Caged Birds is a short story I wrote as a submission for an anthology in Korea. They rejected the story with a letter expressing that they liked my poetic style, but didn’t think the story was right for their anthology. I understood. They wanted more of a foreigner’s perception or experience in Korea. I didn’t want to write that. I didn’t want it to become a piece containing all the things that bother me—which I feared it would be. We foreigners will always be outsiders here, no matter how loving and accepting our Korean friends are. And although many of us enjoy living here (the pros outweigh the cons) we all have our moments of venting to each other.
I’ve lived in South Korea coming up to eight years. When I first arrived, I knew nothing about the culture. I grew up in a small Scottish town in which probably over ninety percent of the residents were white—and absolutely no one I knew came from Korea. As my time in Korea went by, and I became better acquainted with Korean people, I started to get to appreciate K-pop and K-dramas. I got to explore the beautiful countryside and islands. But it wasn’t really until I left my job teaching children and moved into Gangnam to teach adults that I really understood the Korea of Koreans.
Foreigners come to new lands to seek shelter, safety, adventure, or a new beginning. We see our new homes with fresh eyes. We appreciate it so different to the residents. But I gained a unique position in which I would sit in a room with one student and let them talk. That was, and still is, the purpose of my job as a one-to-one English teacher. I elicit the language from them and they try to use it with me. But the more I work, the more the relationships with my students grew, the more they opened up their hearts, the more I get to recognise the side of Korea that I didn’t feel as a foreign outsider teaching children. I get to hear straight from the residents about their deeper concerns, the negative aspects of the culture, the thoughts they cannot share with their friends because they fear judgement. I am, for want of a better phrase, playing therapist.
After working in Gangnam, I switched to a place called Yeouido. This is the wall street of Korea. It is the hub of the financial industry. This is where I set Caged Birds. The setting in the story is realistic. Mapo Bridge is a popular spot of suicide, the messages written on the bridge all exist, and even the golden statue referenced. The main character’s path, her tale, is largely influenced by the countless conversations I’ve had with women and men during our classes. I listened to their tales of woe, their pressures from family, their desires to escape their lives. Their envy of others. I’ve heard it so often I had to get it down.
But it was more than that. I too have had moments of depression. Times in which I’ve contemplated suicide. I am sure many of us have. So this story is not just a reflection of what I hear from others in Korea. It is also a reflection of myself. I included parts of me in there. There are nuggets of truth in the story that reflect my mind, my experiences, my heartaches. I have revealed a darker, deeper part of myself in that story. But, just as is my way, I also included the brighter side of me. The hope that resonates whenever someone talks about their troubles with me. That battling side of myself that knows these feelings can heal, can pass.
While writing the story, these two songs played in my head so often:
Ghost in the Rain by Beast in Black: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAkEfIb99rU
Invincible by Avantasia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrWYzt-mTug
About the story:
For Song Ji-Yoon, living in South Korea is not easy. Under pressure from her family to get married, forced to work longer hours than necessary, and still healing from fresh wounds from her past relationship, she is barely coping. Feeling lost in a world that doesn't accept her, she takes a walk along Mapo Bridge—a well-known suicide spot—and finds something that she least expects: hope.
If you haven’t read it yet, it is free to download in most bookstores—except Amazon—and you can find the link to them all here:
Thanks for reading this month's blog post. Until next time, Stay Gold.