Years ago, when I was living in South Korea teaching English at a private institute, I became involved with a reserved but adventurous man named Kang Jae Hoon, a cook in an upscale restaurant known for its traditional royal cuisine. Sometimes, especially at first and whenever we had company, Jae Hoon would spend hours in our little kitchen preparing those elaborate royal meals with their multitude of small, finely prepared side dishes. Most of the time, though, after a long day spent cooking, he would come home and boil a package of ramyeon instant noodles for a late-night dinner: the potato salad and pasta and the few other things I was barely capable of making didn’t entirely agree with him.
Not for me, was what he actually said, as he rooted through the cupboards in search of a small saucepan.
After five years, not long after we broke up, Jae Hoon met a grey-haired American businessman who took him back to the US as if Jae Hoon were some sort of exotic pet or an abandoned orphan in need of sheltering. There was no anger or bitterness between us by this point. We had both moved on to the next phase in our lives and continued to be friends, emailing each other often, even after he had moved to the States and I was still in Korea, teaching.
Finally, he’d written in one of those emails, no more questions. Meaning: no more of the kinds of questions that many Koreans typically posed to strangers and were just a normal part of everyday conversation: How old are you? Are you married? Do you have a girlfriend? Why not? Here, he wrote, no one asks and no one cares. He emailed pictures of the white brick suburban split-level he and Bruce (that was the man’s name) lived in, the sumptuous dinner parties they’d thrown, and the weekend trips they’d taken together around the U.S. And although he hadn’t expressly said so, you could see he was very happy with his new life, the adventure of it and the direction it was heading. I was happy for him, if not a little envious.
One day, less than a year after his arrival in Atlanta, he emailed me saying that he had cancer. It was something the doctors suspected he must have had for quite some time, but it had gone unchecked until it was too late. No one predicted the cancer would take his life as quickly as it did. He had been diagnosed in May, booked his return flight to Seoul for August, but by the middle of July he was too ill to fly and by the end of the month he was dead.
Everybody gotta die some time, I remember he said when I called him about a week before he passed away, sounding astonishingly matter-of-fact about the whole thing.
When the urn containing his ashes arrived in Korea, Jae Hoon’s mother and father didn’t attend the funeral. I was not surprised that his father wasn’t there. I’d always known they’d had a rocky relationship, and I had more than once heard Jae Hoon say that he hated the man, although when pressed to explain he’d just shrug and talk about something else.
Surprisingly, though, shortly before he left for the US, Jae Hoon had decided to spend the Lunar New Year’s holiday with his father. I suppose he wanted to make one last attempt at salvaging their relationship, to settle something maybe or come to some kind of resolution. And although I don’t know what they talked about, I do know that by the time he left on the third day, he said they had fought so fiercely that he knew he would never have anything to do with his father again.
His parents, I recall when I run through what details I know of his family, had divorced at a time when hardly anyone in Korea divorced—unlike today—and that his father was an alcoholic and was likely abusive, since most men of his generation typically were. His father was also heavily in debt—gambling debts; a passion for cards—which was probably the leading cause of his parents’ divorce. Originally, Jae Hoon’s family was from a small town at the southern tip of the peninsula, just outside of Kwangju, the city where the pro-democracy riots broke out in 1980 and where hundreds (some say thousands) of protesters were gunned down by government troops. Jae Hoon was a little boy at the time, ten years old, and Korea was a different country back then, he said. It was also much poorer, not like today, and his family was also poor when the violence erupted and everything in society, from the government on down, began to change.
That same year, after his parents separated, his father drifted across the country doing odd jobs: factory work, farm labour sometimes, but it was mostly in construction that he found steady employment. When Jae Hoon decided to visit him for the last time, his father was still in the construction industry, even living on construction sites in the kind of portable corrugated steel huts you often see in such places, only now he was the night watchman: a token title, I imagine, bestowed onto an otherwise old and shiftless man who likely did more sleeping than any vigilant watching. And so I picture them, father and son, together spending the Lunar New Year’s holiday in one of those cold and dirty huts on an empty construction site, the two of them sleeping on a plywood floor in a draughty room heated by a propane heater. I see them boiling ramyeon noodles three times a day on the portable gas range and drinking soju at night. I picture them playing hwa-tu, a card game I’ve often seen accompanied by much drinking and cursing and loud throat clearing, and I see the father berating his son for being nothing more than a cook—ah, yes, I remember this was something he said his father disparaged: such an un-manly occupation, what shame! And why wasn’t he married, anyway? Thirty-five and not even married! And why was he going to the States? Why did he need to go there of all places to study cooking?—(the pretext for his move)—Why was he wasting his money? What did he hope to accomplish? Who!—his father shouted, boiling over with drunken anger, pounding a fist down onto the low wooden table, upsetting the little piles of cards and the shot glasses of potato liquor—Who did he think he was?
And I can see the terrible argument that would ensue, and Jae Hoon saying things he might later regret, but perhaps also thinking at the end of those three days that at last something was resolved, that at last he was unburdened of a heavy load of hate and guilt. Well, he might have said to himself as the plane lifted off from the runway, at least I don’t have to see that man again.
Of course, all of this is simply conjecture.
But what really surprised me was not to see his mother at the funeral. How strange, I remember thinking, that she should be absent while his eight sisters (Jae Hoon was the only son, the youngest child) wailed and cried, angrily shouting at the urn that hot summer’s day: Babo! Babo! You fool! You fool! Why did you have to leave us? Why did you have to go?
They had informed their father, they said to me after the funeral, when they first learned of their brother’s death. Ji Yeon, the sister he was closest to, the second youngest, had made the trip to the steel hut on the construction site outside of Seoul to tell him in person that Jae Hoon had passed away. But the old man, she said, only shook his head and told her he wouldn’t be coming.
That didn’t surprise me. But when I asked about their mother, why she hadn’t come, the eight women just smiled sadly and looked askance.
We decided not to tell her, Ji Yeon said after a silence, hesitating at first.
She wouldn’t be able to handle it, added Su Hyun.
It’s better this way, said Yeon Hye.
I shook my head, incredulous. Who would do such a thing? I thought, and have often thought since. Not to tell a mother her child has died?
In the days following the funeral, I mentioned it often, to the other teachers at the institute, to my friends, both Korean and foreign, trying to make sense of it. But everyone said the same thing: Maybe the mother wasn’t quite right in the head. Maybe she was too mentally unstable to take in such news. But I couldn’t buy it. I’d met his mother once before, years ago, not long after I first met Jae Hoon, when he and I and all his sisters and brothers-in-law and all his nieces and nephews travelled to that small town in the south of the country for the Lunar New Year’s holiday and the enormous meal his mother had spent days preparing. She never struck me as odd or mentally unwell. Moguh, moguh, she had said to me—Eat, eat—when we all sat round three low wooden tables pushed together to accommodate everyone, tables on which every available square inch was covered in tiny little side dishes, bowls of rice, soup, and plates of fried fish. Of course no one suspected who I was in relation to Jae Hoon; I was simply the Canadian friend. Nothing more than that because that was a Western phenomenon, unknown in Korea. And when I looked across the table I saw a tiny woman with a head of tightly curled grey hair and a mouth like a puckered apple. Your typical halmoni, I remember thinking, your typical grandmother.
How long could they keep up this charade? I’ve often wondered as the months and years went by. Continuing to make up stories about Jae Hoon’s life in the US—the imaginary cooking courses he was taking, the fictitious job he landed, the nonexistent Green Card—yet never once receiving a single long-distance phone call? What were his sisters thinking? I was angry with them and told myself what they’d done was shameful.
More than ten years have gone by since then. I live in Canada now and although I’ve long since lost touch with Jae Hoon’s sisters, I think about them often, if they ever ended up telling their mother the truth about Jae Hoon and how devastated she would feel, betrayed and angry. But it was only when I sat down to write this little story that everything unexpectedly became clear, even stunningly obvious, the kind of thing that only time in its steady march can reveal: Of course his mother had known.
They’d all known Jae Hoon was gay, that that was what he had told his father the week before he left the country, the thing that unleashed the terrible fight, and that his father had likely told Ji Yeon when she visited him in the steel hut. Or maybe even before that. Maybe he called her up after Jae Hoon had left, or maybe he called his ex-wife to tell her. No matter: one by one they all found out, suddenly reconfiguring in their minds who Jae Hoon was, who I was, everything now making sense. And of course they told their mother that he died. How could they not? And like her ex-husband, she too had made the deliberate decision not to go to the funeral, probably turning back to the pot she was scrubbing in the kitchen sink when she received the news. His death was the likely outcome of the kind of lifestyle he’d chosen, she might have reasoned. Cancer! Bah! Don’t lie to me. It was AIDS.
She’s from a different generation, I imagine his sisters wanted to tell me the day of the funeral but at the last moment felt that they couldn’t, not knowing a tactful way to bring it up. She doesn’t understand such things, they might have wanted to say.
But, of course, this too is only conjecture.
Ron Schafrick’s stories have appeared in a number of journals, both in Canada and abroad. His story “Lovely Company,” which first appeared in Plenitude Magazine, was reprinted in Best Gay Stories 2015 and, most recently, in The Journey Prize Stories 27. For nine years he lived in South Korea but currently calls Toronto home. To find out more please visit www.ronschafrick.com.
Photo credit: Changmin Jung.