Fat by Krys Lee
A young South Korean tries to avoid military service by becoming very fat, but this affects his family. Written by Krys Lee. Illustrated by Dominic Bugatto.
Illustration by Dominic Bugatto / Three in a box ©
There was only one word for me - fat. Fat as a melon. I moved slowly, heavily, slower than my words.
But I wasn’t fat enough. I was bigger than I’d ever been, and too heavy for dancing, but I needed to be eight kilos heavier.
Every day I ate spicy fried chicken, sweat potato pizza, jajang noodles, hot dogs and ice-cream sundaes. But I couldn’t get my weight more than 90 kilos. When I woke up, I ate chocolate. I ate three portions of french fries a day. I ate extra cake after dinner.
At first Abeoji didn’t notice. Then later, when it was hard not to notice, he said, ‘You’ll get tired of it, like you get tired of everything else.’ When he saw I wasn’t going to stop, he tried to make me vomit. He said he would take me to the authorities. He said he would put my head in the toilet and use my hair to clean it. But Eomma was always behind him so he couldn’t be too cruel. She naturally wanted to protect her only son. I told him it wasn’t easy to eat as much as I did. I said, ‘Abeoji, you want me to be a bulimic?’
‘What’s a bulimic?’ He said, ‘I’m trying to make you a good citizen.’
I didn’t think our government really needed me to do more than two years of military service. They had nearly 700,000 kids doing that for them, and the professional soldiers. I had thought about it and decided that the army didn’t need me.
At breakfast, eating bean paste stew several slices of cheese, I told my parents that I was less than ten kilograms from my goal. Abeoji cried into his rice. Abeoji never showed his feelings. He was too embarrassed to buy roses for his wife and he gave us money to buy our own birthday presents. But now he was crying. He hadn’t even cried when he gave a ten-minute speech at his mother’s funeral.
The whole family stared. I stared. I almost felt sorry. Then he wiped his eyes, and became strong again.
He said, ‘Are you just doing this to make me angry? Have you become a communist?’
But it was clear that I was eating because I didn’t want to be in the military near the 38th Parallel. He was acting like parents when their daughters were 30 and not yet married. He was hysterical and very unreasonable.
Abeoji pushed his chopsticks at my eyes. ‘It was difficult for us to find food. We mixed roots and leaves into a little bowl of barley and if we were lucky, we got a few spoons of rice. We were hungry but I knew I was serving my country.’
I said, ‘Which country? You mean when you were in Vietnam fighting for the Americans?’
He threw his rice on the table - this would make my mother refuse to cook for two days – but it didn’t frighten me at all. The only frightening thing was the pinstripe suit that he wore with Nike tennis shoes, like an old gangster.
He said, ‘Do you know what the Americans did for us? Of course we had to be in Vietnam! What kind of history did they teach you at school?’
He turned as red as the Chinese flag. I started eating again. I was sure I knew what was important.
Eomma moved the fish closer to me and said calmly, ‘Let our boy finish his meal in peace before you start on a history lesson. He enjoys eating. He’s not hurting anyone. You don’t know kids these days. You don’t know anything outside the military. You should be happy he’s not robbing banks.’
My older sister moved her long black hair back from her thin face. I called her Vampire when my parents weren’t there. ‘Who eats dwenjang jjigae with cheese? If he eats any more, will he get through the front door?’
Abeoji said, ‘The communist men in the North do military service for ten years; and the women, do seven.’
He tried to make me feel ashamed. But it didn’t work. North Koreans had no choice.
‘And you! You would serve less than three years and get three good meals a day! It’s like being in a five-star hotel for free.’
His face became so red, I gave him a glass of water.
Eomma tried to help. ‘Your Abba’s always exaggerates,’ she said.
I said, ‘And it’s different now – we don’t have to worry about North Koreans attacking.’
Abeoji said, ‘You don’t know what they could do.’
‘They’re starving up there! They’re not worried about us. And they were just trying to unify the country.’
‘How can you say that about the Reds?’ He looked sad. ‘You don’t sound like my son. And you certainly don’t look like my son.’
I was happy to hear that, but I pretended to be hurt.
‘Wonsu,’ my sister said as she got up to go to work, ‘When you get a job and everyone’s talking about their military service, what are you going to do? Talk about how to get fat?’
It was easy for her to say. She was allowed to become a sales manager after college without giving up a few years of her life. Just because she and my oldest married sister didn’t have a penis, they didn’t have to wear a uniform or shave their hair, or run up mountains in heavy boots. And we were helping the starving North: sending rice, paying high prices to watch their circus, and building a beautiful resort on their side of Geumgang Mountain. But everyone wanted me to run until my toes bled and practise firing at targets as if they were North Korean communists - all the news was about peace and starvation and the Sunshine policy and new friendships. It didn’t make sense.
But Abeoji understood it. He showed me his photos and medals. He talked about responsibility, honesty, sacrifice. Maybe the government had told him to say all that. He’d retired from the Incheon naval base two years ago. But he still lived like he was in the navy. He ordered people instead of talking to them even if the people were volunteers. He loved it when old people called him ‘the only honest civil servant’. My younger cousins loved him because he gave the fattest envelopes of New Year’s money. But I knew him better. He didn’t understand my music or dancing. He made me wear a cap when I grew my hair long. He said he’d make me wear pink dresses to school if I got pierced ears. And he didn’t understand what I wanted. His problem was that he’d been in the army too long. The army hadn’t changed, but Korea had.
I changed my clothes again. As I was going out of the door, Abeoji put his foot on my jeans. He said, ‘You’re going out again?’
I wished he was still working and couldn’t follow everything I did. ‘Abeoji, can you get off my jeans? Do you know how much they cost?’
He looked at a hole in my knee and said, ‘I’ve tried to be like Eomma, but I can’t talk to you. You don’t go to college or have a job. You’re just going to meet your friends and you’re going to eat. That’s what you’re going to do, eat.’
‘I do have a job.’
‘Delivering Chinese food is not a job.’
‘The pay’s double on weekends!’
I tried to get past him but he held my arms and forced me into my room. He was nearly 60 but still twice as strong as me.
He took all the chocolate, cans of SPAM and cakes, and put them into a box. It was like when he threw away my Japanese comics when I was younger. I couldn’t do anything. He’d said, ‘So Korea’s not good enough for you? You want the Japanese back so they can steal our women and destroy our language?’ I’d only wanted to be a comic-book artist.
‘Eomma!’ I shouted, but she didn’t come.
He said, ‘I’ll bring you lunch - even if you don’t need it.’
Illustration: Dominic Bugatto / Three in a Box
I said, ‘Is there no free speech? If you were president of this country, would you give me a vote?’
‘What is free speech?’ He closed the door.
I tried, but I couldn’t open the door. Abeoji had chained the outside doorknob to something I couldn’t see. I threw my body against the door but it didn’t move. I shouted, ‘Eomma! Eomma!’
The door stayed shut.
I was alone, locked up like a political prisoner. My skin would go yellow without sunlight, my teeth would fall out, and Abeoji would be sorry when I got scurvy. I stared at my posters of the great rapper Seo Taeji and Will Smith’s socks that I’d asked him for, hanging, unwashed and signed, over my desk. I looked at photos of when I was thin and could dance. Then I did what I’d promised myself I wouldn’t do. I took my clothes off and looked at my body in the full-length mirror. I looked at the fat of my arms, my legs and my stomach, at what was now me. I had to get out.
The window upstairs was open. I banged on the ceiling with a baseball bat. Sa-jin put his head out the window and said, ‘Would you please stop? I’m trying to study.’
Minutes later, I was in his room rubbing my hands and he was pulling up the rope.
Sa-jin was a graduate student from outside the city. He lived on the floor above. When he first moved in, he was skinny with bad spots on his forehead and too-tight jeans on his thin legs. But four months ago, just before his fitness test, he weighed 99 kilos. I could fit both my legs into his jeans then.
‘Could you sit on the floor?’ he said.
‘Can’t I stay on the bed?’
‘You’re too heavy for my new mattress.’
‘Thanks!’ I was happy. I sat on the floor.
Sa-jin was quickly losing weight and I was putting on weight. His face looked like an old lady’s stomach after liposuction.
I took some chocolate out of my pocket and ate it. ‘Can’t I live here with you? Eomma would bring us food. You would save money!’
‘And have your Abeoneem chasing me?’ Sajin looked at the door. ‘You better go before he sees you’re gone. I can’t let you stay.’
‘But I’ll have to find a place to live.’
‘Your Abeoneem always said you were lazy.’
I stood up. ‘You’re so judgmental.’
‘You shouldn’t speak to your senior that way,’ he said. ‘And you failed the college entrance exams twice.’
Abeoji had said the same thing. He also said that he expected more from a son. He said I was lazy.
I was lazy. But I didn’t think it was wrong to want an easy life. I just needed a job as a dancer, to get money doing what I liked. When I was younger, I tried to study to please him, but I wasn’t good at school. After I failed the college entrance exam the second time, I started to think: do I really want to go to college and become one of the salarymen with the same haircuts, the same mistresses and the same problems? I started to think: what do I really want to do with my life?
But am I lazy? It took me four months of constant eating to put on more than 20 kilos; it took Sa-jin eight to get his certificate to say he didn’t need to do military service. I told him to frame it. Some parents of rich kids gave the doctors money so the kids didn't have to do service. Most children of important people: National Assembly members, the President, rich businessmen, even a lot of professors, had very high rates of blindness, urination problems, and mental disease. None of them were healthy enough to do military service but a few years later, it was strange that they recovered and got top business jobs, or, in one case, won a windsurfing competition. Other guys cut off a few fingers so they couldn't do service because they had to support their family. I respected their determination.
I went to meet my friends. On the way I smelt the diesel. I listened to rap music.
‘You’re late,’ said Jina.
It was noon, my friends were drinking beer, doing nothing as usual. Jina had long, braided hair like she was black. She looked cute and tough, smoking a menthol cigarette. She worked in salons entertaining middle-aged men, to help pay her father’s credit-card debt.
‘Late for what?’
‘We were thinking of seeing a movie or practising, or something.’
I put my arm around her. She pushed it away. ‘Obba, I get enough of that at work.’
But she didn’t push away Hwangmin’s leg, pressed against hers. Tall and thin Hwangmin had dreadlocks. He was a professional backdancer.
Hwangmin said, ‘There’s an audition next Wednesday.’ He didn’t look at me.
So naturally I asked, ‘How many are they picking?’
He said, ‘Maybe three or four. It’ll be difficult, but good chances.’ He laughed. ‘You interested?’
I was always interested, but did it matter now? I rubbed my stomach. A few more months, then I could lose the weight. I said, ‘That’s like asking a monster truck to do the work of a Porsche.’
My ‘loser friends’, as Abeoji called them, laughed.
Jina said, ‘All you think about is cars but you’re too big to fit into a car.’
‘I think about other things.’
‘Lunch! Can we get some lunch?’
They laughed again. It wasn’t hard to get them to laugh. I wondered if I’d ever be able lose all this weight and, if I did lose weight, would I ever get a real dancing job that paid real money? Or would I always spend my afternoons drinking beer and soju and spend my evenings delivering mapao tofu? I was starting to sound like Abeoji, so I turned on the television to see if there were any good-looking girls.
I didn’t want my friends to protect me from Abeoji while I got my things, but I asked them to wait outside in case I needed help. I didn’t want to hurt Eomma. Also, I didn’t want to see Abeoji cry again. He would say that if I were a good son, I would live with them even after marriage and take care of them in their old age. But I wasn’t a good son, and it was better that he learned that early.
The family had made preparations. The living room was full of the people I was most afraid of: my relatives. There were about 20 of them. They looked excited when I went in. Oldest Aunt, Youngest Aunt with two babies at her breasts, Eldest Uncle and a cousin who’d finished military service a month ago. He told everyone he met that he had become a better person because of it.
I looked at Eomma. She looked sorry. ‘It was Abba’s idea’, she mouthed.
I bowed to the relatives. ‘Where’s Youngest Uncle?’ I asked.
‘Remember?’, said Eomma. ‘He emigrated to Canada last year.’
Abeoji said, ‘And where were you?’
He moved his seat so I could not get to my bedroom. I wasn’t too rude to say hello to my relatives.
‘I was at the library.’ I lied. ‘I’m thinking of taking the entrance exams again.’
My cousin leaned forward. He looked very old, at least 30. He said, ‘Your Abeoneem told us everything. You’re an total shame to your country.’
The room nodded.
I turned my cap backwards and swore.
My cousin said, ‘There are adults here! Don’t swear!’
Eldest Aunt said, ‘Do you want to ruin all your father’s good work?’
Eldest Uncle, or Professor Kim as he called himself, moved his glasses. He stared at me. ‘Astonishing,’ he said. ‘You look disgusting.’
I rubbed my big belly under my t-shirt. I was disgusting. But I was proud of this.
I said, ‘I’m not going.’
Abeoji looked sick and pale. He must have been desperate to tell the relatives about this embarrassment. He said, ‘Can’t you see what everyone will think of you for the rest of your life?’
I said, ‘Let them think.’
When Abeoji spoke, his voice was quieter than it had ever been. ‘I may not always be right, but you’re my son. And, maybe you don’t like it, but I pay for where we live.’
That’s when I got the rent contract out of my pocket and waved it like a victory flag. ‘I’m moving out tonight. That’s what I came back to tell you – that I don’t have to live with this terrible military idea any longer!’
I wanted this to be my moment of triumph and independence. But Abeoji looked at Eomma, and his hard face began to go soft.
Then he slowly turned back to Eomma and said, ‘It must be heartburn. Maybe it was the meat,’ and fell to the floor.
At first, I thought that Abeoji had pretended to have a heart attack. His collapsed body looked like in the movies. I said, ‘Let’s check if it’s real before we take him to the hospital.’
In the emergency room, my relatives sat a few seats away from me and looked at me as I was cancer.
I stared at my hands. Eomma was biting her fingernails. I tore the hole in my jeans. I pulled my jacket hood over my face and imagined I could stop myself breathing.
We were there for a few hours. Then the doctor came and told us it was a small attack. He said that Abeoji was strong. He had needed medication for blood pressure medication for some time but had refused to take it.
Eomma was crying. ‘Your abeoji is stubborn. I kept telling him that deer antler soup isn’t the same as Western medicine. I wish he’d taken his pills...’
I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell us about his blood pressure?’
My cousin said angrily, ‘Would it have made a difference?’
Eomma’s hands went white as she held them tightly together. She knew and I knew that if I’d gone to the army, Abeoji wouldn’t be in hospital now.
I lay down across the seats. My big belly stopped me seeing all the other people. I closed my eyes. The next time I opened my eyes, I’d made my decision. I was going to shave my head, run ten kilometers a day. I was ready to eat dry rice and kimchee, share a room with lots of other men and get out of bed at six in the morning. If it kept Abeoji alive, I would even stop eating hot dogs for breakfast.
I said this to myself until the next day when Abeoji finally asked to see me. He was lying down with tubes going into his arms, a heart monitor by his bed. He reached for my hand. He had already finished his breakfast and was watching the morning news, all good signs.
‘When are they letting me out?’ he complained.
‘Abeoji, you need to rest. You haven’t rested for more than 40 years. That’s what you need, a rest.’
I began to cry. I couldn’t stop. He looked smaller lying down. Gravity makes you get smaller with age. He was proof. In a few years, I’d probably be able to carry him.
He patted my hand. ‘Wonsu, don’t cry. I’m not dead. You can cry at the funeral, but you’ll have to wait a long time for that.’
I said, ‘Abeoji, I have something to say...’
But Abeoji didn’t hear me because he was laughing. ‘Listen to that!’
He was waving his hands in the air.
‘Abeoji, you need to calm down.’
He took my belly in his hands and pushed it up and down.
‘Son! You and your 200 hot dogs are going to the army!’
‘How did you know? I ...’
He took my chin in his hand and turned my head to the TV screen. ‘Listen to that! They’ve just changed the law – you can’t get out of military service by being too heavy! See? They’re fixing problems, one by one. Good for the government!’
The newscaster continued to talk about the many ways that young men were trying to not do military service. I just sat back and watched Abeoji’s tired, sick eyes light up with excitement as he thought of his other son, the one that never disappointed him.
NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: https://www.newint.org/features/2016/10/01/fat/ (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).