Once Around the Sun

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ONCE AROUND THE SUN Written by Melanie Steyn

Copyright Š Melanie Steyn All Rights Reserved First published on September, 2010. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the publisher. Published by Seoul Selection B1 Korean Publishers Association Bldg., 105-2 Sagan-Dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul 110-190, Korea Tel : 82-2-734-9567 Fax : 82-2-734-9562 E-mail: publisher@seoulselection.com Website: www.seoulselection.com ISBN: 978-89-91913-71-4 03840 Printed in the Republic of Korea

To my son, Kurt, and to what turned out to be more than one year in Korea.

In Northeast Asia, but southeast of Beijing, there is a peninsula that has four distinct seasons and is blessed with abundant rain. Its people have lived there for nearly five thousand years, sometimes invaded, occupied or oppressed, but always surviving between the oceans and thousands of flint-shaped mountains. Were you to approach this peninsula from the west and head for a certain cove toward the southern end of Korea, you would arrive at a picturesque fishing village where many of the homes still have hipped and gabled roofs, a style so elegant that its beauty is moving. The village isn’t large and it’s changing all the time, like most things in Korea. The beaches tend to be muddy and are full of life-sustaining seafood. There is a single main road leading to the beach, whose squat buildings were thrown up quickly as the postwar poverty was ending. The only attempt at beauty is the flickering golden lights in the windows of the pub, called Uri (Our) Coffee and Hof.

Even in a village this size, there is a very inexpensive Internet café, or “PC bang.” Were you to wander in the other direction, up a winding dirt road lined with trees, including chestnut, Korean pines and persimmons, you would find a stream running beside you and be gladdened by the loveliness of the forest. Totem poles mark the border of the temple grounds. Later, there are the spectacular defenders of the gate, and then the colorful temple buildings. All of this is the setting for Once Around the Sun. Y i Chang-joon—or, in the Western manner, Changjoon Lee—is a family man from this village. Although it isn’t an urban family, it is in some ways a typical Korean family. Each member of Chang-joon’s family is the focus of a chapter, set in a particular season.




ong-ju felt special, because he knew. The monks at the temple were all worried, especially the Temple Master, who had a face like a dried jujube. They were trying to keep it secret while they searched, but the relic was gone. It was a national treasure with a long number, and it used to stand in the row of tall jars in the museum. Of course, he’d never seen the sari himself, but someone must have photographed them, because the picture was always there against the wooden wall: the glittering gems that had survived the cremation, showing how advanced this Buddha had been. He wondered if they’d taken the photograph down. Once he’d passed the temple gates, Dong-ju started 9


running up the wide path, avoiding most of the muddy spots. The stream was running energetically after some monsoon rains, even though it was no more than kneedeep. He loved the sound of the water and trotted along the side of the path where there was a full view of the stream. The water was clear, flowing up a foam around the rocks on its bed. The sun was hidden behind the steely mass of gray summer clouds, and the heat was oppressive. He crossed again to the forest side of the path, but the shade of the mountain trees didn’t help much either, and Dong-ju was still perspiring. He wanted to know—ah, there was the museum building now, right on the first corner of the temple compound. At the door, Dong-ju was startled to see that the jars were all there. Could the thieves have taken the contents, the holy relic, but left the jar? Dong-ju stepped out of his shoes below the rough wooden step and went up closer. Ah, no. The monks had replaced the jar with one that looked almost like the original, but it wasn’t as tall. And there, around the bottom of the jar, was a circle with no dust in it. The photograph was still in its place, as if nothing was wrong. Dong-ju’s heart ached. Where were the remains of the venerable monk now? A young monk came in, the friendly one who always seemed to notice him. They smiled at each other. Now Dong-ju moved along the row of jars and photographs, as if he were interested in 10


them all. He reached the end and was about to slip out of the building when the young monk spoke. “You’re interested in our museum, aren’t you, my child?” “Yes, it’s wonderful!” “I’m glad. Do you live nearby?” “Yes, in the fishing village.” “And your name is...?” “Yi Dong-ju.” “Is your father a fisherman?” “Yes.” “Well, I wish him success and good catches.” “Thank you, Sunim.” Dong-ju was hungry, so he went home, where his mother gave him rice and spicy bean sprout soup. His older sister Ji-young ate at school. She was in her final high school year and Dong-ju hardly ever seemed to see her these days. While he was slurping up his soup, he thought about the dolmens of the monks—huge, beautiful boulders, some pagoda-shaped, with black characters on them. He couldn’t read Chinese, so they just looked like lovely patterns to him, but he knew they stood there to honor scholars and great monks of long ago. If only the sari of this monk had also been placed beneath a dolmen, they would have been much safer... 11


“Why are you looking so serious, Dong-ju?” His mother would laugh if he told her that he, a boy of twelve, was going to solve a mystery that the monks couldn’t, so he wistfully said, “I was wishing I could read Chinese characters, Omma.” “You can learn Chinese, if you want to.” “Yes, Omma. I’ll go to Jae-won now, all right?” “All right. I did say you could have three days of pure vacation before your study program starts.” “Thanks, Omma!” he said, stepping back into his shoes to run across to Jae-won’s. It wasn’t a light decision to tell someone his secret, but Jae-won was different. Besides, Dong-ju needed his help, so he began to enjoy the idea that he had an amazing story to tell his friend. Jae-won was already waiting in the yard, and they could immediately start walking up to the ticket kiosk. They made an interesting picture: Dong-ju, light and agile, with half-moon eyes, and Jae-won with his very pale skin, slanting eyes, and heavier, short body. “It can’t be!” Jae-won was saying as they passed the grumpy attendant. He stopped talking until they were out of earshot, and interrupted their conversation to remark that the man seemed to resent the fact that local families didn’t need to buy tickets. Dong-ju agreed, and then resumed his assurances. 12


“Oh yes, it’s true. I overheard the whole conversation. I swear to you.” Jae-won pressed him. “So, one of them was the Temple Master?” “Yes,” Dong-ju confirmed. “He was talking to another monk. I was behind the rock—there, at the little pond, you know.” “It’s a good thing you’re so thin!” his friend smiled. “The monk said that some people will pay a lot of money for a treasure like that.” They thought for a few moments before Dong-ju suggested, “Maybe it’s too late, but you never know. Let’s keep watch. We must remember every visitor to the temple. After all, no one takes any notice of two boys fooling around.” “But you sometimes fool around so foolishly that everyone will notice you, Dong-ju,” Jae-won smiled. “Not this time. Watch me.” So they walked on, passed the defenders of the gate, and moved all afternoon among the old buildings with their extraordinary hipped and gabled roofs. They watched the families that came to stroll around, two big foreigners, and they even kept an eye on one genuine pilgrim. He was climbing barefoot up the walkway with the varying textures, which prick or prod the soles of your feet. Dong-ju could walk up it fast, but Jae-won never got very far before it seemed like needless suffering 13


“Yes. I’m so, so sorry, Dong-ju. I didn’t recognize you,” Byung-on whispered. “I thought those cowardly thieves were sending a child to fetch the relic for them, and I’d arrived just in time to catch him. I had to be sure to capture him, so that he could take me to them.” “You know—all about it?” “Oh yes.” “I knew you weren’t the thief.” “Thanks,” said Byung-on in a bitter tone. “Why did you really leave?” asked Dong-ju. “And where are we?” He was suddenly aware of the damp, unfamiliar ground. “One question at a time, please!” Byung-on gave a low laugh. “We’re in a clump of bushes between the trees, just over a mound from the relic. And I actually left because the Temple Master and a few others suspected me of the theft.” “Why did they suspect you?” asked Jae-won. “There were other novices.” “I asked myself that question day and night. Why me?’” “Because you attract attention—it’s your enthusiasm. You love life too much to give it up.” It was Dong-ju. Byung-on looked at his amazing young friend in astonishment. “That was more or less what I figured in the end,” he said. “I wasn’t like the other novices. I talked too much and laughed too loudly, for one thing. 30


I’d have suspected me myself, if I’d been the Temple Master.” Byung-on laughed softly again. “So my question changed from ‘Why me?’ to ‘Why not me?’” “So you would have liked to stay and become a monk?” asked Dong-ju. “No. I didn’t lie to you about that,” Byung-on reassured him. “When the Temple Master spoke to me—and he did it quite gently, by the way—I did realize during our talk that I was just running away. But once I was back in Daegu, my indignation grew. I didn’t want anyone still perhaps to think I might have done such a thing, so I decided to come and investigate for myself. I must have found the relic just before you did.” “How come you were also looking here? And why didn’t you see us finding it?” asked Jae-won. “Questions, questions.” Byung-on shook his smiling face. “I was told that thieves often hide these artefacts –“ “I read that on the Internet!” Jae-won interjected proudly. “Well then, you understand. And I didn’t see you find it because I went to get supplies for my vigil. I couldn’t manage for another minute without anything to drink. It’s so hot.” Jae-won simply said in his practical way, “Anyway, now we’re partners, and I’m very glad. What next?” 31


was marching across to the kimchi jar. “I’m going scrub that kimchi jar and— What, Dongju?” “Oh, let me help you, please, Omma,” Dong-ju said as he dashed past her. “Help me? What nonsense. My daughter never stops studying, and the boy wants to wash jars...” She lifted the lid of the jar. “Now what?” “This is what I wanted to tell you, Omma.” Watching the expression on her face, Chang-joon laughed as heartily as Byung-on ever did, and said, “Prepare yourself for a wonderful story!”





oo fat! Too fat!” Ji-young hit the calf of her leg with her fist. She was sitting, as usual so late at night, at her desk. She swiveled on the sculpted chair that she sat in for hours on end, and lifted her other leg. “Too fat! Too fat!” To any observer her anxiety would have seemed absurd. In fact, Ji-young possessed a beauty so delicate that it would be difficult to fault. The calves she was punching were perfectly curved, and the eyes with which she viewed them so critically were shining, dark brown almonds of great loveliness. She decided to close the science book and do the homework for her English institute, the Sing Sang Sung hagwon. Helen Teacher wanted them to tell three stories 45


about themselves, but one had to be a lie. Then they would cross-question one another and vote. The best liar, who fooled most of the others, would be the winner. “That’s a weird, foreign idea, but I like Helen Teacher,” she thought, and started to wonder what stories she could tell. “Ji-young!” Her mother’s voice sounded sharp. “Wake up!” She raised her head from her arms on the desk. They were tingling, and her eyes hurt. “I’m sorry, Omma.” “Are you that tired?” Other mothers would be angrier, but Yun-hwa knew that her daughter pushed herself as hard as she could, and added no further pressure. “No, no. I’m going to finish this homework.” “Here. I brought you some ginger tea.” Ji-young quickly wrote down the outlines for three stories while she drank the sharp, delicious tea. Then she washed and crawled into bed. Ji-young’s best friend You-jin pulled her by her wrist behind the school wall. It was clear from the mischievous look in her eye that she had some scheme in mind. Ji-young had been walking to school, where she would stay until 10 p.m. because she was in her final high school year. After school she would take the hagwon bus to get to her English institute and back home an hour later. The mornings were already cooler, 46


thank heavens, and this morning was just like the others, except for the fact that You-jin didn’t usually ambush her like this; she clearly couldn’t wait to tell Ji-young something. “The owner of the Uri Coffee and Hof never tells on school kids,” she was saying. “If our friends tell our class teacher that we’ve caught a bad cold or something, we can sleep there all morning tomorrow!” “Who wants to sleep there?” “I do. I want to sleep anywhere. My mom never allows me more than four or five hours of sleep. Come on, Ji-young!” Ji-young looked at her friend’s round face, with the single freckle on her right cheekbone. She was thinking that her own hard work had paid off and her entry into KAIST, the science university in Daejeon, was already assured. She knew she’d do well again in the next examinations. “I’m ready for any change in this old routine,” she heard herself saying. They made their plans for the next day, and all the time Ji-young was thinking how surprised she was at herself. Ji-young ate very little of the school food, so she felt hunger pangs in the Sing Sang Sung bus. They were the usual five late-night students. She told the others to go ahead while she bought roast chestnuts from the corner vendor. Although she ate them fast, Helen 47


Teacher had already started when she walked in. “Ji-young, hello!” called Helen. “Your punishment for being late is that you have to tell your three stories first.” Everyone gave a friendly laugh, and Ji-young happily dug her notes out of her bag. Her face was expressive and her eyes shone, although she found it hard to grapple with the English language. She started speaking and gestured desperately as she went. “Number one. One day, early morning, my younger brother see a, a...” She ran and drew a centipede on the whiteboard. Of course, Jin-seok would know. He was such a genius, and he’d spent a year in the USA. “A centipede,” he said. Even his eyebrows look intelligent when he raises them, Ji-young thought. “A centipede. It is coming in house from outside. My brother is very scare. I hear his calling. I take my geomdo...uh...” “Sword,” said Jin-seok. “...sword and hit...” She demonstrated. “Oh, you chopped it up?” Helen asked, interested. “Yes. I chop, many piece. My brother is too happy. My parent also happy.” “Are they poisonous?” the teacher asked. “Yes!” Ji-young assured her. “That’s a very interesting story, Ji-young. My friend is learning geom-do. He loves it. What’s the second story?” 48


“Number two. One day my father is angry. Why, I don’t know. We must go whole day on beach.” “That’s a bad thing?” “Her father is a fisherman,” said Jin-seok. “Yes,” Ji-young went on. “We work on beach whole day. I pick 80kg...uh...kkomak.” Jin-seok said, “Of baby clams, I think. Just a minute.” He consulted his electronic dictionary. “Maybe ark shells?” That name didn’t mean much to anyone in the room, but Helen had picked up on the weight. “Really? 80kg? Are you sure?” She was incredulous. “Sure. Whole day.” “How exactly do you do that, Ji-young?” “Have big bag and stand on...” She spread out her hands in a rectangular shape. “A wooden board, a mud sled.” “Thanks, Jin-seok,” Helen said. “No.” Ji-young enjoyed correcting Jin-seok for once. “Wood, no. These days plastic.” “Oh, I see. Are the baby clams in the sand, then?” “Yes. In mud.” She paused. “Number three. When I am five years of age...” “Say was, Ji-young. When I was five.” “Okay. When I was five years of age, I study violin. One day I don’t practice. My mother wake—woke— was woke me.” 49

About the Author Melanie Susan Steyn was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1945. Her mother was an actress until she married, and her father was a politician who later became South Africa’s ambassador to the UK during the apartheid era. She grew up within the dichotomy of a loving family and the detestable system, which she argued and battled against. Melanie has written plays for community theater and a youth novel, Theo and Blikskottel. She came to Korea in 2002 and now teaches in the Department of English Education at Suncheon National University. She has three sons.

Extraordinary Accounts of Spiritual Awakening! “In Melanie Steyn’s novel Once Around the Sun, we are introduced to the Lee family. Dong-ju, the 12 year old son—boisterous, exuberant and curious; Ji-young, the 16 year old daughter, ripped from childhood and thrown into an adult world too soon; Yun-hwa, defined as a wife and a mother, but searching to be just herself; and Kyu-ah, the grandmother, looking back on a life full of heartache, but also forward to the legacy she will leave through her family. Each has an individual journey of self discovery. The novel is divided into four chapters and takes part over the period of one year. Each chapter represents a season, and each season covers the story of one member of the family. They start out as simple tales of ordinary life, but soon unfold into extraordinary accounts of spiritual awakening. They tell of enlightenment; of growing up and growing wise; the seasonal journey of each family member searching for authenticity. They are tales of people who are variously “dis-located” finding their true spiritual “location,” and so reaching a point of personal acceptance and contentment. Once Around the Sun is a joy to read. Melanie Steyn writes in an accessible style which will appeal to a wide audience. Use of the seasonal imagery gives the novel shape, and the resonance of nature in the story leads to an awareness of time passing, of something larger than human life being important.” - Marilyn Roberts, Semyeung University

US $ 7.95

Cover Illustration & Design by Eunji Shin

5,500 won 03840

9 788991 913714 ISBN 978-89-91913-71-4


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