Spring 2010, Volume 8

Fiction by N.H. Kim

Morning Calm

Ji-Woo Lee once heard that there were more cars in L.A. than people, and that’s why the city’s skies were more black than blue. He looked out the window as the plane descended into LAX, and he was no longer skeptical of that fact. He didn’t want to go to L.A. For Ji-Woo, the cities that represented the greatness and glamour of the “Land of Opportunity” were New York City and San Francisco. He imagined being greeted by the Statue of Liberty or driving down the Golden Gate Bridge. These were common dreams amongst the Koreans. But the cost of living in these cities was just too high for an immigrant trying to escape poverty. At the least, he thought, he would be able to see that Hollywood sign.

At the airport, everything checked out OK. Ji-Woo was nervous throughout the procedures because of the many horror stories he heard of Korean immigrants being turned away and forced to return. Going back wasn’t much of an option for him, though the intimidating new world of California did make him feel homesick.

Outside, Ji-Woo held up a white poster board that said “Lee Ji-Woo” in Korean. He was told that his new employer would pick him up outside. Parking was expensive, so Ji-Woo was expected to hop into a black Honda Civic that came by and honked at him. There were too many cars moving, and they were all honking. Ji-Woo wondered if his employer would even be able to see the sign he held up. He traced over the sign making the words more visible.

A black car nearly jumped the curb where he stood. People around him started yelling at the car. Ji-Woo looked for the “H” on the car. The Honda logo was a straight “H,” not the slanted “H” seen on the Hyundai’s. Japanese cars were unfamiliar to Ji-Woo; Koreans in Korea didn’t buy Japanese cars. An old man popped out of the driver’s seat. He was bald mostly, and where he wasn’t bald, he was white. The old man was skinny, and he hunched over a bit. He pointed a crooked finger at the yelling pedestrian and yelled back.

Mista Lee? What are you waiting for? Get in the car,” the old man said. His Korean was slurred a bit. It was uncomfortable.

Chum baet getseum nida,” said Ji-Woo. Nice to meet you.

Ahn young hashim nikka,” the old man replied. Hello.

The old man’s name was Jun-Sung Park. He was an owner of a small liquor store that Ji-Woo was expected to manage. Mr. Park was as old as he looked, and taking care of a mart in a crime-infested neighborhood was becoming too much for him. He called an ad agency in Korea to put up a job offer to manage his store. He knew not many Korean people in L.A. would ever want to accept his job, especially after the ’92 riots. Koreans in Korea were another story. The “IMF crisis” in Korea left countless people unemployed, hopeless, and most importantly, they were desperate.

Ji-Woo was fired during this time, and his family took the hit hard. They were forced to eat nothing but rice and water. When he saw the ad from Mr. Park, he managed to gain a tourist visa for a month in the United States. What he would do once the visa ran out was of no concern to him. He would simply work until he could financially pave a road for his wife and two little girls to join him in the economically stable and booming America.

Mr. Park’s liquor store was in the “bad” part of downtown L.A. The backdoor was in an alleyway waiting for crime to happen. It was the type of place Ji-Woo had only ever seen in the movies.

“There’s not much to be afraid of here during the daytime Mr. Lee,” said Mr. Park. “But during the night, I’d recommend the front door.” 

The liquor store was nice inside; it was kept clean and organized. There were snacks and drinks, toothpaste and medicine, and liquor. Cases after cases of beer lined the coolers across the walls. Beers were too weak for most Korean drinkers, so Ji-Woo was much more interested in the bottles of vodka and whiskies. He suddenly felt a pang of homesickness; he wanted a cold glass of soju.

“I’ll be watching you work for about a week or two, but after that, I’ll expect you to take care of things on your own. Get to studying English as much as you can during the night,” said Mr. Park, interrupting Ji-Woo’s early homesickness. 

Ji-Woo was shown the entire store. Mr. Park taught him how to run it. Everything from the lottery tickets that were kept behind the counter to checking ID for anyone that looked under 35.

“The drinking age is 21 here, and smoking age is 18.”

Once lessons were over, Mr. Park led Ji-Woo to his room. Ji-Woo needed every penny he could get, and renting an apartment was a waste of precious coin. Mr. Park had agreed to make living arrangements for I-Woo, free of charge. He was given a small, unused storage room. The room was unused because of a large window facing the alleyway, and keeping goods next to a window in this neighborhood encouraged robbery.

A small table was in the middle and blankets were placed against the wall; it was to be I-Woo’s bed. On the opposite wall was a large tub and a faucet dripped water into it.

“There’s a bathroom in the other storage room. That tub is for bathing. Public baths are rare and expensive here. The water is clean.”

“Thank you, Mr. Park. It’s nicer than I expected.”

“You must have expected very little,” Mr. Park said with a smirk. “Let me introduce you to a little girl you’All be living with.”

“Excuse me?”

Mr. Park walked outside and came back in with a big German shepherd by his side.

“This is Lucy. She’ll keep you company here.”

“She’s big,” Ji-Woo said.

“Don’t worry, she’s friendly. You’ll feel lonely without company,” Mr. Park said. “One other thing before I leave for the night.”

Mr. Park pulled a gun out from behind his back and handed it to Ji-Woo. The black pistol was cold and heavy in his hands.

“What is this?”

“It’s a gun.”

“Yes, I can see that, but why are you giving this to me?”

“You might need it.”

Ji-Woo stared at the gun in awe. It wasn’t the first time he’s held a gun. He was, in fact, a proficient shooter; he had been trained to kill well enough during his compulsory military service. All forms of gun training, however, were merely target practice. He had never aimed a rifle or a pistol or even pointed a knife at another human being before. Most shocking to him, however, was the way Mr. Park had casually carried the gun. It was impossible to obtain firearms in Korea. Even police officers and most criminals didn’t, couldn’t, carry guns. The most heated battles between gangsters and cops usually meant a fight with aluminum bats.

“I don’t think I feel comfortable holding on to this,” Ji-Woo said.

“Mr. Lee, that gun might save you. It’s terribly easy to get one of these in this country. You never know when someone might walk in here with one. I even keep a shotgun under the counter. I’m not asking you to shoot anyone. It’s just for protection.”

“But sir, I really don’t feel comfortable with a gun.”

“Of course you’re comfortable with it! You did your service didn’t you?”

“This is different.”

Mr. Park frowned and took the gun back. Ji-Woo stared at the floor. In reality, Ji-Woo had loved the way guns made him feel. The adrenaline that pumped into him when he felt the gun’s kickback gave him a sense of power. His opinion of firearms changed drastically one day when a fellow soldier lost his mind from stress, and opened fire. Ji-Woo had escaped the initial burst, and was certain he was in position to shoot the killer, but he couldn’t bring himself to even take aim, let alone, pull the trigger. Five soldiers died. The psychopath himself had his head blown off by a sniper.

“Don’t look so down, Mr. Lee. I guess I understand your sentiments,” said Mr. Park. “I will see you in the morning.”

Ji-Woo bowed as Mr. Park left through the front door. He shut off the lights just the way Mr. Park had instructed. Tired, Ji-Woo walked into his room and dropped on to his blanket mattress. Sleeping on the floor was nothing new to him, it was traditional in Korea, but cement was a new thing. The cold hard floor could be felt through the layer of thick blanket.

Lucy strutted towards Ji-Woo’s “bed,” and sat herself right next to Ji-Woo’s body.

“Do you speak Korean?” Ji-Woo asked.

Lucy looked up at the speaker and panted. She wagged her tail and waited to be petted by her new companion.

“Of course you don’t; you’re German.”

He petted her head, and she looked satisfied. “You really are a friendly one aren’t you?”

Ji-Woo was tired, but he wasn’t very sleepy; it was morning in Korea. The cement floor wasn’t very soporific either. Ji-Woo rolled over to grab his bag and pulled out a book. “Learn English in three months,” it promised.

“My name is Ji-Woo,” he tried in English. “What’s your name? You… You Lucy.”

Lucy perked up again at the sound of her name.

“How do you do? Fine. Thank you, and you?”

This time, Lucy stood up and growled.

“Not fine? Bad day?”

Lucy wasn’t looking at Ji-Woo, and she ignored his questions. Ji-Woo followed her line of sight to the window. “What is it?” he asked in Korean this time. He strained to look through the window, but it was too dusty and scratched up to see through. When Lucy wouldn’t stop growling despite Ji-Woo’s attempt to calm her, he felt the need to check outside, but he didn’t have the guts to get closer. He didn’t have to; a face and a set of hands appeared on the window. The face peeked in and made eye contact with the terrified Ji-Woo. All at once, every terrible story he’s heard about the ’92 riots filled his head. The countless Korean stores being robbed and burned to the ground suddenly became reality.

Lucy barked, and the presence of the big German shepherd frightened the face looking in. Ji-Woo heard hurried steps run down the alleyway followed by the crashing noise of a falling trash can. Still petrified by fear, Ji-Woo stared at the window, hoping the big set of eyes will not appear again. But what if they did? The only thing that prevented the face from being a body with a weapon was a pane of glass.

Ji-Woo stepped out of his room and into the liquor store with a pen in his hand, the only weapon he could find. Lucy walked by him. Ji-Woo turned the lights on so that nothing could hide in the darkness. He made his way to the counter and reached under it for the shotgun Mr. Park had mentioned. While the pistol felt so menacing before, the shotgun became comforting. He grabbed one of the miniature flashlights being sold, shut off the lights, and made his way back to his room.

He sat down on his “bed,” and readied the gun. He rested it on his lap, but kept his finger near the trigger. When it got cold he brought Lucy on to the bed and wrapped a blanket around himself, the gun’s barrel sticking out for convenient shooting.

Ji-Woo twitched at every noise, and there were a lot of noises. There was yelling down the street, cars screeching, sirens wailing, and Ji-Woo could have sworn that he even heard couple of gunshots go off in the distance. It took a lot of will power for Ji-Woo not to accidentally create his own gun noise, for he thought he saw the face reappear, like a specter, several times throughout the night. He managed to relax a bit when Lucy fell asleep. She had placed her head on Ji-Woo’s lap and drifted off to her own dreams. Lucy snored while she slept. He had no idea dogs snored.

Just as Ji-Woo felt comfortable enough to lay the gun on his side, another face appeared. This time, the face wasn’t looking in. Ji-Woo was looking at the side of it, and the face was evidently moving backwards slowly. The moonlight shone down to reveal a young man, possibly a boy.

A second face appeared following the young man. He was much older, and a lot bigger. An angry scowl painted his face as he pursued the boy. The boy seemed to tremble. With good reason, for the larger man was holding a gun and pointing it between the fear stricken eyes of the younger man.

The two men yelled at each other, one in despair, and the other in anger. Their voices were clear, amplified by the acoustic alleyway, but Ji-Woo had no idea what was being said. The little English he knew became blocked by fear.

“Please, don’t!” the terrified man said. “Please don’t!”

That one was easy, Ji-Woo thought. He was begging for his life. He wasn’t sure what “don’t” was, but he knew “please,” and he could see the situation. “Please don’t,” Ji-Woo whispered himself.

“Where is my money?” the angry man yelled. “Where is my money?”

This phrase was more difficult to understand. Ji-Woo only knew what “where” meant from the phrase “where are you from?”

The man stepped closer and struck the boy with his gun. The sound of metal crashing against skin and bone woke Ji-Woo up from his translating trance. He pointed his shotgun at the window. He dropped his aim, however, when he realized the bitter irony of his willingness to kill one stranger to save another.

Hajima,” said Ji-Woo, helpless.

“Please don’t!”

“Where is my money?”


A series of sounds erupted in a symphony of chaos. There was an explosive blast of a gunfire followed by a sputter of cement cracking. There was yelling and screaming; the boy and Ji-Woo screaming, both men believing that the blast had come from the barrel of the revolver the angry man held. The man, knowing that it was a different gun, ducked and yelled. Lucy awoke with bursts of barking, and in her surprise, sank her fangs into Ji-Woo’s forearm. The final note was that of Ji-Woo screaming out in pain.

The rapid staccato of his beating heart was too much for Ji-Woo and his high blood pressure to handle, and he passed out, collapsing on the floor. The shotgun fell from his grips, clattering on the cement floor, its barrels still exhaling smoke and the stench of gunpowder. Lucy, realizing that her jaws were clamped around her new friend, let go of Ji-Woo’s arm and licked his wounds.

Ji-Woo awoke near dawn. He found a puddle of his saliva and blood wetting his cement pressed cheek. His neck ached, and exhaustion gripped his entire body. Ji-Woo peeked at the window to see the small cracks and holes he left on the wall a meter away from the ominous window. He felt a sudden urge to vomit, but he managed to hold it in. 

Mr. Park barged into his room without knocking. The old man found the immigrant leaning against the wall with the shotgun by his side. Ji-Woo was soaked in sweat, and he looked up at Mr. Park with weary eyes. Mr. Park noticed the chunks missing in the wall.

“It’s not always so bad,” said the old man.

Ji-Woo just nodded. In his fatigue, he had forgotten to bow.

Staring at the wall’s shotgun wound near the window, Mr. Park said, “Maybe you’ll feel safer if we cover the window somehow.”

“Do you have a phone I can use?”

Mr. Park handed Ji-Woo a purple Nokia cell phone and walked out. Ji-Woo punched the neon number keys to dial his prepaid card operator; she connected him to his family in Korea.

Yuhbosehyo?” said a sleepy voice on the phone.

“Hi sweetheart, it’s me,” said Ji-Woo. “I just wanted to tell you that I safely spent one night in the U.S.”

“Ji-Woo, it’s like 3 A.M. here. We’re gonna need to set up a phone schedule.”

“I know, I’m sorry. It feels like 3 A.M. here too, but everything was so hectic yesterday. I thought I wouldn’t be able to work if I didn’t hear your voice first.”


“How are the girls?”

“They’re fine dear; you’ve only been gone a day. We’ll all be ok Ji-Woo. You just concentrate on taking us over there. You need to work hard.”

They hung up. Ji-Woo remained seated and stared at the ceiling as if praying. He wanted to go home to his wife and kids. He wanted to give up and hope that the Korean economy would pick up. He was willing to sacrifice for the sake of sleeping peacefully without a loaded gun and a big dog. But Ji-Woo suddenly thought of Pu-Reum, his younger daughter. He saw her smile her toothless smile. He imagined her growing up in a house facing the ocean. He watched her eat the cornucopia of an American Thanksgiving dinner. He saw her accomplishing her dream in a land full of opportunities. Ji-Woo stood and dressed for work. It was no longer night, and a new morning had come.


BIO:  N.H. Kim is currently a senior at CSU Long Beach, majoring in Literature and Creative Writing.