JINJU IN THE DUST
This morning, out my window, a strange amber film over the sky. The usually crowded streets now mostly empty, only a few people hurrying down the sidewalk, heads bent in medical masks. In the distance, the temple on the hill just a faint shimmer.
Something on the wind.
Nuclear fallout? Had North Korea finally dropped the bomb? I check my phone. Like always, no messages. I look out the window again. Clay-tiled rooftops, a cat slinking under a parked car, a row of cherry blossom trees, the petals scattered along the sidewalk—everything in sepia, like a photograph from a hundred years ago.
And then I remember: Asian Dust. My boss at the English academy warned me about it, told me to stay inside when it blew through. It comes from the deserts of China and Mongolia, he said. Every spring it swirls east over the continent, turning the skies yellow and causing a respiratory nuisance. Koreans have written about it for thousands of years. Hwangsa, they call it: “yellow dust.”
It’s not like I had any exciting Sunday plans anyway. I close the blinds and make my way back to bed, kicking over a few empty bottles from the night before. I’d been up late reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and drinking soju—cheap Korean liquor. As I crawl back under the covers, I check the clock: already past eleven. Might as well sleep a few more hours. Let the dust bury the city.
But before I can fall asleep again, my downstairs neighbor starts sobbing. This has become a regular event over the past few weeks. Long, choking sobs—the sounds of true anguish. I’ve never seen her or even heard her speak, but from her crying I would guess she was middle-aged. I know nothing else about her. This building is new but hastily and cheaply built, and the walls and floors are thin. I hear every toilet flush, argument, and intimate moment of the young couple living next to me, but from the floor below, only sobbing.
It is a strange thing, in Korea, for a woman to live alone. The Korean women teaching at my academy are in their late twenties or early thirties, and those who are unmarried still live with their parents. They told me that especially in Jinju, a conservative city on the southern tip of the peninsula, a woman living alone would be eyed with suspicion or scorn. Has she abandoned her family? Why hasn’t she found a husband? What failure or shortcoming has led to this?
I only wonder why she has to cry so loudly. How can someone muster such emotion before noon? I lie there, head throbbing from the soju, and jam a pillow over each ear. But I can’t fall asleep. I pick up my book, read a few paragraphs, and set it back down. I can’t concentrate. Usually I would crank up some music or put on my headphones and play a computer game, but today with this headache I don’t need any loud sounds or eyestrain. I need some peace.
I get up and wander around my apartment. It’s a small studio, so I don’t have far to wander. I think about making breakfast, but I’m not hungry. Instead I sit at my computer and click around online for a few minutes. The whole world at my fingertips and nothing interesting. Eventually I go to the window again, open the blinds, and stare out at the empty streets, nothing moving, the city frozen in amber. My neighbor still weeping.
I realize, suddenly, that if I stay in my room and listen to this crying woman, the whole arc of my life will be decided. I’ll live out my years in one studio apartment after another, always sleeping on a single bed, always drinking cheap liquor, never with any new messages on my phone, never finding anything interesting online, and always, always listening to a neighbor sobbing through the walls.
I’ll go for a walk, I decide. It’s just a little dust. I put on a pair of jeans, grab a hat, and climb down the four flights of stairs in my apartment building.
The dust isn’t so bad. I like the empty streets, the feeling of modest adventure. It reminds me of my dusty prairie hometown, where I roamed the dirt roads swinging a stick like a sword and dug up my backyard looking for arrowheads. Even then I knew I would someday travel to strange and beautiful places, see things no one else in my town would ever see. And now here I am on the other side of the planet, in Jinju, South Korea, thinking of my childhood, hung-over and walking alone in a cloud of sand.
But unlike a sandstorm, yellow dust doesn’t swirl in your face, catch in your hair, crunch between your teeth. You experience hwangsa as a hazy sky, itching eyes, a scratch in your throat. You don’t see the dust until it’s built up along the edges of walls, or thinly coating a windshield. So I make my way without too much discomfort through the narrow, winding streets to Jinju’s river, the Namgang.
The Namgang, dark with silt, flowing haphazardly northeast to join with the Nakdong, and then south again to the sea. I stand on a bridge and look out across it. On the north bank stands Jinju Castle, a 900-year-old fortress where thousands of men have fought and died. Built from mud, destroyed by sea marauders, rebuilt from stone, destroyed by the Japanese, and now built again with a museum and 3-D theater. On the south bank of the river lies a bamboo forest. I’m standing there on the bridge, trying to decide which way to go, when I meet Na Na-Ra.
I don’t recognize her at first—just a wave of black hair above a white medical mask coming toward me on the bridge. But her eyes grow big when she sees me, and she rushes over.
“Michael Teacher!” she says. She lowers her mask and I recognize her then, her sleepy eyes and thick eyebrows, her small chubby nose.
“Na Na-Ra!” I say.
Na Na-Ra used to be a teacher at my English academy. We worked together for a month after I came to Korea, before she was fired for coming to work late every day. She used an English name—Tanya—for the students, but I preferred to use her full Korean name, family name first.
“Where are you going?” she says. “It’s yellow dust today.” She gestures with two hands at the sky.
“I’m just walking. Where are you going?”
“Over there,” she says, motioning vaguely to the south. “Where’s your mask?”
“I don’t have one.”
“You should take care. The yellow dust will kill you.” This is not true.
“You should give me your mask,” I joke, reaching out for it.
“No!” She slaps my hand away and cinches the mask tightly over her mouth and nose. “Walk with me, Michael Teacher. Just over there.”
We walk together down the bridge. When a car rolls past us, she presses her shoulder against me to move out of its way, and I’m filled with a sudden desire and loneliness. It’s been a long time since a girl has pressed her body against mine.
“Are you still at Avalon?” she says, referring to my English academy.
“Yeah. Everyone misses you.” This is also not true. Na Na-Ra was a less than diligent worker, and often the tasks she neglected would fall to the other teachers. Despite having only known her a month, I probably missed her the most. She never seemed to take the job too seriously, and her laziness amused me.
“Ha! What a shit place.” Na Na-Ra spent most of her time in the office watching pirated American movies on her computer, and she’d picked up some colorful language.
“It’s not so bad. I don’t know why you could never come to work on time.”
“I like to stay up late.”
“Classes start at 2 PM.”
“My house is far away. I have to take the bus. Have you eaten?”
“Of course! You should eat more. You look very terrible. So skinny.” Na Na-Ra is much skinnier than I am, but a certain heft is expected of Americans here.
“I’m fine,” I say. “Anyway, what are you doing these days? Did you find a new job?”
“I’m tutoring two middle school girls. They’re so dumb. Mostly I’m watching TV and sleeping.”
We leave the bridge and start walking through a riverside park. Usually it would be bustling with children and couples, but today it’s quiet. We pass a collection of outdoor exercise equipment where in better weather older Korean men and women, ahjussis and ajummas, engage in public fitness routines. The path leads east into the bamboo forest.
Na Na-Ra looks at me and smiles—her eyes scrunch above her mask.
“Michael Teacher, do you really like Korea?”
I start to answer with a quick affirmative, but something stops me. Maybe it’s my loneliness, or the strange feeling of closeness two people develop when walking together in inclement weather, but I suddenly feel the urge to open myself up to this young woman, this person I know so little about, with whom I’ve only exchanged a few office pleasantries almost a year ago.
“It’s the same as anywhere, I guess. You know, this is the fifth country I’ve lived in. Did I tell you that?”
She shakes her head.
“I was born in America, of course, went to school there. I studied abroad in Germany for a year during college, and then after I graduated I taught English in Taiwan for a year, then the same thing in Malaysia, and now here I am in Korea.”
“Wow, you’ve seen so much of the world.”
“That’s just where I’ve lived. I’ve also traveled to a dozen other countries. And everywhere I’ve been it’s the same thing. Just trade a cathedral for a temple for a mosque, eat some meat and vegetables here, some rice and noodles there. Hey, here’s a very important old building. And there’s another one over there and another one and another one until they’ve lost all meaning. The only thing that changes is me, and not in a good way.”
We’re approaching the edge of the bamboo forest now. It’s hard to read Na Na-Ra’s expression behind her mask. “What do you mean?” she says.
“It’s hard to explain. But it feels like each place I go takes something from me. Like I’ve left the best parts of myself in all these different countries. I feel like I’ve become fractured somehow.”
The bamboo forest is about a hundred yards long, twenty yards wide. We walk through it on a path made from wooden planks. In a few places, the path breaks off to areas with benches overlooking the river. Tied near the tops of some of the trees, small speakers play artificial bird sounds. The forest is empty except for the two of us.
“For example,” I continue, “in the past, people told me I was funny. I’m not funny anymore. I don’t make people laugh. I lost that somewhere. And I used to be into philosophy and poetry. It was so important to me. Now it all just seems ridiculous.”
I begin coughing. Dust in my throat. Na Na-Ra grabs my arm. “Are you okay?” she says. “Here, let’s take a rest.” She pulls me over to one of the benches. We sit down next to each other. On the other side of the river, Jinju Castle sits in the haze.
“And the worst thing,” I say, “is that I can’t make deep connections with the people I meet because of the language barrier. So I meet new people all the time but I’m always lonely. I’d have to study for twenty years to have this conversation with you in Korean. Your English is good, but even if you understand the words, I don’t think you can really understand what I’m feeling. Our worldview is tied to our native language.”
“I almost understand,” she says. “My English is shit, I know. Good enough to teach kids, but my vocab is small. But I understand you.”
I look over at her on the bench. Dark eyes, smooth black hair, a few bumps on her forehead underneath her makeup. Her leg, so thin in a tight pair of jeans, is almost touching mine. I want to put my arm around her. But I don’t. It would feel, somehow, like a betrayal of trust. So I just sit beside her and look out at the river.
After a while, she says, “So you don’t like to travel. Why not stay in America?”
“I guess I’m looking for a spark of some kind,” I say. “I always wanted to have a great adventure. But now I’m not sure if great adventures really exist.”
“So what’s your dream?” she asks.
“My dream?” I laugh. “I guess my dream is to live a life that has some sort of greater meaning, that leaves an impression on the world. But I don’t think it’s possible. There was this English poet, John Keats. He was pretty famous. When he died, on his tombstone he left the words: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ Do you know what that means?”
“Written water? He loved nature, maybe?”
“Think about it this way: if you took your finger and wrote your name in the Namgang, what would happen to it?”
“A fish would eat your finger.”
“Maybe. And your name would disappear. That’s what’s happening to me. I feel like I’m going through my life just writing my name in water.”
Na Na-Ra shifts on the seat beside me. She seems agitated.
“Michael Teacher,” she says, “you lived in five countries. You saw so many places. I lived with my parents in Jinju all my life. I wanted to go to Canada to study English, but my father didn’t want it. So what can I do? I have to stay in Jinju. There’s no good job for me, but my family is here. Soon my father will introduce me to a man and I’ll marry. You’re sad about your life, but I envy you. Really I envy you.”
She stands up and walks over to the rail separating the forest walkway from the river far below. For a minute we’re both quiet. We listen to the sound of the river and the bird songs from the speakers.
Finally, she says, “Michael Teacher, come here.”
I join her at the rail. It’s thick, made of wood, and Na Na-Ra runs a finger along it and holds it up for me to see.
“Yellow dust. Hwangsa.”
I nod. “Hwangsa.”
“Michael Teacher, let’s write our names in the dust.”
“It’s better than water.”
“I guess it is.” I reach down, but she grabs my hand.
“Wait! You have to write it in Korean.”
“Why? I’m not Korean.”
“But you live in Korea. Just write it!”
“Okay. But I forget how. I’ve never really learned the letters.”
“Here,” she says, guiding my finger. “I’ll show you.”
We write our names in the dust. Hers looks like this: 나나라. And mine looks like this: 마이클.
After we’re finished she lets go of my hand and we stand there, side by side, and look out across the Namgang. Then we walk back to the path and make our way to the end of the bamboo forest.
Out on the sidewalk, Na Na-Ra says, “I have to take a bus. Wait with me.”
I stand next to her at the bus stop. We’re the only ones waiting. A bus goes by, but it’s not hers. All the seats are empty. After it’s gone, Na Na-Ra looks up at me and narrows her eyes, like she’s studying my face intently.
“What is it?” I say.
She makes a noncommittal sound, then laughs, shakes her head, and looks away.
A few minutes pass. I want to say something meaningful but can’t think of what it might be. Later, I know, I’ll run this moment through my mind a thousand times, thinking of all the perfect words, but for now I just stand beside Na Na-Ra and wait for the bus.
It pulls up a few minutes later, brakes hissing.
“I’ll go on this one,” Na Na-Ra says through her mask.
“Try to eat more.”
“Try to learn Korean.”
“Goodbye, Michael Teacher.” She waves at me, even though I’m standing right in front of her, so I wave back.
“Goodbye, Na Na-Ra.”
And then she climbs on the bus and it takes her away.
I walk back through the bamboo forest and the riverside park, cross the bridge, make my way through the narrow, winding streets, and start up the stairs to my apartment.
But I stop in the hallway. I head back outside and into the convenience store across the street. Nothing in any aisle looks appealing, but I grab a box of green tea and a bag of shrimp chips.
Back in my apartment building, I stop outside my downstairs neighbor’s door.
I can’t hear anything from inside. She’s either stopped sobbing, or she’s gone out, like I did, into the dust.
What’s my plan? She’s never met me before and will have no idea who I am. I don’t know the word for “neighbor.” I stand there holding the tea and the chips, a little sweaty, eyes watery from the dust. Will I just thrust the food at her and run away?
I knock again. Was that a shuffling sound? I can’t be sure. In any case, she doesn’t answer. I knock one last time and then set the snacks at the foot of the door.
Up in my room, I start coughing again, harder now. I pour a glass of water and stand by the window drinking it and listening downstairs for the sound of the door. Outside: empty streets, clay-tiled rooftops, a hazy yellow sky.
Robert Hinderliter’s fiction has appeared in Fourteen Hills, SmokeLong Quarterly, Night Train, decomP, and other places. He grew up in Kansas and is now an Assistant Professor in the English Literature Department of Chosun University in Gwangju, South Korea. He lived in Jinju for a year.