I had a beautiful experience once, one night drinking wine on a coastal boardwalk, in a village just outside of the city.
It was mid-summer. I think in those days I was inviting whoever I could to come out where I lived to share some wine and conversation. Otherwise, it was pretty lonely. On this particular evening, a young woman I found walking down the boardwalk, Young Ji, joined me.
As we walked along, Young Ji told me about herself. She had grown up on the southern coast of Jeju Island, in a woman diver’s house, right on the beach. The diver wasn’t her grandmother by blood, but one of her grandfather’s wives. In those days, many Jeju Island men had several wives. Not because they were upper class (upper class men often did have several wives long ago in Korea), but because there were so few men. Many died in the war with China during the Japanese occupation, others in the massacres of 1948, others during the Korean War, and still others at sea.
If you wanted to keep cool on such a night, then you’d head out to one of the mid-mountain villages overlooking the night-scape of sea, starred with the lights of boats. The boardwalk was atrociously humid. The coast of Jeju is as much fresh water as sea water, with streams spilling off the mountain. Grass and thick coastal brush grows waist deep. Feral cats, many missing tails, circulate and tease out fish from the pools that have collected in furrows of the basalt rock. Sweat beaded on Young Ji’s chest and rolled down into her shirt. She told me that she wanted to tell me a story.
She laid a whole other world out before me. She was describing her childhood on the south side, in that costal house with the grandmother who wasn’t her blood grandmother. She lived there because she had been turned out by her family. She was considered a nuisance child, while her brother was given the privilege of attending all the right schools in the city. So, she grew up a country girl. In fact, in her corner of the village, there were no other children. She spent her childhood amongst these elderly divers, with little diversion and not a tv in the house, only a radio. And this was really quite recent, the girl was only around twenty three or so when we met on the boardwalk.
Young Ji grew up with the divers. Their economy was very thin. She recounted a time when her grandmother, who she insisted was her real grandmother, since the others had abandoned her, had come in from a dive early. The woman had a huge grin on her face as she rushed to the house out from the sea, flippers in hand. “You won’t believe it,” she said huffing from the exertion of paddling in, “I heard music.”
Young Ji was shook with fright. She must have been around twelve at the time. “Really,” said her grandmother, “not music like we have here– real music, like an orchestra , with all the instruments, brass and strings—real music.” Young Ji asked her grandmother if she was ill, her state of extreme worry intensifying. Her grandmother was beaming. She had just experienced a miracle. The sea deities had given her music, music like she had never had the opportunity to hear in her life, not like this, not for real.
Young Ji asked her grandmother if she had caught any sea life that day, abalone or other shellfish. But her grandmother was too elated to really pay attention to her. Young Ji told me she’d pleaded with the elderly diver. “How can you be excited about thinking you heard music when we have to eat? I have to go to school. Who will pay for my school books?” In this moment, it was the granddaughter being the responsible, anchored one.
“But didn’t the grandmother deserve the ecstasy?” I asked. She had spent a life at sea.
Eventually, the old sea woman who had provided for Young Ji died. And Young Ji went off to Seoul to go to university. She attended the best film school in the country. Following this turn of events, which defied all odds considering her upbringing, her parents took her in again. But this produced in her great anger. They could never claim to be the reason for her success. So, every year, when she came home from university for summer vacation she would go out to the coast and watch the sea, just as she did when she was only a kid.
Back then, she’d lived with the constant paranoia that her provider, her true grandmother wouldn’t come back from a dive. Terror was losing sight of her small float in the water, merely a speck on the horizon, with no way to help. Now, she would look out over the sea for another purpose, to give thanks to the woman who sacrificed everything for her, even though she wasn’t a blood relation. Her parents, who had turned her out, would never understand and that filled her with even more anger.
“You might not be able to understand anger if you haven’t been locked up on an island before,” said Young Ji, back then on the boardwalk, “in some prison hole, locked up by an illness or your social station, I mean an anger that never dissipates. A gnawing, lifelong anger that doesn’t mean you are always red in the face, but that forms a base part of you. An anger that is equally a helplessness. This anger is part of your deeper disposition. Say you escape, to the outside, say you are the first generation to make it out, then do you think when you sit in your high tower, speaking in the language of the big city, that that feeling of helplessness will just disappear? Or will it remain part of you always?”
I saw Young Ji, recently, years later now. She is a successful film editor. She wore designer clothes and fancy heels. She spoke in standard Korean without a trace of an island accent. I asked her if she remembered the beautiful story she told me one night about her grandmother hearing music under the sea. She told me that she had forgotten the story. When pressed, she said she didn’t want to remember anymore. The island was nothing to her now. And anyway, it wasn’t the same island she had known.