There was only one word to describe me and that was fat. Fat as a melon in its full ripeness, fat as a double-decker hamburger threatening to capsize, fat as a woman’s belly heavy with triplets. My body moved slowly, heavy with itself, unable to trip along as fast as my words.
The irony was, I wasn’t fat enough. I was certainly bigger than I’d ever been, and too heavy to practise or to attend backdancer auditions, but still eight kilos from the deadline. The trouble was, my weight gain had reached a plateau at 90 kilograms despite my arduous daily regime of spicy fried chicken, sweat potato pizza, jajang noodles, hot dogs and ice-cream sundaes. As soon as I woke up, I reached for the mini chocolate bars that I kept stacked in my lower dresser drawer. I ate three portions of french fries a day. I’d sneak in an extra piece of pound cake after dinner.
At first Abeoji hadn’t noticed, then later, when it was harder not to, he’d said, ‘You’ll get tired of it, like you get tired of everything else.’ When he realized that I was determined, he tried to make me vomit out what he called my disgrace. He stood to his full formidable height, a rectangle of veiny muscle, and thumped my back as I stared stubbornly into the toilet water. He said he would turn me in to the authorities. He threatened to dunk my head into the toilet and use my hair to clean it. Thankfully, Eomma was hanging onto his arms from behind so he couldn’t be quite as cruel as he hoped to be. Since she naturally wanted to protect her only son, he had to be satisfied with threats. I told him that my reaction was natural; it wasn’t easy to eat as much as I did. I said, ‘Abeoji, you want me to be a bulimic?’
‘What’s a bulimic?’ He said, ‘I’m trying to make you an upright citizen.’
The thing was, I didn’t think our government really needed me to do over two years of military service. They had nearly 700,000 kids doing that job for them, and that wasn’t including the professional soldiers. I had spent more than a few nights over the figures that Abeoji flung at me every time I sat down to eat, and after I struggled with my conscience that he claimed I didn’t have, I decided that the army could do without me.
At breakfast, over my personal pot of fermented bean paste stew topped with several slices of cheese, I announced that I was less than ten kilograms away from my goal and made Abeoji cry into his rice. Now, Abeoji had the stern face of a prison warden. Only his voice showed pleasure if his favorite baseball team won a game or when a new world map arrived via mail order, or anger when he found out that, once again, I’d burrowed back into the comforter after his six o’clock morning call. He was the kind of man who found it too embarrassing to buy roses for his wife and gave us money so we could pick our own birthday presents. But now a tear slid down the ski slope of this very man’s nose, off his wide chin and disappeared. A genuine tear from a man who’d recited a ten-minute speech without a single pause at his own mother’s funeral.
The entire family stared. I stared. Even if he did care more about his reputation than my well-being, I almost felt sorry. Then he wiped his eyes, and stared back. The weakness disappeared from his face as if it had never happened.
He said, ‘Are you just doing this to infuriate me? Don’t tell me you’ve gone communist.’
But it was clear that I was eating because I didn’t want to be stationed anywhere near the 38th Parallel. He was acting like parents did when their unwed daughters turned 30. That is, hysterical and more than a little unreasonable.
Abeoji thrust his chopsticks at me as if to puncture my eyeballs. ‘We had to forage for food. We’d mix edible roots and leaves into a little bowl of barley and if we were lucky, we got a few spoonfuls of rice. So what if we were hungry? I knew I was serving my country.’
I said, ‘Which country? You mean when you were in Vietnam fighting for the Americans?’
He overturned his bowl of rice on the lacquered table, which would send my mother on a two-day cooking strike, but didn’t frighten me at all. The only thing frightening was his wide pinstripe suit that he would pair up later that day with Nike tennis shoes, like some washed-up gangster.
He said, ‘Do you know what the Americans did for us? Of course we had to be in Vietnam! What kind of history did they teach you at school?’
He turned as red as the Chinese flag. I concentrated on my meal. I was convinced I knew what was important.
Eomma moved the fried mackerel closer to me and said calmly, ‘Let our boy finish his meal in peace before you start in on a history lesson. So he enjoys eating. He’s not hurting anyone. You don’t know kids these days. In fact, you are fairly incompetent at anything outside of military matters. You should be thankful he’s not out robbing banks.’
My older sister flipped her long black hair back from her emaciated face. I called her Vampire when my parents weren’t around. ‘Who’s ever heard of dwenjang jjigae with cheese? If he eats any more, will he fit through the front door?’
Abeoji said, ‘The commie men up North serve a full ten years; their women, seven.’
His attempt to shame me had no effect; after all, our compatriots in the North had no choice.
‘And you! Serving less than three years and with three solid meals a day! It’s like being in a five-star hotel for free.’
His face had descended into the shade of red apples so I poured him a glass of water.
With her usual helpfulness, Eomma winked and said, ‘Your Abba’s always been prone to a little exaggeration.’
I said, ‘And it’s different now – it’s not like we have to worry about North Koreans attacking.’
Abeoji said, ‘You don’t know what they’re capable of doing.’
‘They’re starving up there! We’re the least of their worries. Besides, they were just trying to unify the country.’
‘How can you say that about the Reds?’ The grey fluff that stuck out like wings over his ears visibly sagged. ‘You don’t sound like my son. And you certainly don’t look like my son.’
I was glad to hear that, though I pretended to be hurt.
‘Wonsu,’ my sister said as she rose for work, ‘When you get a job and everyone’s exchanging their service stories, what are you going to do? Share weight-gaining strategies?’
It was easy for her to say. She was allowed to become a sales manager straight out of college without giving up a few years of her life. Just because she and my oldest married sister didn’t have a penis, they didn’t have to wear a uniform that made you look like a Galapagos tortoise or shave their hair, or run up mountains carrying an M16 in boots that weighed as much as a newborn baby. Besides, we were sending rice to the starving North, paying premium prices to watch their circus, even building a glittering resort on their side of Geumgang Mountain. And still, everyone expected me to run until my toes bled and practise firing at targets as if they were North Korean commies when all the news was about peace and starvation and the Sunshine policy and new friendships. It didn’t make sense.
But it made perfect sense to Abeoji who took me aside to show me, once again, his photos and medals. He went on about responsibility, integrity, sacrifice. He sounded like he’d been programmed by the government, and in a way, he was. He’d retired from the Incheon naval base two years ago and still walked in measured steps as if life had to be lived by a manual. He commanded people instead of talking to them even if every civic organization he joined (and he was on many) consisted of 100 per cent volunteers. Still, old people called him ‘the only honest civil servant,’ which he loved, and my younger cousins buzzed after him like mosquitoes because he distributed the fattest envelopes of New Year’s money. But I knew him better. He was a springer of math problems over steak when I cared more about my hairstyle than the amount of air pressure in an igloo. He was a paduk player who didn’t understand my music or the dancing that he compared to an epileptic making love. He made me wear a cap when I grew my hair out and warned me that if I pierced my ears, he’d make me wear pink dresses to school. And he certainly didn’t understand my mission. His problem was that he’d been in the army too long and, while the army hadn’t changed, Korea had.
Three clothing changes later, I was lumbering out the door when Abeoji stepped on the edge of my jeans. To be precise, he nearly pulled them down. He said, ‘You’re going out again?’
I desperately wished he was still working and couldn’t track the minutes of my day. ‘Abeoji, can you get off my jeans? Do you know how much they cost?’
He studied a hole in my knee before saying, ‘I’ve tried it your Eomma’s way, but there’s no talking to you. It’s not like you go to college or have a job. You’re just going to meet your washed-up friends and you’re going to eat. That’s what you’re going to do, eat.’
‘I do have a job.’
‘Delivering Chinese food is not a job.’
‘The pay’s double on weekends!’
I tried to dash past him but he gripped my arms and forced me into my room. He was nearly 60 but still twice as strong as me.
He frisked my drawers, collected my hoard of chocolate bars, SPAM cans, deep-fried persimmon cakes, and dumped them into an empty ramen box. I helplessly watched him confiscate my things the same way he’d done when I was younger and he’d thrown out my black-market Japanese comics. He’d said, ‘So Korea’s not good enough for you? You want the Japanese back so they can steal our women and destroy our language?’ And all I’d wanted was to be a comic-book artist.
‘Eomma!’ I shouted, but she didn’t come.
He said, ‘I’ll bring you lunch, not that you’ll need it.’
Illustration: Dominic Bugatto / Three in a Box
I said, ‘Is there no free speech? If you were president of this country, would I get a vote?’
‘What is free speech?’ He closed the door.
I pulled at the doorknob with both hands, but it opened less than an inch. Abeoji had chained the outdoor doorknob to something I couldn’t see. I threw my body against the door but it didn’t move. I shouted, ‘Eomma! Eomma!’
The door stayed shut.
I was abandoned, alone, locked up like a political prisoner tortured for expressing myself. My skin would go sallow without sunlight, my teeth would fall out, and Abeoji would be sorry when I came down with scurvy. I stared at posters of the great Seo Taeji, greatest rapper of all time, tacked to my ceiling, Will Smith’s socks that I’d managed to beg straight out of his shoes hanging unwashed and signed, over my desk. I flipped through photos of when I was lean and could spin and move with the best. Then I did what I’d promised myself I wouldn’t do. I undressed in front of the closet’s full-length mirror and examined the soft sacs of fat of my arms, my padded legs and stomach, at what had become me. I had to get out.
The window upstairs was open. I banged on the ceiling with a baseball bat until Sa-jin stuck his head out the window above mine and said, ‘Would you please stop? I’m trying to study.’
Minutes later, I was sitting in his room rubbing the burns on my palms and he was pulling up the jump rope.
Sa-jin was a graduate student from the provinces who lived on the floor above. When he first moved in, he had been skinny with a case of acne the shape of the Korean peninsula on his forehead and too-tight jeans that hugged his bony buttocks. But four months ago, just before his fitness test, he’d finally ballooned to an impressive 99 kilos. At that time I could fit both my legs into his custom-made jeans.
He said in an up-and-down Pusan accent, ‘How about you sit on the floor?’
I looked at the floor that over the bulge of my stomach, looked so far away. ‘Can’t I just stay on the bed?’
‘You’re caving my new mattress in.’
‘Thanks!’ It was a true compliment. I lowered myself slowly to the floor but still landed hard on my rump.
Sa-jin was rapidly losing weight while I was gaining. In fact, his cheeks were sagging like the folds of an old lady’s stomach after liposuction.
I took out a melted chocolate bar from my back pocket and smashed it into my mouth. ‘Can’t I just live here with you? Eomma would bring us food. Your grocery bill would be next to nothing!’
‘And have your Abeoneem chasing me?’ Sajin eyed the door nervously. ‘You better go before he sees you’re gone. There’s about as much chance of me letting you stay as of picking a star out of the sky.’
‘But I’ll have to find a place to live.’
‘Your Abeoneem always did say you were lazy.’
I heaved myself off the floor. ‘You’re so judgmental.’
He said prudishly, ‘You shouldn’t speak to your senior that way. Besides, who else fails college entrance exams twice?’
Abeoji had said the same thing. He also said that he expected more from a son. He said that when he looked up the word lazy in the dictionary, my name was the primary definition. He said this when my high school teacher called him about my attendance, when I’d skipped midterm exams to audition as a backdancer for the great Seo Taeji, when he found a condom in my desk. No-one ever gave me the chance to use one but would he believe me? For months he badgered me about bringing this imagined girlfriend home. ‘A man’s responsibility is to marry his mistakes,’ he said, and got day-old rice from my mother for a full week. I never did understand the connection between sex and laziness. He’d obviously never watched Japanese porn. Done the right way, it was more like hard labor.
I was lazy. But I didn’t see anything wrong with wanting an easy life. I just needed a few good dance gigs with a famous singer, say the next Asian Michael Jackson, to get paid doing what I liked. Once upon a time I had tried to study and please him, tried to sit still and compete with students whose eyeglasses were so thick they must have been born reading, but I didn’t have the head for memorizing and I certainly couldn’t tell the difference between a rat’s and a frog’s intestines, no matter how I tried. Besides, after I failed the college entrance for the second time, I started to wonder why I should go to college and become one of the studious boys that were already on their way to becoming paunchy salarymen with the same regulation haircuts and same mistresses and same sorrows? I started to wonder what I really wanted to do with my life.
But laziness depended on how you defined the word. It had taken me four months of force-feeding to gain over 20 kilos; it had taken Sa-jin an entire eight to receive his impressive exemption certificate that I urged him to frame. There were rumors, and occasionally, scandals about rich kids whose parents bribed doctors. We all knew that most of the National Assembly members’ children, the President’s, the wealthier businessmen’s, even a lot of professors’ brats, had absurdly high rates of blindness, urination problems, and mental disease. None of them were healthy enough to do military service but a few years later, they mysteriously recovered and held top corporate positions or, in one case, placed first in a windsurfing competition. Of course there were other guys who chopped off a few fingers and gained exemption because they had to support their mother and siblings. You had to respect that kind of determination.
Laziness depended on how you defined the word. It had taken me four months of force-feeding to gain over 20 kilos
I would have stopped to smell the flowers if there were any. As it was, I breathed in the diesel fumes but, to me, this smell of freedom was sweeter than azaleas. I had one of those oversize padded headphones that I kept slung around my neck 24-7. Seo Taeji, the world’s greatest rapper, blasted through. His autograph blazed across one knee of my acid-washed jeans. I felt better than I looked. I crossed three streets and turned down an alley with my eyes closed, following the smell of rubber burning from factory chimney stacks.
‘You’re late,’ observed Jina.
It was noon, my friends were splitting her abeoji’s last cans of beer, and they were doing nothing as usual. Jina had long, braided hair like she was black. She was cute and tough-looking, and dragged on a menthol cigarette while chipping off old nail polish from her fingers. She’d reapply it before hitting the room salons to entertain middle-aged perverts. All that, just to help pay her father’s credit-card debt.
‘Late for what?’
‘We were thinking of seeing a movie or practising, or something.’
I put my arm around her. She pushed it away. ‘Obba, I get enough of that at work.’
But she didn’t push away Hwangmin’s thigh that was pressed firmly against hers. Tall and thin Hwangmin with dreads worthy of Seo Taeji, Hwangmin who’d actually made it as a professional backdancer, who made Dongdaemun Market sweaters look department-store quality.
Hwangmin said, ‘There’s an audition next Wednesday.’ He didn’t look at me.
So naturally I asked, ‘How many are they picking?’
He said, ‘Maybe three or four. It’ll be a tough one, but good chances.’ He laughed. ‘You interested?’
I was always interested, but did it matter right now? I rubbed my stomach. A few more months, then I could lose the weight. I said, ‘Right now, that’s like asking a monster truck to do a Porsche’s work.’
My loser friends, as Abeoji liked to call them, laughed.
Jina said, ‘All you think about is cars but you wouldn’t even fit into a car.’
‘I think about other things.’
‘Lunch! Can we get some lunch?’
They laughed again. It wasn’t hard to get them to laugh. I wondered if I’d ever be able lose all this weight and, even if I did, would I ever get a proper dancing job that paid real money? Or would I end up spending the rest of my afternoons drinking beer and soju and spending my evenings delivering mapao tofu? I was starting to sound like Abeoji, so I turned on the television to see if there were any good-looking girls on or if they were the sparkly-hairpin-we-only-date-men-with-crew-cuts-and-backpacks type.
I didn’t want my friends to protect me from Abeoji while I collected my things, but I asked them to wait outside in case I needed help. I didn’t want to hurt Eomma. But most of all, I didn’t want to see Abeoji cry again. He would say that if I were a good filial son, I would live with them even after marriage and take care of them in their old age. But I wasn’t a good son, and it was better that he learned that early.
The family had made their own preparations. The living room was full of the people I dreaded most: my relatives. There they were, 20 or so of them squeezed in like a traveling circus, looking agitated and excited at my arrival. Oldest Aunt with a fudge-colored lace-collar dress that she’d purchased before I was born, Youngest Aunt with a baby at each breast, Eldest Uncle who wore hiking clothes everywhere though he rarely went hiking, even a cousin who’d just finished military service a month ago and told everyone he met that he had become a better person because of it.
I looked at Eomma. She looked apologetic. She mouthed, it was Abba’s idea, as if I needed clarification.
I bowed toward the couch, the chair, the oiled paper floors so polished that my reflection bowed back at me. ‘Where’s Youngest Uncle?’ I asked, as if this kind of family reunion happened every day.
Eomma said, ‘Remember? He emigrated to Canada last year.’
Abeoji said, ‘And where were you?’
He shifted his seat so the path toward my bedroom was cut off. I was a little hurt. I wasn’t so rude that I wouldn’t say hello to my relatives.
‘I was at the library.’ I lied. ‘I’m thinking of taking the entrance exams again.’
My cousin leaned forward, the knob in his throat as big as a boiled egg bobbing up and down. His face was pitted with pock-mark scars like the craters on the moon. He looked completely ancient; he looked at least 30. He said, ‘Your Abeoneem told us everything. You’re an absolute shame to your country.’
The room nodded.
I turned my skull cap backwards. ‘Shee-pal.’
My cousin said, ‘There’re adults here! Curses just stick to your lips, don’t they?’
Eldest Aunt said, ‘Do you want to ruin all your father’s good work?’
Eldest Uncle, or Professor Kim as he called himself, leaned and readjusted his bifocals. He stared at me as if I were one of his stuffed specimens that he’d proudly presented to the Natural History Museum. ‘Astonishing,’ he said. ‘You look perfectly disgusting.’
I rubbed my belly swelling underneath my t-shirt. That I was. I was kind of proud of my efforts.
I said, ‘I’m not going.’
Abeoji looked sick, pale. He must have been pretty desperate to let out the family secret and embarrass himself. He said, ‘Can’t you see what everyone will think of you for the rest of your life?’
I said, ‘Let them think.’
When Abeoji spoke, his voice was quieter than it had ever been. ‘I may not always be right, but you’re my son. And, though you may not like it, we live under the roof that I pay for.’
That’s when I pulled out the crumbled rental contract from my pocket and waved it like a victory flag. ‘I’m moving out tonight. That’s what I came back to tell you – that I don’t have to live with this military delusion any longer!’
It was supposed to be my moment of triumph, my declaration of independence. But something in the look Abeoji exchanged with Eomma, then the way the hard ceramic surface of his face began to melt, subdued me.
Then he slowly twisted back toward Eomma and said, ‘It must be heartburn. It must’ve been the meat,’ and collapsed.
At first, I’d thought that Abeoji had faked a heart attack because his slumped-over body looked just like it did in the movies. I’d said, ‘Let’s just check if it’s real before we haul him to the hospital.’
As you can imagine, in the emergency room, my relatives seated themselves a few seats away from me and occasionally snuck glances at me as if I were a cancerous wart.
I stared at my hands, at Eomma biting her fingernails down to bloody edges, the hole in my jeans. I ripped it further. I even ripped up Seo Taeji’s autograph. I pulled my jacket hood over my face and imagined suffocating myself.
We were there for a few hours when the resident doctor made a magisterial appearance and reassured us that it was a minor attack. He said that Abeoji was strong, but stubborn. He had evidently needed blood pressure medication for some time but had refused to take it.
Eomma was weeping. ‘It’s your abeoji’s stubbornness all over again. I kept telling him that the broth of deer antlers wasn’t the same as Western medicine. If he’d only taken his pills...’
I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us about his blood pressure?’
My cousin said sourly, ‘Would it have made a difference?’
Eomma’s knuckles turned white as she clenched her hands tightly together. No matter what she said, she knew, I knew, that if I’d just gone to the army like I was supposed to, Abeoji wouldn’t be lying on a gurney right now.
I lay down across the creaking seats. The hump of my belly blocked out the other waiting families, my family, everyone but myself. I closed my eyes. The next time I opened my eyes, I’d made my decision. I was going to shave my head, run those ten kilometers a day. I was ready to eat dry clumps of rice and runny kimchee. To share a bunkroom with two dozen other men cultivating mold between their toes, and haul myself out of bed at the sinful hour of six in the morning. If it kept Abeoji alive, I would even give up hot dogs for breakfast.
I repeated this new mantra to myself until the next day when Abeoji finally asked to see me. I walked past a maze of gurneys and patients that looked ready for their coffins, and tried not to be affected. He was lying down with tubes running down his arms like veins. A heart monitor beside his bed wobbled dangerously when he reached for my hand. But he had already finished his breakfast and was watching the morning news, all good signs.
‘When are they letting me out?’ he complained.
‘Abeoji, you need to rest. You haven’t rested for over 40 years. That’s what you need, a rest.’
I began to cry. I couldn’t help myself. He looked smaller lying down. It was true, what they said. Gravity did compress the backbone and shrink you slowly with age. He was proof of it. In a few years, I’d probably be able to carry him.
He patted my hand awkwardly. ‘Wonsu, don’t cry. I’m not dead. Save the tears for the funeral, but you’ll have to wait a good long time for that.’
I said, ‘Abeoji, I have something to say...’
My announcement was swallowed up by Abeoji’s laugh. ‘Will you listen to that!’
He was waving his hands in the air like a village shaman dancing with the dead, which made me wonder if there had been unexpected side effects to the surgery. I gripped both his hands – which wasn’t easy – and gathered them together.
‘Abeoji, you need to calm down.’
He snatched his hands away, took my belly between his hands, and jiggled it fiercely.
‘Son! You and your 200 hot dogs are going to the army!’
‘How did you know? I—’
He took my chin in his hand and turned my head to the TV screen. ‘Listen to that! They’ve just banned weight exemptions! See? They’re fixing problems, one by one. Good for the government!’
The newscaster continued to drone on about the many ways that young men were trying to become exempt from military service until the screen switched to a burning insurance building. There was nothing left for me to do but slump back and watch Abeoji’s tired, sick eyes lit up like window displays as he thought of his other son, the one that never disappointed.
‘Fat’ comes from Cooked Up: Food Fiction from Around the World. For more details see Windows on the world, our world fiction titles.