At the turning around point of a hilltop walk this afternoon, I saw some makeshift buildings halfway up the hill in back of the park. The park stretches along the street for a quarter of a mile or more. The park has a large high school at one end and undeveloped land at the other. Arrayed across the street is an army of twenty-story apartment buildings that stand abreast along the street and stretch off into the distance toward Songdo island and the sea. I had come along the tops of a string of hills behind the park, having walked from the east and dropped down to street level here on the western end of the crest.
Before I began walking the sidewalk home at street level, I trudged up the cement driveway going up to these buildings in the woods. At the gate, I could see a small orchard on the right, piles of discarded playground equipment and leaning out buildings on the left, some old farm machines and, at the end of the drive, what seemed to be a large store or showroom with floor to ceiling windows, it having been converted, I guessed, into a residence of some sort. Maybe it had been a business, a nursery or flower shop. A faded sign capped the entire length of it. Anyway, someone’s place.
I turned around and started back down the drive. An old woman was coming up the drive. I greeted her and kept going down, but she called out and was trying to find out who I was. Some of what she said I could catch, and some of it I couldn’t make heads or tails of. It didn’t even sound like Korean. But I did catch Christian, and when I said I was Christian, she urged me several times to follow her. She confirmed that it was a church, and with a mix of Korean and something else she found out I was American and a teacher at the high school. I said I intended to finish my walk, pointedly, “that-a way”.
She wasn’t having any of my leaving, however, and trudging upward, kept calling over her shoulder, “come on”. So, why not, I followed. We walked right past the entire front of the showroom turned church. It was full of plants of all kinds for the most of it, and then at the last big window, we looked in on a small group of people around a table. They were all bowing their heads over the table, praying, and the grandmother and I walked right past, without greeting, and just past the end of the building we turned down a short stairway to a wooden picnic porch with a wooden railing, a couple of tables, stacked blue plastic stools, and two old men sitting on chairs. This platform looked out over the orchard towards the army of apartments. The men greeted me in Korean and, as with the grandma, something else mixed in.
It’s turning spring here, the first week in February, warming up but still chilly and a bit raw today in a coastal fog that makes the sun look like the moon. Yet these hardy people were sitting outside. The old joker was playing a red and gold Stradivario accordion now and again, and explaining all sorts of things to me. I followed most of his story and released the unknowable bits into the fog. He was dressed in a leather jumper open at the throat and wore no hat but only his salt and pepper hair. His body is spare but I can still call him burly as well as hardy. It’s fair to say that Koreans don’t weather the cold very well, yet we all shared our chilly perch comfortably. He’s the one who let me know that he’s a joker, ready to make fun of everything just to have the chance to laugh. And then he launched into another melancholy melody. Seventy-one years old, just sitting there in this weather, he impressed me. He complained a bit about the cold stiffness in his fingers slowing down the riffs.
His friend has grey hairs here and there in his more well-kempt full black hair. He wears glasses that fit his serious and gentle mien well. He watched and listened carefully, and at perfectly chosen moments, he would recapitulate what either I or the burly joker had just said, helping all of us to stay on the same page.
And in this way, we spent a fine couple of hours talking about Korea, looking out at a foggy piece of her. Although all three seniors are full-blooded Koreans, they and I are outlanders in InCheon.
They were recently repatriated from Sakhalin, Russia, members of the Diaspora inflicted on many Koreans by Japan decades ago. My Finnish-German face looks Russian enough, and it kept tricking them into liberally mixing Russian into their Korean. A few of the bits that I had to let go off into the fog were Korean words I don’t know yet, but most of them were Russian words that I most likely will never know—although the hardy joker is pressing me to learn Russian now, too, why not? And then he’d launch into another melody drenched in regret that roused itself into defiance and insistent rhythm that compelled the grandma to jump up and pull me into a dance. His eyes locking on mine, his head bobbing the beat, and his bellows-side hand fluttering in the leather strap to pull a delicate tremolo, he wordlessly said, “you see, there is a great deal of beauty in Russian, no?”
In recent years, Korea and Japan have been quietly tracking down members of the Korean Diaspora and offering them the chance to go home. Some of the mothers and fathers who were forcibly resettled in places like Sakhalin to work for Japan’s vision of Asian glory are buried in those places today. My new friends were children dragged along or born there, educated and employed and retired there. Their children have the wrong eyes, face, skin, and hair, but have Russian hearts and minds. They may come to visit their repatriated parents but will never join them. Unlike their parents, they speak no Korean.
The elder Koreans said that there is one final group of about 500 people who will come to Korea this year, 2009. Then this restoration will be complete. They are sometimes not sure that leaving their families to rejoin their homeland was a good idea. It can be very lonely. They have been settled in places all around Korea, usually in large groups of one hundred or so.
We shared our impressions of Korea and Koreans, Americans, and Russians. A story for another time.