Hungry Ghosts: Part 1

by Leigh Hellman, ETA Alum

The following is part 1 of a 3 part series, which will be published weekly on here on Infusion’s website.

hungry ghosts


“Tell me a Korean ghost story.”

“Like Frankenstein—or Twilight?”

“No. Those aren’t Korean. Aren’t there any Korean ghost stories? Any Korean monsters? There have to be.”

They shrug. “몰라.”  [1. ‘Mulla.’ “Don’t know.”]


Park Chung-hee was assassinated on October 26th, 1979. He was shot in the head and in the chest by his security chief—and director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency—at whose safehouse he was attending an official dinner.

Born in a single Korea strangled under Japanese annexation and colonial rule, Park rose through the Imperial Japanese and Republic of Korea Armies to the rank of general and finished his career off as the third president of the post-war Republic of South Korea. This Third Republic framed itself as a return to democratic civilian rule after a two-year military junta, and for the seventeen years that spanned the Third—and later Fourth—Republics, the Korean national economy witnessed staggering levels of growth that would ultimately set the stage for what Western capitalists sanctimoniously termed “The Asian Miracle.”

In huge stretches of the southeastern province, which houses two of the six largest cities in South Korea as well as Park’s comparatively small hometown, he is a legend. In the province that helped elect his daughter as Korea’s first female president fifty-one years after her father’s reign began, the Parks are immortalized on screen-printed banners strung between street light poles at major intersections. There, Park Chung-hee is a national hero.

In its neighboring province to the west, he is not.

It’s easy to forget that South Koreans have only lived under democratic rule—as propagated by American ideology so hopped up on misarticulated amendments that it can barely tell its Socratic from its Thermidorian—for less than thirty years.

Gazing across the LED-backlit supernova of Seoul, weaving in and out of impeccably dressed herds with bi-gender heels clacking and the fastest fingers in the world typing texts out on domestically-engineered smartphones screens, in a land where calls don’t drop in tunnels or elevators and public subways have heated seats and run on military-precise schedules, foreigners can be forgiven for their misconceptions.

When subtitled CNN newsfeeds telegraphing over plasma-screen TVs anchored delicately to corner walls in cafés aggressively debate on the despotic state to the north, I and you and them and we don’t remember what we were never truly taught to begin with.

“What was it like back then, during that time?”

“It was different. A lot of things have changed, but not everything.”

“What happened?”

“We don’t usually talk about it.” They pause. “몰라.” [2. ‘Mulla.’ “Don’t know.”]

We say—us expats who land in Incheon as updated MacArthur pantomimes, full of millennial swagger and skin-language-passport season passes that whisper an inheritance to rule this place like our high-waisted ancestors ruled every place before it—we say that Korea gets to you.

Gets in you. Korea grafts itself to your flesh and burrows down into your marrow and it becomes you, even though you can never become it. Stay long enough and you won’t be able to shake it, like a peculiarly virulent cold. Korea becomes an impulse to push through crowds without apology, a repetition of the question “밥을먹었어?” [3. ‘Babeulmeogeosso?’ “Rice ate?” (“Have you eaten today?”)] instead of “How are you?” It becomes assertions that sweet plum juice can help with digestion and that a scalding hot bowl of whole chicken stew on the hottest day of the year is objectively refreshing. It becomes an appropriated resentment of Japan, a fierce attachment to two craggy rocks [4. The islands of Dokdo.] that jut out of the sea between the Korean island of Ulleung-do and the western shores of Okinoshima. It becomes V-signs in pictures and staring at yourself in any passing reflective surface without shame and without arrogance—without realizing it at all. It becomes brushing your teeth after breakfast, lunch, and dinner and slurping hot noodles through lips and teeth and grilling meat with metal chopsticks. It becomes being surprised by shower curtains. It becomes waking up to phantom scents of spicy pickled cabbage and dropping articles in spoken English and a suffocating fire in your belly of you’ve got to get out got to escape that turns to chalky, ashy, lingering embers once you’re gone.

More than Korea, it’s Gwangju that’s sticky thick in my blood now.

Park Chung-hee and his Third Republic promised a reprieve they couldn’t—perhaps never intended—to deliver. The preceding ten-month military junta (known as the Supreme Council for National Reconstruction) had been touted as a temporary transition between the autocratic governments of the First and Second Republics and a more democratic system; it began as a coup orchestrated by then-Major General Park himself. As the junta’s power buckled, now-General Park left his military post so that he could run in the civilian elections—elections which he and other influential junta members had pledged not to enter.

On October 15th, 1963, Park Chung-hee was elected president of the Third Republic of South Korea. Records indict that he defeated the Second Republic incumbent (and US-backed figurehead) by a margin of only 1.5477%, or 156,026 votes.

Koreans, if they’re being traditional about it, don’t do cemeteries.

That’s not to say that there aren’t cemeteries in Korea, or that every Korean is stuffed into the soil when they die. There are bureaucratically bland sand-colored buildings that are filled floor to ceiling with small-stacked marble lockers labeled by uniform white plaques with three Chinese characters[5. For administrative purposes—birth, marriage, death—Koreans use the Chinese characters that represent their name instead of the Korean alphabetic spelling.], written top to bottom. The implication is urns, although it could (in many cases) be symbolic. I never really found a good time to ask.

“어머니, 도와드릴까요?” [6. ‘Eomeoni, dowadeurilkkayo?’ “Mother, help will give?” (“Mother, can I help you?”)] My Korean is stunted, like a frustrated five-year old with fancy things to say before they have words to do it. The first few sentences were practiced, memorized, polished but after that I had to go off-script and I always secretly hoped the conversation would be abandoned before then.

“아니, 괜찮아.”  [7. Ani, gwaenchanha.’ “No, okay.” (No, it’s okay.)] My not-yet mother-in-law patted my arm. Her answer was dismissive; part of a system of reflexive habits stitched together through years without this sort of help having been offered. Two sons and a husband, and her own mother-in-law—before she died; no daughters to help shoulder the impossible burden of family obligations for the wife of a first son. Her husband and sons stood around now, milling at the edge of the bamboo mats provided by the cinerarium, waiting for their cue.

Mother-in-laws—I discovered—are a transnational archetype. Strict, cold, there to chastise their daughter-in-laws on the various and sundry marital and wifely infractions they are doubtlessly committing. Every mother-in-law had a mother-in-law of her own but, like school administrators and white-collar middle managers, most seem to forget their humble beginnings by the time their promotion comes along. By rights, my not-yet mother-in-law had a fairly persuasive claim to this legacy—only sons and a mother-in-law who, from what I was told, rivaled my not-yet father-in-law in abrasive stubbornness and firecracker temper. And now a not-yet daughter-in-law—a foreigner who stumbles over her conjugations and barely knows anything about elevated formal grammar structures—whom she could not even share her cultural commiserations with. A twenty-six year old with whom she had to have the same banal conversations over and over because our vocabularies and knowledges didn’t usually overlap beyond that.

I would not have blamed her; this tiny woman who had been up since 3AM peeling chestnuts and cooking fish, who was now hunched over paper plates that she was delicately arranging with sticky rice cakes and jujubes in preparation for the ancestral memorial rites that accompany every Fall Harvest Festival and Lunar New Year. In front of the white plaque for her husband’s mother—no, I wouldn’t have blamed her.

But my not-yet mother-in-law isn’t like that. I couldn’t tell you why, but she is gentle and sweet and full of love instead of briny bitterness. She calls me 우리사랑하는 딸  [8. ‘Urisaranghaneun ddal,’ “Our beloved daughter”] and scolded my not-yet husband when she thought he might have been forcing me to eat more rice and seaweed soup at dinner than I would have liked. She says he doesn’t know; he didn’t have any sisters to learn from.

I reached over, as unobtrusively as my super-sized limbs could, and started pouring cups of rice liquor and setting out apples with their tops cut off. She fussed and repeated that it’s fine, don’t worry, you don’t have to and I played dumb, ignored her until she squeezed my arm tight and warm and didn’t say anything else about it.

Gwangju, According to Wikipedia

“Gwangju is the sixth largest city in South Korea, with a current population of 1.5 million people. Gwang (광, hanja 光) means “light” and Ju (주, hanja 州) means “province”. Areas of exquisite scenery along the outskirts of the city gave birth to gasa, a form of Korean classical poetry. Located in the center of the agricultural South Jeolla Province, or Jeollanam-do (a province in the southwest of South Korea), the city is also famous for its rich and diverse cuisine. Its U.S. sister city is San Antonio, TX.”
Gwangju had a population of 856,545 by the beginning of 1980, less than a year after Park Chung-hee was assassinated 268 km (167 miles) away in Seoul.