The Girl Who Never Smiled

Jeong Yi Hyun

Artwork by Lee Wan Xiang

The February weather was like a never-ending curse: spring wasn’t far away but the wind was sharper than ever. At nine-thirty on Sunday morning Ok-yeong was about to close the twenty-four-inch suitcase lying open in her dressing room. After a moment’s hesitation she plucked out the thick turtleneck sweater she had placed inside. The aqua color brightened her complexion but the heavy wool wasn’t right for her destination. February there wasn’t at all like in Seoul, where women stalked around swathed in fur coats, their breath hanging white in the frigid air.

She noticed that the older she got, the more she had to do before leaving home. The previous night she made a few banchan to stock the refrigerator, and as soon as she woke up this morning she watered the plants on the veranda. She broiled a few filets of salmon in the oven and made seaweed soup for breakfast. Afterward, she rinsed the dishes and stacked them in the dishwasher. Tomorrow morning the housekeeper would take out the clean, dried dishes. Tomorrow morning . . . Tomorrow morning, a mere twenty-four hours away, seemed unimaginably distant.

She’d told her husband three days ago: “I’m going to go home for a little while.”

“Home? What home?” Sang-ho knew she meant her parents’ home in Daejeon, but he asked her anyway, deep lines creasing his forehead. It signaled his foul mood. When he was in one of his moods, she had to tell him what she wanted to say in a nice but firm voice, step by step, as if talking to a sullen preteen. 

“My mom has a lot of back pain. I think she needs a thorough checkup. And while we’re there, we might as well check on that heart problem that came up during her last appointment.”

“It’s just old age.”

His careless reply didn’t hurt her feelings; he was becoming the kind of person who didn’t show interest in anyone else’s life, even to be polite. In many ways, she preferred this. It was better than his meddling for no reason, obsessed with maintaining the appearance of affection and devotion between them.

“When are you going?” he asked.

“I don’t know, maybe Sunday.”

“Sunday . . . ” Sang-ho repeated. “Can’t you go Monday?”

She couldn’t. She had to be there before the end of Sunday. At least, that was what she wanted to do. “Why? What’s going on?”

“It’s the weekend. You’ll be stuck in a lot of traffic.” As he often did when there was no specific reason for his stance, he adopted an authoritative tone.

“Maybe I’ll leave later then.” Ok-yeong let it go, as if it were no big deal.

They didn’t talk about it any further then, but when her husband returned home last night, she told him she would be going down on Sunday after all. He glared at her for a few seconds, loosened his tie and tossed it on the bed, then stubbornly clamped his mouth shut. It didn’t matter to him whether she left on Sunday or Monday; he was only miffed that she had ignored his suggestion. Ok-yeong didn’t let it get to her and acted according to plan. She thought it might actually be good that he was angry with her.

She considered going up to Hye-seong’s room to hand him the envelope containing the violin teacher’s fee, but just left it on the living room table. She shouldn’t need to spell it out for him. She was going to pop in to say goodbye to Yu-ji but felt it would be better not to disturb her. Although Sang-ho would have heard Ok-yeong leave as she rolled the wheeled suitcase behind her, he didn’t come out of his home office. She loaded her suitcase into the trunk of the car, then got in the driver’s seat and fastened the seatbelt snugly. The Olympic Freeway was only five minutes from the house. She had to be at the airport before eleven at the latest.

OZ711, departing at 12:30 p.m., was bound for Taipei—the first time she would be there in a year. The plane slowly rose into the sky. The feeling of lifting off and entering the clouds shook her to the core. She closed her eyes. She didn’t feel exhilaration; instead, a heavy anxiety settled over her.

She was seventeen when she first flew to Taipei as a member of the Student Visitation Group to the Homeland, consisting of about a hundred students from Chinese-Korean high schools all over the country. When they took a group photo in front of the departure area at Gimpo Airport, she stood blushing at the edge of the last row, sensing that people were staring at their overly serious placard written in Chinese characters. 

When her father brought up the subject of the “visit to the homeland,” she couldn’t tell him how uninterested she was. All of her siblings except for her second-eldest sister, who was physically unwell, had taken the same trip at her age. She couldn’t believe that her father still considered Taiwan to be the family’s homeland when even he had visited it only twice, after Chiang Kai-shek established his government on that island.

Father left Shantung, in mainland China, in his mid-twenties, leaving behind his first wife and two-year-old son. He died a few days shy of turning seventy, having never been able to return home. Because of the political strife between Taiwan and China, it was impossible to visit China even for a few days with a Taiwanese passport. Her father smoked a Marlboro Red after each meal even after he was diagnosed with lung cancer; no one who caught sight of the happy, eager expression he wore the moment he inhaled could bear to stop him. Even though he’d lived in Korea for forty-five years, passing through Incheon, Pyeongtaek, and Seosan before settling in Daejeon, he could utter only a handful of Korean phrases. He even mangled the one word he would have said the most, “Welcome.”

On his deathbed, Father admonished his children: “Don’t talk loudly.” Of course, he said it in Chinese.

“That bad-tempered old man. Shouldn’t he have said something like, ‘Don’t smoke?’” Ok-yeong’s eldest sister grumbled in Korean, smiling through her tears, but she said it in a tiny voice, as if being their father’s daughter mandated that she had to whisper. That sister, who had attended Chinese-Korean schools before going to college in Taiwan, had married a Chinese-American before graduation and moved to L.A. She had a strange complex about her mastery of Korean. As they prepared for their father’s funeral, whenever they had to speak with hospital staff or the undertaker, she always called Ok-yeong over and spoke to her in Chinese. “Wei Ling, you do it. You’re the best out of all of us.”

Ok-yeong knew the unspoken sentiment at the end of that sentence all too well. And that way they won’t look down on us. Their father, gaunt in his funeral photograph, stared out at his daughters with a plaintive expression.



The plane landed at Taoyuan International Airport after two and a half hours. Ok-yeong’s heart pounded as she waited in the customs line for foreigners. She had waited in this same line several times since receiving a Korean passport after her marriage, but always experienced this same sense of anxiety as if it were her first time. 

The customs officer was a woman her age. “What is the purpose of your visit?” she asked in English.

Ok-yeong also responded in English. “To meet a friend. My friend lives here.”

“How long will you be here?”

“I’ll be here until Thursday. I have a return ticket to Seoul, where I live.”

A light rain was falling outside. The cool humid air carried the smell of Taipei to her. The handle of her suitcase kept slipping in her hand. She got in a cab and named the hotel where she had reserved a room. She turned on her cell phone, and received a text telling her to contact the embassy in case of an emergency. Taiwan was within her Korean mobile carrier’s automatic roaming zone; a satellite GPS would be watching her every move. She nestled into the dirty leather seat. She couldn’t explain to herself why she had come all the way here. The reasons she’d believed valid flashed through her head before fading forlornly.

“I’m sorry, please take me somewhere else, not the hotel,” she said on impulse. She directed the driver to National Taiwan University, which had been called Taipei Imperial University until the Chiang Kai-shek government hastily changed its name in November 1945. Across the street from the school were alleys filled with stands hawking wontons or fried eggs or pork, convenience stores, and chains selling cheap clothes and sneakers, crammed close together and sharing flimsy walls. When she visited this place she always felt as if everything had stayed exactly the same here.

Why did Ming, who was now over forty, still live in the area? Ok-yeong had once asked him that, and he had given her a tight grin. “Korean is a language fraught with subtleties. It’s not that I’m still living here, it’s more accurate to say that I’ve returned.” Then he’d added, “And this neighborhood is cheap, you know.”

She hadn’t been able to tell if he was joking or not. Ok-yeong didn’t know how he was doing financially; he changed jobs frequently. The last time she’d visited he was working as an interpreter and guide for a local tour company. Ok-yeong had been shocked to learn that Ming, who had always been so proud, dealt with Koreans daily. She couldn’t bring herself to ask if he received a salary or survived on commissions and tips. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t imagine him standing in front of a tour bus, chattering into a microphone: “On your left is Yang Ming Mountain. Soon we’ll arrive at the National Palace Museum.”



On the final morning of her last trip, Ok-yeong told Ming, “So . . . it looks like I exchanged too much money.” She’d practiced that phrase in her head all night, but barely managed to get it out without stumbling on the words.

Ming just held the colorful bank envelope in his hand, looking surprised. “What is this? Are you never coming back? Use it next time.”

“Take it, it’s not much.”

He suddenly switched to Chinese. “You’re giving this to me? Really?” They always conversed together in Korean on principle, a joint reaction against society. Their use of Korean was a ridiculous allusion to their alliance, separate from everyone else. Ming’s sudden use of Chinese was a stark reminder of how different their lives had become.

Ok-yeong continued, in Korean but in a low voice: “Take it. I would feel bad if you didn’t.”

Ming stared at the floor for a long time. “You mean you’d feel embarrassed.” He handed the envelope back to her.

Ok-yeong grew angry then. “Can’t you just take it with a smile? Mingming, is this all we are to each other?” She immediately regretted that last sentence, unable to forget his stunned expression afterward.

She left the envelope on the low table in the living room. Ming went into his room, slamming the door carelessly behind him. He had never acted that way in the twenty years they’d known each other. Ok-yeong left without saying goodbye to him. She called a taxi and dragged her suitcase unaided down the three flights of stairs. She wished Ming would call her back but she might have rushed away precisely because she was afraid he would. That had been exactly a year ago today.



At the entrance to his building, it occurred to her that he might have moved. She called him from a pay phone as she usually did.  


Ok-yeong drew in a deep breath. “It’s me,” she said slowly, tasting the shape of the words with the tip of her tongue. “I’m here.”

Ming came downstairs, wearing an old T-shirt and a pair of baggy pants cut off at the calves. His mouth was greasy; perhaps she’d interrupted his meal. He gave her an easy smile, as if she’d just returned from the bathroom. “Why didn’t you call? I could have picked you up.”

“Why? There’s no reason to.” She gave a wide, relaxed grin and followed him in.

Nothing had changed. She felt deflated—the cramped interior of his apartment was identical to the indistinct images of it she had been picturing in her head. Ming left her suitcase by the front door. The same gray cotton sheet was thrown over his bed; there was only one pillow. Several takeout containers were spread out on the living-room table; he must have been eating in front of the TV. A stainless-steel spoon was resting in a half-filled soup bowl, where an empty clam shell floated like an island above the opaque broth. 

“I see you got drunk last night.”

“Yeah. Beef-blood soup would hit the spot right about now, especially the one in Cheongjin-dong.” Like all Chinese-Koreans who left Korea, Ming was deeply nostalgic about the spicy food there. In college, when Chinese-Koreans got together, they competitively talked about the dishes they wanted to eat, as if they were new military trainees at Nonsan boot camp, yearning for food from the outside—sautéed squid in Mugyo-dong, spicy rice cakes in Sindang-dong, Hamheung cold noodles in Ojang-dong.

“You didn’t even go there when you were in Seoul,” Ok-yeong pointed out.

Ming wrinkled his nose. “That’s because I could have it whenever I wanted to. You should go there on my behalf.”

“You know how it is. When you’re there, you don’t go out of your way,” Ok-yeong murmured.

“Sit down, it’s not like the ceiling’s going to cave in.”

Ok-yeong realized she was still standing awkwardly, as if poised to leave. Ming poured her a cup of lukewarm oolong tea and they sat side by side on the floor. A faint, heartbreaking sweetness filled her mouth.

Only after that were they able to look into each other’s faces. Ming looked perhaps a little older, in a way she couldn’t put her finger on. His face was tired, without vitality, and the lines around his mouth were a little more pronounced.

“You’re still the same,” he said, assuming an expression she felt was more serious than necessary. He had never said anything like that to her before. Ok-yeong felt sad.

They asked after various people in each other’s life. She updated him about her mother’s hip pain, her eldest sister and brother-in-law’s Chinese restaurant in America that closed, her husband’s daughter who had never once initiated conversation in the past year.

“Wow, that young lady is quite something. It’s not awkward for you?”

“Not really, since she doesn’t live with us.”

“How’s the kid who does live with you? You’d said he got into med school.”

“Well, I don’t really know.” Ok-yeong shrugged. “He doesn’t actually go to school right now, but I don’t know if he got in and isn’t going, or if he lied about all of it from the beginning. But we get along pretty well because he’s level-headed, unlike everyone else in that family.”

“Takes after you, I see.”

“Yeah, he’s good-looking,” Ok-yeong said, playfully.

Ming burst into laughter and filled up her teacup. “Makes me want to meet him.”

Neither of them mentioned Yu-ji. Unacknowledged emotion filled the void between them. He turned on some music, an old pop song whose title she couldn’t recall. Ming sang along in a low voice. In high school he’d been a singer in a small band. Ok-yeong had never seen him on stage, but one day in 1987, not long after they’d fallen in love, she’d seen a picture of him from two years before, wearing tight jeans, eyes closed, singing his heart out. She had felt an unnerving sense of terror at seeing the man she loved immersed in something she didn’t know anything about, as if she’d skipped ahead to the end of a book and read about the protagonist’s death. They’d loved each other for ten years after that, and now they’d been apart for another ten. This had to be the last page of the relationship.

Their story had started with a few coincidences, like the beginning of any long-forgotten history. When Ok-yeong called to tell her father that she’d been accepted into Taiwan University, he was silent for a long while. She grew worried that the troublemaking veins in his head had burst; eventually, he coughed and thanked her in a damp, slow voice. Their restaurant in the outskirts of Daejeon was doing fairly well, though they weren’t financially comfortable. But her father’s commitment to education was more steadfast than was the case with other Chinese-Korean fathers they knew. She and her sisters imagined he’d once wished for another life for himself, and did not begrudge them their chance when it came.

After the failure of several small businesses he’d tried after coming to Korea, Father went to see a friend from home, a man who ran a Chinese restaurant in Pyeongtaek. Most of the Chinese men he knew were owners or chefs of Chinese restaurants. For two years in the mid-1960s Father learned how to cook, working in the kitchen of that small restaurant in Pyeongtaek. Ok-yeong was conceived there and born in Seosan, where the family opened its own Chinese restaurant.

Their father, who glumly chopped meat and vegetables all day in a small, dark kitchen to better his children’s lives, only wanted one thing from them: that at home they speak exclusively in Chinese. That one demand was stern and unbending. When he caught Ok-yeong’s eldest sister reading a Korean comic book, he whipped her calves ten times. Their mother, ten years younger than Father and raised in Korea, was less strict. The women of the family would talk to each other in a patois of Korean and Chinese, reverting to Chinese when they heard Father returning from the restaurant downstairs. They often ate dinner without uttering a word.

Despite his insistence on the superiority of all things Chinese, Father was influenced by his adopted environment. He particularly enjoyed kimchi stew made with pork neck, and without fail he played Korean card games with his Chinese-Korean friends. Watching Korea and Japan in a soccer match, he passionately rooted for Korea. At the same time, he emphasized that you couldn’t trust Koreans as a people and, as if to stubbornly practice what he preached, he didn’t have a single Korean friend. If Korean friends of his wife or children came over, he maintained this stance with an unsociable silence.

The first time Ok-yeong and Ming talked about their families, they spent hours laughing themselves to tears and sighing deeply before bursting into laughter again. Their fathers sounded identical. Ming’s father ran a Chinese restaurant in Incheon’s Chinatown and refused to learn how to read or write Korean. Ming said his father would stand and stare out the windows of the restaurant and let out deep unconscious sighs.

“At least your father married a Korean woman, so he’s much better than my baba,” Ok-yeong said.

Ming, still laughing, replied, “But she ran off after only ten years. So imagine what it was like after that. Whenever he saw a female customer who was anywhere near pretty, he would grit his teeth and say, ‘Even if they look fine on the outside, they’re all rotten inside.’”

Ok-yeong had stared into Ming’s face when he told her this, something she couldn’t have done now. They were sitting on a bench by a lake in the middle of campus, on a day without a breath of wind. Instead of calling it by its name, Drunken Moon Pond, they referred to it as “there,” and called that bench “our place.” “There,” on “our place,” they had watched the sun set and Ok-yeong had placed her hand on Ming’s for the first time, feeling she could go anywhere holding that hand.

In life there were times when you felt you could entrust yourself to the vagaries of the gentle wind. When you were twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two . . . That was when you didn’t yet know that living was like being on a train chugging ahead at eighty kilometers per hour as it leaned into a curve. Ok-yeong and Ming grew close quickly; they soon knew everything about each other, or at least believed they did, like two kittens licking each other’s fur instead of lapping milk. They clumsily dove into love, building a metaphorical fence around themselves, decorated with strings of lights. They were enough for each other. They didn’t think the world revolved around them; they just didn’t pay attention to anything outside the fence. Now Ok-yeong believed their biggest problem had always been this lack of balance in their life together, though she did recognize that she was perhaps being cowardly in defining it that way, seeking to comfort herself.

translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim