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  • Speaking of Disdain
  • Kim Sagwa (bio)
    Translated by Bruce Fulton (bio) and Ju-Chan Fulton (bio)

After I dropped out of high school I worked part-time at a convenience store not far from the school. It happened to be spring, a time when my former classmates would be prancing about their university campuses in their new outfits. Meanwhile I the high-school dropout was making 1400 wŏn an hour. One morning after the rush-hour bustle I was twiddling my thumbs when the door opened. I uttered a robotic welcome and looked up. I've seen this guy before. He pierced me with a look. It was my high school PE teacher! He wanted to buy lotto tickets. There was hardly any conversation and yet I still remember vividly the stare he threw at me, the look in his eyes as if he was gazing at the wreckage of a collapsed building.

My life has changed a great deal since then. But I do remember that from time to time someone would send me the same look the PE teacher graced me with that day. Though I felt the contempt in those gazes, miraculously they didn't make me angry. Besides, enough time has passed that the memories have come to feel meaningless. Nevertheless, I have to wonder if my life can be summarized as a desperate effort to recede as far as I can from disdainful gazes. In the eyes of strangers have I tried to look fine and dandy, have I sought accomplishments I wouldn't be ashamed of? Needless to say, these days I rarely encounter the expression my [End Page 53] teacher wore that day. But I continue to be afraid, because I know that most of my accomplishments are a mere sand castle. The more occupied I am with this thought, the more eagerly I've tried to shore up that castle. And the more shoring up I've done, the more frightened I am. What if the waves swallow up that castle? I've often asked myself that.

The truth is, the waves will surely come.

What I'm laying out here is nothing new. Because contempt is an everyday experience for people who are born and raised in Korea. You'd have a difficult time finding people with no memories of disdain. People give and take disdain, they strive for a position where they're sheltered from it. To avoid being on the receiving end of disdain they study, they have cosmetic surgery, they go to college. To avoid being disdained they go out on dates and they spend money—not that they actually want to, you'll find them protesting. They grow weary and shudder yet they can't get out of the game. It's because humans are social creatures and the reputation they have in their group is crucial. Korean society demands too much from its members and is brutal to those who lag behind. People will kill themselves before they reach out for help. Meanwhile, they remain clueless about what might constitute a contempt-free life. They turn into beings who can do nothing without feeling disdain from others.

If all we do is react to the disdainful gazes of others, then we cannot believe in ourselves. And if we come to believe that disdain is the only way to motivate others, if we become like the judge in a survival program or the mentor who purports to heal with blistering remarks, then we will never believe in others. What can we hope to build in this fashion other than a precarious sand castle? The chic buildings lining the streets are such castles, and their inhabitants wear precarious expressions. And the waves are rolling in. What has happened to us, what has made you and me abandon all trust in each other? [End Page 54]

Kim Sagwa

Kim Sagwa earned a BA in Creative Writing from Korea National University of Arts in 2009, and since 2008 has published eight volumes of fiction, critical essays, and travel writing. Her first novel, Mina (2008), was published in French translation in 2013 and will be published in English translation by...