Kim Ae-ran

2018 Essay Competition - Winning Essays

The essays of the joint winners of the ALR / LTI Korea 2018 Essay Competition appear below, in alphabetical order.




The Winning Candidates

Claire Gullander-Drolet is a PhD candidate in Literature at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA. Scott Shepherd has a PhD in English Literature from Royal Holloway and is a part-time student of Korean at SOAS (both in London).


The essays:


Claire Gullander-Drolet


S(e)oul under Water, or, Ways to Keep Afloat in Kim Ae-ran’s ‘A Dignified Existence’



In 2014, a new word found its way into the Korean lexicon: ‘Hell Joseon’ (헬조선) [1].


Extraordinarily versatile in its application, ‘Hell Joseon’ refers to a variety of negative phenomena that have gradually come to define contemporary South Korean life, from a tendency towards nepotism and entitlement to educational and job market competitiveness, untenable work hours, and pervasive corruption. It is this climate – and the generation of young people finding their way within it – that Kim Ae-ran renders so poignantly in her short fiction. Though the subject of this essay, ‘A Dignified Existence’, slightly predates the emergence of ‘Hell Joseon’ discourse, the latter provides crucial context for Kim’s story, which emphasizes the outsized and often impractical criteria for success one finds in contemporary South Korean society. Through moments of absurd humour and a wistful, imaginative narrative voice, Kim meditates on what it means to live – and resist, if only playfully – in a culture that can often be suffocatingly restrictive in its criteria for success. 


The central question around which ‘A Dignified Existence’ seems to turn is this: what exactly do we owe others around us, and how do we negotiate our own happiness vis à vis the various obligations – familial, social, economic – that weigh upon us? It explores this question by sketching the life of an unnamed female narrator from girlhood to her early twenties, from her hometown in rural South Korea to the bustling metropolis of Seoul. The narrative centres around this young woman’s relationship to the piano, an instrument she begins to learn in primary school and plays with varying degrees of interest over the course of the story. Piano, and the titular note ‘Do’, serve crucial yet divergent functions in the text. [2] The former acts as a metaphor for two of Hell Joseon’s most prominent tropes – educational rigor, and an obsession with symbols of ‘class’ and culture – while the latter emphasizes the importance of finding sites for individual expression amidst these societal strictures. Throughout the story, Kim explores the tension between these two themes by contrasting the narrator’s expansive inner world with the social space she navigates. Though the story is critical of many elements of ‘Hell Joseon,’ I argue that ‘A Dignified Existence’ is ultimately a celebration of creative expression – an imperative to ‘sound one’s note’, no matter how futile this expressive act might seem.


On the surface, the narrator’s piano education is framed not as a passion or hobby, but – crucially – as an act of service. Piano, she observes, ‘wasn’t forced on me in the form of blackmail or maternal ambitions. Mum’s education had been cut short, and the decisions she made regarding her daughters’ education always lacked confidence. She was probably following what was considered the norm. According to hearsay, there were certain things one had to do at a certain age, like going to theme parks and exhibitions.’ Piano study, then, is not only an act of filial piety (효심), but an act of service that marks the narrator’s entrance into Korean society. Throughout the story, the literal ‘performance’ of societal expectation remains an important theme, one rendered at times solemnly (the narrator and her Unni talk about their motivations to enrol in certain academic programmes), at other times comically (the children in the hagwon woodenly play their ‘congested’ pianos, while Beethoven and Mozart look on in tears).


The mother’s purchase of a piano for her daughter lends a financial dimension to the story’s themes of duty and servitude. Though this purchase, too, is initially presented as a kind of sacrifice – the mother opts to invest in her daughter’s extracurricular activity over much-needed household appliances – the piano becomes a handy symbol for class ambitions that are incommensurate with the material realities of working class families. The majestic piano is ‘in a league entirely apart from everything else we owned’, the narrator notes, and the family is forced to rearrange their lives in order to accommodate it, devoting a whole room to it while they sleep on their restaurant floor. The spectre of debt – and indebtedness – mars this young woman’s relationship to her piano practice. Though she claims to enjoy playing the piano, the narrator notes that she ‘never felt the need to play [it] well,’ and that she ‘only wanted to be average.’ The fact that she quits piano school as soon as her mother has paid off the final instalment on the piano, for instance, is particularly telling. There is a transactional symmetry to this relationship of filial obligation, one in which the mother’s investment is paid off in the daughter’s adequate mastery of this instrument.


However, this does not mean the arrival of independence. The Korean verb for becoming independent from one’s parents, ‘독립하다’, is sometimes translated as ‘to be liberated’ or ‘to become free’; given this nuance, one might think that the burden of expectation that the narrator fields whilst at home might be lessened once she moves away to college. In Kim’s story, the opposite is quite the case. Not only does the narrator set off for ‘freedom’ saddled with the piano – a symbol of her enduring obligation to her family – but she finds herself charged with a whole new set of responsibilities. Her father’s parting advice to her – ‘Don’t co-sign a loan!’ – warns of the dangers of incurring more debt; avoiding risks and working steadily at ‘what you are supposed to do,’ it seems to say, is requisite to becoming a productive (adult) member of Korean society. The father emerges as a kind of ‘failed’ adult figure in this sense, someone whose propensity for having fun and dreaming of a better life for himself and his family have frequently come at great financial and emotional cost to those he most cares about.


It is the piano that offers the narrator an alternate path, the one real respite from society’s stratified demands and logic. The story’s very first scene, for instance, sees the narrator plodding her way through the Do-Re-Mi scale at her piano academy. The space of the piano school stifles creativity: here, cloistered in rooms named for ‘dead composer[s]’, the children learn piano by the rote and ‘mechanical’ instruction of their teachers. But it is also this space in which her rich inner world comes into view: bored with the teacher’s instruction, she imagines the facial expressions of the notes she learns, speculating that ‘Re would eye you from the side, and So would be on tiptoe. Mi would be coy and, though Fa ranks lower than So, it is nonetheless outgoing.’ Imagination, here, emerges as a kind of sanctuary, a space of refuge from a highly disciplined social environment. 


Kim consistently emphasizes the piano’s solitary role in effecting this alternate space, unsettling in the process narrative conventions of coming-of-age stories by having the piano rather than the city serve as a site of a partial and uneven independence. Even after her move to Seoul, the narrator is plagued by a sense of being weighed down or even buried; in her telling, this city of more than ten million people feels utterly claustrophobic. Looking out onto the city streets from her basement window, for instance, she feels certain that her ‘sky [is] lower than the ceiling of those people out there.’ When she complains to her sister that ‘this place ... doesn’t feel like Seoul,’ Unni’s retort, ‘the Seoul you know only exists in certain places’ – deflates the fantasy of Seoul as a land of opportunity for all. Here, as elsewhere in Korea, money and privilege dictate a person’s ability to keep afloat. 


‘A Dignified Existence’ ends on an ambivalent note. After receiving a call from her father asking for money – the exact amount she has saved for college – the narrator is once again burdened with a choice: does she perform her filial duty, thereby balancing the scales of familial duty, or does she save herself from the deluge of requests to come? While Kim never gives us a definitive answer – the narrator says simply that she’ll ‘think of something,’ – the story’s magical final scene offers something of a clue. As rainwater pours into the basement flat, rendering all of the material trappings of their fantasy Seoul life (Unni’s English books, computer, the piano) effectively unusable, the narrator plays on until the very end. If, as Kim suggests, everyone is indeed ‘born with a note or two that they can make,’ then sounding these notes – particularly in a way that disrupts or subverts the rules of the physical space that around them – can be a small, creative act of resistance against the ever-flowing demands of modern life.


[2] Kim plays on the note “Do” in the Korean title of the story, ‘Dodohan Saenghwal’(‘도도한생활’). The title of this essay is meant to be a nod to Kim’s penchant for polysemous titles (I’m thinking here of her 2012 collection 비행운).


Scott Shepherd


Claiming a Place in ‘Where Would You Like to Go?’ and ‘A Dignified Existence’


Claiming a place within society can be hard. Presumably this has been the case for all societies and all generations across the world and throughout history, but for Korean millennials, maturing around the beginning of the twenty-first century, the difficulty seems particularly acute. Kim Ae-ran’s short story ‘A Dignified Existence’ narrates the struggles of a young Korean teenager as she comes of age at the turn of the millennium, while ‘Where Would You Like to Go?’ features a woman of the same generation more than a decade later as she attempts to take on the mantle of motherhood. Each protagonist goes through a form of trauma as she lays claim to a place within Korean society; every attempt to do so is met with immediate retribution. The difficulties faced by the two protagonists stand for the struggles of their whole generation as they try to find a place in a society – and indeed a world – so different from the one in which their parents grew up.


The narrator of ‘A Dignified Existence’ makes two attempts to declare her adulthood, each of which meets with abrupt reprisal. The first is her move from her parental home in provincial Korea to Seoul, a typical coming-of-age motif. Her arrival in the capital is marred by the decision – brought about mainly for financial reasons – to take her piano with her to the ‘semi-basement studio’ she will be sharing with her Unni (older sister). As they try to manoeuvre the piano down the stairs to her new home, the narrator’s already-intense embarrassment in front of the landlord is compounded when her uncle ‘accidentally let[s] go’ of the piano and it crashes down the stairs. The narrator is not concerned for her uncle at the bottom of the stairs, or even for the piano – she is ‘too embarrassed by the realistic, big, and unabashed Kung!reverberating over the city’. This acute embarrassment acts as a form of reproof, an immediate punishment for her attempt to enter the world of adulthood: no sooner has she left the protection of the family home than she feels the humiliation of what she perceives to be the whole city sneering at her.


Her second attempt to assert her independence comes as she rebels against the landlord by playing a single note on the piano. As with her move to Seoul, this act is met with instant retribution: no sooner has she played that note than her landlord ‘start[s] banging on the door.’ This time the narrator’s punishment comes in the form of the demeaning lie she is forced to tell to the landlord and his family ranged behind him. Even then she is not freed from humiliation: while the landlord cannot prove it, he clearly disbelieves the narrator’s lie, and only leaves when she brings up the mould growing in the room. The encounter leaves the narrator obviously upset, leaning against the piano and resorting to playing with her mobile phone ‘absent-mindedly’, and reflecting on the ‘awful’ response the landlord gave to her complaint. Despite this second attempt’s apparent failure, the narrator has clearly grown since her move to Seoul: she now has the confidence to face down her landlord and indeed the courage to maintain her lie in the face of her landlord’s doubts.


Yet the reasonably mild embarrassment of having to lie is not her only punishment for this second attempt. The flooding of her basement home provides the narrator with the most serious challenge she has had to face as an adult. It seems at first that, with a little encouragement from her Unni, she can cope with the situation: she cleans up the water and, triumphant, feels ‘like an adult.’ But as her battle to stop the room flooding continues, it becomes clear that if she fails, her piano will be ruined. Significantly, as she calls her Unni again, she ‘sniffl[es] like a child.’ Her emergence into adulthood seems to falter and, with the arrival of a strange man at the door, she even appears to be in danger of rape, though she soon recognises the man as her Unni’s drunken ex-boyfriend. As the narrator’s situation continues to deteriorate, it seems more and more likely that her attempts to emerge into society on her own terms will fail. Her father calls hoping she can help him financially, looking for ‘about the same as the sum [she’d] saved up for college’, and with the now-unconscious body of her Unni’s ex-boyfriend blocking her efforts to clean up the water, the narrator reaches her lowest point.


It is at this, the nadir of the story, that she gains the courage and strength to embrace the situation. By sitting at the piano and ‘calmly’ beginning to play in her flooding basement home, she rises above her problems. For the first time she describes her piano-playing in positive terms: while previously she had been ambivalent about her own ability, or even mocked it (‘someone with a trained ear might have cried “Stop that racket!”, throwing a dumpling plate at me’), the notes now make ‘harmony’ and bring ‘a grin’ to the face of her Unni’s unconscious ex. It is when the narrator is brought to her lowest point by the successive reprisals against her attempts to assert her own identity that she is finally able to find her place. Freed from the constraints of society, no longer fearing her landlord, the narrator triumphantly plays on; through her pain and humiliation, at the moment of crisis, the narrator gains the courage and strength to embrace her woes and in doing so, surmount them.


‘Where Would You Like to Go?’ presents a far more traumatic struggle for place in Korean society. The narrator Myeongji views making kimchi as an act synonymous with motherhood; she had ‘inherited’ the recipe, noting it down as her mother lay in bed dying, physically ‘looking up to her as I’d done when I was a child’. Afterwards, while she ‘occasionally imitated Mum’s cooking’, it is only once she and her husband have, after a ‘long discussion’, come to the ‘ultimate decision to have a baby’ that she decides to try making kimchi. By both deciding to try for a baby and attempting to make kimchi, Myeongji is making a doubly-powerful claim, a bold assumption of her mother’s role. This attempt, however, is met with immediate and brutal retribution. Even as she is mixing the sauce for the kimchi, she receives a call to inform her that her husband has drowned. This is, obviously, a significantly worse reprisal than the narrator of ‘A Dignified Existence’ receives, an escalation in proportion to the bolder claim Myeongji makes.


Like the flooding of the basement in ‘A Dignified Existence’, Myeongji’s retribution is not limited to the sole traumatic event itself. The skin condition she develops, Pityriasis rosea, is a physical manifestation of her continuing punishment. It both symbolises her grief and also threatens to prevent her from moving on at the moment of intimacy with Hyeonseok. Unlike the narrator of ‘A Dignified Existence’, Myeongji does not make any further attempts to situate herself within society; but she does nonetheless undergo a similar transformative experience at the end, wherein she is able to embrace the pain and difficulty she has experienced. Having received a letter from the older sister of the child her husband died trying to save, Myeongji finally comes to an acceptance: ‘Perhaps at that moment, that day wasn’t about a life plunging to its death, but one life leaping toward another. I’d never thought of it that way before.’ She vividly imagines her husband’s death, and although she is ‘still angry’ with him, she comes for the first time to an understanding of his actions. Yet the final image of the story indicates that there is still more healing to do: ‘the spots that had scabbed over, peeled, and emerged again’ still mark her body and show ‘no sign of fading’.


Myeongji embraces her loss and grows through it, just as the narrator of ‘A Dignified Existence’ eventually achieves adulthood by embracing her problems – but, crucially, Myeongji’s pain remains. If anything, it seems most powerful at the end of the story as she expresses her intense longing for her husband. Indeed, unlike the narrator of ‘A Dignified Existence’, Myeongji’s attempt to define her own place within society has failed: she does not attain the role of mother she had sought, and instead takes on the different, entirely unsought role of widow. Together, the two stories depict the struggles and joys, successes and failures of a generation seeking their place within Korean society. The protagonists are met with obstacles each time they attempt to assert their place, but they ultimately come to an acceptance of their problems. Both stories end not with victory, but with hope: despite their struggles – or because of them – the protagonists can finally find a place for themselves in society. 

More Non-fiction

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