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The angel of my life

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작성자 지만원 작성일18-10-09 22:27 조회1,929회 댓글0건
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 The angel of my life


I think that a life is like a bottle. The one’s past’s been filled

up and inflated, but the unknown future lies in yet, like thin

bottle neck, to be probed. It means, the current probing is

a hard course though the past could be deemed sweet and

beautiful. When I look back at my younger days, it’s been

miraculous to have reached this stage as it was so hard

and tiring.


Ch’angdae was three or four years older than me but was

my classmate in the second year of High School. During

the day, he was a pedlar carrying a red leather bag full of

cosmetics selling from house to house. One day he found

me a live-in tutoring job through someone he knew. Hansik

was the boy’s name I was going to teach and his mother

had apparently asked Ch’angdae to find someone for her

son. Ch’angdae told me their conversation by mimicking

Hansik’s mother in strong P’yōng’yang accent. “Hey,

Ch’angdae, as you know my Hansik is not doing well at

school. Do you know a good tutor?” “There is a small chap

in my class. Why don’t you try him? Don’t underestimate

him because of his size. He is in fact a genius”.


Hansik was a year older than me but was in his third year   

in his middle school. He was so used to playing outside

while his mother was working that he couldn’t settle down

for an hour. I tried to help him in basic functional formula,

equation or geometry, but he couldn’t get his head around

it at all. I felt stuck frequently and so did he, which usually

triggered him being playful. “How come your small head is

so bright?” He often tapped my head. “Hey, you, feel my

arm hard like stone. Yours are like a pair of chopsticks.

What can you possibly do with them? If someone bothers

you, let me know. I’ll knock him down in one punch, do you



In Yongdu-dong, there was a wooden bridge that crossed

over Ch’ōnggye-chōn. People called it ‘Black bridge’

because it was treated by coal tar. Under the bridge, fabric

dyers and rubbish collectors, so called Yang’achi/ street

yobs lived there side by side in ragged huts. The packed

caldrons constantly discharged steam and a musty smell

that was spread out to other areas as well. The dyed

fabrics were hung untidily on the wooden racks. Although

the lives of these people looked hard, at night there were

plenty of laughs through their rags. The roads were dark

and at times the black dust was blown around by wind like

moving clouds. The heels of people who wore a pair of

slippers were smudged by the black dirt.


There was a young woman who was then twenty-seven

years old with two children (a five year old boy and a

seven year old girl) in a rented room of Hansik’s and they

were all living like one family. Like my English teacher

back at Chije middle school, she too, fled to the South

during the War after finishing her high school in Wonsan,

North Korea. She got married, but her husband died five

years later. Hansik’s family was quite well off as apparently

his mother had met a shoe factory owner. Whereas the

young woman exuded some glamour, by contrast Hansik’s

mother sounded quite crude. The young woman always

watched my lesson with Hansik and helped by giving him

extra tips and guided him to concentrate when he became

playful. I gathered that there were two reasons why she

was watching and assisting the lesson that intently. One

was to protect me from Hansik’s rough acts and secondly

to ensure that my tutoring should be successful as my job

could be at stake if Hansik’s school work didn’t improve.

Nevertheless, my tutoring was ended in six months.


Because not only were Hansik’s family moving their house

but also, I suspected, his mother wanted someone who

could teach Hansik in a more disciplined way. I again was

left without a job. The young woman obviously felt so sorry

about my situation that she cooked a nice dinner for me on

my last day. When I was enjoying my meal, she looked at

me helplessly and offered me a favour. “Manwon, I’d like

to help you with meals and washing and provide you with

your school fee on a temporary basis but you have to find

a place to sleep yourself. What would you say?”. I was

so moved by her unexpected but generous offer which

instantly made my eyes well up. “Thank you, thank you

mam, indeed”. She asked, ”Where are you going to sleep

tonight though?”. I answered, “I will stay in a classroom at

my school. Some senior boys stay there and study through

the night”. “Can you do that?”, she asked unsurely. “Yes, I

can. No problems at all”, I assured her.


The school was not more than a compound of wooden

sheds. The woods were varnished with coal tar that looked

so gloomy. When the sun set, the area became pitch

black and ghostly which seemed to be driven by some

dark force that came out of the school building. One of

the classrooms was being used by three boys from the

third year, who were preparing for the University entrance

exam. When I was passing their room, they called me

and stroked my head. “You are already working on the

Uni goal, aren’t you? Keep at it! You’re really good”. As

I was afraid of the dark, I chose the room just next door

to the boys. The dim light from the street lamps came

through the window and that was a bit of comfort. While

looking out the window the bright face of the young woman

surfaced then a trace of the dirt on the window smeared

her beautiful face. I put the four desks together and lay on

them using my school bag as a pillow, hoping the other

boys would stay as long as I was there. The floor was just

dry earth that became quite uneven caused by the weight

of the boys sitting for a long period. Whenever I turned

over, the legs of the desks and chairs were unstable and

kept moving. My mother’s face loomed over my fearful

eyes and the tears streamed down. I just cried and cried

with every part of my whole body. Then, the tension on my

every nerve peeled away one by one and my tired body

drifted off into the deep night. My mother was forty-seven

when I was born as the baby of the family. She used to

look at me so intensely not to miss any single moment

with her two eyes which were so full of love and affection

towards me and transmitted unconditional warmth making

me a spoilt child.


On a few occasions, when I really missed her, I jumped

on the train without a ticket and went to see her. Then,

the fear of a real journey awaited. As soon as I got off the

train the moment of hope and fear criss-crossed between

seeing my mother and facing the walk in the dark. It was

OK walking through the main road but afterwards, to the

remote house was hellish. The house was on the verge

of Korae-san which was the highest and roughest in that

region. First, there was a powerful old tree named ‘old hag’

I had to pass by and then, cross a stream and walk on

the slope quite a while. The fear was unbearable as if my

head was being sucked into the sky, but the thought of my

mother’s warm bosom took over. My mother used to catch

diving beetles that looked like mini turtles, grass hoppers,

locusts and even cicadas in the rice field. She roasted

them and took the flesh out and put it into my mouth bit

by bit and she wouldn’t miss a bit to look at me every



At about midnight, the loud rainstorm began to tap the

window. The raucous draught like a phantom, forced

through the window gaps then circled around with a ghastly

noise. All the desks and chairs began to rattle. I opened

my eyes as little as possible so as not to be noticed by

the phantom but then my whole body froze. I tried to curl

myself up but that increased more fear. It was not possible

to wait until the dawn when the fright urged me to get out.

What if the door wouldn’t open at once and the phantom

would attack me whilst I was stuck. I clenched my teeth

and got up with all my strength and dashed to the door.

The door was stuck by the rain water and wouldn’t budge.

The sliding window next to the door caught my eyes and I

pushed it to one side and got through, then began to run.

How glad I was seeing the rain that scattered down like

silver flakes by being reflected in the street lamps! It was a

radiance of safety and comfort. Whilst running, I stopped

when there was a lamp, sat down under it and rested

for a while, then carried on running at full speed in fear,


I woke up in the morning and found myself lying down

next to the two children. The young woman from Hansik’s

apparently found me on her kitchen worktop next to a

cooking pan on the briquet fire. She told me that she was

very worried about me after I had left and the rainstorm

kept waking her up. At one stage, she heard something

outside and opened the door and found me asleep, curled

up next to the cooking pan. She carried me inside and left

me asleep. I remembered I kept running in the rain that

hellish night but was lost, and I obviously ran back to find

her somehow as she was my only trust. After that fearful

experience, I suffered from nightmares that went on for

quite some time and kept my underwear soaked by sweat.

She bought me some fudge as a substitute for honey every

day from the local factory and told me to get better soon.

When I lay down my body just sank and I slept motionless

like a corpse. I eventually recovered from the shock, and

she found me an attic room somewhere and I stayed there

for a while. But some luck followed soon enough. My class

teacher found me a job as an errand boy in a small trading

company in Ūlchiro-3ga and I was able to work and sleep

in the office.


One gloomy autumnal night when it was raining, pouring

down, I came out of my classroom and found her waiting

for me. The school had no walls. She was standing the

other end of the playground carrying an umbrella and a

pair of short wellies. What a sight to see! I was so touched

and happy and felt no longer lonely. “Manwon, try this pair

on, I hope they fit”. She handed me the wellies. “Thank

you big sister, they are just fine. You didn’t need to bother

really“. The appellation of ‘big sister’ was a present from

her. I used to call her ‘Mrs’ until she suggested I call her

‘big sister’. The roads were not paved then and the grey

rainwater filled every pothole. We were walking together

avoiding the potholes under a vinyl umbrella. I put my arm

around her waist to get closer to her under the umbrella.

Her skin felt so soft and getting that close to her with my

arm around her was such a sweet thing that it made me

feel ecstatic. I couldn’t believe I had found a ‘big sister’

who was so caring and waiting for me and walking so

closely together to the bus stop. She was certainly an

attractive woman who had a pretty oval face, thin neck,

sleek and clear milky-white skin. It was like a dream to

have such a charming and attractive woman as my big



Yesterday without her was diabolical but it was heavenly

today with her presence. She’s surely become my spiritual

kin. “Big Sis, we have got a new dandy-looking chemistry

teacher today. He told me I looked like an Alps boy. What

is an Alps boy?” I asked her. “Sure, an Alps boy is just like

yourself, someone who is bright, clean with pale skin and

big eyes. By the way, how on earth, at your young age on your

own, did you manage to come to Seoul which is so exposed

and treacherous?” She looked so curious. I recollected the

moment I left my country home. “When my second older brother

was in charge of the family, he told me to study under any

circumstances but then he went to the city to find a job. My

third older brother who was ten years older than me took

over the family and it changed. He handed me a pickaxe

and told me to dig the ground for slash-and-burn farming”

“So?” She showed real interest this time. “When I was

digging the ground, an announcement came through a

megaphone from the local school. It was about a Parliment

MP’s election speeches. I told him I would like to attend

it for a minute, but he stopped me. “It’s not for you. That’ll

give you empty hopes”. My father was too old to interfere

with my brother and kept sighing over my dilemma. I

carried on a few more diggings but soon got blisters on

my palms that hurt and prevented me from holding the

pickaxe. I showed them to my brother and said I couldn’t

continue. Do you know what he said?” “What did he say?”,

she instantly replied. He said, “The hands hurt first but will

become hardened and strong and of a good farmer”. She

pulled and gave me a tight hug sympathetically then said,

“And?” “That was when I determined to get away from

him”. Whilst I was talking, she sometimes sighed or looked

at me intensely and proudly.


“Do you miss your mother a lot?”, she asked. “I did until

you came along and I miss you even when I am at school”.

I gave her an honest answer. “Really?”, she looked

into my eyes even in the dark. I slowly nodded without

words. It was quite a distance to walk along the dyke

coming out of Anam-dong to the bus stop. We walked

like this every evening from my school to the Yongdudong

bus stop. From that evening, she was there waiting

for me regardless of the weather. It usually took twenty

minutes on foot from my school to the bus stop though we

deliberately used the dyke course which took much longer,

letting several Ūlchiro route buses pass by. She always

had to nudge my back to get me on the bus and gave me

a bag of fudge. After exchanging good nights I got on the

bus, looking back until she was no longer in sight then my

eyes got misty. I was already missing her as soon as we



One evening, her words came as a bombshell. “Will you be

OK with your studying if I got married to someone?”. I first

felt such heaviness in my heart and totally empty. “As long

as you are happy”, I almost whispered reluctantly. After a

few seconds of silence, she said, “Really?” She bent her

back forward playfully, turned her chin and studied my

eyes. “You don’t like the thought of me getting married, do

you?” I again nodded without a word. She said, “I’m not

really, I was just testing how you would react if I did”.

“Really? please don’t play with me. You nearly gave me

a heart attack”, I pleaded. She pulled my shoulders really

tight against hers this time.


“Sis, will you tell me about yourself?” I was curious about

her past. She recounted some of her memories from

Wonsan, North Korea. When she was a high school girl,

a boy gave her a fountain pen and she knitted the pen

case and treasured it. She and the boy walked hand in

hand along the beach dune, at sunset, which was full of

sweetbriers that made her feel so romantic and fluttering.

Whilst she was telling me all these stories, I felt pushed out

of her memory boundary and such distance from her. My

lips protruded in a sulky mood and I found myself sensing

a kind of jealousy that must’ve shown in my puzzled eyes.

She didn’t miss any of my expression and gently stroked

my shoulder. “Manwon, I’ll teach you a song” and the

words were out.


‘A lifetime somehow this or that way, the weeping blossom

flickering by Danube river will be fully blown sometime but

our paths would end in tragedy’. It was the Korean lyrics

of the ‘Waves of the Danube’ of Ivanovici. The words

apparently signified the tragic ending of two lovers who

couldn’t be together. I really thought what the song meant.

I had great eternal gratitude and unforgettable but precious

memories of her.


One weekend in the autumn, she said she had to go to her

sister’s who lived the other side of Ttuksōm over Han’gang/

river. I saw the dark shadow over her face as she looked

dead serious. I followed her to Ttuksōm on a tram which

ran with constant clinks through the suburbs. Although we

were holding hands tightly, there was a colossal abyss

lying between us. She touched my face at times, my heart

felt heavy as lead. “What is it?” I asked myself. Then I

remembered what she said some time ago about ‘If she

got married’ and figured out that it wasn’t a joke after all

as she had brushed off. When I thought about it, I felt a

lump in my throat then my heart began pounding. I looked

around young looking men in the tram reproachfully,

thinking that any of them in that age would take her away.

After getting off at Ttuksōm station we carried on walking

miserably, exchanging a few meaningless words at times,

towards the quay, to the embankment which looked down

at Han river.


When we reached the quay this time she insisted on

seeing me off at the tram station. We were still holding

hands though my heart was as heavy as ever, and we

sat down on a sunny spot where the sand beach met the

embankment. She knew she had to go any minute but

missed several ferries on purpose. She told me her sister

was quite well off on melon farming over there. It was

when the sun was setting and the ferry was taking the last

passengers. We got up our fingers intertwined. “Go safely

and feed yourself properly”, she told me. “Were those

the only words she could say at this juncture?”, I was

disheartened. When our hands were parted, my heart felt

empty and tears ran down my face. She wiped my tears

away in silence. The ferry was moving away leaving gentle

undulation in the water. The active and varied scenery

of the autumnal river just looked like lone follies in the

Neverland. The quivering poplar leaves by the wind looked

so shiny that day.


‘A lifetime somehow this or that way, the weeping blossom

flickered by Danube river will be fully blown sometime

but our paths would end in tragedy’. The Korean lyrics

of ‘Waves of the Danube’ became mine. I was totally left

on my own again. It was unbearably sad not to see her

ever again. The tears kept streaming down on my face all

the way to the tram station. The dim light from the station

created a colourful rainbow through my running tears.

I once dreamt of her while I was in the KMA. I was sitting

on a kerb and she came to me expressionlessly then

shook my hand briefly and vanished like a shadow.


2018.10.9. 지만원


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