The Province of Magic
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The Province of Magic

The first time I hear the warning siren, I burn the sticky rice. My car is hammered in the riots by men in white bandannas. As gas saturates the air, I count by fives. There are five of us. I set five porcelain teacups, five celadon bowls, five pairs of chopsticks, in a neat diagram on the dining room table. My feet in socks slip on wooden floors. I do not feel the symmetry of earth nor the freedom of fresh air. Rituals hide my days and I cover myself behind a fan of artificial smiles, flirting with the steady wail of ancient songs that do not go away. I whisper to the shaman to calm my inner dragons, to prove that harmony is still the province of magic.

Mr. Kwak bowed like a courtly doll. His trunk pivoted forward on his hips, which acted like a fulcrum, then reversed at a similarly elegant rate until he regained his full five feet and six inches, the same height as me. His eyes looked like small black stones quivering under water. Pleated fine wrinkles at the upper edge of his cheeks intimated laughter or age. I wasn't sure which. As a lip-reader, sensitive to body language, I was startled to discover that I had to watch very closely to work out what was going on behind our driver's small eyes and ramrod body. His thick straight hair held a little gray and was slicked back neatly with a helping of hair wax. He wore a mid-blue-tone suit, a white shirt, and an ordinary blue tie. On his feet were the white socks that all Korean men wore; his brown shoes easily slipped on and off. Korean culture was so complex and affected everything that passed between us. Each morning he bowed and murmured Annyonghashimnikka and every evening, before he left to go back to the Hanil building to fetch my husband home, he searched for me and bowed again. Annyonghikashipshio. His greetings contained restraint, but his eyes spoke to something deeper inside me. I wondered if he knew how sexy he was. [End Page 105]

From the 23rd floor of the Seoul Hilton Hotel, I watched the day's temperature flash digital style on a nearby building. Snowflakes silently swirled by our two adjoining rooms. Cars crawled up Nam Sam Mountain, slithering round the woolly bends, while drifts continued to pile up at the side and middle of the road. Snow fell so frequently that schools never closed. On their first day of school I anxiously waited at the revolving door of the hotel with our three teenagers dressed in new parkas, fleeces, hats, and gloves, ready to trundle to the bus stop.We could only laugh at the contrast with their Australian school uniforms. Our son usually wore a khaki shirt and short pants and a necktie, our daughters cotton tunics over a blouse.

At exactly 7:43 AM the bus could be seen crawling up the hill from Itaewon. "Bye, bye, darling," I kissed and hugged each one as I sent them out into their first blizzard. By the time the bus arrived at the stop, some 30 yards away, all I could see was a flash of color of each jacket. I checked the temperature: minus 13 degrees centigrade. Seven forty-five AM. I returned to the 23rd floor to wait out the day. As Seoul city lay in white mounds before me, I wondered what I had done. How safe were my children? Was this the foreigner's life? Mr. Kwak reassured me, with a touching smile, that all would be well.

At first I failed to comprehend the Confucian ethics that ran through Mr. Kwak's body like a vascular system but, as time passed, I realized that his behavior was governed by ancient traditions, ethics that underpinned the national consciousness of modern Korea. All levels of society were trained to believe that the observance of the Confucian code of conduct was vital to maintaining law and order. Such strong observance of goodness likely contributed to the nation's healthy emergence in the...


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