Samuel Park's "This Burns My Heart" is a remarkable debut novel that comes steeped in romance and cultural history. Soo-Ja Choi, Park's protagonist, is an ambitious young woman trapped in the oppressive South Korea of the 1960s. Yearning to realize her dreams of becoming a diplomat in Seoul, Soo-Ja makes a hasty choice that comes with a price. Here's an excerpt.
Daegu, South Korea
Soo-Ja knew about the stranger. The one following her for the last four blocks. She kept her pace even—her instinct in situations like this was not to be scared, but to see it as a battle of wits, as if she’d been handed a puzzle, or a task. She wanted to lose him, but do so elegantly, in the manner of a great escape artist. Her friend Jae-Hwa—walking next to her, her homemade knit scarf blowing in the brisk Siberian wind—hadn’t noticed him, and kept on chattering about the lover in the film they’d just seen.
Was the man a secret agent from the North? Soo-Ja asked herself. The war had ended only seven years ago so it was feasible. It didn’t help that the other side didn’t sit across the ocean, or on a different continent, but rather just a few hundred miles away, cordoned off by an imaginary line drawn with chalk on a map. Soo-Ja fantasized that the man mistook her for the mistress of a high-ranking official, and wanted her to carry state secrets across the 38th parallel. Would he be disappointed, she wondered, to find out she was just a college student? Daughter of a factory owner, born in the year of the tiger?
Soo-Ja pulled her compact out of her purse and looked into the round mirror. There he was, within the glimmering frame, in his white jacket and white pants. Western clothes. Appropriate, she thought. She could not imagine him in hanbok, or anything worn by her parents or her parents’ parents. From his self-satisfied grin to the rebellious extra inch of hair, this young man looked like a new species, a new breed. He walked behind her at a relaxed pace, his hands in his pockets, a bodyguard of sorts, there to protect her from men like him.
“We’re being followed,” Soo-Ja finally told Jae-Hwa, though she hadn’t decided yet how to outwit him. She wouldn’t just lose him. There had to be a scene of some kind; otherwise the anecdote was too dull, the narrative too brief. Also, he needed to be punished. Not horrendously, as he hadn’t done anything terrible, but lightly, so he’d learn that he couldn’t just go after a pretty girl like that, couldn’t simply claim her as his.
“Who’s following us?” asked Jae-Hwa, her voice panicky, vowels already in hiding, her hands hanging tightly to her friend’s arm. Was he a “spoiler”? One who damages virgins before their wedding day, rendering them useless? Jae-Hwa, with her short, boyish haircut, lacked her friend’s beauty, and in spite of that—or maybe because of it—often found herself overplaying her own appeal. She imagined men coming after her, though they really sought her friend.
“A meot-yanggi,” said Soo-Ja.
Meot-yanggi: a flashy, vain person, showing off goods, wealth, or physique.
Soo-Ja smiled at the fact that a single word could contain all that: a definition, a criticism, a jab. She turned around and glanced at him directly, boldly, and watched as he smiled at her and lowered his head slightly, a nod. Seeing him in natural scale, Soo-Ja was struck by how tall and lean he was. All around, the sunlight dimmed, as if he were pulling it down toward him.
Soo-Ja knew then how she was going to lose him.
As the street widened in front of her, she jumped into the delicious whirl of bodies, tents, and rickshaws swarming the marketplace. With Jae-Hwa barely able to keep up, Soo-Ja danced past peddlers waving hairbrushes in the air; zoomed by mother-daughter teams haggling with shopkeepers; expertly maneuvered around noodle stands and fishcake stalls. Tchanan, tchanan, she heard a peddler yell as he pointed at ceramic pots displayed on the ground on top of white sheets. An old man coughed—his shoulders weighed down by containers of cooking gas— then flashed his broken teeth at Soo-Ja. The arms and legs of children brushed past her, their breaths spicy with chili peppers.
Soo-Ja smiled, her eyes thrilled by the kinetic energy of carts zigzagging swiftly in all directions. Bodies came at her one after the other, faces shuffling as quickly as pictures in a deck of hato cards; mobile stands selling used clothes wheeled down unexpectedly, causing her to have to duck and sidestep. When she reached the edge of the market, Soo-Ja stopped and took a breath. She watched as a bulldozer across the street from her dug into a fenced-off patch of soil. It had long been a fascination of hers, watching construction workers rebuild bombed-out sites. It felt miraculous, how a factory could be sliced in half during the war, and then regrown, like the stubborn perennials. Soo-Ja loved this sense of reconstruction, her only complaint being that all the new buildings and houses looked exactly the same. She couldn’t tell a newspaper office from a fire station, as if both structures were interchangeable plastic toys in a child’s board game. Soo-Ja wondered if the men who erected these stone castles secretly feared that they would be bombed or burnt down once again.
“Is he still following us?” Soo-Ja asked Jae-Hwa, smiling. She already knew the answer.
Jae-Hwa turned around to look and saw the stranger walking toward them. He strained to keep his confidence, though he was clearly out of breath.
Jae-Hwa dug her fingers deeper into Soo-Ja’s arm. “I see him. What’re we going to do?”
Soo-Ja pulled her friend close, with a daring look on her face, and they started running again. This time, Soo-Ja moved away from the main road and slipped into a tiny little street. She had entered a maze, a corridor about a meter wide. As they raced deeper into it, the two of them zigzagged into never-ending turns—enough to lose hound dogs, detectives, and even the young man on their trail. They squeezed past an old woman carrying a load of laundry on her head; evaded a group of children running in the opposite direction; ignored the hunger pangs from smelling soon-dae—the sausage-shaped delicacy filled with vegetables and rice—sold by a peddler on the corner. They giggled like schoolgirls, bumping onto the white clay walls as their bodies emerged in and out of shadows.
They made their way out into the other side of the labyrinth, darting into a second main road—a much quieter one, trodden by tired bodies rushing home. The peddlers here looked more worn-out, and so did their wares. A group of paraplegics huddled around a fire, listening to the radio. In the distance, a streetcar went by, its overhead wires slicing the sky into two.
Jae-Hwa—tired, hungry, confused—turned to Soo-Ja. “I wish he’d stop following us! Should we ask someone for help?”
“Listen, he’s not the one following us. We’re the ones leading him.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jae-Hwa.
“I’m taking him someplace where they’ll take care of kkang-pae like him.”
“Where are you taking us to?”
“It’ll be a nice little surprise for our new friend.”
Soo-Ja took Jae-Hwa’s hand again and led her onward, diving into the night like an expert swimmer, splashing dots of black onto the asphalt. She knew she was only a block or two from her final goal—the police station.
Soo-Ja waited for the stranger to turn the corner, as she stood in front of the police station—a one-story brick building with high windows and a pointy spire on its awning. Next to Soo-Ja, a police officer appeared ready to lunge, eager to play hero for the young damsels. He fit the part—burly, with massive hands, wearing his black cap low above his eyes. His dark blue uniform molded onto his large frame, his chest shining with the police insignia.
When the stranger finally turned the corner and realized where Soo-Ja had led him to—saw the punchline of the joke that had been told—he immediately turned around to flee. The officer jumped at him, his hands and arms so quick as to make him seem like an octopus. The man in white struggled—elbows hitting rib cages, hands made into fists, feet on tiptoe attempting to launch. But he looked like a teenager, so much larger was the officer. While subduing the young man, the officer kept taunting him by slapping the back of his head.
“I-nom-a! You like following girls? Would you like me following you around all day?”
Soo-Ja watched the complicated mechanics of the fight, the way the officer teased him by letting him go and then grabbing him again. The young man thrashed about like a boy being dressed down by his father, who happened to be a bear. Soo-Ja could see the frustration in his eyes, the long, desperate breaths.
He had hunted her down through the alleyways of Won-dae-don, only to walk into a trap. Finally, the officer tossed the young man onto the ground, face against grime. The officer placed his foot on the young man’s chest before he could even try to get up. Looking at the stranger in white, Soo-Ja realized that he was quite young—probably their age, twenty-one or twenty-two. He was also handsome, with a small button nose, slightly puckered lips, and bright, intense eyes. He had an oval-shaped face, as delicate as if it had been penciled in, and marked by a dimple on his straight chin. Seeing him beaten up evoked a feeling of pity in Soo-Ja. She felt relief when the officer finally let go and let the boy lie by himself on the cement floor.
“What were you doing following these girls?” the officer repeated.
The stranger coughed a little and then spoke, between hard breaths.
“I just wanted to find out where she lived,” he said. The cop turned around and looked directly at Soo-Ja, who felt more glad than ever that she hadn’t led him to her own house.
Then the officer turned to the stranger again. “Why did you want to do that?”
“So I could come back another day and ask her for a—”
“For a what?” barked the cop, leaning over and slapping the back of the boy’s head again.
“For a date,” the boy finally said, turning to the other side to evade the cop’s large gloved hands.
A crowd had gathered around them. It was now, officially, a scene. The other cops looked at Soo-Ja. In a second, the situation had flipped: they saw themselves in the young man’s shoes and sympathized with him—rooted for him even.
“Then why didn’t you act like a normal person from the beginning and just talk to us?” asked Jae-Hwa. “Instead of following us around and scaring us to death?”
The young man got up slowly. He could probably feel the tide turning, his emotional capital increasing by the minute. He shook the dirt off his clothes and turned to Soo-Ja. His white jacket was no longer white, but rather a combination of sand, grime, and blood. But even like this—his face red, his eyes half shut—he still radiated a certain imperious presence. Soo-Ja could tell that he came from a rich family. They stood there like equals, while the others became mere plebeians, extras in the background.
“Let’s start over. My name is Min Lee,” he said, bowing to Soo-Ja. “My father is Nam Lee, the industrialist. I should’ve had the guts to talk to you. If I promise to behave, will you go on a date with me?”
Soo-Ja looked at his dirty clothes, his bruised face. He reminded her of a fig fallen from a tree, its broken skin an invitation to worms. She sensed a kind of spotlight over her, and the crowd holding its breath, waiting for an answer. The world circled around her body, as she weighed the pros and cons of what seemed like a big decision. How could she offer another blow to this young man, who’d already been so mangled and mistreated by all of them?
“All right,” said Soo-Ja, and she could feel the collective relief of the crowd watching. “You can pick me up for a date sometime. But you’ll have to find out where I live on your own. Because I’m not planning on telling you.”
“Where have you been? Your father’s been waiting for you!” called the servant, in her gray hanbok uniform, with rags in her hands. Soo-Ja had just rushed past the main gate, entering the hundred-year-old compound that she called home. She stood in the middle of the courtyard, her human presence instantly providing balance to the elements—the dark sky melted into the wave-shaped black tiles on the rooftop, ebbing into the curved eaves connecting the head and the body of the one-story house, which in turn blended into the lighter shades of the thick wooden doors. On the ground, the white, hand-washed stone floors flowed into the roots and stems of a grove of pine trees, their needles swaying to the side, their cones hatching open like chicken eggs.
“Did he say why?” asked Soo-Ja, glancing at the main house.
The round lamp bulbs illuminated her father’s familiar, rotund shape, sitting expectantly in the middle of the room.
“What have you done this time? Now go in! Don’t keep your parents waiting any longer,” said the servant, before heading back to the kitchen.
Soo-Ja ran up the stone steps leading to the main house, but took her time reaching the room, letting her shadow announce her arrival first. She glanced down at the dark yellow paper doors, the fiber thick and rough to the touch, the surface porous, almost alive. Her breathing slowed a little, and her fingers carefully slid the doors open, one in each direction, revealing the waiting figures of her parents inside, both sitting on the floor.
Soo-Ja’s father looked up from the account book in front of him on his writing table and put away the square rubric he used to sign checks. Next to him, Soo-Ja’s mother held a luminous silver-colored brass bowl, with loose grains of white rice scattered around its rim. They had just finished dinner, and half-empty plates of banchan sat on the lacquered mahogany dining tray in front of them: spicy cabbage, soybean sprouts, baby octopus dipped in chili pepper paste.
“Where have you been all night? Never mind. Do you know what this is?” Soo-Ja’s father asked, removing his eyeglasses and waving a letter at her.
Soo-Ja sat down across from him on the bean-oiled floor. She tried to look ladylike, with her knees touching and her feet behind her. She couldn’t bear to stay in that position long and switched her legs around.
“I received a visitor at the factory this morning.”
“Who was it?” asked Soo-Ja, pressing her fingers against the floor, where the shiny laminate had turned yellow over time.
“It was a man from the Foreign State Department. He came to talk to me about a job for you in the Foreign Service. Do you know about this?”
Soo-Ja bit her lip. “What did he say?”
“Some nonsense about a daughter of mine applying for their diplomat training program. Although I can’t imagine a daughter of mine would go behind my back and do this without asking my permission.”
“But, let’s say, if a daughter of yours did apply for the program . . . did she receive news that she’d been accepted?” asked Soo-Ja, anxiously moving her body forward, her back perfectly straight.
Soo-Ja’s father looked at her, exasperated. “How could you do this without even asking me first?”
“I’m sorry, abeoji. But you wouldn’t have let me if I’d asked you.”
“For a good reason,” said Soo-Ja’s mother, speaking for the first time, as she rearranged the oval millet-filled pillow under her. “If you want to work before you get married, you can become a teacher or a secretary. A diplomat? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
Soo-Ja glanced at her mother. She was a small-boned woman, who looked older than her forty-four years. She kept her hair in a net a lot of the time and wore grandmotherly clothes: layers of heavy wool sweaters, old-fashioned loose pantaloons, and duck-shaped white socks. She never acted like a rich woman, and possessed no jewelry.
“That’s not what I want to do. I want to travel,” said Soo-Ja. “Can I—can I see what the letter says?”
Soo-Ja’s father hesitated, then handed her the letter.
Soo-Ja read it eagerly, and she reached the middle before realizing she’d been accepted. Her heart immediately began to flutter, as if she had a bird trapped inside her chest, madly trying to break away. Soo-Ja looked up at her parents, smiling, expecting to see pride reflected in their eyes. But she found none.
“You must be out of your mind to think you’re going to Seoul,” said Soo-Ja’s mother. She leaned her face over a small container of cooking gas until the tobacco in her pipe began to burn. “What would people say if we let you go live alone in a strange city? That just isn’t done.”
Next door, in the kitchen, the cook and her helpers had been on their feet for hours by the kitchen furnace. They were preparing the food for the next day’s Seollal holiday, steaming song-pyeon over a bed of aromatic pine needles in a gigantic iron pot. But no sounds emanated from the kitchen, as if the preparations for the feast were on hold, and the servants, too, were being chastised.
“We have to protect you,” Soo-Ja’s mother continued. “What do you think would happen with no one to watch out for you? What would our friends and business associates say if they heard we let you go to Seoul on your own? They’d think we’ve gone mad, that we’re incompetent parents.”
Soo-Ja could hear noises coming from the kitchen again, as the servants resumed their cooking. She heard the sound of a pig’s head being chopped off with a butcher knife, its entrails thrown into the pan, sizzling over the fire. The air in the room felt heavy, and Soo-Ja felt bound to her spot.
“I would work very hard,” pleaded Soo-Ja. “I would go from my classes to my room and from my room to my classes. I would not speak to anyone. I would visit Aunt Bong-Cha frequently, so she could verify that I’m all right.”
Soo-Ja’s father looked pensive. “Your mother’s right. Seoul is not a safe city. You hear on the radio every day about clashes between protestors and the police.”
“There have been clashes everywhere!” said Soo-Ja, making her hands into fists.
“But not quite like in Seoul,” her father retorted. “It’s the nation’s capital. The Blue House is there. It attracts all kinds of troublemakers.”
“These demonstrations aren’t going to last forever. They’ll be over soon,” said Soo-Ja, almost rising to her feet. She made herself as still as a stone pagoda, hoping that their words would slide over her like rain in a storm.
“Stop it, Soo-Ja,” said her mother, signaling an end to the discussion. She took the pipe out of her mouth and waved it in her daughter’s direction. “Are you a good daughter, or are you a fox daughter? This is for the best.”
With that final dismissal, Soo-Ja knew she would not be able to go to Seoul. She’d never be a diplomat. The pain from this realization was so intense, Soo-Ja had to balance on the floor, for fear it would give way from under her. Soo-Ja asked herself why the ground was shaking, until she realized it was she herself who was.
“You’re wrong,” she said. “I will go. I will find a way.”
From THIS BURNS MY HEART by Samuel Park. Copyright © 2011 by Samuel Park. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.