Authors: Young-ha Kim
The boy cast his gaze over the ocean once more. Three black-billed seagulls wheeled above his head. Someone had said that there was gold in Mexico. They said that yellow gold poured forth from the earth, making many suddenly rich. “No. That’s America,” insisted another, but he sounded uncertain too. The boy repeated his name. “Kim Ijeong. My name is Kim Ijeong. I am going to a far land. And I will return as an adult Kim Ijeong. I will return with my name and with money and I will buy land, and there I will plant rice.” Those with land were respected. That was a simple truth the boy had learned on the road. It couldn’t be Mexican land. It had to be Korean land, and a rice paddy. But another thought had raised its head in the boy’s heart, the thought of another strange land, called America.
The seagulls fluttered above the surface of the water as if dancing. The quicker ones flew away with fairly large fish in their beaks. The wings of the gulls were tinged red. The sun was setting. The boy went down to the cabin and again wedged himself into the corner. The coarse, low voices of men could be heard between the cries of children. There was no strength in the voices of these men; they did not know their futures. Their words dissipated like the foam that washed against the prow of the ship. The boy closed his eyes. He hoped that he would not wake until breakfast.
HE NEXT DAY
, John G. Meyers gathered everyone on deck and spoke to them in English with a strong Dutch accent. A short young man with sagging eyes interpreted.
“Our departure has been delayed. The British minister to Korea, Sir John Gordon, is not allowing the
to depart. Because this ship is British territory, we must receive Sir John’s permission to depart. We have quarantined the young children who have caught chickenpox, but there may be additional cases, so we have been ordered to stay at anchor here for two weeks. Wait just a little more. Once we reach Mexico, beautiful houses and hot food will be waiting for you.”
After he finished his announcement, Meyers crossed over to the pier with the interpreter, Gwon Yongjun. Those left behind huddled together and grumbled. “We sailed all the way to Busan and were turned back because we didn’t have proper passports, and now they say we have to wait two more weeks? At this rate we’ll never get there this year.”
ARLY IN THE MORNING
, people began to gather at the entrance of Dangjin Town, a place filled with row upon row of thatched roofs. Old villagers with long pipes in their mouths and sniffling children, male and female, young and old—it seemed as if every villager with two legs to stand on had come. They were all staring at one tree. Said to be over three hundred years old, the tree was draped with red and blue cloth on each branch. Every year the villagers prepared offerings and presented them to this tree, especially women with no children or women whose husbands were far away. Everyone continued to stare at the tree. They were staring at the body of a woman, hanging like a piece of fruit. Her blue skirt flapped in the wind below her short white jacket. On the ground beneath her feet lay a hairpin. As soon as men climbed up the tree and cut the cotton cloth that was wrapped around her neck, the body fell. Dry dust rose up. Young women ran forward and tried to untie the cloth, but it wasn’t easy. The men came down from the tree, brushed off their hands, and kept their distance from the body. The cloth was finally removed from the woman’s neck. Someone took a few steps and threw the cloth into a fire.
Someone spread out a large straw bag and the woman’s body was laid on top of it. The men tied up the bag with practiced motions. They cinched the bag tightly with straw ropes where they guessed the neck, waist, and ankles to be, then put it in an ox cart. “Hiya!” The ox began to walk. As the sounds of the whip on the ox’s back grew fainter, the remaining men all headed in one direction. They walked slowly, but with strength. As the march continued, farming tools such as sticks and metal rakes were passed among the ranks. Before long the men stopped. They looked just like a historical painting of the start of a peasants’ revolt.
White walls and a bell tower, out of place among the low thatched roofs of the village, rose before them. The wooden cross on the bell tower stood in curious contrast to the bladed metal implements in the hands of those crowded around it. One man rolled up his sleeves and walked toward the church. The man halted for a moment in the dark entrance, leaned the metal rake he was carrying against the white wall, and hesitantly disappeared into the church, empty-handed. After some time he emerged again and the men raced inside.
“He’s gone!” someone shouted. “There’s no one here!” Three men caught a cripple in the shed behind the church and brought him out, still holding a broom. He was the janitor who took care of all the chores around the church. He raised his hand and pointed toward the ocean. A man wearing a bamboo hat took out his wrath on the janitor by thrashing him across the back with a stick. A man with a long beard and a horsehair hat restrained him by clearing his throat. The janitor huddled over like a caterpillar thrown into the fire. “He has done nothing wrong,” the man in the horsehair hat said feebly. “Let’s burn it!” a large man said as he pointed at the church. The man in the horsehair hat hesitated for some time, as if to lend more dignity to his words, and then shook his head. “That’s enough. Such is the virtue of the barbarians. They do not sacrifice to their ancestors, nor do they cry when their parents die, so what good is it to speak of the chastity of a married woman? Board up the barbarians’ sanctuary so that no one may enter.” The enraged men ran forward and nailed pieces of wood across the church door and windows. They did not have enough wood, so they tore the cross from the roof, broke it in two, and used it to board up a window.
After the men had eaten, they climbed up the hill behind the village, dug a shallow pit, and tossed in the woman’s body wrapped in the straw sack. They filled in the pit with dirt and wordlessly climbed back down the hill. They could see the ocean from the squash patch between the village and the hill. They spit violently toward that ocean, hazy with shimmering heat waves.
knelt before Bishop Simon Blanche. He lifted his head and saw the white clerical collar. The bishop looked into the young priest’s eyes with a pained expression. “You must go back. That is your calling. Even if you are stoned or rolled up in a straw mat and beaten, you must reveal the truth and present the Church’s position. Our Lord, who rules over all, will ultimately reveal all things.”
The bishop knew more than anyone else just how difficult mission work was in Korea. He had landed on Baengnyeong Island in 1880 and was arrested for his mission work in Baekcheon, Hwanghae province, then freed, thanks to the open foreign policy of the Min clan oligarchy. He was then ordained as the eighth archbishop of Korea. Compared to many of the Western priests before him who had been beheaded at the execution ground outside the Lesser Western Gate, he was truly fortunate. He was also the one who had sent the young Bak Gwangsu to seminary in Penang, Malaysia, and the one who had made him a priest. The conflict with the natives that Father Paul now faced was a rite of passage, something he must inevitably endure. Surely he hadn’t become a priest without knowing that, had he?
The young man lowered his head again. The bishop assured him once more: “I know it is difficult. But please tell me you will do it. That place is sacred ground that our Church has defended with blood. The Lord forgave the Roman governor Pilate and the crowds who shouted for Him to be nailed to the cross. Please do the same.”
The priest made the sign of the cross and stood up. The old bishop embraced him. Father Paul left the bishop’s office with a heavy tread. The sun was dazzling. He squinted. He saw the body of the woman hanging from the tree like a phantom. Father Paul covered his eyes with his hands. He murmured, “Lord, I have done no wrong. My Father, you know this.”
He lowered the hands from his eyes. Then he shook his head fiercely. “I cannot go back there. No matter what you may do, Lord, I will not go back to that land of demons. They will kill me, and it will be a meaningless death.”
Then what do you plan to do? He heard the question coming from deep inside him. Do you plan to disobey the bishop’s order? Are you not a priest who vowed to obey those above him? Father Paul buried his head in his hands. “Oh, I don’t know! Why am I so weak? Should I have never become a priest?”
He walked away flustered. He wandered aimlessly for a while and then squatted down in front of a door to someone’s house. The world looked different from down low. All he could see were feet and legs. He stared at these bodies devoid of character and suddenly fell asleep. He dreamed. He was walking in a place full of trees, flowers, and birds that he had never seen before. The leaves grew so thick that the day was as dark as night. His sweat fell like rain. When he passed this place he climbed up a steep hill, and there the land spread out flat before him for dozens of leagues in all directions. That strange hill, without a trace of human presence, seemed like a place where humanity could communicate directly with God. The place was filled with curious letters and sculptures, and a white horse descended from heaven and opened its mouth wide as if to swallow him.
lasted for five hundred years. When it was founded, in 1392, the neighboring peoples were forced to take note of this new country, one born of a mighty military power forged in the north and the political order of Neo-Confucianism. Yet after two hundred years, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his army crossed the ocean from Japan, and the kingdom reeled for six long years. The samurai were driven off, but not long after, the Jurchen army attacked, and the Joseon king beat his head on the ground, begging for mercy. The blood that flowed from his forehead stained the pavement stones around him.
In the years to follow, members of the royal family continued to be born, grow up, and leave behind more royal descendants. Suppressed by the power of the Andong Kim clan and the Min clan, they could not hope to be restored to their former glory, but they were still the Jeonju Yi clan, the royal family. After Gojong was made emperor in 1897, they were elevated from royal family to imperial family, but some of them still went hungry. Their social status kept them from planting rice seedlings in the fields or entering the market as merchants. The emperor’s concubines were forced to mend their own clothes. Their bloodline gave them nothing, but demanded much—a curse rather than an honor. They were thorns in the side of Japan, which would soon swallow up the Korean Empire. The Japanese minister did not rest in his watch of the emperor’s close relatives, especially those who might accede to the throne. Russia and China had lost their influence and retreated; no one knew what Japan might do to those of noble blood. After all, the empress had been brutally stabbed by Japanese thugs not many years before.
Yi Jongdo, cousin of Emperor Gojong, called his family together: “Japan’s victory is imminent. The emperor is unable to sleep.” As soon as the title of the august ruler passed Jongdo’s lips, the whole family bowed. “We are leaving.” He wept. His son and daughter, who were not yet married, kept their heads bowed. Only his wife, Lady Yun of the Papyeong Yun clan, approached him. She sat down close to him. “Where do you intend to go?” His wife and children could think of only a few places in the southwest. They would flee to the countryside when a political crisis neared, raise the younger generation, and bide their time, as the officials of Joseon had done for the previous five hundred years. And then, when the political climate in the capital changed, the former rebels would return as loyal vassals—was that not the history of politics in Joseon? Yet from the lips of Yi Jongdo came instead a three-syllable word they had never heard. “Mexico? Where is that?” In reply to his wife’s question, Yi Jongdo said that it was a far land, below America. He added in a grieved tone, “The empire will not last long. We cannot be dragged off to Japan to see our lives end there, can we? We must learn from the civilization of the West. We must build up our strength there. Before the break of day we will go to the royal ancestral shrines, bow to the deities of the nation, take the spirit tablets of our ancestors, and leave for Jemulpo. I pray you will accept your father’s decision.” Yi Jongdo shouted in a loud whisper: “Long live His Majesty the Emperor!” His family shouted in reply: “Long may he live, long may he live, long, long may he live!” But their shouts did not pass beyond the threshold. Yi Jongdo’s young son, Jinu, could not help but cry. This was a difficult situation for such a young member of the imperial family, only fourteen years old, who was reading introductory Chinese classics like
The Analects of Confucius
His elder sister, Yi Yeonsu, who was of marriageable age, showed no emotion. She knew that the tide was already changing. Even girls were cutting their hair and studying the new learning. A time was coming when they would learn English and geography, mathematics and law, and stand shoulder to shoulder with men. Of course, this was not true of respectable women. The missionaries first drew the socially ostracized women to their school. The daughters of butchers, gisaeng courtesans, and orphans with no one to turn to formed one class, and the school was their only choice. There they found clothes, books, and a place to sleep. Her mother reviled the female students who walked the streets in their short skirts, calling them “despicable girls,” but Yeonsu, wrapped in her cloak, envied them. She did not know the land called Mexico, but she was familiar with America. If Mexico was a neighbor to America, then it must be fairly civilized, a place where women could learn and work and speak their minds, just like men, and more than anything else where they would not shackle people with the seemingly attractive yoke of imperial blood, as they did here. They would be enlightened there, wouldn’t they? She shut her mouth tight and did not say a word. Her family took her silence as approval.