Reading the Signs in Seoul

By James Dante

Photo Credit: redslmdr

As I made lunch for Jae-Min’s children, I had the portable Samsung TV on top of the kitchen counter. That day Armed Forces Korea Network had devoted most of its coverage to the protests downtown. It was May First, International Labor Day. The unions, now angered by massive lay-offs, had ended their truce with the government, leading to 20,000 workers and students waving pipes and anti-American banners. Definitely the wrong day for Jae-Min to be trekking by herself through the city, but some well-to-do couple downtown wanted a private English lesson for their son in middle school, and, apparently, it had to be on that day. She couldn’t turn the work down, having recently lost her job at Ripe Apple Language Institute. When I called her cell phone, she had been stuck on a city bus that the protest had halted. In the background I could hear the mob.

“My God, Jake, this is my country.”

“What’s happening?”

“Outside I see many–”

I heard glass break. Jae-Min shouted. When she caught her breath, she told me a rioter had thrown a bottle against her window.

“Never stop talking,” she said. “I must hear your voice.”

We stayed connected until her bus cleared the crowd. When Jae-Min finally made it to my place, she ran straight to her son and daughter, not bothering to set down her purse, and embraced both at once. Turning to me she said, “This evening we are all having dinner at Sun-Hee’s home. You should come at six o’clock.”

After they left, I cranked up the television and went to work on the sticky mess piled to the top of the sink. At the Mom-and-Pop grocery near my place, I could usually score a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner or some other American goody that had gone M.I.A. from one of the U.S. military bases. By the spring of ’98, Jong-Su, her son, and Go-Eun, her daughter, had been staying at my place a lot, especially since Jae-Min now had graduate studies in English at the prestigious Yonsei University. More to the point, she had, while her husband picked up day labor out of town, fled with her children to the relative safety of her sister’s home. Jong-Su was now nine and Go-Eun had just turned eight. By then, they sensed that my role in their mother’s life was something other than some man from work. Go-Eun looked more like her mother every week. A reserved child, she would sit quietly for hours at a time on the bedroom floor, recklessly coloring in her book or dismembering body parts off of dolls. I came to regard Jong-Su as more than a seedling from the father, and I hoped the boy saw me as more than the awkward ingredient in his soup. So there I went, buying Nike sneakers and movie tickets, successful in becoming Saturday’s hero. With luck I thought I might avoid becoming Monday’s asshole.

Later that afternoon, I received a surprise phone call from my friend Riley McDow. The previous year Riley and I first met at a pizza joint close to the language institute. At that time he worked for a travel guide publisher, a job he considered steps beneath his talents. He had often invited me along on local shoots or daytrips. Ancient palaces. Water gardens. Outdoor markets where you could buy anything from pottery to a hog’s head. The most intense day had been our excursion to the Demilitarized Zone, that volatile border with North Korea, that line where democracy and Kentucky Fried Chicken ended. Eventually he landed a position as a photojournalist with Asia Chronicles, a monthly news magazine based in Ohio. When Riley called, he had just returned to Seoul to cover the street protests.          

“This Asian economic crisis stuff is a hot topic right now,” he said. “All the big media outlets have got their Asia correspondents on it. And since I was the only one on staff with Korea experience, they booked a flight for me.”

“It looks like you’ll never again have to take pictures of the tombs of dead kings.”

“A dead king’s not going to knock you over the head with a nightstick,” he said, making light of it.

When I updated Riley on my dramatic narrative regarding Jae-Min, his response sounded more jaded than concerned, as if everything happening to me were logical consequences. Riley, being in the early stage of a white mane, often felt the need to dispense advice and wisdom. He had good points. Sometimes. Riley needed to return to the protest, and he wanted me to meet him at the park downtown where the action was taking place.

“Maybe the next national crisis,” I said.

Somehow I ended up in a taxi moving toward downtown. The driver complained and stopped the cab at the first sight of the armored police vehicles. I continued on foot to where the protest had spilled out from the park and onto the streets. Ringleaders with megaphones fired up the crowd. Workers, once loyal to their pro-labor president, now pushed against a perimeter of black helmets and body shields that guarded the buildings along the main boulevard. Lines of riot police, resembling a thousand Darth Vaders, pushed back with even greater force, knocking people to the ground.

Three guys on a rooftop threw burning sticks down upon the police line while the crowd in the street cheered them on. Bodies moved in choppy currents and settled into areas where windows shattered, building signs fell, and scarecrow versions of President Kim and Uncle Sam burned in effigy. A few calm pockets existed within the storm. Small groups sat in circles, eating out of bowls and drinking from thermoses. They laughed and socialized, appearing indifferent to the spontaneous violence around them. An unshaven man, with his gut popping out of his T-shirt, walked up to me with a camera and had me pose with his group. A woman handed me a plywood sign with Korean writing. She had me hold it up while the man snapped the picture. As I walked off, they laughed, leading me to suspect the sign had some anti-American message.

In one area, several camera crews with banners, such as NBC and CNN, held their positions. While an officer confronted a photographer, I heard what sounded like cannon blast. A dense cloud of yellow smoke engulfed a group of protesters that had been throwing glass bottles at the police line. As the smoke cleared, I could see people bent over and on their knees, coughing. My stomach sank, and my palms were wet. I needed to find my way out.

Among the reporters and cameras, I recognized one man’s stocky build and wild gestures. About fifty yards away stood Riley McDow. I shouted his name. Too much noise. As I approached him, I saw why Riley and a few others had concentrated on one spot. Three or four protesters were wielding pipes and sticks at some officers who had broken off from the police barrier. The men in black started swinging their batons and using their body shields like bulldozers. One protester was laid to the ground with a single blow to the forehead. Riley aligned himself for a shot while three officers charged toward him.

A black uniform and face shield stood before me, halting my forward movement. I stepped sideways and saw two officers trying to wrestle Riley’s camera from his hands. That’s when a baton went into Riley’s leg. He dropped to his knees. Within moments they had Riley face down on the asphalt. The black uniform turned its attention toward a guy throwing rocks at the police line. I sprinted ahead but could no longer see Riley. A van had pulled up to that spot, and the police were pushing some handcuffed protesters into the back. I knew I had gotten too close when I felt two solid arms wrapping around my torso. The tension forced the air from my lungs with one sharp burst. When he loosened his grip, I spun around, striking the protective padding on his chest with my forearm. Two other officers sandwiched me, each grabbing an arm. They dragged me toward the van. One of the cops pulled my arms back and handcuffed me. Then they threw me into the back of the vehicle. Riley sat with his back propped against the corner. His face burned bright red. He didn’t look badly hurt, although he kept twitching one of his knees. He opened his eyes and experienced a few moments of disbelief before saying, “What the fuck?”

Inside the police station, they herded us, Riley limping a bit, into a large open area with several desks and rows of chairs for the prisoners. The place reeked of cigarette smoke and body odor, both circulated by the desk fans. An officer removed our handcuffs and sat us in front of a desk covered with file folders. On the wall was an enclosed gun rack with a dozen or so rifles. At the desk sat a man with gray sideburns and bifocals. Sergeant Pak. The man could obviously speak English but was not eager to prove how well. Riley and I picked up on the tension between the arresting officers and their superior when he saw Riley’s press credentials. This put a grin on Riley’s face lasting several moments. Then the senior officer jotted down the information on my resident’s card.

“Why the foolishness from a teacher?” he said, eyes peering over his black frames.

“He didn’t do anything, except be in the wrong place,” Riley said.

“I will write your charges next, Mr. Riley.”

“What charges?”

“Interfering with police procedures. When Officer Chun gives me the report, there can be more charges.”

The thin and jittery Officer Chun started speaking to Sergeant Pak. Riley leaned toward me. “Looks like the police in this country will take anyone.”

“No talking!” said another officer standing near the desk.

“I’m sure the American Embassy will have a lot to say about this,” I said indignantly.

Sergeant Pak slid his phone toward me and said something to his men. They laughed. Even Riley chuckled a little.

“Don’t bother,” Riley said to me. “Unless you’re importing or exporting something, the American Embassy isn’t too concerned.” 

An hour later, two officers escorted our group up a stairwell to the holding cells. They threw our group into a cell with a dozen other militants. Riley and I could barely hear each other over the noise. The air was heavy, like a sauna. One guy squeezed between Riley and me as he pushed his way toward the steel bars. 

“Don’t sweat it,” Riley said. “When we get out of here, I’ll call the foreign press core. They got lawyers that handle this kind of shit.”

An officer opened the door and ordered half of the prisoners out. A guy standing at the toilet pled for another minute. Once they left, Riley and I sat on the bench along the wall.

“They can’t afford bad relations with the foreign press,” Riley said. “The Korean government likes to piss and moan about us, but the truth is they don’t want to lose any more foreign investors. That’s how the country got into this mess in the first place.”

“Don’t you remember? We saw Uncle Sam burning in the streets.”

“When did laid-off workers and snot-nose college kids start calling the shots?

Earlier, during my processing, I had given the sergeant Jae-Min’s number. So, naturally, I expected her to show up at any moment, wearing the same distraught look she had when she came to see me in the emergency room the prior summer. Riley sat quietly for a long while, then suddenly turned his head to me.

“You know, it really isn’t our fault,” he said.

“That we’re in a holding cell?”

“That we’re not married and settled down.”

My silence didn’t deter him from dispensing his wisdom.

“Ever notice what happens when you tell a married man, even a happily married man, that you’re single?”

“Not really,” I said, looking away.

“Sure you have. He gives you that little smirk. That look that says Do a blonde for me. It’s got to sink into a man’s subconscious.”

“What’re you talking about?”

“You wanted that one last bit of excitement before settling down to play Ward Cleaver. At least you didn’t go to some whorehouse in Itaewon. But I’ll bet you didn’t even call her to cancel, did you? Shame on you. Such an inconsiderate male you are.”

“I called her and left a message. Besides, none of this matters in the end. We’re going to get married once we get the legal situation worked out.”

“Legal situation. That’s what you’re calling it?”    

At a few minutes past midnight, an officer opened the cell. He escorted Riley and me back to the same processing desk. Sergeant Pak was still on duty, his head struggling to stay upright. Jae-Min was sitting in one of the chairs, her arms folded.

“You, of course,” she said, looking at Riley.

I sat next to her. When I touched her shoulder, she recoiled. The man in charge raised his eyeglasses, rubbed his lids, and flipped through a stack of documents.

“Mr. Riley.”    

They dropped the charges against Riley but warned him against a repeat performance. The man then dropped Riley’s camera and wallet onto the desk. 

“Where’s my film rolls?”

“Confiscated,” he said.

“Ain’t that fucking lovely!”

“My patience is gone, Mr. Riley! You should go.”

Riley sat back down and folded his arms. The officer picked up another stack of documents. It was my turn to get released.

“You too can leave, Mr. Jacob.”

“Thank you. Thank you.”

“I am dismissing charges. I hope you have a good trip home to California in two weeks,” he said with a yellow smile.

“What?” I said.

“Your resident identification is now confiscated. Next week the immigration center here in Seoul will reissue identification valid for ten days.”

Jae-Min slid downward in her chair, holding her stomach.

“Now this isn’t really necessary,” I said with the diplomacy of a mob lawyer. “I admit that I made a big mistake, and I’m very sorry. But if you just let me go, you’ll never have to worry about me again.”

Gazing at Jae-Min, he leaned back in his chair.

“You can return to Korea in the future if you find another sponsorship. If a possibility. May not be easy with this police report in file.”

He signaled one of his men who then made Jae-Min, Riley, and me get up from the chairs. When I stopped and tried approaching the desk, Riley grabbed the back of my shirt.

“Let me go!”

“We’re done here,” Riley said. “Don’t make it worse.”

Outside the police station, a long line of parked patrol cars were flashing their red and blue lights, which lit up the side of the building and the sidewalk. A humid breeze passed over us. Riley stretched his arms up toward the night sky and took a deep breath.


“The sweet air of freedom!”

“Speak for yourself,” I said.

Jae-Min started walking ahead of Riley and me. I couldn’t think of anything worthwhile to say to her. I’m sorry? Everything will be all right? Though it was good she didn’t want to talk at the moment, I still needed some evidence we were still a couple.  Jae-Min had to park several blocks away. When we reached her car, Riley said, “I can grab a cab so you two lovebirds can chat.”


“No,” she said.

In the car she remained silent for at least fifteen minutes until saying, “Is our life together only a game for you?”

Riley stared out the window, pretending not to pay attention.

“And you his friend,” she said to Riley.

Jae-Min said something in Korean, knowing he’d understand.

“Where did that language come from?” he said.

She looked at me.

“I called to your home and you were not there. I needed to talk to you, to hear your voice.”

“I know.”

“You don’t know,” she said, releasing her hand from the steering wheel to wipe her eye. 

Earlier that day Jae-Min had found a form letter from Yonsei University that had been misplaced for a few days. It was to notify her that she failed to be awarded a scholarship for which she had recently applied. Without it she most likely wouldn’t be able to continue her studies. 

“Later I had to return my children to my husband’s home. My husband was waiting for them. Then I waited for your call, and it was the police calling to me.”

“Don’t worry. If I can get rehired, I should be back in Korea within a few months.”

Riley interrupted. “Asia Chronicles wants me to do interviews. We’re looking for human interest pieces. You know, laid-off workers, protesters. They’ve got the budget to pay for a translator for me. A hundred bucks American per day. That’s nothing to sneeze at.”

“It’s not a bad idea,” I said.

“Go on,” Riley said. “Take the Ugly American’s money.”

“I don’t need,” she replied coldly.

After we dropped Riley off at the Hyatt Regency, Jae-Min and I continued on to my place. Simultaneously we turned our heads to each other, then looked away. We couldn’t discuss the fact that in two weeks I’d be gone. It seemed unreal. I wasn’t a troublemaker or someone who would gamble our future together, although at the time I appeared to be both of these things. The world had become a wrap-around mirror, showing me all of my unflattering angles. For the most part, the Korean authorities had spared me, but the justice mattering most was Jae-Min’s. I imagined her revising our history until it read as another sad chapter in her life. This was all wrong. For me, the past two years had been the only years worth remembering. That day brought about an event, not a conclusion. I had to make her see this.

I had two Spartan rooms in the basement of an old building that had a traditional medicine shop on the ground floor. A few weeks after moving in, I stopped noticing the pungent odors that seeped down into my place. During her visits, Jae-Min nested as much as possible. The girly decorations. The jasmine jar in the bathroom. She bought a roll of thick material and draped the windows. In addition to giving us a measure of privacy, the coverings kept us from having to see the iron security bars.  

By the time I finished showering, she appeared to have calmed down. I sat next to her on the bed as she watched the late newscast.

“How did the tutoring go with the boy today?” I asked. For a moment, she seemed to have forgotten about it.

“Good,” she said, almost smiling. “He is clever, of course. He has no choice.”

Then she laughed a little.

“The boy asked me, ‘Why do people in English say falling in love? Is it the same as word as falling down the stairs?’”

“That is funny.”

“Many English-language idioms are true. American people also say, ‘My imagination is running away with me.’ Yes, my imagination and  I, together like foolish friends, running far away.”

Jae-Min noticed the bruise on my upper arm.

“They were rough putting me into the van.”



The last time I heard from Riley, he was scheduled to take the train down to Ulsan, a city on the southeastern coast. With the help of a local college boy, he planned to do a series of human interest stories. Hyundai Motors, the pillar of Ulsan’s economy, had laid-off twenty percent of its workers. The shock waves had torn throughout every home in the region. By the time Riley was due back in Seoul, I would already be gone. At the Immigration Office I picked up my reissued resident’s identification that would expire in twelve days.

I had already gone to speak with Mr. Chung, my boss at Ripe Apple Language Institute. After the predicted shouting session, his practical side took over. He realized it made more sense to rehire me than to start looking for a new English teacher. Chung felt fairly certain he could secure another work visa for me because of his contacts inside the Immigration Office who were open to his style of persuasion, which meant a letter envelope stuffed with cash. He enjoyed saying, “In Korea human relations are more important than regulations.”

I tried calling Jae-Min a few times but couldn’t get through. I walked over to her sister’s place. Sun-Hee, Jae-Min’s younger sister, had her own little bachelorette pad, making her interesting to all the young men in the neighborhood and scandalous to their mothers. Jae-Min was lucky to have such a sibling, who willing took her and her children in when her husband could no longer control his outburst. When I arrived, I found the front door unlocked. I heard a noise coming from inside their bedroom. The door was locked. I pounded on it and continued until Sun-Hee finally cracked the door open.

“My sister not here,” she said, smiling nervously.

“Where is she? Never mind. I’ll just leave her a note on the dresser.”

Sun-Hee resisted as I pushed against the door.

“You got a man in there?”

“Nobody here!”

“Come on. I want to meet the stud.”

I moved her small body clear of the doorway. She was alone, and the two double beds were perfectly made.

“Where’s your writing paper? I just want to . . .”

Before scanning the room, I sensed something had changed. It struck me. Everything belonging to Jae-Min and the children was gone. I imagined where her clothes, books, and photographs would’ve been if the world were right. I grabbed Sun-Hee’s shoulders and spun her around toward me. She tensed and flared her nostrils. I was about to interrogate her but stopped myself. I already knew enough.  

(Reading the Signs in Seoul is an excerpt from James Dante’s published novel, THE TIGER’S WEDDING from Martin Sisters Publishing. It was first published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal and is reprinted here with kind permission.)