Fiction Winter 2018

“Barbie Vibes” – Park Min Jung

Barbie Vibes

by Park Min Jung
Translated by Jamie Forgacs and Shyun J. Ahn

I met her again today. I’m dumbfounded that she made me miserable for so long, even though I can hold her in the palm of my hand this easily. I’m attaching her face here. K-Bot. jpg

When the students were unexpectedly kicked out of the building, they began to vent their frustrations. The deep cleaning of the reading room went on for a while, so they gathered in front of the graduate school building, crouching and standing by the benches and smoking area. Waiting for the cleaning to end, they read books and studied. Pressed by her surroundings, Yumi, too, peered at her book. New Media Literacy. The book’s content rarely corresponded with its title. Day after day, she had been taking out library books that she’d barely read a page of before returning. It couldn’t be called proper studying because she was always hastily snapping a photo of a passage with her phone camera before shutting the book. The number of books she had sloppily checked out like this was approaching a hundred, yet only two days remained before the final submission day. Yumi thought it’d be nice to at least drink some coffee and catch her breath until she could re-enter the reading room. However, she couldn’t afford to do that.

Her advisor had told her that he couldn’t defend her any longer if she didn’t fix that passage. Her thesis review had been a month ago, but the revisions were neverending. Of the three professors who participated as thesis reviewers, two of them had expressed disapproval of Yumi’s manuscript. The sole person who remained sheepishly silent was Yumi’s own advisor. The review had taken place in his research room. None of the three even touched the cups of coffee that Yumi prepared in advance. “If the project has come to this, isn’t it the advisor’s responsibility?” Except for Yumi, the others all burst into laughter. She was at a loss. The review would decide if she passed or failed, and she had to receive a stamp of approval from the three professors. The final submission approval form, which had to be prepared by a student under examination, was in her bag.

After the break, Yumi’s advisor told her to take it out. Then, he gestured to the other two to approve the thesis, and they pulled out their stamps with hesitation. The professors had settled on passing her with one condition. Representing the reviewers, Yumi’s advisor told her that they’d accept her thesis on the condition that she revise one of its passages. She had to bring them her revised thesis by the final submission day to pass at long last, and the head reviewer would hold onto her approval form until then.

When Yumi had heard these words, she was about to say that everything was pointless, so forget it. Yet, in the end, she had been revising, heartbroken like this, until today. She was unable to find the answer as to how she could exclude or change the passage—even though the professors said the passage would never be uploaded on to the department’s thesis database.

Soft, snow-like hail scattered. Profanities burst forth from the students as if they suddenly had the spirit to complain to the administrative office. Yumi carefully brushed away the snow that had landed on her book, wishing they’d all be quiet. Right as she thought this, she heard the shouting of the reading room assistant, who’d emerged to yell that the cleaning was done, so come inside in an orderly fashion. In between the students moving in perfect order, Yumi spotted that man and recoiled in surprise. It was him, the man who hadn’t come for the past two days. The snow layered his worn out bomber jacket like dandruff. He fell in naturally with the line, hunching up with that same backpack he always carried. She tried to avoid catching his eye, though, regardless, it’d happen soon. She didn’t know who the man was, but she did know his name.

Ever since the beginning of the semester that Yumi had started writing her master’s thesis, that man had sat at her side. At first, she thought there was no way he was doing it on purpose, that it might be her own misunderstanding. At that time, it was still the season that could be called late summer, and he was wearing a black polo shirt. It was a summer shirt, dirty with gray dust clinging to it. He sat so close to Yumi that she could observe this. Although the sound of him breathing through his nose grated on her, she couldn’t demand absolute silence beyond not talking in a public space.

There were plenty of students who were much noisier than him. Chinese international students constituted one-third of the graduate student population, and they stood out with their habits. Not only were they frequently pointed out by the reading room assistant for talking loudly on the phone, but they even seized the opportunity to spread out their lunch boxes and snacks and eat when the assistant left for a short time. On the rare occasions when the words wouldn’t flow onto the page, Yumi was caught up in wishing she could grab somebody, anybody, and question them closely. She even wanted to grab a female student by her hair and shake her for coolly smearing jam over bread and eating it while watching a variety show without earphones.

Of course, some students who acted as if the reading room was their private space couldn’t be lumped together as “Chinese international students.” However, because those who acted like that were definitively “Chinese,” she had to think hard about whether the feelings that had overtaken her were indeed rooted in prejudice or not. The Chinese words that had poured from the computer monitor when Yumi made up her mind to say something and stood close to the female student—those lingered in her head throughout the semester. Somehow, she returned to her seat, unable to say anything. Even if she said that all of them were Chinese, she couldn’t say, “None of the Chinese international students have a sense of public decency.” So, Yumi smoldered with frustration discreetly, in her own way. Just to close friends. Her chosen opening was “with a high probability.” With a high probability, people who acted in such ways were Chinese international students.

And with a high probability, that man would occupy the seat next to Yumi. In actuality, it was one hundred percent. The seats in the reading room were not assigned. Yet, if the seat next to Yumi was empty, the man sat next to her without exception. Each day, Yumi rose early and went to campus to claim a seat in the reading room, and the man came in the afternoon. On days when Yumi started writing her thesis late in the afternoon, he went so far as to move from far away, little by little, to the seat beside her. Yumi was aware of this fact. When the first month had passed since she started on her rough draft, around the time her introduction would’ve been complete, Yumi had no longer been able to ignore the conclusion that the man was following her. But she couldn’t say that it was that important of a fact. He didn’t do anything in particular to harm her. The student who stuffed herself with bread and watched variety shows did far more. All he did was noisily puff air from his nose and stick close to her, focusing intently on something else before leaving. He always left the reading room before her, and though she had checked her surroundings a few times when she headed home, he had not followed her from behind. Campus was well-lit until late at night, full of undergraduate students hanging out on mats that they’d spread out everywhere. She wasn’t in danger. It was just that he had spent all day glued to her side in the next seat, the whole semester.

He hunched into himself tightly, standing in line in an orderly fashion to enter the reading room. It was a cold day, and many students had hunched their bodies like him. But Yumi couldn’t think of him as a student like the rest. The man was no student. The reading room was a place only the graduate students at this school could use. Yet, because it didn’t require a student ID to enter, anybody who knew this could use it at any time. Copying and scanning services were provided free of charge, and there were numerous high-performing desktop computers. Most students were there to work on a thesis or paper. Yumi had to run immediately to a research meeting when her professor called her, and she needed an endless supply of texts for writing her thesis, so she couldn’t write her thesis anywhere but on campus. Although the reading room was a place where she could leave her belongings when she stepped away for a moment, Yumi was conscious of the man and always took her things with her when she went to the library book stacks. She backed up every file that she’d used and even made sure to turn the computer off completely.

The man was careless perhaps because he wasn’t fearful of Yumi. He just pressed the pause button on a video or left an email draft open while leaving his seat for a long time. Surprisingly enough, he’d spent the semester just dawdling around in the reading room. Yumi had planned to stop coming to the reading room in two days, and she had been going around saying that she wouldn’t even turn her head toward school. She had wondered if the man would still come even after then. Yumi had been curious, and she’d thought of her brother.

Whenever she saw dark, lone men like that, thoughts of her brother came to her.

*

The day Treasure Island exploded…

No matter how she thought about it, she couldn’t believe it. It was when Yumi was twelve and her brother seventeen. He had entered high school that year.* Yumi approached her brother, who had tightly gripped his copy of The Principles of Mathematics and groaned, and took out a note.

“This is the phone number for this boy I like. Call him, and if he answers, say this, please.”

On the paper was written a crude script, something like, “You’re Jongwon Choi from fifth grade, class 3, right? You know Yumi Kim, yeah? Tell me what you think about her.” After reading the memo, her brother giggled and told her to drop it.

“Stop playing this awkward game. I can’t agree to a childish joke like this.”

Pouting, Yumi left the room and took a yogurt that her grandmother had frozen out of the fridge to drink it. To break up the thin ice, she shook the yogurt pack back and forth. Her brother’s hamsters scurried around in a huge cage in the corner of the living room, and Yumi looked sideways at this. The house smelled of her grandmother. The circumstances of that day came back to her, crystal clear. Grandmother’s smell, her brother’s beloved hamsters, the yogurt, and Treasure Island…

Her brother was her uncle’s son, and he was her one and only older male cousin. Her uncle and aunt did not raise him. For as long as Yumi could remember, her brother lived with their grandmother, away from his parents. It was not quite ten minutes away by taxi from her uncle and aunt’s house in the next neighborhood, and it was a 640-square-foot flat on the second floor with two bedrooms and one living room. It was Grandmother’s house, and it was also her brother’s house. On the other hand, her uncle and aunt’s place was a standalone house with a yard, and Yumi’s uncle, aunt, and younger cousins lived there. For whatever reason, Yumi had never questioned why things were like this until then. Her cousins and brother didn’t ever get together, and even if they did meet on a holiday, they were indifferent. If anything, Yumi and her brother were far more like real siblings. Her uncle only scowled and scolded her brother when they ran into each other. He was in the habit of insulting him, calling her brother a stupid idiot even when Yumi was there. Her brother was an underperforming student in middle school. After asking around, her uncle brought in a tutor and said he’d paid the person a staggering amount. Yumi’s brother sullenly told her not to come over for the time being, that he didn’t have time to play with her. With the tutor hitting him on the calf with a cane, her brother prepared for the standardized high school entrance exam. He suffered like that in the fear that he’d fail an exam where supposedly everyone passed—as long as they weren’t in last place. Every time Yumi’s uncle met her parents, he cursed his own son.

“Why should I make a big deal out of my son? Who on earth can’t even get into a regular high school in Seoul?”

Whether it was then or now, Yumi knew the reason her brother was a poor student.

Moreover, had Treasure Island not existed, if her brother who was the master of Treasure Island had not existed, Yumi wasn’t sure if she would’ve joined the Philosophy department. Treasure Island’s impact on her was that significant.

Although Yumi went so far as to pinch her nose because she hated her grandmother’s smell, she went to that house on a daily basis. She went to her uncle and aunt’s house only on holidays, but she even had her own key for the house where Grandmother and her brother lived. Around the time she entered elementary school, she started to take the local bus there by herself whenever she got the chance. When her brother, a middle schooler, saw her, he lifted his right hand next to his cheek and gave her a brief greeting. Come on in, Yumi. Saying so, he’d tiredly roll his small pupils around above his high-prescription glasses. Yumi didn’t think of her brother as strange. Even as an adult, her brother never met her eyes.

When he was in middle school, her brother bought something every single day without end. There was something new every time Yumi went. Bromides covered the four walls of that room, with uncountable comic books and novels and game packs, plastic models, toy figures, and all kinds of electronic devices of unknown use. Yumi picked up whatever drew her interest. She’d never played outside with her brother. They didn’t talk and just holed up in his room, playing games or reading books separately. Their grandmother usually went out to meet her neighbors, and she would come back late and make dinner for them. When the meal was done, she’d call Yumi’s parents and raise her voice at them, telling them to come get her. Because Yumi’s parents didn’t have any interest in cram schools and left their only daughter alone while they went to work, they found relief in her spending most afternoons at her grandmother’s house. The day that Treasure Island exploded, her uncle bullied her parents, telling them to take proper care of their own child. She had no idea that all those years of afternoons spent with her brother would turn into such a bad thing. In one fell swoop that day, Yumi’s long afternoons became wholly wrong.

Because her brother gave her everything and never minded when she touched his things, Yumi liked playing there. When she grew bored of reading books, she rummaged through the desk drawer. Her brother paid no heed to this. Yumi took the entire drawer out and sat with it between her legs to examine everything bit by bit. “What’s this? It wasn’t here before.” Yumi would ask nitpicky questions, and her brother would answer without even turning around. “I bought that in Yongsan last time.” “I bought that from the comic store last time.” “It’s yours if you want.” The conversation went like this. Since he always just told her to take them, she didn’t really covet those things, and she returned them to their original spots. Their grandmother’s cabinet was in the corner, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and incongruous in a middle school boy’s room. On top of this, her brother’s treasured robots stood straight in a line; when the sun set, that part of the room was the first to be tinged orange, so Yumi had stared blankly at this scenery for a moment. The mother-of-pearl in a spotted deer and in the outspread feathers of a peacock had winked as they caught the light, and the plastic models of the robots that her brother had assembled looked as if they were taking position to attack. Yumi remembered that scenery for a long time. “It feels like the end of the world or something,” Yumi had thought, but it had been obvious that her apathetic brother wouldn’t answer, so this didn’t leave her lips.  

Yumi called that room Treasure Island.

To be precise, that’s how she defined it and remembered it. After Treasure Island exploded, Yumi and her brother never mentioned that day. Yumi thought that they probably never even enunciated the name “Treasure Island” out loud. Whenever she rummaged through the drawer, coupons for pizza delivery readily poured out, and when she giggled as she said, “I’m gonna order a pizza with this,” her brother would say, “Go ahead”—That was her brother’s room. As long as she’d lived, she had clearly remembered the moments when she had dashed down the alley as soon as she got off the bus, sprinting up the stone stairwell and ringing the doorbell or unlocking the door, all to read the next comic in a series. But the memories of that house ceased after Treasure Island exploded, even though it wasn’t the house that burned.

At the same time, Yumi had a different kind of memory of those years.  

The words that her uncle had thrown at her brother, waiting in the living room when Yumi came back with her brother, who carried the hamsters he’d bought at the market. “You’re a guy and you’re getting beat up at school? And what’s worse, by girls.” Yumi fled to Treasure Island and didn’t listen any further. She didn’t ask her despondent brother any questions, either, when he came into his room. It was nothing new that the adults didn’t watch their words when Yumi could hear, and the talk of her brother being ostracized and even beaten at school was part of that. Her brother was toughing it out in a lonely classroom, and, as he did, he withdrew even more into his own world. Though Yumi did think that her brother was to be pitied, she was also aware that the more lonely he became, the more exciting things would come her way.  As long as she didn’t mess with the thing that was like her brother’s alter ego, she could play with anything at all. While her brother let her touch and take out the countless things in that room, there was still one thing to which he did not give her permission: his prized 486 DOS Computer.

*

“For a new medium, we need a new language. This is how we can survive the environment of this special medium—this is new literacy that we are required of.”

Yumi stared vacantly at the monitor. It was the sentence she’d put in her thesis abstract. As the professors hadn’t involved themselves with her abstract, she had been able to write the sentence that they would never approve of. If she were to summarize her thesis in just one sentence, it had to be this. For Yumi, no other words mattered; only these ones did. For the sake of these words, she had composed her table of contents and created the details of the subsections while borrowing the basis of her theory from countless references. More than anything else, she sought the agonizing and harrowing argument that she herself had witnessed for the sake of proving these words.

At first, the professors said they couldn’t accept her research methodology. Though the problem was that she had collected the progress of arguments via screenshots, this, at any rate, could be overlooked because there had been a graduation thesis that captured online debates and employed critical theories. The Critical Communications Studies was an interdisciplinary program that combined the Philosophy and the Communications departments, forming the curriculum that encompasses all the unique differences between the two departments. But problems arose when it came time to confer a degree. A strange tension flowed between the Philosophy and the Communications professors, which painfully revealed that the humanities-based Philosophy department and the social science-based Communications department would never harmonize. The Philosophy professors constantly made jokes like, “I guess our meeting was never anything more than an illicit love affair; the sweet illusion of live cafes and romance is now over,” and made the students feel uncomfortable. The Communications professors demanded to know how on earth they could possibly conduct a detailed field survey without statistics and made the students speechless. As for the words they used—“detailed field survey”—Yumi didn’t think she could ever understand.  

The professors couldn’t understand the very nature of a medium called Twitter, so Yumi explained multiple times to her advisor the way that different users express their own opinions. For instance, Twitter’s “RT,” or the retweeting feature, allowed someone put forth their opinion just by quoting someone else’s. The unique characteristics of Twitter as a medium were difficult for her advisor to understand, and, at heart, he could simply never accept it. Moreover, the space where users individually participated in arguments was not fixed to one place. They could frequently change the composition of the timeline and even deviate from it however much they wanted.  

“Can you call this a public sphere?”

Yumi forced a laugh. She’d stayed up all night capturing snapshots of each user’s timeline as a means of investigating the arguments. As she couldn’t use the screenshots just as they were in her thesis, she had to reframe them as done in news articles, but Yumi didn’t have any idea how to use Photoshop. In a word processor, she made a table that reproduced the Twitter background and then typed up the content, bit by bit. Although it was an important case that underpinned Yumi’s own argument—literacy needed for a new medium—copying it again was agonizing and disgusting work. Her advisor shook his head as if he’d seen something dirty; as if he was uncomfortable at the very idea that these words had been rawly added to a sacred thesis. Yumi’s manuscript had more unpolished tables than the standard footnotes.

The real reason that Yumi’s advisor had to defend her thesis was himself. He cornily said that this crisis would be sustenance in the future, and he reminisced that when he had written his master’s thesis, he had also battled with the obstinance of academia. He said he was a maverick for studying French philosophy, as opposed to the majority of the other professors, who majored in German philosophy. And to make matters worse, he hadn’t even studied overseas. “So didn’t I win and get this far?” he said to her placatingly. He had to protect Yumi because he had been the one who persuaded Yumi to join him when the Critical Communications Studies was founded at the graduate school.  

Yumi couldn’t blame her professor. She had chosen Critical Communications Studies because she felt limited by the Philosophy department’s curriculum and had become deeply interested in media theory. She had felt very lucky because the interdisciplinary program, which could satiate her interests, was established around the time that she was entering graduate school. Even if her advisor hadn’t persuaded her, she would’ve chosen this program. Nonetheless, what Yumi could not choose was whether to graduate or not. She didn’t have any interest in earning the degree. because she hadn’t remotely thought of continuing on to a Ph.D. Moreover, even if she graduated, she wouldn’t be able to secure a part-time lecturer position, unlike her friends who were in traditional academic departments. The day she had submitted her thesis proposal, professors from the department of Communications lashed out at her, and she decided that she wouldn’t write the thesis. That she was never hung up about the degree to begin with. As her professor said, she simply studied what she wanted, and so she never wanted anything else.

Yumi said so whenever she had a chance.

And so did she when she was about half-done with her thesis. That day, her advisor had made a sharp remark.

“I know there’s nothing I can do for you, but do you really have to keep making such a big fuss about it?”

Yumi tried not to cry. Crying at this moment would be admitting to what her advisor said. What he asked was quite straightforward: “So do you not feel any attachment to the degree because there is no real profit in putting so much effort into graduating?” In other words, he was asking, “Were you studying for some profit in particular?” Yumi did not want to be misunderstood. She knew why the vast majority of her friends in graduate school were putting up with all the small errands for their professors. She knew the kinds of trouble they suffered in order to become lecturers or to remain in academia. If she denied what her advisor said, it would be insulting her friends, so Yumi held back her tears and didn’t answer. Crying always worked better in her favor than talking back to her professor, but she felt like she had been deeply insulted that day.

Imagine artificial intelligence…one day, it’ll realize something—that its back is itchy, but it doesn’t have a back to scratch. 

That day, Yumi didn’t want to write even a single line, nor take a look at the manuscript, so she had leaned back in her chair and spaced out in the reading room. She was dwelling on the innocent frame of mind she had when she’d made the decision to continue studying, as well as the several problems that she had experienced since then. The pride and joy that she’d felt each time the semester came again, the process of answering last semester’s questions in the new semester, and how that turned into the questions for the next semester. The moments when those countless questions converged in a single instant, like metal drawn to a magnet. And the message that was even more vital to Yumi than earning her degree: “We can no longer assert ownership of language as the agents of practical reason. We need a new language.”

Just then, the man snorted and drew close to the monitor.  

Yumi bit her lower lip and glared at the man even though she knew that he had moved closer to the monitor, not to her. She was certain that the man wasn’t a student because he spent half the day continuously watching soccer games and celebrity news until he left. Even so, he rarely missed a day at the reading room. Whenever Yumi got up from her seat to go to the bathroom or use a vending machine, he cowered and made it clear that he was conscious of her. And this angered Yumi. She could barely hold back her anger in the moment.

However, she couldn’t confront the man because he was merely quietly following her around without doing any harm.

Yumi gently closed her eyes and let out a long sigh. Maybe I shouldn’t have come to the reading room today, she said to herself over and over again. When she opened her eyes, the man was nowhere to be seen. Yumi scoped out the man’s seat. The man had packed his bag and left in the meantime. It was earlier than usual. Yumi leaned over to his computer and studied the monitor. On that day, the man had headed out while leaving his screens open, just as he had always done when he left his seat for a long time, as if he privately owned it. The reading room assistant was absent that day, and from time to time, there were only one or two students sitting there, all far apart. Yumi clicked her tongue at the man’s carelessness. His video was paused, and he had opened up quite a few different windows. Yumi closed the video and opened the windows one by one. He had even left in the middle of writing an email from his personal email account. It was studded with lousy punctuation, saying things like, “How’re you doing? I’m the same as usual, nothing new in my life, sorry for the late reply, I still don’t have a girl, bro.” Yumi shook her head back and forth and clicked on another window. She caught her breath. And she quietly took her hand away from the mouse the man had used.   

All of the webpages he had browsed were on Google, and all the results were pictures of women. They were photos of women he had found just from searching words like “pedestrian” or “street,” and there were also photos of women she hadn’t heard of, like “Asuka Kirara,” “Rei Mizuna,” “Matsumoto Rina,” or “Asada Ōishi.” In the same ordered manner that he had always used the reading room, in the same ordered manner that he had sat next to Yumi all day long in a similar black outfit and had left before she did, it seemed like his searching pattern, too, had its own order. Was the website programmed to bring up pictures of specific female body parts, no matter what he searched?

Yumi no longer wanted to do anything at all on that day. On the way home, she thought of her brother. As she had cut off contact with him not long after she entered college, this was almost the tenth year that she didn’t know how he was getting along. No matter how special those youthful years with her brother had been, neither of them meant anything to the other after his and her parents cut off the relationship. Yumi, too, hadn’t wanted to keep in touch with her brother since then. No, she thought, though I don’t know how he’d feel, there is no way that our relationship didn’t mean anything to me. Because, although I didn’t want to admit it, my brother was the reason I entered the Philosophy department in the first place. Because, somehow, he was the first person who stood in for me.  Nevertheless, she was hardly confident that her brother was living any differently from the man in the reading room. As she had heard the news about her younger cousins getting married even after severing ties with her uncle, she would have already heard the news if her brother had at least married. He wouldn’t be married with kids like others, and even if he had, would he really be that different from that man? Yumi knew her brother well. Throughout her life, she thought of her brother whenever she saw the shadowy men who silently followed women around, and she struggled with a heart torned between contempt and pity. Like the sincere worry poured out by a friend who had a younger brother who had a big stature yet was immature:

“When this kid doesn’t come home for a few days, I’m not worried about anything else but that he might be working as a guard at a rally somewhere.”

*

Treasure Island was filled with a collection of only interesting things that her brother brought back from plundering a world Yumi didn’t know. She read her first comic book there and learned the appeal of waiting eagerly for the next part in a series. And, more than anything, she learned the joy of reading a story little by little lest it would end. But not just that, for the first time in her life, she looked at photos and drawings of naked men and women intertwined and came to know about all kinds of erotic speech, which sounded like translation and was difficult to guess its meaning. She only was able to realize the full meaning of all those words after she entered college. Although her brother had never said them in front of Yumi when they were young, she’d come to remember them as “Brother’s Words” because they couldn’t be heard anywhere but Treasure Island. She did hear them again, naturally, when she came to college and dated numerous guys. And so Yumi had to remember him painfully, her one and only male cousin, whom she had defined as her advocate after the incident.

His uncle had set fire to Treasure Island that day. To be exact, he set fire to her brother’s stuff, but to Yumi, it was same as burning up the entire room. Her brother would’ve been disheartened, but so was Yumi. To her knowledge, her brother was studying really hard now that he’d entered high school. He didn’t talk to her even when she visited him, and studied math and English at his desk. Nothing had changed, though, because they’d done things separately for a long time. Yumi had perused the stuff in his room and read books, undisturbed by his presence. Yet, her uncle was inflamed with rage and lit the room with flames. “You bastard, doing nothing good in your room even after becoming a high school kid,” he said. When Yumi recalled that day, she thought that her brother was foolish. Her uncle, as a matter of fact, had warned his son numerous times that he would blow up Treasure Island.

That day, he called his son again and asked if he was studying hard. He also yelled that he would burn everything if his son didn’t throw away the useless comics and game console from the room. After hanging up, her brother shrugged and asked what Yumi liked the most in the room. Yumi looked around and then pointed at the children book series published by Idea Publishing Co. “And which one?” her brother asked. She chose Donovan’s Brain, the fifth book of the series. It wasn’t that she liked it the most, but it was the only book she hadn’t finished out of twenty of them. She had only recently started to read it because she had been too afraid to touch the cover, where the robot had protruding red eyes. And, of course, she didn’t know what “i-de-a” meant, and she only thought that an author who wrote such story would be a pervert and crazy freak. Her brother said he would give the book to her. He pulled out a huge Boy Scout camping bag from the closet and packed it with comics and novels. He also wrapped the robots that were on the cabinet one by one. When he was finished, he asked her to go back home. Worried about what he might be up to, Yumi didn’t go home and instead went along, following him. He grimaced, saying in a disappointed tone that a scary disaster might happen soon. Slinging a bag over his shoulders, her brother left home. Yumi followed. When he reached the playground in front of his house, he threw his camping bag into the rose bushes behind the jungle gym. He stared at the book Yumi was holding and said, “Give that to me.” Yumi shook her head. “Then take good care of it,” he said, his face determined.  

As she watched her uncle kicking the door and storming in, Yumi thought this must be the catastrophe her brother had mentioned. Her uncle entered with a huge club, which startled Yumi because she mistook it for a hunting rifle. It was back when her uncle and her dad got a gun permit in their spare time and went out hunting every weekend. Yumi was frightened because she thought her uncle was going to shoot her brother to death. Determined to protect her brother if that were to happen, she went into the room. Perhaps because he had already hid stuff that was important to him in a backpack, or perhaps because he was white-knuckled with fear, he was standing still, not moving an inch the entire time her uncle was tearing the comic books, smashing the toys, and flipping the desk drawers upside down as he roared. Yumi stomped her feet as she stepped into the doorway, not knowing what to do. Her uncle glanced sidelong at her and snatched away the book she was hugging to her chest.  

“You call this piece of crap a book?” her uncle harped, glaring at her brother. “You damn child. Did I or did I not already tell you to throw all these away?”

Hiding behind her uncle, Yumi gave her brother orders. “Tell him that you’re sorry. Quick. Right now,” she said quietly, glowering at him. Her brother lowered his eyes as if he didn’t hear her. She stomped her feet worriedly. When her uncle gave way to anger and pulled out his lighter to set books on fire, she slapped her brother and pressed him to kneel down and apologize, but he didn’t change his attitude. Yumi cursed at him in her mind. You idiot. Just beg him. Tell him that you did wrong. In the midst of this commotion, her brother drooped his head and just stood still, not moving an inch.

She had never talked about that day with her brother. Nonetheless, she conjectured that he must have acted that way because he knew his dad would never hit an expensive computer. The cutting-edge 486 DOS Computer was incredibly pricey. Yumi knew it, too. She knew that her uncle, who was roaring with anger and setting fires here and there, ironically wouldn’t even get close to the computer. Her brother had had a costly computer since he was a little child, and he got the newest model every few years. This was the only way her uncle comforted his child after getting remarried and abandoning him.

In fact, everything in Treasure Island was funded in the same way by her uncle—He tried to reconcile guilt with money while neglecting his son in reality. From a very young age, her brother had received too much of an allowance. He had lots of money and no friends. When he saw comics or video tapes he liked at a rental store, he paid more and bought them, and this was how he got pirated magazines from the older kids he met through a Bulletin Board System.

Yet the unique sensibility that had grown out of his obsession with his collections soon turned into the gift of a lifetime. Not long after Treasure Island exploded, he won first prize at a robotics competition hosted by the best engineering school in the country. Yumi was also surprised. She had thought he was idling on his computer every day, but he was in fact immersing himself in robotic programming and sensor development. The judges stated that he received “a high score for the outstanding programming and unique taste in art.” By winning this prize, he became a gifted student in robotics, and he gained the privilege to apply as a special student and be accepted to a university preparatory program.

Several days before Yumi’s brother entered the robotics program, Yumi’s uncle threw a party in his front yard. Yumi watched the unfamiliar scene of her aunt, cousins, and brother together in the same space. The cousins did not talk to Yumi’s brother, and her aunt smiled without saying a word. Her uncle beamed with pleasure as he barbequed the meat of some animal he’d hunted down. What about those times he’d cursed at his child, calling him a useless dog? Yumi wondered. When her uncle offered her meat with his tainted work gloves, Yumi was startled and ran away. He said he’d hunted it down, but there was no way she could identify what sort of beast it had been. Yumi silently watched her brother from a distance. He was accepting and eating the meat without a word. Would he be able to live as he wanted, as he had done before? Even when he was already unable to refuse that sort of meat? Yumi felt soaked in loneliness.

*

Now Yumi knew it—that the glory of being a gifted student in robotics hadn’t made her brother’s life any happier. In the end, he became a robot engineer, but it was doubtful that the success was comparable to the tragedy that was his life. A boy who had been putting everything into what he liked in Treasure Island was now thrown into the real world, a world called “university,” and ended up becoming nothing but one of those shadowy men. Yumi still remembered those days so vividly. Her brother was looked down upon once he entered the preparatory program because his English wasn’t good. He even strangled himself several times, after feeling defeated at a school where all enrolled students were gifted. But did that mean his faults could be forgiven? Just because he indeed was unfortunate; just because there were people beside him who witnessed his frustration?  

Right after her brother had entered the program at the university, their grandmother fell and never got up again. She had been getting water from the refrigerator while having dinner alone. As Yumi’s uncle chain-smoked at the funeral home, he said he was relieved that she’d passed away at least after seeing her once useless grandson entering college. Yumi’s brother sobbed, trying to stifle the noise. The hamsters, which he’d begged be taken care of, were taken away by her uncle before they knew it. On the day their grandmother’s coffin was carried out for burial, he asked Yumi, “Where would my hamsters have gone?” Yumi imagined barbequed hamsters and shut her eyes tightly. She remembered her uncle saying, “You can’t even eat them when they’re grown,” every time he saw the hamsters. Their grandmother’s house was cleaned up, and Yumi’s brother’s belongings were moved to Yumi’s house. Until he worked as an engineer for his mandatory military service, he visited Yumi’s place every time he came to Seoul. Now a university student, he seemed like he had grown physically but not mentally. He started to share his concerns with Yumi, like that he needed to sign up for classes but he was worried about this and that, and that he couldn’t understand anything because the classes were offered only in English, and that his lab wasn’t the right fit for him, and so on… Yumi, only a middle school student, did not understand anything he said.   

“Even if you tell me these things, there’s nothing I can do as a middle school student. You know that, right?”

To Yumi’s answer, her brother nodded and forlornly said, “That’s right.”

When the first summer break for Yumi’s brother came around, Yumi ended up with a personal computer of her own for the first time. Her brother, who was staying at the dorm even over break, brought his hard disk and transferred files to her computer. He downloaded programs that she could use for editing documents or playing movies and music, and he also told her how to join a Bulletin Board System and gave her tips for being active in a club. While Yumi wasn’t looking, her brother hastily erased something. When Yumi abruptly approached him and asked what it was, he jolted with surprise.

“I tried to sort through the things you need, but I forgot to delete some stuff.”

Yumi grew excited for a moment, thinking it might be fun content like the things in Treasure Island in the past. She asked if he remembered the title of the book he had given her back then. Her brother searched through the books published by Idea Publishing Co. and told her that it was called Donovan’s Brain, showing her the cover of the book that had a robot with protruding, bloodshot eyes. Yumi asked if he could get it again since that was the only book he’d given her. He said that it would be unlikely because the series had been out of print, and it was hard to get that book even back then. At her disappointment, he said he would get her a new one if she’d be all right with the edition published in its original language.

“But what were you deleting like that?”

When Yumi pointed at the folder he’d been about to delete, he hugged the protruding monitor. She kicked the chair her brother was sitting on with all her might. There were countless pictures of an unfamiliar woman. Yumi was lost for words and stood still.

“What is this? Are you a pervert?”

Her brother glared at her.

“She’s the person I like. Don’t you have anybody you like in your class?”

Yumi was dumbfounded, so she stared at her brother. He bit his lips and started deleting the photos again; she left the room because she couldn’t stand looking at him like that. She had an afterimage in her head. A beautiful woman was smiling in front of a green background. Along with the body shot of the woman, who was wearing a white shirt and blue jeans, it seemed like he had zoomed in on her face to take a picture, so close that Yumi could see a big mole on the woman’s nose. Yumi sat at the table and thought long and hard before she went back into the room and asked her brother:  

“Does she know? That you were taking a picture of her?”

“I don’t know. Probably not. I’ve never had a conversation with her.”

Yumi grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.

“You like her even though you’ve never had a conversation with her? Are you stupid?”

That night, her brother had a sudden stomach ache. It was the first time Yumi had seen him sweating with his face as white as a sheet. Yumi’s parents became restless and persuaded him to go to the ER, but he adamantly refused. “I’ve gone through this quite often in my dorm. I know what’s happening,” her brother said as he moved his dry lips only slightly. “I’m sorry, Uncle.”

Several days later, Yumi heard her father talking with her uncle. Her father sighed. “What’s the big deal about it? He should just look the other way and stick it out…”

And Yumi couldn’t forget what she heard next.

“If it’s that serious, it can’t be helped. Tell him to put up a manifesto declaring that she’s his woman.”

It was the first time Yumi had heard that word, “manifesto.” Yumi logged into the Bulletin Board System and searched “manifesto” in the communities for college students. Why would he make a big wall poster that’s for protesting tuition raises, taking a stance on a current political situation, or sharing a personal experience as a victim of an unjust issue? Yumi went to ask her father.  

“Dad, what did you mean when you said he should put up a manifesto for the woman he loves one-sidedly?”

“Tell me about it. That stupid kid got sick because of the woman who’ll be graduating and getting married soon. If nothing else, he should at least try that. What else could he do?”

Yumi was shocked. It seemed like asking her father more about it would be of no use. She decided she should warn her brother against engaging in this trashy behavior. The week before the new semester started, Yumi brought it up with her brother, who had come for a visit.

“You’re having hard time because of the woman you like, right?”

Seeming startled, her brother was silent for a moment before he began to talk, his tears streaming. Stories of how he had gotten to know her, how he laid his heart bare through acquaintances numerous times but was ignored every time, how her fiance came to the school to see her every day, as if he were trying to show off… Yumi’s brother was crying so pitifully that she couldn’t say a single word. She had never seen him crying like this, except at their grandmother’s funeral. Yumi still remembered her brother, who had forlornly asked her where his hamsters might’ve gone. Who would her fiance show off to? Wake up. She’s not living to show off to you. She’s just living her life. Yumi wanted to say these things to him, but she couldn’t.

“Just as my dad and uncle say, it must be because I’m a freaking idiot. Yeah?”  

He was trying not to cry. “Just like the upperclassmen say, I got into school because I was a special admission, and I can’t even keep up with the classes. All I can do are some tricks with my hands. Don’t you think so, too? I’m not gonna be loved by anybody,” her brother said as he wiped away his tears. Yumi was so stunned that she couldn’t say a word.

Several months later, Yumi received a message on the Bulletin Board System. “Hey, Yumi. It’s me, your big bro. You doing good?” Yumi replied, “Oh, I didn’t know we could chat through this. How’re you?” When Yumi came back online, she found that he had left a message.

“Yumi, I discovered a huge secret. About her. I decided to call her Barbie because her username is barbieboom. I don’t feel any pain even when I think of her now. I’ve learned that she’s not the type of woman who deserves that.”

Soon after this, a package was delivered to Yumi. Donovan’s Brain. It was the book he promised to get her. There was a short note written on the first page: “Imagine artificial intelligence. It has to think and feel just like humans do because that’s the definition of artificial intelligence. But one day, it’ll realize something—that its back is itchy, but it doesn’t have a back to scratch.” Yumi cracked open an English dictionary while poring over the book and deciphering his enigmatic message.

It was either a lie or an illusion that he no longer felt any pain thinking of that woman. He still hadn’t managed to forget her by the last time Yumi met him, which was four years after he sent the package. From time to time, he still suffered from stress-induced stomach aches and abstained from food and drink. He was straightforward with Yumi when he confessed things like that. “You already know that I’m a total idiot, so there’s nothing to hide,” he harped over and over again. Every time, Yumi thought:   

Anybody else would think you’re lying. Does it make sense that you’re suffering so much when you fell in love with a woman who’s essentially two dimensional?

*

Yumi still had that book.

And she also knew what her brother meant by his message from back then.  

Also that the woman was never merely two dimensional in her brother’s life.

As if there had been no technological development at all since a Bulletin Board System came into existence; as if nobody, including both Yumi and her brother, had grown up since then, a message from him arrived out of the blue, transcending the numerous years in between. It came around the time Yumi had wrapped up her thesis defense and crafted an abstract.  

I met her again today. I’m dumbfounded that she made me miserable for so long, even though I can hold her in the palm of my hand this easily. I’m attaching her face here. K-Bot. jpg. Soon after she saw the message, she wrote that potentially pivotal sentence in her abstract: “For a new medium, we need a new language. This is how we can survive the environment of this special medium—this is new literacy that we are required of.”  Yumi told her advisor numerous times throughout her research semester, “We can’t interpret hate speech on the internet or political conservatization in the same way we did in the past. The modern illusion of the subject, which was created by the tradition of hermeneutics, is not valid anymore. Users are now equivalent to cyborgs. They’re mobilized as dependent variables of new media.” Her advisor frowned while going through the screenshots of hate speech and arguments packed densely into the manuscript.   

“Actually, in my view, this seems to be a form of ‘externalization,’ so I’m uncertain about this being a media-based issue, you know? That’s how it seems to me.”

At these words from her advisor, Yumi remembered her brother’s message. Her thesis was already complete, so there was nothing she could do even if the professors insisted that they couldn’t accept Twitter Timeline as the basis for her thesis. At this point, to make the statement “the production of hate speech is a symptom that reveals that the subject is a dependent variable of the media” more persuasive, the only thing she could do was to supplement the bibliography. Yumi tried her best to forget her brother’s message.

My little cousin, Yumi. How’ve you been? I’m planning to hold an exhibition soon. It’s taken forever, hasn’t it? For so long, I neglected the path of becoming a robot designer and felt lost. Doing my share as a human who doesn’t give his parents any more trouble—that was my only life goal. You’d remember this too, Yumi, but throughout my twenties, I couldn’t even handle my love life on my own, so I asked my parents for help. I even asked my tyrannical father for help. Of course, I’ve had regrets. It’s now clear to me that I can’t win somebody’s heart by force. I still remember what you said a long time ago. “Those times were a gift to you.” That was what you told me, back when you celebrated how I’d won the robotics competition. You probably meant that I could’ve pursued my dream of becoming a robot designer in the corner of my room even though I was shunned at school and dumped by my parents. But Yumi, you’ll know it by now. You can’t ever compare those times to a gift, just like how the long time I suffered because of her was never a gift. I waited for her even when I’d reached my thirties. I sent her a letter and waited for her in front of her house. Although I was completely ignored. Researchers say that Masahiro Mori’s theory, the uncanny valley theory, has become defunct—the theory that people feel repulsed by a robot with a person’s face. How can that have any meaning when there are so many girls who fuse their faces with plastic surgery these days? Do you remember? Her face was another product of plastic surgery, although I couldn’t forget her even after learning that fact. So, I’ve made a robot resembling her face. We gave her the name K-bot after Kiyoung, the research assistant at our lab, but I call her Barbie. Only now do I finally, completely acknowledge that the face of the woman I loved was same as the monstrous face of Frankenstein.

Sitting on a bench in front of the reading room, Yumi cast her mind back over her research semester. The final submission was only two days away. Time was tight if she wanted to get her thesis reviewed again by the professors and bound into a book. However, she couldn’t get started on the urgent task at hand with her brother on her mind. When someone had asked her why she’d said she had to leave the Philosophy department, Yumi had answered, “I want to find the proof for a theory from reality, not from literature.” Yumi believed for a while that a theory about reality as a symptom could be proven, and her life as a graduate student was chain of the subsequent questions about that reality. Nonetheless, she was thinking that she might have tossed out the wrong question, and that she might need to change it. Yumi concurred, albeit painfully, that the most important premise she had established might have been wrong.

Yumi remembered her brother’s worst deed. She remembered that he’d hacked the woman’s Bulletin Board System account, stolen a look at her private records, and spread a spiteful rumor right before the woman graduated. Why would those students, all of whom were known to be gifted, have sneered at her merely because of that rumor? That’s what Yumi thought when she heard the story from her parents. “Can you believe it? It’s a no-brainer that you can’t ostracize a person for that reason,” Yumi had added when she told her best friend.

Yumi opened the picture her brother sent. The woman without a torso—the beautiful woman in the picture folder that her brother had deleted so feverishly a long time ago—was standing on an acrylic plate. It was an abhorrent face that looked like her but could not be her; it was the face that insulted her actual face. Yumi was tormented as she recalled what her brother said when he mentioned Masahiro Mori’s uncanny valley. Even in that very moment, there was a man sitting at Yumi’s side, stealing glances and observing her.

END
Originally published in Munhakgwa Sahoe [Literature and Society]. Summer 2017
〈바비의 분위기〉–《문학과 사회》 2017년 여름 中

*South Korean students usually begin their three years of high school around age seventeen (by Korean age reckoning), which is when their international age is usually around fifteen or sixteen.

 


 

박민정 작가 1Park Min Jung [박민정] was born in Seoul in 1985. She debuted when her short story “Saint-Simon’s Private Life” appeared in Jakgasegye [Writer’s World] in 2009. She has published short story collections When a Ghost Gains the Flesh and School of Wives and a novel Ms. Flight. Park won Munhakdongne Young Writers Award in 2018 with her short story “Cecil, Juhee”.

 

 

 

 

 

Featured image “Barbie” is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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