LITERATURE

JOURNEYS IN KOREAN LITERATURE

SHORT STORY

at least Half a Haruo

at least Half a Haruo

I have a Japanese friend named Haruo Takahashi. He has friends all over the world, because, unusual for someone from Japan, he loves to travel. Haruo said it himself exactly like this: “I, Haruo, have more friends in other countries than I do in Japan.”
He also said that he’d never actually counted, but I’ve no doubt it’s true. In any given year he spends more time outside of Japan, and apparently the little time he does stay there he spends “as though dead.” He doesn’t meet with anyone nor do anything at all in particular. It’s not deliberate, that’s just how things go when he’s there. After living for a while like a deep sea fish or a turtle, he casually boards a plane and flies off to another country. “That’s the way I, Haruo Takahashi, live my life,” is how he put it.
So where do you get the money to do all this? What pays for your travel?
That was what I wanted to know, but my questions soon turned out to have been silly. “Traveling is my job, and it’s through traveling that I get by,” was what he said.
Haruo’s answer was true. When I visited his website it had ad banners for a whole host of prominent global businesses. In one corner I even found an advertisement for the international firm I worked for. It hadn’t been long since I’d started working in the marketing coordination team — that’s what it was called, but all it really meant was supervising joint promotions at the small handful of resellers they had in Korea — but there was a chance I could end up being sent overseas. That was what I hoped for.

Haruo ran his website in English and on it he serialized stories of his travels. This travel blog seemed to be incredibly popular; he had a whole host of readers from all over the world. Looking at the number of hits for each article, ten thousand was the norm, and some posts even had more than ten times that. Thanks to this large following, his writings had been picked up and published by magazines in a number of countries, and it seemed he even had some books to his name. From some point, then, traveling had become, not a hobby, but his occupation.
I visited his website often, thinking it would make for good English reading practice. Haruo’s sentences were mainly short and simply structured and he hardly ever used difficult vocabulary. It might sound strange to say, but it seemed his writing was comfortable for me to read because English was a foreign language to both of us.
It wasn’t the sort of travel prose that passes on top tips or information. If you find yourself in Paris you must have a dish of mussels al fresco at a restaurant with a terrace; or, when in Saint Petersburg don’t bother with the Hermitage, it’s much more worthwhile to visit the Russian Museum; or, if in New Orleans you should spend at least one evening on Bourbon Street — it was nothing like that. Nor did it go along the lines of: compared to Japan, this place is like this and that place like that. Haruo didn’t rave about tourist spots and he didn’t write from a particularly Japanese perspective. At the same time, though, the content on the site wasn’t exactly appetizing essays or cerebral and sentimental travel stories. For me, it was just colorless, odorless, to the extent that I found it hard to understand why the stuff was so popular. Saying that, I myself read every single one of his posts entranced, so his writing must have had some kind of mysterious attraction. It was enough to make one wonder if a medieval spell hadn’t been laced among the words.
In fact, all he did was reveal his whereabouts in words and pictures. To say “reveal” doesn’t mean that he was going along getting a kick out of exposing his private life. In the simplest terms, it would be accurate to say that he was putting into words himself living in a way natural to wherever he happened to be. His tone paid no attention to whether that place was New York’s Times Square or an obscure alleyway in Chiang Khong. In Times Square he lived like a New Yorker and in Chiang Khong he lived as though he were Thai, born and bred right there. Simple as that. When Haruo went to a place he simply lived there, that was how he traveled. So perhaps it shouldn’t be called travel at all, but that’s beside the point.
There must have been at least some things that were unfamiliar and new to Haruo, but it seemed as though he had little interest in such stuff. At best, he sometimes recounted suddenly being confused about where he was, but that was about the extent of it. A traveler with no interest in the unfamiliar … Isn’t that as preposterous as a bus driver who does the rounds of the same route, day after day, feeling wonder at the streets he passes through?
That’s how I saw it, but Haruo said that some of his readers had even become his friends in real life. In some cases it was people he’d only known online and then met up with because they happened to be living wherever he was visiting; others he had met while traveling and then later they’d gone to his homepage and started communicating online.
For us — me and her — it was the latter. Meaning that after meeting him on our travels we visited his website and became avid readers.

We met Haruo a few years ago on an overnight train from Delhi to Varanasi. It was the first time (and the last in fact) since we started seeing each other that she and I had gone away together. And it was an overseas trip at that.
She was already used to spending time abroad, but that wasn’t the case for me. At that time, I’d graduated but was still unemployed and spent all my time cramming for English language exams, in a uniform of tracksuits and trainers. Right up till high school it had been my ambition to become a pilot, but the extent of my overseas travel was a single trip to China. And that was only because my father forced me to join a group tour he was leading for the old folks in our village. “Listen, son, a man has to know about the wide world out there” — that was my father’s reasoning for including me in the guided tour. Of course he didn’t mention it would be his first time boarding a plane, too. All I did out in the wide world of the Middle Kingdom was listen to boring spiels by sales assistants at health food shops, listlessly picking up their wares and then putting them back down again.
She was different. Later she even worked as a flight attendant for an international airline with routes all over the world. I had always dreamed of becoming a pilot, but I ended up an office worker, sitting at a desk and staring at a computer screen with bloodshot eyes. Her ambition had been the unremarkable life of a civil servant, but she became a flight attendant, working in the air nine-thousand meters above sea level. She’d only just started working there but her future was bright, soon she would be flying back and forth to America and points in between, with Incheon as her base. That meant a life sweetened by a per diem allowance while relaxing in American hotels.
“So it’s this giant tube of metal and it can fly through midair; a heavy tube of metal that comes and goes through heights that even a ball of cotton wool can’t reach.” This was how she described her first trip. Her expression was buoyant. I almost made fun of her with “That’s a very scientific take on it,” but she didn’t catch on to how I was feeling and just continued.
“All through the night you’re on the plane flying to a city really far away, then after spending some time in a hotel there you come back, that’s the routine. When you arrive at a city of skyscrapers across the ocean, you’ve only flown for twenty hours but it’s two days later there. On the way back it’s the opposite. You’ve flown for twenty hours but then you touch down only a couple of hours after the departure time. It’s like snatching up time and keeping it in your pocket then getting it out again.”
Taking sips of freshly brewed coffee, she spoke in a tone as though it was all so fascinating. After meeting that day, for the first time, we parted ways without getting drunk.
Of course she knew that my dream had been to become a pilot. When I was young, I collected Hasegawa airplane hobby kits and built all of the models in the Phantom fighter jets series from Academy. There was no doubt in my mind that I would go on to attend aviation school. My parents were all for it, too. The problem was my eyesight; my vision grew rapidly worse when I was in high school, so I had to wear glasses. It was a critical disqualifier. But I didn’t give up on the dream. I pestered my parents to pay for me to have laser eye surgery.
With that, the dream disappeared like a burst bubble. I only found out later, but the eye surgery was fatal. During the health inspection the doctor explained it like this. “A plane is a machine that doesn’t just move forward and backward, left and right, but also up and down. Pilots have to be able to withstand sudden changes in gravitational force. But laser surgery pares away the retina. The result? If the air pressure suddenly changes, your vision could become blurry, and in the worst case scenario, you could end up with a burst eyeball.”
I imagined my eyeballs bursting in the sky. Countless times. Flying through the clouds and then out of nowhere the plane meets a huge storm. The fuselage shakes violently, up and down, side to side. Then suddenly we enter the eye of the storm. The eye of the storm is filled with calm. And right in the middle of that calm, with a tight pop, my eyes burst. My vision is gone. It’s not that it goes dark, my vision itself just completely disappears. That’s when I realized the fact that imagination can kill a dream. After imagining that scene countless times, with the bed covers over my head, I was finally able to give up on my dream willingly.
But now, every time I set out on a business trip, I get a strange feeling as I enter the airport. Everyone there is leaving for or returning from distant places with a couple of cases as large as my body in tow. In such surroundings, wearing a smart suit, I collect my boarding pass, send off my luggage, and then, as I wait in line for the immigration screening, staring into space … unstoppable thoughts take hold of me. How did all the world’s destinations come into being? Rather than people requiring destinations, isn’t it that destinations need people? Could it be that, rather than people leaving and returning to places, places to leave and places to return to are exchanging people? Thoughts like that, the kind you might find written in a Western book of proverbs with a mottled cover. It was me who had suggested the trip to her.

The train was old and worn out. It was a sleeper train, but rather than having closed compartments, it was open plan with upper and lower bunks facing each other in pairs along the carriage. There was rubbish littered on the floor and a smell like rotten fruit came through in waves. Unconcerned by the smell, or anything else, we both had our eyes peeled taking in the view outside the window, looking around the carriage, then out the window again. “It was the middle of winter when we left Korea, but here in India it’s early autumn,” she mumbled redundantly. “Yup, that’s how this thing called Earth works,” I responded, just as redundantly. “Yeah, must be,” she nodded. During the day, the kind of familiar rural scenery that could be found in any country slid by, and at night, the kind of darkness that could be found in any country flowed past the window.
It was probably around the time we were passing through Sitapur. Someone started clearing up the rubbish on the floor of the carriage. Having sat meekly between passengers who were either asleep or passing the time in tedium, he suddenly got up, fetched a brush and cloth from somewhere, and began cleaning the floor, even sprinkling water as he swept. A slim young man of medium height. It was clear that this man was not employed by the train company. He was dressed in ordinary clothes — worn out cotton trousers and a baggy grey t-shirt.
“That guy, what’s he doing?” she asked, gesturing toward the man with her chin. The other passengers were also staring as though he was terribly strange. Smiling, the man kept on cleaning, greeting the other passengers as he went. Only when he got close to us did we realize that his face was different from that of an Indian.
The young man approached my seat and asked me to lift my legs. With this I’d been given an opportunity to say something to him without it being awkward. When I tried, all I uttered in English was a clumsy question.
“Excuse me … what are you doing?”
The man raised his head, “Me? I’m cleaning,” he responded as though it was obvious.
At his bland answer I asked another question.
“What I meant was, why are you doing the cleaning?”
The man looked at me, expressionless. “Why, am I not allowed to do the cleaning?” he replied.
In his response, the man stressed the “I” as I had the “you.” I was lost for words, the best I could do was let out a silly laugh. She joined our exchange.
“This is India, and the place we’re in is an overnight train no less. Most Indian trains are made up of scruffy old carriages like this. It’s only natural. You could say that it’s a precious part of India. You are not an employee but a passenger, and because of that we think there is no need for you to be cleaning up.”
Having listened to her words, close to a speech, the man’s innocent expression stretched into a broad smile. What he said then was a little unexpected.
“You two and me, let’s be friends.”
That was the first time we met Haruo.
From then on we really did become “friends.” Having been looking at Haruo, she and I turned to each other and smiles spread across our faces. As though we ourselves didn’t really know why we were smiling, it was that kind of expression.

Haruo fetched his bag and moved over to where we were. Inside that train, we stayed up talking the whole night through like old friends. It was a little odd that we felt absolutely no awkwardness with him even though it was our first meeting. Haruo permeated into us as naturally as air.
To try and explain it, it was this kind of feeling: she and I, travelers, were on one side, and the place we were traveling in, its scenery and people, were on the other. Each side could look at the other but between them there was something like a glass partition which couldn’t be crossed. We watched the world through the glass, and one way or another, the world on the other side received a commission from us. Because whether it was traveling or sightseeing, there was no way we could claim to be living in the midst of that scenery. But Haruo slid in between and broke up what kept the two sides apart. The glass partition suddenly disappeared and the air from outside rushed in. It was that kind of thing.
When we arrived at Varanasi in the early morning, we unpacked our bags in the same guesthouse. We drank Indian beer at an outdoor café, wandered the bazaar which buzzed with speeding auto-rickshaws, sat on the ghat by the banks of the River Ganges and talked about this and that. Haruo was as natural with us as though we had all set out together from the very beginning, and she and I found this very natural, too.

I think it was only later on that I realized this was Haruo’s strange talent. Drinking beer and chatting with Haruo, the feeling that I was talking in a foreign language disappeared completely. When we were wandering through the bazaar I even lost myself in the daydream that I was walking with an old friend, someone I had known far longer than the woman I came away with. When I mentioned this to her I didn’t include the “far longer than you” part, but she agreed immediately that she felt the same.
Haruo didn’t just stick with us the whole time though. It was something like … Haruo was also on a separate trip, one all his own. He often disappeared. He’d turn up in the morning looking dog tired after roaming around all night, and once he borrowed an auto-rickshaw from somewhere and drove alone on country roads churning up dust. There was also a time when he brought some unfamiliar people to the guesthouse, saying they were his Indian friends, and they all drank chai together. Hardly anyone who saw this circle of friends sitting together and drinking tea would have thought there was a Japanese man among them.
Haruo behaved naturally, as though there were no other people around. At times Haruo himself looked as though he was already not Haruo. Once, walking through the bazaar near our guesthouse, I found myself staring at a peddler selling Indian trinkets. “There’s something familiar about that guy” — I got that feeling. A moment later she and I were left standing still with our mouths hanging wide open. That person selling trinkets from a stall in the middle of the bustling market was none other than Haruo. Explaining that he had gotten the goods from an Indian friend and was selling them, Haruo was so casual you’d be forgiven for thinking he had been born and raised on those very streets.

“You’re different from the other Japanese people I know” — I said to Haruo once. He stared at me with an empty expression. “You’re different from the other Korean people I know, too,” he responded, along with his usual smile. He spoke as though this was only natural. It was only natural then that my companion immediately reproached me for harboring too much prejudice. Her words were aimed at the underlying assumption that it was unusual for someone from Japan to love traveling as Haruo did. But to be fair, I began this story with a phrase to the same tune, so there’s not much use trying to defend myself.
Strictly speaking, Haruo wasn’t your typical Japanese person anyway. His grandfather on his mother’s side was American, and his mother was from Okinawa. “Ah, Okinawa,” she said. “Aren’t those islands near Taiwan? Don’t they call them the Ryukyu Islands?”
Haruo nodded. She went on, her words spinning ambiguously, “You can’t really call people from Okinawa Japanese, but then you can’t really say they’re not Japanese either, that’s what they say.” The joke that Haruo made then went like this.
“So you could say, at least half a Haruo is a Haruo that’s somehow different.”
Born and raised in Okinawa, Haruo said that he faced quite a lot of trouble when he moved to his uncle’s place in Tokyo. The first thing was that as soon as he arrived in Tokyo his parents back in Okinawa got divorced. He was also ostracized by his peers at school. For Haruo, who had a somehow unusual appearance for a Japanese boy and wasn’t very talkative, adapting to the universe that is a classroom was the hardest thing imaginable. Then he went on to fail the entrance examination for the university he’d applied to — his way of opting out of further education without causing a fuss.
Haruo said he left his uncle’s house and took off on a trip without a second thought. He explained, “It was a kind of suicide trip. I had no will to live and felt no bad feelings about death.”
Having made up his mind to spend all the money he’d saved up over the years on a trip before he died, as would be fitting for any despairing youth, Haruo said he’d wanted to go straight to the North Pole. But because his savings wouldn’t get him very far even if he’d made it all the way there, in the end he decided on nearby Korea. His travel route led from Busan up to Seoul, east to Chuncheon, Sokcho and then southward down the number seven highway back to Busan.
On the first day of his trip, Haruo said he got a strange feeling. Having checked into a guesthouse in a back street in Busan — she corrected him; it was probably actually a motel or inn — Haruo fell into a long, deep sleep, something which was completely new to him. When he woke he found himself in an unfamiliar room. It felt like he’d slept so long that several layers of life had passed him by. That morning, Haruo lay there staring at the ceiling. Then, as he sat up, for some reason he felt like he was emerging from the bottom of the ocean. He opened the window and looked down at the clamorous street. In the faint sunlight countless cars were passing by and cold air mixed with exhaust surged in through the window. “Aaah,” Haruo let out a brief moan. In some inexplicable dimension, it was a whole new world.
Having gone out into the street in search of breakfast, Haruo had a trivial but peculiar experience. A young woman approached him from the other side of the street and asked,
“By any chance … do you believe in the Way?”
Haruo stared vacantly at the woman. Having worn an expression as if to say he wasn’t sure whether he believed or not, without even thinking, his face beamed out a smile. The woman, too, searching his face for a response, followed suit and smiled. That was the end of it. As if there was no need for them to say anything more, that’s what he said it felt like.
Having gone past the woman and carried on walking, Haruo realized there was something odd. The woman’s words were not English. Of course they weren’t Japanese either. Judging by the pronunciation — which Haruo said he could clearly recall — it must have been Korean. Haruo added that the extent of his Korean language knowledge was kimchi , bulgogi , and the greeting, annyeong-haseyo.
Having parted with the woman, as he walked the teeming streets brisk with cold air, Haruo realized that, strangely enough, his will to die had disappeared. He described it like this. “You could say it was like, in a single moment, the being that was me was moved about five centimeters into another world. Although, who knows? Maybe I had actually come to know the Way after all.”
“Believe it or not, that really did happen to me, on a street in Nampo-dong, Busan, one winter,” Haruo said, deadly serious.

It was the night before we were to leave Varanasi. We sat around in our room at the guesthouse drinking wine that Haruo had brought. She and I were talking like tourists about India and the River Ganges. Banal things like, “India today is the combination of the mystery of the Ganges and the dynamism of the IT industry,” or, “What thoughts must have gone through George Harrison’s mind as he waited for death beside that river?” Haruo just smiled occasionally.
I must have fallen into a light sleep. The gloom around me felt deep, as though I were stuck deep underwater. It must have been about two or three a.m. I was lying on my bed in the same clothes I’d been wearing when we were drinking.
In the darkness I could just faintly hear Haruo and my companion talking. A conversation heard from the depths of the sea. I parted my heavy eyelids. Haruo and the woman came into view. Dim light seeping in from outside the window made soft silhouettes of Haruo and her. They were seated side by side, holding hands and talking. It looked completely natural, as though they’d been lovers for years.
I thought to myself, this must be the scenery of the underwater world: night, darkness and faint, frail heartbeats. The two of them looked so snug and still, I couldn’t bring myself to move or make a single sound.
I sank back down like a fish into sleep.

In the morning, the sky had completely clouded over. We decided to go out to the Ganges one last time.
We walked without any particular destination in mind, but our feet came to a stop at the burning ghat. A cremation site on the sloping banks of the river, with stone altars piled with logs and timber dotted across two levels, and rows of corpses wrapped in cloth awaiting their turn. At one end a pyre was already burning.
We walked around the ghat. Black ash stirred up by the wind flew past us. The ash whirled and fluttered, landing on our hair and shoulders. She and I would soon return to Delhi then get on a plane bound for Incheon. Haruo said he was intending to go on from Varanasi to Nepal and then travel all the way down to Bangladesh. From there he would go back to Japan, and he added that after a couple of months in Japan he was planning to do the rounds of South America and then go on to North America via Cuba. That was when he described how he spent time “as though dead” when he was back in Japan.
Leading up to the burning ghat, corpses covered in cloth were placed at intervals on bamboo frames. Raindrops began to fall on them. The fabric soaked up the moisture. I gazed vacantly as the outline of the corpse on the frame beside me appeared beneath the now heavy cloth. Curves of chest and waist, the line of thin legs protruded little by little in the scarlet shroud. It looked like the corpse of a young woman. I couldn’t tear my gaze away from that outline, until, having stolen a look at me, my companion said, “It’s cold today,” as she rubbed her elbows.
Cold fog hovered above the water. The biting chill of the wind made it hard to believe this was a morning in India. The air felt as though it had been sprinkled with ice. Only a small handful of locals were soaking and meditating, or washing their bodies in the river.
The far side of the river looked desolate. It was just sand, no houses or people. The owner of our guesthouse had explained to us that it was called the “land of death.” He said it was because all the ashes left over from the ghat gathered there.
As drops of rain landed on us, she and I sat on the stairs down to the river staring at the water and the far riverbank. It didn’t seem as though we were thinking about anything in particular. We simply gazed at the ashes bobbing on the surface. Or, who knows? Maybe it was actually the ashes that were gazing at us.
Just then an object reached our eyes. Something was floating in the river, and looking closer, we saw it was a man’s head. There was a man floating downstream with his head above the surface. At first I thought it must be a corpse, but seeing an arm lifted now and then, stirring up the water, there was no doubt about it — he was swimming. I was sure of it, and it looked like backstroke.
I had spotted people swimming in the river from time to time, but backstroke on a chilly morning with the patter of raindrops … It didn’t take long for our vacant expressions to contort. The swimming man was none other than Haruo. Having disappeared from beside us at some point, Haruo was now there on the water.
Looking up at the sky and occasionally stirring the water, Haruo drifted along with his head above the surface. Yes, his leisurely pace could only be described as drifting. He was probably intending to reach the other side of the river. White ashes floated along, on the water around Haruo, creating shapeless, shifting clusters. This vision of Haruo, we watched in a daze sitting by the ghat.
She mumbled almost inaudibly, “It’s Haruo … floating downstream.”
In the same mumble I managed to respond, the words which escaped my lips perplexing even to me, “Must be … at least half a Haruo anyway.”
She turned to look at me. I must have sounded blunt.

After getting back to Korea I visited Haruo’s website and started reading his travel writing that wasn’t travel writing. I seem to remember doing this with a fervor that bordered on addiction.
In one post, Haruo introduced me and her as friends he had met in India. It wasn’t disinterested, nor was it overly affectionate. It felt as though he hadn’t used us as objects of description, or as protagonists. Simply, she and I were there, breathing, in his writing. Passing through Kathmandu and traveling all the way to Chittagong, Haruo did not express awe at the scenery of the bleak and remote places he saw. He made a detailed record of what he and the people he met on his travels had been doing, what kind of thoughts came to mind when he ate a certain food, that kind of thing. A while later, when he introduced Cuban music, he wrote as though it was merely music, nothing more, and when he recounted a robbery he had witnessed on a street in Mexico, it was in such a way that it could just as well have happened in Narita. But strangely enough, in all of those writings, the thing which came to my mind was the image of Haruo drifting among flakes of ash on the Ganges.

Time passed quickly. The frequency with which I visited Haruo’s website decreased dramatically. It seemed inevitable as time went by, but it would be more honest to say that I stopped finding any interest in what he wrote. Haruo was living in so many places, but the impression his writing gave me was gradually fading.
The inexplicable addiction that I had felt as I read his writings had almost disappeared. After all, I thought, feelings, just like concentration, have their own cycles of birth and demise. It was probably because of that. She and I breaking up was no different.
One day she called me and arranged to meet. She stood outside my office with her airline case, company-issued bag perched on top, just as she must have been when she disembarked from her last flight. It looked like she had just gotten off work. She didn’t move but looked at me, her hands clasping the handle of the case in front of her.
Walking toward her, it felt as though something was passing through my chest with each step. A single flow of empty wind, or perhaps the very last leaf to fall from an old, weathered tree. I was coming to the realization that with this, our relationship had become part of the past. It seemed like she was experiencing the same thing. As we ate dinner together that evening, each time our eyes met, we gave awkward smiles in unison. It felt like there was a fallen angel sitting between the two of us, balancing heavy stones on our expressions one by one. When a stone fell, a smile would return for a moment, then that spiteful angel would place another heavy stone where the last had been. I tried to imitate Haruo’s beaming smile, but it didn’t go well.

I thought … How can I put it? “This is just an everyday happening. It’s alright, it won’t have any effect for now. I will part with her, go home and sleep. Tomorrow I will go to work, and then nothing at all will happen.” I spent my time sitting across from her, thinking such random thoughts. Like a giraffe and a pelican sitting together, we didn’t communicate in any way.
She called me the next night. With the same tone as someone might explain about a new instrument she was learning to play, or a new foreign language she had started picking up, she told me about the American boyfriend she had recently begun seeing. Working for the same airline, she said it had just kind of happened, so naturally that it was hard to pinpoint how it came about. With a laugh in her voice, she said she wasn’t really sure whether that was the reason she had split up with me or the outcome of us splitting up. I nodded with the phone to my ear.
It seems that from a certain moment life begins to flow past before you know it. Around that time I grew close with a female intern working at the same office, and it developed into a relationship, typical in every possible way. Not long afterwards, my father who was living alone in our hometown came up to the city and we battled through a wedding ceremony. Like a trip taken on impulse, it felt like everything was rushing by me at breakneck speed. Life after the wedding was far from easy. I kept roaming around not going home, and my wife couldn’t put up with such behavior. It felt as though at least half of me was living somewhere else. It was probably no different for my wife either.
Frustrating my hopes of being transferred abroad, I couldn’t break away from managing domestic resellers. It couldn’t have been any other way, because at that time, troubles at the head office in the States meant the Korea branch had to start cutting employees and restructuring across all projects and departments. I took it as only normal that things couldn’t always go as I wished, but then I didn’t know exactly what it was I wished for. It felt like all causes and outcomes had been bundled together and mixed up. I didn’t manage even a year with my wife before we agreed on divorce. Then, in a case of one misfortune following another, my father passed away while we were going through the divorce proceedings.
My father passed away in his home village, and I saw that as his small and humble good fortune. He was able to close his eyes peacefully in the place where he’d spent his entire life. Only a couple of the village old folks who had gone on that trip to China years before were still around. At least half of them had passed away, but it was also thanks to a resort being built in the vicinity. Apparently, the handful of hometown elders who had land over there had grabbed their share of payouts and moved out to a nearby city. At the same time, many locals, including my dad, fell out with one another protesting the resort construction. After that the resort builders lobbied the county office and before long the protests were all glossed over, although nothing had been resolved. Time had transformed many things in the blink of an eye. That village was my hometown, but it was a hometown to which I no longer felt any attachment.
The four days of funeral rites were very simple. A few friends of my father who lived nearby stopped by and a couple of my close colleagues came down and drank with me. I bought a plot in a private graveyard and laid my father to rest. Then, when the funeral was over, I sorted through his belongings and registered his death at the town hall…
I visited an estate agent in town to put his small house and useless field on the market, and as I was leaving, the owner, who had been a friend of my father’s, began reminiscing about him. “It was even more heart-wrenching,” he said, “because there’d been nothing wrong with him when he collapsed and he’d even gained consciousness again before it happened.” “Listen ‘ere, where is this? Is this really the place I was born? Where did the place where I was born disappear to? ” Having recounted Father’s last words, the estate agent tutted ruefully, staring into space, and then added, “Still, at least the old boy went in his hometown, got to be grateful for small mercies, eh?”
I gave a respectful goodbye and left. That was probably the last time I would meet any old friends of my father. When the house and field were sold, it would be dealt with via phone and fax.
I unfolded my father’s beddings and spent my last night in my hometown lying in my father’s room. Staring at the old paper on the ceiling, I counted the irises in the pattern one by one. When I got to around fifty irises, I lost track and started again from the beginning. When I got to around two-hundred irises, I lost track and started again from the beginning. When I got to around fivehundred irises, I lost track and started again from the beginning.

She and I kept in touch now and again. Not my wife, the woman who was a flight attendant. We had dinner together once, having met up again for the first time in ages. Of all the days, it was the same date as the day we had started seeing each other. In a bar where a chorus of voices flew around bouncing off the walls, that day years ago, when talking with her felt like trying to hold a conversation for the first time in my life.
I said, “Of all the days,”… but maybe we had actually been remembering the date and met under the pretense of coincidence. An anniversary between old flames who are never getting back together. We really are weird. Practically in unison we both said things to that effect and laughed together. She winced, perhaps the kiwi dressing on the salad was sour.
Trying to make a joke, I asked, “How is it up in the air? Nice place?”
To my surprise, staring down at the table she mumbled in a wilted voice, “The air… it’s a lonely place. If you look out the window there’re no traffic lights, and you can’t exactly wave at the clouds going by.” She went on, as if only to herself, “The only thing in the air is people. People I have to attend to.”
I retorted ill-temperedly, “Didn’t you say the plane travels at nine-hundred kilometers per hour? You’re serving juice and water and meals in a machine traveling six times faster than Sun Dong-ryul’s best pitches. Surely, you’re not saying you didn’t know all that when you started out?”
A feeble smile came to her face then disappeared. It was around then that she mentioned Haruo.
“I saw Haruo.”
“Haruo? Haruo? Ah, Haruo.”
When the name Haruo came out of her mouth, I let out a light exclamation. It was like a name floating up through a tangle of waterweed to the surface of a rubbish-filled swamp of memories. Perhaps because it had been so long since that trip to India and my life had changed so much in that time, it now felt like the name of an old friend.
Her story was a little out of the blue. She said that she had seen him in Detroit Airport. “No, I’m not certain whether or not it really was Haruo, but…,” she continued, speaking vaguely.
She was waiting in the special line for flight attendants. She had both hands on her usual trolley case and was in full uniform. But in the next line over, where international arrivals were waiting to go through passport control, there was a small disturbance going on.
A man was quarreling with the airport security guards. The man protested, letting out the occasional shriek, and two of the guards had taken hold of his arms, demanding that he go with them to the interrogation room. He was an East Asian, wearing old jeans and a baggy brown sweater. Judging by his voice and intonation he seemed to be Japanese, but quite “unusual for a Japanese person,” she said, he was protesting fiercely.
What made her think, “That’s Haruo!” was when the man who had been tussling suddenly turned to look in her direction. The moment their eyes met she thought she saw a smile beam across his face, but she added that this was probably her eyes deceiving her.
She explained that in American airports people are randomly chosen for full body scans. The selected international passenger goes into a huge cylindrical scanning chamber and has to lift both arms like a crime suspect, then the whole body is scanned with X-ray or something. She said it was a measure put in place to tighten security after 9/11. “If you refuse to comply, you can be denied entry.”
She said that she was unable to help Haruo. The airport security guards who had surrounded him took him straight off to the interrogation room. She added that, as he had gone beyond mere refusal to actually causing a disturbance, he would probably have had a simple identification check and then been put through the motions of denial of entry.
I sat there thinking, “are anniversaries always so forlorn?” Snow was falling outside the restaurant window. As it was the tail end of winter, the snowflakes weren’t big or beautiful. “Half melted, wet snow,” I mumbled.
She spoke about her future plans. Soon she would be getting married to her “captain” from the airline, and they were planning to settle down in Los Angeles. She’d already stopped working as a flight attendant, and this would be the last time she came to Korea. “It’s like I’ve ended up on a really, really long trip,” she said. Nodding, I said, “You should come back to visit now and again.”
Just before we parted ways, as though it was just a passing remark, she told me something.
“You know that time in the guesthouse in Varanasi when I stayed up all night talking with Haruo?”
She spoke gazing at the sky as half-melted snowflakes fell. “You were watching us so you’ll remember. Do you know what we talked about?”
Without speaking, I looked up at the thickening snow flurry.
“I told Haruo that he was beautiful.” With her eyes fixed on the night sky she continued. “Haruo smiled, brightly, but when that smile faded he looked so forlorn.”
Faced with such an expression, she said that all she could do was keep quiet. The Varanasi night was drifting by. In the quiet of that dark room, she said, Haruo mumbled, as though it were just a passing comment, or perhaps not, “What’s beautiful is everything, except Haruo.”
That was what Haruo said, but those somehow dry words had felt to her then like very still, thin air. She couldn’t muster any response, and at that moment, she said she felt something strange.
Letting wet snowflakes land on her open palm she spoke quietly, “It felt like a small love had passed me by.”

There’s one more story about Haruo to include here.
Not long ago the Korea branch of the company where I worked had overcome the crisis and was getting back in its stride. I’d been feeling ineffectual for a long time, but the com pany was expanding its market share, taking strength from the determined will of the new director who had plenty of political connections. The Korea branch was given responsibility for handling markets in East and Southeast Asia and there was a quiet buzz of excitement around the office.
After being put to work on a project to strengthen sales overseas, I ended up responsible for carrying out the recruitment of international employees. We had to find suitable foreign candidates from a range of Asian countries.
Strangely enough, among the applicants I discovered a Japanese man similar to Haruo. The name written on his online application was not Haruo Takahashi but Kyosuke Hara. In the photograph on the form, however, his eyes had just the same shape. The line of his nose and the curve of his lips were exactly those of Haruo Takahashi. The overall impression the ID photo gave was much sharper, but however I looked at it, it had to be Haruo. I was half in doubt and there was no way to be sure but I just couldn't extinguish this thought. After Haruo’s website had suddenly been taken offline, I couldn’t keep track of his writings, let alone what he was up to.
At the interview, I was able to meet this Kyosuke Hara face to face. Kyosuke Hara was a man who knew how to wear a striped suit with finesse and give a moderated smile. He looked like he had manners and discipline. He had worked as an intern at a small Japanese trading company, and said that since he recently started seeing a Korean woman, he had developed a keen interest in Korean culture.
“Mr. Hara, do you use another name by any chance? Haruo Takahashi?” I asked straight up.
Kyosuke Hara looked at me as if to say, “What do you mean?” then tilted his head and spoke, slowly and clearly. His name was Kyosuke Hara, and he did not know anyone by the name of Haruo Takahashi.

That night, after the interviews were all over, I was drinking alone at home when I looked up Kyosuke Hara’s number and called him. He seemed to find it odd that the recruitment officer was calling late at night. It was past ten p.m. so it was an understandable reaction. Without caring at all I began to question him. “Mr. Hara, are you really not Haruo Takahashi? A long time ago you wrote a blog about traveling, well, no, about life, and you’ve met me before, in India.”
After a long silence as though he couldn’t work out what was going on, Mr. Hara spoke, “It’s true. A long time ago I did travel in India, and I did run a blog once. But it wasn’t about traveling or life, it was about global trends. Of course global trends are also about life, but… anyway, my name is Kyosuke Hara and I do not know this Haruo Takahashi person.”
As soon as he paused I jumped in, and spoke resolutely, buoyed on a strange excitement, “That’s right, isn’t it? Of course you aren’t Haruo Takahashi. You shouldn’t be Haruo Takahashi. Haruo Takahashi will still…,” Hara kept silent on the other end of the line, “… will still be on his travels.”
Having said that, I hung up the phone, lifted my glass of strong Chinese liquor and tipped the remaining content into my mouth.

Not long afterward I quit my job.
There were a few reasons. The project I was working on was making deathly slow progress. My teammates and I were partly responsible, and as the pressure from the company increased bit by bit, the conflict within the team got serious. Things like that.
I handed in my notice with no particular plans in mind. I could move on to a different company without too much hassle, and I didn’t have anyone depending on me, so I could do something completely different if I wanted. But my heart wasn’t moved in any particular direction.
I spent a few days lying in bed staring at the pattern of arabesques on the papered ceiling. When I counted to about threehundred shapes, I lost track and started counting again from the beginning. I counted to about seven-hundred shapes, lost track and started again from the beginning. I counted to about ninehundred shapes, lost track and started again from the beginning. I counted to one-thousand-five-hundred shapes, then went to my computer and booked a flight to India.
It didn’t feel like I was planning a holiday, nor was I wanting to go in search of “the Way.” If it’s alright to say it like this, I guess it was just as though that’s what I had to do. From Delhi I would probably take an overnight train to Varanasi, sit meekly between people sleeping or passing the time in tedium, and then out of nowhere get up and start cleaning. While I busy myself, who knows? Maybe someone will speak to me.
Do you know Haruo Takahashi by any chance?
I’ll respond with a beaming smile.
If you mean at least half a Haruo,
Probably.

COPYRIGHTS THE KOREA FOUNDATION
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

페이스북 유튜브

COMMENTS AND QUESTIONS TO KOREANA@KF.OR.KR
TEL (+82-2) 2046 - 8525, (+82-2) 2046 - 8570 / FAX (+82-2) 3463 - 6075

SUBSCRIPTION

Copyright ⓒ The Korea Foundation 2016 All rights reserved.

페이스북 유튜브