The Youngest Son
By JB Hwang
In a rural province in Korea lived a young man, a history scholar. He was in his twenties when the Japanese invaded, assassinated the Korean queen, burned down their palaces, filled the ruins with animals, and began their occupation in 1910. He heard and saw firsthand how the Japanese stole Korean land, subjected them to forced labor at home and abroad, and performed science experiments on pregnant Korean women. From then on, Koreans were only allowed to speak Japanese in public, had to change their names to Japanese ones, and could only study Japanese history. The young man was no longer a history scholar.
When the Japanese offered the young man a lucrative position in the Imperial administration, he refused to help the oppressors and ran away, spending his days gambling and drinking himself into a stupor. He avoided his murky, bleak future for as long as he could. When he had no money left to gamble, he returned to the wife of his youth and had three sons by her. He did no more work for the rest of his life. Instead, he met with other men in the village to bemoan the humiliation of their people while his wife toiled over the land to feed the family with whatever the Japanese did not take away.
As fortune would have it, their First Son was born with four thumbs—two on each hand. The smaller thumbs grew below the normally sized ones and moved just as skillfully. In those days, there were fewer social restraints on harassing the unusual, and ostracizing a mutant was to be expected. Thus, if you walked through this small Korean village during Japanese occupation, you would have seen a child with a depth of loneliness and rage in his eyes far too developed for someone so small. The First Son consoled himself with dreams of becoming more powerful than everyone in his village. His ascent would be his vindication. When his parents couldn’t afford to send him to middle school, he stopped eating until they found an uncle who could. His extra thumbs were removed around the age of eleven. In a new town, away from his parents, with just two thumbs, the First Son reinvented himself.
When the First Son turned eighteen, he won a grueling national abacus competition, earning himself a job for the Japanese Imperial Bank, which was when he was able to put aside his work as an opium drug mule. His whole village heard about how he was able to move their entire family to the wealthy city of Kaesong. His father, the former history scholar, declared he would rather rip out his liver than work for the Japanese, but now he said nothing about his son working for them. The First Son flexed his new status and wealth by marrying a daughter from one of the richest, Japanese-sympathizing bourgeoise families in Kaesong.
Then the Korean War happened. The First Son’s wife’s bourgeoise family were all shot to death in the public square by the Communists, and the First Son was kidnapped by the North Korean army. The First Son’s wife fled on foot across the length of the country with their four children—ages ten, seven, three, and a newborn—as the North Korean army advanced south, all the way to Busan. The First Son eventually escaped the North Koreans by swimming south in the ocean by night and hiding in the forests by day, until finally, three years after he had been kidnapped, he appeared at the tiny shack in Busan where his wife and four children were squatting. The reunion lacked joyful hugging or crying. The First Son’s figure darkened the whole room when he appeared in the doorway, and everyone’s hearts dropped, with no words coming out of anyone’s mouth.
In Seoul after the war (Kaesong had gone to the North Koreans), the First Son found his parents, brother’s widow, and brother’s daughter. He brought them under his roof and rebuilt himself yet again. He started businesses in textiles and agriculture, went bankrupt and started over several times. He bought land, built houses, and paved the roads in his neighborhood. The First Son felt responsible for supporting all ten people under his roof, but he also felt the right to beat any of them who disagreed with him (besides his parents). The First Son once called his brother’s widow into his office and slapped her across the face after hearing she danced with a man at a party. He told her to focus on raising her child.
He would have his tender moments too, throwing a blanket over his children’s heads, lighting a lantern underneath, and reading stories to them. As a father, the First Son was a zealot for family summer vacations to the countryside, and when the first domestic flights became available, he booked flights for the entire family so they could experience it.
He also taught himself English, mumbling phrases to himself in his study before he closed the door to make business calls, because his plan was to move the whole family to America, the seat of world power. He bribed an American business acquaintance to help get his oldest child into an American college, who would be naturalized first and then sponsor the rest of the family. Despite all his business demands, he found the time to send three hundred and six letters to his oldest child the first year he was at the American university.
Even the inside flaps of the envelopes were covered with postscripts.
As the First Son continued to amass wealth to prepare for the rest of his family to move, his vision for the future was dampened by one thing—his Youngest Son. Despite being raised in an independent Korea, wealthy, and with exactly ten fingers, the Youngest Son appeared to be a freak.
The Youngest Son spent too much time staring at the homeless that filled the dusty, dirt roads of Seoul and the amputees that lay on the roads, their tendons exposed, full of maggots. While his father was like a steam engine charging full speed ahead, the Youngest Son only saw the faces of the ragged men who begged for work at the iron gates then stopped to greet him as he left to attend the country’s most exclusive private school. The Youngest Son covered his new shoes with mud and sprinkled dust on his freshly ironed school uniform.
One night, the Youngest Son’s older sister, a young girl, woke up in the middle of a rainy night, startled by distant screaming and yelling. She nervously followed the noises down the hall before identifying the source. She saw the Youngest Son, a little boy, sitting cross-legged on the roof under the night sky getting drenched. His head hung back, and he was sobbing, his voice obstructed by the thunder and the din of the downpour hitting the roof. His older sister called him back in, and in a daze, the Youngest Son followed her voice back to the attic window and into the house. She wrapped a towel around his small, shaking body and told him to stop being foolish and go to sleep before their father found out.
The Youngest Son hated his father. When the Youngest Son was in third grade, a student who copied his answers on a test failed while the Youngest Son received a perfect score, revealing to the whole class that the teacher was being bribed to give the Youngest Son preferential treatment, a common practice at the time. His father didn’t care about the bribe being found out, but he was embarrassed to the point of rage that his Youngest Son was an imbecile. His father gripped his Youngest Son’s chin and scratched the answers of the test onto his face with a red pen. Then his father dragged his Youngest Son by his face to a mirror. Thin welts swelled up on the eight-year-old face, scratched-up by the names of famous generals and kings.
“All your failures will become your face,” his father uttered, “The first thing people see when they look at you. If you’re not careful, everyone will see you as a freak, a monster. And then what will I do with you? I’ll kill you with my own hands.”
His father pushed him down and kicked him, trying to awaken or provoke some sort of passion. It was as if with each blow, the demons of wrath, fear, and shame that possessed him in his four-thumbed childhood, found a new, young host to inhabit. His father forced the Youngest Son to keep a straight face while he was being beat, as any sign of fear, anger, or sadness was seen as defiance against the justness of the punishment and would only stoke more violence. The Youngest Son was able to stay stone-faced while being hit by fantasizing how he would kill his father—taking a hammer to his skull, holding various body parts over open flames, tenderizing his flesh with a mallet, gutting him like a fish. The Youngest Son filled diary after diary with how much he hated his father. He hid all the journals in stacks, under the floorboards of the attic.
The Youngest Son’s grandfather, the former historian, the deadbeat scholar, sympathized more with his youngest grandson than his overachieving First Son. Idle since the Japanese occupation, the Youngest Son and his grandfather stared out the window at the homeless amputees together.
The old man pointed at them and said, “They are expectable outcomes of our tragic history. Ever since those Japanese bastards came here… although our own infighting weakened us from defending ourselves.”
The Youngest Son put his small hand on his grandfather’s knee, encouraging him to continue. His grandfather, also trying to make sense of the beggars and orphans that crowded the streets, recounted Korea’s last monarchs, creeping foreign influences, Japanese Imperial occupation, and the Soviet-, Chinese-, American-induced civil war. The Youngest Son ate up his grandfather’s history lessons. His grandfather, intrigued by the extent his grandson seemed to absorb, taught him to memorize thousands of Chinese characters, as well. By ten years old, the Youngest Son had memorized enough characters to read Korean, Chinese, and Japanese newspapers; but at school, he stared out the window.
One thing worried his grandfather. The boy was a bit effeminate. His grandfather caught him listening to an older sister’s piano lessons and secretly teaching himself music (music!). Now his grandfather also whipped the Youngest Son, claiming it was for his own good, and he also fired the Youngest Son’s calligraphy tutor who brazenly remarked the young boy had the makings of a talented painter. At the time, his grandfather subscribed to the common belief that allowing a boy to indulge in the arts would turn him into a eunuch. The Youngest Son cried and cried, so his grandfather comforted him with candies and his tales of impregnating prostitutes at the beginning of Japanese occupation. He didn’t want his grandson to shrink away from his masculinity, his place over women.
The Youngest Son’s place over women was evident everywhere he looked. As he continued to bear the brunt of his father’s rages—at one point being beat by a metal rod in the middle of the night—the women of the house made a concerted effort to compensate. When his homework was not turned in on time, his mother fired his tutors and searched for hungrier ones. When he didn’t like the games the neighborhood boys played, his sisters secretly let him play house with them. When a servant girl cried because he pulled her hair for fun, she was the one punished for letting him get close enough. Never could the mother and sisters oppose the father; they could only comfort the son. Girls and women were there to absorb pain, to comfort, to fill the gap between his father’s expectations and his actual performance.
The Youngest Son became a young man. His skin remained pale but with a smattering of fresh pimple scars across his cheeks. His black hair became rebelliously shaggy, his square jaw became more pronounced, and his curved nose sharpened into a point like a beak. His thin, sculpted lips pursed in concentration. In an open field in Connecticut, he applied careful strokes of oil paint to the canvas. His older brother, having graduated college in America, offered to help their father find a boarding school for the Youngest Son. His older brother felt sorry for him, and as a favor, he chose a hippie, experimental boarding school of the ’60s that only offered pass-fail classes, which included plein-air painting and guitar lessons. After this gentle introduction to the States, their father transferred the Youngest Son to a proper New England boarding school with grades and classrooms.
The Youngest Son was accepted to U.C. Berkeley in the late 70s, but he refused to be an engineer as his father had planned. They compromised at Economics. To his father’s outrage, the Youngest Son earned his spending allowance by washing dishes in restaurants. The Youngest Son smoked a prodigious amount of marijuana and invested in a quality sound system for his record collection. He loved America. Slowly, his father accomplished his goal in transplanting the rest of the family to the States—the Youngest Son’s oldest sister was married off to a Korean doctor in New York, his older brother and parents moved to Los Angeles, and his second older sister was getting her MFA in ceramics at Berkeley while living with his youngest sister who was attending a private high school in San Francisco. The Youngest Son’s grandparents passed away before they were able to see the Promise Land.
Unfortunately, the bulk of his father’s money remained in Korea because, at the time, transferring capital out of the fragile, embryonic economy was illegal, and in some cases punishable by death. When the Youngest Son was earning his MBA (also at Berkeley), his father’s cousin, who was overseeing the covert money transfers, said he could not explain the sudden freeze of transfers. The Youngest Son’s father was stuck in the States with his mother’s dialysis treatments and their green card application. With a bravery and heroism that surprised even himself, the Youngest Son promised to finish transferring his father’s capital, tailoring his master’s thesis on the Korean manufacturing industry to require field research in Seoul. His mother and sisters balked at the risk of his being criminally charged, but his father thanked him and accepted the help.
Back in his home country as an adult, his father’s associate bought the Youngest Son time with a sex worker, and he timidly asked the older woman to teach him what he was supposed to do. She only laughed at him, and the Youngest Son ran out, mortified, learning only the extent of his own ignorance. He worried he was becoming the eunuch his late grandfather had admonished him not to become.
Within weeks of being in Korea, the Youngest Son was arrested and stripped naked. The police tied a burlap sack filled with shredded dried hot peppers over his head, beating him with sticks and their steel-tipped shoes, which caused his tears to burn into his eye sockets. The police demanded to know how much money he had wired and how much was left.
The next morning, however, his interrogators were shocked to learn that the Youngest Son had an American passport, and they looked upon his bruised and swollen body, weeping at how much trouble they would get in for beating up a US citizen. The police begged him not to report anything to the American embassy, South Korea’s biggest investor. They tried to move the Youngest Son to more comfortable quarters, but he refused. His oldest sister flew in from New York and stayed in Seoul to bring to him a hot meal each day, and they learned it was his father’s cousin that had turned in the Youngest Son and ran away with his father’s money. The Youngest Son became suicidal. His father had to rebuild himself again in America.
His mother and sisters concluded that the Youngest Son needed a wife after his imprisonment. Surely, they thought, a pretty, young heiress, also educated abroad, could comfort the Youngest Son who was only imprisoned out of filial duty and a bureaucratic mishap. A bride was arranged for, and he was married the month he came out of jail in Korea and sent back to the States, where he struggled to finish his graduate studies.
Sex with his first wife was never satisfying for either of them. They fumbled with each other’s bodies and involuntarily convulsed through the cold, wet movements—the Youngest Son silently pretending to know what to do, his first wife nonplussed, trying to feel him inside her, and both of them feeling deeply humiliated afterwards. So badly did the Youngest Son perceive his sexual performance that he saw his wife’s pregnancy as proof of her infidelity. His first wife would wake up in the middle of the night with his hands tightening around her throat as he demanded the name of the other man. She divorced him, and the Youngest Son’s father sold an art collection to ensure the Youngest Son had full custody of his child, the only son of a son in the family (his older brother only had daughters at the time).
After the Youngest Son’s divorce, his sexual attraction to men, which had been vigorously repressed for so long, gave way, and the accumulated passions poured out like a flood. The Youngest Son became terrified of sleep as he would wake up to wet dreams of his male coworkers, and he feared going into work and deliriously spending the day controlling his arousal. In an insomniac daze, he quit his job. His toddler son was left alone in their unfurnished apartment while he went out to drink.
Religion was a natural turn of events. Still drunk one morning, he was caught outside in the rain, and he sought shelter at a Korean church that was having an early morning prayer service. He planned to sleep in the pews, but all congregants were praying at once in a cacophony of voices that pleaded for God to see them. Their voices declared their faith that He would answer, and they tearfully confessed their desperate situations and broken selves. The Youngest Son felt struck by lightning. He remembered every question he screamed at the raining sky as a child, and now the Heavenly Father was finally answering him. The Youngest Son went from unemployed alcoholic to active Bible study attendee and faithful church participant. Gone was the existentially paralyzed youth. Enter born-again single father. It was around this time that the Youngest Son ran into a woman secretary from his previous job, my mother.
This is the part of the story that gets difficult for me, his Eldest Daughter. Until this point, it is much easier to build up sympathy for a Youngest Son, the closeted immigrant, the wannabe hippie, the civil war baby, the First Son’s son. But once he becomes my father, my mother’s husband, he becomes a part of my story. The idleness of my great-grandfather, the destructive rage of my grandfather, my grandmother’s and aunts’ coddling of scarred men, the neuroses, the syndromes, the disorders, all become possible genetic inheritances and inadvertently absorbed traditions. Perhaps the Youngest Son’s story has only been my story all along.
When my father, the Youngest Son, met my mother, the secretary, she was five feet tall and less than 100 pounds. She wore braces and looked to be twelve years old. When she came to the States at eighteen, she had not gone to college, did not speak English, and worked in a factory manufacturing Korean electronics. Eventually, she took night classes to become a secretary, and was hired by a Korean steel company’s branch office in Los Angeles, where she met my father, before his divorce. He used to tease the church-girl that never attended any company parties, and now he laughed at her look of shock when he ran into her at church. Did she still work at the company? How were the coworkers doing? Didn’t she love the pastor’s sermon on faith from the book of James? Did she like the movies? What was she doing on Saturday night?
My father was physically attracted to my mother, and he counted it as a sign of his redemption. His old-fashioned lust for a girl ten years his junior was completely respectable. He bombarded her with his newfound spirituality and seduced her with how he had quit smoking and drinking for Jesus. My mother ate it all up, amazed at how God could so change a man.
Her parents begged her to reconsider. A young maiden marrying a much older, unemployed divorcé, with a child no less, was an enormous social insult to Koreans. But she acted out of character in doing the exact opposite of what her parents asked her to do. She later confessed that the main reason for marrying my father was that she felt sorry for him. The night he asked her to marry him, he wept that he needed her desperately. She believed him.
Their marriage was a catastrophe. My father, unable to hold down a job for more than a year at a time, took my mother with him to his father, to ask for money. My parents sat on their knees, heads bowed, and my grandfather threw a wad of cash at their heads, greenbacks fluttering all around them. My mother felt my father nudging her, so she crawled around on the carpet, picking up each bill.
“You are worse than trash,” my grandfather muttered to my father, “You’ve turned your innocent, gullible wife into a cockroach, crawling around on the floor. I should have killed you long ago, but I was too weak-hearted then.”
My father was used to being treated like this by his father, but my mother was stunned. To make matters worse, my grandmother showed excessive accommodation to my father and half-brother while demanding my mother do the same. My older half-brother, who was five years old when they married, had become so accustomed to our grandmother’s lenience that he slapped my mother’s face if she tried to discipline him. If he, the only son of a son, cried, my mother was cursed at and beat for provoking him. Everything was turning into a nightmare for my mother, who was pregnant with me, her first child. As she vomited every day for forty weeks and felt her belly and ankles swell up, her uterus contract, her spine pierced, and her vagina ripped open, she felt as though the sky and the earth switched places. She wondered if she were brought in as a sex slave for him and tutor for his son.
My father was disappointed in my mother as well. He thought of his own mother’s silent devotion to his father after her family had been killed by the North Korean communists, and he couldn’t understand what was wrong with my mother. He expected more from a Christian. When he found her birth control pills, he flushed them down the toilet. He said all children were gifts from God, and as his late grandfather taught him, condoms were for sissies. Against my mother’s will and without her say, four children came out of her in four years. My siblings and I are the product of marital rape, which was not considered a crime in America until 1997, long after my youngest sibling was born. After the fourth child, my mother secretly tied her tubes behind my father’s back. The one who paid for it? My grandmother, my father’s mother, who was appalled at how many grandchildren were being born when her Youngest Son was perpetually unemployed.
My father said there was nothing wrong with living in a one-bedroom apartment with his wife and five children, and that all of us were spoiled, ungrateful rats. My mother begged him to find a job that could provide for the family, but he screamed that we were living much better than the homeless amputees of his childhood.
“Did you know we’re living like kings? Only in America could we live like this.”
Then, “Everyone else on welfare doesn’t deserve it like we do. Uneducated, lazy, people. They’re making us look bad.”
To us kids, “Your mother is why I can’t succeed! She refuses to learn English and help me run a business.”
Then, “A woman’s place is the home raising kids. Do you want to be raised by strangers?”
Fact was, he never managed to hold a position for longer than a few years at a time, moving from dry-cleaning, managing at a 7-11, to freelance translating. He would begin a new career, work like a machine, and just before breaking the threshold into profitable gains, quit.
My mother became increasingly nihilistic, getting all her grievances off her chest even if it meant meeting his rage. “Why am I always the one who has to ask my family for help? Isn’t your family the one with money?”
My father slapped her teeth loose. He chased her out of the house barefoot with a lead pipe. He poured a saucepan of boiling water on her head. “I am not a monster!” he would scream. He kept reminding us of his genius, his elite education, his rich family, and his kindness and generosity lavished onto his high school graduate second wife from a poor family. He told my mother she was nothing compared to his first wife, but she only yelled back, “Yes, she was smart enough to leave you!”
My father then switched strategies, begging her to remember how much God hated divorce and demanded self-sacrifice, punching holes in the wall to prove his point. Fearing for her life, my mother took us four children and disappeared into a domestic violence shelter, leaving my older half-brother behind with him, since my father said he would throw her and her kids away long before he threw his first son away. A judge signed a restraining order, and my father and half-brother were left alone in their apartment.
My father said he became a pastor to save his marriage, knowing my mother’s enduring passion for Jesus. At an age most ministers began leading their own congregations, my father enrolled in his first theology classes. My grandfather was enraged that my father had chosen a futureless career and cut off all communication with him. My grandmother and aunts secretly sent him tuition money.
The church played a key role in getting my parents back together. Pastors and deacons of the church reached out to my mother with letters, phone calls, and intercessions, reminding her of her lifelong spiritual obligation that she had promised before God to keep. I wonder if she believed them, or if she believed my father becoming a pastor had made him safe to life with, or if raising her four children without my father would require too much help from her parents and siblings who from the start had vehemently objected to the marriage. She calculated as hard as she could. Or maybe seeing my father poring over the Bible rekindled something from the first romance.
His rage and fear had not fully expended themselves though. He swerved our car on the freeway, slammed on the brakes and then tried to push my mother out, screaming, “Stop turning me into a monster!” I don’t want to explain the creative ways he terrorized my siblings and me.
My father was never invited to lead a congregation. His paycheck never met our family’s cost of living, and he saw my mother’s desire to work as an affront to his manhood. It wasn’t until he became a jail chaplain that he was able to hold down a job for five whole years and counting. He finally seemed to connect with his congregation—a group of inmates who had no say in who preached to them or prayed for them.
It was during this time his father passed away and there was a downward shift in my father’s energy level, even in his lung capacity while screaming. My father used the small inheritance he received to pay off his remaining seminary loans, but also some credit card debts none of us had known about. He also began spending six to eight hours a day reading comic books in his room until a couple hours before it was time to go to jail. He would come out to the living room, sit, and squint in front of a computer and Bible until he wrote something out; then he put on a suit and went to preach. Maybe he was just getting old.
In a home furnished by mismatched donations from various church members, our father would mention stories from his past life—tripping on acid in Berkeley or how his old private school classmate from Seoul was now the CEO of Samsung. The exhausted look on his face halfway through these explanations implied that we would never be old enough to understand. But I have tried.
Who else in the world would try this hard to listen to, research, and understand him as I, his Eldest Daughter have?
After reading over his story that I’ve cobbled together, I see that I’ve centered his narrative at my expense. The level of attention and desire to understand has been one-sided. He has been lucky, beyond fortunate, to have a daughter like me, but his pain and emotional reactions and outbursts have left no room for conversation.
I heard from my mother that he has disappeared last week, and he is not answering any of our texts or calls. We know he is alive though, because the cloud on his desktop keeps updating pictures from his phone. The images are dark and blurry, sidewalks devoid of people, the photo-diary of an insomniac. Pictures of a two-story, vine-covered, brick house with iron gates match the description of the home our grandfather built in Seoul after the war.
I wonder if he has space in his life for me, and if I want anything to do with him. If he doesn't want us, then we don't want him. This story seems to have brought me to some kind of limit.
JB Hwang is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing Fiction at the University of Florida.