The Youngest Parents with the Oldest Child

Translated by: 
Chi-Young Kim





Joint LTIK/ALR Essay Competition

Kim's short stories, 'The Youngest Parents with the Oldest Child''A Dignified Existence' and 'Where Would You Like to Go?' will be the focus of our forthcoming essay competition, in partnership with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea. Visit our Essay Competition page for more.




My mother and father were seventeen when they had me

I turned seventeen this year

I have no idea if I will live to see eighteen or nineteen

That isn’t something I can decide

All I can be sure of is: there isn’t a lot of time

Children grow bigger and bigger

And I grow older and older

An hour in someone else’s life is like a day in mine

And a month in someone else’s life is like a year in mine

Now I’m older than my father

My father sees his future eighty-year-old face in mine

I see my future thirty-four-year-old face in his

Distant future and unlived past gaze at each other

And we ask

Is seventeen the right age to become a parent

Is thirty-four the right age to lose a child

My father asks me what I would want to be if I were reborn

I respond loudly, Dad, I want to be you

He asks why him when there are better people

I say quietly, shyly, Dad, I want to be reborn as you and father m

To know what you feel

My father cries.

This is the story of the youngest parents and the oldest child.



Chapter One 


When it’s windy, flashcards create a small whirlwind inside me. Words are written on them: words with reduced body mass, like a fish dried in sea wind for a long time. I trace the names of objects, names I pronounced for the first time when I was young. This is snow, that’s night, over there is a tree, the ground is beneath my feet. You are you. Everything around me I learned first from its sound and then by copying the letters over and over again. Sometimes, even now, I’m surprised I know the names. 

I picked up all kinds of words all day long when I was young. ‘Mum, what’s this? What’s that?’ I chirped, throwing everything into disarray. Each name was clear and light and didn’t stick to the object. Even though I had heard it the day before and the day before that, I kept asking as though it was the first time. When I lifted my finger to point at something, words with unfamiliar sounds fell out of my family’s mouths. My questions moved something, the way a wind chime danced in the breeze. I liked asking, ‘What is this?’ I liked that better than actually learning the names of those objects. 

Rain is rain. Day is day. Summer is summer. I’ve learned a lot of words in my lifetime. Some words I use often and some I don’t. Certain words are rooted in the earth and others flit about like the seeds of a plant. When someone called summer by its name, I thought I could grasp it. I kept asking what it was, believing that I could. Ground? Tree? You? This and that overlapped and shook according to the breeze from my mouth. When I pronounced it as ‘that’, it reverberated as ‘that’, spreading out in concentric circles, and sometimes the word felt as though it were as large as my whole world. 

Now I know almost all the words I need in life. The important thing is to gauge the width of the words, reducing their mass. When you utter the word ‘wind’, it’s to imagine a thousand directions from which wind blows, not simply the four directions of a compass. When you say ‘betrayal’, it’s to follow along the lengthening shadow of a cross under the setting sun. 

When you call someone ‘you’, it’s to understand their depth, the flat part that’s hidden like a snow-covered crevice. But that has to be one of the hardest things in the world, because the wind keeps blowing and I have never been young. That must be how words feel. 

When I conversed with the world for the first time, it was in a mountain village, graced with clear water. In that place, where a stream divided into several strands before they circled the village and ran into one, I learned my name and took my first steps. I began to babble, and three years later I started making simple sentences. During that time my parents lived with my maternal grandparents. The villagers usually raised or made everything they needed, so the words I learned would have had to do with our life, the way my cousin, who grew up in front of the TV, uttered ‘LG’ as his first word. My slowness to speak worried my mother for a while. Concerned that I had some kind of problem, she asked her parents for advice. My father, on the other hand, claimed that kids were the cutest when they couldn’t speak and then he calmly went off to work. The Daeho Tourism District was being constructed nearby, and my father worked there. My grandfather, who had a head for numbers, built an extension in his front garden for the workers that swarmed in from other towns. It was a draughty house with concrete walls and a slate roof. A total of four families could live in that small, straight building. One of those rooms was for our family – a teenaged couple who still looked like kids, and their new-born child. The kitchen was that in name only, and the room was ridiculously small, but my parents say they didn’t complain at all because it was rent-free and my grandparents paid for their living expenses. 

My grandmother had six children: five sons and a daughter. Once I asked, ‘Mum, you said Grandmother and Grandfather never got along. So why do they have so many children?’ My mother explained in embarrassment, ‘I know, I was curious about that, too, so I asked your grandmother. Well, they did it once in a blue moon and each time, she got pregnant.’ My mother was the baby of the family. Her childhood nickname was Princess Fuck. Growing up around foul-mouthed men, she threw out swear words at every opportunity in a way that was at odds with her pretty face. When I imagine a small girl wandering around the village, cursing adorably, I feel close to her. My mother’s still feisty, but she must have toned down her vocabulary when she understood that all the problems in the world couldn’t be solved by saying ‘fuck’. She must have realised that when she became pregnant and was kicked out of school, when my father was severely beaten up by my five uncles, when she had to listen to the younger customers at the restaurant complain about the smallest details and create a fuss, and when she stared at the hospital bills she couldn’t pay no matter how hard she thought about it. 

From the very beginning, my grandfather didn’t like his son-in-law. The main reason was that my father, still wet behind the ears, had gone and made another kid who was wet behind the ears. The second reason was that my father didn’t have the ability to make a living as the head of our little household, even though that came with the territory for a seventeen-yearold high school student. When the two first met, my grandfather launched into a grumpy interrogation. ‘So, what are you good at?’ This was after a hurricane of tears and fighting had hit the house with the news of my mother’s pregnancy. 

Kneeling before him, my father was unsure of what to say.


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