By Charles Montgomery
Yongho awoke as the plane sliced through the smog and descended towards Incheon airport. The flight from San Francisco to Seoul was a long one, even on an airline as dedicated to service as Koreana. In the San Francisco airport Yongho drank several beers in the lounge, had several more on the plane, with one of them washing down an Ambien. This was in a partly successful attempt to sleep through the flight. This sleep was interrupted by meal service. Yongho, who had lived in the United States for nearly fifteen years, was amused that the stewardess automatically addressed him in Korean and in semi-rebellion he made sure to order the western-style meal, and in English. He was vaguely disappointed to see the stewardess take this request without reaction.
As he ate he became aware that he was being watched, semi-furtively, by the man beside him. After a bit, the man’s glances became more direct, and the man gathered up the nerve to talk,
“Going back to Korea,” the man asked?
Yongho nodded ambivalently
The man continued in slightly accented English,
“My name is Kim, Mr. Kim Sang-eun.” Mr. Kim Sang-eun paused expectantly.
A cloud of silence hung in the stale cabin air between the two. In the background conversations buzzed in competition with the roar outside the plane.
A beat late Yongho responded, “Park Yongho, I’m traveling to Korea.”
He immediately thought how stupid a statement that was, as if anyone on the plane did not intend to stop, at least temporarily, in Korea.
Mr. Kim seemed not to notice, happy to have a conversation begun.
Kim said, “You’re English is excellent, have you lived overseas?”
“Actually, I am a citizen of the United States, ”Yongho replied.
Mr. Kim’s eyes quickly looked over Yongho’s obviously Asian features. “Were you born in the United States,” he asked?
“No,” Yongho responded, “I was born in Busan.”
Kim continued scanning Yongho’s face, as if to decipher something.
Yongho, half cursing himself for doing it, continued.
“I left when I was about 10, I’ve lived in the US ever since.”
“Why are you coming back to Korea,” Kim asked?
“Family.” Yongho bit the word off, in hope that Mr. Kim would notice his reluctance to continue the conversation. It was odd enough for anyone to start a random conversation with a stranger, even weirder that it was a Korean man. However it was family that brought Yongho to Korea, but that simple word, “family” seemed insufficient to cover reality. As Mr. Kim mumbled some typical Korean platitudes about the importance of family, and enumerated his own, Yongho’s mind wandered back to the last time he had seen his father. It had been Jeju on a family vacation. The first night they had stayed in a pension with ondol heating, all four family members sharing the warm floor. On a three-day bus tour they saw many of the highlights of Jeju: The volcano, the basalt cliffs, Mt Hallasan, and the ubiquitous stone statues standing guard over each town, no matter how small. The next night they shared a one-bedroom loft, with Yongho sleeping on an ondol pad on the downstairs floor
The last day on the island was sunny, and Yongho’s father picked mandarin oranges in his sleeveless t-shirt, gathering them up in a pouch fashioned from his outer shirt. Later, the family sat on the seashore, on a metallic pad, and peeled and ate the sweet fruit as the sea-water lapped at the basaltic shores.
This kind of thing was no longer possible. Two years ago, Yongho’s father had been diagnosed. Cancer.
At first the old man fought it off. An operation had been deemed “successful” and follow-up radiation and chemotherapy had held the monster at bay for almost a year. Yongho’s mother attributed his initial recovery to Korean food and even more kimchi and seaweed soup (although traditionally for pregnant women) was apparent at every dinner table.
Yongho remembered something else about that trip. At almost every stop of the tour, the conclusion of the stop had featured a variety of sales pitches. But no matter what the potential product, if it was food or drink, the salesman had claimed that it had medicinal powers, often verging on the sexual. All the products claimed to increase “stamina”. Yongho’s family was not much moved by these arguments but another member of the tour, an unhealthy looking man of semi-determinate old age bought everything that was offered up. At some stops it was ludicrous, the old man tottering out with a pyramid of fungus, a beaker of some uncertain looking fluid, or fruit-based products unstable in his skinny arms.
Maybe, Yongho mused, his own family should have bought more “medicine” on that trip.
The cancer returned, and the last pictures that had been emailed to Yongho showed his father at an alarmingly low weight.
Yongho made his airplane reservations right after he clicked those pictures off his laptop. In the two weeks between purchase and flight, Yongho’s father had been moved from a wheelchair to a bed.
Noting Yongho’s silence, Kim changed tack. “I hate these long flights, don’t you?”
Yongho nodded noncommittally
“I need a smoke now and then, you know?” Kim continued
Yongho shrugged, “I quit years ago, it makes flights a little easier.”
“I wish I could quit,” Kim mourned. “What was your secret?”
Yongho shrugged, “No secret. It was hard. And I gained twenty pounds. It took me a year to lose it back.” The memory of this arduous weight-loss process reminded Yongho of his father’s helpless weight loss.
“Cancer” he noted to himself – it could sell. “Lose 20 pounds in only 14 days!”
Slogans danced in his head.
Mr. Park pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and toyed with them nervously. A stewardess walked by and frowned. Park half-pulled a cigarette from the pack and placed its unfiltered end in his mouth, pulling the pack up and down so that the cigarette pumped in and out of the pack. “I just can’t wait to light up,” he muttered around the base of the thing. Withdrawing his mouth, he pulled the cigarette out and put it in the inside pocked of his coat. He looked at Yongho speculatively, pulled out another cigarette, and offered it to Yongho. “You sure you don’t want one,” he asked?
Yongho grunted, “No. I quit”
Mr. Park interpreted this as a weak affirmative ‘no’ or was undeterred, “you’ll be doing me a favor, one less for me.”
Mr. Park continued to proffer the cigarette.
Yongho wasn’t in the mood to continue. He nodded his head slightly, palmed the cigarette, and slid it into the breast-pocket of his jacket.
Yongho’s memory again slid back to the vacation on Jeju. As a son, he was not allowed to smoke in front of this father, and had to keep finding excuses to slip away. This was never easy, as a family on vacation in Korea was a family on vacation. Still, Yongho found his way, usually by claiming he had to use a bathroom and bolting for any nearby stairwell.
The thumping of landing gear jolted Yongho from his memories and as quickly as he could he gathered his overhead gear and began brawling his way to the exit.
Once inside the airport. Yongho picked up his baggage and disentangled himself from Mr. Park by exchanging business cards with a vague promise to “get in touch,” later.
He sat, for a moment, on his luggage. Groups of people passed him in the background, but no one was close to him, and he imagined himself in a bubble, or as some kind of spy – embedded in Korea, but not a part of it. He could hear nothing of what others were saying, nor did he want to speak to them.
The spell was broken by the realization that he needed to rent a cell-phone before catching his bus to Gimpo. Yongho sighed, and walked over to the rental desk where, talking as little as possible, he rented a phone. His next stop was the ticket counter, to purchase a ticket for the Airport Limousine from Incheon to Gimpo.
With these necessary chores complete, Yongho walked out of the airport and slammed into the brutal heat and humidity of Korean summer. The air surrounding Incheon airport was dank and heavy with soot. Incheon was a semi-industrial city, and at this time of year, the early summer, yellow dust flowed over the seas in billows that landed and made everything seem slightly dusted in saffron. The modern lines of the airport were slightly blurred, sepia-toned by the thick air around them. Yongho saw that he was several hundred meters from the Airport Limousine that would take him to Gimpo airport. Several cabs slowed down speculatively, but Yongho ignored them. Dragging his luggage behind him, he navigated the slightly rough curb, reached the bus and exchanged his luggage and ticket for a seat on the bus. As he waited for the bus to leave, he pulled the cell phone from his pocket and, hand over mouth and cell phone, called his mother.
“Yoboseyo,” his mother answered,
“Omma,” Yongho replied, than slipping back into English, “I’m at Incheon Airport, waiting to go to Gimpo.”
His mother laughed, “Yongo mal, eh? I try leave that in the hagwon and I hope I’m through with it,” she paused, “but welcome home!”
“My Korean is rusty,” Yongho said, “but it will come back. Anyway, I should be at Gimpo in about an hour, shall I call you when I get there?”
“Yes, son,” she replied, “the traffic is likely to be bad. After you get home we can eat. Then we will see your father.”
Yongho grunted assent, and flipped his cell phone closed.
Thankfully, the seat next to him stayed empty until the driver entered the bus, closed the door, and slid his bus into the crowded traffic. The bus pulled, in a long slow counter-clockwise arc, away from the airport and onto the broad and flat mix of bay and plains that lay between Incheon and Gimpo. The glassy water was grey, under grey skies, with low grey hills between. The tide was going out and receding waters revealed a slick ashy mud. Occasionally, towards the horizon, there were clusters of small industrial buildings, each sending a column of grey smoke into the air. As the columns rose, they spread and folded into the smudgy sky. As the bus hummed along the highway, a highway built even before there was anyplace for it to go, before Incheon Airport had even existed, a phrase from an old Korean novel floated into Yongho’s mind. The phrase was from novelist Ch’oe In-hun, who described a “life in which the lungs are destroyed so that the feet can be comfortable.” Yongho put the words out of his mind; they were uncomfortable reminders of his father’s cancer. He stared out the dirty window and watched the seemingly endless grey unspool.
The factories reminded Yongho of his childhood. His father had worked in these industrial flats. He would leave home early in the morning, long before Yongho woke up. Father would return late at night, glimpsed occasionally as a vague shadow in a door, a shadow that smelt of soju and cigarettes, as he poked his head in to check on Yongho. Sometimes Yongho heard muffled words, sometimes sharp ones, through the wall, but the ondol floor usually lulled him back to sleep.
Weekends were spent together. In spring and summer the family would pack things up, and travel to the park or plaza, but normally the river. If it rained, they would picnic under the cover of a bridge. Yongho’s father would fish, but the family would not eat anything he caught. Yongho’s father would puff on a cigarette and explain that the river was too polluted; its fish could not be safely consumed.
Yongho’s reminiscences were cut short by a burst of coughing behind him. The coughing concluded and was replaced by a loud honking noise as the man, for surely it was a sound that could not come from a woman, cleared his lungs into his mouth. Then came the muted sound of spitting, and Yongho imagined the man was spitting into his handkerchief. This thought conjured up, in Yongho’s mind, images of his father, shrunken and wrinkled, lying in his hospital bed, his damaged lungs straining to expel the future that grew within them.
The bus ground down through its gears as it approached the edge of Gimpo. Traffic was thickening. Yongho, impatient to get to Gimpo airport, squirmed in his seat. Outside the bus, the heavy grey clouds began to disgorge their contents. The traffic got even thicker. Yongho idly played with the seat-back in front of him and checked his cell-phone, even though he knew there was nothing new on it. He dumped the phone back in his jacket.
After a bit, the bus pulled up in front of Gimpo Airport, where it met with one of the thick tentacles of the subway, bus, and taxi system of the greater Seoul area.
The driver got off the bus and Yongho followed him around until he stopped and unloaded the baggage compartment. When the driver was done unloading, he looked around, pulled a cigarette from his pocket, and with cupped hands, lit it. Yongho could see the flare of the lighter reflected on the driver’s face, and watched the smoke curl up around the driver’s face, and disappear into the grey above.
Yongho retrieved the cellphone from his pocket and called his mother. No answer. No problem, she would see the call and come to the airport. To be safe, he also texted her, “at exit one.”
The rain lightened slightly.
Yongho pulled the cigarette from his pocket and gestured at the driver, waiting by the curb. The driver approached.
Yongho held the lone cigarette out to him. When the driver lit it, Yongho took it back and took a long deep drag.
He held the smoke deeply in his lungs, finally let it slide from his lungs, and spat in the gutter.
It was good to be home.
Charles Montgomery is an ex-resident of Seoul where he lived for seven years teaching in the English, Literature, and Translation Department at Dongguk University. He currently lives in Oregon, where he is self-employed. He can be found online at www.ktlit.com discussing Korean literature in translation.