Light of Our Lives (生의 伴侶)
Written by Id / Translation by Sashaprism
Originally written on 2018.08.10
It was the day after Chinese New Year. Pyongyang Station, covered in snow, bustled with people departing and those seeing them off. Every exact hour a train left for its destination. People who laughed and cried in front of the station hurried off in a frenzy whenever the time came close to a new departure. A man ran out of nowhere and into Seongwu’s shoulder. He hurriedly ran toward his train, bumping into Seongwu in the process. Seongwu frowned at this rude intrusion, but the man had already raced meters away. Seongwu held on tightly to the hand of his grandmother, who was chaperoning him on his way to Gyeongseong*. He was already fifteen years old, and he did not want to suffer the embarrassment of being a lost child. Seongwu looked back at his nanny and uncle in between steps as he headed to the station, its gargantuan form imposing and stately before him.
They passed the great hall inside the station and walked to the platform from which Seongwu would depart. People clamored like they were in a busy market. Among them stood several station staff, clad in uniforms of murky green hue. Everything was so confusing; Seongwu felt like the world around him was spinning. Amidst all this, Seongwu’s uncle found a line that snaked into the platform. Seongwu and his family stood at the very back of the line, and soon it was their turn to enter. They showed their crisp new tickets to an attendant, and they were admitted into the platform right away.
The crowd thinned as Seongwu and his family entered the platform. Seongwu inhaled deeply; he had been holding his breath. Cold open air felt wonderful inside his lungs, especially after having been stuck within a large crowd and all of the heat it emitted. There were some twenty minutes before Seongwu’s train would depart, so they family sat down on the flat wooden benches on the platform. Seongwu placed his luggage by his feet and relaxed. Under the clear blue sky the railroad track stretched endlessly, beyond where the eye met the horizons. Seongwu’s heart started to thump inside his chest. It was his second time being on a train, but he was just as thrilled as he was the first time.
Seongwu had been on a train for the first time about three months ago. Seongwu remembered that day clearly, like it was yesterday. He remembered the chug, puff and cloud-like steam of the approaching train; ringing of the gilded bells piercing through the station; the enormous body of the train, larger even than the trolleys crossing the city; and the people boarding and taking off from it like ants. Seongwu was shocked by the seats that faced the tail of the train instead of its head, and at the unfamiliar rattling of metal beneath his feet. For a while, Seongwu had forgotten that he was on his way to take an entrance exam for Gyeongseong Secondary School,* and enjoyed, like a small child, the new sensations the train offered him. Seongwu was sure that he would enjoy his ride the second time as much as he did during his first, and thus he had no qualms about a little wait.
Seongwu suddenly felt a pang of embarrassment as he remembered how he had initially refused to go to Gyeongseong. Half a year ago, Gyeongseong was not even an option for him; he was soon due to graduate Primary School* and was preparing to go to Pyongyang Secondary School. However, Seongwu’s class teacher had seen a certain talent in him and recommended that he take an exam to enter Gyeongseong Secondary School. With this, the trajectory of Seongwu’s life changed altogether.
Gyeongseong Secondary School was one of the best schools in Joseon*, and every studious student in the country dreamt of entering it. Seongwu was one of the best students in and around Pyongyang, and the eldest son of Ong family, old aristcrats; everyone regarded him highly and held great expectations for him. When Seongwu returned home with his teacher’s recommendation letter, the entire Ong family sat around a table, discussing what needed to be done to send Seongwu to Gyeongseong. Seongwu himself did not want to leave home and go to school some two hundred kilometers from his family. However, he could not protest when he learned how much honor it would bring his family to have a son attend Gyeongseong Secondary School. In the end, Seongwu took a train to Gyeongseong to fill out his application and take the exam to enter Gyeongseong Secondary School. Seongwu spent the entire night before the exam fully awake, gripped by anxiety, as he was not confident about whether he would pass. Seongwu remained nervous and skittish during the whole of winter break after the exam, although he knew that no one would blame him for failing to get in. Then, a few days after New Year’s day, he received his acceptance letter from Gyeongseong Secondary School in the mail. He was given a feast more lavish than any birthday dinner he ever had, and even the most distant relatives sent him messages of congratulations. These chain of events had taken place exactly a month ago.
Seongwu gathered his lips together into a tiny circle and let out a small puff of breath. It dissipated into thin air like small clouds of white smoke. His nose turned red from the cold as he waited; he tried to warm his face by covering it with his mittens packed full of thick cotton. Shuddering from the cold but still giddy, he wished for the train to arrive soon.
Finally, the rattle and puff of the train Seongwu had been waiting for started to sound from afar. Seongwu could not hide his glee as he jumped up and down and shouted: “The train is coming!”
Seongwu watched the train come to a slow halt, his arms tight around his luggage and his eyes shining with hope and wonder. The doors opened, and people descended from the train in packs; Seongwu quickly entered the train and found his seat printed on his ticket. The seats in the train were arranged in pairs, with every pair facing another in clusters of four. Seongwu did not hesitate in choosing a seat next to the window. Seongwu’s uncle chuckled, and said: “You seem way too happy, kid!” Seongwu grinned naughtily and glued himself to the window, watching the scenery outside pass by.
From time to time Japanese police officers with long swords affixed to their belts patrolled the passenger cars, but Seongwu was so transfixed by the passing landscape that he did not mind them. The only time Seongwu sat straight and away from the windows was when he had to eat from a lunch box his uncle purchased a few hours after they boarded the train.
The train sped on for nearly four hours before it arrived at Gyeongseong Station. Just like three months ago, Gyeongseong was loud and chaotic. Streetcars, cows, bicycles, and people all swirled together in a disorderly mess on the broad, open streets, and in the pit where peach trees used to be, construction to build Chejungwon* was going full force. Seongwu and his family stepped onto a streetcar going to Bukchon*.
During this time, Bukchon, or northern villages, was a name used to call areas north of Cheonggye-chun Creek(淸溪川)*. Informally, Bukchon was called ‘Joseonin village,’ or ‘village for Joseon people.’ The atmosphere of Bukchon differed significantly from that of Myeongchi-jung*(明治町) or Hwanggeum-jung*(黃金町), which sat south of Cheonggye-chun and occupied mostly by wealthy foreigners. Unlike these glitzy districts, lined with newly developed architecture and shops of all kind, Bukchon had retained its old form and air. Clusters of hanoks* had kept and treasured the traditions breathed into them by the ancestors of old who built them.
As they neared Second Street off Jongno(鐘路)*, Seongwu's uncle rang the streetcar bell. The car stopped shortly, and they hopped off; they were standing in the biggest street in Gyeongseong. Jongno's main street looked wide enough to easily fit ten streetcars side by side. With all kinds of things running on it, Seongwu felt as if the street itself was alive, breathing along with all of the people walking upon it. The Ong family crossed the main street to head north. After rows of several stupendous buildings appeared a maze of alleyways. Seongwu’s uncle, fortunately, was a long-time resident of Bukchon, and they navigated their way through them without becoming lost. Seongwu wished to be as familiar with these streets as his uncle one day. He kept his eyes wide open in an attempt to memorize their route, but the labyrinthine alleyways refused to let themselves be read into so easily.
After a series of winding paths, they arrived at a private residence Seongwu would live in for the coming years. Vines of angel’s trumpet creepers gingerly sat upon a stone wall, which was built around the house and rose about a feet over the crown of Seongwu’s head. Seongwu’s uncle knocked on the blue metal gate and shouted: hello! Seongwu heard steps from beyond the stone walls responding to it, and the gate opened smoothly, as if welcoming them. Owners of the boarding house, husband and wife called Mr. and Mrs. Chung, greeted them cordially. Seongwu’s uncle and grandmother entered past the gate first. Seongwu watched them disappear into the house, and carefully set foot into the gate himself.
The boarding house was a strange mix of Japanese and European architecture. The garden was decorated in the classic western style, while the exterior of the building looked Japanese; the bathrooms, kitchen and the stairs looked like those in European homes. Up until that point in time, Seongwu had only lived in a traditional Korean house, and he regarded the house in silent wonder. After a short tour around the house, the Chungs took Seongwu’s family to the dining room to serve them chilled green tea, so that the guests, exhausted by the afternoon heat, could cool down. Seongwu’s family, tired from their lengthy travel, rested comfortably for a while. The parties exchanged awkward first greetings.
The Chungs were an elderly couple, and they seemed gentle and kind. They explained that they began to rent out rooms to young students not only because they wanted to offer help, but also because they did not have any children or grandchildren of their own and felt lonely sometimes. They complimented Seongwu’s brightness and good looks, and told him that they were glad to have him. Their greetings were respectful and sincere, and Seongwu responded by smiling bashfully at them.
In the midst of continuing conversation, the owners started to tell Seongwu more about his future living arrangements.
“As I have told you before, two students will share a room.”
Seongwu would live with a roommate who had already moved in a day earlier. His name was Hwang Minhyun. He was the same age as Seongwu and was also set to enter Gyeongseong Secondary School this year. He was a Gyeongseong native, the youngest son of the biggest salt merchant family in Gyeongseong. Seongwu’s grandmother commented on the efficiency of this arrangement: Seongwu and his roommate would make not only wonderful friends but also resourceful schoolmates. Seongwu’s cheeks lit up in anticipation to meet his new roommate. How fun it would be to live with a friend one’s own age and go to school together!
As if they sensed Seongwu’s eagerness to meet his new roommate, the owners allowed Seongwu to go upstairs and see his room. Seongwu did not decline to excuse himself and stood up with his luggage in each hand; his nanny followed suit. They went up the unfamiliar set of stairs. Seongwu felt each step creek under his foot, a strange sensation. At the end of the staircase was a long corridor with a large window at its end. The walls were covered in square panels of white paper, each framed in wood. Seongwu did not know whether they were walls or sliding doors. The hosts had tied a red ribbon on the handle of one sliding door so Seongwu could easily find his room. He carefully pulled at the knob, and it smoothly slid open.
The room was wide, surprisingly large; Seongwu now knew why two students were assigned to share it. A boy sat in it, his back facing the door. His black hair was neatly trimmed. Seongwu realized that this was Hwang Minhyun, his new roommate. As if he heard Seongwu recalling his name in silence, the boy turned around. His face was expressionless, and his eyes sharp, his eyelids slanted elegantly upwards. Seongwu’s first impression of him was that he was cold. Seongwu tensed, and swallowed hard.
“...Hello?” Seongwu said, his voice strained. Minhyun’s eyes slowly traveled up and down over Seongwu before he gave a response that was neither a greeting nor an answer to Seongwu’s salute.
The very first conversation between Seongwu and Minhyun ended thus.
Although Seongwu was disappointed by the lukewarm manner in which his roommate greeted him, he focused on studying the space he will have to live in for a long while. The walls and ceiling were a pristine white, and the floor was covered in smooth wooden planks instead of Japanese tatami mats. Pairs of wardrobes, chests, bookshelves and low desks were arranged symmetrically in each end of the room like chess pieces. Minhyun had taken the left side of the room, so Seongwu was left with the right side. Seongwu placed his luggage on the floor and opened his new wardrobe. It smelled new. He was now ready to fill it with his clothes, just as he would fill this room with his existence.
Seongwu’s nanny skillfully and swiftly opened his luggage and organized its contents. Seongwu had brought everything he needed: his clothes, books, school supplies, and even a stitching kit. All Seongwu could do was to sit beside his nanny and take things out of his luggage for her to fold, hang, or tuck away.
Someone called out from downstairs. As they were almost finished with organizing his possessions anyways, Seongwu and his nanny stopped what they were doing and went downstairs. Seongwu’s grandmother handed him a package.
“Take a look, dear.”
“It’s a school uniform.”
“We purchased it ahead of time before Seongwu’s arrival.”
The hosts smiled at Seongwu, as if blessing his future. His new gakuran* was ink-black, and Gyeongseong Secondary School’s crest was hanging proudly on the chest. At his grandmother’s prodding, Seongwu put the jacket on. The uniform was a bit large, but it did not look funny or awkward, and the fit was good enough. In his new uniform Seongwu looked like a real high school student. Everyone complimented on how sharp he looked. For the second time that day, Seongwu smiled bashfully, blushing this time.
Seongwu’s family had now safely delivered Seongwu to his new boarding house, and had seen him in his new uniform. They stood up to leave; they had to catch the evening train back to Pyongyang. They were reluctant to leave, especially because they had to leave Seongwu, a precious boy they had raised from birth. They left in peace, however, when they were reminded of near presence of Seongwu’s uncle who lived a stone’s throw from the boarding house, and with their renewed acknowledgement of their dear boy’s natural brightness. Seongwu made sure his goodbyes were cheerful and brave, and stood in the street until his family disappeared from sight. After Seongwu’s family left, the boarding house fell into a sudden silence. With this silence, a realization that he was truly alone in a stranger's house in Gyeongseong finally hit Seongwu.
Seongwu quietly straightened out his room until sunset, when he was called downstairs to dinner. He had not shared another word with Minhyun. Minhyun continued to read his book in silence, and Seongwu glanced at him from time to time while arranging his school supplies on his low desk.
Dinner was a bountiful hotpot. A boiling pot took center of the dining table, with a few side dishes sitting around it. The hosts placed equal amounts of food on Minhyun and Seongwu’s plates.
“Minhyun, Seongwu, please enjoy.”
The first meal Seongwu had in Gyeongseong was saltier and spicier than those he was used to in Pyongyang. From time to time, the hosts asked Minhyun and Seongwu if they lacked anything, or if the food tasted all right. Seongwu replied to each of their questions cheerfully, and the mood around the table lightened.
After dinner was bath time. The hosts and students used different bathrooms. The hosts filled the bathtubs ahead of time with hot water, and Minhyun and Seongwu had to decide which of them would bathe first. Minhyun abruptly broke his lengthy silence while Seongwu was wondering if they should engage in a game of ‘Rock, paper, scissors.’
“Is it all right if we alternate turns?”
“Oh, um. Yes.”
“I’ll go first today, then. You can go first tomorrow.”
Minhyun left the room with a spare change of clothes and his bath basket, so swiftly that Seongwu did not have enough time to reply. Seongwu sighed, watching his roommate walk out the door. Seongwu was not sure if he was so terse because he was a Gyeongseong native, but Minhyun was unapproachable and distant, just like how Seongwu imagined wealthy Gyeongseong boys would be. Alone in the room, Seongwu began to worry about whether he would ever get close to Minhyun. Even the thought of failing to strike up a friendship with him was terrifying; they would have to see each other every day unless one of them quit school and left.
Seongwu listlessly wrung his hands and twiddled his thumbs until Minhyun came back. Minhyun appeared as suddenly as he had left, opening the sliding door to their room without warning. Seongwu was unsettled by how unfamiliar Minhyun looked as he whisked away moisture from his hair with a towel.
“Go quickly before the water gets cold. You know where the bathroom is, right?”
“I do. Thanks.”
Seongwu bravely started for the bath. However, he had to pause before the bathroom door. During the day, the bathroom was flooded with daylight; but at night, the only way Seongwu could describe it was that it was frightening. The steam from hot water blurred the air, and all that lighted the bathroom were a few kerosene lamps. The bathroom reminded Seongwu of a dungeon prison, dark and damp. Seongwu hesitated, scared, almost driven to tears. As pathetic as it was, Seongwu had never taken a bath by himself.
Seongwu had many siblings. He had an older sister, two younger brothers and a younger sister. As they were a closely-knit pack, they had always bathed together. To the Ong siblings, bathing was a sort of a pastime, and they often bathed together in a boisterous bunch of children. Now, Seongwu was alone. It was not that he hadn’t expected a situation like this, but he was scared all the same. Seongwu decided to get it over with as quickly as possible, as he could not avoid washing himself. He shut his eyes, and stripped in what felt like a blink of an eye. He then washed himself carelessly and fast, taking less than ten minutes before he ran out of the bathroom again as if being chased by an invisible monster.
Seongwu dashed back to his room. When he opened the door, he was struck by how peaceful the room was, as opposed to his inner fear and turmoil. Two kerosene lamps subtly lit the large room, and Minhyun sat in silence, reading as he had been all day. In this quietness, Minhyun surely would have heard Seongwu scurrying up the stairs like a frightened puppy. Embarrassed, Seongwu closed the door quietly and tiptoed to his seat.
After Seongwu stopped his frantic movements, heavy stillness descended upon the room. To Seongwu, who was accustomed to continuous pranks and jokes of his mischievous and jovial siblings, this quietude felt almost unbearable. He felt, with his entire being, that he was far away from home, alone.
In his young enthusiasm, however, Seongwu decided that he and his roommate could not and would not stay this way forever. Soon, Minhyun seemed to flip the pages of his book haphazardly out of boredom; Seongwu took this opportunity, and spoke.
Seongwu was at a loss for words for a few moments. He broke the silence first; now what should he say? Should he ask Minhyun his name, as they had not yet formally introduced themselves to each other? Would Minhyun be angry at the idea that Seongwu did not bother learning his name beforehand? Seongwu clutched his nervous heart, and squeaked out his first question:“What is your name?”
The answer itself was only a confirmation of what Seongwu already knew, but Minhyun’s tone of voice was unexpectedly warm and gentle. Seongwu repeated the three syllables in his mouth. Hwang. Min. Hyun.
“What is yours?” Minhyun returned, as if he had been waiting for a chance to.
“My name is Ong Seongwu! Surname is Ong. Not Hong, not Gong, but Ong.”
“Ong? What an unusual surname.”
“I bet this is your first time meeting an Ong.”
Minhyun nodded. Upon closer inspection, Seongwu observed clamped up lips and gaze full of curiosity. Minhyun looked like a meek and innocent child while listening to Seongwu speak. Seongwu could not help cracking a smile, as Minhyun reminded him of his younger siblings back home.
“What Chinese characters do you use?”
“I’ll write it for you!”
Seongwu felt a tingle of excitement as Minhyun expressed interest in his name. He took his notebook and pen on his desk to write his name down.
“My name uses these Chinese characters.”
‘Ong, meaning obstruction, Seong, meaning saint, and Wu, meaning fortune.’
Minhyun scrutinized the paper, trying to understand the character he was unacquainted with.
“I have never seen this character before. Ong.”
“Everyone says that.”
As if memorizing the character, Minhyun repeated its strokes mid-air with his fingers. When his fingers stopped moving, Seongwu gently pushed the notebook toward Minhyun. It was Minhyun’s turn.
“What about your name?”
Minhyun picked up the pen and wrote his name down, in a neat handwriting.
‘Hwang, meaning yellow, Min, meaning gentleness, and Hyun, meaning brightness.’
Seongwu was surprised at the choice of characters. Gentleness and brightness. Minhyun’s name seemed contrary to the cold initial impression he gave off. Unlike Seongwu’s, Minhyun’s name consisted of easier characters, so Seongwu memorized it quickly.
“It is a good name.”
“So is yours.”
Seongwu laughed. Tense air between them loosened, and their hearts, initially stiff from awkwardness, became soft and tender, ready to open up. Seongwu mustered even more courage and turned toward Minhyun completely. He wanted to talk more with Minhyun. Minhyun seemed to feel the same, as he spoke first this time.
After they first broke their tense silence, everything was easy. They talked all night, about everything, from their families, home towns, their new living arrangements, and expectations for the new school year. When Minhyun broke off the conversation so they could salvage last remaining hours of sleep, it was dawn. They turned out their lamps and fell asleep. Just before drifting off and as his eyes fluttered shut, Seongwu thought that perhaps he could become close to Minhyun much faster than he expected.
In March,* a new semester started. The entrance ceremony for Gyeongseong Secondary School's new class of freshmen was short and simple, and first period started at eight o’clock sharp. Because Gyeongseong Secondary School was already infamous for working its students like dogs, no one dared to object to or complain about this brusque start. Seongwu opened his book and picked up his pen. Now, he would have to stay alert like an owl at midnight if he wanted to survive all the weekly quizzes, end-of-the-month exams and final exams the school would throw his way. At the same time, Seongwu had to adapt to the school itself. It took Seongwu two weeks to become used to the structure of the school, his teachers, and his classmates. Only after those uneasy weeks was he more comfortable at school.
Gyeongseong Secondary School was a Boy’s school, with a five-year* curriculum in compliance with educational regulations the Japanese had implemented in Joseon. There were two classes within each of the five grades. It was different from Seongwu’s previous school in Pyongyang in that his classmates were highly diverse, in both age and hometowns. It was rare for students to enter into and graduate school exactly at the right age like Minhyun and Seongwu. As such, Minhyun and Seongwu were the among the youngest students in the entering class. Most classmates were older by one or two years, and sometimes by three or four. Half of their classmates had their previous education interrupted, mostly due to their old schools closing and reopening multiple times from Japanese interference. Most of them had obtained their Primary school diplomas by the skin of their teeths. Many had worked during the day and read at night amidst difficult circumstances to get to Gyeongseong Secondary School, a gateway for success that could afford its students advantages in entering institutions of higher education. They all had one goal: being admitted to Gyeongseong Imperial University (or Keijo Imperial University, as it was called among the Japanese), or other educational Colleges and vocational schools.
As such, school life could easily have become difficult, marred by cutthroat competition. Fortunately, Minhyun and Seongwu were assigned to the same class. Seongwu felt relieved that Minhyun was by his side in an unfamiliar classroom where he had to sit among strangers. Seongwu and Minhyun had already become quite close before the start of the semester, as they had stuck with each other like twins the week before. It was no longer nerve-wrecking for Seongwu to speak to Minhyun, and time spent alone with Minhyun in their shared room was no longer suffocating. They conversed often, mostly about mundane, everyday things. It was a pleasure to speak to Minhyun, and they felt more compatible the more they spoke. Seongwu now wanted to become Minhyun’s best friend so they could hold deeper, more meaningful conversations.
Like his name, Minhyun was gentle and kind, and Seongwu liked it. Seongwu learned of Minhyun’s acts of kindness, which seemed to flow naturally from his heart, during the second night he spent at the boarding house. He had somehow bathed on his own during the first night, but he felt like he could never bathe alone again the night after. So Seongwu asked Minhyun to stay beside the bathroom door while he bathed. At first he worried about the possibility of Minhyun thinking of him as a coward; but even if Minhyun did, Seongwu wanted him to stay all the same. Minhyun obliged without a word. Minhyun took Seongwu’s hand, and led the terrified boy to the bathroom. He considerately let Seongwu bathe first, and stood by the bathroom door the entire time Seongwu was inside. Seongwu asked him several times: Are you there? Minhyun never failed to reply.
This solicitude from Minhyun, which Seongwu expected to last only a few days, continued into their first school semester, and became their shared habit long afterwards.
Minhyun and Seongwu were also well-intentioned rivals. They were the only pair of the same age in their class, and they lived together. Because of that, they were often matched up to in competition, both voluntarily and involuntarily. Gyeongseong Secondary School strictly forbade any kind of aggression and mischief, so students, including Minhyun and Seongwu, often settled their scores by studying. Just as they looked dissimilar and had different hometowns, Seongwu and Minhyun differed in their favorite subjects.
Minhyun was outstanding in Japanese language (regrettably called ‘official national language’* at the time). Under Japanese rule children were forced to become fluent in Japanese even before they entered Primary Schools, and most students were proficient in it. However, Minhyun’s Japanese flowed like liquid, smoother than the language spoken by natives from Tokyo. Official National Language class revealed Minhyun’s true merit; the teacher, who was Japanese, often called on Minhyun to recite prose and poetry from their textbooks.
On the other hand, Seongwu was distinguished in Chinese and Korean language. This was because he had attended seodang* before entering Primary School as part of his early education. Seongwu was familiar with The Thousand Character Classic* and classic Confucian texts. Even while attending Primary School, Seongwu had went to seodang during his summer breaks to study. Seongwu’s parents had pressured him into such learning environment, explaining that he was obligated to learn all this as a minimum, knowing that he could not go through the entirety of traditional Korean curriculum. Back then, Seongwu had sulked at having to go to seodang, but now at Gyeongseong Secondary School, knowing a lot of Chinese gave him an edge over his classmates.
Minhyun was envious of Seongwu’s proficiency with traditional Korean principles of knowledge. Minhyun often said that Japanese was a language that he was shameful to be fluent in; he would rather choose to speak unfamiliar western languages that he stammered through like a child. Seongwu agreed with him, yet still loved hearing Minhyun recite pieces of Japanese literature during Official National Language class. In fact, it was the only reason Seongwu anticipated Japanese classes.
Minhyun and Seongwu peacefully adapted to school life, and Seongwu eased into life in Gyeongseong. Minhyun helped take care of Seongwu’s needs if Seongwu, as he often did, forgot things at home, and Seongwu filled gaps in Minhyun’s walls when Minhyun let his guard down. They grew closer and closer as days went by.