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  • The Clearing
  • Ch'oe Yun (bio)
    Translated by Bruce Fulton (bio) and Ju-Chan Fulton (bio)

"Yŏbo, how about spring green?"

Listen to me, using the endearing yŏbo for my boyfriend! You wouldn't have caught me using that expression before we moved here, not even in jest, I've never really liked it. It gives off the moldy smell of a long-term couple who've learned all there is to know about each other and who have run out of conversation, who with the aid of a magnifying glass for their failing eyesight count the growing wrinkles on each other's forehead, then rub each other's back before crawling into bed.

Some might like that version of old age. I don't know what our old age will bring but I'm not losing any sleep over it. Sure, we aren't super juniors, we're not spring chickens anymore, we both made it to age thirty last year, which makes us in-betweens. In this in-between age, we've made a not-so-easy decision—to live together.

We talk down to each other, but because I've always associated yŏbo with its polite ending, the expression doesn't feel quite right. I'm not about to consult a language usage expert, it's just the way I feel. So, after we moved here we came up with a rule: in front of strangers we must call each other yŏbo, like a long-married couple would do. It felt weird at first but we figure one or two yŏbos a month won't kill us. [End Page 163]

Unconventional as it was for us to cohabit, we settled into a place where no one knew us. Granted, as gargantuan as Seoul is, chances were we wouldn't have run into someone we knew if we'd stayed there. It's just that we were reluctant to add an extra headache to our life by providing fodder for gossip. Becoming roommates? It wasn't exactly a snap decision. Meeting for the first time, having our first spat, learning to accommodate each other, and finally falling in love—it all takes time, and for us it wasn't easy. The point is, we'd moved here not to hide from the world but to distance ourselves from people we knew would jump out of their skin to learn of our adventure, only to fuel the gossip mill. Allowing gossipers to make merry at our expense was anathema to our wish to live simply and happily.

Once we arrived in this hamlet, we aimed for our goal. Live simply, be happy, and say it allegro vivace. Did we care about calling each other yŏbo even though we weren't married? Not me, and I bet he didn't either. So, an occasional playful yŏbo shouldn't be a big deal.

My yŏbo's name is Mingu. I love him dearly—as much as I love myself, maybe even a tad more.

Mingu kept shoveling as he answered my question. "How about blue … maybe cobalt blue?" I knew all too well he was color-dumb about tints like spring green or, heaven forbid, pink. I also knew he couldn't identify cobalt blue on a color chart.

"Cobalt blue? Sounds like a fish tank or a swimming pool to me."

"In the water we're all fish, aren't we?"

We were choosing tiles for the bathroom. I was on the veranda with the tile-man, his ceramic tile sample book in my lap, while Mingu was clearing dirt from the excavation that our worker had dumped in the yard. If our first decision was to live together, our second was to put in a do-it-yourself bathroom—the one missing piece in this house we'd chosen in pursuit of a simple and happy life. [End Page 164]

"Then how about …," said Mr. Tile, holding up a cobalt blue sample along with a plum-colored flower inlay, "we take this and highlight it with that?" It was obvious he was attuned to the man of the house—it...