My lecture ended.
The projector clicked off and the screen went dark.
I drank half of the water that had been placed on the podium for me and stepped down from the stage to join the audience members, who’d risen from their seats and were already chatting amongst themselves. The lecture had been on ‘Urban Design and the Development of Old City Centres’, and given the decent turnout, I assumed they all had a vested interest in the subject. The section chief for the private sector planning commission at City Hall guided me into the lobby outside the lecture hall. Everyone was streaming towards the entrance. A young woman swam against the crowd of people and approached me.
Do you have a moment? she asked.
She was dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt, no make-up, hair in a simple bob cut. I stopped and looked at her.
I have something for you, she said.
Puzzled, I looked down at the piece of paper she was holding out. A name was printed on it in large letters, along with what looked like a phone number in much smaller print.
What is this? I asked, but she was already backing away hesitantly.
Someone you used to know … She asks that you please call her.
She vanished into the crowd before I could ask anything else.
Not long after, a text message from Yoon Byeonggu’s wife had me heading out of the city back to the small town of Yeongsan. Byeonggu was an old childhood friend. We’d gone to primary school together in Yeongsan, and hadgrown up next door to each other. Most of the people who lived there back then either owned small shops along the newly paved main road or held government jobs working for the county office, the school, or the township office. As for those who lived in the nice, traditional Korean-style houses with big courtyards, they owned all of the farmland in the county. My father supported our family on the tiny wages he made as a clerk in the township office.
Despite the ravages of the Korean War, Yeongsan’s location, tucked inside the Nakdong River beachhead, had kept it safe and unchanged. My mother had told me that my father was able to land his position at the township office by virtue of having gone to war and received a medal for his distinguished service in some Battle of Something-or-other Hill, on top of which, even before all of that, he’d worked as an errand boy for the county office during Japanese rule. In a town full of country bumpkins, my father had a primary school education and could read and write in both Japanese and Chinese. Lined up evenly along his desk were old books, yellowed and dogeared, with titles like Compendium of the Six Major Laws and The Science of Public Administration. I’m sure it was thanks to those books that he was later able to leave the countryside for the big city and find work as a clerk in a notary office. Though we were poor, we had his monthly civil servant’s salary and the annual share of the harvest from my mother’s family land. She had inherited some paddies — enough to plant about five bushels of rice seeds every year — from her father when she married.
The house we lived in was in the foothills of the mountain that rose up from the edge of town. It was a traditional ilja-style home: long and straight like the numeral 1, with three rooms side-by-side and a daecheong maru, a wooden-floored breezeway, right in the middle. Byeonggu’s house was just up the slope from ours. It was two rooms and a kitchen — a hut, really — made from clay walls and a thatched roof that was later changed to slate.
Though Byeonggu and I were old friends, the truth was that I hardly knew him. Around the time I finished primary school, my family left Yeongsan and moved to Seoul. I didn’t see Byeonggu again until years later, when we were nearing forty. I bumped into him one day in a hotel coffeeshop somewhere in downtown Seoul.
At first, when I heard his thick Gyeongsang Province accent, I had no idea who he was. He was dressed in a navy suit with his shirt collar on the outside, in the style of high-ranking government employees at the time. To my surprise, the moment he said the names Yoon Byeonggu and Yeongsan, the nickname that I’d long forgotten came floating out of my mouth as if by magic.
Tan Goguma. You’re Burnt Sweet Potato, aren’t you?
It’s hard to know what to say to someone you haven’t seen in over twenty years. It’s the same even if they’re a blood relative. For the most part, you ask how they’ve been and inquire after each other’s families, then grab a cup of coffee together, maybe exchange business cards or contact information, and make vague promises to get together sometime for a drink. After which you might ring each other up just once or twice, or more likely never see them again at all, and on the rare occasion that you do end up meeting for a drink, the evening proves so dull that you don’t stay for a second round. Everyone is busy tending to their own interests, and unless those interests are shared by your own kin, then no matter how closely related you are, you’ll still never see them outside of family reunions. What brought Byeonggu and I back together was that I was at Hyeonsan Architecture, and he had just taken over Yeongnam Construction, one of the main construction outfits at the time. The moment he heard me say his old nickname, Tan Goguma, tears welled up in his eyes, and he grabbed my hand and stammered out his astonishment at the fact that I hadn’t forgotten it.
His childhood home had stood on the other side of a stone wall from ours, close to the large zelkova tree that grew on the left side of our yard. Every morning, he would stick his head over the wall and holler for me to walk to school with him. His was the last house in the neighbourhood; everything beyond was public land, starting from the grove of young pines that grew on the lower slope of the mountain. After the war, former tenant farmers from nearby had slowly gathered in the area to build shacks, nabbing bits of land for themselves and building rough walls from mud and stone, until a dozen families were living there. They eked out a living by doing odd jobs in town, working as plasterers or carpenters, or carrying out chores at the district office, while helping out the local farmers every harvest in exchange for food. I was born in one of those houses, and though I don’t remember for sure, I think Byeonggu’s family moved next door to us when he was in the third grade. He said hello to me first the day they moved in, and we spent that same afternoon playing on the mountain behind our houses. I could still remember Byeonggu’s mother, a very kind woman, bringing us a basket of sweet potatoes that she’d harvested at the farm where she worked, telling us to give them a taste. He often brought a couple of sweet potatoes to school for his lunch. His father would disappear for days at a time, only to return home drunk and shouting his head off at his family or taking a swing at his wife. They said he worked as a foreman on a construction site in a nearby city.
I’d never forgotten about Byeonggu, all because of the time we’d gone up in the mountain behind our houses to roast sweet potatoes over a campfire, and accidentally set off a wildfire instead. While we were distracted with peeling hot sweet potatoes, embers had blown into the dried grass. We ran around in a panic, trying to stamp out the flames, pulling off our shirts to smother them, but the fire spread before we could even blink. As a last resort, I’d raced downhill, shouting, Fire! Fire! The grownups came running out of the houses. Everyone in the neighbourhood flocked up the mountain, and after a great deal of commotion that lasted until well past sundown, they finally managed to put out the flames.
Meanwhile, Byeonggu and I hid in the community centre across from the district office. The centre had been used as a Shinto shrine during Japanese rule, but when we lived there, it was used as an assembly hall-slash-taekwondo studio. We fell asleep leaning against each other in the darkened centre. Our families and neighbours were stuck searching for us in the mountains until late into the night. The next morning, we woke and went to school only to find out how famous we’d become. We were punished by being made to stand in the teachers’ office, holding signs that read, BEWARE OF FIRE. That must have been when Byeonggu got the nickname Tan Goguma, or Burnt Sweet Potato, but I can’t remember who was the first to call him that. With his short, stocky body and eyes that sparkled with cleverness in his round, dark face, it was a fitting nickname.
It was mere coincidence that I had studied architecture and made a career of it and that Byeonggu had come to own a construction company, but after meeting again in our forties, we were like hand in glove. Because we needed each other.
Of course, we all like to think that our own stories of difficult childhoods and overcoming adversity are the stuff of tragic epics, but they’re never really worth bragging about. Talking about it is as pointless as telling youngsters that they’ve never known true hunger, that they don’t know what it was like to be the hungry kid with no lunch, trying to fill his empty stomach at the school drinking fountain.
I met Byeonggu for dinner at a Japanese restaurant, where he filled me in on everything that had happened to him after my family left Yeongsan. Byeonggu’s grades had been terrible, and his parents couldn’t afford the monthly school fees anyway, so he’d dropped out sometime in the fifth grade. He loafed about for a while before becoming a newspaper delivery boy, then worked as a hawker at a bus terminal, and finally, in his early teens, became an assistant truck driver. His father left for the big city and never returned, his kindhearted mother found work in a restaurant in town, and his little sister ran away from home to attend beauty school. Byeonggu and I both did our army service in the mid-70s. I finished a little later than him since I completed my service after spending a few years in college. He was deployed to an engineering battalion and received heavy-equipment training, which proved pivotal to his career path. Immediately after leaving the army, he got his heavy-equipment certification and leapt with both feet into the rural modernisation project that was in full swing at the time.
The first thing he did was rent an excavator and join the farmland improvement effort. This was the time of the New Village Movement, when land abandoned by former tenant farmers and small farmers who didn’t own enough land to subsist on was incorporated and restructured into mid-sized farm villages. Farmland was resectioned and waterways were redug. The project was undertaken by country offices along with powerful community leaders in each area, and working below them was Byeonggu, who fancied himself their hands and feet. For the first several years, all he did was increase his heavy machinery by a few pieces, but after winning a project to build arterial roads through the countryside, he left the township and began working at the provincial level. His circle of acquaintances widened to include national assemblymen and judges and prosecutors. He had a selection of business cards, each stamped with his many job titles: Construction Company Owner, Political Party Consultant, Juvenile Guidance Commissioner, Scholarship Committee Director, Junior Chamber Member, Rotary Club Member, Lions Club Member, and so on, and so on. When I met him again, he’d taken over a bankrupt construction company and had begun building apartment complexes in the major cities. We had immediately started calling each other up all the time and even went in on a few prospective business projects together.
His wife’s text message read: ‘He collapsed. He’d been looking for you for a while, since before he got sick. Please come visit.’
What made me agree to go back to Yeongsan? I really didn’t want to. Maybe it was because of what Kim Kiyoung had said to me a few days earlier: ‘You say buildings are made of space, time, and humanity? Is there really any humanity in architecture? If there were, you’d have to regret what you did. You and the others at Hyeonsan need to think on your sins.’
Kiyoung had graduated ahead of me from the same college. I just smiled and avoided arguing with him, but not because he was in the final stages of cancer. I liked the guy. I liked his foolish naivety, his unrequited love of the world and people. I didn’t give him shit for it. Others liked to say that he called himself an idealist because he had no talent, but I felt that was his talent. The magnanimity I felt towards him probably came from the fact that I’d long ago resolved not to care too much about a world that didn’t care about me in return, and had therefore distanced myself from him as well. Back then, I’d decided that I could not trust the world or other people. After a while, being ambitious means having to sift out the few values we feel like keeping and toss the rest, or twist them to suit ourselves. Even the tiny handful of values that remain just get stuffed into the attic of memory, like some old thing bought and used up long ago. What are buildings made of? In the end, money and power. They alone decide which memories will take shape and survive.
Yeongsan lay just over the mountain pass. I thought about the night my family left the countryside to move to Seoul. My parents rode in the cab of the moving truck next to the driver, while my little brother and I squatted in the back between the boxes. A basin filled with miscellaneous kitchen utensils shook and let out a terrible racket with each bounce and rattle of the truck on the dirt road. Unsurprisingly, more than half of our dishes ended up broken. We drove until daybreak, only stopping to stretch our legs and get something to eat when we reached the highway that led north to Seoul. We hadn’t eaten dinner before leaving town, so we wolfed down bowls of steaming-hot rice soup. My mother muttered something about penniless people fleeing under cover of night, and burst into tears.
I returned to Yeongsan only once after that, about fifteen years ago. At the time, Byeonggu was looking to buy a house in our old hometown, and had been going back and forth between there and Seoul. He said to me in this very grave voice, No one should ever forget their roots. I felt embarrassed when he said that. He ended up buying a pine-covered hill overlooking the reservoir, thus breaking up the ancestral home of the big landowning Cho family. There was already little left of the original village by then. Everyone says that things move slower in the countryside, but to those who have left it for the city, the countryside changes like a film on fast forward. While you’re busy debating whether or not to go back home for a visit, wondering if there is some compelling enough reason to go, ten years seem to flash by in a single day, the familiar faces all vanish, and the same buildings and scenery that you see in Seoul now occupy both sides of your town’s once quaint main street. Then that too passes away as quickly as a landscape seen through the window of a speeding car.