You find whoever you’re looking for whenever you’re not looking.
Ian James was lost in Asia. Having slogged through six months of teaching English in a South Korean public school, he escaped to Indochina to ply the waves of the Mekong River and wander the city-sized temples of Angkor Wat, romancing whoever he could find along the way, struggling to find a purpose to his existence. This search for love and meaning seemed hopeless until, at last, he found her: Gold Silver Jade, the heir to the throne of the Korean Empire, clopping along the streets of Busan in gleaming stilettos.
Standalone sequel to Teakettle Mountain, Kingdoms In The Sun is a genre-bending travelogue, mixing the memoir of an exile with the fantastic shaman-laden history of modern Korea. Dark, amusing, and unpredictable, you won’t be able to put it down.
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And now, an excerpt—
Several years of patient misery later we find Yi as a rather marriageable eighteen-year-old woman consulting the services of a matchmaker, formerly a certain shaman and philosopher. The city outside her old house with the sign in both Chinese and Korean letters is roaring because it seems as though every tinderwood lean-to in Gyeongju is being swept aside and replaced by a four-story rectangular apartment block of bright pink cement. Bulldozers are roving rampant through the city, along with dozens of cheap Doosan cranes, backhoes, and dumptrucks, while thousands of helmeted construction workers are pouring into the troughs left in their wake, hauling away the debris and erecting the largest structures anyone’s ever seen, usually in two months or less for each building. These operations are all directed by young men in strange suits and ties that flap up against their shaven faces in the dusty wind.
The cement flows in rivers. Government offices, motels, Turkish Bathhouses, karaoke rooms, restaurants, schools, light industrial factories with blue-striped smokestacks, a hospital, a dozen pharmacies, a university, two new bridges to span the Elder Brother River and two to cross the North Stream that flows into it, banks, a train station, police and fire stations, bus stations, even gas stations, all with English signs that nobody can read, with strange English names written in the Korean alphabet, like “Chelluh Menshyeon”—Chère Mansion—which people can sometimes sound out, though nobody knows what they mean. The apple orchards are cut down, sculptures from the Shilla Dynasty are accidentally dug up and then purposefully carted away into the new national museum, and the president himself orders his army of workers to carve out a new lake and erect a complex of enormous modern hotels, golf courses, and theme parks for the tourists who will soon come to see the giant Buddha in the mountain and the grassy burial mounds whose bellies are being disemboweled with pickaxes and toothbrushes by teams of archeologists.
Capitalism is attacking this nation. American and Japanese money is pouring in, and everyone is working around the clock. Yi and her family can afford to eat rice now and then, although most of the time they have to stick to prepackaged noodles for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They treat themselves to meat no more than once a month. Hot tar ozone fills the air, as does the scream of machinery, while airplanes are floating in the white sky like bits of silver origami, and trains are pounding along the tracks as fast as the workers can lay them, and hordes of little children are running around everywhere. There are squarish boxy cars on the roads—motorbikes—green taxis designed like cigarette packs on wheels—all honking like they’re getting paid for it.
Every single man spends every single moment of every single day smoking cigarettes, and they all start this habit the very moment that first follicle of pubic hair sprouts out of their crotches. The decadent days of the meter-long tobacco pipes that only the yangban nobles could afford—resting them on their ashtrays—have receded into the ancient past, although you can still find some of these pipes gathering dust and pollen in the junk stores at the traditional markets.
Sitting on the hard wood floor before a squat wood table, the two women, the old and the new, shout through the machine-gun clattering of a nearby jackhammer, as sunlit dust billows through the gaps in the walls. Neither one can hear the other—
“What? What? I can’t—”
“Check this one out! Good prospects! Has a trade! A tailor! You can never lose a trade! You’ll eat rice every day! Meet Mr. Bak!”
The matchmaker slaps down a black-and-white photograph of Bak looking handsome and serious while refusing, like everyone else, to smile in front of the camera.
“You’ll never have to worry about food if you marry this one!”
Bak was a remarkable creature, resilient like a volcanic rock that’s still burning with glow long after the end of the eruptions which gave birth to it. His family had descended from far more recent nobility: up until the 1990s Busan was producing most of the world’s shoes, and his parents had owned a prosperous shoe factory in the heart of the city back when it was Fuzhan under the Japanese. Then, one day, before the war, the factory burned down, they lost everything, including the joke-bo, or the family’s entire genealogical history, a series of very old books which set down the names and occupations of their ancestors extending back two thousand years to the days when people in Korea were not yet capable of producing bronze. Bak’s tough ritzy mother, glammed up in gems, was reduced to penury. The stones went to the shareholders and loan-collectors; rather than start over from the very beginning again her husband liquefied his mind in alcohol and expired late one evening by collapsing into a dirt street and choking on his own bile. After conceiving her second child with him—the first was stillborn a decade before, though since she was a daughter only the mother mourned the loss—this woman struck out on her in own in Gyeongju, the ancient capital of Korea, where she opened up a restaurant in a traditional market near the old Japanese train station. Here there were a few relatives around who might be able to help her out now and then on those increasingly frequent occasions when she didn’t possess a single won to her name.
There was also another set of relatives in Busan, although this group didn’t help her at all. Her husband had been rich enough to afford a second wife, a concubine, or chup, and through this wife he’d sired an entire family which was so wealthy they lived in a house with a courtyard and a water fountain. She begged them for help each time they got together to sacrifice on the anniversary of her husband’s death, but they always refused because it made them happy to see this first original and legitimate wife, this powerful woman, forced to the most pathetic desperation. It was pleasing to see her beg, and even more pleasing to gently, politely, turn her down.
Her second child, Bak, was a screamer from the first, and caught nearly every illness known to man, though because of his family’s poverty his immune system had to fight off all of these diseases without the aid of food or medicine. His mother was so poor she couldn’t afford to eat rice more than once every couple of weeks; even getting his fingertip pricked by the local acupuncturist was far beyond her means. In her own words, Bak “nearly died four times.” He rounded out his grave childhood illnesses with a bout of polio which shriveled up his right leg and left him barely able to walk on his own for the rest of his life, catching the disease a decade after a vaccine had been found for it in the Beautiful Country. His leg was now thinner than his arm.
He’d already learned to walk by that time, but after the days of shrieking and vomiting and sweating had ended his mother found that whenever she stood him up, he fell down again, like a marionette with no one to hold the strings. She was forced to carry him in a white sling on her back as she cooked spicy red stews, washed dishes, and waited on tables, enduring daily questions from her customers (“Why can’t your boy walk?” “What’s wrong with your son?” “You know your baby’s too big for that sling!”) with smiling patience long after he was a heavy two- and then three-year-old with his long legs dangling down her back.
But this was only the beginning of his troubles. Bak’s single mother had to work at her restaurant all the time, locking up her shop between breakfast and lunch, lunch and dinner, and dinner and ten at night, to hawk the city’s best gimbap on idling trains. Sometimes she had no choice but to leave her toddler trapped inside her little windowless apartment with some food and the human equivalent of litter boxes, in the absence of running water. There he passed the time by screaming his heart out by the door.