Into the Future

Marie Myung-Ok Lee

“Old man,” said Youngae to her husband. “What are you doing? At your age, Doctors Without Borders? North Korea?”

Yungman had pondered on this strange turn of fate. How he had always wanted to work with the prestigious Doctors Without Borders and now he would not only be doing that, but they would be taking him home. Kwok Gwan-su was a revered patriot of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which gave North Korea the requisite political cover to allow a descendant of Kwok Gwan-su back into the country. It was a homecoming. 

The North Korean government tried not to eye too greedily the modern medical equipment the man and his delegation would be bringing. But even though the man was American, look, he was still a son, and still wants to return to Choson more than anything.Yungman even still had a valid Minnesota state medical license (even though the last medical procedure he'd performed in the last year was laser hair depilations, at The Mall of America).

One last little problem: the Korean Church of Heavenly Love's Bible Study group. Sometimes, Yungman hated that he had a Christian wife. “Welcome, welcome,” said Dr. Kimm, the Head Deacon of the church. He made sure to spell his name, the commonest of common Korean surnames, a little differently because he felt he was different, better than everyone else, and, in his usual meddlesome way, had insisted on throwing a “little sendoff party” for Yungman and “Sister Kwok” in his palatial home in Edina.

“North Korea—tsk, tsk tsk. You know I've prayed on this a lot,” he said, smiling fatuously, the way only a man with live children could do. “This is kind of preposterous, no?”

“What's so preposterous about a group of doctors bringing medicine to a place that could really use it?” 

Yungman had been hoping for a little oohing and aahing from the group, Doctors Without Borders—I've heard of it! How prestigious! Leave it to Kimm to once again make this all about him. The others eyed Kimm curiously, to see what else he would say—so they could ape him. After all, he had a signed picture of George W. Bush thanking him personally for all his help in the 2004 campaign hanging on his living room's wall, right next to his daughter Angelina's polished black Steinway.

“But it's a communist state, the third member of the Axis of Evil. They are terrorists.”

“Just the same, the people don't deserve to go blind from something as simple as cataracts—”

“That's not the reason they are going blind,” Kimm said indignantly. “We had a defector speak at the church, Sister Kwok must have told you about him. He was talking about how in his village, during the famine, people were reduced to boiling down corncobs—Korean toilet paper!—for food. But to Kim Jong Il, the corncobs were too good for his people. He ordered them to mix the corncob gruel 50% with rice root. Do you know what rice root does to you? It makes you go blind. This man told us how one man in the village secretly refused to add the rice root to his children's corncob gruel. And so what did the ‘Dear' Leader do when his spies found out? He had the man executed! Not only that, but in the middle of the village, where the party thugs dragged not just the man's children but all the village's children to the front to force them to watch the object lesson of what life is like in a dictatorship. Imagine, while Kim Jong Il is drinking fine French wine and eating pastries!”

“That drunk old fatty!” snarled old Dr. Song, professor emeritus of physics at the U.

“Yes, the World Health Organization estimates that more than a million people might have died during the famine. So it's doubly important for us to bring in this equipment,” Yungman said, patiently. “They don't even have iodine or antibiotics in some hospitals, patients have to share IV needles.”

“Whatever you bring in, old Kim Jong Il just going to sell it all on the black market for his horrible weapons.”

“That's a risk we'll have to take. Isn't that what Jesus would do?” Yungman was careful to refrain from adding “your” Jesus. “No, Jesus definitely wouldn't support terrorism,” Kimm went on. “Don't you see, by bringing in more supplies, you're just aiding the rogue state, helping it to survive?”

“So you want it to collapse.”

“Of course we do. Why do you think we fought the Korean War?”

“I don't know,” Yungman said, sincerely. “As a soldier I just did what I was told and didn't think about it. The Americans were the exact same way.” Yungman had met many American soldiers during his time as a houseboy. He was thinking of Charles “Chuckles” Luba in particular: nineteen years old, perpetually smelly feet from his inability to keep his socks dry. He didn't even know where Korea was on a map. He didn't know where he was

“The Americans were there to help us.” Old Dr. Song, surer now on how to ape Kimm, allowed himself to take on some of Kimm's hectoring tone. “If not for them, we'd all be singing songs to the Great Leader. Tell me, you're not frightened at all for your safety—or that of your wife?”

“I thought,“ said Yungman, “this was supposed to be a little party, not an interrogation.”

“Come, come, younger classmate,” said Dr. Kimm. What a jerk: he held seniority over Yungman by mere months, a year at best. “Don't be so uptight. Of course we support you, our Bible study group has taken up your cause—”

“Good, I gladly will accept donations, or, you could buy my plane ticket,” Yungman said. Then he added a “Ha! Ha! Ha!” to show them that he was joking. “—In a spiritual manner, we've taken on your cause and that of our esteemed Sister Kwok, your wife.”

“Yes, we've prayed for hours that Kim Jong Il would die and the North Korean regime would collapse before you left,” added Mrs. Kimm. “Four hours at one time, we prayed. At one point, Brother Song started speaking in tongues.”“How nice,” said Yungman, unable to not roll his eyes. “It didn't seem particularly effective, did it?” He couldn't contain his despair at how their group, the créme de la créme, the most educated of the educated, the people who were clever enough to make it first out of North Korea and then out of South Korea to America, could accept so unquestioningly the white man's superstitious claptrap. Pray that Kim Jong Il will drop dead before Sunday—what is that? The Korean animist belief that all objects, from trees to animals to stones, were inhabited by spirits, that the souls of one's ancestors always remain with you and must be acknowledged regularly, that being a good person attracts good things to your karmic cycle made much more intuitive sense than eating the body and drinking the blood of the walking zombie Jesus, the talking serpent, the ark full of animals and no way to feed them no less no way to clean their BMs, and now this: praying for murder.

Feigning deep interest, Yungman said, “Respected Senior Classmate Song, I'm not familiar with this ‘speaking in tongues.' Could you enlighten me a little what it sounds like?”

“You can't just do it on command,” he said, indignantly. “It happens only when you reach the highest state of communication with the Lord.”

“And it was from that where we received an answer, about your project,” chirped Mrs. Song.“An answer?”

“Yes, that you shouldn't go.”“You decided we shouldn't go.”

“Not us, God,” Kimm said. “He communicated to us through Brother Song.”

“So what did it sound like?” he pressed. He made his voice falsetto, “Hello, Old Song, this is God, and I think your meddling into Yungman Kwok's private business is a greee-at idea!”

“No, it sounds nothing like that,” said Old Song. “Speaking in tongues makes your voice go deep.” And thus egged on, shut his eyes and assumed a pose of deep concentration, almost like a yogi. “Ah hmma gakalakalaka looloolaikaikaika gruneygragragra wakaloo ya-eeeeesh.” “You sound like that character Gollum from The Lord of the Rings,” said Yungman. “And who is supposed to make sense of what you're saying?”

“I can myself. It's the spirit talking through me, not me. And Brother Kimm is also blessed with the skill of interpreting when people start speaking in tongues.”

“You know,” said Mrs. Kimm. “The communists killed Dr. Kimm's family—for being Christian.”

“Just like Daniel in the Lion's den,” Dr. Kimm said softly. “When we wouldn't give up our faith.”

Yungman frowned. He thought the point of the Daniel story was that because he wouldn't renounce his faith, God rewarded him by making the lions in the coliseum tame as kitty cats. While Yungman was sorry to hear about what happened to the Kimm family, that sounded more like just one more story of war: killing. The Christians were famous for making hundreds of prisoners, women and men, guilty and not, spend hours digging their own graves before shooting them dead in huge piles while the American Army officials looked blandly on. “I am truly sorry about your family,” Yungman said. “How did you escape?”

“I was already in Seoul, living with my older sister. As first son, it was thought I'd be safer there.”

He had a sister. So he technically had not lost all his family, Yungman thought. And even if he did, that still wouldn't justify a blanket hatred of everyone in the North, which would include Yungman's father. A man with a fuller karmic cycle than anyone he knew. Yungman doubted he was still alive, but who knew. From that day the man he called Father had turned away from the retreating throng and begun to walk back north, Yungman had lost him, surely as if by a bullet or bomb.

Yungman glanced at Youngae, who was sitting in a corner, unusually quiet. Usually she loved to be the boisterous center of these kinds of conversations. Yungman once again envisioned his father, a solitary figure walking against the tide of refugees, American planes buzzing overhead, occasionally randomly dropping bombs on their lines of children, elderly, babies. “You've never wanted to go back?” Yungman asked, more quietly this time. “To see your childhood home once again?”

“The whole of our country above the 38th parallel has been turned into a Stalinist dictatorship by a madman, where even the mention of God can bring about dire consequences,” said Old Dr. Song, now in full, tedious professor mode. “Your going over there with the white American doctors is sending the absolute wrong message, letting them use you for propaganda. At the very least, don't let them take your picture, and if they do, don't smile or look happy to be there. Well, who knows, maybe you'll get to see one of those famous animal fights, where Kim Jong Il does things like bring in a lion and a tiger and see who claws the other to death first.”

“Almost all of us are first sons,” Yungman said, thoughtfully. “I am a first son of a first son of a first son, seven generations back. Don't you think a few pictures would be a small price to pay to be able to put your feet on the land again, to do obeisance to your parents and your ancestors, one last time?”

Kimm and Song, physician and PhD, exchanged horrified looks. Right, josang, ancestor worship, acknowledging and commemorating your father and mother and those who came before them, according to Western theology, that was tantamount to devil worship, the missionaries had told them all the time, as was astrology, feng shui, fortune telling, blood typing, face reading, gambling, and being Catholic—all pagan superstitions. “At the very least,” Yungman amended himself. “I can't believe you're trying to dissuade me from a humanitarian mission.”

“Brother Kwok, we are not trying to talk you out of anything,” said Kimm. “But out of love and friendship we want to express our concern over what you're doing, especially exposing your precious wife to such an uncertain and dangerous place.”

My wife is a daughter of this place, he was going to say, but then decided why argue with these bums?

“Do what you will, and I know you will, Dong-bu,”—Comrade—sniggered Old Dr. Song, leaving his seat in disgust but also because Mrs. Kimm was bringing out a platter of shrimp. “Ah, Brother Kwok,” said Kimm, gently as if speaking to a volatile, misguided child. “If you so badly want to help the needy, why not just work with some of the gumdungi here?”

Figures, Yungman thought. The holiest of the holy would also freely use the term, “nigger.” And Yungman knew if he called him on it, Kimm would just laugh and say, “It means no such thing! ‘Blackie' is a term of endearment.”

Yungman excused himself. Since the way to the kitchen was blocked by old Song stuffing tender pink curls into his mouth as fast as they would go, his only choice of temporary egress was the lavette. He sat on the sparkling white toilet and collected himself. Then he was going to collect Youngae and head on home. Yungman thought it would be preferable to live out his days on the North Korean gulag with Youngae than spent one more minute with these pious fakers.

But when he came out again, the group was gathered, sitting in a circle in the spacious white-couched living room, each person spaced like number of a clock, all looking toward noon, which was, not surprisingly, Dr. Kimm, holding the decorative bottle containing his beloved ginseng root, 500 years old, supposedly, human-shaped and possessed of the marker of its truest worth: a gigantic penis.

“â€Â_ The acacia tree is also the symbol of true love, which is why its honey is used to preserve—”Enough with the Show and Tell. Yungman gestured desperately to Youngae, pointing questioningly first at his chest and then at the door, but she told him to shush, then whispered (and here he breathed in her wonderful perfume). “Mrs. Song dared him to decant the root so she can touch the ‘penis' and prove it's not just grafted on.”

“I wouldn't be surprised if it was fake,” Yungman loudly whispered back. “A gussied up mandrake root, why not, in this group that is faker than fake?”

“That's what we're going to find out.”Kimm was smiling, pouring the acacia honey into a ceramic bowl. Then with extra long barbequing chopsticks he deftly pulled the root through the narrow neck of the bottle.They all leaned in. Without the surrounding yellow glow of the honey, the root looked the color of a dead fish. There were deep fissures, like the folds of fat in a toddler's wrist. Yungman didn't know a lot about ginseng, but his mother had made him ginseng chicken soup that time he had the grippe. She bought her ginseng from the market, everyday two-year-old low-grade roots, gnarled little fists that bore very little resemblance to the human form.

Mrs. Song was fixated on the thin stream of honey oozing off the ginseng man's penis. Her mouth was open, she was panting slightly. Yungman could see the tip of her pink tongue. Old Song bit into the larval body of yet another shrimp.

“This is going to be Dante and Angelina's inheritance,” Kimm chuckled. “with enough left over for tuition for my grandkids at Harvard.”Yungman stood up. He had quite enough of this Korean P.T. Barnum. He wanted to go home right now and as soon as possible be sitting around in his underwear with a stick of beef jerky, some Chuckles, and a tumbler of Johnny Walker Black. “Yobo—” he said to Youngae, "just wait two more minutes—” 

She was mesmerized by the spinning, spirally stream of honey that Kimm was decanting back into the bottle.Yungman walked toward the bowl of shrimp, then, like football quarterback, suddenly veered to the left and snatched the root from the tips of Kimm's chopsticks. Before anyone could react, he stuffed it in his mouth and took a bite, his head tipped back, his hand and mouth dripping honey. He looked like a satyr at a Dionysian feast.

The ladies screamed. Yungman bit harder, chewed. The root was denser and more fibrous than he expected. And underneath the cloying sweet of the honey, it was bitingly bitter.

“That's a five-hundred-year-old ginseng root!” Kimm screeched, like a little girl. At that moment, Yungman felt a current of ki energy course through his solar plexus. Pure male—yang—energy overtook him, made him flush. “Oh, it's the real thing, all right,” he said, chewing faster.

“Yobo, have you gone crazy?” Youngae's eyes were shining like he'd never seen them. Finally, something thrilling was happening in her life!

Yungman decapitated the ginseng man, chewed and swallowed, then bit off the penis with his incisors easy as a cocktail wiener, macerated the torso with his molars. The whole thing gone in less that fifteen seconds. “Come on.” He tugged his wife by the hand. They had never touched publicly since their wedding, fifty years ago, and not in private since the stillbirth. She rose, as if they were going to dance at this wedding, but then, as if of one mind, they bolted toward the door. The two jumped into their Hyundai. Yungman pulled out from the lawn onto the majestically circular driveway of the Kimm's lovely castle-like home. He made several circuits like a racecar driver, pulling the steering wheel sharply, revving the engine thinking how “Hyundai” translated to “the future.” 

All the outdoor lights in the Kimm house were winking on. There may have been shouting, but who could tell over the clanking of the Hyundai's “America's best warranty” engine? The highway, hidden just out of sight by a thicket of trees, beckoned them invisibly, like the moon pulling on the tide. 

Twenty... thirty... forty miles per hour... the engine revved to 3,000 RPM, the Hyundai broke free, a satellite flying into orbit.

Ginseng fire in his veins, Yungman Kim floored it.


Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Marie Myung-Ok Lee is one of the rare American writers who has received a visa to visit North Korea, which she did in 2009. She writes frequently for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, and The Nation. She teaches writing at Columbia and Brown University, and her novel is forthcoming with Simon & Schuster in 2015.

Marie's Articles at KGB Bar Lit

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