I buried the dirt into the ground . . .
I’m just going along when the memory hits me. My younger brother waving
his hand is so vivid . . .
Waving his hand in the direction of the train, shouting,
“Big sister—come back soon!”
I went by train. Wearing a green yuddong dress.
The train crossed the Duman River.
I cry too, at times . . .
Of all the words in the world, I like “I.”
Because if I don’t exist, nothing else does either.
If I don’t exist, other things can’t. If I don’t exist, nothing can.
I’ve lived at least three lives in this life.
By thirteen, I went through things that ’d take your breath away, even if they
were spread over an entire lifetime.
When you were thirteen, what did you want the most? I wanted I . . .
Because there’s an I, there’s a you too.
Don’t be jealous. Because you also have an I.
Birds have an I, pebbles have an I, trees have an I, and fish have an I.
If birds don’t have an I, then the sky doesn’t exist, or clouds.
And if fish don’t have an I, water doesn’t exist.
How many of you?
If I sing, will you sing too?
Even though I’ve never been to Mokpo, I can sing “Mokpo’s Tears.”
I didn’t have anyone.
My hometown was up north, so I didn’t have any family down south.
I might as well have been a migrating bird that flies after its flock, but then
falls all alone into a field.
I had only songs, so I sang. I am someone who sings.
Don’t tell me to sing.
I am someone who sings, but I hate singing in front of others.
I sing alone.
I’m sleepy . . . I’m not going to sleep . . . I’ll sleep after I eat . . .
If I sing, will you sing too?
Does a pebble have a mouth, too.
Yesterday, I prayed to make my mouth blessed. Right, but who did I pray to.
Did I pray to my mom, who doesn’t visit me even in my dreams. Maybe I
prayed to my father. My father’s name is Gil Chang-Bong . . .
I want a blessed mouth.
A mouth that blesses is a blessed mouth.
A mouth that blesses others is a human mouth.
A mouth that curses isn’t a human mouth.
It’s just the sound of wind passing.
Oh, I hear footsteps. Is someone coming?
I wait every day. I doubt anyone’s coming, so I nap, and then I look out at
Tomorrow too, since no one came.
A tree is something that flies around. That tree flew here too. I’m sitting, but
that tree’s standing.
I’m waiting for my friend.
Someone who just hangs out with me. Who plays minhwatu with me . . . The
older you get, the more you have to have friends.
A friend is someone who just hangs out with me.
Since I play by myself every day. I fall asleep all alone, I wake up all alone.
All alone, even when I was born . . .
All the friends I went to Manchuria with have gone somewhere, too.
Coo coo coo coo . . . That’s a blessed sound too. Because that’s the sound of
gathering all the chickens to feed them.
Hush hush . . . That’s a blessed sound too.
I wanted to have a baby.
I wanted to have a baby so much that my face became a baby face.
I’m not going to speak.
Don’t turn on the light. Save electricity. There’s still some sunlight, there’s still
enough sunlight . . .
I don’t want to speak.
Words are scary.
People aren’t scary at all. What’s so scary about people.
What people say is scary.
Don’t force me to speak.
My mouth has gone somewhere, so I can’t speak even if I want to.
Even if I wanted to,
I had no one to talk to.
How old am I today. I knew this morning, but I’ve forgotten.
I told you, when I eat lunch, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast. And
when I eat dinner, I can’t remember what I had for lunch.
I must be eighty. Maybe around eighty-two or -three.
When someone asked how old I was, I said thirteen years old.
I was thirteen back then.
My color is people color.
I want to go home.
My address is North Pyongan Province, Pyongyang, Seoseong-li, number
76-26 . . .
Not that house, but a different house?
Who lives in that other house?
I am I.
I don’t really know things.
(Gazing at a picture placed in front of her) That grandmother* says she knows
me? I’m not sure, I don’t really know . . .
We’re the same sign? Where does that grandmother live? Is she sick? Maybe
she’s hurt somewhere . . .
Because she is old, after all.
There’s absolutely no breeze today.
Because I said that, a slight breeze is blowing.
(Looking at the watch strapped to her wrist) It’s not quite four o’clock . . . It’s
thirteen minutes before four.
If I pray for you, will you pray for me?
There are three of me.
I have ten fingers. Whether I count in the morning, or the evening, ten.
Whether I count from the pinkies, or from the thumbs, ten.
Why do people have ten fingers. Though I’ve lived for ninety years, I don’t
I’ve lived for ninety years and several days, and I’m ignorant.
I left home at thirteen and drifted around, not knowing where I was.
I only know about eating.
I only know about sleeping.
I turned into someone who didn’t know things, because I wandered around,
not knowing where I was.
I wandered around, without will, without a name.
I was alone. I’ve never traveled with anyone.
I give one finger to a bird, I give one to the wind, I give one to the stream . . .
I have a bird that sits on my finger and sings.
The pasque flower said that to give is to have.
I don’t know what the pasque flower looked like. I don’t remember.
Which finger should I give my bird.
My hands are small. They were small when I was thirteen, too . . .
What hand is this. When I see someone I think of as family, I’m anxious to
make them something to eat.
My fingers are so excited, they dance.
What hand is this, the taste changes with every dish. What hand is this, if you
knead with this hand.
The flavor that permeates the food depends on it.
My mother made mandu all the time.
My birthplace is North Pyongan Province, Huichun. I left when I was thirteen,
so I don’t remember the mountain, or the fields, or the river.
I put minced pheasant, mashed tofu, finely chopped chives in the mandu . . .
You can’t omit the mung bean sprouts. Pork doesn’t compare to pheasant
If I make mandu, will my friend come.
I’ll make the mandu, I’ll steam them.
Three for me, four for my friend.
That’s my accounting rule. If I have seven things, I take three for me and give
four to my friend.
What hand is this, that had no hand holding onto it.
(Looking up at the bare tree branches outside of her window) Even if there ’d
been more hands than leaves hanging from that tree, not a single one
held onto mine.
Hush. Someone’s coming.
I want to go home.
Our house was gone.
Our home address is North Pyongan Province, Pyongyang, Seoseong-li,
number 76-26 . . .
I looked around as I went by on a bus, but the house and the village were gone.
I have never prayed for anything.
I don’t know how to pray. I’ve forgotten.
Because I’ve never prayed for anything.
There are three of me . . . It seems I only know about eating and sleeping.
1 plus 1?
I don’t know those kinds of things.
Do I really have to say which I like better, sleeping or eating?
When I’m sleeping I want to eat, and when I’m eating I want to sleep. Just eat,
Should I say what prayer is.
Eating and sleeping, that’s prayer.
I pray every day.
(Peeking over toward her room) Oh, someone’s in my room.
Who could it be?
(Directed toward her room) Who’s there?
Yoshimoto Hanako . . . I haven’t forgotten that name.
I don’t remember who named me . . . That’s what the soldiers called me.
It doesn’t mean anything, it has absolutely no meaning.
I can’t forget even a meaningless name.
I don’t know what 1 plus 1 is.
Or what 10 plus 10 is either.
Let’s eat one apple plus two melons together, a song only I know.
One tree plus one mirror, I love myself.
Is a bird fast, is a train fast . . .
A bird is faster than a train. A bird disappears when it flies off somewhere, but
you can see a train going along.
I’m not sure, between a bird and time, which is faster.
Does time fly, following the bird.
A clock tells us only that time is passing, that it flows in only one direction.
A clock doesn’t know that time also flows backward.
My time flows toward thirteen years old, but the clock flows toward one
Tomorrow is the song I’ll sing, today is the song that flowed away.
Hush, someone’s coming.
My friend hasn’t come, even though dusk is falling. My friend who’ll play
minhwatu with me.
Whenever dusk fell like ashes scattered on a field, I got worried. I want to go
home, home . . .
I hate the night.
The night erases. Trees, and houses, and roads . . . and my face.
Don’t erase my face!
Blood erased my face . . .
Was I fourteen, fifteen.
A soldier struck my head with a sword, long like a snake.
My skull cracked, and blood gushed out.
The blood flowed, erasing my face.
Wiping up that blood took more than sixty years.
When night fell, the soldiers came.
Only soldiers came.
Those soldiers were wearing fatigues the color of fermented bean leaves.
Our address is North Pyongan Province, Pyongyang, Seoseong-li,
number 76-26 . . .
After the Korean War broke out, the 38th Parallel was created, so I couldn’t go.
How far would Pyongyang be by bus. Would it be just a moment by train.
It ’d probably take me many days and nights if I walked.
My house was gone.
My house is right here. Where I am.
There are three of me.
How many of you?
I received a letter that my father was seriously ill. When I was in China.
And then I received a letter that my father had passed away.
I didn’t have train fare to go home.
Even if I ’d had train fare, I couldn’t have gone. Because they wouldn’t have let me.
It was during the war.
Sleeping with soldiers came before saying goodbye to my dead father.
Soldiers, one, two, three, four, five, six . . .
My birthplace is North Pyongan Province, Huichun.
When I was five or six years old, we moved to downtown Pyongyang.
I remember my oldest brother putting me on top of a bundle of quilts and
carrying me across a stream.
His name is Gil Won-Se . . . Was Won-Se my father’s name. I don’t remember
if it was my father’s name or my oldest brother’s name.
When I left home, my father wasn’t there, he was in jail.
“Give me just twenty won!”
“Give me just twenty won to get my father out of jail!”
Should I say I was stupid, should I say I was foolish. I thought Father would
get released from jail if I had just twenty won.
It seemed Father was waiting for me in heaven, asking when his little one would
bring him twenty won.
My father called me “Little one.”
Because I was the littlest.
Are there soldiers even in heaven.
If there are, I’m not going.
When I first went to Manchuria, I didn’t know anything about sleeping with men.
The soldiers didn’t come much in the morning, they came starting in the
afternoon . . .
They said they ’d not only give me money but also teach me a trade . . . That
place . . . What should I say about that place.
I was completely deceived into going.
But not since the day I left.
Not since the first day I got there.
There were around fifteen women there . . . They were all Joseon women . . .
The friends I ’d gone with all disappeared somewhere. I was alone . . . Alone.
The boss screamed curses at me because I was looking for my friends. She got
angry and asked what I was searching for my friends for.
I only remember being hurt.
I don’t remember the face of who hurt me.
He beat me, the soldier beat me.
Not only with his palms but with fists like quinces, because I wouldn’t take
my clothes off.
I was thirteen . . .
I survived in that unsurvivable place.
I didn’t see them killing any women.
I saw women killing themselves.
Stabbing themselves with knives . . .
The resolute women never survived. Only the clumsy women survived.
They survived, but they became damaged goods.
I didn’t have thoughts about dying.
I have never had any intention of dying.
The house was straight like a line. There were several rooms.
I can’t remember.
I’ve been to Manchuria? But I don’t remember having been in Manchuria . . .
I don’t even know what Manchuria looks like . . .
There’s no way I remember going to Manchuria . . . I think I went by train . . .
I was on the train for a while . . .
I don’t know . . . I only remember leaving home at thirteen . . .
Now, even if my little brother came looking for me, I wouldn’t recognize him.
Or my mother either.
Since you can’t get to Manchuria by walking, I must have taken a train or
something . . .
When I left home to catch the train, I think I got into something, but I don’t
really remember what it was . . .
I probably took the train from Pyongyang station.
Our house was halfway between Pyongyang station and Seoseong-li station.
I remember my little brother shouting, in front of the house . . .
“Big sister—come back soon!”
Manchuria is north. It’s far . . . I think I went by train. I don’t know how long
I was on it. We even crossed a river. Potong River, Taedong River, Duman
River . . .
Because it’s up north, it’s probably cold in winter.
Flowers probably bloom even in Manchuria.
Because there’s no place on earth where flowers don’t bloom.
(Holding her black cell phone tightly in her hand) I don’t have anywhere to
call . . . No place at all . . .
I left home when I was thirteen, so I’ve wandered around, homeless.
I thought I ’d find a home if I lived with a man. So, I followed a man I met when
I was singing songs.
This was before the Korean War, so I was twenty-one or -two . . . He was a man
who lived only by his fists. When I got to his house, he had a young son
and a mother, afflicted with palsy. His wife was dead and gone.
I wanted a home, so I followed him. Not knowing he was a home-destroyer.
Only people destroy their homes.
Birds don’t destroy their homes. Rain and wind destroy birds’ homes . . .
Bees just leave their homes behind. Snails too.
People destroy their own homes and other people’s homes, too.
Destroying a house takes one second, but building a house takes an entire
If you live with a home-destroying man, you don’t know if flowers bloom
And even when you see flowers, you don’t recognize them.
I thought if I had a baby, that baby would become my home.
So I wanted to have a baby.
Do you have a baby?
(Looking at the tree outside her living room window) Oh, there’s a bird sitting
on the tree branch. The bird is big.
That bird is black.
I got to see a black bird only once I reached ninety-one.
(Watching the fish in the fish bowl) I don’t know how the time passes when I
watch the fish playing.
They’re nice because they stay by my side.
I don’t know birds because they fly far away.
Me, a bird to my mother . . .
I might have lived there several more years after the Korean War ended. With
the home-destroying man. I don’t remember if he was several years older
than me, but I remember his older sister was twelve years older than me.
I am a 1928 Dragon sign . . . His older sister was also a Dragon sign. She lived
in Seoul and, even though her younger brother’s birthday passed without
her knowing, she made sure to come down and take care of me on my
birthday. It was probably because she was grateful since I didn’t complain
about taking care of her sick mother, who couldn’t even control her poop
The son led a really wicked life, so the mother said to me one day,
When I die, instead of doing the third-day memorial, just leave, go off and live
with a good man.
I hear something. Like the sound of a cutting board . . . What are they chopping
up like that.
Chopping, mixing, frying, and boiling.
The sound of making food is like a song, is different from a song.
Songs are always nice.
Sometimes the sound of making food is nice, sometimes not.
I like hearing the sound when I’m excited about cutting potatoes. I hate hearing
it when I’m angry about cutting them.
I hate even touching chopsticks to the food I made while angry.
You have to stir fry thinking, My stir-fried vegetables are not just any
vegetables, but food that people will eat.
Even if you mix just one handful of bean sprouts.
I’ve made food while angry too.
I’ve even made food and then smashed the dishes.
Soy sauce crabs have to be salted.
You have to wash cocoons several times. Put the cocoons in a wash basin,
pour rapidly boiling water over them and swish them around, then pour
the water out. Then pour in boiling water again and swish and pour
out . . . If the cocoons aren’t cleaned thoroughly, they taste bad.
I even sold cocoons. Because I didn’t have anyone.
Because I was all alone in the south.
I sold them by the sackful at Seoul’s Dongdaemun Market.
The times when I ran with a sack of cocoons on top of my head to get the bus
were the hardest.
It seems like people don’t know. But they know other people’s business very well.
The tree in the courtyard is still standing? Tell it to lie down, not stand.
I’m keeping my eyes open.
I’m ninety-one years old . . . one year old . . .
Brutally tough. My life.
I’m turning the light off, I’m closing my eyes.
I don’t see anything.
Good night fish, good night tree.
* Author’s note: Ahn Jeom-Soon, Japanese military “comfort woman,” 1928–2018.