“I am the mother of sorrows, I am the ender of grief”
Paul Lawrence Dunbar
I looked at Seoul with the eyes of sorrow. Dong-ho, the name of a teenager brutally murdered in Gwangju during the darkest hour in its recent history, will stay in my memory. With the dwindling readers blessed with names in literature that transcend histories, this might be one of those names. Together with Saleem Sinai of Rushdie’s Midnight’s children, Oskar Matzerath in Grass’ The Tin Drum or Col. Aureliano Buendia of Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, Dongho for me marches slowly to that esteemed level. These names have their invisible statues that are erected at the center of modern literature’s town center. They are built for hagiography’s sake, for restless people to stare at, eternally psychoanalyze about, drink for bacchanalian festivities or be associated with for what is enduring, fantastical, profound and fundamental in our existence. Resolute Dong-ho resonates and will last as the world has seen the rising silencing of people who have stood for freedom, for the defense of the environment and the inequitable distribution of the world’s wealth. Dongho is the name of sorrow.
I met Dongho not in Gwangju, not in Seoul nor in any other place in Korea, I met him while reading “Human Acts” by the novelist Hankang months before our family visited Seoul. This disturbing and brave work by one of Korea’s foremost novelist of recent times is based on the tragedy of the Gwangju Uprising in 1980 in the southern part of the country when thousands of university students and protesters calling for democratization were massacred, bayoneted and gunned down with live bullets. Dong-ho, a middle school boy is a central character who met his tragic fate from the military ordered by Chon Do-hwan, the authoritarian president, to quell the uprising using violent means.
He was the bloodied corpse that was piled together with the other young murdered students in a mass grave of howling despair. His voice continued to seek and understand where he was. He was lost. He was trying to understand why, the utter coldness of his limbs. Fear enveloped him while darkness and the incessant rain mixed with the perceptible stench of death slowly crawled and overpowered the scent of autumn and his remembrance of resistance. He is Korea’s small man. He is Korea’s conscience, a face of youth bloodied and disfigured and brazenly robbed of hope in one of the country’s darkest pasts.
What is a human act? That was the existential question that ran in my mind as we hit the foggy tarmac of Incheon. I realized there are no easy and pliable answers to that question posed at the outset of the novel. We rode the ubiquitous Hyundai van that brought us to the never-sleeping city passing through the posh modernity of skyscrapers, cleanest of express lanes and the architectural reveal of Dongdaemun Design Plaza. Within an hour, we were in a gentrified urban artistic Korean restaurant that served us traditional food like miyeok guk (beef seaweed soup), kimchi, rolled omelet side dish gyeranmari among other dozen of side dishes and bulgogi, the children cooking themselves into the genuine samgyupsal experience.
This bloodied body of Dongho kept me thinking bizarrely, as I stood at the top of N Seoul Tower. I was seeing a city of advanced economic prosperity exporting Korean vehicles that moved millions of people around the world every day, entertaining people in big stadia and the privacy of family’s rooms with K- pops and telenovelas. As I stood at the tower, I asked Dongho. What were you seeing in that hospital tending other young students who were injured and who died from an earlier encounter, with the electricity being cut-of by the advancing soldiers for the final assault of the demonstrators? What is the silhouette of fear? At what point did fear merge with the sparks of gunfire hitting your torso, your chest, and your neck?
When we walked around the city littered with numerous coffee shops and aware of the high-tech subways that never sleep beneath our feet, I looked at the shadows of Korea’s poetry in my phone, maybe to further dig deeper into the sorrow of some forgotten poet. Maybe they could help me unravel the profound and mystical undercurrents of this question about the human act. Korea’s poetry all speak of a gentle movement; delicate small magical arrangements of steps in the calmest of dawns, nature varnishing the the top surface with the thinnest of tinge of remote bamboos and full colors, bright or even too bright that capture the imperial past while in one of the frozen rooms of the palace. They all try to balance and regain confidence after all the blasting storms and frigid days of long winters. Choi Don-sun aptly captured this in his Snowflakes poem.
“It would be wonderful
to have the cottony snowflakes, pouring down endlessly, erasing all of this into white.
We did pause and marvel at the palace that housed the royalties of the past – Gyeongbokgung Palace, all of us. There were ghostly voices and whispers auspiciously because tourists massed at another section of the building. Maybe being more acute of the past will teach me what is a human act, I said to myself. I remembered looking at the roof the many propositions about human act by an unknowable number of philosophers – self-proclaimed fathers of ideas and reverent thoughts. They talked of freedom, of free will and choice being integral to it. They talked of rational knowledge, creative and moral imperatives. I’d like to think, that when brown geckos grow and mature in rubbing and sliding through the veins of the century-old beams, they inspire thoughts and peregrinations, mostly oddities sometimes worthy for further distillation. I think of their flattened bodies and movable eyes as our portals to enlightenment. Geckos, you stalk us with disdain on how we navigate the rivers of our thoughts.
Still faithful to the adventure of our children in this land and especially in this city which has found the secret alchemy of reproducing boy bands, we went to several loud places that fed on their K-pop culture infatuation. They became wild in excitement about Korea as this is the unflinching rewards of their many nights and weekends of countless telenovelas hearing the Hangguk language without the sub-titles at the Gangnam district.
I went to a quaint bookshop with Korean books translated into English one afternoon. One such book caught my attention. It was a Korean folktale book entitled “Why Frogs Cry in the Rain” by Kris Lee. It was on the carpeted floor, may be left by a child wanting to finish reading it but her mom was already calling her to go, thus no more time to put it back on its proper rack under the children’s book section.
The thin book tells of a story of Frankie, a happy but disobedient green frog that lived in a pond with his mother. He grew up into a handsome bullfrog yet still disobedient, doing the opposite things his aging mother would tell him. So when she was about to die, she asked him to be buried at the riverbanks because she was certain that Frankie will bury her on the sunny side of the mountain which is her dream burial ground. Yet, for once, Frankie, out of love for her mother buried her at the riverbank. So, one time during a long rainy season when the river overflowed, Frankie tried desperately to save the grave from being washed away. Unable to stop the wrath of nature, Frankie lost his mother’s grave forever and all that remained was his continuous cry of sorrow and loss.
I left that bookshop, with no book but with a powerful thought of that folklore originally meant for children. This loss, this Korea’s green frog loss is its own story that continues to cry of sorrow. Not maybe of disobedience to the lessons of history, but it could also be the disregard on the pattern and eternal cycle of conflict.
Korea had lost so much in that Gwangju massacre. It lost on something that makes us human. The acts of the leaders have brought so much havoc to its people. Dongho is anyone’s son. Dongho is our son. He is not just Korea’s young child playing in the backyard who suddenly became an adult after seeing his playmates murdered by the greedy monsters and self-proclaimed prophets. Until now, Dongho prowls looking for the lost soul of his country whose wound will continue to haunt us all even at the nooks and streets of this highly urbanized metropolis. He will be remembered always though.
Dongho answered what is human act for me. It is our shared birthmark. It is our long primal song of longing. It is our sense of compassion and empathy that goes down and touches the soil on the dry ground. It is our embracing of emotions and lofty ideas in calloused palms and vulnerable hearts. It is the strength that can only come from mothers who have nurtured and sacrificed their dreams. It is the perseverance of fathers who have imbued on their sons’ courage based on our firm convictions of unchanging principles.
Human act is our expression of humanity that includes and respects, with so much capacity to laugh at its crazy descriptions of things. It speaks of our resilience and our struggles as an individual and as a community facing extinction as a species. This act allows courage to make him bear even in the most uncomfortable situation like when a man frees himself to be vulnerable, sensitive even at the sight of a beautiful butterfly with blue-black-green and iron-red wings burning its wings in quiet resignation. It experiences pain like a parent, as in this poem by Park Hoo-Ki;
“The night a poor father sleeps, embracing a pitiful son,
the night a child sleeps, dreaming of a dry blanket and a hot dish, the night the big sorrow sleeps, embracing the small sorrow,
the night at the subway station the sleet rubs salt in the wound, turning over the leaves of newspapers.”
I rejoined my children. They may have thought upon seeing me, why I looked so unequivocally strange. I smiled, a big smile of a man whose sorrow is a sorrow of enlightenment. They have no idea of Dongho. My daughter who is of the same age as that boy was there full of life, zest and promise. I embraced her remembering that Dongho’s father and the fathers of thousands have no more sons and daughters to embrace but coldness of a tortured specter. A poem by Geppetto (alias of a Korean author) trailed in my mind.
“How could you use his toil and tears?
Instead take that molten steel
and ask a sculptor of gentle heart
to shape from clay his living face pour in the steel, cool in the rain burnish with care
then raise him before the front gates.
So that his mother might come by sometimes and murmur, let me touch my baby’s face.”
Dongho continued to pierce the skies of Korea, even in that city of Seoul, which is far away from Gwangju because he lives in the heart of those who vigil for the light not to be extinguished.