Thirty-five years ago the street had been dirt, narrow and rutted; there had been stables along it with tired ponies, all their ribs showing through dull, matted coats. Now, as he walked along the red-tiled sidewalk, he watched the cars glide over the smooth black tar, watched the men on bicycles, loaded in back with toilet paper, chickens, and ice, weave in and out of traffic with the intensity of racers.
He couldn’t help comparing the world he had known with what he now saw; ever since he’d come back, he’d felt this curious simultaneity in his mind, as though the past lay superimposed on the present, playing itself out in phantom traces across the city. Thirty-five years ago there had been oxen to carry the loads, lumbering down the dusty streets attended by thin, indolent men. There had been bicycles too, but not for commerce, ridden by schoolchildren in their starched uniforms who had been freed from the basements of the war.
Entering a small courtyard, Kyoungsu marveled at how much the city had changed. The skyscrapers pressed in all around the older, shorter buildings, making them seem not so much like buildings as footstools. When he’d left, the city had been devastated, a dry, gray plain filled with rubble and debris, crowded with starving refugees from the North. Like a phoenix, Kyoungsu thought, the city has rebuilt itself. He shook his head at the aptness of the image. Out of the ashes.
He slipped off his polished black shoes and placed them next to the other identical pairs, which sat in a row on the wooden stoop outside the house. His were the newest-looking.
A tall woman in a green dress greeted him at the door and bowed slightly. “Welcome, professor,” she said, her smile widening to reveal bad teeth. She ushered him into a narrow foyer. “This way, please,” she indicated. “Your friends are waiting.” She slid open a door of paper and wood and motioned for him to enter.
“Ah, Kyoungsu is here at last!” boomed a jovial male voice.
Three men rose from their cushions on the floor. They embraced Kyoungsu one after the other, slapping him on the back and laughing, all talking at once.
“Let’s sit down, why don’t we,” Jae Shik said, “and Kyoungsu can tell us all about himself.” This brought renewed laughter, as it was so typically Jze Shik to organize them all.
On the low black lacquer table were some glasses, an open bottle of whiskey, and two plates of nuts, dried cuttlefish, and raisins. The sight of it made Kyoungsu feel welcome. He settled onto a blue silk cushion beside his friends. He smelled the oiled paper, which covered the floor, heated underneath by hot air pipes. It had a musty odor.
“Ja,” Young Bae said, picking up the bottle.
Kyoungsu held out his glass formally, with two hands, and Young Bae poured into it.
“To Kyoungsu.” Jae Shik lifted his glass, and the others followed suit. “On his return to his homeland.”
“To us,” Kyoungsu replied with emotion. “To old friends.”
They all drank up. Jae Shik refilled their glasses.
“Ah,” Young Bae sighed. “We are old, aren’t we? Look at you, Kyoungsu. Your hair has gone white.”
“At least I still have hair,” Kyoungsu observed.
Young Bae fingered the bald dome of his head, smoothing down the one lock of hair that still clung there like a faint wisp of smoke. “Bald men are considered sexy,” he said.
“Fat men, too?” Hyun Ki asked. They laughed. Young bae had always been fat, but his bulk had lost its firmness since the last time Kyoungsu had seen him; his stomach sagged unhealthily downward.
They looked older, it was true. Young Bae’s baldness showed mottled brown patches on his scalp, patches that repeated on the backs of his large hands. Hyun Ki was thinner than ever, skeletal; his eyes had worsened, and the glasses he wore seemed an inch thick. Even Jae Shik had aged, his boyish face lined with creases.
Kyoungsu felt saddened to see his friends so changed. In his mind they were always teenagers together, their faces bright with an unknown future, bodies restless, flowing with adrenaline. The time intervening seemed insubstantial. Why then, did they look so old? Kyoungsu gulped the whiskey in his glass. It burrowed warmth inside him as he drank.
“So, you’ve come back, Kyoungsu,” Young Bae said, the cigarette in his mouth wavering in the air as he spoke.
“Well, I haven’t decided yet,” Kyoungsu replied, shrugging. “I’ve been down in Kwangju for three months now, at the university. They’ve offered me a permanent position, but I have to go back to the States for at least a year, whatever I decide.”
“Of course you’re coming back,” Jae Shik said, popping pine nuts into his mouth one by one.”
“I don’t know.” Kyoungsu shook his head. “It’s a difficult decision.”
“Why difficult?” asked Young Bae. “You are Korean. You belong in Korea. You’ve been away too long already.”
“In America, he has it made,” Hyun Ki retorted. His eyes blinked enormously behind thick lenses. “Why should he come back here?”
“Because Korea is his homeland,” Jae Shik said simply.
Kyoungsu nodded. “I’m quite comfortable with life in the States,” he said. “My kids are there, and I’ve got tenure. Jun Hee has a good job that she enjoys. But as I get older—I don’t know—I think more and more about returning.” He smiled at them.
“You know, Kyoungsu,” Young Bae remarked suddenly, “you have an accent!” He pointed his cigarette toward Jae Shik, laughing. “Doesn’t he? Doesn’t he, Jae Shik? You sound like a foreigner, Kyoungsu!”
“Of course he has an accent,” said Jae Shik. “He’s lived abroad more than he’s lived here.”
Kyoungsu smiled sadly. “The Americans say the same thing,” he said. “I guess between learning English and losing Korean I don’t really have a language.” The poignancy of this struck him, and he knew that it was true, that for him neither language was entirely comfortable anymore. In his mind he thought in a mishmash of the two, groping back and forth, often not distinguishing between them.
“Anyway, I can still understand you,” said Hyun Ki, patting Kyoungsu on the back. “Tell us about your job in Kwangju, Godforsaken place,” he said.
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” Kyoungsu shrugged. “They’re treating me very well, of course, because they want me to stay. And the students are very sharp, but they’re afraid to speak up in class. I have to really work to draw them out; they’re nice, very deferential.”
Young Bae snorted. “The same students who throw rocks at the police. Very nice, very deferential.”
“And why shouldn’t they throw rocks at the police?” Kyoungsu snapped. “When the police slaughter them by the thousands. You know what they did….”
Jae Shik held up a hand. His voice was quiet, almost a whisper, but there was urgency behind it. “Kyoungsu, please! This isn’t America!”
Kyoungsu held his tongue. Jae Shik had always hated political discussion. More than this, he hated when Kyoungsu and Young Bae bickered, something they had done constantly since grade school.
“Anyway, things are changing, Kyoungsu,” Hyun Ki spoke up, his enormous eyes focusing and un-focusing behind his glasses. “Korean kids are following your Western example. Don’t be fooled by their behavior in class. Young kids—my kids included—they don’t follow the Confucian rules anymore.” To Kyoungsu, his gaunt face looked bitter, unhappy, like the face of a disillusioned monk.
“Still, they must be better behaved than those American kids,” reflected Jae Shik. “You see them on TV, so wild-looking with those strange clothes and weird hair. Some of the boys even wear earrings!” He scratched his hairless cheek in wonder.
“Yes,” Kyoungsu nodded. “Korean kids are still much more easily managed.” He was thinking of his own children, the battles he had had with them growing up. Jane’s sullen face appeared to him as it had looked when she’d been thirteen: straight black hair hanging in her eyes, hands thrust deep in the pockets of worn-out jeans. “You think you’re still in Korea,” she would accuse him, when he wouldn’t allow her to date or wear makeup like the other girls in her class. “But it’s not fair, Dad. This is America.”
Young Bae was laughing, shaking his head over something. “You were the hotheaded one, though, Kyoungsu,” he was saying. “A madman! Do you remember the time you attacked me? What had I done to offend you? I can’t remember. Jae Shik and Sang Chul had to pull you off before the principal came and found us.”
“I remember,” said Jae Shik soberly, watching Kyoungsu’s face with apprehension. “You deserved it, Young Bae. You and your tongue.”
Kyoungu also remembered. He saw Young Bae as he’d been in high school, a sallow boy in a black school uniform stretched tight across his fat stomach. They used to call him Lord Buddha until Jae Shik, in a religious phase, had told them it was irreverent. Kyoungsu hadn’t liked Young Bae as much as the others. He’d been hard even then, his round face set in a tough way, with narrow eyes that looked almost closed, and a mouth curling downward that had been attached to a cigarette since he was thirteen. He used to bribe Kyoungsu into doing his homework for him, offering marbles and money for roasted yams. Then, out of shame, he would insult Kyoungsu, belittle his family name. Once, that one time, Kyoungsu had punched him for it, blackening his eye with the knuckles of one fist.
“Do you remember?” Hyun Ki said, his voice distant with the past. “Do you remember the time we all cut class and went to Inchon to eat abalone porridge? When we were around fifteen, I think. What a beautiful day that was!”
Kyoungsu nodded. “In June, wasn’t it?” His glass paused at his lips. “We got that fisherman to take us out on his boat.”
“Yes, yes,” Jae Shik said, “and he let us take turns steering.”
Hyun Ki removed his glasses. Without them, his eyes looked tiny. He began to clean the lenses on a corner of his handkerchief. “It was Sang Chul’s idea,” he said quietly.
They fell silent.
“Did I ever tell you,” Kyoungsu said, “about the time in the army when Sang Chul and I were on leave together?”
The men shook their heads slowly, each lost in his own private memory of their friend. Kyoungsu spoke and they listened intently.
“We were drinking in a small bar somewhere in Pusan with a day left on leave, and this old guy next to us started to buy us beer. He said he was a fortune-teller, that he would tell us what we wanted to know about our futures. Well, Sang Chul, you can guess, was pretty keen, so the man took his palm and gazed into it for a long time.”
Kyoungsu felt his own palms grow wet. He rubbed them absently on his pants legs. “After a while, the man just turned to me and asked to see my palm. He told me I would leave Korea and live somewhere far away. He said I would be successful, and though I wouldn’t be rich, I would be comfortable. And he said I would die an old man.”
He saw Sang Chul’s face, that smirking combination of eagerness and scorn, both eyes trained steadily on the fortuneteller’s face. “Sang Chul kept asking the man, ‘What about my fortune? Why don’t you tell me what’s in store for me, old man?’ But he just shook his head. I remember his eyes looked frightened, and he shrank away from us…” Kyoungsu stopped and gazed reflectively into his glass.
“Sang Chul laughed and called the old man a lot of names, and then we both forgot about it and I said good-bye to him.” Kyoungsu bowed his head, tracing the lines in a rumpled napkin with his finger.
“Poor bastard,” Young Bae muttered.
“He was the best of all of us,” Hyun Ki said gloomily, and they all fell silent. Jae Shik clapped his hands.
“Ja,” he said, smiling with visible effort “Let’s order more whiskey.”
The hostess brought the bottle on a tray and placed it on the table, then backed out of the room slowly, her eyes cast down on the floor. It was such a feminine gesture, Kyoungsu observed, demure and graceful—very Korean; it stirred a tenderness in him, and he thought of his wife, Jun Hee.
“Still,” said Hyun Ki, “it’s a wonder any of us survived. Jae Shik was wounded. Young Bae, you almost got sent to the North. And, Kyoungsu, remember when the bomb landed on the outhouse right after you had left it?”
“Good thing you weren’t constipated!” Young Bae laughed huskily, then was silent.
How lucky we are, thought Kyoungsu, and he wanted to weep, to cry out. The war had claimed one-third of their classmates. It had divided families. It had seemed to Kyoungsu once that the world would never right itself, that he would never know the quiet pleasures of a normal life. And look at them now. They were the survivors. He felt an overwhelming affection for them all.
“A toast to Sang Chul,” he said, raising his glass.
“To our generation,” someone shouted. They tossed the whiskey down their throats and wiped the tears from their eyes.
“Did you know,” Hyun Ki said after a moment, “they tore down that house, Kyoungsu, your father’s old one? They turned it into a shop—antiques for tourists.”
“It survived the war and got torn down for progress,” muttered Hyun Ki.
“They tore down all the old houses,” Jae Shik said, mopping the lacquer table with a napkin. “For the Olympics. New hotels. New shops.”
“They tore it down?” Kyoungsu repeated dully. He remembered playing in the courtyard with the little Chindo dog his father kept. Sometimes his father would come in after being out all night and ruffle Kyoungsu’s hair with a rough hand. He would give him a 500-hwan note for lunch and wander off to bed, and Kyoungsu would stare after him—at the distant man in the homburg and the English-looking suit — then go off and spend the money on cigarettes and comic books.
“It’s changed so much here,” Kyoungsu said quietly. He pulled his crossed legs toward his body, rocking back and forth.
“I remember,” he murmured, his eyes on his glass, “how homesick I was when I first arrived in America. I was the first Korean at Amherst College, right out of the war; all the other freshmen were four years younger, and my English was poor. I remember the Americans were all so kind to me. My roommate invited me to his house for Thanksgiving; the dean of the college invited me to Christmas dinner. But I missed Korean food so badly. Especially kimchi.”
The others nodded, their faces straining to comprehend a place lacking in this staple, the spicy fermented cabbage they had eaten three times a day for their entire lives.
“Once I tried to cook an egg in my room over vacation,” Kyoungsu went on. “I wanted it hard-boiled, so I put the egg in my sock and held it under the hot-water faucet in the bathroom for about 20 minutes. It came out raw.”
The men chuckled.
Kyoungsu continued. He was aware of the sound his voice made as he talked, of the silence surrounding it. “It was never a conscious decision to stay,” he said. “Just one day leading to the next, to the next, faster and faster, until one day I woke up and I was fifty-six and living in a foreign country. I had two grown-up kids who didn’t even speak Korean.”
The others listened shyly, looking down at their socked feet. Kyoungsu felt his own surprise as he thought of how much time had passed.
“Why did you leave, anyway?” said Young Bae with sudden harshness. “The war ruined everything. You were the smartest in our class. The country needed you.”
“Oh, come on, Young Bae,” Kyoungsu retorted. “You wanted to go too, but your mother threatened to go on hunger strike if you left her!”
“That’s right,” Hyun Ki laughed. “That’s right, Young Bae, I remember. She told my mother she would rather die than lose her oldest son.”
Young Bae took a surly gulp of whiskey, his Adam’s apple working like a pump. He grimaced. “Anyway,” he said, “I didn’t go. And I’m glad I didn’t.”
“And you did very well, Young Bae,” said Jae Shik, patting him on the shoulder. “And Kyoungsu did well in America. And now he’s coming back, and we’ll all be together.” Hyun Ki poured the last of the whiskey into Kyoungsu’s glass.
“Do you remember?” Kyoungsu laughed, upsetting the plate of nuts with his sleeve. “Do you remember,” he repeated eagerly, “the time we went up to the temple at sunrise?”
“Which one?” Jae Shik asked.
Kyoungsu thought. “I don’t know. The one on Kwanaksan? We were trying to be better Buddhists then.”
“I don’t remember,” said Hyun Ki.
Young Bae shook his head. “I wasn’t there.”
“Yes, you were. All of us were,” Kyoungsu insisted. “Don’t you remember, Jae Shik? It was your idea. We must have been twelve or thirteen. We climbed up on a Sunday morning, very early, with our lunches packed, and when we got to the top, we vowed we would all go to America.”
“Did we do that?” Jae Shik asked.
“Did we?” Young Bae echoed, a note of wonder in his voice.
“The one who goes the farthest away remembers the most,” mused Hyun Ki.
Young Bae laughed. “Or makes it up,” he said, coughing. “Fantasies.”
They all chuckled, but Kyoungsu saw it all very clearly, the five of them in their identical school uniforms with their crew cuts and black knapsacks, hiking up Kwanaksan in the streaked light of dawn, discussing Buddhism and America with the same eagerness and mystification. They would all go to America; they had decided— a notion one of them had come up with —but only he had gone. And why was that?
Kyoungsu chewed thoughtfully on the end of a shredded piece of dried cuttlefish, savoring the fishy sweetness that he liked so much. It reminded him of the movie theater they used to go to sometimes when they were skipping school. It was a dingy place with sticky floors and a torn velvet curtain where they had first seen the old Tarzan movies and Errol Flynn, mistaking the Hollywood images of Africa or the high seas for a vision of America. It had been in Sam-chong-dong, hadn’t it? Surely it wasn’t there any longer. He thought if he had the time he might go see.
The smells of his childhood: sesame oil, garlic, and hot pepper in the earthen kitchen of his mother’s house, the kerosene and roasting chestnuts from the street vendors’ carts —the sounds: the tinny voice of the calisthenics instructor blaring from the loudspeaker in the courtyard of their school, “Ready, begin, one, two, one, two…”; the hollow, wooden pounding of the Buddhist drums; the dry rasp of his father’s cough —the feeling: timeless afternoons playing war games with Jae Shik when he was seven or eight in the courtyard at Insadong; then the real thing, lying face-down in a damp trench, eighteen but really still a boy, fingering the rifle in his hands with a reluctant fascination and terror. He realized sadly, his stomach tightening, that he remembered these times in his life more vividly than any recent memory.
“I know why I wanted to come back,” he said quietly. He shook his head in wonder at himself. “Because I wanted to die here.”
“But you are a long way from dying, Kyoungsu,” said Jae Shik.
He nodded. He wanted to say that America was a country where there was only the future. From the day he had arrived, with twenty-five dollars in his pocket, he had been swept forward into tomorrow and the next day, awed by the driving possibilities of life without tradition, without the past. There were no memories for him in America.
But here the past swirled with smell and sound, with texture and shape; it spoke to him in many voices, arresting him, crowding up against him as he revolved through the city, more real than the concrete buildings, than the newly laid highways, more resonant than the traffic noise, than the voices in the streets. He could not tell his friends that for him his homeland was a dead land, inhabited by ghosts, by stunning visions of the past. He could not tell them.
“Ah,” Hyun Ki was getting to his feet slowly, a bit unsteadily. “Forgive me, but I must go,” he said. “It’s after two, and I have to go in to work tomorrow.” He reached for Kyoungsu’s hand. “Come back to us, Kyoungsu, and quit this talk of death,” he said, looking with concern at his friend.
The others started to get up also. Young Bae yawned. “I’m off as well,” he said. “It’s past my bedtime.”
“Stay a little longer, Hyun Ki,” Kyoungsu protested. “Jae Shik? We can go to a tent restaurant and have some kooksoo.”
“No, no,” Jae Shik shook his head. “Your wife is in the States, Kyoungsu, or you would know better.”
Young Bae belched, rubbing a hand underneath his belt, “Ajuma!” he called out. “The bill, please!”
Hyun Ki dug his wallet from his back pocket. “Oh, no, you don’t, Young Bae,” he said. “My treat.”
Kyoungsu reached for his own wallet. “I wish you’d let me pay,” he said. “I am the visitor, after all.”
Young Bae waved them aside with both arms. “I am the richest one here,” he said, taking the bills from his wallet. He laughed, shaking his finger at Kyoungsu. “Mr. Professor, sir. You used to do my homework, too. And I am the wealthiest one of all of us.”
The hostess appeared, and Young Bae paid her. “And this is for you,” he said, handing her an additional 10,000-won note.
They slipped on their shoes, after much arguing over whose were whose, and walked out into the small courtyard. Neon lights cast a yellow vapor across the city sky. Kyoungsu noted all the English names flashing in Korean letters: Crown, Ambassador, Venus.
Jae Shik embraced Kyoungsu, patting his back several times. “When you come back,” he said, “we will meet every week to drink together.” Kyoungsu pressed his friend’s hand, nodding absently.
“Your wife isn’t so Americanized she will beat you for going out with us, is she?” Hyun Ki teased, shaking Kyoungsu’s hand, then holding it with his own.
Kyoungsu grinned. “She is so Americanized, she will go out drinking with her friends also!”
He laughed and the others did, too, but Kyoungsu knew that to them it was hilarious because it seemed absurd; to him it was funny precisely because it was true.
“We argue,” Young Bae said, clapping a hand on Kyoungsu’s shoulder. “My God, how I’ve missed fighting with you!”
Kyoungsu hugged him. “Fat man,” he whispered, affection choking his words. What good men they all are, he thought, such good men. His oldest friends.
“Going back to your brother’s place?” Jae Shik asked him. “Share a cab?”
Kyoungsu shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “I’m all right. I think I’ll walk.”
Kyoungsu waved. As he watched his classmates retreat into the shadows, he saw their young faces clearly: smooth, except for Hyun Ki’s acne, blinking with an innocence that bestowed upon the world a newness, an even light, their mouths calling to him in childish voices, speaking of boyhood games, of manly achievements, their smiles like promises made to one another. He realized how much it had cost him to leave them, how much it would continue to cost him.
The One Who Goes Farthest Away was Mom’s first published work. It first appeared in a doctor’s office waiting room magazine in 1989. It was later published in Worlds of Fiction in 1993 and The Asian Pacific American Journal in Fall/Winter of 1994.