land of morning calm

The guidebook says that older people can be easily spotted by their light-colored traditional clothes. They travel in groups, it indicates. I imagine a slow-moving horde. “They have amazing energy, always travel in groups of all men or all women and spend their time sightseeing. They particularly like vacationing at mountains or hot springs. After a lifetime of following the strict rules of society, they are finally free to do as they wish. This may include staring straight at and talking to you.”

There is a wrestling game that is played in a sand pit. Men bind their legs tightly with cloth. They face each other, squatting and grab at each other’s thighs. Each tries to make the other lose his balance. The first to make the other fall wins. 

Do not assume that someone who smiles is happy. Do not chatter excessively. Do not carry a hereditary disease. Do not steal or lie. Do not laugh or chew with your mouth hanging open. 

Women are marriageable from 22 to 26. After 28 or 29, options drop precipitously. Older sisters marry first, then younger. 

Consult the fortune teller for the best days for the marriage. Consult the fortune teller to confirm the best possible match. 

If you have three daughters, the pillars of your house will fall down. 

Bend at the waist and bear a box of gifts on your back. You are a horse. Walk all the way to the house of the bride without speaking. Carry the box up the many flights of stairs to her apartment where her family waits. They will give you money. They will spread a feast for you. Give the money to the groom. Take some for yourself. Take your friends to the bars where you will all drink until morning. 

The groom might carry a wooden duck.

A section on Korea that is difficult to write. It goes slowly. I read travel guides and travelogues. A book about the Korean war. 

Decades ago, in the darkened gymnasium, the boy came up to me and said: I hear you are Korean. He was tall with dark hair and a broad face. Dark eyes, pale skin. He extended his hand. His name was Ken. Yes, I said. He said: I am half Japanese and half French. And if you’re Korean, you are supposed to hate me. 

At the time, I did not know about the Japanese occupation of Korea. Or about the comfort women. That would come later. At the time, I was baffled. You know, he said: Japan. The Koreans hate the Japanese. 

There are things I know that I wish I did not have to know. I read the first-person accounts of adoptees who have gone back to find their families. To try. 

There is the woman who sits across the table from the social worker. There is a file folder open between them. Your mother was twenty-seven. Your father was thirty-two. The did not have much money. You were the youngest of four daughters. They were hoping for a boy. 

There is the man who finds his mother, but his father has died. She speaks some English and says: How did you find me? I did not want you to find me. 

There is the man who goes back to Korea to live. He writes me a letter after we have not spoken in years. I found them, he writes - my mother, my father, the whole family. I lived with them for four years, then I got tired of drinking too much. I moved to Thailand to become a scuba instructor. A lifetime of searching reduced to this:

I got tired of drinking too much. 

They were hoping for a boy. 

I would come to you if you were sick. I would come there to the hospital and rush past all the people who were there for you. I would go to you, hold you in my arms, and say this is what she needs and this. The people there would ask, who are you, and I would only say this is what she needs and this. 

We are sitting at the restaurant by the water. She is holding my hands in hers. We have had too much wine.

Do you ever think it is strange, I ask, that we should have found each other? I do not believe in fate, I tell her, but look at us: You, with a daughter you could not keep. Me, running out of mothers? 

Do you have any idea how much I love you, she says. Do you know that I carry you with me all the time? 

I let the words glide past me. The sensation of floating. My cheeks are hot and I am dizzy.

You have not imagined this, she says. This is real. 

I know you. I know who you are. I see you. You are part of me. 

This is real. You have not imagined this. 

You will not lose me, she says. Know this: You will not lose me. 

A dull ache in my head. A pulsing behind my eyes. I dream that my house is filled with people I do not know. They are drinking coffee in my kitchen. They are lounging on my sofas. They are eating with their hands and laughing. I am a stranger in my house. I wander the rooms unnoticed. 

The guidebook offers suggestions about leaving:

Singing and drinking can continue for several hours. The longer you stay, the more you are assuring your hosts that you are enjoying yourself. When you are ready to leave, your hosts will accompany you to the door. 

Put on your shoes. Face your host and hostess, bow and say goodbye. Sometimes your host will accompany you to the front gate, or as far as the street. Other times, you will have to find your own way.