A cry of frustration left the young woman’s lips. The bus left her off a street corner teeming with life. Few people walking in the sea of suit jackets, pants, skirts and briefcases noticed her plight. She was just another face in the crowd, another person buffeted around by the shoulders and steps of other more fortunate people who knew where their destination lay.
“Excuse me,” she tried, stopping a round-faced woman. The woman looked at her strangely; seemingly startled at the words had come from her mouth. Ji-Won pulled the much worn letter from her jacket pocket, “could you take a look at this – ” scarcely had she begun the sentence when the woman brushed past her rudely, knocking the paper from her hand. “Aah!” she scrambled to snatch it; bowing quickly at the woman’s retreating back. “Shitsurei shimashita!” She’d forgotten herself in her haste and spoken her father’s language.
Helplessly, she watched the scrap of paper lift and flutter in the breeze, disappearing between the gaps of bodies surging on the crowded sidewalk. Ji-Won felt herself pulled forward, caught up in the motion of humanity in Tokyo’s Metropolitan area.
The paper fluttered against dark slacks.
She snatched it up, her fingers curling tightly around the waif thin paper.
“Are you lost?”
She looked up into the dark brown eyes of a tall young man.
He bought her a cup of tea at a nearby teahouse. Ji-Won was glad to leave the cold air, her nose and ears felt numb and she briskly rubbed her fingers together while a pretty waitress brought their order. She was wary of the intentions of a stranger; her appa had raised her well, yet when she looked into his calm gaze, she read nothing but reflected warmth.
She clasped her hands, tilting her face upward to Heaven, silently praying. Perhaps her luck had finally changed. “What brings you to Tokyo? Vacation? Business?” He asked, waiting until she had finished. “You’re from Seoul, correct?”
“Y-Yes,” she answered hesitantly. “My brother was supposed to meet me two days ago. We’d only communicated through email…,” shyly she tucked her loose strands of hair behind her ears, familiar pain rising in her throat. “He wanted it to be a surprise when we finally met face to face.”
“What happened?” The man asked concernedly.
“He never showed up.” Ji-Won murmured, trying to remain casual about it. “I waited and waited…but I guess,” she forced a tiny, bitter smile. “He decided not to come.”
“Perhaps he was waylaid or something came up.”
She nodded slightly, letting her hand slide down to the remaining warmth of her tea cup. “I thought so too, but I tried calling his cell and the line had been disconnected. He’s my…half-brother. To tell the truth, I didn’t even know I had…,” a slight pause. “Family.” It was still fresh in her mind the day she had sat down with her closest friend, Ae-Cha, relating the story that had unraveled from the letters.
“My father was a businessman for several decades. His company had dealings with a Japanese communications corporation. He traveled back and forth, leaving me with his mother in Busan. I was always told I had no other family than them. Last year, he suffered a mild heart attack and was forced to stay in the hospital. He told me to get things in order at our house in case of his passing…,” Ji-Won sighed, reliving the moment of finding the carefully kept letters bound with string in the strong box in her father’s study.
Anguish….joy….and more than a fair amount of bitterness. The emotions overpowered her and she couldn’t speak for a few moments. Ji-Won had only to glance up and meet the stranger’s eyes, strength seemed to flow into her. Collecting herself, she went on.
“It was then, that I discovered correspondence between my appa and a woman spanning the length of my childhood years.” Her eyes closed, the scent of faint plum blossoms came strongly to mind. The letters written in a delicate female hand were fragranced with Hakubaiko. Soon after the discovery, she had gone out and purchased a precious bottle of plum perfume, tucking it away in her suitcase.
“That woman was my mother.”
Father had only pretended that my mother had died when I was young.
She remembered all too well confronting him in the hospital, spilling the letters across his white blankets. His denials mixed with her paternal grandmother’s protests.
“Appa tried to say she abandoned me.”
“But, that wasn’t true.”
Ji-Won sipped at the cold green tea, bitter like her thoughts. “No.” She agreed softly, “it was far from the truth.” She’d found it hard to believe in the beginning how her dear appa had lied, how he’d concealed the family she’d had across the East Sea. With difficulty, she’d poured over the letters, dictionaries at hand. She’d read of the birth of her half-brother, of the house they’d moved into, different things. Things that only people with a deep connection shared.
But, it was the pictures that her appa had refused to send, that had stopped the letters.
He had stopped them.
“With a friend’s help, I was able to trace the address on the last letter. They’d moved again into the suburbs. My father tried to forbid me from contacting them. But, by then, my mind was made up.”
The waitress quietly returned with fresh coffee from a signal by the stranger.
Grateful, Ji-Won accepted the black brew with a little sugar. She’d always preferred coffee to tea.
“I thought they’d want to meet me.” The circle of dark liquid reflected her wan face and the fading roots of dark brown from black. “When they responded to my letter, I thought…I thought I’d…,” she couldn’t go on. It was impossible to put into words, to bring herself to admit her loneliness over the years, especially to a stranger. Ji-Won felt herself on the edge of crying and hastily blotted her face.
“Sorry,” she reached out to touch his sleeve, her expression apologetic. “I didn’t mean to burden you like that. Gomennasai!”
“Betsu ni,” he responded gently, patting her folded fingers. His touch was uncommonly cold. Without realizing it, Ji-Won pulled away instinctively. There was little change in his expression, yet she could sense slight withdrawal.
“What’re you going to do now?”
She hesitated on giving out definite plans, hazy though they were in the back of her mind. “Maybe get a feel for the city,” she added quickly, so he wouldn’t think she was alone. “I’ve a few friends that I’m going to meet up with.” She shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “Make a vacation out of it.” Privately, she thought of the time she’d taken off from work and couldn’t suppress the shadow of disappointment clenching her gut.
They talked a little more of Korea’s improving education system, political relations between President Park and Prime Minister Abe. Ji-Won couldn’t define the feeling she received during the conversation. The impressions were familiar; the words seemed like those she’d heard before. When all was said and done, she found evening had quite drawn on and the windows reflected a rainy Tokyo night.
“Would you like a companion on your return to your hotel?”
“No, thanks. I’ll be fine,” Ji-Won began reaching for her wallet, but the stranger had drawn several thousand yen. “Oh! But, I couldn’t -”
“It’s nothing.” He insisted, leaving the money with the receipt slip. Feeling more than a little flustered, Ji-Won excused herself to the restroom. The room had two stalls and generic blue tile. The mirrors were wavy pieces of glass reflecting her image. She splashed water over her hands, the jet coming in brief spurts, spattered the white porcelain bowl.
A few minutes passed, she studied the face she’d always known and thought of as firmly han-in. Was there a difference? Over the last few months her beliefs had changed. Nihonjin too. It was somewhere there, inside. Nodding to herself, she exhaled softly. Once more. She’d try one more time to find them. Satisfied with her decision, she turned the faucet off, grabbed a few coarse paper towels from the rack, drying her cold hands and headed back into the teahouse.
The stranger had disappeared.
She stopped a passing waitress, her brow puckering. “Where is the man I was with? Did he leave?”
The waitress gazed at her blankly, brightening, “ah, yes! Here’s your change, Miss.”
Unconsciously, Ji-Won’s fingers curled over the crumpled yen pulled from the waitress’s apron pocket. The woman flashed a quick smile; she had no way of knowing whether or not the change was correct. She hated feeling beholden even though courtesy was a custom of the Japanese. Even another thank you, although redundant, would’ve set her mind at ease. Ji-Won walked out after taking another glance around the brightly lit dining hall.
She wandered a few blocks up and down the narrow, twisting streets but never caught sight of the stranger whose name she’d never gotten. Ji-Won began to feel slightly foolish and hailed a cab, paying an exorbitant amount to be driven back to the cheap hostel in Shinjuku-ku. The money felt clumsy in her hands, her limited knowledge of the language evident in her simple gestures.
The cabbie took money and then some.
Alone, she stood under the bright street lights, shadowed by the several story capsule hotel behind her. Feeling lonelier, she turned the collar up on her coat and went inside, checking in once more at the front desk. In the morning she’d run down to the Mr. Donut on the corner. Being close to Kabuki-cho and the occasional burst of song from nearby bars had her wary on the streets after dark. Inside, she was glad for the brightness and modern feel of newer carpeting. The amenities were few, but she’d learned to keep to herself in a strange country.
Before turning in that night in the tiny capsule bed one of many lining the interior walls of the women’s quarters; she dialed the number she had learned by heart, her fingers closely grasping the phone to her ear. The phone never rang but rather the service operator picked up.
“I’m sorry, but the number you seem to be dialing is either disconnected or incorr—”
Ji-Won hung up, pressing the phone to her breast.
She soon fell into a dispirited sleep broken only by the familiar sounds of other capsule inmates rising at different hours. Most were tourists from far away countries, backpackers determined to see the sites on shoestring budgets. When the quiet had returned to the upper floor, she stirred herself and climbed out, heavy-headed. Her dreams were faint, distant recollections of a woman’s arms. Warmth. Love.
Holding onto the threads of memory, she bought breakfast from the corner bakery, ate quickly in the emptied communal dining room then went back downstairs to look up a city directory. As she leafed through the residential listings, her phone rang. She answered it without thinking. “Annyeong haseyo?”
"Honey, where are you? I checked at the house, but the neighbors said you weren't in. Your father's almost ready for discharge from the hospital -- I, where are you?"
“In Japan, grandmama. Remember I told you I was leaving for a few days?”
“So you decided then? Well, I’d told Jun it was a mistake not to burn those letters.”
“How could you! They belonged to me! She sent them for me!”
Bo-Ra grew defensive, “we don’t mix with those people! Your family is here in Hanguk, waiting for you with open arms. You are han-in, not nihonjin! Let go of your foolish wishes! That is all they are, Ji-Won, dreams that will never come true.”
Her fingers tightened around the cell. Suspicion took root in her mind. “What did you do?”
“Pah! I told that man you wanted nothing to do with him.”
Ji-Won prayed for patience, fatigue and the inevitable slow crushing of her hopes had worn down her emotions. She lifted her head and stared into the mirror. She could see her appa there and halmeoni, but there was someone else staring back at her. Okaasan, she desperately hoped. “I am han-in and nihonjin, Mrs. Park. Goodbye.” She hung up before the woman could say a word. Across the Sea of Japan, Ji-Won imagined her paternal grandmother’s fury; a slight smile curled her thin lips. She splashed water on her face, drying with a clean white hand towel.
Despite her lack of leads, she wasn’t willing to admit defeat. Her search had begun with those letters and birthday cards hidden by her father; was the end result so impossible? Ji-Won thought of the busy streets and confusing wards of the city of Tokyo, despair threatening to grip her heart. She’d found the name of the ward where the old place of residence was; traveling there would take her out of city bounds. Although, there was little fear traveling alone by bus for hours, she wished she’d had a contact – a familiar face – to accompany her.
It can’t be helped, she reminded herself, you didn’t even learn that man’s name.
Still, Ji-Won’s feet carried her in sensible pink shoes to the small tea house on the busy street. There, she sat for an hour with a cup of lukewarm tea, her ears pricked and eyes forward, hoping to see the one face who had shown her brief kindness the day before.
“Would you like another pot?”
“No…no, I don’t think I will.”
She counted out the yen painfully slow, aware of the stares of the surrounding customers. Steps heavy, Ji-Won paid for a roundtrip ticket on the line and took her place among the chattering couples and mothers bending over strollers. As the sleek silver motor coach snaked along the congested roads, sometimes idling at red lights; her gaze drifted unseeingly along the sidewalks and high-rises they passed.
Gradually, the city petered out to quieter streets with high-rise apartment buildings in the distance. Ji-Won was let off a few blocks away from the address, anticipation fluttered as anxious butterflies in her stomach. All other concerns seemed sedentary; she was here…now her past would be resolved. One step, another step closer…, She left the bus stop far behind. Please, please let this be what I’ve been searching for. The numbers of vacant multi-storied buildings flew past her, unheeded.
And then there was nothing.
The suddenness took her breath away, plunging her heart into the blackest of depths.
The fringe of tenements gave way to a gaping space of sky and charred rubble. Ji-Won stumbled to a stop beside the twisted metal of the chain fencing. An elderly woman pushed a tattered baby stroller past her, steps faltering. She barely had it within her to speak.
“When…when did the fire happen?”
“Two months ago…, there were some survivors…, ah, but don’t cry, dear. You’ll see them again.”
“Ah! But, where – ”
She spun around.
The woman was gone. Perhaps I am losing my mind, Ji-Won thought frantically. Halmeoni had warned her that carrying the burdens of grief could tear down a person’s sanity. What would Mrs. Park know? An older part of herself whispered back fiercely. Ji-Won shook her head to clear it. She made a few inquiries among other neighboring residents, never seeing the old woman again. The responses were always the same, the survivors had scattered to other housing projects, names, contact gone.
Dispirited at last, the wearied woman returned at dusk to the metal shell overhang sheltering the small bench to wait for the next bus back to Tokyo heights. Her search had been fruitless…if they’d survived…maybe…maybe they’d chosen to forget her?
The question haunted her throughout the long ride to the lonely confines of the capsule hotel. Her mind ran over the same answers she’d never receive, futility clenching her heart until she felt it would burst from agony. I’ve come so far, she thought, lying in the silent dormitory. Is this all I’ve come to find?
Sleep came little for Ji-Won, its soothing peace farthest from the turmoil-laden mind lying in bitterness. When she closed her eyes to the inner darkness of the domed roof above, a soft hum like a woman’s gentle tones filled the atmosphere. The soft hum became words spoken lulling in a tongue so different from the one remembered from her days as a child. It seemed to come from a much deeper part of memory…babyhood, a woman singing the same song over a cradle.
“Odoma bon-giri bon-giri,
Bon kara sakya oran-do…,”
“Umma…,” she called out, struggling awake. Hurriedly, she drew back the sliding door, scrambling out into the cool darkness of the women’s dormitory. The other denizens had long since left, she was alone in the stilted silence, and in her hearing alone the woman whispered the same song of the moon and stars.
“Umma!” Ji-Won called, forgetting for a moment the futility of her actions. “O…Okaasan…,”
The room was empty, she was quite alone.
I’m losing my mind. Loneliness has done this to me. Perhaps I should return to the land of my birth. Her thoughts confused her. Hadn’t she been born here and not across the sea? Hadn’t she every right to seek out her mother, the secret her father had kept from her? Ji-Won buried her face in her hands, struggling to control her breathing. Her chest ached with repressed sobs, heart drowning in hopelessness. She’d known she couldn’t keep searching forever, wherever her family was, they’d gone far out of her reach and for that she blamed Mrs. Park. If only! If only she’d been able to take the phone call. Then, maybe…maybe, she smiled at the picture in her head. She’d be beneath her mother’s roof, tucked into a warm cot with the soft voice of a woman singing her to sleep. She’d ask her mother for that, for a little of the time lost to be renewed again.
Certainly, no one could begrudge her a moment of comfort and caring embraces. Sleepless now, she returned to the cubicle, tucking her body in the small space. She settled the blanket lowly at her waist to wait out the coming dawn. In the morning, she checked out of the hotel, duffel bag in hand. She’d had a call at the front desk, recognizing the number as Bo-Ra’s.
Ji-Won’s thoughts darkened; she kept moving, thinking to catch a bus ride down to Ginza. She hadn’t seen much of the world; halmeoni said it was overrated. She realized only now how wrong she had been to listen to them. On dwindling funds, she traveled around Tokyo proper, visiting the smaller shrines, viewing the beatific face of the Buddha and the smaller elegant statues of Kwannon. She knew a few prayers from the Christian canon, far more comfortable with the sight of a cross rising above a small peaked roof.
She thought of the difference in the religions of her parents, glancing once at a guidebook she’d picked up in the train station. The Aoyama cemetery was visible nearby, visible from the Roppongi hills, sprawling, massive. Consisting of a maze of pine trees and stone markers, fewer people entered the temple gates as late afternoon drew on.
On the street beyond the weathered stone temple rising in peaks above a red Torii gate, someone collided hard into her shoulder. Ji-Won stumbled, catching the scent of smoke from a fire. Distant, fading. She glanced back at the tall, thin man passing through the arched shadow of the Torii gate. You…it’s you.
He never stopped to bow to the bald priest, clad in somber colors. Prayer beads chinked softly; bells tinkled somewhere in the breeze. She didn’t stop to wonder at the sound ringing pure high notes. Deep down she couldn’t say why she followed him down the steps into the labyrinth of narrow paths scented by wafting incense.
“Wait! Wait! Wait, I-” You’re the only one who I know in this place. The only person who believed in me. He wasn’t far ahead, she could see his profile as he turned; in his hand he carried something small and white. Ji-Won stopped to pluck futilely at the lace of her shoe that had come undone. “Wait!” Can’t you hear me? The shrill sound of her voice sent a wave of black birds flying from a nearby tree. Distracted, she watched them take flight on glossy wings.
“I want us to meet.”
“Where? How will I know you?”
“You’ll know me, I’m your brother. Blood calls to blood.”
She’d formed the sound of Tetsuya’s voice in her head, wondered about the symmetry of their features. Tetsuya was her half-brother; he’d wanted to meet her personally, saying that a person couldn’t truly know another person without face to face contact.
Blood calls to blood.
The stranger had stopped down one of the intersecting paths. He stood before a plain stone, smaller than the rest bereft of incense and ash left behind by mourners of other deceased. Her steps slowed, there seemed something sad about his singular figure, something indefinable that called out to her.
“You-,” and she didn’t know what to say.
He half-turned and then before her startled eyes, vanished sadly from sight.
She tottered the few steps that had remained between them.
“Where are you?”
There was nothing and no one, she was alone. The only trace of his presence was a slight chill in the air and the paper left at the base of the grave marker. She bent and turned it over. The paper bore water spots, stained with a thousand tears from the sky. Ji-Won carefully unfolded the rumpled paper, struggling to make out the scribbled words written on the back of a small photograph. Tears welled in her eyes; a soft gasp left her lips.
The stranger’s eyes stared out from the face of a young man beside a small middle-aged woman, smiling out of time.
To my sister, family; was inscribed on the back.