I noticed his swollen hands first. Then, his worn sneakers, covered in a thick layer of dust.
I hated everything about this situation. I hated how he evaded my gaze, nervous and all. How he bounced on his heels and rubbed his large hands together like a child. How my mom avoided his smile. She, too, didn’t know where to look. I hadn’t seen or heard from her since she moved to Korea with my younger brother a year past.
She later introduced him as ahjussi—middle-aged man. After all, by what other name was I to call him?
Our meeting at Incheon Airport was the first and last time I saw him look anywhere but straight ahead. For the next three months, I found myself losing time and time again in this silent fight of will. By the end of my stay, it was I that could not look into his eyes.
He drove an old Hyundai Porter pickup truck too small for his body. Looking into the truck from outside, he looked like a grizzly bear forced to play human. I often took on the role of fellow circus mate, snacking on peanuts and caramel squares as he drove up and down all of Korea delivering steel pipes and wooden planks to construction sites.
I made sure to observe him. I watched him take phone call after phone call on these drives and soon learned that he built houses for a living. This explained his dark skin, battered hands, and dirty shoes.
He once showed me a house in the middle of a field so green it flashed between yellow and blue. He asked me what I thought of it. I told him that no one pays attention to houses like these, houses that exist halfway. I didn’t tell him that I thought the star carving on the door was pretty.
I watched him play Lee Moon Sae’s 1991 hit “Old Love” on repeat, moving his head in a figure-eight motion to the piano. Sometimes, I heard screaming from the other end of the phone. He never screamed back; he didn’t seem to mind anything at all. He was like water, flowing and transparent.
He grew up poor in Yeon-cheon, Gyeonggi-do; a ten-minute drive from Dongdu-cheon, Gyeonggi-do, where he, my mom, and my 10-year-old brother live now.
His house was so close to the train tracks that it was a miracle it didn’t shake itself to the ground whenever a train passed. But there was one house even closer to the train tracks than his, belonging to an old couple and their three granddaughters: Mi-sun, Mi-ye, and Mi- hoon. He was classmates with Mi-sun, the oldest of three, and had eyes for only Mi-hoon, my mom. She was 20 when she told him that she didn’t like him back because he was poor.
At the age of 23, she left for Los Angeles, California with another boy in search of wealth and happiness amongst the palm trees and ocean waves. This boy was like fire, unpredictable and hot with anger. She tells me she had grown up too poor, had suffered too much, to know any better than to place trust in empty promises like his.
Ahjussi never left Gyeonggi-do.
Both went on to get married to separate people, to live separate lives. That is until my mom, refusing to sit still while the fire ate at both her skin and her youngest son’s, returned to her hometown. When she did, she was 46 and a mother of three: no longer the fair-skinned girl that he remembered.
18 and just out of high school, I pretended not to see her burnt skin and sunken eyes. As she packed her bags, I asked her why she had to leave. She answered that there was nothing left for her in America, that it was a matter of survival.
“I want to be brave,” she said. I stood there, mouth open and hands cold, unable to pretend that I could not see anymore.
He told me he never stopped loving her. That he never stopped waiting for her. He said it in such a way that I had no choice but to believe him. He was shameless, certain.
Out of spite, I asked him about his ex-wife and his two daughters.
“I love them all too,” he replied.
“Then what about my brother? What about me? Why are you so okay with all this? Why do you act like you like us?”
“It’s not that I like you two. It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s that you carry a piece of your mom in you, and whatever comes from your mom I love.”
His answer was so simple, I didn’t know how to feel. With him, I never do.
I met many of his friends. Sometimes, they brought me persimmons and fried chicken. I suspect ahjussi overheard me asking my mom for them.
They talked of ‘the old days,’ of ‘coming to their senses.’ When their speech slurred and necks reddened after too many shots of soju, they called him hyungnim—boss. From them, I learned that he was a kkangpae—a Korean gangster—up to his late 20s. They laughed as they called him Dongdu-cheon’s very own Moses; people split like the Red Sea when he passed by. I learned to laugh along with them.
Dongdu-cheon is home to one of the biggest U.S. army bases in Korea. This also means it is home to one of the biggest red-light districts in the country. The people there are largely poor and uneducated. The army men, perhaps tired of protecting a country not their own from a cold war that had gone too cold, drank too much too often and harassed business owners. Twenty years ago, Korea could not do without the help of the U.S. And so, the Korean government ordered the cops to turn a blind eye. Ahjussi, with the help of his two best friends, served instead of the cops. To this day, they are known as the men that protected Dongdu-cheon.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
I wasn’t surprised when he answered, “Because I love my hometown.”
Through stories like these, I pieced him together.
His view on love angered me. He seemed to love everyone and everything, which I felt was equivalent to loving no one and nothing.
His absolute faith in promises angered me. I felt that responsibility to uphold promises could not be black and white.
But I am glad he is the one my mom will grow old with. I am relieved he is the one my brother will look up to.
We drove back from Seoul to Dongdu-cheon for the last time to the slow beat of Lee Moon Sae’s “Old Love.” I had memorized the lyrics by then, and I moved my head in a figure-eight motion together with the ahjussi next to me. He spoke to me unprompted for the first time in three months.
“I am an everyday blue-collar worker, just an ahjussi. I work to make sure that the houses we build are built to stand strong and correct. If a house collapses, many people will get hurt. You see, there is no use in a pretty house if its roof leaks rainwater or if its floor is slanted. It’s my job to take responsibility for every house we put out to sell. I know that the houses I build are not anything special. But I always make sure they are safe for people to live in. I always make sure the winter wind won’t reach the people inside.”
My mom tells me that he is building their house in the mountains near Dongdu-cheon right now. A house so big that I would get lost trying to find the bathroom. She tells me that he did not think twice about building a room for me too.