The Last Crane Game
I was walking home late one Sunday night when I saw the forgotten crane game in an alley near my apartment building in Jeonju, South Korea. I had been sitting at an all-night café, drinking a cappuccino and reading my Korean-language textbook. A professor at the university where I taught English was giving me free lessons. The café was a van, actually, its side lifting to form an awning, space enough inside for an espresso machine and a thin man in an apron. An electric space heater kept me warm against the late September evening. These vans were all over the city, having replaced the kabob vans that had roamed the streets when I'd arrived in Korea six months earlier. I suspected that the cappuccino vans were actually refurbished kabob vans, "OK Kabob," painted over with "Smiling Cappuccino" and "Happy Cup!" In a month of two, I thought, they might be doughnut vans or hamburger stands.
The crane game was one of those into which you out a quarter - or in this case, a hundred-won coin - and then manipulate the dangling claw with a joystick, dropping it into a plush pile of cheap stuffed animals, nearly impossible to grab. These crane games had been hugely popular when I'd arrived. They had lined the streets throughout the shopping district and around the university. Crowds of young men worked the steel jaws in hopes of earning prizes for their girlfriends. But the fad had faded, as fads do so quickly in Korea, and after a desperate attempt to reinvigorate interest by filling the machines with more expensive catches - cell phones, mini-disc players, remote control cars, all impossible to grab - the vendors gave up, and the yellow machine began to disappear.
Following the demise of the crane games, Dance Dance Revolution hit the scene, and video-game rooms everywhere filled with boys and girls in school uniforms, stepping mechanically on the colored spots that flashed in time with the music. But just as quickly as it came, DDR was gone. Then the rage was machines with punching bags and strength meters. I had recently heard of a place with a mechanical bull, and I wondered if that would be the next fad, robotic bulls gyrating throughout the city.
I had moved to Korea after finishing an English M.A. program and funneling myself into more permanent obligations. Before my arrival, I didn't know much about Korea. I remembered a Summer Olympics being held there, disputes in the boxing scores. I had heard of Kim Jon Il in North Korea, his love of Hollywood movies and the famine of his people. But when I imagined Korea, I found my mind split. I imagined curling tiled roofs, red and gold silk robes, poets writing on parchment scrolls beside babbling brooks. But I also imagined bullet trains, neon signs, break-neck construction. Somehow these two visions intermingled unexamined in my mind, "Asia" morphing from one to the other as fit my desires or fears of the moment. When I stepped off the plane at Kimpo Airport (since I replaced by Incheon International), however, I found only the modern Korea, and for some months I was content with, even fascinated by, this new home.
I would stand on the balcony of my twentieth-floor apartment and look out at the city, at its flashing neon signs and rows of small shops. The streets were narrow, filled with people day or night. Restaurants and bars were carved into the smallest nooks between stores, often just a neon sign over a dark staircase. Pop music blared from the storefronts, the songs overlapping between stores. On rainy days, the city would fill with umbrellas, their circles merging, diverging, flowing like cells through the narrow streets. New businesses seemed to open every day with great fanfare - gyrating balloon people, dancing girls and M.C.s - only to close a few months later, a new business opening almost before the brooms had finished sweeping the old one away. And in every direction, towering over the skyline were construction cranes, erecting new buildings, each taller, grander, more modern than the last.
I had found this modern Korea, but I found only tattered remnants of the older Korea. In the center of the city was the traditional public gathering place, gaeksa, a wooden building topped with a curled tile roof. On the edges of the city were several large markets, where farmers and fishermen sold their food, In these places, I would see older people dressed in the traditional Korean hanbok, a kind of loose robe and flowing pants. But when I turned a corner and these places disappeared from my sight, I found it difficult to imagine that they had been there at all, or that they would be there when I next passed by that way.
Rain had just started to fall when I found the crane game that Sunday night in the alley. I thought it must have been forgotten, perhaps abandoned, left there to rust. But it was plugged in, a blue-white fluorescent tube flickering in its plexiglass case, the light reflecting off the wet blacktop of the alley. I fished in my pocket for a hundred-won coin. The sides of the tank were fogged, and as I put the coin into the slot, a shadow of movement inside caught my eye. Just before the machines had disappeared, I had seen one that had been stocked with lobsters as prizes. The tank had been sealed, and the lobsters lolled dolefully in brackish water, their claws strapped with blue rubber bands. The movement I saw this time, however, didn't look like something in water. I wiped my arm across the glass, and I found inside three guinea pigs, brown and white, huddled in a corner.
There was no bedding in the machine, just a flat, steel surface, scattered with the brown pellets of their droppings. I was alone in the alley, alone perhaps for the first time since I'd come to Korea. One of the guinea pigs was watching me, and I looked into the black bead of his eye. There he was, trapped inside what felt like the last remaining crane game in all Korea, and I thought that this must be what had happened to that other Korea, the five-thousand-year-old red and golden silk Korea. It had been wheeled out to the back alley and left to rust, to starve, to look mournfully around at the cement and steel, at the wash of flashing neon lights that had grown up seemingly overnight in its place.
During the following week, I saw that guinea pig’s eye everywhere. When the bus driver waved away an elderly man who couldn’t read the schedule (a man raised during Japanese occupation, barred as a child from leaning to read the Korean hangul), I saw that guinea pig’s eye in his. When I passed an old woman sitting on cardboard in front of McDonalds, selling cabbages that she had carried on her back from whatever outlying village, I saw that glistening eye. When I saw the frail crowd of elderly men huddled on the steps of the gaeksa, hemmed in by a forest of hastily built glass and steel buildings, I saw those guinea pigs huddled in the corner of their tank.
The next weekend, the last in September, was Chuseok, a Korean holiday that I had been told is something like our Thanksgiving. As with Thanksgiving, the holiday weekend spanned from Thursday through Sunday. Classes would let out on Wednesday afternoon, and I decided I would leave the city for a four-day weekend. I had heard of an island off the southern coast where I could stay at a minbak, a sort of rustic bed and breakfast. It was located on what at this time of year would be a secluded beach. I packed clothes, food, a few books and a collapsible fishing pole into my backpack. I rode my bicycle to the train station, checked the bike with the porter and took a seat on the 7:35, the city sliding away behind me as the train departed. What new fad would pop up in the four days I was gone, I wondered. Guinea pig kabobs? Puppies in the crane games?
At Mokpo, I transferred from the train to a car ferry, and by mid afternoon I was on the island, cycling through rice paddies and salt flats. I ascended a gradual hill for an hour or so, through the center of the island. A twenty-minute descent followed, ending when I coasted around a bend, and there was the ocean, a horseshoe bay, pinched nearly shut at its tips. A beach filled the arc of the bay, and rock outcrops rose on either side of the bay’s opening. A few seagulls drifted among a handful of brightly painted fishing boats. Half a dozen traditional tiled-roof houses huddled near the beach. Otherwise, the bay was empty, not a person in sight.
The minbak was the last house at one end of the bay. A hillside planted in pumpkins rose beside it, and on top of the hill were half a dozen large earthen mounds. The mounds were almost perfectly spherical, several feet in diameter, covered in tall grass. I knew that kimchi, a spicy pickled cabbage, was traditionally buried in stoneware jars, where they would age in a consistent climate, but I had never seen their burial sites, had never met a Korean who didn’t buy kimchi in the grocery store.
An old halmoni, a Korean grandmother, met me at the sliding door. She was wearing a hanbok, her feet bare. Had I been forced to guess her age, I would have said ninety. She stood about for feet tall, her face a pattern of deep lines that suggested laughter. She was talking as she opened the door, and she continued talking as she showed me into the house.
Inside were three rooms, separated by more sliding doors. Attached to the back of the house was a washroom with a “squat pot” toilet and a length of garden hose attached to a spigot, plastic buckets for bathing. The woman never stopped talking, her words shouted up at me, punctuated with laughter and pats on the back of my hand. She left me in my room, a small square, with a single curtainless window and a sleeping mat rolled up on a wooden floor. I had found my traditional Korea.
I spent the last couple hours of daylight walking the beach, and when I returned to the minbak, the old woman was inside, her window glowing from a dim light in her room. I ate dinner alone- a can of tuna and a candy bar- on the covered porch in front of the house.
In the morning, I put on a windbreaker and carried my fishing rod and two books onto the rocky point, where I spent the morning fishing and reading. I didn’t catch anything, but I didn’t mind. I watched the fishing boats ride into the bay with their morning catch, alerted to their return by the slow puttering of the diesel engines. Several white-haired men stood on the deck in yellow rain suits.
At dusk, I walked back to the minbak. The old woman as outside, standing on the slope of hillside beside the house. She was severing the ripe pumpkins from their vines with a long, curved knife. Her feet were bare, and her toes curled for traction around the vines on the steep hillside. I waved, and she shouted and pointed at her pile of pumpkins. I climbed up to her, the slope more treacherous than I had thought, the vines grabbing at my shoes. She dropped a pumpkin into my arms and laughed as I struggled to pick up two more without dropping the one she’d given me. “Hana doh,” she said. “One more.” The pumpkins were small, but I managed to carry only three, one falling out of my arms each time I tried to grab a fourth.
I took the three down the hill, she following with four in her arms. As darkness grew, we brought half a dozen loads of pumpkins down the hill and stacked them against the house.
I ate dinner once again on the porch. Over a camp stove, I cooked an egg and a packet of ramium, the Korean equivalent of Japanese ramen.I fell asleep early, and the next day I fished unsuccessfully again on the rocks and walked the length of the beach, picking up shells and bits of beach glass.I watched the sun set from the far point of the bay, and I walked back in the deepening dusk. The tide had gone out, and the fishing boats leaned on their bellies in the smooth tidal mud.
I was opening my last can of tuna on the porch when I heard the old woman behind me. “Ani, ani,” she saide, waving away my packaged food. “Jakka man. No, no. Wait a minute.” She ducked into the house and returned with a plate piled with kimchi. She went back inside and came out with a pot of white rice, and a dish of some other pickled vegetable, a root perhaps, or fiddlehead ferns. She left me again and came back with more, then more, until we had a dozen different foods on the floor with us, almost none of which I recognized. This, I thought, must be out Chuseok feast. She sat on the porch beside me, and we ate together, she studying me as I tried each dish, delighted when I liked something, equally delighted when I couldn’t disguise a sour face after a bite of what I was sure was raw octopus.
She talked all the while we ate, and when our eating slowed, she brought out tea. She lit two fat candles, and her face shown like a warm moon in the aura of candlelight. I heard the words “family” and “Seoul,” as she talked, and catching a word here and there I understood that she had a grandson. The tree earthen mounds that I had seen when I arrived were silhouetted against a nearly full moon. I asked if her grandson had helped her with the kimchi, but she seemed not to understand. I asked again, and she passed me the bowl of kimchi, pleased as I took another bite. I imagined her grandson now, in his high-rise apartment, her great grand-daughter watching satellite TV- music videos by H.O.T. (High-five Of Teenagers) or Fin. K.L. (Fine Korean Ladies), or whomever had replaced those bands.
The old woman eventually talked herself hoarse, and she laughed about that. She had trouble standing, and she smacked her legs and scolded them in the same tone of voice she’d used on me when I could manage only three pumpkins instead of four.
In the morning, the old woman loaded me up with a container of pumpkin porridge, some kimchi and rice. She shouted and laughed after me as I rode up the hill. I stopped before the road turned out of sight, and watched as she eased herself off her porch and walked up the base of the hill, a pair of garden shears in her hand. The bay was calm, the tide in, the sea lapping almost at the front doors of the small houses. I had found my traditional Korea, had spent two days immersed in its peaceful calm, but even from the short distance of the top of this hill, it seemed an age away, untouchable, as if in a case behind glass. I watched that ninety-year-old woman hobble on shaky legs up the slope to the pumpkin patch, and I felt as I were once again looking into the window of that forgotten crane game. I had spent the past three days, I thought, not immersed in a living culture, but inside that tank. How long, I wondered as I rode away, before this one, too, would be scrapped to make way for the next big thing?
The ferry had just arrived when I reached the dock, but there would be half an hour of unloading and loading cars. I sat on a bench in the waiting area and watched the vehicles drive off the boat. Most of them were farm trucks, small pickups, their rusting beds covered with canvas.
The door to the waiting room opened, and a woman with a young girl of two or three entered the lobby. The woman was wearing a lavender pantsuit, very urban, very Western. Her daughter was in a hanbok, red and gold, covered in embroidery; on her head was a red silk hat. The two sat on a bench opposite mine. The little girl smiled shyly and waved at me, and for a moment I thought maybe the traditional Korea wasn’t on its last legs, wasn’t starving in a back alley, locked inside a rusting crane game. The girl fanned the hem of her dress, and her mother smiled at me. “Chuseok,” she said, nodding toward her daughter’s hanbok. Of course, I thought, a costume. I remembered Thanksgivings when I was a child, making construction-paper pilgrim hats in elementary school, drawing turkeys with crayons, the outline of my hand forming the tail.
The little girl clung to her mother’s leg and stared at me. Then she ran to a row of candy vending machines. The woman spoke to me in Korean, and I understood that they were visiting home on the last day of the Chuseok vacation, that her husband was still on the boat, waiting to drive their car off the ferry. She told me they were going to see her husband’s grandmother. I tried to ask if his grandmother lived on the horseshoe bay, if she raised pumpkins on the hillside, but I didn’t have the words, and she only smiled at me apologetically, told me, ye, Koreans like pumpkin. A silver sedan drove off the ferry, and the woman called to the girl, “Bali wa.” Hurry up. The girl ran to her mother, and I asked if I could take their picture.
So what if the girl’s dress is only a costume, I thought, as I raised the camera to my eye. It’s an adorable sight, a gesture of love for a grandmother. And what would I want for her? As much as I had enjoyed my time here, her life lay elsewhere, this island as foreign to her as the hanbok that she wore for the pleasure of her great-grandmother. She may become a doctor or a businesswoman or an engineer. She may live in another country; she may live in several. Her opportunities would be almost fathomless compared to those of the halmoni whom I imagined just then carrying more pumpkins down from the patch. Still, despite the doors that modernization opened, I lamented the loss of those that closed.
“Hana, dul, set” I counted. The mother held her daughter’s arms apart to display her beautiful dress the man tapped twice on the car horn, and before the girl could race toward the door I released the shutter.
I followed the mother and daughter out of the waiting room, watched their car speed down the single, narrow road that ran through this tiny village. When they had driven out of sight, I stored my bicycle in the boat’s cargo hull and climbed to the top deck. The weather was cool, but the sky was cloudless and vibrant blue. I decided not to read, but to watch the scenery as the ferry threaded through a chain of islands on our two-hour trip back to the mainland.
The boat’s horn blasted, a long pull of whistle, and with a clanking of chains the ramp began to rise. From the upper deck, I looked out at the wooded hillside that was the backdrop of the village, and I saw a group of people walking through the scattered pines- a man, women and small boy, the man and boy in suits, the woman in a black dress. Leading them was an old man in a green hanbok.
A wash of water rolled forward as the boat reversed away from the dock. The horn blew again, and the boat pivoted and surged forward. As we sped away, angling for the northern point of the bay, the family stopped at a cluster or three grass-covered mounds, the same kind I had seen above the pumpkin patch. The woman spread a quilt on the grass, and just as the boat rounded the point, obscuring them from my sight, the group kneeled in front of the earthen mounds and toughed their heads to the ground.
I want to say that I was surprised when I realized that those nearly perfect spheres did not house jars of kimchi. But once revealed, the fact was too obvious, and I realized that part of me had known all along. Chuseok, I would later learn when I showed the picture of the little girl to my Korean language teacher, is nothing like our Thanksgiving, but is instead a holiday of pilgrimage, a time when families return to their ancestral homes to pay homage to their dead.
The girl in the hanbok may have been too young that year to be of help, but she would one day learn to use clippers to trim the grass of the graves, as I’m now sure the old woman I’d stayed with was going to do that morning. The little girl would eventually learn to say the proper prayers, would help place the bowls of rice and fruit before the earthen mounds, stick the chopsticks into the bowls so that the dead could eat. And before long she would learn what the teenagers on the Dance Dance revolution machines had learned, what the barista in the cappuccino van had learned, what the misguided entrepreneur who place the guinea pigs in the crane game had learned, what nearly every Korean knows. She would learn the list of the ancestors’ names, an unbroken chain trailing back a dozen generations or more.
When I returned from the island, I found that the crane game was still in the alley near my apartment, but that it was no longer plugged in, the guinea pigs no longer huddled in its tank (I like to think that they escaped, that they’re fugitives wandering the city). As far as I knew, the last crane game in all Korea was dead. I wondered what would replace it. I was sure that whatever it was would be bright and loud and almost irresistible. I just hoped that it would not be so bright or so loud that the little girl in my photograph would miss the whispers of her ancestors each year at Chuseok.