“Can I go get my cards now?”
“Yes, you can.”
With my approval, Gwangeun leapt from his seat and bounded up the stairs to his second-floor homeroom, where his cards were stashed in his desk. Practicing magic energized him, his eyes lit up anytime a deck of cards so much as passed under his nose.
The first time I had class with Gwangeun, we played Pictionary and he drew the world-renowned magician, David Copperfield, passing through the Great Wall of China. Much to his dismay, I had no idea who David Copperfield was, so he assigned me the task of watching videos on YouTube to educate myself. Since then, I came to learn that not only was Gwangeun fascinated with the magic performed by world-class magicians, but he also had a knack for doing tricks himself. It didn’t take long before I became an active participant in more magic tricks than I had seen in my entire life.
Gwangeun returned with a pack of cards and his black, velvet card mat.
“Now, for this trick I have to use a special deck. Magicians call it a marked deck, because each card has a special mark on the back of it. However, only the magician can see the mark.”
The first time I became interested in magic, I was 10 years old and was watching a special New Year’s program on TV while living in China. Liu Chen, a world-renowned magician born in Taiwan, made a regular coin go through a glass. Then, he took a ring from an audience member and made it disappear. He told the audience that the ring was now inside the egg. When they cracked the egg open, indeed, the ring was inside the egg like he said it would be. I was shocked at first. How was this possible? I was curious and tried to find any videos on magic on the internet. However, we don’t have YouTube in China, so I couldn’t find anything. It wasn’t until I moved to Korea later that I could start learning magic.
Gwangeun slid the supposedly marked deck out of its container and spread the cards out face-up on the table in front of me.
“They look like normal cards, right? But, they each have a special mark.”
As he began shuffling through the deck, he showed me the front of each card, and then the back. I was confused to see that the deck looked normal; with an ace, two, three, four, all the way up to the king for every suit. The backs of the cards appeared ordinary as well, with a red design typical of what one would find on a standard deck.
When I arrived at Jangdaehyun School for the first time, I was an outsider. While I knew that I was working with a special group of students that, like Gwangeun, each had a unique story and identity, they all appeared to be regular teenagers. The boys inhaled meals–heaping plates of food, mind you–so they could run outside and play basketball in their free time, the girls were crazy about idol music groups like BTS and EXO, and all of the students had a tendency to fall asleep in class from time to time. Gwangeun was no different, as he could devour two bowls of 돼지국밥 in one sitting, and then claim to be only satisfied at the end. More than once he’s dozed off in an afternoon English class, or forgotten that he had class all-together.
Staring at the cards as Gwangeun shuffled through them, I was stuck in that position again of a clueless outsider. Something extraordinary was happening right in front of me, but I couldn’t see any of the “special marks.”
My mother came to China from North Korea when she was eighteen years old, maybe seventeen in American age. She didn’t know any Chinese, so she was tricked and sold to the man who would become my dad. I was born just one year later, and while I was growing up I thought that my mom was Chinese because that’s what my dad told me. If anyone in China knew that my mom was from North Korea, she would be sent back, so my dad used it to control her.
When I was ten years old, I fought with my mom. After that, I didn’t see her for a while. Four years later, I was studying in middle school when I got a call from my mom. During the call, she told me that she was in South Korea, and I was confused. Why would she leave her own country, China, to go to a completely different country? Then, I figured out that my dad had lied to me for sixteen years. Two years after my mom called, I decided I wanted to live with her. So, she came to China to get me and we flew to South Korea together.
“First, let me explain what we are going to do. I’m going to have you pick a card, and then I’m going to find that card by using its special mark. So, let’s pick a card…tell me when to stop.”
Gwangeun held the deck, face-up, and began pulling cards off the top one-by-one: 8 of diamonds, 3 of clubs, ace of clubs, 5 of hearts, jack of spades…I let about a quarter of the deck slide from one hand to the other before I said “stop.”
“Are you sure that’s where you want to stop? Are you happy?” He raised an eyebrow, tilted his head and smiled slyly as he questioned my decision. Gwangeun wasn’t a particularly shy student; he was polite and friendly with the teachers and visitors at school. But, he did get nervous when performing tricks in front of new audiences, and it was no different with me at first. But as the months passed at school and we spent a lot of time discussing his card tricks and life in general, his nervousness gradually faded. With that, the more witty and playful part of his personality started to come out; the part that enjoyed arguing and asking questions just to mess with my head.
I studied Gwangeun carefully before I said I was sure, and then he swiftly pulled the card I had chosen and laid it on the table. It was the 10 of diamonds.
“Alright, now I’m going to hide the card in the deck…and find it.” He took the card and inserted it face-up into the fanned-out deck, which was oriented in the same way.
“But if I put the card face-up, it’s too easy to find, isn’t it? And if I put it face down…then that makes it even easier. So, what I’m going to do is put half of the cards face up, and half of them face down, and then shuffle them together.”
When I came to Korea, it wasn’t what I expected or imagined. First of all, I couldn’t speak Korean. I could only speak Chinese and the English that I had learned in school in China. I stayed home for a month because I knew nobody and could not speak the language. Later, I came to know about Jangdaehyun School. It was a school primarily for North Korean Refugee students, but there were students like me from China and also students from South Korea.
At first, it wasn’t easy for me to get used to the school. At times, there were misunderstandings. One day, a friend gave me an apple, identifying it in Korean as ‘sagwa’. However, in Chinese, the word ‘sagwa’ means ‘stupid’ or ‘fool’, so I thought my friend was calling me stupid. We couldn’t resolve these misunderstandings at first, and it made me frustrated and sad. But after about a year, my Korean started improving and we could finally understand each other better.
After shuffling the cards together, Gwangeun picked up the deck again.
“Now I’ve made it harder to find your card, because half of them are face-down. But if I snap my fingers…” Gwangeun snapped his fingers, and then splayed the deck across the top of the table once more.
Contrary to expectation, all the cards except for one were face-up. He pulled out the one card that was face-down – it was the 10 of diamonds.
I’ve been living in South Korea with my mom and attending Jangdaehyun School for about four years now, and things have become much easier than they were at first. My mom and I fought a lot in the beginning, but after I learned more about North Korea I was able to understand her better, and now we have a great relationship. There’s a new man in my life that I call dad, and he’s good to both my mom and I. Also, because my conversational Korean has improved dramatically, I’m friends with everybody at school and I feel more comfortable when I interact with other Koreans.
Gwangeun paused and allowed me to sit staring at all the cards laid out in front of me for a few seconds before he piled up all but the 10 of diamonds.
“So, before I started the trick, I told you that the deck was marked. Right? However, can you see a mark on this card?” He handed me the 10 of diamonds and let me look at the front and the back. I still couldn’t find any marks on it.
“Well, you can’t see the mark because you are not trained. But if you look at the king of clubs…it’s easy.”
Gwangeun picked up the first card in the pile, the king of clubs, and flipped it over to the back to reveal not the same red pattern as before, but a white back with a “K” and a club written next to it. Then, he picked up the 9 of hearts and did the same thing, showing again that it was marked on the back with the corresponding number and suit.
“And the 4 of spades? 4 of spades. 7 of clubs? 7 of clubs…” The seemingly normal deck of cards transformed before my eyes as Gwangeun threw down card after card, each with a telltale mark on the back in place of the anticipated and uniform red backing.
I still have some challenges making friends because of cultural differences, but that’s where magic helps me. It takes a lot of work to practice tricks, but I like the reaction from the audience. I can see how happy they are just by looking at the smiles on their faces. In another way, magic is my friend because learning new tricks relieves stress. In particular, when I practice ‘sleight of hand’ skills which require no talking, I feel less overwhelmed by life in Korea.
Gwangeun slowly packed up his things, grinning to himself as he usually does when he finishes performing a trick to a dumbfound audience. “It’s magic,” he declares proudly. He has never performed the same trick for me twice and always refuses to reveal how he does it – save for a disappearing pen-cap trick that he said is meant for children. Being as easily fooled as a child, as he would tease, I haven’t been able to figure out the secrets on my own either. However, as I sat there pondering over the marked deck, it suddenly started to make sense to me. He would never admit it, but I figured out how Gwangeun had hid the marked cards minutes after he finished the trick.
There are other tricks and things about Gwangeun that may always remain a mystery to me, but the marks that I have discovered, both in his magic and through my daily interactions with him, are inspiring to say the least. I’ve come to expect his playful banter in conversations, his argumentative questioning in classes, and his almost dismissive responses when I correct his grammar. In spite of his more defiant tendencies, Gwangeun continuously impresses me with his adjustment to his new life in South Korea. I waved goodbye to him as he headed off to his next class, looking forward to his next magic trick.
Rebecca Brower is a 2015-2018 ETA who is currently teaching at the Jangdaehyun School in Busan. Gwangeun Cho is a third-year student at Jangdaehyun.