Excerpt from My Uncle Bruce Lee
I first learned of Uncle's story when I overheard a conversation between my mother and a relative while falling asleep. I didn't know what "illegitimate" meant, but from the way my mother and the lady whispered that word, I felt it was something you couldn't really say aloud, like "penis" or "vagina." And so I pondered the word in secret for a long time, and vaguely began to understand the meaning after reading the "Tale of Hong Kiltong." It went something like this: you couldn't call your father father or your brother brother. It seemed to me that it was kind of a cool thing. After all, the illegitimate son, the hero Hong Kiltong, was a righteous bandit who helped people. Uncle reminded me of Hong Kiltong, too: a free and lonely outsider who stood apart from the crowd. For a while, I had the funny idea that all cool people were illegitimate.
With the end of winter break, Jong-tae and I entered middle school. It was the same school my brother Dong-gu went to. He was the top student in the entire school and a favorite of the teachers. At first, as the younger brother of the star student, I got a lot of attention. But maybe I wasn't as smart as my brother, or maybe I didn't try hard enough, because my grades turned out to be only average. After the first round of exams, the teachers lost interest in me and I found myself feeling slightly hurt and alienated. Unlike [End Page 65] Uncle, I guess I was the type who craved attention. But what could an average middle school student, who was neither a good student nor a good athlete, do to draw people's attention? I thought of Uncle, who had become an instant hero among the students for his roundhouse kick. When I went to town with him, kids would whisper as we passed by and throw us looks of admiration. Oh, how badly I wanted people to look at me that way, too! I immediately decided to learn martial arts from Uncle. My bones had grown; I even had hair between my legs: it was high time I mastered the martial arts.
That evening I went with Jong-tae to see Uncle in his hilltop martial arts training ground. I talked Jong-tae into coming along because, even though I saw Uncle every day, for some reason I felt shy asking him to teach me martial arts. Jong-tae was more than happy to tag along. After seeing Enter the Dragon last winter, he, like us, had become a devout follower of the church of Bruce Lee.
At that time Uncle was deeply immersed in a form of martial arts called Wing Chun. This was after he had read in an article that, before going to America, Bruce Lee had mastered the techniques of Wing Chun from the legendary master Yip Man. The magazine featured photos of Bruce with master Yip, practicing the techniques on a wooden dummy. Convinced that the secret of Bruce's martial arts lay in Wing Chun, Uncle immediately decided to learn it. But there was no one in Korea at that time who knew Wing Chun. He searched all the kung fu studios in the area in vain. Based on the magazine photo, Uncle even made his own Wing Chun wooden dummy, the muk yan chong, by carving it out of wood and propping it up on the hill. But that's about as far as he could go. Not sure exactly what to do with a dead tree, he would end up clumsily knocking his bones against the hard wood and yell from the pain.
A year of going to a hapkido gym while in elementary school had been Uncle's only experience of learning martial arts. My dad, seeing that his little stepbrother was constantly getting picked on by the neighborhood kids, felt sorry for him and enrolled him in [End Page 66] the neighborhood gym in return for a payment of seven doe of rice.1 On top of being the town's token bastard, Uncle was also small for his age and stuttered. All this made him an easy target for the kids, many of whom were in fact related to him in one way or another. They say children are innocent, but as a group, the cruel and persistent aggressiveness of these kids reminded you of a pack of hyenas, and they were no doubt responsible for the many tears and nosebleeds that filled Uncle's young days. But I guess that even back then, Uncle had a talent for fighting, because after a year in the gym he was already going around breaking the noses of every kid he laid eyes on. It got to the point where my dad had no time to work on the farm, so busy was he paying visits to the families and apologizing. The words most frequently addressed to Uncle were the disapproving "Who are your parents?" On the day when Uncle broke the nose of a second cousin, Dad got so upset that, for the first time, he disciplined Uncle with the rod. When Dad told Uncle that, if he was going to continue disappointing him in this way, it'd be better for him to get out of this house, they say that Uncle grabbed Dad's legs in terror and clung to them for dear life. Was that not the desperate survival instinct of an illegitimate child? Dad, of course, had only said that to scare Uncle, but the urgent, almost unchildlike, intensity of the boy struck him deeply and made him sheepishly withdraw the rod. Instead, Uncle was no longer allowed to go to the gym, and, from that day on, he never got into a fight with anyone.
"You-You-You-You want me to teach you?"
Uncle appeared to be taken aback and stuttered pretty heavily that day.
"Yeah. I want to learn with Jong-tae."
"I-I-I-I've never t-t-taught anyone before. …"
"You can now. We'll be your first students."
"S-S-Students? W-W-Well. …" [End Page 67]
As if embarrassed, Uncle walked over to the other side and suddenly began to do push-ups. I ran over and continued to talk him into it.
"We'll just practice on our own. All you have to do is teach us, just a little."
"M-M-M-Martial arts is not that s-s-simple."
Uncle's push-ups became faster.
"Didn't Bruce also have students in America?"
". . … "
"I'll give you half of my allowance from Dad."
"I-I-I-I don't need money."
Uncle's push-ups had gotten so fast it was like watching a piston in action.
"Well, then, why won't you teach us?"
"I-I-I-I'm not qualified."
"Yes, you are. You even beat Dochi."
Uncle suddenly stood up. He was sweating. After taking a few short breaths, he finally opened his mouth.
"O-O-O-Okay. B-B-But you need to work hard."
"Sure! Don't worry!"
Jong-tae and I were ecstatic.
"A-A-And you need to b-b-bow to me first."
"B-B-B-Because you're now my s-s-students. So-So-So you need to call me m-m-m-master from now on."
Master? This isn't a Chinese movie. I felt awkward calling Uncle "Master," but Jong-tae, without losing a beat, yelled "Master!" and flopped down in front of him. I followed Jong-tae halfheartedly, after which Uncle nodded his approval and said:
"N-N-N-Now you will learn a martial art called Jee-Jee-Jeet Kune Do."
"Jeet Kune Do?" [End Page 68]
This was the first time I had heard the word. I was confused; I thought we were just going to learn kung fu. …
"Ye-Ye-Yeah, it was invented by Bruce Lee. You guys may think he's only a m-m-movie star, but he was a re-re-real artist." With a completely serious face, Uncle began to give us a whole lecture on Jeet Kune Do, but it all came out in a half-coherent jumble and I couldn't understand anything he said. It wasn't so much because he stuttered; Uncle really didn't know too much about Jeet Kune Do. And no wonder: his only experience of Jeet Kune Do had been from watching Bruce's movies and trying to imitate his moves, or from looking at the illustrations in the magazines. Bruce did write a book on Jeet Kune Do, but that came much later. But I'm not saying that Uncle's martial arts skills were shabby in any way. What Uncle lacked in theory or structure, he more than made up for it by using his body. It was through his body that he understood, learned, and executed all the moves: therein lay his real talent. His sole method of instruction, therefore, consisted in simply showing us a move and having us do the same, but this was as difficult for me as trying to learn yodeling. After a few days, our bodies were bruised all over from our lame efforts to mimic Uncle. My mom complained that Uncle was ruining the kids, but this didn't stop me from going every morning to his training spot on the hill.
As for Jong-tae, he was pretty good at learning the techniques, and I began to realize that he had a natural talent. In addition to having strong muscles, he was also flexible, and within a week he was able to master the roundhouse kick, or, at the very least, a faint imitation of it. I, on the other hand, was still struggling. Aside from catching frogs and snakes, this was Jong-tae's only talent; as if realizing this, he began to train with more enthusiasm and zeal as the days went by. It goes without saying that his skills grew by leaps and bounds, and, after a few months, he was already pretty good at twirling the nunchuks. I was bummed. To think that I was no better than Jong-tae! [End Page 69] Jong-tae's family was the only family with a different surname in the village of Jipseong, a community consisting almost entirely of members of the Kwon clan. His surname was Bae. Jong-tae's father limped due to a wound caused by a shell during the Korean War. As a wounded veteran with little to do and no land of his own, he worked as a tenant farmer on land owned by the Kwons. To make ends meet, Jong-tae's family raised a lot of animals. In addition to dogs, they raised pigs, goats, rabbits, and chickens, and their house always reeked of animal dung. The smell got worse when it rained. Except during the winter season, the house teemed with flies.
It was up to the kids to raise the animals. Jong-tae's older brother fed the goats, his older sister took care of the rabbits, and Jong-tae was in charge of feeding the chickens. Jong-tae said that, once they multiplied and grew in size, the family was planning to sell all the animals in exchange for a cow. A well-fed cow was worth a lot; the final goal was to buy some land by selling the cow.
In contrast to Jong-tae's family, mine was pretty well off in this town. This was because grandfather had bought a lot of land with the profits from his ginseng business. It was too much land for Dad to farm, so he kept the first-rate rice fields for himself and leased the rest to tenant farmers. Once he entered middle school, even though no one had told him to do so, Uncle, as soon as he had returned home from school, would hoist an A-frame on his back to go cut fodder or head straight to the fields to help Dad. Fearing that the neighbors might think he was mistreating his stepbrother, Dad would tell him to go home and study, but Uncle stubbornly stayed on until sundown.
Is that what it meant to be an outsider, utterly dependent on the good graces of others? For those of us who lack that experience, it was hard to imagine what it felt like. It wasn't as if there was anyone reminding Uncle of his position; he was aware of it himself and took nothing for granted. Although we lived under the same roof, there were surely moments when the rice he ate felt coarser [End Page 70] than it did for us; the water he drank more bitter. Whereas my brother and I would look for any chance to slip away, like a pair of eels, whenever we noticed Dad about to ask us for a hand in the fields, Uncle constantly volunteered to help and worked as if everything on the farm was his. One day, coming home after watching a Chinese movie, Uncle said something that made me understand him a little better.
"In Ch-Ch-Ch-Chinese movies they always eat h-h-holding the rice bowls with their hands. Do-Do-Do you know why?"
"Dunno. So they won't spill their rice?"
"No-No-No. It means two-two-two things. One is that you're not going to b-b-bow down to anyone, and the other is that I-I-I-I'm going to work for my own rice."
Was this perhaps a reflection of Uncle's own thoughts? By the time Uncle was fifteen he could work as hard as an adult male, much to the envy of the neighbors. And so it wasn't surprising that, after some discussion, Grandmother and Dad decided to send him to an agricultural high school. His grades were awful, he had no particular talent, he was shy, and, at any rate, there wasn't much to do in this backwoods village. Luckily, there was some family land to go around, and they reckoned that if he went to a good enough school, completed his army duty, found a good enough girl to marry, had sons and daughters, and became a good enough farmer—all that would be good enough for Uncle. But although that would have been a good enough life for some, Uncle's destiny, foreshadowed in his uncommon birth, was not about to fit into Dad and Grandma's good enough plans.
Uncle didn't know when he began to have those dreams. In his dreams, he would always be fighting a villain. The villain was over six feet tall and had white, pupil-less eyes as wide as saucers. Ruthless and cruel, he killed good and defenseless people and [End Page 71] raped the women. Uncle called him "The Hook." The villain's main weapon was a giant iron hook, which he used in place of a hand that had been cut off.
At that time Korean War veterans would frequently go around begging from house to house. A few of them had iron hooks for hands, and, when something didn't go their way, they would cause a scene by flailing their hooks around. They called it begging, but it was in fact closer to extortion by threatening. It wasn't clear whether the villain in Uncle's dream was someone he had actually seen, or a bad guy from Bruce Lee's movies. All he knew was that The Hook would appear in his dreams without fail, and that he would spend the rest of the night running away from his attacks.
Even though it was a dream, Uncle did try to fight back. He had to defeat the monster, save the girl, and bring about justice. But for some reason, the martial arts skills he had perfected in reality were useless in his dreams. His body felt as heavy and sluggish as if he had a nasty flu, and his arms and legs refused to move. He found himself barely dodging the terrifying iron hook, to say nothing of his original plan of vanquishing the villain and fighting for justice. Every time he awoke from this dream, Uncle would sit for a long while staring into empty space, completely worn out. In such moments, he would gather his brows and think really hard about what this dream meant and whether it provided any hints for his future, but it was all in vain.
The days leading up to the fall season of that year, before we entered middle school, passed by quietly and uneventfully. Every morning at dawn, Jong-tae and I went up the hill and worked on our martial arts. Despite being in the graduating class, Uncle frequently skipped classes and was more intent on helping around the farm. His training was the one thing he never missed. What thoughts were passing through his mind? Was he satisfied with Grandmother and Dad's plans to make him a good enough farmer, or did he dare to dream of a shining future different from his [End Page 72] doleful past? In the midst of his training, Uncle would often look out absentmindedly at the broad fields below the hill.
In the meantime, my brother was preparing for his high school entrance exams and would study in the library until ten o'clock at night. His sole focus now was on whether or not he would enter the prestigious high school in the neighboring city. No longer interested in Bruce Lee, he now thought that the martial arts movies he had enjoyed so much were just empty and silly cartoons. He told us that all the scenes in the movies we saw were just a bunch of camera tricks. Even Bruce Lee was part of the trick, he said, even arguing that the reason why Bruce stood out from the other actors was because he used camera tricks the most. At my brother's words, Uncle's brows began to twitch, a reaction that appeared when he was very angry. Stuttering even more than usual from anger, he said,
"I-I-I-I-I really don't li-li-li-like it when you t-t-t-t-talk like that. …"
During this time my kung-fu skills improved. My kicks got better, and I was able to handle the nunchuks pretty smoothly. But every time I got into a fight with Jong-tae, I discovered I was no match for him. By now Jong-tae was well on his way to becoming a strong and fast fighter, and I had to admit that even when pitted against Uncle, he didn't look too bad. I was gripped by feelings of inferiority and shame, made worse by the fact that, since childhood, I had gotten used to looking down on Jong-tae. I tried to resolve these feelings by picking fights with the kids at school. My usual baits were the kids who, although physically big, were slow and clumsy in their movements. I would first pick out a suitable opponent, provoke him to a fight, and then, at lunchtime or after school, call him up the hill behind the school and try out all the techniques I had practiced. Each victory gave me the thrilling feeling of having gone up a notch in the hierarchy; for a few months, all I did was fight. But I didn't get to go too far. Once I had reached a certain level in the pecking order, all that remained [End Page 73] was the group of bigger kids who sat at the back. Although we were all in the same grade, with their Adam's apples sticking out the size of walnuts and the dark hints of beards on their faces, these kids were in a different league from the ones sitting in the front. They would gather and smoke cigarettes, or even hang out with girls in the snack bars. A runny-nosed kid like me was no match for them.
As long as they were around, I was only a puny, snot-nosed kid. It was a far cry from my initial dream of becoming an object of admiration and envy by learning martial arts from Uncle. But things were different when it came to Jong-tae. With his big size and strength, he could easily become the leader of the pack if he chose to. If that happened, I could, as his buddy, share the sweet taste of power with him. But Jong-tae was too easygoing; it never occurred to him to hate anyone and he seldom got angry. And so he never got into a fight in school. All my evil attempts to incite Jong-tae to get into a fight with the kids in the back never worked; on such occasions he would grin in his typically sheepish way, say that it was no big deal and not worth fighting over, and go off to feed the chickens at home.
Once in a while, even Uncle had his good days. He got himself a motorcycle and it was all because of the red peppers. In the fall of that year, a red pepper crisis overtook the whole nation, causing prices to skyrocket. Because we had planted a lot of red peppers, our family reaped a big profit. When the harvesting and the sales were done, Dad, who had downed a few drinks and was in a good mood, asked Uncle whether he wanted anything as a reward for all his work. Since Uncle was graduating in a few months, Dad had planned to give him a graduation present at any rate.
Uncle thought for a moment, and said, "I-I-I want a mo-mo-mo-motorcycle." Father, who had been thinking in terms of a watch or a pair of shoes, was quite taken aback. Mother was especially dead set against it. A motorcycle, she said, was a machine that turned women into widows. It was true that at the time motorcycles [End Page 74] were notorious for causing accidents, so much so that people called them "widow-making machines." Moreover, traffic had increased, due to the number of factories and warehouses that had sprung up even in the most remote parts of the country. But Mom's real reason was because motorcycles were too expensive. And so Father attempted to persuade Uncle to settle for an "Eagle" brand cassette radio, the most popular item among students in those days. Uncle rose from his seat without a word. The next day, he began a silent protest. But since he hardly said a word anyway, no one in the family noticed he was holding a silent protest. Uncle then switched to a hunger strike; this time, everyone noticed.
Uncle never asked for anything. Even at a young age, it seemed as if he understood his position; he simply ate and wore whatever was given him without a word of complaint. He never asked for money to buy school supplies, even if it meant getting beaten up by the teacher for not having them ready; he never told the family about the school fees, and so would always end up being the last in class to pay them. Once, when we were clearing away the table after dinner, we noticed there was blood on the floor. It was Uncle: his bare feet were covered all over with blisters and wounds, and they were bleeding. "Just what the heck have you been doing outside to ruin your feet in this way," Grandmother started to yell, but she stopped herself and, as if guessing at something, went outside to check on Uncle's shoes. Sure enough: his shoes were so worn out that it wasn't even a matter of having holes in the bottom; the soles were practically gone and all that was left were the coverings for the top of the feet. Uncle might as well have been going around with no shoes; it was no wonder his feet were such a mess.
Every time something like this happened, Mom would get an earful from Grandmother. Such occasions made Mom resent Uncle. "How am I supposed to know what he needs when he won't say anything? I'm not a fortune-teller. It's so frustrating. Every time something's the matter with your uncle, it's all my fault!" she would [End Page 75] lament. Mom never meant to treat Uncle differently. But all the same, she couldn't be blamed for paying less attention to someone with whom she didn't share a drop of blood.
When Uncle, who had never asked for anything in his life, went on a hunger strike because of a motorcycle, Grandmother was forced to intervene. She convinced Dad to buy him one, saying that, as a child, Uncle had never once asked her to buy a single miruku2; that if something did happen while he was riding the motorcycle, well, then, that was his destiny; that she hated to think what would happen if the kid went on starving himself like that. … Although the price of a motorcycle in those days was more than half the earnings from the red peppers, Dad lost no time in packing the money and setting off with Uncle to the nearest town. Judging from the fact that Dad's steps, as he left the house, were as light as Uncle's, I could tell that he had wanted to buy the pricey gift for Uncle all along and had only hesitated because of Mom.
A three-gear, 50cc motorcycle from Kia Honda! After starving for an entire week, Uncle, for the first time in his life, got what he wanted. Once the motorcycle was paid for and Dad handed him the keys, Uncle was so overcome with emotion that it was heartbreaking to see. Those of us who, as children, never had a loving adult or family to spoil us are never able to have dreams. With no one in the world to indulge you and your dreams, how can you possibly have any?
It meant everything for a kid to have someone who accepted him unconditionally, to have someone who was even willing to put up with his temper tantrums. It wasn't merely the motorcycle that had moved Uncle so deeply. It was because he realized, for the first time in his life, that someone in this world had indulged him. Uncle was soon handling the new motorcycle as if he had driven one all his life. Although Dad insisted on walking home, Uncle half [End Page 76] forced him to ride on the back, while I got to ride in the front. The red 50cc motorbike was more powerful than it looked, and it made a cheery noise as we sped along a road lined with sycamore trees.
On that day, Uncle even attempted to joke with Dad, which was something he had never done before.
Dad, scared stiff, was holding onto Uncle for dear life.
With the wind blasting in his ears, Dad didn't hear Uncle. Uncle turned around and shouted once more.
"I-I-I-I'm gonna make a lot of m-m-money and t-t-take care of you!"
"You idiot, why would I need you when I already have two kids of my own?"
This time Dad heard him. Although he sounded gruff, Dad's wrinkled face was smiling. Passing the main road, the motorbike approached the entrance to our village, where the cosmos flowers were in full bloom. Over the vast golden fields where the rice was ripening, dragonflies filled the sky.
At this point, I think I should tell you a bit about what Dochi was up to. That very Dochi who, during the historic battle with Uncle, in what turned out to be a completely stupid thing to do, slashed his own belly with a broken Coke bottle and received two stitches short of a hundred. That winter, Dochi and Uncle met again. It had been one year since their first fight. Although you could technically call it their second match, I'm not sure if "match" would have been the right word. Be that as it may, on that day Dochi was eating sugar pancakes on the street, and was just about to stuff the ninety-secondth pancake into his mouth, when Uncle drove past him on his motorcycle. Despite the fact that the greasy [End Page 77] oil and the cheap brown sugar were making him feel a little queasy, Dochi continued to devour his pancakes; just eight more to go and he would have finished a hundred. It goes without saying that Dochi had not paid for all those pancakes.
The pancake vendor was his underling; Dochi therefore took the liberty of paying him a visit every single day and eating up a hundred pancakes for free. Looking like he was about to cry, the poor vendor was busy making the pancakes and counting the ones Dochi wolfed down. Dochi paused for a second to catch his breath, then, with renewed determination, resumed cramming the pancakes down his throat.
At that moment, a red motorcycle, emitting an energetic varoom! cruised past him. Dochi saw at once that the driver was none other than that ssipsae whose badass roundhouse kick had knocked out his lower jaw a year ago. Before he even realized it, Dochi found himself spitting the pancake out of his mouth and yelling at Uncle.
"Hey, you ssipsae!"
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Dochi began to regret them. His dying wish was, of course, to settle scores with Uncle and beat him to a pulp so that he was as flat as a pancake. But Uncle had shown him that he wasn't the type to go down that easily. For a brief moment, Dochi almost wished Uncle hadn't heard him and had simply passed him by; he really should have just ignored the ssipsae and not have called out to him quite so loudly. But it was too late: the motorcycle jerked to a stop and Uncle turned around and looked his way.
While Dochi was thinking "Oh shit," Uncle was thinking "What the hell?" This was because for Uncle, the thing moving toward him from the pancake stand looked not so much like an actual person, but a mysterious, lump-like entity the species of which was hard to tell. Approximately five feet four inches tall and weighing in at about two hundred sixty pounds, this bizarre creature reminded Uncle of a walrus by the way it waddled towards [End Page 78] him, swaying its massive torso left and right. When out of a hole that looked to be its mouth, the walrus emitted a rapid-fire stream of obscenities that sounded like a rap beat—the main rhyme of which consisted of ssipsae—Uncle finally realized it was Dochi.
Leaning on his motorcycle, Uncle looked at Dochi in bewilderment, but then decided to greet him. After all, they weren't exactly strangers.
"It's been a lo-lo-lo-long t-t-t-ime. H-h-h-h-ow've you been?"
At Uncle's words, the top of the creature became swollen red like an angry penis head, and it began to shout out obscenities.
"What, you ssipsae! How have I been? Are you fuckin' kidding me? You were lucky last time, but don't even think of running away today, ssipsae."
Dochi's brain circuitry was remarkably simple, and once it decided on a certain course, it was unstoppable. And since not backing down on attitude was even more important for Dochi than winning a fight, and, what's more, curious passersby were beginning to gather around them, it was now too late for him to step back. Thinking, "Ah, what the fuck," Dochi threw the first punch. To his relief, it did not miss the mark like the last time and landed right on Uncle's chin. But there was something strange. In theory, Dochi's punch should have knocked his opponent flat on the floor; yet the opponent just stood there dumbly. Although Uncle, somewhat surprised at Dochi's alarming weight gain, had taken the first punch, Dochi's extreme obesity had in fact caused his fingers to fatten. Uncle might as well have been punched by a kid wearing 12-ounce boxing gloves. His face aflame, Dochi thrashed his fists wildly about, but his moves had become dull and slow, and it seemed like he was performing solitary gymnastics in the air. The crowd wondered why Uncle didn't fight back and kept ducking Dochi's punches instead, but from Uncle's perspective, it was extremely awkward to fight him, so embarrassing and comic was the mere sight of Dochi desperately punching the air. Just think: what would Bruce Lee do if he met a sea elephant on the street?! [End Page 79]
There was a reason why Dochi had embarked on his crazy weight gain by eating a hundred pancakes a day. At this time, he was waiting for a chance to join the town's one and only "Comeback" gang. Counting on the help of a senior gang member he knew, Dochi spent his every waking moment observing the goings-on of this group. The senior member in question, needless to say, was that very fellow who had taught Dochi the bizarre strategy of slashing his own belly. This senior member had a pointed jaw and his eyes were positioned close together, and for this reason he had secretly wished for a tough nickname like "Snake" or "Viper," but the other gang members pitilessly dubbed him "Rabbit." This was due to his constantly bloodshot eyes. Not only was this a ridiculous nickname for a member of the "Comeback" gang; Rabbit also came to realize the extremely humiliating sexual connotation of this moniker. He threatened to "cut off the thingamajig" of anyone who dared to call him "Rabbit," but it was no use, the moniker had stuck: everyone called him "Rabbit" behind his back.
Once, treating Rabbit to a full round of drinks, Dochi had expressed to the senior member his dire wish, now that he had come of age, to join the gang. Rabbit advised Dochi that in order to become a gang member, he had to—for starters—bulk up. Size counted if you wanted to overpower your opponent early on and establish dominance. From that day on, every night Dochi stuffed himself with boiled beans and steamed sweet potatoes, and then proceeded to catch and eat the chickens his family raised until he was found out and beaten blue by his father. As there wasn't much to eat in a poor farming village, Dochi also resorted to catching grasshoppers in the field and frying them, and he caught snakes as well, for roasting.
Bulking up wasn't exactly easy in rural Korea of the 1970s, when food was scarce, but Dochi managed, through painstaking effort, to fatten himself enough to intimidate anyone. Three months [End Page 80] later, he showed himself to Rabbit. Puffing himself up, he showed off his new body to the senior member. Looking Dochi up and down, Rabbit had this to say: "You gotta long way to go, man."
At his words, Dochi resumed his nightly consumption of boiled beans and steamed sweet potatoes. He got hold of the rabbit raised by his neighbors and ate that, only to be found out and get beaten to a pulp by his neighbor. Once again, he hunted down grasshoppers and frogs, and, as a result of his madcap measures, his body swelled up like a hot roll fresh out of the oven. Three months later, he went to Rabbit again. But all he got out of the senior member was a disappointed: "You haven't tried hard enough."
The only gang in the town of Dongcheon, the "Comeback" gang was by nature rather different from the average gang. Despite the promising name, in reality it was no more than a ragtag group of good-for-nothings who'd been loitering about in the rice paddies. The town did not boast any tourist attractions, nor did it have much in the way of a profitable entertainment district. So there wasn't much for the gang to do except during election period, when, like a swarm of grasshoppers, sporting political sashes, the members made their rounds of the town, stirring up a ruckus and at most extorting money for makgeolli. Their daily activities consisted of little more than milling about the billiard halls and teahouses, killing time by making pathetic attempts to flirt with the new waitress, and then, as night fell, going to a nearby pub to drink on credit and start a fight, only to be dragged to the police station and ordered to write a letter of apology. In other words, the "Comeback" gang, whose very name had filled local students with terror, was nothing more than a sham, miles away from the dandy life Dochi was dreaming of. …
The more Uncle continued to skillfully dodge his punches, the more Dochi became incensed. Beginning with his usual threat, "Repeat after me: you're dead, ssipsae!" he in fact gave Uncle little time to repeat, so busy was he throwing out obscenity after obscenity and flailing his arms and legs in the air. But in Uncle's [End Page 81] eyes, Dochi's moves were so clumsy and obvious that his punches appeared to be in slow motion. Moreover, although Dochi had doubled in body size, his heart had not. It was too much for his body to take: gasping for breath, Dochi sprawled flat on the ground. They say one can get tired out from hitting too much, but in Dochi's case, he was completely spent before he could even throw a decent punch. At that moment, Rabbit, who was passing by, drawn by the noise and having nothing better to do, poked his head in through the onlookers. His eyes met Dochi's, who was sprawled on the ground. Like a roly-poly toy, Dochi immediately bounced back to his feet. He couldn't possibly back down now, not with an esteemed mentor of the "Comeback" gang looking on. But the pressure of having to prove himself in front of Rabbit turned out to be too great, and Dochi ended up overdoing it. Mustering every ounce of strength he had—every ounce of strength he had gathered from all the boiled beans, potatoes, rabbits, grasshoppers, snakes, frogs, and pancakes he had chowed down—Dochi attempted a dropkick against Uncle. Could sheer human willpower possibly overcome the laws of physics? To everyone's astonishment, Dochi's gargantuan body rose up in the air and flew towards Uncle like a missile. Dochi's dropkick flight, drawing an impressive curve, prompted admiring cries from the crowd, and his feet were correctly gathered together and aimed at Uncle's face. But alas, too much of Dochi's strength had been spent on launching his body up in the air. Unable to go any farther, the flight of the sea elephant froze to a stop right in front of Uncle's face. Having lost its momentum at the end of an all-too-brief flight, Dochi's inflated torso plunged to the ground. Thud! Landing on the ground with an earthshaking rumble, he passed out on the spot.
Rabbit ran over to his protégé and shook him until Dochi regained consciousness. Dochi's eyes had lost their focus; barely able to lift himself up, he failed to recognize that it was Rabbit shaking his body. Vigorously shaking his shoulders, Rabbit also gave his student a few good slaps in the face. [End Page 82]
"Yo, man, wake up!"
But perhaps Rabbit had shaken Dochi a little too vigorously? Dochi had remained numbly in place; now, suddenly, his face began to contort in the oddest way and his cheeks began to puff up like rising dough. Uncle was about to get on his motorbike and quit the scene. Like the belly of a nine-months-pregnant woman, Dochi's cheeks continued to rise until they were dangerously close to exploding, and, on that day, he provided the folks at Dongcheon with an amazing show they would never forget. Poof!
Out of his mouth, blown up like a steamed bun, an incredible amount of vomit began to pour, like bursting rice puffs. At this unexpected scene, the onlookers frowned and stepped back, some even emitting cries of disgust. But, unfortunately, like a water cannon blasting from a fire truck, Dochi's vomit was aimed straight at Rabbit's face. All covered in vomit, Rabbit screamed and flailed his arms wildly about, but Dochi's vomit—sticky from the black sugar of the pancakes—clung to his face, making it impossible for him to open his eyes or breathe. Attempting to breathe, he opened his mouth, but the barf, entering his mouth, blocked his airway, leaving Rabbit choking like a dog choking on a chicken neck. Like a fly stuck in a bowl of porridge, Rabbit moved his arms and legs desperately about in an attempt to extricate himself from Dochi's spew, which, in the meantime, was pouring out like a waterfall to form a huge, three-meters-wide, puddle in the middle of the road. Like concrete being poured into a mold, the vomit continued to pour over poor Rabbit's head; slipping and falling, coated with Dochi from head to toe, Rabbit resembled a fried rice cracker coated in honey.
To make matters worse, since eighty percent of the vomit was pancakes, it gave off a tart and sour stench that wafted through the town and got the hungry alley dogs running toward Rabbit from all directions. Burrowing their muzzles in the puddle, to the terror of the senior gang member, they began to lick Rabbit's body. He tried to escape but it was no use: like a pack of wolves the [End Page 83] dogs latched obstinately onto his arms and legs. In the end, stuck deep in the vomit puddle, Rabbit passed out. By this time Dochi's stomach seemed to have emptied itself out at last; vomiting his last bits from time to time, he lay stretched out side by side with his mentor. As the crowd, dumbstruck by the amazing show, recovered its senses and began to chase the dogs away, Uncle, who had witnessed firsthand this disaster of volcanic proportions, started his motorcycle.
At that moment, Uncle felt a nudge on his shoulder. He turned around to find a girl in a high school uniform, her head shyly turned away, offering him a bag that seemed to be full of something. Puzzled, he took the bag and looked inside to see a dozen pancakes. As Uncle, still baffled, looked on, the high school girl, who had a big dot on the corner of her mouth, turned around in embarrassment and ran toward the pancake stand to hide behind the vendor. On closer look, they appeared to be brother and sister; the resemblance between the two was unmistakable. Uncle hesitated a bit, then stuffed the bag of pancakes in his pocket and quickly left the scene. On the ride back home, it began to snow. But even with the snow continuously pelting his face, for some reason he kept flushing red, and the pancakes in his pocket kept him warm all the way. [End Page 84]
Cheon Myeong-gwan is a novelist and screenwriter. He debuted as a writer in 2003 with the short story "Frank and I," which received the Munhakdongne New Writer Award, and received the 10th Munhakdongne Novel Award in the following year with Whale. He also received the Ku Sang Literary Award in 2015 for his short story "Homecoming." He has also written Modern Family, My Uncle Bruce Lee, and This Is a Man's World.
Susanna Soojung Lim is an associate professor of Russian studies and Korean studies at the University of Oregon. Her scholarly work China and Japan in the Russian Imagination: To the Ends of the Orient, 1685-1922 was published by Routledge in 2013. She is currently working on a project on national identity in Pak Kyoung-ni's multi-volume novel Land (T'oji).