Taey Iohe

Untranslatable Shinga

Dear Wan-suh*,

Where should I start in writing to you? You, as a character in the book, Who Ate Up All the Shinga? went with your story through the spectrum of history, war, death and life in Korea. You, as the writer of this book, also confess to us how you encountered a clarity of vision in your writing at the end of your story.

I am writing to you as a reader, and as a child who is going through the path of life after your journey. I imagine you as a young woman who is just starting to mature into a grown-up, but still having a vulnerable sensitivity in your mind like a child, so you want to be safe. I guess you never lose that sensitivity, in the way that you see the world as a writer. You see the hidden layers of nature, the weakness of humans, the cruelty of childhood, the stupidity of adulthood, the bravery of a mother’s life, the emptiness of the theorised activist's life, and the contradictory desire to leave home and remain at home.

Despite a few generations having gone by, it is still a common fear for Korean women to think of leaving home and staying at home. Your mother’s choice to leave Pakchok Hamlet was persistent, and she was sure to give your brother and you the opportunity to have a better education and life. Losing a husband from to a commonplace disease like appendicitis triggered your mum’s drive to escape from Pakchok Hamlet, and it was a strong motivation. You felt that your mother was being very sure about becoming a resident in Seoul, but you also saw how difficult it could be when you witnessed your mum haggling for the fare for a carrier near Independence Gate. Seoul, in the end, is not the fantastic city that country-side people imagine. It is tough to survive in a hilly place like Hyonjo-dong. People get on each other’s nerves, they mingle with each other in the market, children know how to act appropriately in a social context, people sense the class of wealth, power, and intellectuality easily.

I was born in Seoul in 1978. The time is a long time after the time of the book, perhaps nearly 30 years. I lived near Independence Gate in Seoul, when I called my friends on the street; ‘Let’s plaaaay’ in the sweet way that you described. At that time, there weren’t many high apartments yet, so we played a ball game, or played with long rubber bands in the empty lands. Soon when I started at school, my mum sent me to all the extra classes. As your mum emphasised how important it was for you to grow up like a ‘New Woman’ at that time, my mum also emphasised how crucial it is to grow into a successfully intellectual person. But how? I don’t think my mum had a visual idea like the ‘New Woman’. The educational examination heats took me to one of the exclusive high schools in Ilsan, which is slightly outside of West North Seoul. I didn’t have any dramatic historical encounters in the time of my youth, but certainly I felt that the world is a curious yet cruel place. Being in high school was horrible, we had serious exams all too often. I had to be at school by 7am everyday, even on Sunday, and come home by 12am after all the extra classes, then go to a private library where I had a tiny little space to fit myself into, and try to read something, but often I just felt a sleep. Going to a good university is the only way out. I still remember how hard I felt it, when one of my friends committed suicide after some exams. The stress and unknown future is way too heavy a burden for an 18-year-old girl.

I think you were lucky to have a great role model for your life, in your brother, even if he didn’t turn out to be a fortunate soul in the end. His way of dealing with justice and democracy were like a lust for young blood. It was not sustainable, and it was sad to see how he became betrayed by his belief. I didn’t have a figure to look up to, as I was the first child in my family and I had to find my way to build perspectives of the world. After I finally went through the dark tunnel of the teenager’s tiny library box, I went to University in Seoul. I loved writing and reading as you did when you were young.

I studied Korean Literature at university, where I learned all the important Grand narratives, like Kim Dong Ree, Lee Sang, Joo Yo Sub, and many other male authors. They often write about the story of family, history, hopes, people and life in their positions. I don’t know whether I would have thought differently if I had learned about female authors as much as I did male authors, but I didn’t like “some went into the army like most boys in the university did, and some of the girls went to learn English abroad.” the the male-centered system in the community of Korean literature. Then it wasn’t only in the selection of authors for us to read. The leaders in university society were often boys as well; they would start the assembly with drinking and finishing it with drinking. Some went into the army like most boys in the university did, and some of the girls went to learn English abroad. My enthusiastic mum agreed that I should take the opportunity of going abroad for some months. So I did. That is now 10 years ago.

I loved the way you tossed the Seoul kid’s bully when you came to Seoul. They teased you because you came from the country-side, and didn’t have the sharpness of a Seoul-accented voice. But you were already mimicking your mum’s smugness, and kept your pride over them. You pitied them as not having experience of beautiful nature, where all the Shinga spreads in the mountains, clear and stunning stars at night time, telling wicked ghost stories in the communal toilet as at Pakchok Hamlet. Seoul kids don’t even know what Shinga means. I didn’t know what Shinga was when I was a kid. You refused to cry in front of them, and you needed to develop a thick skin to defend the honour of the countryside.

I placed myself in the same position as you, in the same way as I tried to keep my pride to stand up straight in this foreign, yet familiar country, England. English kids did bully me like Seoul kids. One time, a bunch of English kids on the Caledonian Road in north London, shouted at me, ‘Go back to your country!’ and threw sticks towards my bike wheel. I nearly fell off, but I kept riding my bike. The kids can be really mean in any country. They have a different motif to bully however. Your Seoul bullies were teasing you because you were naive and different. These English kids were shouting because there is a sense of confusion towards immigrants in this country. The immigrants are thought to be taking over the land, overwhelming the English people. That’s how I understand their un-willingness to take immigrants as true neighbours anyway.

London is very different from other cities in England though. London has long history of trading with other cities, therefore it has a dynamic and international vibe like many other metropolitan cities. And the sense of belonging in the neighbourhoods of London is stronger than a national sense, yet being a proper citizen under the law gives security for living. When your family was stuck in between North Korea and South Korea, and trying to get some identification, I thought it must be like a building the whole identity of a country, how narrow the space there was between being North Korean and South Korean then.

As part of a younger generation, I have never been thinking of this division as un-natural because the division was always there. The times are working strangely in politics; a few years ago I was day dreaming of taking a trip to North Korea freely as our nation was hoped to unify soon, but now talking about North Korea is a sensitive matter in South Korea. Reading your book, I realise how un-natural we are to be separated, as it was one country. One of the shared elements we have is of course from the Korean language. It is a strong bonding to share.

Language shapes our thoughts and how we think with images and reality. It externalises the thoughts we have in our head. The presentation of thinking can be visceral. It can be expressed as a rhythm, colorful images, movements or smell. I thought you brought all these visceral elements of nature from your memory. Your fear when the morning comes after escaping and running away in the empty neighbourhood, was the beginning of this exteriorising and visceral carving in your writing. Having a mother tongue different from from my daily life here, gives me a wonderful experience of sensing the delicate layers of different meanings in each language. Unfortunately, your book’s translation into English did not bring the level of engagement in the momentum of events, the rhythmical sound scape of Korean words, the witty humors and bitter sweetness. It translates what happened, and how the relationships in the family grew, and transformed you as you grew into a smart modern woman. However, the delicious flowing of Korean language with the detailed descriptions, was lost with the atmosphere or historical reference, or perhaps was not possible to reflect well in the translation.

Perhaps that is why it was the best to not to translate ‘Shinga’ into English and leave as it is. It could be translated as ‘polymorphum’ or ‘river leaf’ (lá giang in Vietnamese) as Shinga is not a proper noun. When you said, ‘Suddenly shinga came to mind. In the countryside, they were as common as dayflowers, growing everywhere’, the shinga is not just a piece of plant you are looking for. The shinga is everywhere in Pakchok Hamlet but not existing in Seoul. The Shinga is something you left when you left Pakchok Hamlet; it could be your young age- you were naive and innocent without knowing the slickness of Seoul children. It is the imaginary place where white clothes look extra visible in the middle of night, when your grandfather is coming back home. You smell, hear, touch, and see with a fresh nose, ear and eyes. Your encounter with the world, with the nature, people, relationships and everything in your world, was set in your youth with the shinga. It is untranslatable to describe what you lost when you grew. That gap of untranslatability, perhaps, is why you are writing. Your attempt to bringing to life your wounds in the past, emotional discoveries and human stories are in the translation with the available words. But as for the shinga, it is better to leave it as it is instead of making the translation; there are always impossibilities and limits in translation.

I am lucky to be part of a diaspora in the 21st century. The connections and communications are far more advanced than before, technology makes long distances rather shorter. We get involved in each other’s lives through these communications. But there is always the un-reachable gap between my home and here. The sound of birds, the colour of sky, the childrens’ song in the bus, or simple food in everyday life, I miss home as you missed shinga. The feeling is not really translatable in written words. The waiting and yearning are not aimed at going back home. As you grow to learn to survive the battlefield of life, you learn to love what you feel is missing in your heart. You would not have felt at home in Pakchok Hamlet, the place would have changed, if you were able to go back.

Time is fast and memory is slow. We forget so many things in life as time goes by. But some memories grow as a plant in my mind. The plant is attached to my organ, it would be impossible to cut it out.

Thank you for making me think of my shinga and untranslatable yearnings in my life through your book. I hope many other people will also see their own shinga in the book. I am visiting Seoul, my home this winter. All the trees will be bare, but my plant in my mind will be flourishing more than in any other season.

I hope I meet you some day.

With a warm heart,
From London

* Park Wan-suh was a South Korean writer. She was born in 1931 in North Korea and she passed away in January 2011 in South Korea.

Her autobiographical novel, ‘Who Ate up All the Shinga’ was translated into English by Yu Yong-nan and Stephen Epstein in 2009 for Columbia University Press.

This writing piece won the Korean Literature essay Award 2010 from the Korean Literature Translation Institute and The Korean Cultural Centre in London, UK.