Every day after work Soo Min seated herself on the floor of her small apartment in front of the fan. She was fifty-three and short, with gray hair and a bent back. Getting up and down was something of ordeal and she always sighed with relief to be off her feet. They were scarred feet, marked by old and new blisters earned from walking miles collecting cardboard. She piled her cart high and towed it to the recycling center where she earned twenty thousand won, or a little less than twenty dollars, depending the exchange rate. She would rub out the soreness of her shoulders until her husband came home. Then she'd make a simple dinner of rice and kimchi and they ate in silence.
But in 1990 her husband passed away and it was 1994 now. The world was moving so fast Soo Min could hardly keep up with it. She had been nine years old when Japan attacked Korea and twelve when the war ended. But after the war things were worse in some ways. Yes they were free of Japan, but in three years the country had been stripped down to the last blade of grass. She remember eating roots and walking barefoot because there wasn't enough rubber to make enough shoes for all the people in South Korean. In 1957 Korea had a lower GPD than Ghana. But in 1960 South Korea opened its to the west and in what seemed like a blink of an eye, there came roads, cars, computers, subways, trains, airplanes, jeans and t-shirts, and above all shoes. So many shoes. Sneakers, boots, sandals and heel. They came in book and block, and glitter with little bows.
Sneakers were practical, but Soo Min liked pretty shoes and even though they gave her awful blisters and made her back hurt. Her clothes were faded and threadbare but she wore her pretty shoes with pride. This had become even more true since her husband had died. Her favorite were a red pair of flats with a glittery bow. But as she sat and rubbed at her back, she was thinking about a pair of pink pumps she'd seen at a store while she was collecting. They cost $40,000 won or two whole days of work. But she had rent and utilities to pay, and groceries to buy. It would take her two or three months to set that much aside. By then her red shoes would be falling apart and the pink shoes sold. She knew, of course, that she would find many other pairs of shoes that she liked. And there would be many other pairs of shoes she could not buy.
These were her thoughts when someone knocked on the door. Soo Min heaved herself up and walked bent to answer the door. It was her neighbor.
"You have a phone call. It's your sister."
Soo Min didn't have a phone so her neighbor always took her calls. She thanked her neighbor and slipped on her red shoes before shuffling up the stairs. She wondered what her sister might be calling about. Hyun Bin had married well and lived in one of those tall apartment buildings. Genetics were of huge importance and the marriage had been positively scandalous. Hyun Bin had compromised by for the most part, pretending she didn't have a sister or brother. She didn't kneel or leave offerings at her parent's grave Chuseok, only her husband's. Soon Min didn't mind being forgotten but she drew the line at disrespecting her ancestors.
"Yoboseyo," she said tartly into the receiver.
"I saw you today," Hyun Bin said. "Outside of Shinsegae. You were towing the box cart piled so high I wandered how you could pull it. I saw your red shoes they were cute."
Soo Min smiled. "I love my shoes."
"Yes you do," Hyun Bin agreed. "But I was so embarrassed for my sister to doing such a low job. I forbid you to do it."
"And how should I put food on the table?" Soo Min replied. "Who will pay my rent?"
"Surely you can get a better job," Hyun Bin said.
"It is law that everybody must retire at 50. I’m 53 and this is the only work there is for me."
"No there isn't. I found you a job. My husband has been put in charge of hiring for that new American store, Cost-co. You are hired to work in the kitchen."
"Well I don’t want to work there."
"It pays 12,000 won--"
"I make 20,000 a day now." Soo Min cut her sister off.
"An hour," Hyun Bin said dryly. " That's 96,000 won a day."
"I can count."Soo Min snapped. But she was thinking of the pink shoes. "When do I start?"
M.R. Jordan is a writer, editor, sporadic blogger, and lover of beer. Lives in South Korea with her two cats, Bear and Geumbi.
Bear (Gom in Korean) then (above) now (below)
Geumbi (Gold in English)... then (above) and now (below).