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Excerpt from Pachinko

The Literary Hub, February 2017

The following is from Min Jin Lee’s novel, Pachinko. Lee's debut novel, Free Food for Millionaires, was one of the "Top 10 Novels of the Year" for The Times (London), NPR's Fresh Air, and USA Today. Her writings have appeared in NPR's Selected Shorts, Condé Nast Traveler, The Times (London), Vogue, Travel+Leisure, Wall Street Journal, New York Times Magazine, and Food & Wine. She lives in New York with her family.
June 1932

At the very beginning of summer, less than six months before the young pastor arrived at the boardinghouse and fell ill, Sunja met the new fish broker, Koh Hansu.

There was a cool edge to the marine air on the morning Sunja went to the market to shop for the boardinghouse. Ever since she was an infant strapped to her mother’s back, she had gone to the open-air market in Nampo-dong; then later, as a little girl, she’d held her father’s hand as he shuffled there, taking almost an hour each way because of his crooked foot. The errand was more enjoyable with him than with her mother, because everyone in the village greeted her father along the way so warmly. Hoonie’s misshapen mouth and awkward steps seemingly vanished in the presence of the neighbors’ kind inquiries about the family, the boardinghouse, and the lodgers. Hoonie never said much, but it was obvious to his daughter, even then, that many sought his quiet approval—the thoughtful gaze from his honest eyes.

After Hoonie died, Sunja was put in charge of shopping for the boardinghouse. Her shopping route didn’t vary from what she had been taught by her mother and father: first, the fresh produce, next, the soup bones from the butcher, then a few items from the market ajummas squatting beside spice-filled basins, deep rows of glittering cutlass fish, or plump sea bream caught hours earlier—their wares arrayed attractively on turquoise and red waxed cloths spread on the ground. The vast market for seafood—one of the largest of its kind in Korea—stretched across the rocky beach carpeted with pebbles and broken bits of stone, and the ajummas hawked as loudly as they could, each from her square patch of tarp.

Sunja was buying seaweed from the coal man’s wife, who sold the best quality. The ajumma noticed that the new fish broker was staring at the boardinghouse girl.

“Shameless man. How he stares! He’s almost old enough to be your father!” The seaweed ajumma rolled her eyes. “Just because a man’s rich doesn’t give him the right to be so brazen with a nice girl from a good family.”

Sunja looked up and saw the new man in the light-colored Western suit and white leather shoes. He was standing by the corrugated-tin and wood offices with all the other seafood brokers. Wearing an off-white Panama hat like the actors in the movie posters, Koh Hansu stood out like an elegant bird with milky-white plumage among the other men, who were wearing dark clothes. He was looking hard at her, barely paying attention to the men speaking around him. The brokers at the market controlled the wholesale purchases of all the fish that went through there. Not only did they have the power to set the prices, they could punish any boat captain or fisherman by refusing to buy his catch; they also dealt with the Japanese officials who controlled the docks. Everyone deferred to the brokers, and few felt comfortable around them. The brokers rarely mixed socially outside their group. The lodgers at the boardinghouse spoke of them as arrogant interlopers who made all the profits from fishing but kept the fish smell off their smooth white hands. Regardless, the fishermen had to stay on good terms with these men who had ready cash for purchases and the needed advance when the catch wasn’t any good.

“A girl like you is bound to be noticed by some fancy man, but this one seems too sharp. He’s a Jeju native but lives in Osaka. I hear he can speak perfect Japanese. My husband said he was smarter than all of them put together, but crafty. Uh-muh! He’s still looking at you!” The seaweed ajumma flushed red straight down to her collarbone.

Sunja shook her head, not wanting to check. When the lodgers flirted with her, she ignored them and did her work, and she would behave no differently now. The ajummas at the market tended to exaggerate, anyway.

“May I have the seaweed that my mother likes?” Sunja feigned interest in the oblong piles of dried seaweed, folded like fabric, separated in rows of varying quality and price.

Remembering herself, the ajumma blinked, then wrapped a large portion of seaweed for Sunja. The girl counted out the coins, then accepted the parcel with two hands.

“Your mother is taking care of how many lodgers now?”

“Six.” From the corner of her eye, Sunja could see that the man was now talking to another broker, but still looking in her direction. “She’s very busy.”

“Of course she is! Sunja-ya, a woman’s life is endless work and suffering. There is suffering and then more suffering. It’s better to expect it, you know. You’re becoming a woman now, so you should be told this. For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life—but no matter what, always expect suffering, and just keep working hard. No one will take care of a poor woman—just ourselves.”

Mrs. Jun patted her perpetually bloated stomach and turned to the new customer, allowing Sunja to return home.

At dinner, the Chung brothers mentioned Koh Hansu, who had just bought their entire catch.

“For a broker, he’s okay,” Gombo said. “I prefer a smart one like him who doesn’t suffer fools. Koh doesn’t haggle. It’s one price, and he’s fair enough. I don’t think he’s trying to screw you like the others, but you can’t refuse him.”

Fatso then added that the ice broker had told him that the fish broker from Jeju was supposed to be unimaginably rich. He came into Busan only three nights a week and lived in Osaka and Seoul. Everyone called him Boss.

* * * *

Koh Hansu seemed to be everywhere. Whenever she was in the market, he would turn up, not concealing his interest. Although she tried to overlook his stares and go about her errands, her face felt hot in his presence.

A week later, he spoke to her. Sunja had just finished her shopping and was walking alone on the road toward the ferry.

“Young miss, what are you cooking for dinner at the boardinghouse tonight?”

They were alone, but not far from the bustle of the market.

She looked up, then walked away briskly without answering. Her heart was pounding in fear, and she hoped he wasn’t following her. On the ferry ride, she tried to recall what his voice had sounded like; it was the voice of a strong person who was trying to sound gentle. There was also the slightest Jeju lilt to his speech, a lengthening of certain vowels; it was different from how Busan people talked. He pronounced the word “dinner” in a funny way, and it had taken her a moment to figure out what he was saying.

The next day, Hansu caught up with her as she headed home.

“Why aren’t you married? You’re old enough.”

Sunja quickened her steps and left him again. He did not follow. Though she had not replied, Hansu didn’t stop trying to talk to her.

It was one question always, never more than that and never repeated, but when he saw her, and if Sunja was within hearing distance, he’d say something, and she’d hurry away without saying a word.

Hansu wasn’t put off by her lack of replies; if she had tried to keep up a banter, he would have thought her common. He liked the look of her—glossy braided hair, a full bosom bound beneath her white, starched blouse, its long sash tied neatly, and her quick, sure-footed steps. Her young hands showed work; they were not the soft, knowing hands of a teahouse girl or the thin, pale hands of a highborn one. Her pleasant body was compact and rounded—her upper arms sheathed in her long white sleeves appeared pillowy and comforting. The hidden privacy of her body stirred him; he craved to see her skin. Neither a rich man’s daughter nor a poor man’s, the girl had something distinct in her bearing, a kind of purposefulness. Hansu had learned who she was and where she lived. Her shopping habits were the same each day. In the morning, she came to the market and left immediately afterward without dawdling. He knew that in time, they would meet.

It was the second week of June. Sunja had finished her shopping for the day and was going home carrying a loaded basket on the crook of each arm. Three Japanese high school students with their uniform jackets unbuttoned were heading to the harbor to go fishing. Too hot to sit still, the boys were skipping school. When they noticed Sunja, who was going in the direction of the Yeongdo ferry, the giggling boys surrounded her, and a skinny, pale student, the tallest of the three, plucked one of the long yellow melons out of her basket. He tossed it over Sunja’s head to his friends.

“Give that back,” Sunja said in Korean calmly, hoping they weren’t getting on the ferry. These sorts of incidents happened often on the mainland, but there were fewer Japanese in Yeongdo. Sunja knew that it was important to get away from trouble quickly. Japanese students teased Korean kids, and occasionally, vice versa. Small Korean children were warned never to walk alone, but Sunja was sixteen and a strong girl. She assumed that the Japanese boys must have mistaken her for someone younger, and she tried to sound more authoritative.

“What? What did she say?” they snickered in Japanese. “We don’t understand you, you smelly slut.”

Sunja looked around, but no one seemed to be watching them. The boatman by the ferry was busy talking to two other men, and the ajummas near the outer perimeter of the market were occupied with work.

“Give it back now,” she said in a steady voice, and stretched out her right hand. Her basket was lodged in the crook of her elbow, and it was getting harder to keep her balance. She looked directly at the skinny boy, who stood a head taller than her.

They laughed and continued to mutter in Japanese, and Sunja couldn’t understand them. Two of the boys tossed the yellow melon back and forth while the third rummaged through the basket on her left arm, which she was now afraid to put down.

The boys were about her age or younger, but they were fit and full of unpredictable energy.

The third boy, the shortest, pulled out the oxtails from the bottom of the basket.

“Yobos eat dogs and now they’re stealing the food of dogs! Do girls like you eat bones? You stupid bitch.”

Sunja swiped at the air, trying to get the soup bones back. The only word she understood for certain was yobo, which normally meant “dear” but was also a derogatory epithet used by the Japanese to describe Koreans.

The short boy held up a bone, then sniffed it. He made a face. “Disgusting! How do these yobos eat this shit?”

“Hey, that’s expensive! Put that back!” Sunja shouted, unable to keep from crying.

“What? I don’t understand you, you stupid Korean. Why can’t you speak Japanese? All of the Emperor’s loyal subjects are supposed to know how to speak Japanese! Aren’t you a loyal subject?”

The tall one ignored the others. He was gauging the size of Sunja’s breasts.

“The yobo has really big tits. Japanese girls are delicate, not like these breeders.”

Afraid, Sunja decided to forget the groceries and start walking, but the boys crowded her and wouldn’t let her pass.

“Let’s squeeze her melons.” The tall one grabbed her left breast with his right hand. “Very nice and full of juice. You want a bite?” He opened his mouth wide close to her breasts.

The short one held on to her light basket firmly so she couldn’t move, then twisted her right nipple using his index finger and thumb.

The third boy suggested, “Let’s take her somewhere and see what’s beneath this long skirt. Forget fishing! She can be our catch.”

The tall one thrust his pelvis in her direction. “How much do you want to have a taste of my eel?”

“Let me go. I’m going to scream,” she said, but it felt like her throat was closing up. Then she saw the man standing behind the tallest boy.

Hansu grabbed the short hairs on the back of the boy’s head with one hand and clamped the boy’s mouth with his free hand. “Come closer,” he hissed at the others, and to their credit, they did not abandon their friend, whose eyes were wide open in terror.

“You sons of bitches should die,” he said in perfect Japanese slang. “If you ever bother this lady again or ever show your ugly faces near this area, I will have you killed. I will have you and your families murdered by the finest Japanese killers I know, and no one will ever know how you died. Your parents were losers in Japan, and that’s why you had to settle here. Don’t get any dumb ideas about how much better you are than these people.” Hansu was smiling as he was saying this. “I can kill you now, and no one would do a thing, but that’s too easy. When I decide, I can have you caught, tortured, then killed. Today, I am giving you a warning because I’m gracious, and we are in front of a young lady.”

The two boys remained silent, watching their friend’s eyes bulge. The man in the ivory-colored suit and white leather shoes pulled the boy’s hair harder and harder. The boy didn’t even try to scream, because he could feel the terrifying power of the man’s unyielding force.

The man spoke exactly like a Japanese, but the boys figured that he had to be Korean from his actions. They didn’t know who he was, but they didn’t doubt his threats.

“Apologize, you pieces of shit,” Hansu said to the boys.

“We’re very sorry.” They bowed formally to her.

She stared at them, not knowing what to do.

They bowed again, and Hansu released his grip on the boy’s hair just slightly.

Hansu turned to Sunja and smiled.

“They said they are sorry. In Japanese, of course. Would you like them to apologize also in Korean? I can have them do that. I can have them write you a letter if you like.”

Sunja shook her head. The tall boy was now crying. “Would you like me to throw them into the sea?”

He was joking, but she couldn’t smile. Sunja managed to shake her head again. The boys could have dragged her somewhere, and no one would have seen them go. Why wasn’t Koh Hansu afraid of the boys’ parents? A Japanese student could get a grown Korean man in trouble for certain, she thought. Why wasn’t he worried? Sunja started to cry.

“It’s all right,” Hansu said to her in a low voice and let the tall boy go.

The boys put the melon and the bones back in the baskets. “We are very sorry,” they said, bowing deeply.

“Never ever come around here again. Do you understand, you shit-for-brains?” Hansu said in Japanese, smiling genially to make sure that Sunja did not understand his meaning.

The boys bowed again. The tall one had peed a little in his uniform. They walked in the direction of the town.

Sunja put the baskets down on the ground and sobbed. Her forearms felt like they were going to fall off. Hansu patted her shoulder gently.

“You live in Yeongdo.”

She nodded.

“Your mother owns the boardinghouse.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m going to take you home.”

She shook her head.

“I’ve troubled you enough. I can go home by myself.” Sunja couldn’t raise her head.

“Listen, you have to be careful not to travel alone or ever be out at night. If you go to the market by yourself, you must stay on the main paths. Always in public view. They are looking for girls now.”

She didn’t understand.

“The colonial government. To take to China for the soldiers. Don’t follow anyone. It will likely be some Korean person, a woman or a man, who’ll tell you there’s a good job in China or Japan. It may be someone you know. Be careful, and I don’t mean just those stupid boys. They’re just bad kids. But even those boys could hurt you if you are not cautious. Do you understand?”

Sunja wasn’t looking for a job, and she didn’t understand why he was telling her any of this. No one had ever approached her about working away from home. She would never leave her mother, anyway, but he was right. It was always possible for a woman to be disgraced. Noblewomen supposedly hid silver knives in their blouses to protect themselves or to commit suicide if they were dishonored.

Hansu gave her a handkerchief, and she wiped her face.

“You should go home. Your mother will worry.”

Hansu walked her to the ferry. Sunja rested her baskets on the floor of the ferryboat and sat down. There were only two other passengers.

Sunja bowed. Koh Hansu was watching her again, but this time his face was different from before; he looked concerned. As the boat moved away from the dock, she realized that she had not thanked him.

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