We are delighted to announce that Sun Lyoung Kim is the winner of the NorthWrite 2016 Competition for Northland Writers.
Mandy Hager and James George judged this competition. Mandy commented:
This story speaks to the spirit that brought many to Northland, a chance to start again and to redefine oneself in a new country. What I love about this story is its emotional core, a very authentic look into the fear and torn loyalties of setting out across the world in search of a better future. It is honest, moving, and brings to life a culture rarely represented in current New Zealand writing. It is also satisfying as a story, its scope much broader than the word count, condensing whole lives and journeys into this moment of significant change. I feel richer for having read it.
Sun Lyoung Kim is a Northland writer who grew up in South Korea. She emigrated to New Zealand 20 years ago.
Sun has completed a Diploma in Applied Writing at Northtec and is currently studying to become a teacher. As well as developing her own writing, Sun hopes to inspire and support beginning writers.
She has been published by Learning Media Ltd and LIFT Education. Sun writes a regular column about New Zealand education in the Korean Federation of Teachers newsletter.
by Sun Lyoung Kim
In the world, there are a lot of stories going on mysteriously. Nobody knows whether they are true or not. Nobody has seen these things, but everybody knows the stories …
Floating island … Maybe it has a tree? Maybe a bird? But beneath the island there would be a lot of different roots and they might be tangled with each other because they don’t know where to settle.
A blistering and gluey Korean midnight was sticking to Kang-Hee’s feet and oppressing her body.
“I hate summer!” She kicked off her blanket, then slid open the veranda window. Instead of welcome cold air, more humidity oozed across her skin. People were talking in the facing apartment and the sound of cars made her even more frustrated.
She glared down at them. “Shit!” She clutched her head.
The eighteen floors down seemed even more distant than usual.
“Must my life start from the bottom again?” She hit the cold steel railing of the veranda, the sound echoing within her heart along with last night’s conversation with Min-Ho.
Her husband had delivered big news.
Emigration … to a strange country, a strange people, a strange culture. It meant no job, no friends, and no family.
That was not only a problem for them, but also a problem for everybody and everything involved with them – jobs, communities, friends …
And especially for Min-Ho’s parents, who were the first parents in her life.
An orphan, she’d never known what happened to her real parents, but early on she’d realised she was different from other people. So she avoided watching TV programmes about families.
Instead she dreamed about having the perfect family – grandparents, Mum, Dad, and children. She knew what parents did for their children. They were like the sun – vital for life, even though people forgot how important it was because it was always there.
But Kang-Hee knew. She always desired the sun, just like a sunflower.
Yet now …
“Now I have parents who always listen when I’m talking and who hold my hands,” she murmured. “I don’t want leave them and I don’t want to make them live without us. For the first time I’m an ordinary person who has parents.”
Last night Min-Ho had showed her a booklet about New Zealand. It said, “The best environment in the world, the best social security in the world, and the best lifestyle in the world. You can do whatever you want here! In NEW ZEALAND!” It was sweet.
But then … “Let’s emigrate,” Min-ho said.
“Are you kidding?” she asked.
“No, I’m serious,” he said. “Listen, Kang-Hee, please. This will give us what we’ve always wanted. We could both get a doctorate. I’ve checked everything about New Zealand already and this is the chance of a lifetime.”
She saw his eyes – shaken with pain, desire, fear, hope – and love.
She couldn’t say anything, but her own eyes said no.
A week later Min-Ho tried again.
“You and I grew up with poverty so we couldn’t do what we wanted. I don’t want poverty to be the heritage of our children. This is not for me. It’s for you, our children, Mum and Dad.”
“You are the only son of your parents. Do you think they will let you go? Also I really love them, you know that.”
She saw the memory of Min-Ho’s brother hit all his body cells and the huge pain – car accident, blood, loss, and emptiness …
Since then his parents were always afraid of losing the other son in their life. She told Min-Ho, “If you want to go, you go without me.”
“Please … please … I love you. I want to go with you.” Burning tears ran down his cheeks and he gripped her hand. “They will understand. I need you.”
Kang-Hee looked at the phone. She didn’t move, she watched Min-Ho.
“Hello,” he said. “Hi, how are you?”
She could hear the soft voice begging them to visit.
“Don’t worry, Mum, we’ll be there in the weekend,” Min-Ho assured her.
On Saturday Min-Ho and Kang-Hee drove to their parents’ house. It took just two hours, but to Kang-Hee it seemed to take forever.
“Mum, Dad, we’re here. Where are you?” Min-Ho shouted.
“Here!” There was Mum. She rushed towards her son without her shoes. “How are you?”
“We are fine. Where is Dad?” He looked around.
“He’s fixing the roof because it’s leaking a little bit. Don’t worry, he’ll figure it out. You two, just relax, please.” Mum pulled their hands to bring her children into the room.
“I want to see my father first. Dad! Dad!”
Kang-Hee watched father-in-law’s bent back and thought, His life is like that of a salmon.
These fish are born in the stream but spend almost all their lives at sea. They come back to the place where they were born only to lay their eggs. Their tiny bodies swim upstream against the flow of the water. Sometimes they meet enemies like birds, bears or humans, and they fall repeatedly when they try to leap waterfalls. Some of the salmon eventually succeed in returning home.
Then finally they make a place for their eggs with their fins. They don’t care whether their fins are torn or not, they think only of their young.
After laying the eggs, the salmon die. They don’t expect any payback for their sacrifice for their children.
They remind Kang-Hee of Min-Ho’s parents.
Min-Ho’s father sold everything he had for his two sons’ school fees, and he and his wife did not have anything for themselves. They had to sell vegetables for their daily bread. Although their life was tough, they never asked for help. They wanted only their sons’ happiness.
There were father and son, full of the sunset glow, talking, working and laughing together. It was like a still-life to Kang-Hee.
After dinner Min-Ho made his parents sit down in front of him and he fell on his knees. “Mum and Dad, I need tell you something important. As you know, I’ve dreamed about going abroad for study. I think now it’s time to go – I mean, emigrate to another country.” He couldn’t continue.
“What!” Mum said. “You know about Yankee, don’t you?” Mum always called English people Yankee. “They will ignore you because you have yellow skin. You cannot go!” She was almost screaming.
“No, Mum, that’s your wrong idea. Now it’s the twentieth century. Nobody ignores people because of their differences.”
“But …” Mum started, then stopped at a look from Dad.
“I always felt sorry that I could not support you two like other parents,” Min-Ho’s father said. “Will you study together?”
“Yes,” Min-Ho replied.
“Won’t it be tough for Kang-Hee?” he asked.
Kang-Hee shook her head.
“If I said do not go there, what would you do?” Dad asked Min-Ho.
“I would still go,” he replied in a strong voice.
Father stood up and went out of the room.
Min-Ho continued trying to persuade Mum that they would be happy, but there was no end to her tears.
Min-Ho and Kang-Hee went back to the city with very tangled and heavy threads in their minds.
A month later Kang-Hee answered the phone.
“It’s me.” Mum didn’t ask how Kang-Hee was.
“Yeah … Mum.” Kang-Hee couldn’t ask either.
“How is it going? When will you leave?”
It was her first question about their leaving. Kang-Hee had rung the parents a lot, but they’d never mentioned it.
“Maybe the end of this month,” she replied carefully.
“Can you stay with us for a few days before you leave?” Mum’s voice was shaking.
“Yes,” Kang-Hee gulped down her tears.
Time went too fast and they moved to their parents’ place.
Min-Ho and Kang-Hee fixed the house and cooked meals every day. All the family shared their love as if they were never going to meet again. Yet they never talked about the emigration.
The day before their leaving, Kang-Hee walked around the house. Deep breath… this is air of Korea. I will remember you.
She touched the soil. This is the land where I was born. Thank you.
Opened the kitchen door. This is the smell of family.
Everything made her miserable.
Next morning the family had a very calm breakfast, then set off for the international airport. There were a lot of people. While Min-Ho weighed the baggage, Kang-Hee noticed their parents’ hair. It looked whiter than usual.
Do I have to go? Even at that moment she asked herself the question.
“It’s ready,” Min-Ho told the parents determinedly.
“Okay. Please look after yourselves. Don’t worry about us. We will be fine.” Mum started sobbing.
“Mum, I love you.” He hugged his parents and Kang-Hee did too.
Father-in-law hugged her tight without talking.
None of them knew when they could meet again and how many times they would have to repeat this parting. Kang-Hee tried to repress her tears but she couldn’t stop their flow.
Min-Ho snatched her hand and pulled her through to the other side of the gate. The gate closed behind them.
Briefly it opened again as someone else came through. Kang-Hee saw her mother-in-law crouched down on the ground crying. Then the gate closed again.
Min-Ho hauled her further down the corridor. “Honey, please don’t look back. That’s the best way for them and us.” In his eyes tears gathered. “Let’s go.” And he dragged her by the hand to the plane.
As the plane very slowly lifted, Kang-Hee looked for her mother-in-law and father-in-law through the small window but she couldn’t find them. The plane gained height and she stretched her neck, craning desperately, until she could no longer see Korea.
Her throat was choked with longing.
“Please don’t cry any more. I will be with you.” Min-Ho hugged her and looked for a handkerchief in her handbag. “What is this?” He pulled out two small white paper bags, labelled with their names.
“I don’t know.” She opened hers and found a letter.
If you see my letter, I guess you are in the plane. It means I am already missing you.
After I lost my oldest son I couldn’t fill up my emptiness, but you did. Mum and I were very happy because you were there.
I believe it is not the last time I will see you.
I believe you will overcome with my son all kinds of difficulties.
I believe you can be whatever you choose.
Please study harder and work harder than the native people. You know if you want to be a trustworthy person in the other country you have to be the hardest worker among them.
Anyway, I packed a sandwich for you and my son for lunch. I hope you like it.
Don’t forget, I will be with you whatever you do, wherever you go.
I love you so much.
I will miss you.
Sincerely, your father-in-law.
There was a sandwich, a small sandwich.
She kept the sandwich in her bosom, along with her sadness, her hope, and the love of her parents-in-law, and she started her new journey as a floating island.