Friday, February 24, 2017

"Neighbors" (이웃들) - The 7th-floor families go on an outing

"Neighbors" (Yiut-dŭl) is a short story by Ch'oe Sŏng Chin 최성진 that was published in Chosŭn Munhak in October 1991. It depicts the interactions among a group of families living on the 7th floor of an apartment building. The central conflict of the story surrounds the neighbors' efforts to figure out whether the gentleman in apartment 4 is as much of an insensitive jerk as he appears. Through this story we can discern several different ideal types among North Korean working family men.

The story opens thus:
   Our 7th floor households have many different jobs. In apartment 1 is a quality assurance director; I, a journalist, live in apartment 2; in apartment 3 is an elderly veteran who now works at a foundry. Then, the guy in apartment 4 was recently appointed as a food distribution manager. The young fellow in apartment 5 is a refrigerated truck driver.
   Four months ago we all moved in to the new apartment on the same day and became amicable neighbors.

Picnicking North Koreans.
Src: Joongang Ilbo
Because of their complicated schedules, it is not easy for everyone get together in the same place at the same time. One evening the neighbors were gathered in the apartment of the recently married truck driver, discussing plans for the upcoming National Founding Day holiday.

The jolly drunken QA director began campaigning hard for a group outing to Mirim Dam (a dam on the Taedong River upstream from Pyongyang that is one of North Korea's prestige construction projects). "Let's think of it not as simply a chance to goof off and have a good time, but as a way to show off the combined strength of our 7th floor group," he says, pointing out the different advantages of the neighbors' diverse professions. The narrator senses that this remark is particularly directed toward the food distribution manager, who has a tendency to be aloof and prickly. At any rate, the neighbors all readily agree to the outing.

The night before the festival, all of the wives stay up late preparing picnic baskets with their own specialties. The narrator hears his wife clanking around the kitchen late into the night. Early the next morning, he sees the QA director's family bundling out into the hallway, loaded down with bags and parcels. The old war veteran and his wife in apartment 3 come bearing only one small bag each. There is a cute moment where the truck driver is embarrassed that his wife insists on pinning his army medal on his chest. "This isn't some major event, why should I wear that?" he protests. The narrator and his wife debate over whether to bring the two bottles of "Songsansul," a new, locally produced rice wine that has just been distributed to all the families. "Why bring that stuff on such a day as this?" his wife asks, opening her bag and showing him the bottles of pricey store-bought wine she already packed. They decide to bring the local wine anyway.
Satellite view of Mirim Dam, from Google

The group gathers in front of the building and finds a bus waiting for them. It turns out the driver was a friend of the QA director, and they had made some sort of arrangement. The families all pile in after thanking the driver politely. There's only one group missing - the family in apartment 4.

Everyone is anxious to be off, not least the bus driver, who has to get back to his rounds. Finally the young truck driver runs back up to apartment 4 to see what is delaying them, and reemerges with the man's wife and kids in tow. The wife apologetically explains that her husband left in the middle of the night to attend some urgent issue at work, something about arranging a car. "He must be preparing a truckload of fantastic treats for us from the food distribution center," someone says. It's said jokingly, but the narrator is worried; surely the man wouldn't raid the food distribution pantry just to show off for his neighbors at a picnic - or would he?

The group eventually decides to leave without him, assuming he will join them later. The author feels uneasy as he watches the faces of the man's children, staring out the back of the bus as if expecting to see their father come dashing up any moment.
Photo of Mirim Dam.
Src: Institute for Peace Affairs

The group arrives at Mirim Dam and basks in the scenery, but they cannot relax. The apartment 4 family is visibly worried about their absent father. The narrator is perturbed that the man could be so insensitive to his wife and children, who are clearly disappointed. They set up along the lakeside without him. The truck driver whispers to his pretty wife, while the QA director plays with his wife and kids. Over by the bridge, a youth construction crew is waiting to board the pleasure barge. The QA director goes over to arrange their own group's barge ride.

The narrator goes over to talk with the old man, who has set up his fishing pole beside the water. He starts to say something about his worries, but one look at the old man's face tells him he's in no mood for gossip. The old man points to some ripples out in the water and mutters about some legendary fish that he's hoping to catch.

After a companionable silence, the old man mutters to himself, "That QA director is a nice fellow, but he's taking the joke too far. A food distribution manager is not the sort you want to play around with. Trying to trick the man into being more generous... Truth is, that food manager is a really good guy."

The narrator is stunned by this sudden declaration and wants to know more, but the old man just returns to silently staring at the water.
   The QA director came trotting over. "Well, that's settled," he announced. "The boat only had room for 20 more, but I negotiated with our construction crew friends to let us ride first." He glanced at his watch and wrinkled his brow. "What, that guy still hasn't shown up? The boat's leaving at 11."
   "He's the head of his household and a manager, something unavoidable must have come up," said the truck driver, who had suddenly appeared beside us. But something in the young man's voice suggested uncertainty.
   I too felt uneasy. "Hey, neighbors!  Today's a day for us all to enjoy together. We should let the construction crew go ahead on the first boat instead of us."
  "That's right," said the old man, standing up.
  I met the truck driver's eyes. "What does our newlywed think?"
  "Sounds good to me."
  The QA director seemed to understand what was unspoken. "Fine. Since everyone agrees, I'll go cancel our arrangement."
  The mood immediately brightened. It felt good to have everyone agree, even to such a small thing. "Wonderful!" said the old man, though it was unclear what he was talking about. He drew a "celebratory" cigarette pack from his pocket and offered one to each of us.
Fishing along the Taedong River near Pyongyang
   Then, just as he was sticking a cigarrette in his own mouth, it happened. The fishing pole jerked strongly. The old man grabbed the pole and skillfully worked the reel, little by little drawing an enormous carp from the river.  "Look at that! A pretty big fellow."
  After depositing the fish in a bucket, the old man recast his line and fished out another cigarette. But before he could even get it lit, the pole jerked again.  In the next 30 minutes he reeled in four large carp in rapid succession.
  The old man declared that all these carp had come out to celebrate the holiday. Whatever the reason, the bucket was soon overflowing with fish. Our picnic had become quite the spectacle. "Though the old man only brought a fishing pole, it seems he had the largest 'package' of us all!" "He really knows how to make something out of nothing!" (무에서 유를 창조할 줄 안다)
The men joke that the foundry worker missed his calling; he should have been a professional fisherman! They bring the bucket over to the picnic site, where the women set to work preparing and cooking the fish. Everyone is still wondering where the food manager is.

He finally shows up just as they are sitting down to eat. He steps out of a van and greets them tersely. Through the open van door they catch a glimpse of brimming packages and the tops of wine bottles poking out boxes.

The children are overjoyed to see their father, but the adults can barely contain their consternation. They are simple working people. How can they possibly justify this kind of bounty? The foolish man, in his determination to impress his neighbors, will get them all in a world of trouble!
   "Sorry for making you wait," apartment 4 says cluelessly. "On her way home from work last night my daughter spotted a brigade of youth construction shock troops setting up camp in our district. They should have warned me they were planning on moving during the holiday. I've had to work all morning to get their holiday packages ready. Well, it couldn't be helped. It wouln't do have anyone in my district spend an unhappy holiday."
   It took a moment for all this to sink in. What sort of excuse was this? Youth shock troops? Suddenly a gong sounded from across the way, and a cheer went up from where the youth construction troops were gathered. Realization struck; how hard he must have worked, from the wee hours of the morning, getting all these packages ready for the youth brigade! Thinking about it made my head spin.
   "Do you mean to say that all that stuff in the car is food for the youth shock troops?"
   "Of course. Oh, and I knew you would all be worried that your picnic would be delayed because of me, so I asked the driver to drop me off here."
   "What good people. Every one..." The old man seemed at a loss for words. He grasped the food manager's hand tightly. "Don't ever say you're just useless again. You are just the sort of person our district needs. Understanding that even the shock troops are part of our district, and taking care of them too..."
But the food manager hadn't completely neglected his neighbors either. From the back of the van he drew two long bottles of "Songsansul," the locally produced brew. "Since moving in, I haven't even properly introduced myself to you all. Please forgive me!" he exclaims.

The old man from apartment 3 was the first to break the silence. "There's nothing to apologize for. Your arriving in the middle of doing your job has made our picnic so much more interesting." With a twinkle in his eye, the old man opened his own bag and revealed that he too had brought two bottles of Songsansul. One by one, all of the members shared their bottles with the group. The narrator met his wife's gaze, silently glad that he had decided to bring their bottles after all.

North Korean gender interactions

This is a manly story about men. The principal characters are all the male heads of household. Each male character is named by his job title ("The food distribution manager" "the truck driver" etc.) and the women are named in relation to their husbands ("The truck driver's wife" etc.). None of the women's professions are ever stated. None of the male characters ever interacts directly with any woman except his own wife, and the women fade into the background except when they appear in the context of interacting with their husbands - e.g.  the truck driver's wife arguing with him about wearing his medal. While the men worry among themselves about the whereabouts of the missing food distribution manager, they don't include any of the women in their discussions.

Ideal types of men

At various points in the story, the narrator contemplates the character of each of the men in the group.  These seem to represent different ideal types of working family men in North Korea.

Of the old foundry worker, he writes:

The old man sat quietly smoking a cigarette and looking out the bus window. He was a man of few words, always the most reticent among our neighbors. From his experience in the war, through the post-war reconstruction and the Chollima movement, the old man had lived through all the most trying and noble times in our nation's construction. He had seen all his children grow up and move away, and now lived quietly with his wife. The only times they ever had people around were their married daughters' rare visits. They were the smallest family unit among the neighbors, and had brought the smallest bundles. But poking out of the old man's bundle was his fishing gear. Wearing a straw hat and grey jumper, he looked like a professional fisherman. It seemed to me that the old man was more interested in fishing than our group picnic.

Regarding the quality assurance director:

The QA director went over to negotiate with the pleasure barge driver about giving us a ride. Truly, he was tireless activist for our group, the sort that is always running around and putting himself on the line to seek out fun and happiness for others. This sort of person is like a necessary vitamin supplement for our lives.

A great deal of time is spent describing the food distribution manager. At the beginning, when the characters are discussing what food to bring, he humbly describes himself as a "제구실을 못하는 지배인" (a useless manager who can't do his job right). The narrator describes him as  a "꼬장꼬장하고 고지식한 령감" (stiff and inflexible older gentleman), and notes that he does not seem to make much time for social interactions with the group.

While the others are always sharing around things that they got from work - fresh fish from the truck driver, local delicacies from the QA director, cigarettes from the foundry worker - the food distribution manager never shares anything. The other men infer from this that he is rather antisocial and ungenerous, but in the end it turns out that he is simply very earnest and dedicated to doing his job right. Ultimately, he is the best of them all, because he prioritizes doing his job above being neighborly.