That summer, in that place, heat had a presence, insinuating, intimate, like a stranger rubbing against you in a crowd. Everywhere she went that summer, Suzanne walked slowly, moved economically—chin up, arms slightly away from her body—to keep from breaking into a sweat for as long as possible.
She walked up and down the stairs of the underground street crossings; past the narrow shops cluttered with merchandise, uniformed shop girls beckoning; past the supermarkets with their basement restaurants specializing in dumplings and seaweed rolls; past the blind beggar with her baby; the shoeshine boys squatting on the stairs; the Buddhist monks in gray robes beating their hollow wooden drums. On the sidewalks of uneven red tile, she would watch the ajumas, with their steam-reddened faces, offer up octopus and peppery fish stew to men standing cramped together under the blue-striped awnings of their outdoor restaurants.
One day that summer, a crowd gathered on the sidewalk and Suzanne stopped to see what was happening. Between the rows of black heads in front of her, she could make out an old man squatting on the concrete. He wore traditional Korean pajee, his feet were bare. There was gray stubble on his face and head. In front of him sat a plastic tub filled with what looked like huge red and black millipedes. They crawled frantically over and around one another in undulating waves, creating a tidal movement, a desperate rhythm of heave and collapse.
All the time, the old man was keeping up a steady stream of talk, his voice rasping and cadenced, as though he were reading poetry. Schoolboys in black uniforms shifted their book bags from hand to hand as they listened. Dark-suited businessmen patted their sweating foreheads with white handkerchiefs and leaned forward. Suzanne felt the heat from their suits radiating outward, pulsing off their sleeves onto her bare arms. She listened to the rise and fall of the man’s voice, watched the crowd sway to his words like snakes to the charmer.
In front of the man was a wide-mouthed bottle filled with bluish liquid. As the crowd watched, the man flicked a millipede into the bottle with a long, pointed fork. He shook it. The crowd murmured its approval. Suzanne heard a boy behind her grunt in satisfaction, pressing closer against her to stare.
The man went on with his creaking liturgy. His voice held secrets, promised great rewards, threatened evils. It seemed to prophesy, to warn and to dictate, mesmerizing the audience with its power, the eloquence of its conviction. Suzanne strained to understand it. She caught something about “working hard, ” recognized the Korean for “special price. ” Her head throbbed from the effort.
After a few minutes, the man dropped another millipede into the bottle. Suzanne could see them swimming around in the bluish liquid, floating in and out of view as the man pitched the bottle from side to side. His voice, also, pitched and tossed. Suzanne saw the millipedes in the bottle lurching up and down, and the millipedes in the tub roiling. She felt the closeness of the bodies around her, the heat being shut in behind the wall they made. She stepped back, stumbled, dizzy with sudden panic. She could not remember the Korean for “excuse me.” Gasping for air, she pushed her way out of the crowd and did not stop until the man’s voice had drowned in the noise of traffic. She realized that she was soaked in sweat.
At the restaurant, the others were waiting for her.
“What do you think they were doing?” she asked, when she’d told them why she was late.
Vera shrugged her elegant shoulders. She was small, gamine, with a petulant kind of beauty. Her husband was a diplomat. “Who knows?” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Oh, you know how these Korean men are,” said Alice excitedly. “It’s probably another one of those weird virility cures, like dog soup.”
Suzanne frowned. “Maybe,” she said, wishing she hadn’t brought the subject up.
Suzanne often felt of herself that she was like a tuning fork, reverberating at the lowest sound. The slightest things seemed to make profound impressions on her; the smallest incidents could mark her day. Especially here. Being in Korea seemed to intensify even this heightened level of emotion, exhausting her, giving her an almost unbearable sense of being bloated with feeling, with impulses.
Vera and Alice’s food came—fried chicken and a hamburger.
“Can you believe they charge twelve bucks for this?” Alice said, flicking a forefinger at her plate.
“If you want a hamburger…” shrugged Vera.
“And it still doesn’t taste as good as back home.” She smoothed catsup on her hamburger bun with a knife.
It was a fact that made Suzanne feel slightly ashamed, that they always ate in these deluxe hotel restaurants, blandly plush with beige carpets and fake gold and marble. It was true that she craved American food sometimes and had the money to pay for it. She thought about the soup houses her colleagues at work frequented, where the waitresses knelt by the table and cut the noodles in your bowl with heavy scissors. They were always crowded and noisy, filled with cigarette smoke and steam—but a bowl of soup with kimchi was only five hundred won (less than a dollar)—and the patrons seemed to derive robust energy from the chaos.
The waitress set Suzanne’s hamburger down in front of her.
“Kumupsumnida,” Suzanne said. The waitress started, stared at Suzanne with widened eyes, then turned, sneering, away.
“What’s her problem?” Alice asked.
Suzanne shook her head. “Oh…” She fiddled with the parsley garnish on her plate. “I guess my Korean sounds funny.”
“Well, tell her to go take a flying fuck!” said Alice indignantly. “Her English isn’t so hot!” Suzanne smiled faintly.
“Look at her!” Alice indicated the waitress with an upward tilt of her chin. “Korean women. D’you notice how they stick their asses out when they walk? They waddle around like a bunch of ducks.” She half-rose in a swaying imitation and fell back in her chair laughing. It was a loud, nervous sound.
“Alice,” said Vera, glancing anxiously at Suzanne. “Shut up.”
“Oh, not you, Suzanne!” Alice leaned toward Suzanne and touched her arm conspiratorially. “I meant Korean Koreans. You know.”
Suzanne nodded. “It’s okay, I know what you meant.” She looked out the window, at the traffic streaming into the square from all directions, the green, yellow and orange taxis, blue buses fuming exhaust, the smaller green express buses and conservative black sedans. Across the street was Toksu Palace. Its painted wooden gate, dwarfed by skyscrapers, stood against the traffic like the last sentinel of an ancient empire, proud still, enduring, but with an air, also, of submission. It reminded Suzanne of the old women in flowing Korean costumes she sometimes saw on street corners waiting for the light to change. Stooped and bewildered, they stared out at a world they no longer seemed to recognize.
Where had they come from? Suzanne wondered. What had their lives been like as young girls? She imagined streets of dirt and ox carts, hard living in thatched huts without electricity or running water. Was it of this they were thinking, standing there? Of the time, no matter how poor or brutal or terrifying, to which they had truly belonged?
“Look at the traffic down there,” Vera said, tapping the window with a fingernail. “Aren’t you glad you’re not caught up in that?”
Suzanne glanced up at the clock when she got back to the newsroom. It was after two. Editor Kim, she noticed, glanced up, too, and gave her a curt nod. She slid into her place on the copy desk and took up the pile of newsprint waiting there. President Chun Mulls Trade Agreement. Chairman Pledges to Redouble Efforts. These were the clichés, “mulls,” “redoubles efforts.” Every day she took them out and substituted different words— “ponders,” “debates,” “works harder”—she thought up more all the time, but they’d often appear in the morning edition changed back. “We like ‘mulls’,” Editor Kim would say. “Only four point. Good for headline.”
The newsroom was large and rectangular, accommodating eight long rows of desks and about seventy reporters, two wire service machines, and a small table in the back for the girls who fetched tea and ran errands. A haze of gray smoke hung in the room, working up from the ends of chain-smoked cigarettes. The sound of old typewriter keys hitting dully against newsprint was predominant, along with the whir of ineffectual air conditioners and the chirrup of telephones.
Editor Kim, hands behind his back, strolled across the room, stopping at each row of desks to have a word with the section chief. The reporters rose as he approached, bowing repeatedly until he motioned for them to sit down. Then they sat, dragging nervously on their cigarettes, until he passed by.
Suzanne did not stand when Editor Kim came up to her at the copy desk. It was somehow not expected of her, just as it was not expected that she should stay until eight or nine like the others did, waiting a discreet time after Editor Kim had departed for the night. Suzanne suspected that this was less a privilege afforded her for being the token American in the office, than the result of their disdain for her. What she did was of little concern to them; she was outside their society, her behavior and what governed it far from their comprehension.
“So,” Editor Kim said, focusing his close-set eyes on her. “How is everything? Okay?” He had a face like a hawk’s, with a sharp nose and a predatory glint in his eyes.
“Fine.” Suzanne smiled. “No problem.”
“Good, good….” He nodded vaguely and was about to move on.
“I…I was wondering…” she said, surprised by her nervousness. “I saw this man on the street today putting these bugs, these long caterpillar-like bugs, into a bottle and shaking them up. Any idea what he was doing? He was selling this liquid, I think, demonstrating something.”
Editor Kim’s eyes narrowed. He looked puzzled. “Bugs?” he said. “In a bottle?”
“In some sort of blue liquid.”
He shook his head and drew in a breath with a long, sharp hiss. “I don’t know. Maybe some sort of poison?”
Suzanne nodded. “Yes, maybe….” She was disappointed he didn’t seem to know what she was talking about, that whatever she had witnessed was not some readily explainable Korean rite or tradition. The submersion of the millipede. Suzanne felt suddenly light-headed, as though something held taut had loosened inside her. She giggled. Bug baptism.
Editor Kim was looking at her strangely. He attempted a smile, displaying prominent eye teeth. “Everything okay?” he inquired again, doubtfully.
Suzanne couldn’t stop. She kept seeing the millipedes bobbing in the bottle, the crowd rapt and eager, and herself, green with incomprehension and heat, wobbling on low heels like a sidewalk drunk. She did not know why it suddenly struck her so funny, but she felt the laughter rising in her throat like bubbles she had swallowed, the laughter like coughing, an involuntary reflex, bringing up the bubbles one by one.
American Mulls Millipedes. She laughed. Redoubles, Quadruples Efforts.
She felt giddy, weightless, as though she would drift any moment out the window of the newsroom, past the gaping face of Editor Kim, and float down Toegyero, above the double-decker highway and the skyscrapers, across the Han River and the rows of concrete apartment buildings, over the rice paddies to the new Olympic stadium and beyond, float without weight, without substance, across all of Korea.
In the cab on the way to Gary and Alice’s, she got the usual lecture. As soon as she said, “Samcheongdong, ” the driver turned in his seat to stare at her. His rugged face was disbelieving.
“Samcheongdong?” he repeated, with some slight shift in accent, some subtle pronunciation change that Suzanne could not make out, but which seemed to make all the difference.
“Neh,” she said. Yes.
“Aren’t you Korean?” he asked then, and they were off.
She had stock responses. “Yes, but I was born in America.”
Mi-kook, they called it, beautiful country.
“Your parents didn’t teach you Korean?”
“A little.” She was speaking it, wasn’t she?
Then came the speech. It was always the same, or it was the parts that were the same that Suzanne recognized, from cab drivers, shopkeepers, street vendors. All she had to do was open her mouth and they started in.
“Your parents were bad to leave their country. They got rich in America while Korea was poor and now that Korea is rich, they send you back. Why did they leave? Why did they not teach you Korean, teach you Korean ways? Do you like to eat kimchi? Will you marry a Korean man?”
Depending on her mood, Suzanne would answer these questions dutifully, in her fragmented Korean, or try to turn it into a joke. “Why, you looking for a bride?” she’d say, or, “No, I only eat hamburgers.” To get any more philosophical was beyond her capacity.
With this one, she was sullen, answering his questions in even more fractured Korean than usual. She was tired. She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead against the window. The driver gave up on her after a while.
“In Genoa,” Alice took up, “where pesto originated. It’s incredible there. They make it with less basil and more olive oil so it’s not as thick as we make it. I make it the thick way because Gary prefers it and it’s a little better for you, less fat. You can make it with pine nuts but I use walnuts. I brought a huge bag of walnuts with me, too, if you ever need some. You can get them here on the black market but it’ll cost you an arm and a leg.”
Suzanne chewed a mouthful of pesto. Alice was a remarkable cook, though Suzanne found herself reluctant to give her credit. She had fallen in with her and the other expatriates because it was easier to be with people who spoke the same language, shared the same culture—who knew the words to the Gilligan’s Island theme song, for example, or the name of the latest Talking Heads album. But now Suzanne wondered if this was true—if it was easier—if sharing a vocabulary and a store of trivia were enough for friendship.
“I know,” Alice said, getting up from the table. “I’ll go get you a cutting. I’ve got so much. You’ll see. This basil is the best. You can make all sorts of yummy things. I’ve got tons of recipes.”
Suzanne looked over the terrace at the mountains in the distance, black jagged mass against a purple sky. Hazy lights, scattered like birdseed, burned across the landscape. Directly below, a small courtyard was illuminated by a streetlight. A plain dirt square. Inside, a woman squatted over a camp stove, cooking something in an open pot. She had an infant tied to her back with a broad red cloth.
Suzanne watched as a man stepped out from a sliding paper door that opened onto the courtyard. He scuffed his feet into a pair of slippers with bashed-in heels and shuffled across the courtyard to the toilet, or what Suzanne imagined was the toilet. She could hear the streaming of liquid into something metallic, then the man’s hacking cough and a harsh sound of spitting. The man reemerged, buttoning his pants.
Suzanne felt a vague sense of shame as she watched the man shuffle back across the courtyard and disappear behind the sliding door, as though being a foreigner in a big house on a hill gave her the right to spy down on the poor, literally above them, witnessing their domestic scenes, their small acts of survival. She did not want to see, but could not stop herself from seeing, how they lived—the woman by the fire squatting, her baby bound to her back, the man in the courtyard spitting in the dirt. They did not look up, for this Suzanne was grateful, that they did not raise their heads and stare back.
In spite of herself, though, Suzanne wanted to know about these people. What their lives were like. Were the man and woman married, or did each of the doors opening onto the courtyard denote separate houses? What did the woman do all day? How did she earn the money to live? Watching the squatting woman, Suzanne felt the weight of the baby on her own back, felt the heat from the pot rising to her own face, flushing it hot and smelling of red pepper and garlic.
What was fascinating to Suzanne seemed always to be taking place elsewhere. She felt, in this country, that she was always watching from the outside, the view from the window, the scene far below. “The stolen view,” it was called in Chinese gardening, incorporating a neighbor’s tree, a distant mountain, into your own carefully arranged landscape. What she stole was mysterious to her, strange and difficult, sometimes frightening. She longed for understanding, for a part, anyway, of knowledge.
“You know what I think?” Gary said, startling her. He looked down at the courtyard. Together they watched the woman stir the pot. “I think you really like these taxi cab encounters because it shows they claim you as one of them. You can’t betray what you aren’t a part of. “
“I didn’t, my parents did,” Suzanne protested.
Gary shrugged. “They obviously hold you responsible. “
In the courtyard, the woman shifted position by the fire, causing the baby to wake. Its irritated cries were small and weak, wafting into the darkness like the feeble cries of a newborn animal.
“Our driver will take you home, Suzanne,” said Alice. She was insistent. “I told him to stay just so he could take you. “
The driver appeared, a short, well-groomed man with brilliantined hair and a baby face. He bowed at Suzanne. Suzanne bowed back.
“Mr. Lee, you take Miss Chung home, then you may go.” Alice spoke slowly, exaggerating each syllable.
“Kumupsumnida,” said Gary, smiling. Mr. Lee bowed.
“Well, okay,” said Suzanne. She climbed into the front seat of the car, ignoring the back door which the driver had opened for her. He hesitated, then closed the door and went around to the driver’s side.
“Goodbye. Thanks for a delicious meal. ” She held the basil plant Alice had given her, its roots wrapped in wet paper towel and plastic. She waved it like a bouquet.
“Shin Banpo,” she said.
The driver nodded.
From the side, Suzanne examined his face. He was handsome, in his late thirties maybe, his smooth skin the color of caramel candy, milky brown with gold highlights. There were deeply etched lines around his eyes.
“It’s late,” Suzanne said in Korean. “You must be tired.”
The man smiled. His teeth were small and even and very white. “No,” he said. “I’m all right.”
“I’m tired,” Suzanne said. She yawned.
The driver glanced over at her. “Yes,” he said, “you look tired.” His voice was kind.
Suzanne watched the lights of the city as they slipped backward by her, blurred and hazy—the glass-front windows of pharmacies and neon cabaret signs. She read the names in Korean letters, often spelling out English words like Crown or Venus or Ambassador. There was something depressing about neon on near-deserted streets, casting shadows across the sidewalks, reflecting sickly on tired faces.
Inside the car, Suzanne felt insulated, secure. From the driver there emanated a gentle smell of garlic and tobacco. His dark eyes were soft and serious, but when he spoke, he would smile, and the wrinkles in the corners of his eyes would fold together like a fan. There was a quality of reassurance in his smile, a forgiving wisdom. It made Suzanne feel as though he knew her, knew her beyond explaining, beyond language.
“Do you have a wife waiting up for you?” she asked, after a while.
He smiled sadly and shook his head. “No, she died,” he said, startling Suzanne so much that she could barely make out what he said next, which was something about illness, maybe cancer? His smile brightened when he added, “I live with my children, a girl and a boy, and my mother-in-law.”
Suzanne asked about the children. They were six and three. Their names were Che Myung and Che Hyun. They were good children. She wished her Korean was fluent enough to get beyond the stated facts.
“Will you marry again?” she asked.
He laughed. It was an abrupt sound. He shook his head. “I have duty to my mother-in-law and my children,” he said.
“But you are still young.”
He shook his head more emphatically. Suzanne wanted to touch him, but instead she apologized. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It’s the American way. “
“It’s all right,” he said. “And you. Are you married?”
“No,” said Suzanne, and she laughed. “I’m too young.”
“Only twenty-three. “
He chuckled. “I was married at twenty-one,” he said. “My wife was nineteen. “
“So young!” Suzanne exclaimed.
“It’s the Korean way. “
They both laughed. Suzanne wanted to sit there beside him and drive around all night, but, of course, he needed to get home and, anyway, they were getting close to her apartment building.
“Here, left here,” she said and he nodded and turned the wheel with his small, white-gloved hands.
They turned into the alleyway that led to her building. “You can let me off here, please, ” she said in her most polite Korean.
He braked and, before Suzanne could thank him, was out the door and halfway to her side. They opened the door together, hands clumsily fumbling at latches inside and out. They smiled at one another, embarrassed.
“Well ” Suzanne said. She reached out her hand but he was already bowing, backing away from her. His smile was so kind, she thought. She wanted to do something, make some gesture, to show she felt close to him, that they had shared something of value together. On impulse, she reached into her purse and pulled out ten thousand won. She pressed it into his hand. “Please,” she said, “for you. Please.”
But he was frowning, shaking his head and pushing the money back at her.
“For your children. To buy them presents,” she urged.
“No, no,” he said, a look of alarm on his face, and she saw that it had been entirely the wrong thing, that giving him the money had made her one of them, like Alice and Gary, a foreigner with the means to buy and sell intimacies, casually, extravagantly, wholly without depth. She felt the sharp edge of self-loathing even as she clutched the rejected money in her hand.
“I hope I’ll see you again,” she said. He nodded, but something in his face told her he did not think so.
“Good night,” he said in English, climbing back into the car. His sweet smile disappeared behind the closing door.
She stood watching the warmth of his headlights withdrawing. She could not see him, but she knew he could see her, standing frozen in the lights like some strange nocturnal creature, caught and fearful in unfamiliar surroundings, not sure how she’d gotten there and uncertain how she was going to get the hell out.
Expatriate was published in Salmon Magazine in Summer 1992.