems okay at first glance, if you just bolt it down you can end up having a hell of a time of it. Do you understand what I'm trying to say, Miss Camilla?” I nodded. So: even Dr Seo was deeper than I'd suspected, and there was a double meaning to his words. It wasn't only food he was warning me to be wary of. He was also talking about the truth that, sooner or later, I would have to face up to.
Famed for its attractive port, Jinnam actually got quite a lot of tourists, and many of the locals, I came to realise, were perfectly able to treat foreigners with goodwill – so long as those foreigners' lives and interests were entirely separate from their own. The man I met at city hall, who worked in the social welfare department, was one such local. I'd come there to see whether there were any records relating to a female child born on the 8th December 1987
and adopted on the 23rd May 1988. As the man listened to Dr Seo recounting my life story, he couldn't keep from interjecting, letting out various exclamations along the lines of “Ah, my goodness, what a world we live in!” When I told him that my mother had been seventeen when she gave birth to me, and a pupil at Jinnam Girls' School, he sounded almost anguished. “That's how it was, so that's how it must have been!” He nodded slowly, having delivered his opinion on the matter. Somehow, those words seemed an apt summary of my situation – a logic that no one could refute, but that was also impossible to draw any meaning from. Camilla is Camilla because she's Camilla; something happened a certain way because it happened a certain way. As the social worker started speaking, I realised that I'd been mistaken in thinking he was nodding out of sympathy. Rather, it was intended to express his regret at being unable to help me. “That was the time of the five industries, you see. Chun Do Hwan was president: what more does anyone need to say. Thinking back on it now, it's like some kind of prehistoric age.” As the phrases 'five industries', 'Chun Do Hwan' and of course 'prehistoric age' meant absolutely nothing to me, I had to wait for Dr Seo's explanation. Their gist seemed to be, at bottom: good luck finding records from a prehistoric age. “Now and then we do have adoptees come and visit from overseas, also hoping to find some kind of record, but it's extremely rare that we manage to turn up anything. The problem isn't with our side, but with the adoption association. I heard a while ago that the agency would launder the children before putting them up for adoption.” “Launder?” Dr Seo echoed. “Well, what about it? Wouldn't you expect them to have been properly washed before being shown to prospective parents?” “What a fortunate life you must have lived, if that's all 'laundering' means for you.” “I wouldn't say it's been particularly fortunate, but...hang on, what are you trying to say?”
“I'm saying that their records were falsified. Things can get complicated when a child's parents are still in the picture – there's more red tape, for one, plus the prospective parents mightn't be so keen. So, even though there were plenty of children whose parents were still alive, they would be brazenly registered as orphans and parcelled off before anyone had time to ask questions. In cases like that, you just can't trust the documents. In other words, it's difficult for me to take on trust that this young woman's mother really was seventeen years old.” “How old was she, then?” I broke in. The social worker looked taken aback. So far, he'd only been speaking with Dr Seo. “If I knew that, I would tell you. On my honour as an employee of city hall.” These words sounded like nothing so much as a poor excuse. His attitude had undergone an abrupt change; now he knew I'd understood everything he'd said, he clearly regretted having been so frank. He phoned the reporter for the Jinnam Daily who was accredited to city hall, briefly explained my circumstances and asked whether anything could be done. I could hear the voice of the reporter saying something in reply, but couldn't make out the words. The man hung up, asked us to wait for a moment, and left the office. On his return, he announced that they had decided to carry an article about me in the Jinnam Daily, and gave me the chief reporter's card. I hadn't expected this level of concern; it was actually quite moving. “The Jinnam's office isn't too far from here. You can easily walk it – just go down to the main entrance and take a right. That's one of the advantages of Jinnam – there's nothing that can't be solved by a walk. But they're planning to move city hall to where Jinnam Joseon is, so it won't be like that forever.” As we stepped out of the government building, the clouds were beginning to disperse. The pale sunshine felt warm against my skin, especially after that morning's snow. Yes, I thought, it would do me good to walk in the sun.
At the Jinnam Daily's office, I waited in the conference room for just over ten minutes before the reporter who the man from city hall had spoken to arrived. He worked on the paper's society section – human interest stories, that kind of thing. Unlike the man from city hall, he seemed entirely impassive, even coldly disinterested, while Dr Seo explained my 38
story. “One in ten Korean-Americans are adoptees, correct?” This was faintly unnerving. Up until then I'd never thought of myself as a statistic. “Are adoptees that common?” “That's what I've heard,” the reporter shrugged. “You don't much like being lumped together in such a big group, right? Or perhaps you think it's a good thing – at least you're not the only one?” “There's nothing good or bad about it,” Dr Seo said, nettled. “It is what it is.” “Indeed? Well, I'll just ask a few questions. First of all I'll take a look at the photograph. A picture is worth a hundred words, isn't that what they say?” I handed him the photo. He took it with his right hand and looked at it carefully. “What do you know about this photo?” “Ever since I was very young I've wondered about my name – 'why Camilla?', that is. So I did some research. If I told you that my name comes from that of the Jesuit-cum-botanist Georg Joseph Kamel, who was one of their first missionaries in the Philippines, you'd be very surprised, right? Because, you see, 'Camilla' comes from 'camellia', which is the English word for the tongbaek flower. Apparently, the person who first called those flowers 'camellias' was the famous botanist Linnaeus. The flowers generally grow in the Himalayas and East Asia, and that was what made him think of Kamel, who was doing missionary work in East Asia. In fact, Kamel himself never saw these flowers.” Only then did the reporter flip open his
notebook and begin to write down what I was saying. “So, in the end, I found out that it was by pure chance that Kamel's name became associated with this particular flower. And I presumed that there was equally little meaning in the fact that I'd been given the name Camilla – I thought my adoptive parents had just chosen it because I was also from East Asia. Catherine or Cindy sound too American, so let's call her Camilla, that's a bit more exotic. Something like that. When I was a teenager, I couldn't even bear to have anyone call me by my name. It was a constant reminder of how my birth mother hadn't wanted me, and of how completely arbitrary it all was that I'd ended up with my adoptive parents. It was only three years ago, after I came across a certain photo, that I began to think differently. Yes, this photo. It was because of this photo that my adoptive mother chose to call me Camilla; a photo of me and my birth mother, posing in front of a camellia. This photo proved to me that my name had meaning, after all. That's why, in my book, I called it “The Photograph proving that, although we can't explain it properly, this world is a better place than we think (around 1988)”. “What makes you think your birth mother was a student at Jinnam Girls' School?” “It's what my adoptive mother told me, a few years ago. She said that when I was seventeen, a letter had arrived from Korea; addressed to me, and from someone claiming to be my older brother. He hadn't known my US address, of course, so it had come through the agency in Oklahoma which had been in charge of the adoption process. The shock of hearing those words...it was like someone had taken a hammer to my head. Why in god's name hadn't she said something to me at the time? I kept demanding to know, why, why, why. While she was lying on her deathbed. But she just cried. “Why would she have kept it from you?” “I ran out of the hospital before she'd had a chance to explain herself. I just couldn't control my anger, it was like I'd been all burned up inside. Later, when I read the letter she'd
written for me, I understood why she'd acted the way she had; given the way I was at seventeen, she said she'd been afraid that if I found out, I would have jumped on the next plane to Korea, and she would have never seen me again. She asked me to forgive her.” “She thought you would have just upped and left? Just hearing that you'd had a letter from your brother?” The reporter frowned at me, looking puzzled. It was probably for the best that he knew nothing about what I'd been like at seventeen. “It wasn't an entirely groundless fear. Maybe I really would have gone straight back to Korea, if I'd learned that I had a brother who was still alive. Anyhow, it was his letter that said my mother had been a pupil at Jinnam Girls' School.” “But when you went to the school they told you that wasn't true, no? I can't state it as a fact if it's just your word against theirs.” I got out my phone and showed him the photo of the camellias in front of the main school building. There was also a landscape shot I'd taken, and one Yuichi had taken of me standing in front of the camellias. The flower bed was different, but the bricks of the main building and the shape of the windows hadn't changed at all. Unlike myself; there was no way anyone would connect the adult woman standing in front of the camellia with the swaddled baby who'd been held there decades before. “Good. Now we need to think about how best to appeal to the readers' emotions. There's nothing like tugging on the heartstrings to make them pick up the phone. How about I say to you, 'Imagine your birth mother is standing in front of you, right now – what is it like?' How old would she be now?” “She was seventeen in 1987, so she'd be forty two.” “Okay. Imagine your forty-two year old mother is sitting right here.” He pointed at the empty chair next to him, the one directly across from me. “Forty two isn't so old these days. She was very young when she had you, so other people might even mistake you for sisters.
You'd probably look quite similar. So, she's sitting here – what would be the very first thing you'd say?” My vision blurred. It was like looking at a trembling screen. I took a deep breath. “Mum.” I pictured my voice as a series of sound waves. If my mother was out there somewhere, still alive, would those waves be able to reach her? I glanced at the reporter, who gave me a look as if to say 'keep going' then, when that had no effect, pointed at the chair and whispered “She's right here. Your mother.” I turned my gaze on that empty chair. “I learned Korean, Mum. But I'm still not very good.” This was probably for the best, as it meant there was no danger of my pouring out everything that I really wanted to say. All I had were these faltering stock phrases. “You were too young, and I was too young, and I forgot all about you. About you, and about Jinnam. I'm sorry, Mum. I forgot. I forgot you completely.” I paused. It defied all logic, but I was convinced that those waves really were finding their way to her. To my mother. “Mum,” I stammered, “I miss you. Your face. I want to see. Just once. At any cost.” Wherever she was in this world, I knew she would be thinking of me. The more I spoke, the further out the ripples of my voice would spread. They would find her. My mother. Soon now, she would show me her face.
That night, I had two dreams. In the first, I was around five or six years old, and had never left Jinnam. I was being carried around by someone, clinging to their back with my limbs splayed out like a frog's. The person carrying me smelled warm and comforting. It was daytime, at first, but at some point the surroundings darkened, and the stars rose overhead. As we bounced along, I seemed to be getting higher and higher, until I could almost have thrust my head between the stars. Just as it seemed the ascent had begun, the moon hung there in the
sky above me, its pale blue like the chill heart of an iceberg. My face was reflected in that pale moon, and when I saw it I realised that I was made up like Pierrot. But this didn't seem the least preposterous; in fact, I thought I looked incredibly pretty. I was proud of myself. Stretching both arms up, I muttered to myself: I'm the most beautiful thing in the world. I'm prettier than that blue moon. No sooner had I said them than I realised that these words weren't mine, they were my mother's. Yes, my mother's words. Then the scene shifted abruptly and I was even younger, floating in a higher place. I was a baby, not yet able to speak. Long arms clasped me and lifted me up. Higher than the moon. Higher than the stars. Arms stretching out from my mother's words, lifting me right up into the heart of the night sky. The dream finished and I opened my eyes. Still in a vague haze of semi-wakefulness, I went to the bathroom. The blue moon's vivid mystery lingered in my mind. I stayed sitting on the toilet for some time, contemplating the moon's sharp outline, the cold light it had shed. Then I got a drink of water from the fridge and went back to bed. Yuichi stirred, mumbled something semi-coherent, and pulled me to him. I dreamt the second dream pressed up against the warmth of his chest. In the dream, my adoptive mother Ann was still alive. We were off on a fishing trip, both carrying our rods, and as we walked down to the river Ann talked about her trip to Cambodia, the kind of food she'd eaten there. According to her, she'd even tried insects like moths, cockroaches, grasshoppers. I asked if she was lying, and she denied it. The reason she'd wanted to go fishing, she said, was that she wanted to make me one of the dishes she'd learned to cook in Cambodia. What sort of dish, I asked, and she said 'aurora fish'. We absolutely have to catch some, but I'm just not sure there'll be any, Ann fretted. I really want you to be able to taste it. But, contrary to Ann's fears, the river was chock full of aurora fish. As we watched a school of fish swimming against the current, my heart began to race
and I felt my cheeks blaze red. Hot tears were squeezed from my eyes. At first, to be sure, simply because the fish were so beautiful. But after that it was because the whole scene was so surreal, I was instantly flooded with the knowledge that I was dreaming. A conscious dream. I could see Ann's laughing face right there in front me, and yet at the same time I knew that she was long dead. My own eyes bore witness to the beauty of the aurora fish, yet I knew that no such species existed in this world, this world where I was living but Ann was not. This sadness washing over everything only served to sweeten the wonders of the dream. I only just about hung on till the end, desperate to see it through. In the meantime, a new day had slowly dawned.